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Sensemaker: Peak Putin?

Sensemaker: Peak Putin?

What just happened

Long stories short

  • The Queen’s coffin arrived at Buckingham Palace before a procession this evening to Westminster Hall where she will lie in state until Monday. 
  • King Charles complained about a leaky pen at a signing ceremony in Northern Ireland.
  • Ken Starr, the lawyer who investigated Bill Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky affair, died aged 76. 

Peak Putin?

“Trouble never comes alone,” Russians say. For Vladimir Putin, trouble is encroaching in many forms at once. 

For the first time in 22 years he is having to deal with or turn a blind eye to

  • collapsing military morale;
  • the headlong retreat of Russian forces on the eastern Ukrainian front;
  • signs of political mutiny in St Petersburg and Moscow; and
  • dissent making itself heard above the din of propaganda on state TV.

How might he react?

The military collapse of the past week has allowed Ukrainian forces to retake an area more than twice the size of Greater London. President Zelensky says 150,000 people have been liberated in 300 communities in the east but also in the south.

Startled Russian soldiers have simply fled, leaving huge quantities of heavy weapons and ammunition which Ukrainians have taken to calling “Russian lend-lease”. 

Russian losses since the start of the war now include nearly 50,000 military personnel killed in action (a figure widely disseminated in Russia based on payments to bereaved families), plus more than 2500 tanks and armoured vehicles, 56 aircraft, 48 helicopters and 11 navy ships including the Moskva battlecruiser, flagship of the Black Sea fleet. 

But the main thing the Russian army has lost is its morale, which is why Putin has so far refused to order full military mobilisation. It might cause protests, and – as Pushkin noted – Russian rebellions tend to be “senseless and merciless”. 

On the home front there are signs the pro-Putin consensus is fracturing in ways unimaginable a month ago:

  • Dissenting deputies. Last week local MPs in St Petersburg petitioned the State Duma to accuse Putin of treason for invading Ukraine and demand his dismissal. 18 municipalities have since joined the petition despite court hearings and fines for signatories. Putin’s reaction has been notable for its restraint, in what may be a sign of fear of wider dissent.  
  • Restive warlords. Former allies want Putin to escalate. The Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov blames him for surrendering Izyum and Kupiansk and has threatened unilaterally to send 10,000 more fighters to the front to march on Odesa. Igor Strelkov (aka Girkin), who led the invasion of Donbas in 2014 and was accused of downing Malaysian Airlines flight MH-17, predicts the Russian army will “fall apart in October”. 
  • Panicked pundits. Guests on prime-time talk shows, hitherto Putin’s most effective propaganda conduits, are now openly listing military setbacks, criticising Russian strategy and tactics and calling the “special military operation” a war despite the threat of 15 years in jail for doing so.

Bad company. Putin’s best hope of support abroad is from dictatorships. He asked Iran for drones and North Korea for missiles. Tomorrow he meets China’s Xi Jinping in Uzbekistan, but Chinese firms face close US scrutiny of their compliance with sanctions, meaning Xi has to be cautious about military aid to Russia if he wants to preserve access to US markets. 

The caveats. Ukraine’s forces now have “irreversible momentum”, a former commander of the US army in Europe tells the FT, but it’s too soon for champagne:

  • The 6,000 square kilometres liberated since last Tuesday is 1 per cent of Ukraine. Another 19 per cent including Russia’s hard-won land bridge to Crimea is still occupied.
  • Putin is Putin. Faced with fierce resistance in Chechnya he doubled down on traditional Russian artillery-based carnage, and prevailed. 
  • He could heed the hawks and escalate, either with cruise missiles aimed at Kyiv, which he has so far largely spared, or with tactical nuclear weapons.
  • The emergence of criticism on state-run TV could be staged to give Putin cover for full mobilisation.
  • There is no plan or mechanism to replace him. He’s boxed in. 

Having started this war to restore Russia’s “former greatness”, Putin faces the cruel reality of sanctions, isolation and a dysfunctional army. Backed into a corner, he might take a last, desperate step. It’s still unclear if anyone inside Russia would stop him.

Must read – the NYT on how Ukraine’s armed forces turned the tide, with crucial help from Uncle Sam.


