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Sensemaker: Scramble 2.0

Sensemaker: Scramble 2.0

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Shell’s third-quarter profits doubled compared with a year ago, thanks to the war.
  • Germany said it plans to legalise cannabis for recreational use.
  • Villagers living near Norfolk’s 16th century Oxnead Hall in the UK said brides and grooms were no longer welcome there because the noise from weekday weddings was leaving their children too tired for school. 

Scramble 2.0

Russia is on the back foot and almost completely isolated, Western analysts have begun to crow. They ought to pay more attention to Africa.

Earlier this month the Ukrainian foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, beat a hasty retreat from the continent. It was the first time Kyiv had ever sent a senior minister on tour south of the Sahara and expectations were high. The mission was simple: to charm countries that are chummy with Moscow. But after a whistle-stop tour of Senegal, Ivory Coast and Ghana, Kuleba abruptly cut things short in Kenya and rushed home. 

The official reason was that Kuleba needed to coordinate the response to a swarm of missiles and kamikaze drones that began to hit targets across his country. But there are strong suspicions that he left early to avoid losing face after being slighted by several African leaders who are normally all too happy to roll out the red carpet for Sergey Lavrov, his Russian counterpart. When Tortoise asked exactly whom the minister had met, officials refused to answer.

“I urge Africa not to stay neutral,” Kuleba said in a parting shot as he left. “Neutrality will only encourage Russia to continue its aggression and malign activities across the world, including in Africa.”

Whatever the reasons, this sudden withdrawal underscores an important point. Putin is winning the information war across much of Africa. Ukraine and its Western allies are still playing catch up. 

  • Despite immense pressure, 22 African countries either abstained or did not show up for a key UN vote condemning Russia’s annexation of several Ukrainian regions.
  • Russia is the largest exporter of arms to sub-Saharan Africa. Russian mercenaries like the Wagner Group, widely seen as Putin’s private army, wield considerable influence in Mali, Libya, Sudan and the Central African Republic (CAR). 
  • Number of African leaders attending the 2019 Russia-Africa summit: 43. Number at the 2020 UK-Africa Summit: 16.
  • French intelligence officials told reporters that they had set up a new “information warfare unit” to counter the stream of Russian disinformation against France in Africa. 

From Russia with love. About a decade ago, the Kremlin began to expand its influence across parts of Africa the West has taken for granted. Many African statesmen still look favourably on Moscow. Unlike the European powers, the Soviet Union never had an African empire. Instead, it backed anti-apartheid struggles. Russia also offers lucrative mining deals, arms contracts and mercenary groups with no irritating human rights strings attached — a sound prospect for strongmen who need fast cash for patronage and cannot trust their own coup-prone troops.

African airstrips. The strategy is working. Russia can stick it to the West while filling its war chest with gold, oil, diamonds and rare minerals. Earlier this year, Mali turfed out thousands of French troops in exchange for Russian guns-for-hire. Wagner has set up airstrips in CAR, allowing it to fly troops in and out of the continent as it pleases and in Sudan, sources say Russian outfits are secretly mining uranium in Darfur.

The Kremlin is also haggling with Khartoum for a warm water port at Port Sudan. This would give it a crucial foothold on the Red Sea shipping straits and help cement its influence across a vast arc of territory running from Sudan to CAR through Chad out across the arid Sahel region into west Africa.

A coup in the Kremlin’s favour. In late September, a striking image emerged from Burkina Faso. A local soldier stood atop a United Nations 4×4 with a Russian flag held aloft. He was part of a coup in the gold-rich west African nation, which swept one military junta out of power for another. The country has been beset on all sides by jihadist attacks and Russian disinformation for years. The new ruler has pledged to turn away from the Western-led counter-terrorism mission in the region and “go to other partners” — a thinly veiled reference to you know who.

It is widely expected in intelligence circles that Burkinabe putschists will officially invite Wagner in at the next Russia-Africa summit in early 2023. Another notch for Putin’s belt, another blow for the West.


