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Sensemaker: Ready, steady, cook

Sensemaker: Ready, steady, cook

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Reed Hastings stepped down as chief executive of Netflix.
  • The actor Alec Baldwin faced criminal charges over a fatal shooting on set. 
  • Australian park rangers found Toadzilla: a huge cane toad weighing 2.7kg. 

Ready, steady, cook

Russia is a “great, proud” country that is not going to dissolve, Boris Johnson said this week. Nearly half of Atlantic Council’s experts think the opposite, predicting that Russia will break up or become a failed state by 2033. 

The wishlist. There are many reasons offered by a range of observers on why the largest country in the world might collapse (most have counter-arguments). They include:

  • Eroding public confidence in the Russian army, itself a key pillar of the Kremlin’s legitimacy (but state propaganda is doing its job);
  • Russia’s ethnic minority groups, like the Chechens and Buryats, launching breakaway bids (but citizens from these regions are being intensively mobilised and sent to the Ukraine front); and
  • Sanctions bringing the Russian economy to its knees (but so far they have not really impacted people’s daily lives).

So what? All the reasons listed above ultimately depend on public protest – the levels and success of which are not guaranteed. But there is another way the Russian state as we know it could collapse.

System error. The only thing likely to bring down Putin is a battle between Russia’s elites: the power players in the Kremlin, the security services, the army and special paramilitary structures like those controlled by Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and Wagner group founder Yevgeniy Prigozhin. Oleksiy Danilov, Ukraine’s Security Council secretary, thinks this process has already started. 

Exhibit A. A former prisoner known as “Putin’s chef”, Prigozhin leads the Wagner Group, a mercenary outfit that operates outside the Russian army’s chain of command. Prigozhin has become hugely popular through his multiple Telegram channels (a handy alternative to state television) and gained further prominence after Russian army retreats in Kharkiv and Kherson. 

In recent months, Prigozhin has:

  • registered the Wagner group in Russia for the first time, listing a joint stock company of the same name;
  • recruited new mercenaries from Serbia so successfully that Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic asked him (indirectly) to stop; 
  • continued to run Wagner forces in Ukraine independently from the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD);
  • claimed Russia’s advances in Soledar as Wagner’s sole victory;
  • presented medals for the capture of Soledar to Wagner forces, symbolically awarding one to a fighter who had previously received a medal from Putin; and
  • called the Putin administration traitors “to their people and their country” for failing to block the US-owned YouTube video channel.

The Kremlin has responded by trying to downplay Prigozhin’s influence on state television channels: both Putin and the ministry of defence made no mention of Wagner in recent discussions of attacks near Bakhmut and Soledar (Prigozhin in turn accused them of trying to “steal victory”.)

Is the world ready? Neither the West nor China are ready for Russia’s disintegration, and there are no signs that China is preparing for it, says Ben Noble, associate professor of Russian politics at University College London. Last year Ben Hodges, the former US Army Europe commander, warned Russia’s collapse may be “gradual at first but could quickly become a sudden, violent and uncontrollable event”.

Deploying weapons. Prigozhin is enjoying his time in the spotlight. He is likely to continue to recruit and promote Wagner forces in Ukraine, as well as seek an enhanced role for himself, says the Institute for the Study of War. Prigozhin boasts that Wagner is a fully independent force with its own aircraft, tanks, rockets and artillery: “probably the most experienced army that exists in the world”. 

Appetite comes with eating. If, at some point, Prigozhin decides to play for more power, he may deploy this army even closer to home.


CAPITAL ECONOMY, BUSINESS AND FINANCE

I need a dollar
America hit its debt ceiling yesterday, prompting the Treasury to start using “extraordinary” accounting manoeuvres as a short-term fix to make sure the government can keep paying its bills. Janet Yellen, the Treasury secretary, urged Congress to “act promptly” and raise the cap. So far, so familiar: Congress has tweaked the debt ceiling 78 times since 1960. Republicans, who now control the House, have refused to raise the ceiling unless Biden agrees to cut federal spending. This is also familiar – a similar showdown in 2011 nearly led to the US defaulting on its debt before then-President Obama agreed to future spending caps. But we are now in a world where both sides are even more entrenched. And that’s a problem. Jeff Siegel, a former Senate staffer now at BNP Paribas, told Semafor “there’s probably never been a greater chance” of the US defaulting than this year.


TECHNOLOGY AI, SCIENCE AND NEW THING

Separation of light from darkness
The dominoes keep falling. Last night, Genesis – once the largest crypto-lending platform, boasting $50 billion worth of outstanding loans at its peak – filed for bankruptcy. Like much of the crypto industry, Genesis suffered from FTX’s implosion and the associated fallout. In November, it said it was freezing withdrawals, citing the “market turmoil” caused by the collapse of FTX. Genesis was a key player in the Decentralised Finance (DeFi) lending market, attracting customers with its promise of “democratising finance”, which essentially meant requiring minimal credit checks to take loans. To look at the other dominoes, see Molly White’s excellent FTX contagion chart. 

Separately, in an update, ZeroAvia conducted a successful test flight of its hydrogen engine at Cotswold Airport yesterday.


The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

Strikes en masse
Over a million people joined a nationwide day of strikes and protests in France yesterday, with 80,000 marching the streets of Paris, according to the government. Pourquoi? Emmanuel Macron is pushing for Covid-delayed pension reforms that would increase the retirement age. The reforms, he argues, are “just and responsible” – but he has a long battle ahead. Public disapproval of the changes is high and another day of action in January is already on the cards. Meanwhile, across the Channel (which was blocked up by the French strikes) industrial action continues to mount across the UK. Days to watch: 1 February, when teachers, train drivers, university staff and civil servants are all on strike, and 6 February, when nurses in England and ambulance staff in England and Wales take a coordinated day of strike action.


Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Bad credit
Gucci says it is now “entirely carbon neutral”. Disney has spent millions conserving Peruvian rainforest. Both companies are among businesses that have bought carbon offsets approved by Verra, one of the world’s leading carbon credit verification bodies. That’s why it’s troubling – but not entirely unexpected – to see an investigation claim more than 90 per cent of Verra’s rainforest offset credits do not represent genuine carbon reductions. Offsets are supposed to represent a climate benefit that would not have happened otherwise, but Guardian, Die Zeit and SourceMaterial reporting finds the threat to forests was overstated “by 400 per cent on average”. Verra disputes the claims. The offset market needs tighter rules – and someone to enforce them.


CULTURE soCIETY, IDENTITY AND BELONGING

A gift for EU
Roberta Metsola, the European parliament’s president, has declared 142 gifts that she has received since taking office last year – but 125 of them were declared late under the parliament’s code of conduct. Metsola has promised more accountability and transparency as the institution faces a widespread corruption investigation, declaring the gifts – including dried sausage, champagne, a scarf, chocolates and a blue statuette of a sheep – on a register that is rarely updated by MEPs. Her team told Politico the deadline on when gifts should be declared did not apply to Metsola by “custom”. Michiel van Hulten, director of Transparency International EU and a former MEP, said it showed the system was “broken”.

Something for the weekend… watch Boston Dynamics’ Atlas robot “pushing the limits of locomotion, sensing, and athleticism.”


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

Nina Kuryata
@NinaKuryata

Additional reporting by Jessica Winch, Phoebe Davis, Sebastian Hervas-Jones and Jeevan Vasagar.

Photographs Getty Images, AP/Shutterstock

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