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Sensemaker: Critical mass

Sensemaker: Critical mass

What just happened

Long stories short

  • The US attorney general appointed a special counsel to investigate Biden’s handling of classified documents (more below).
  • Lisa Marie Presley, singer and the daughter of Elvis, died aged 54.
  • Britain’s oldest lorry driver, 90, passed his annual test to keep working.

Critical mass

Critical mass. Soledar is the latest small town to become a major frontline in Ukraine. Russian mercenaries led by Yevgeny Prigozhin are leading the assault, keen to secure Moscow’s first battlefield success since last summer. Ukrainian regular troops are confronting them, but to win this battle – and the whole war – Ukraine needs more powerful weapons.

So what? Ukraine needs tanks. Lots of tanks. The head of Ukraine’s armed forces, Valery Zaluzhny, says he needs at least 300 to recapture territory seized since last Febuary’s invasion. To fully liberate Ukraine, including Crimea, experts put the number at 700. 

EU countries have sent almost 500 Soviet-era tanks like the T-72, but Ukraine has lost several times this number on the battlefield. The US also partnered with the Netherlands to send upgraded T-72s, but these upgrades take time.  

Ukraine wants top-end Western tanks, like German-made Leopards. The Leopards have diesel engines, making them easier to maintain than America’s gas turbine Abrams. 

Where are the Leopards? Thirteen countries in Europe have more than 2,000 Leopard tanks in total. But they need authorisation from Germany to send them to third parties, and Olaf Scholz’s government has been wary of escalating the conflict.

No taboos? Giving Ukraine modern, heavy “offensive” weapons is a “self-imposed taboo”, Ulrike Franke, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), told the NYT. But a few of those taboos have already been broken. Germany has given more than €2 billion of military aid to Ukraine, including:

  • Five multiple rocket launchers MARS II with ammunition
  • Iris-T SLM air defence missile systems 
  • 20 70mm rocket launchers on pick-up trucks with rockets
  • 48 self-propelled howitzers (Panzerhaubitze, Zuzana 2 and RCH 155)
  • 30 self-propelled Gepard anti-aircraft guns

Going out on a limb. When it comes to tanks, key western allies seem to be waiting for someone to make the first move: 

  • Polish president Andrzey Duda says Poland is ready to give Ukraine a company of Leopard tanks (approximately 14) “within the international coalition”. 
  • The German government said it was “not aware” of any requests from allies for Leopard deliveries, but 
  • Robert Habeck, the German vice chancellor, said yesterday that Germany “should not stand in the way” of other countries’ decisions.
  • Britain reportedly plans to send Ukraine its Challenger 2 battle tanks – but, again, Rishi Sunak has asked Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, to “work with partners” on the issue. 

To note: even if Ukraine receives around a dozen Leopards from Poland and the same number of Challenger 2s from the UK, it will still need an order of magnitude more. 

How to make a deal. Collective responsibility is key, says Mark Cancian from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. The recent announcement of armoured vehicles was fairly co-ordinated, comprising

  • 50 M2A2 Bradleys from the US;
  • 40 Marders from Germany;
  • An undisclosed number of AMX-10RC vehicles from France. 

Will there be the same approach with tanks?

“Germans want reassurance from everybody that all are doing this together,” Cancian says, seeing this as a “Nato deal” in two steps, where Ukraine starts by asking for a relatively small number of tanks (about 50), then allies including the US, UK, Germany, France, Poland and Greece put a package together as part of a broader diplomatic international effort.

The real risk. The only real way to avoid escalation is to help Ukraine push Russia back “before more is demanded of the United States and Nato as a whole”, write Condoleezza Rice and Robert M. Gates, former US secretary of state and secretary of defense respectively. Nato’s Jens Stoltenberg agrees.

Russia has always associated itself with a bear, which never tries to catch its prey immediately. It follows it for as long as possible, until the victim becomes exhausted. The Russian army is using the same strategy. A protracted war works in Russia’s favour – but will have unwelcome consequences for the whole continent. 


Million-dollar man
Boris Johnson has great timing. In the week that Tortoise and Sky News launched our Westminster Accounts tool – a project nine months in the making that allows greater transparency of the money flowing into UK politics – the former UK prime minister made history. Last night, Johnson registered a single donation worth £1 million, the largest ever declared by an individual MP. It has gone into his Office for Boris Johnson Ltd. There, currently, the trail ends. But it has fuelled speculation that he may continue to be a thorn in Rishi Sunak’s side, as Johnsonites vie to have their man restored to No 10. Earlier this week, Johnson reignited so-called ‘Borismania’ by attending a dinner at the Carlton Club, to mark the unveiling of a new portrait… of himself.


All eyes on Lapland
The EU’s independence from Russia and China rests on a mine in Sweden’s far-north, according to the country’s energy minister, after Europe’s largest known deposit of rare earth elements was discovered at the site. State-owned mining firm LKAB found a deposit, dubbed Per Geijer, containing more than 1mn tonnes of rare earth oxides – key components for building electric vehicle batteries and wind turbines. Currently, no rare earths are mined in Europe; China provides nearly 98 per cent of the EU’s supply, and the bloc predicts that demand for the metals will increase fivefold by 2030. But LKAB said it would take 10-15 years to bring the metals to market unless permitting processes are sped up.  

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

Not cooking on gas
A study published last month estimated that 12.7 per cent of asthma cases in America are linked to the use of gas-burning stoves. Gas stoves emit nitrogen dioxide, a pollutant closely linked to asthma, and can leak pollutants even when switched off. Gas stoves are used in about 40 million homes across the US, according to the NYT; a suggestion from the country’s consumer watchdog that it might take regulatory action was swiftly attacked by critics. Experts say the average person might consider switching to an induction cooker – but if you have a gas stove, the risk can be reduced with good ventilation.

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Record-low water levels have created an energy crisis at the world’s largest dam, located on the Zambezi river. The Kariba Dam, which straddles the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe, has been forced to cut hydro-generated electricity output to both countries, leading to 12-hour power cuts. But climbing temperatures and unreliable rains are not solely to blame for shrinking dam capacity. Ageing infrastructure is a growing problem: according to UN research 50,000 of the world’s largest dams are so clogged with sediment that they risk losing a quarter of their storage by 2050. Most of these large dams were built between 1930 and 1970. Their imminent expiration could have terrible consequences for more than half the global population that live downstream.


Two special counsels are now investigating two US presidents over the possible mishandling of classified documents. The two presidents, Joe Biden and Donald Trump, ran against each other in the last election and are widely expected to do so again in 2024. There are important differences in the two cases: so far, it seems Biden’s lawyers found a “small number” of papers at his Washington think tank and in the garage of his home in Delaware from Biden’s time as vice president and turned them over promptly (but did not immediately tell the public), while Trump resisted months-long efforts to retrieve hundreds of sensitive papers from his Mar-a-Lago club in Florida. But the mere existence of the files is a political boon for Republicans – and one they will not waste as they take control of the House.

Thanks for reading. Please tell your friends to sign up, send us ideas and let us know what you think. Email sensemaker@tortoisemedia.com.

Catherine Neilan

Giles Whittell

Additional reporting by Phoebe Davis, Giles Whittell and Jessica Winch.

Photographs Getty Images, Alamy

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