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Sensemaker: The world at war

Sensemaker: The world at war

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Russian Duma members called for the 265 Ukrainian soldiers evacuated from Mariupol to be tried as war criminals or executed, but Putin was said to have guaranteed their safety.
  • UK inflation reached 9 per cent, its highest level in 40 years (more below).
  • Police in London arrested an unnamed Conservative MP on charges of rape and sexual assault.
  • Kai Neukermans, 18, stood in for Pearl Jam’s unwell drummer at a concert in his home town in California.

The world at war

Three months into Putin’s war on Ukraine, he has succeeded in one respect. He has divided the world into two camps: those countries that condemned his invasion at the first opportunity, and those that did not.

The vote was held at the UN on 2 March and it was sobering. Although far fewer countries sided with Russia than against her, those that did or abstained accounted for more than half the world’s population. They also boasted nearly as many soldiers at arms. In a fight to the death between these two vast groupings – one labelled free, the other autocratic – it looked like a close-run thing.

Such comparisons occasioned a good deal of free-world handwringing. 

Self-doubt is a vital feature of free societies, but it’s not clear that the data warrants so much of it. We’ve crunched the numbers and they are broadly – if grimly – reassuring. In this war for the future of the world, the countries lined up behind Ukraine are not just freer than those explicitly or implicitly supporting Russia. They are overwhelmingly richer, more innovative, better fed (at least in terms of fast-food calories) and better armed as well.

So has the West been underestimating its own strength? 

  • The case for yes. The combined economic and military strength of the countries that voted to condemn Russia on 2 March not only exceeds that of countries that backed Moscow or abstained. The West also wields enormous cultural and institutional power across the globe and shouldn’t be coy about it, says Sophia Gaston, director of the British Foreign Policy Group: “Democracies and other partially free societies remain the dominant architects of global governance, and continue to wield enormous influence in terms of cultural, capital and knowledge exchange.”
  • The case for no. While most UN countries voted to condemn the invasion, the bulk of the world’s people don’t live in them and that may be indicative of the West’s current global standing. “Neither world public opinion nor much of the Global South is on the side of the West,” says Leslie Vinjamuri of the US and Americas programme at Chatham House. “Where we see moral clarity, they see Western hypocrisy. Many states that we increasingly refer to as ‘fence sitters’ (because they abstained from the UN vote) are in fact choosing very clearly to abstain. Why? Because they have competing interests and this war doesn’t matter enough to their own survival.”

Are we in a new world order?

  • Russia says so. Sergei Lavrov, Putin’s foreign minister, has spoken of the war as a turning point marking the end of a unipolar, US-dominated globe. That is Moscow’s positive gloss on its new reality. An alternative one was articulated on Monday night in a rare and stinging rebuke for Putin on state-backed TV from Mikhail Khodarenok, a military analyst and former air defence lieutenant colonel. Ukraine could now muster a million reservists backed by western arms, he said. “Practically the whole world is against us.” 
  • So does the US. Joe Biden has already formed much of his foreign policy agenda around “the battle between democracy and autocracy”. In his first State of the Union address on 1 March, he said Putin had “sought to shake the foundations of the free world”, and that his administration was relying on “a coalition of freedom-loving nations” to oppose Russia’s invasion. 
  • And yet… Ukraine’s new allies aren’t all democracies. They score an average of 6.1 on the Economist’s Democracy Index (which gives 10 points to full democracies and 0 to dictatorships). Taken together, they’re flawed democracies – but only just. They’re hybrid regimes, and UCLA’s Daniel Treisman says their vote to condemn the invasion should “not necessarily been seen as a vote of support for democracy, per se, but as a vote for the right not to be invaded”.

It’s not a clear-cut picture. There were a range of reasons why some countries did not condemn Russia at the UN. What is clear is that those that did have everything it takes to win if they can only channel the materiel, money and know-how to where it’s needed, in Ukraine.


