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Sensemaker: Putin’s playground

Sensemaker: Putin’s playground

What just happened

Long stories short

  • The FSB arrested eight people including five Russians in connection with Saturday’s attack on the Kerch Strait bridge. 
  • Ross Hyett, an ex-racing driver, won a court battle for £32 million in silver bars recovered from a shipwreck off the Maldives. 
  • Boris Johnson set himself up in business as Boris Johnson Limited.

Putin’s playground

Could there be a post-war world in which Ukraine is free and sovereign and the rest of Europe lives without the threat of Russian interference?

Not the way things are going in the Western Balkans. 

Tucked between Slovenia and Greece, this mosaic of traumatised semi-democracies is edging towards the EU so slowly that its peoples could soon give up hope of membership. Some of their leaders still turn instinctively to Moscow despite its murderous war, and Beijing is angling for a European foothold with money and technology. 

Bosnia and Herzegovina. Campaigning for elections earlier this month the Bosnian Serb leader and separatist Milorad Dodik praised Putin and rejected the EU as a “fraud”. He later claimed victory even though the election commission upheld opposition claims of ballot-rigging. Since then Dodik has

  • called Russia the most important diplomatic ally of the Republika Srpska that he leads;
  • congratulated Putin on his 70th birthday “on behalf of the entire Serbian people”; and
  • urged young Bosnian Serbs to learn Russian so they can attend Russian universities.

Dodik, according to the political scientist Jasmin Mujanovic, is “desperate to be a Russian proxy” and has a relationship with Putin that verges on “pornographic”. 

Serbia. In August, Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vučić said his country was the stage for a proxy war between East and West. Vučić has a warm relationship with China’s President Xi Jinping, whom he calls a “brother.” Beijing has invested heavily in Serbia

  • building an enormous cultural centre in Belgrade; 
  • providing security technologies including facial recognition technology, surveillance drones and attack drones;
  • supplying PPE equipment and vaccines during the pandemic; and
  • investing heavily in mining and infrastructure.

Serbia is also entirely dependent on Russian gas, securing a new supply deal in May, and has refused to join Western countries in sanctioning Russia following its invasion of Ukraine. Russian and Serbian intelligence agencies have been coordinating closely for years, and Serbian mainstream media are overwhelmingly pro-Russian: “Serbian tabloids are very much aligned with Russian disinfo narratives,” says Jessie Barton Hronesova of the University of North Carolina’s Center for European Studies. When Russia attacked Ukraine on 24 February, one tabloid headline read “Ukraine attacks Russia”.

Kosovo. A plan to issue ethnic Serbs in Kosovo with Kosovan number plates caused tensions to flare this summer. Barricades went up along border points with Serbia. Albin Kurti, Kosovo’s prime minister, suggested Putin bore some responsibility for the protests, saying the Russian leader wanted to “normalise war”.

In 2018, Kosovo delineated its border with Montenegro in return for visa-free access to the EU’s Schengen zone. Four and a half years later, Kosovans still require visas to access most EU countries.

EU asleep. This sort of foot-dragging is symptomatic of the EU’s attitude towards the wider Western Balkans – and reminiscent of Brussels’ leaden response to Ukrainian appeals for support in 2013. Serbia is one of only two countries in the region that are actually in EU accession talks (the other being Montenegro), and those talks have been stymied by delays since 2008. In one recent survey only a quarter of respondents were optimistic about the prospect of joining the EU by 2025.

Russia alert. Moscow’s main ally in the region is Serbia, which has been able to play what Mujanovic calls a double game. It claims neutrality and hasn’t recognised last month’s sham Russian referenda in Ukraine, but continues to align its foreign policy with Moscow. Last month Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, signed a two-year “coordination” agreement with Belgrade.

Even in the heart of Europe, Putin is not quite friendless after all.


