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Sensemaker: Munich again

Sensemaker: Munich again

What just happened

Long stories short

  • President Biden made a surprise visit to Kyiv to mark the anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (more below).
  • Police began the formal identification of a body found in the River Wyre near where Nicola Bulley disappeared three weeks ago.
  • A German-language version of All Quiet on the Western Front won seven Baftas. 

Munich, again

This time last year Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky stood in a suit in front of world leaders at the Munich Security Conference criticising the West’s appeasement of Moscow. Many attendees refused to believe Putin would invade even though 150,000 troops were massed at Ukraine’s border. Four days later, it happened. This weekend, ministers and securocrats returned to the Bayerischer Hof hotel to contemplate the catastrophe they failed to prevent. 

So what? The message from Munich is that the US and its European allies will stand united behind Ukraine for as long as it takes. Today’s visit to Kyiv by President Biden – kept secret until his motorcade was seen in the capital – will reinforce that message of unity. But “as long as it takes” could be a long time and it’s a pledge that will be sorely tested:

  • The West’s argument that the war in Ukraine is the world’s problem isn’t finding much traction in Africa or Latin America.
  • Germany’s Olaf Scholz said tanks are taking too long to get to Ukraine.
  • Competing threats from China and Iran loom large. 

Got your back. The Americans came out in force. With around 50 members of Congress from both parties in attendance, it was the largest US delegation in the 60-year history of the MSC.

  • Vice President Kamala Harris vowed that America’s support for Ukraine would “not waver” and accused Russia of committing crimes against humanity.
  • Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority Leader, said reports about the death of Republican support for strong American leadership in the world “have been greatly exaggerated”.
  • Republican senator Lindsey Graham called for training to start for Ukrainian pilots on F-16 fighter jets. 

But… it may not have convinced the Europeans, says Ulrike Franke, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. There is a US presidential election next year and a small but vocal number of House Republicans are opposed to Ukraine aid. 

Speed up. Now dressed in his familiar battle fatigues, Zelensky addressed the conference by video, demanding faster decisions on weapons to defeat the “Russian Goliath”. F-16’s are top of the list but delivery of ammunition is “critical”, said Dmytro Kuleba, the Ukrainian foreign minister. EU ministers are expected to debate in Brussels today a proposal for member countries to team up to buy 155-millimetre artillery shells. 

The West and the rest. The US and Europe looked over their shoulders a few months into the war and realised many countries below the Equator did not stand with them. Harris, Scholz and France’s President Macron made the case on stage that Putin’s invasion is a threat to all. Off stage, others see inflation, high energy prices and climate change as bigger threats and are tired of being told that Europe’s problems are universal. Munich signposted likely divisions at this year’s UN climate talks, which will be held in the UAE at the end of November. 

A new ranking system launched at the conference by a group co-chaired by David Miliband, the former UK foreign secretary, adds to the debate around the presumed superiority of the West. The Atlas of Impunity, prepared by the Eurasia Group and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, ranks 197 countries across five areas of impunity and finds the US comes off worse than Hungary and Singapore – neither one a poster child for democratic governance. 

“We think that the lens of impunity and the battle for accountability provides a lot of insight into why things are going wrong,” Miliband says, “because essentially there is a chronic and growing imbalance of power that is leading to impunity.” 

On the sidelines: 

  • China’s top foreign policy official, Wang Yi, mocked America’s reaction to the spy balloon affair as “absurd and hysterical”.
  • US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CBS after a meeting with Wang that China was considering supplying weapons to Russia, and warned such support would have “serious consequences”. 
  • Iran, like Russia, was banned from the conference – organisers invited opposition activists instead. But away from the main hall, mapping a strategy to contain its nuclear programme was high on the agenda. Bloomberg says Iran has enriched uranium to 84 per cent purity, just below the threshold for a nuclear weapon. 

As if the world needed another test of the limits of impunity. 


Not made in America
Joe Biden wants to rebuild the Democrats’ blue-collar base by spending American tax dollars on American machinery and raw materials to give America’s infrastructure a much-needed overhaul. There’s a catch though: a lot of what’s needed isn’t made in America any more. So, for example, an association of US port authorities had to ask for federal funds this month to buy foreign-made cranes, trucks and boat lifts – and was turned down. Glass beads for reflective highway lines are hard to source in America. Ditto everything to do with high-speed rail – all made in Europe and Japan. The rubber of globalisation is hitting the road of inshoring and the result is bureaucracy, delays, ad hoc waivers and a cost-per-job created by the Buy America programme of $250,000 per year, according to the Peterson Institute for International Economics. Team Biden hopes memories of toilet paper shortages during Covid will prove an effective counter-argument in favour of a new American self-sufficiency. We’ll see.


