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Sensemaker: Russia on the edge

Sensemaker: Russia on the edge

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Flights leaving Russia sold out on news of partial mobilisation of its reserves (more below).
  • Iranian officials said four people had been killed in unrest following the death in custody of Mahsa Amini.
  • Venezuelan migrants sued Florida’s governor for a “fraudulent and discriminatory” scheme to relocate them to Martha’s Vineyard.

Russia on the edge

A giant statue of Mother Russia faces east across the steppe from the site of the battle of Stalingrad. This morning, for his domestic audience, Putin turned her to face west, where he said his enemies were conspiring to break up the motherland. For his overseas audience he effectively announced an escalation of the war.

The difference between 1943 and now is that whereas Stalin confronted Hitler, Putin is confronting the consequences of his lies. 

In a speech to the nation delayed from last night and punctuated with a nervous twitch in his right hand, the Russian leader

  • announced the partial mobilisation of Russia’s reservists, starting today;
  • said he supported referenda planned for four Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine, starting on Friday;
  • accused the West of nuclear blackmail; and
  • warned Russia would defend “our people in the Donbas” with “all available means’. 

Those lies, including claims that Ukraine is run by Nazis and Kyiv is seeking to acquire nuclear weapons, were recycled elsewhere in the speech.

The key passage, as translated by the BBC’s Steve Rosenberg, runs as follows:

“If the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, to defend Russia and our people, we will use all means we have. This is not a bluff. The territorial integrity of our motherland, our independence and freedom will be secured, I repeat, with all the means we have. Those who try to blackmail us with nuclear weapons should know that the prevailing winds can turn in their direction.”

Not a bluff? World leaders gathered at the UN will hope it is, but the referenda starting on Friday are designed to give Moscow a basis for annexing occupied areas of eastern and southern Ukraine. Under Russian nuclear doctrine Putin would then have a pretext for defending them with nuclear weapons if attacked.

Three more questions:

  • On partial mobilisation – how will Russians react? Putin’s fear is that they will react badly, which is why he has resisted mobilisation and called the war a special operation for the past seven months. It’s also why he emphasised today that only current reservists with relevant experience would be subject to conscription. His defence minister said 300,000 would be called up even so – a figure that roughly matches the number of Ukrainians now under arms. 
  • On escalation – would Putin go nuclear? It would be irrational, but then so was the decision to invade Ukraine, and not much else is working for him. By one estimate up to 40 per cent of Russian troops are already refusing to fight, and the Wagner mercenary group has been reduced to recruiting criminals on six-month contracts. That said, the decisions to retreat from Kyiv in March and Kharkiv this month were rational.
  • On the chain of command – would it hold if Putin ordered the use of nuclear weapons? In 1983 Lt Col Stanislav Petrov averted nuclear war by not launching a Soviet nuclear counter-strike in response to what turned out to be a false alarm, despite standing orders to do so. It’s impossible to know if there are any Petrovs left in Russia’s nuclear forces.

UNGA for change. Before Putin spoke, Presidents Biden and Macron had already condemned the plans for sham referenda as blatant violations of Ukraine’s sovereignty. Biden will warm to the theme in a speech to the UN General Assembly today in which he’ll call the invasion a violation of the UN charter. Ukraine’s President Zelensky, by video, will thank the West for its help so far and ask for more. 

Contrary to earlier reports, the US won’t call for Russia to be expelled from the UN Security Council, but the war will dominate world leaders’ week at UNGA, where everyone knows how Russian vetoes have paralysed the body set up after World War Two to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war”. The US is no fan of world government either. Here’s the list

To note:

  • The Russian State Duma has already criminalised refusing to take part in combat and amended the Russian penal code on desertions, mobilisation, martial law and surrendering as a POW – which can now lead to ten years in prison. 
  • Alexandr Lukashenko, the dictator of Belarus, claims his country’s SU-24 fighter jets have been refitted to carry nuclear weapons. 

