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Sensemaker: Bridge backlash

Sensemaker: Bridge backlash

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Russia targeted central Kyiv with rockets for the first time in the war (more below).
  • 76 people died when an overloaded boat capsized in Anambra state in southeastern Nigeria.
  • Criminal barristers in England and Wales voted to end strike action after accepting a government pay offer.  
  • UK chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng moved his planned medium-term fiscal plan forward to 31 October.

Bridge backlash

Kyiv, Dnipro, Lviv, Poltava and Zhytomyr had one thing in common until this morning. By the standards of Putin’s war on Ukraine, they were relatively safe. Nowhere is safe now. 

This morning Putin met his security council in Moscow to get its rubber stamp for his latest escalation – a dawn wave of rocket attacks on civilian targets across Ukraine in revenge for Saturday’s remarkable demolition job on two spans of the strategic Kerch Strait bridge. 

Ukraine says Russia launched 75 missiles of which 41 were shot down.

Yesterday, sighing heavily, Putin asked the chairman of his prosecutor general’s investigative committee if the bridge blast was a terrorist attack on civilian infrastructure. There was only one acceptable answer. Yes, Alexander Bastrykin said – and it was delivered by a truck bomb that reached the Russian end of the bridge via Bulgaria, Georgia, Armenia and North Ossetia as well as southern Russia.

This is the provokatsiya playbook, adapted for events. However the Kerch bridge attack was carried out, it will be used as pretext for whatever comes next. 

The truck bomb theory is plausible – just – but it’s worth noting that

  • nothing uttered by Putin since he said in February he had no plans to invade Ukraine has been remotely trustworthy;
  • the route ascribed to the truck by Bastrykin is wildly circuitous and defies geography unless it was smuggled through Turkey or flown or shipped across the Black Sea; and
  • there are other ways Ukraine could have attacked the bridge, including with seaborne special forces or its own Hrim 2 short-range ballistic missiles, a “western source” cited by the FT suggested. 

So what? Much has been said about the bridge’s symbolic value, and it’s true the 12-mile span is a concrete umbilicus linking Mother Russia to the Crimea that Putin claims Khrushchev gave away in error. It’s a love-child of Putin’s kleptocracy (the $3.7 billion construction contract went to his old judo partner, Arkady Rotenberg) and his toxic brand of Russian nationalism. And this may turn out to be, as the military historian Eliot Cohen predicts, “one of the great inflection points of this war – the moment when Russian elites began to understand that they are losing”.

But the bridge’s value is practical, too:

  • It brings Crimea to within a day’s drive of Rostov-on-Don, the biggest military logistical hub in southern Russia. 
  • It has carried trainloads of tanks, howitzers and armoured personnel carriers into Crimea during but also before the war, enabling a steady military build-up since its opening by Putin in 2018. 
  • Its destruction would force this materiel to be routed via Russia’s newly-conquered land bridge through Zaporizhzhia and Kherson oblasts, all of which is now within range of Ukraine’s US-supplied HIMARS artillery systems. 

The bridge is not dead yet, but the sight of one roadway in the water and the rail bridge on fire brought on a wave of euphoria in Ukraine. That will be dampened by today’s revenge attacks but in the race to take out strategic Russian targets all bets are now off. Those targets include 

  • Nova Kakhovka, the dam on the Dnipro river that controls the main water supply to Crimea’s towns and agriculture;
  • Sevastopol, Crimea’s main naval port, seized by Russia in 2014 and home since then to Russia’s Black Sea fleet;
  • The Kerch Strait bridge, again.

Fearful of Putin’s response, the Pentagon warned Ukraine not to use HIMARS rockets against the bridge. But the US did not try to dissuade Kyiv from using its own assets, and the clamour from within Ukraine to attack it had been growing for months. The postal service has already marked the blast with a commemorative stamp.


Truss is finished, but can still cause plenty of harm

Matthew d’Ancona

It is a dangerous populist game to blame economic problems, inflation and poverty on particular groups of people. But this PM will try anything to cling to power


Elon Metternich
Last week Elon Musk enraged almost everyone in Ukraine by suggesting it allow UN-supervised referenda in its Russian-occupied territories to determine their fate. Turning his attention to Taiwan in an interview with the FT, he’s now proposed “special administrative zone” status for the island nation that would bind it to China but with more autonomy than currently enjoyed by Hong Kong. Taiwan has been dead-pan polite in response. Its de facto ambassador to the US tweeted: “Taiwan sells many products, but our freedom and democracy are not for sale.” Musk’s Shanghai gigafactory is Tesla’s single most important production facility. In his anxiety to preserve cordial relations with Beijing he seems to have forgotten about the demands of democracy, self-determination, decency and simple humanity. Odd for such a clever fellow. 