UK adrift
The Bank of England can’t make its mind up whether to go on bailing out pension funds. The chancellor can’t bring himself to explain his arithmetic. The prime minister is letting him take the heat for a collapse in international faith in the UK economy, and Conservative backbenchers are warning Downing Street they won’t let it wriggle out of its self-imposed crisis by cutting real-terms benefits. Welcome to month two of Trussonomics, assisted by Kwasi Kwarteng and Andrew Bailey, governor of the Bank of England, who told pension funds yesterday afternoon they had till Friday and no longer to stabilise their bond portfolios – only to tell bankers later in private they might in fact have longer. The upshot of this uncertainty is that Kwarteng still faces two potential crises as a result of his unfunded tax cuts: a short-term one if they cause another fire sale by pension fund managers when the BoE’s support finally ends; and a longer-term one if MPs decide he’s trying, as former chief whip Julian Smith put it, to balance those tax cuts “on the back of the poorest people in our country”. Meanwhile the IMF said the Truss growth strategy would cut growth from 3.6 per cent this year to 0.3 per cent next. 


Meta Quest Pro
Mark Zuckerberg is betting the Facebook / Meta farm on a vision of billions of people – he might have to accept millions initially – spending large parts of their working and leisure time in $1,500 virtual reality headsets that stare back at their faces with five cameras to create avatars that have no legs. Meta launched its latest headset, the Meta Quest Pro, yesterday. Reviews have not been great. The WSJ’s Joanna Stern likes the redistributed battery weight, which was a problem in the last version, but is not so keen on the two-hour battery life or the fundamental premise that people prefer virtual reality to reality. “What will I want to do in this headset that I can’t do on my laptop or smartphone?” she asks, and can’t think of a good answer. 

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

Free HRT 
MPs are demanding women in England receive an NHS health check at 45 to discuss and manage menopause symptoms. It’s one of a comprehensive list of recommendations from the All Party Parliamentary Group for Menopause after a year-long inquiry. The group argues that even though 51 per cent of the population experiences menopause, support for those going through it is “completely inadequate”. The MPs are also calling for free Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) prescriptions to be made available in England, as they already are in the devolved nations. Earlier this year HRT shortages led women to trade doses in car parks as the NHS struggled to fill in a rapid rise in prescriptions at a time of supply-chain bottlenecks. A reminder to the Treasury in its search for growth: almost a million women are estimated to have left work because of menopause symptoms. 

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

KK and Aramco
No apology for returning to Kwasi Kwarteng. He’s the man of the hour, and still not in a good way. The Guardian and others report that in his last job as business secretary he had unminuted meetings with Saudi Aramco executives, and free flights round Saudi Arabia in the company’s helicopters and private jets. Ministers are supposed to record such meetings and hospitality, but Kwarteng, by what his office now calls an “administrative oversight”, didn’t. It would have been defensible, if controversial, for a British business secretary to undertake a fact-finding mission into the guts of the world’s biggest company if he was open about it. The fact that he hasn’t been only draws attention to Saudi Aramco’s role propping up a regime that flogs and executes dissidents and dismembered the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. 


A safe space for superyachts
Anchored in the waters off Hong Kong is Nord – a $500 million superyacht. The property of Russian oligarch and Putin ally Alexei Mordashov, the boat would likely have been seized had it come into port in the US or EU. As the main shareholder and chairman of Severstal, Russia’s largest steel and mining company, and with a stake in Rossiya Bank – the “personal bank” of Russian government officials, according to the EU – Mordashov has been sanctioned by the West in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Hong Kong’s chief executive, John Lee, defended the lack of action, saying that his administration “cannot do anything that has no legal basis.” Lürssen, the company that built Nord, says it designed the superyacht to “cause strong emotions in every observer”. How about fury at China’s acquiescence in Putin’s murder of Ukrainian civilians?

Thanks for reading. Please share this round, send us ideas and tell us what you think. Email sensemaker@tortoisemedia.com.

James Wilson

Additional reporting by Phoebe Davis and Giles Whittell. Graphics by Katie Riley.

Photographs Getty Images

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