Hello. It looks like you�re using an ad blocker that may prevent our website from working properly. To receive the best Tortoise experience possible, please make sure any blockers are switched off and refresh the page.

If you have any questions or need help, let us know at memberhelp@tortoisemedia.com

Sensemaker: From Russia with warships

Sensemaker: From Russia with warships

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Putin said in his annual state of the nation address it would be “impossible to conquer Russia on the battlefield” as Biden prepared to speak in Poland (more below).
  • At least three people were killed and 213 injured as two more earthquakes hit southern Turkey.
  • Cambodia recovered a hoard of looted jewellery once worn by Angkor royalty from the family of Douglas Latchford, a late British antiquities dealer. 

From Russia with warships

Last week a brand new 4,550-ton Russian frigate steamed into the port of Cape Town with the Z and V markings familiar from Russian tanks in Ukraine emblazoned on its funnel, and hypersonic missiles in its arsenal. 

So what? A year after invading Ukraine, Russia is not just regrouping for a spring offensive. It’s taking part in naval wargames hosted by South Africa that have caused protests at home and anger among the country’s western allies. They’re part of a broader Russian effort to persuade the world it isn’t isolated despite sanctions and won’t stop grandstanding despite the war. 

It’s an effort Putin pursued today in a national address that falsely insisted his invasion of Ukraine was forced on him by the West. It was delivered hours before Biden was due to make a speech of his own in Warsaw – two diametrically opposed views of an expanding conflict.

The naval exercises are being held jointly with China as well as Russia. Pretoria has welcomed both with open arms. 

Exercise Mosi II guest list:

  • From Russia: one frigate (Admiral Gorshkov) and one support tanker.
  • From China: one destroyer, one frigate and one support vessel.
  • Home team: one frigate.

South Africa, like many African countries, has said it will not take sides over the Ukraine invasion. It has abstained from a UN vote of condemnation and refused to join the US and Europe in imposing sanctions on Russia. These war games go further, offering Russia a propaganda coup by showing it still has friends. The exercises are scheduled to coincide with the first anniversary of the invasion.

What’s in it for South Africa?

  • Piracy and fisheries. South Africa’s defence forces are underfunded and over-stretched. They need help from other navies for their main goals of protecting fisheries and fighting piracy in the Indian Ocean. The defence ministry points out it has held similar manoeuvres with the United States and France. Previous drills have seen warships practise freeing ships from pirates and help respond to natural disasters like coastal fires and flooding.
  • Old friends. There are also still close ties between Moscow and some of the old guard in the ruling African National Congress. Moscow supported the ANC struggle against the apartheid regime and the Kremlin still tries to portray itself as an anti-colonial ally to African nations.
  • Brics. South Africa is also a proud, if junior, member of the Brics group of emerging economies that also includes Russia and China and hopes to become a counterweight to western influence.
  • Tug of war. Some African nations seem to be calculating they can benefit from a tug-of-war between Russia and the West, playing the two sides off against each other.

Risky business. If that is South Africa’s reasoning for going ahead with the exercises, analysts say, it’s risky. South Africa could be seen to endorse the invasion. “Cape Town will not be complicit in Russia’s evil war,” its opposition mayor protested when the Admiral Gorshkov docked. Another opposition leader said the ANC leadership was letting itself be used as the Kremlin’s useful idiots.

Moreover, for all the gratitude and nostalgia some in the ANC may feel for Moscow, South Africa’s economy leans heavily to the West. Trade between South Africa and the EU amounted to around $53 billion last year, but only a little over $750 million with Russia.

End with a bang? The exercises are now underway off the coast of KwaZulu-Natal province. Will Russia use them to test-fire a new hypersonic Zircon cruise missile? Putin has called it unstoppable, which would make it quite unlike his initial attempt to take Kyiv. At least he is having to travel further and further afield to show off. 


Min headroom
From the department of credit where it’s due: in his four months in charge of Britain’s money, Jeremy Hunt hasn’t just brought an urgently-needed sense of calm to the Treasury. He’s ridden a wavelet of good luck. Energy prices have fallen more steeply than expected. Tax receipts held up well in January, albeit thanks largely to the self-assessment deadline at the end of the month. As a result, the UK’s public sector posted a modest £5.4 billion surplus last month when economists had expected a nearly £8 billion shortfall. More strikingly, borrowing for the financial year to January was £30 billion less than forecast in November. Overall debt is at nearly 100 per cent of GDP, its highest level since the 60s. Still, expect a lot of talk of headroom and grown-ups between now and budget day, which is 15 March.


How to fix the internet
Two cases come before the US Supreme Court this week that could reshape the internet, by challenging Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act. Section 230 gives web platforms the ability to host or remove users’ content without being legally responsible for what’s posted. The law is disliked by Republicans and Democrats alike – those on the left say it allows platforms to amplify hate speech while critics on the right say it suppresses conservative viewpoints – but Congress hasn’t found a fix. The first case, Gonzalez v Google, is brought by relatives of a woman killed in an Islamic State attack in Paris in 2015, who say Google’s YouTube video platform should be held responsible for recommending IS terrorism videos. The second case targets Twitter and Facebook with similar allegations. It is unclear how the judges will rule. What’s at stake? The rules for free expression on the internet.

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

The four-day work week
The world’s largest-ever trial of a four-day work week has been hailed as a “breakthrough”, with the majority of companies involved deciding not to return to a five-day pattern. Around 2,900 employees and 61 companies ranging from banks to fast-food restaurants in Britain took part in a six-month pilot, giving staff a paid day off a week. Employees reported less stress, improved sleep and better physical health, while the companies reported a fall in the number of staff sick days and said fewer employees quit. Importantly, productivity remained flat or improved. The key to getting more done in less time? Cutting back on meetings.

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Night train to Kyiv
The $500 million in extra military aid promised by Biden to Ukraine yesterday in Kyiv was small change compared with the $100 billion the US has already provided. And there is still no promise of fast jets or long-range missiles. But there’s no measuring the emotional and political impact of Biden’s surprise visit either. Here was a sitting US president trundling east through the night into a war zone not controlled by US forces; the leader of the free world strolling through central Kyiv at Zelensky’s invitation a year after Putin had tried and failed to get there by force. He said Putin was “dead wrong” to think Russia could outlast western backing for Ukraine, but how he got there was as important as what he said. Biden was spirited out of DC after a night out with his wife at the Red Hen on Seaton Place (the NYT recommends the rigatoni), and into Ukraine by the same train taken by returning refugees. Russia was notified a few hours in advance for “deconfliction” purposes. Even so, it was “historic, timely, brave,” Zelensky said. Now for those fast jets. 


Church split
Since 1867, the Archbishop of Canterbury has been spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion – a global group of 42 churches that recognise the Church of England as their “Mother Church”. But the world has changed. For the first time, the Archbishop has been formally rejected by a number of these churches in response to the General Synod endorsing blessings of same-sex couples earlier this month. In a statement released by the traditionalist Global South Fellowship of Anglicans (GFSA), 12 archbishops said they could no longer recognise Justin Welby as their “first among equals leader”. More conservative Church leaders will likely follow. This does not mean an imminent collapse of the Anglican Communion – but it is a difficult tightrope to walk for Welby, who also has a coronation in his in-tray. 

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

Ben Farmer

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

Photographs Getty Images, HM Treasury

Choose which Tortoise newsletters you receive