In May, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, did not rule out the use of tactical nuclear weapons against Ukraine. Yesterday the editor of Russia Today, a state propaganda channel, wrote that she believed her country was “on the eve of a quick victory, or the eve of nuclear war”.


Truss stamps her mark
The UK’s new chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, needs a rabbit to pull from his hat in Friday’s mini-budget, and the Times has been told it will be a stamp duty cut. The idea is to encourage growth by helping people move house and get onto the property ladder. Cutting stamp duty would certainly make the process of buying flats and houses cheaper. But the flats and houses themselves? “I’m no economist,” tweets Times Radio’s Matt Chorley, “but won’t cutting stamp duty just fuel demand for homes while doing nothing to increase the supply of housing stock, driving up prices?” Excellent question, to which the answer is surely yes, which will gratify the mainly Conservative homeowners to whom Truss has promised victory at the next general election.


Clean Nadine
Twitter users, remember @NadineDorries? Famous for hits such as “Oh do bore off, you patronising knob” and “Be seen within a mile of my daughters and I will nail your balls to the floor… using your own front teeth.” Well, she’s gone now. Nadine Dorries, the former culture secretary, has deleted her Twitter account. Why? Well it’s widely reported that former prime minister Boris Johnson will award Dorries a peerage in his resignation honours list, and Dorries has already faced scrutiny over her past remarks. The SNP MP John Nicolson has written to the chair of the House of Lords Appointments Commission regarding her claim that people who took part in Channel 4 show Tower Block of Commons “were actually actors”, requesting that her appointment to the upper chamber is delayed “until the Commons Committee of Privileges takes a decision on whether to investigate and then rule on this serious matter”. Some have speculated that given her trigger-happy history with the app, there was a risk her past tweets could draw further scrutiny from the commission.

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

Cult following 
A man suffered burns over most of his body in Japan after setting himself alight to protest the forthcoming state funeral of Shinzo Abe, and, more specifically, Abe’s party’s alleged links to the Unification Church. Better known as the Moonies – and as a cult than a church – it stages mass weddings, espouses extreme social conservatism, rejects same sex marriage and demands big financial contributions from its members. The man accused of assassinating Abe in July said the Moonies had bankrupted his family. Japan’s Liberal Democrats are struggling in the polls partly because of revelations of links to the Moonies on the part of several senior members.

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Insulate Britain
“Insulate Britain” is the key demand being made not only by climate activists who blockaded the M25, but by several UK think tanks. A new report from the Institute for Public Policy Research says a £7bn-a-year scheme to retrofit UK homes with insulation or heat pumps would sustain more than 2m new jobs by 2030, and take £430 a year off bills. Another study by the Institute for Government says upgrades could now pay back up to four times more quickly than last year, due to high gas prices. Britain has the leakiest housing stock in western Europe and a decade of policy failure is why. The 2012 Green Deal and the 2020 Green Homes Grant were “poorly designed, failed to boost uptake, and harmed trust among consumers and installers,” says the IfG. This week’s mini-budget would be an opportune moment to start repairs.


Chess cheat?
It began with a match between five-time Chess world champion Magnus Carlsen and 19 year-old Hans Niemann. After a shock defeat, Carlsen resigned from the tournament. That could have been the end of it, but he then posted on Twitter a viral Jose Mourinho video in which the Special One says in reference to one of his resignations: “I prefer really not to speak. If I speak, I am in big trouble.” That fuelled existing murmurings that Niemann had cheated. Neimann’s admission that he had cheated in online chess as a younger teenager did not dampen suspicion – neither did a Reddit post theorising he was using vibrating anal beads to indicate his next move. Neimann is adamant he no longer cheats and has said he would play naked if needed. He and Carlsen played again yesterday in an online match, but after one move Carlsen turned off his camera and forfeited the game. As British grandmaster David Howell commented, “these are just bizarre, bizzare times” for top-tier Chess. It’s not over yet.

Giles Whittell

Nina Kuryata

Additional reporting by Phoebe Davis and James Wilson

Photographs Getty Images, Lennart Ootes/Grand Chess Tour

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