Long stories short
- The UK struggled to get back to work after the New Year holiday as 40,000 rail workers went on strike.
- Itamar Ben-Gvir visited the al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem after being sworn in as a minister in Israel’s new right-wing government last week.
- Martina Navratilova said she would fight with everything she has after being diagnosed with breast and throat cancer.
Deeper and deeper
Expect more attacks by Ukraine on Russian targets like the one that killed at least 63 and possibly hundreds of Russian soldiers on New Year’s Day.
That was in Makiivka, in the east. Crimea could be next, the head of Ukrainian military intelligence tells ABC, as well as targets “deeper and deeper” inside Russia.
So what? The winter war is not a stalemate after all. Both sides are pausing to regroup but Ukraine is trying to pre-empt a Russian spring offensive, and it’s hard to overstate how much depends on whether it succeeds.
The attack. At least four Himars rockets supplied by the US hit a vocational school being used as a barracks for new Russian conscripts, causing the biggest single loss of life acknowledged by Moscow in the ten-month war.
- Even if the Makiivka strike killed 400, as Ukraine claims, it was one in a grinding war of logistics and attrition that according to US estimates has killed or injured nearly 250,000 in all so far, including 40,000 civilians.
- The war itself is one rolling crisis among many that could make 2023 even more costly for humanity than 2022, among them the retreat of democracy and the onward march of disinformation and climate change.
- The war touches everything – from world energy prices and food security to the depth of the recession that the IMF says will hit a third of the world this year and the esteem in which tyranny is held by countries yearning for decisive leadership.
- Its outcome could hinge on the next few months. Putin has called up 300,000 reservists whose performance in any spring offensive will depend critically on morale – which will crater if attacks like the one on Makiivka are repeated.
- Moscow seldom acknowledges military casualties. This time they were so serious it had to pick a number and order an investigation; Putin has said he wants a report by Friday, but already it appears most of the dead were from Samara on the Volga, where the bereaved will not stay silent.
- Russian military bloggers – uncensored because they support the war – have unloaded on their own side’s incompetence with more fury than at any point since Ukraine’s Kharkiv offensive last October. Some are blaming the Donetsk proxy government for siting the barracks next to an ammunition store that also exploded, but Igor Girkin, one of the best-known, blames Russia’s own generals as “untrainable”. He says hundreds of dead and wounded still lie under the Makiivka rubble.
Russia’s revenge. Drones supplied by Iran resumed their attacks on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure last night and President Zelensky warned of more to come. Few expect the Makiivka attack to lead directly to Russian escalation, but most New Year forecasts are bleak and cautious – of a war that drags on at least for most of 2023 as Putin tries to undermine western support for Kyiv and force Ukraine to sue for peace before his missiles and artillery run out.
The alternative. The end could, just possibly, come quickly. Putin long since failed to achieve his initial war aims or protect his troops. He is increasingly reliant on private armies like those of Chechnya’s Ramzan Kadyrov and Yevgeni Prigozin’s Wagner Group. If Russia’s restive constituent parts sense the centre is losing its grip, the empire could unravel. Andrei Piontkovsky, the opposition pundit, foresees a decisive battle for Melitopol in the south, and victory for Ukraine this spring.
Worth reading: Professor Hal Brands on Halford Mackinder and Ukraine’s place in the “world island” theory of Eurasian history. In a nutshell: everything depends on Ukraine, and always has.
CAPITAL ECONOMY, BUSINESS AND FINANCE
Reasons to be glum
The economic outlook for UK consumers this year is “tough”, “bleak”, “grim”, “miserable” and “terrible”, according to an FT survey of 101 UK-based economists, especially for people on low incomes or mortgages that are due to expire. It’s going to be a tough year globally – the IMF chief Kristalina Georgieva warned at the weekend that a third of the global economy and half of the European Union will be in a recession over the next 12 months – but the UK has Brexit and structurally poor productivity to contend with as well as inflation and energy pressures arising from the war in Ukraine. A Citizens Advice survey recently found more than a third of UK adults would struggle to cope with a £20 increase in their monthly costs.
TECHNOLOGY AI, SCIENCE AND NEW THING
South Korea boosts chip breaks
South Korea’s government plans to increase tax incentives to semiconductor and other technology firms to secure domestic chip production. The proposed plan could save companies around 3.6 trillion won ($2.82 billion) in 2024 tax payments, but it still needs to be approved by parliament, which last month passed a less ambitious bill that offered a tax credit of 8 per cent to big companies investing in chip manufacturing. Under the new proposals, this would increase to 15 per cent, as South Korea’s president Yoon Suk Yeol fights to keep his country at the forefront of the global chip war. Taiwan and America have already announced big incentives for chipmakers, without whom modern EV and smart weapons makers can’t operate.
The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT
A new year, a new variant: an Omicron sub-variant called XBB.1.5 is currently responsible for 40 per cent of Covid cases across the US, according to the country’s public health agency, and for up to three-quarters of confirmed cases in the north-east. There are signs that this Omicron sub-variant is spreading faster than its predecessors, but hospitalisations and deaths are not increasing yet. The WHO said the “parent” XBB Omicron variant has been found in at least 70 countries since first appearing last summer. In the UK, only 4 per cent of cases in the week up to Christmas were XBB.1.5. Still, with the NHS buckling under the weight of a flu surge and industrial action, and with concern over increasing cases in China, UK health officials have asked people to stay at home if they are unwell or wear face masks.
Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics
Loser leaves Brazil
Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva boosted the authority of Brazil’s environmental protection agency in one of his first decisions after returning to power in Brazil. He also tightened gun controls by revoking policies introduced by his predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro. Lula was sworn in on Sunday afternoon, joined on stage by a diverse group of Brazilians, including a factory worker, an indigenous leader and a 10 year-old boy. But one key person was noticeably absent: Bolsonaro, who traditionally would have handed Lula the presidential sash, flew to Florida last week after refusing to concede defeat. He is reportedly staying in the home of a professional mixed-martial-arts fighter close to Disney World.
CULTURE soCIETY, IDENTITY AND BELONGING
A funny thing happened on Kevin McCarthy’s way to speakership of the US House of Representatives. He encountered a group of hard-right opponents who may yet prevent him taking the Speaker’s chair. Even if they don’t, they’ve torn up the convention that the most senior member of the biggest party in the chamber is handed the gavel as of right. McCarthy is a career congressman from California who’s coveted the speakership for more than a decade. He said he’d “had it” with Trump after the January 6th insurrection but changed his mind when he saw the power the ex-president still wielded over the party. His enemies within don’t want to legislate, but to prevent legislation and generally shrink the federal government. If they stymie his rise it will be the first time the House has failed to elect a speaker at the first ballot since 1923. To buy them off he’s offered a snap vote that could eject him at any time. The ballot is today.
Number of the day: 65,000 people paid their respects to the late Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI yesterday as he lay in state ahead of his funeral on Thursday.
Additional reporting by Jessica Winch and Phoebe Davis.
Photographs Getty Images
in the tortoise app today
Damn and blast off: How not to go back to the moon
Nasa wants to put people back on the moon, half a century after Apollo 11. Its Artemis moon mission is over-budget, overhyped and underpowered – it might even be the end of Nasa as we know it