Windfall rumours
UK inflation rose by two percentage points last month to 9 per cent, making it nearly 30 per cent higher in April than in March. This is going to hurt. The partial solution of a windfall tax on oil firms’ record profits, favoured by Labour, was at first rejected by both Boris Johnson and his chancellor, Rishi Sunak. At least they agreed on something. But now a windfall tax is on the cards. Sunak declined to rule it out in the Commons yesterday. The Telegraph says the idea is hugely popular among voters. And large numbers of Conservative MPs have duly been sitting on their hands when asked to express a view: 59 of them abstained rather than vote against a Labour motion in favour of the tax. A U-turn is coming, says shadow climate secretary Ed Milliband, who’s vastly livelier than his party leader in debates these days. Oil companies themselves are fighting a rearguard action – BP hopes promises to step up investment in the UK will help it hang onto its profits, for example – but those profits ($6.25 billion in the first quarter) may be too huge for Sunak to leave alone. 


Safer as a man
A 57 year-old Indian woman who lived as a man for 39 years so she could raise her daughter without fear of sexual harassment is considering going back to living as a woman. Identified only as S. Petchiammal, she says she was married, widowed and left with a young daughter by the age of 20. Instead of remarrying as her family wanted, she left her village in Tamil Nadu, moved to a town where no one knew her, cut her hair short and changed her name to “Muthu” – not just at her various workplaces but on her voter ID and bank account. “I did all kinds of jobs,” she says. “I saved every penny to ensure a safe and secure life for my daughter” – who has now grown up and left home. She’s given an interview to the New Indian Express that has been widely picked up in India as well as by the Times. The film version will presumably be along soon. 


Ancient tooth
How far did Homo Sapiens’ predecessors roam? We know Neanderthals colonised a lot of western Europe. There’s little sign of them elsewhere, but a 130,000 year-old child’s tooth found in a cave in Laos suggests the lesser-known Denisovans spread as far as southeast Asia. Denisovans were first identified as a genetic cousin of humans from an ancient wisdom tooth found in Siberia in 2010. A jawbone with similar DNA found in Tibet in 2019 gave rise to theories that Denisovans’ patch was big but limited to north and central Asia. The “new” tooth suggests otherwise. Also: they bred with humans. Their DNA is present in Aboriginal Australians and the people of Papua New Guinea. We have long roots. The Guardian has the story.  

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

Herpes reactivation 
Last summer a number of studies began to draw the dots between long Covid and dormant forms of Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), which is in the herpes virus family and estimated to infect 95 per cent of humans over the course of their lives. For most people, it lies dormant in the body. Symptoms, when it’s reactivated, are generally mild, including fatigue, fever and sore throat, but they can be serious in people who are immunocompromised, such as through HIV, a cold, stress, transplant surgery – or Covid. It’s that reactivation that some long Covid sufferers may be reacting to with symptoms like glandular fever and chronic fatigue, and researchers at the University of Würzburg have now discovered how the virus reactivates. In cell culture experiments they found that by “switching off” a viral microRNA that helps the HHV-6A herpes virus evade the immune system they can “kill” it. It’s a significant find for long Covid researchers, as well as those looking to increase the success of organ transplants. To note: an estimated 1.3 million people are living with symptoms of long Covid in the UK four weeks after infection.

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Coal turkey
The G7 is making plans to help big but poorer countries like Indonesia wean themselves off coal. Nikkei Asia reports that Vietnam, Senegal and India will also be partnered with G7 countries that have promised financial and technical support to transition from power generation systems heavily dependent on coal to more sustainable ones. The plans are based on a South African template much talked about Cop26 as a potential model for the Global South. The question is whether the finance pledged is anything like equal to the task. A Tortoise ThinkIn last year was told transitioning from coal to renewables in Indonesia alone would cost $300 billion. 

Thanks for reading. Please share this around and tell us what we’ve missed. News tips and story ideas are welcome. Email them to sensemaker@tortoisemedia.com.

James Wilson

With additional reporting by Giles Whittell and Phoebe Davis. Graphics by James Wilson and edited by Katie Riley.

Photographs Getty Images, HM Treasury

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