Less for poor 
Falling fuel prices have taken the edge off UK inflation sooner than most economists expected, but the poorest will get the least help from the new government’s £150 billion energy price guarantee. Some experts expected inflation to float past 15 per cent this autumn, driven by the energy price cap increase due on 1 October. That looks unlikely. Inflation fell from 10.1 to 9.9 per cent last month thanks largely to a steep drop in the price of petrol and diesel, and the price gap guarantee will hold down average households’ outgoings. But it won’t help the poor as much as the rich. The Resolution Foundation says if the Truss government scraps a planned increase in national insurance contributions, net help for the poorest households will amount to £2,200 in 2023, compared with £4,700 for richer ones. 


Boom bust
Excitement in aviation circles over reports of the return of supersonic civilian air travel may be premature. As noted here last month, Boom Supersonic, a US start-up, has won good-looking orders from big airlines including Virgin and United for its four-engined Mach 1.7 Overture jet. But it’s not flying yet, and word from an elite US gathering of aviation experts is that Boom has no engine supplier or wind tunnel testing plans and no proof that it’s solved the sonic boom problem that prevented Concorde flying over the North American landmass. Boom’s position as of 8 September is that it’s “on track to carry passengers in 2029” and will make an engine announcement later this year. Rolls Royce has pulled out, leaving General Electric and Pratt & Whitney the only serious contenders. 

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

Cash help
Child poverty in the US has declined dramatically since the 1990s, according to research from the NYT and the non-partisan research group Child Trends. Measured by the share of households that lack the income to meet basic needs, child poverty has fallen 59 per cent since 1993. Rates fell across all states and all ethnic groups thanks to a confluence of factors from increased labour participation by single mothers to growth in minimum wage levels. But an expansion of direct-to-pocket government aid seems to have had the most profound effect. Since the 1990s, subsidies for parents with jobs have grown steadily, roughly doubling federal spending on low-income households. Both main parties can claim a share of the credit, but eight million children in the US remain in poverty and Black and Latino children are still more likely to be poor than white. 

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Carbon suit
Russia’s government has been hit with its first-ever climate change lawsuit. A group of activists are risking arrest to demand that the country reduce emissions in line with the Paris goal of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5C. It’s currently way off. Russia’s CO2 emissions are predicted to reach 2,212 million tons by 2030. To have a two-thirds chance of meeting the Paris climate goal, it would need to reduce that to 968 million tons. The complainants will argue that Russia’s lack of action violates the European Convention on Human Rights by increasing the risks of forest fires, heatwaves, and melting permafrost that can damage infrastructure and lead to outbreaks of disease. But Russia is due to withdraw from the ECHR on 16 September, leaving little time to get a binding agreement in a European court.


Cross Queen
Interest rate rises are on hold. Morrisons has silenced its checkout beeps. Center Parcs will remain open on Monday, but only after a backlash on social media against plans to close. Most cinemas will go dark. As Britain’s first full state funeral since 1965 approaches London is girding itself for the biggest act of global commemoration since Nelson Mandela’s funeral nine years ago. Tortoise invited friends and members to a preview last night, and the Bishop of Durham told a story he hadn’t told before – of sharing a two-seat sofa with the Queen at Sandringham as she watched one of her horses race in New York. “Now this isn’t giving away secrets,” he said, “because we’ve seen her on the screens at Epsom and at Ascot screaming her horses on – [but] I can tell you that she was mild-mannered publicly compared with what I saw. And she stood up and screamed this horse home. It got beaten by a head on the line and she was so cross. So I remember a human person who it was my privilege to have met in a way that most people don’t.” Paul Butler will be one of six bishops standing vigil by the Queen’s coffin in rotation in Westminster Hall, starting tonight.

Thanks for reading. Please do share your thoughts and let us know what you think. Email sensemaker@tortoisemedia.com.

Nina Kuryata
Contributing Editor

Additional reporting by Phoebe Davis, Giles Whittell and Barney Macintyre.

Photographs Kostiantyn Liberov/AP/Shutterstock, Wojciech Grzedzinski/For The Washington Post, Metin Aktas/Anadolu Agency, Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post and Getty Images

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