California steamin’
Around the turn of the century SNCF, the French national rail company, bid for a contract to help build a bullet train between Los Angeles and San Francisco. It pulled out, exasperated, in 2011, saying it was going to deploy its expertise in Morocco instead because the planning environment there was less dysfunctional. Morocco’s first high-speed rail line opened in 2018. California’s is probably still decades away, though not for want of spending. Work has begun on a trial section in the Great Central Valley, at a cost of $1.8 million a day, the NYT reports. The overall budget has swelled from $33 billion to $113 billion. And the route – which SNCF suggested should focus on carrying people from the state’s two biggest conurbations as fast as possible – now swerves east on leaving LA, for a distinctly low-speed detour through the Mojave Desert, apparently to serve the interests of a powerful local politician. For “dysfunctional”, read corrupt. 

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

Covid continues 
New data from the Office for National Statistics indicates an uptick in UK Covid infections as the cold weather creeps in. There were 25 per cent more infections reported in the week ending 26 September (over 1.3 million people) than the week before. There is a particularly marked rise in cases among over-70s in England. Waning immunity is the likely cause, not helped by lower take up of the autumn booster jab than of previous ones. Hospitalisations are creeping up too – although a significant proportion testing positive for Covid in hospital are there for other treatments. 1.3 million is many fewer than the 3.8 million infections reported in early July and this time last year, but it’s not just current infections that need consideration. The ONS estimates 1.1 million have long Covid at least a year after being infected, with 514,000 still showing symptoms at least two years after infection. 

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Why oh Wye
Chicken is our favourite meat; a billion of the birds are slaughtered every year in the UK, and they’re “grown”, as poultry farmers say, at an intensive scale to meet this huge consumer demand. Aside from the birds themselves, a casualty of this love affair is the River Wye, where campaigners have now found new evidence of a link between phosphates and intensive chicken units. Shraddha Kaul, director of external affairs at British Poultry, told Tortoise earlier this year that the industry makes sure phosphates do not run into the river, and that other polluters may contribute to the problem. Try telling that to George Monbiot, whose latest book, Regenesis, opens with a description of the Wye’s poultry pollution problem that defies the reader not to forsake chicken for good. 


Iran TV hacked
A news bulletin on Iran’s state-run broadcaster was hacked over the weekend, with footage showing the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, with gun-sight crosshairs over his face. “The blood of our youths is on your hands,” read an on-screen message during the brief interruption, which broadcast pictures of Mahsa Amini and three other women killed in recent protests. Amini, 22, died after being detained by morality police for allegedly not covering her hair properly, sparking the biggest wave of social unrest in the country for nearly three years. The protests have spread to include university students and young schoolgirls – female students in Tehran were filmed chanting “get lost” during a visit by President Ebrahim Raisi. 

The week ahead


10/10 – Nicola Sturgeon gives keynote speech at the SNP autumn conference in Aberdeen; High Court hears further challenge to government’s Rwanda deportation plan, 11/10 – Institute for Fiscal Studies publishes Green Budget, an assessment of the country’s public finances and growth prospects; Supreme Court begins hearing arguments for and against SNP plan to legislate for an independence referendum; Ai-Da Robot, an AI-based robot artist, appears at Lords Communications and Digital Committee session; GCHQ Director Jeremy Fleming delivers security lecture on China to RUSI, 12/10 – UK GDP figures published; Sinn Fein People’s Assembly hold annual conference, 13/10 – Court hearing for two men charged with murder of Northern Irish journalist Lyra Mckee; Royal Mail strike starts; Ofgem chief executive speaks at Energy UK Annual Conference; RIBA Stirling Prize for architecture announced; 14/10 – Bank of England gilt-buying operation set to finish; Battersea Power Station reopens in London as a retail and leisure hub; National Education Union teachers consultative ballot closes, 15/10 – Alba Party autumn conference in Scotland; One year since Sir David Amess MP was killed


10/10 –  Ursula von der Leyen speaks at the Tallinn Digital Summit in Estonia; IMF and World Bank annual meetings begin in Washington; Canadian Thanksgiving; Columbus Day public holiday in US, 11/10 – IMF publishes Global Financial Stability Report; Meta Platforms host Connect event showcasing augmented and virtual reality products, 12/10 – Nato defense ministers begin two-day meeting in Brussels; National Day in Spain; Berlin Climate and Security Conference begins; G20 finance ministers and central bank governors meet, 13/10 – Volodymyr Zelensky addresses Council of Europe; Arctic Circle Assembly begins in  Reykjavik; International Energy Agency October oil market report released; Taiwan ends  mandatory Covid quarantine for arrivals; 14/10 – LIV Golf Invitational tees off in Jeddah, 16/10 – Opening of Chinese Communist Party’s 20th National Congress; World Health Summit;  Twenty20 World Cup cricket tournament begins in Geelong

Giles Whittell

Additional reporting by Phoebe Davis, Jessica Winch and Jeevan Vasagar.

Photographs Getty Images, Maxmar

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