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Sensemaker: Rubicon, Rubicoff

Sensemaker: Rubicon, Rubicoff

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Biden said he wants to run for a second term as Democrats celebrated better-than-expected results in the midterms (more below).
  • Rishi Sunak said he regretted giving a ministerial role to Gavin Williamson.
  • The Taliban banned Afghan women from entering the capital’s public parks.
  • America’s parks service asked visitors to please stop licking the Sonoran desert toad, which secretes a hallucinogenic toxin.

Rubicon, Rubicoff

Russia’s stage-managed announcement of a withdrawal from Kherson yesterday was

  • a concession to reality – it had become impossible to resupply an estimated 40,000 Russian troops increasingly hemmed in on the right bank of the Dnipro River;
  • confirmation that the war is going extremely badly for Putin – it was a decision only he could make and he would not have made it if not forced to by relentless if costly Ukrainian advances; and
  • too good to be true from Ukraine’s point of view – Zelensky and his aides warned of a trap and noted that this enemy “does not hand out gifts”.

But the essential context of this abrupt and ostensibly humiliating (for Putin) development is a push for peace behind the scenes, with American involvement and signs of a shift in Ukraine’s negotiating position.

The timeline is instructive:

  • 4 October: Zelensky signs a decree ruling out any talks with Putin.
  • 31 October: Putin says he can wait: “Maybe [the] necessary conditions will eventually arise; we have made our good will known.”
  • 4 November: Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, makes an unannounced visit to Kyiv. He promises the US will keep supporting Ukraine regardless of midterm results, but at the same time the Wapo reports that the Biden’s administration is “privately encouraging Ukraine’s leaders to signal an openness to negotiate with Russia”.
  • 7 November: Zelensky announced five preconditions for peace talks, without mentioning Putin by name. These conditions include restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity with pre-2014 borders, i.e. including Crimea; reparations for all war damages; punishment for Russian war criminals; and a guarantee of no future aggression.

What Zelensky did not say, in a change from previous position statements, was that Putin had to be out of power before the start of any talks. 

What changed his mind? Unclear. In some respects his position has hardened, but it’s worth noting that after the Sullivan visit a source close to the White House said Ukraine had to show “a willingness to resolve the conflict”, while others in Washington and Brussels hinted that negotiations and ceasefire might be possible if Russia left Kherson. 

The withdrawal shall be televised. In yesterday’s announcement Russia’s General Sergey Surovikin, notorious for his ruthlessness, said the withdrawal was to save the lives of Russian soldiers. Defence minister Sergei Shoigu gave a nod to civilians too. The mood was sombre. The stage management continued: 

  • A foreign ministry spokeswoman said Russia was open to negotiations.
  • The Kremlin’s chief TV propagandist, Vladimir Solovyov, later said it was a “brave” decision and urged Russians to “trust the generals”.

Trust? Really? Not in Ukraine. Zelensky’s adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said there were no signs of Russia leaving Kherson without a fight. “Ukraine is liberating territories based on intelligence data, not staged TV statements,” he said. A spokesman for Ukraine’s foreign ministry said Russia was trying to buy time, regroup, rearm, train new conscripts, fix its logistics and attack again. 

Then again. Michael McFaul, former US ambassador to Moscow, said on Twitter: “This is what defeat sounds like.” There were reports last night of troops starting to pull out and Russia could be hoping for an orderly withdrawal rather than a massacre on the Dnipro. But its commanders have not previously telegraphed withdrawals in advance. McFaul was in Russia for both Chechen wars and knows better than most this could be a trap.

Lessons from history. In Chechnya (1996 and 1999)  as well as Ukraine (2014 and 2022), Russian generals have embraced the strategy of reculer pour mieux sauter. So has Putin. There is no sign yet that he is ready to admit defeat. Those pushing Ukraine quietly to talk need to understand that if it does so without regaining all its territory, complete with ironclad Nato security guarantees, the Chechen scenario will be repeated on a much bigger scale.