Drilling for Moho
An old oil drilling ship is preparing to head for the mid-Atlantic to search for clues to the origins of life, and for a mysterious boundary deep under the Earth’s crust called the Moho discontinuity. The Joides Resolution will position itself over the Atlantis Massif, a 14,000 feet undersea mountain southwest of the Azores, and drill an extra 2,000 feet into an existing hole drilled 18 years ago in search of Olivine, a mineral thought to be vital for the process of serpentinisation by which sea water and rocks spawn complex molecules and, eventually, life. The best alternative explanation for life on Earth is that it came from outer space, and there’s not much evidence of that yet. The drillers will also try to get closer to a semi-mythic layer posited in 1909 by a Croatian seismologist called Andria Mohorovicic that seems to alter the speed at which seismic waves travel. Great scrollytelling from the WSJ

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

Climate anxiety
The physical effects of climate change on health are well documented. Persistent high temperatures can cause dehydration and death; increased flooding means water-borne diseases spread faster. Less documented is its impact on people’s mental health. The World Bank and Georgetown University looked at this area by assessing a representative sample in Bangladesh – a country particularly vulnerable to climate change. Their findings: a 1C increase in temperature during the two months before a survey was conducted meant an increased chance of anxiety. Natural disasters like flooding meant people were 31 per cent more likely to suffer depression, 60 per cent more likely to have anxiety had an 87 per cent higher likelihood of having both conditions. To note: the average temperature in Bangladesh is expected to rise by 1.4C by 2050 and the country currently has a “critically low” resource for mental health care. 

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Not enough snow
Two hundred top skiers have taken the opportunity of the World Ski Championships in France to sign a letter to the body that stages them demanding “progressive organisational action” to save the sport and its image. What they really want is more snow, but climate change is delivering less and less of it and the letter by Julian Schütter, an Austrian downhiller, sagely notes that “public opinion about skiing is shifting towards unjustifiability”. It’s true that the traffic, bulldozing and lift infrastructure associated with alpine skiing has a huge carbon footprint, so expect a pr push from the Fédération Internationale de Ski et de Snowboard on that front. But the racers also want the season pushed back a month so it runs from November to April instead of October to March. Early-season races in Colorado could be for the chop.


Unionist cake
The UK government hoped to announce a revised Northern Ireland Protocol by tomorrow. Then Boris Johnson saw another chance to elbow his way back into British politics ahead of local elections that are expected to be disastrous for the Conservatives, and said he thought a revised protocol along lines leaked weeks ago would be a “great mistake”. Team Johnson muttered over the weekend that he doesn’t think Rishi Sunak is making enough use of a provision in the NIP bill he – Johnson – negotiated that lets London override EU law as it relates to the protocol if it doesn’t seem to be serving UK interests. This is as odd as it sounds. What Johnson proposed was a treaty he could ignore if he had second thoughts after signing. It’s to Sunak’s credit that he has not used this power, but trying to renegotiate a deal struck in bad faith was never going to be easy.

The week ahead


20/2 – Drax power station, Border Force staff and ambulance workers on strike; British Medical Association to announce junior doctor strike ballot results; ONS analysis on cost of living, 21/2 – Shrove Tuesday; university staff strike; Keir Starmer speaks at National Farmers Union conference, 22/2 – High Court hearing on Met Police “partygate” investigation, 23/2 – Nicola Sturgeon holds first minister’s questions; Northern Ireland healthcare workers on strike; Northern Transport Summit held in Liverpool, 24/2 – SNP new leader nomination deadline, 26/2 – Carabao Cup Final between Manchester United and Newcastle United. 


20/2 – International Renewable Energy conference beings in Madrid; President Biden visits Poland for three days; US celebrates Presidents’ Day; 21/2 – Putin to address lawmakers in Moscow; EU General Affairs Council meeting in Brussels; Mardi Gras celebrations held in New Orleans; Scotus hearing on social media company immunity under Section 230, 22/2 – Public holiday in Japan for the Emperor’s birthday; G20 finance ministers hold summit in Bengaluru; South African government presents budget, 23/2 – Alibaba group results; sentencing of R Kelly over child pornography and exploitation, 24/2 – First anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; G20 finance ministers and central bank governors meet in Chandigarh, 25/2 – Nigeria hold elections for the presidency, Senate and House of Representatives, 26/2 – First Sunday of Lent; Screen Actors Guild Awards.

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

Jess Winch

Additional reporting by Jeevan Vasagar, Phoebe Davis and Giles Whittell.

Photographs Getty Images

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