Auf wiedersehen Russland

Mercedes-Benz, whose armoured limos and G-Wagons have become must-haves for oligarchs, is pulling out of Russia because of the war. It will sell its stakes in Russian subsidiaries to a local investor, joining a short list of big carmaking names trying to get out of what had become a booming market without burning all their bridges. What took it so long? “Fulfilment of obligations to customers in Russia… as well as the preservation of jobs for employees of the Russian divisions of the company,” says Natalya Koroleva, head of Mercedes-Benz-RUS. VW, Toyota and Renault have announced Russian exit plans, although Renault’s includes a six-year buy-back option. Japanese and Korean carmakers have been (even) slower to start thinking seriously about upping sticks. Plenty of brands, including Georgio Armani, Lacoste and Fujifilm, continue to operate in Russia as usual. Here’s Yale’s full list


Steppe up

A Swedish wind farm builder has signed a deal to help build a $50 billion wind and solar farm on the grasslands of southwest Kazakhstan, and to turn much of the power into green hydrogen. The idea is to produce about 40 gigawatts of renewable power and use half of it to split water into hydrogen and oxygen via electrolysis, for an output of 2 million tonnes of green H2 per year by 2032. This is huge. Forty gigawatts is twice as much as the Australian-backed Sun Cable scheme hopes to generate for sale to Singapore, and Sun Cable’s pitch to investors was that it would be the biggest project of its kind. Green H2 as an energy store is a long-term solution to renewables’ intermittency, and one that oil and gas folk like to say won’t take off. Signs are it will. For context, the International Energy Agency’s latest annual outlook says the war in Ukraine will speed up rather than slow down the energy transition.

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

The forgotten 500k

Mark Oakley has been shielding for 958 days. He’s one of an estimated 500,000 immunocompromised people in the UK still at risk from Covid-19. These are people whose bodies don’t produce enough or any antibodies after vaccination to fight off infection and serious illness. Instead, their options are 1) shielding and 2) monoclonal antibody treatment – injecting the antibodies they can’t make themselves. But the UK is one of the few developed countries not to have made the best-known antibody treatment, AstraZeneca’s Evusheld, widely available. As of 19 October, Evusheld was available privately in the UK at significant cost but is still being considered by Nice for NHS rollout – a process that could take until next summer. The sticking point is that lab studies have found Evusheld less effective against newer Omicron sub-variants. That doesn’t mean it’s ineffective and wouldn’t make a difference to someone currently shielding.

Yesterday, families and friends of those shielding held a vigil on Parliament Square campaigning for a faster rollout. Dr Lennard Lee, an NHS oncologist, said with MPs’ help “the 500,000 might have a chance of a good Christmas, to see and hug their loved ones”. Jacquie Cooke, whose husband has blood cancer, risked infection to join the vigil. Her family’s current plan is to isolate in December so they can spend Christmas together. Notably absent: returning health secretary Steve Barclay, who on his final day in the job last time round wrote there was “insufficient evidence” for an emergency rollout. 

Further watching: Tortoise ThinkIn with some of the 500,000 and campaigners for Evusheld rollout. 

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitic

Crab mystery

Scientists are calling for the dredging of a new Teesside freeport in the UK to be paused while an inquiry into mass shellfish deaths seeks answers. Dr Gary Caldwell of Newcastle University told the Environmental Affairs Committee a survey of the seabed is needed to determine whether a chemical called pyridine is poisoning thousands of crustaceans. The government says an algal bloom is more likely to blame. It could be both, but locals, especially seafood firms whose catch has been obliterated, are clamouring for an answer. They’ve funded a study into the toxicity of pyridine, which is handled in at least one industrial plant on the Teesside and is commonly found in coal. All of which is a headache for Ben Houchen, the Tees Valley Mayor lionised by eco-Tories for his vision of a regional revival powered by green energy. Dr Caldwell accuses him of “personal attacks against me on Facebook and against the science conducted by the university”. The select committee’s findings are due next week.


Migrants and midterms

Earlier this month the Biden administration began deporting Venezuelans crossing into the United States at its southern border. Now tens of thousands of them are languishing in Mexico. On 12 October, the Department of Homeland Security expanded its use of Title 42, an order used under Trump to expel migrants on public health grounds at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. A new humanitarian pathway will admit 24,000 Venezuelans but the bar for entry is high and the programme is small. Before the change Venzuelans entering illegally were allowed to claim asylum and in May Biden tried to repeal the use of Title 42. He now faces criticism on illegal immigration ahead of the midterms. Until the new policy was announced 1,200 Venezuelans were crossing the US border every day. 

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

Will Brown

Additional reporting by Phoebe Davis, Barney Macintyre, Ella Hill and Giles Whittell. Graphic by Katie Riley.

Photographs Getty Images

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