Make Trump Livid Again

Donald Trump has been eager to jump into the 2024 race. He initially planned to announce his candidacy on Monday on the eve of America’s midterm elections, before being persuaded to delay his “big announcement” until next Tuesday. Aides are now said to be urging Trump to postpone it again, as Georgia’s crucial Senate race goes to a runoff on 6 December. Trump’s candidate, the scandal-hit former football star Herschel Walker, is trailing Democratic incumbent Raphael Warnock by about 1 point, with neither candidate clearing the 50 per cent threshold to declare victory. “I’m not alone when I say President Trump’s best moves are to put all his efforts to get Herschel Walker elected,” Jason Miller, a longtime adviser to Trump, told the Washington Post. Trump was said to be “livid” about the results on Wednesday, as many of his handpicked candidates stumbled; he was particularly aggrieved about the loss of Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania’s Senate race. The front page of the New York Post will not have helped the mood in Mar-a-Lago: headlined DeFuture, with a picture of newly-elected Florida governor Ron DeSantis and his family. Trump has already threatened to release damaging information about DeSantis should he run for the presidency. Biden’s response: “It’ll be fun watching them take on each other.” As vote counting continued, two key Senate races in Arizona and Nevada remained too close to call and Republicans were closing in on the 218 seats needed to take back the House. For more on the results, join us for tonight’s ThinkIn with David Taylor and Ella Hill. 


FTX collapse

FTX, one of the biggest cryptocurrency exchanges, is on the verge of collapse after its rival Binance walked away from rescue talks. FTX, which is backed by blue chip investors including BlackRock and Canada’s Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, reportedly needs $8 billion to meet withdrawal requests. Binance abandoned a possible bailout after less than 48 hours of due diligence, citing concerns about FTX’s handling of customer funds and investigations by US regulators. It’s a spectacularly bad week for FTX’s Sam Bankman-Fried, whose $16 billion fortune fell by 94 per cent – the biggest ever one-day wealth collapse among billionaires tracked by Bloomberg. The panic has pushed Bitcoin, the largest cryptocurrency, below $16,000 for the first time since late 2020. 


German chips 

Germany has blocked a Chinese takeover of a strategic microchip company on security grounds; a victory for those in Olaf Scholz’s government who worry about China’s entanglement in German infrastructure. The government vetoed the takeover of Elmos, a Dortmund-based semiconductor firm that is seen as an important strategic asset as Europe develops its nascent chip industry. Berlin also blocked Chinese investment in ERS Electronic, based in the southern state of Bavaria. Robert Habeck, the economy minister, said Germany remained an open investment location, but “we are not naive”. Habeck opposed Scholz’s earlier decision to approve the acquisition of a 25 per cent stake in a Hamburg container terminal by China’s Cosco shipping giant. Read more about Scholz and China in our Sensemaker.

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitic


The family of British-Egyptian national Alaa Abd El-Fattah, a political prisoner in Egypt who is refusing food and water, said this morning that prison authorities told them he is “under medical intervention”. They had demanded information about his health after rumours of force-feeding. His mother Laila Soueif has made daily trips this week to the Wadi al-Natroun prison, where Abd El-Fattah is being held, reports AFP, but so far has been unable to see her son. He is serving a five-year sentence for “spreading false news” after sharing a Facebook post about torture – Tortoise reported on his case for this week’s Slow Newscast. Rishi Sunak has called for his release, but was criticised for not demanding consular access before meeting Egypt’s president, Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi.

Read the latest from Cop27 from our Net Zero team.

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

Nurses’ strike

NHS nurses have voted to strike across most UK hospitals this winter, which will affect hundreds of thousands of patients and cause record disruption. Nine in10 nurses backed the first UK-wide industrial action in the Royal College of Nursing’s 106-year history, which will involve walkouts and strikes including at NHS cancer hospitals and children’s units. The system is already on its knees, with record A&E and ambulance wait times and fears that a flu and coronavirus “twindemic” could overload hospitals this winter. The union is calling for 17.6 per cent pay rises, which Steve Barclay, the health secretary, says “simply aren’t reasonable or affordable”. Nurses are reportedly sleeping in their cars and relying on foodbanks for food. The average pay of an NHS nurse has fallen in real terms by 8 per cent since 2010.

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

Giles Whittell

Nina Kuryata

Additional reporting by Jess Winch and Sebastian Hervas-Jones

Photographs Getty Images

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