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Sensemaker: START stop

Sensemaker: START stop

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Genaro Garcia Luna, a former Mexican security minister, was convicted in New York of drug trafficking.
  • Asda, the British supermarket chain, started rationing vegetables and fruit.
  • Shamima Begum lost her appeal against removal of her UK citizenship.            

START stop

Putin used a set-piece speech in front of wounded veterans and Moscow’s political elite to suspend Russia’s participation in the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty and warn he will resume nuclear testing if the US does.

So what? The world is not about to end. If the stakes weren’t so high, a shrug might be a reasonable response:

  • Inspection visits to both sides’ nuclear sites were suspended in 2020 because of Covid and haven’t been resumed.
  • Russia’s foreign ministry says Putin will in fact stay within the warhead limits set out by the treaty, and in any case each side can check on the other’s nuclear sites with satellites.
  • The US has no plans to resume nuclear testing.

But shrugs are not an option for the small team at the White House that has to take everything Putin says about nuclear weapons extremely seriously because he has so many of them; because his conventional ones aren’t working well; and because his strategic thinking is increasingly irrational.

Putin’s announcement spells the end, for now, of…

eyes on the ground – New START provided for 18 on-the-ground inspections by each side of the other’s nuclear sites each year;

a useful comms channel – a consultative commission set up by the treaty was one of few functioning forums for US-Russian dialogue during the 2014 Crimea crisis, and now it’s moribund;

mutual reassurance – the unilateral suspension of New START coincides with the resumption of uranium enrichment in Iran, a Chinese drive to expand its nuclear arsenal to US-Russian levels and North Korean threats to resume testing. Jens Stoltengerg, the Nato secretary general, said after the speech: “The whole arms control architecture has been dismantled”. Francois Heisbourg of the International Institute for Strategic Studies tweeted that “US-Russian arms control is officially dead after more than half a century”.

The treaty was signed in 2010 when Biden was US vice president and Barack Obama had won a Nobel Peace Prize for his vision, expressed the year before, of a world without nuclear weapons. It limits the US and Russia to 1,550 deployed warheads each and was extended in 2021 to 2026. 

The thinking behind Putin’s announcement seems to have been to 

  • remind the US once again of the size of his nuclear arsenal to deter conventional support for Ukraine;
  • drive a wedge between unconditional supporters of aid to Ukraine and those in Congress having second thoughts;
  • use disinformation to speed up that process, for instance by falsely claiming Ukraine has been seeking to reacquire nuclear weapons.

The audience for the speech was domestic as well as foreign. A year into his war, Putin has little to show the Russian people for roughly 200,000 soldiers killed and injured. A decisive-sounding rattle of his nuclear sabre provided a climax of sorts to an otherwise rambling and delusional address. But he was also “aiming to unsettle the US domestic political situation,” says Laura Kennedy, former US representative to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. “Important that we not take the bait.”

For now the US is standing firm. The EU, not so much. Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, Putin’s most egregious European ally, wants to veto the latest EU sanctions package unless four named individuals including three Russian diplomats are removed from it.

Yesterday’s speech didn’t move the Doomsday Clock run by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, but it still stands at 90 seconds to midnight, the closest to global catastrophe it has ever been.


McKinsey cuts
The consultants’ consultancy has looked in the mirror and decided to slim down. Bloomberg says McKinsey plans to cut its global headcount of 45,000 by about 2,000 – its biggest cull in decades after more than doubling in size since 2012. The obvious irony is that a lot of McKinsey’s business comes from advising other firms how to do more with fewer people, and its own shrinkage seems to point as much to a focus on productivity as to global economic headwinds, which aren’t as stiff as feared last year. “We are redesigning the way our non-client-serving teams operate… so that [they] can effectively support and scale with our firm.” Is McKinsey hiring ChatGPT?


TikTok access
TikTok is so anxious to persuade American authorities it’s not a Trojan horse for Chinese spies that it’s giving US-based universities broad access to its data in an expansion of a trial announced last year. This is not an act of unsolicited transparency. It’s a continuing damage control operation following an investigation by three US journalists employed by Buzzfeed and then Forbes, who concluded that TikTok had hired 300 propaganda specialists from state-run Chinese media companies and that its day-to-day operations were controlled by Beijing. Researchers at non-profit US universities will now be able to study anonymised TikTok data to decide for themselves. 

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

Since December, the Royal College of Nursing’s general secretary, Pat Cullen, has been asking to sit down with Steve Barclay, the UK’s health secretary, to discuss pay. Today, for the first time, “intensive talks” will be held between Barclay’s people and the RCN with a view to suspending a 48-hour strike planned for next week. What changed? 1) More cash: as we noted yesterday, high tax receipts and falling energy prices mean the Treasury has had to borrow £30 billion less than expected as of last November. 2) More affordable: public sector pay review bodies said yesterday the government could only afford 3.5 per cent pay rises for 2023-24, but the FT has seen a Treasury memo suggesting a 5 per cent pay award would be “low risk” in terms of baking in private sector pay growth. It’s not over yet. Barclay’s decision to speak only to the RCN and not unions representing other NHS workers has riled them no end. More than 35,000 junior doctors are set to walk out next month. 

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

€100 carbon 
European carbon credits traded at over €100 a tonne for the first time yesterday, raising hopes that the big, round number would incentivise polluters to pollute less and carbon capturers to capture more. For years, climate economists have said carbon capture, usage and storage (CCUS) and green hydrogen production won’t be commercial until carbon is consistently priced at around $100 a tonne. Yesterday’s new peak price of €100.70 per tonne for so-called European Allowance contracts (EUAs) on the EU’s Emissions Trading System doesn’t count as consistent but could prove an important psychological threshold now that it’s been breached. Big polluters like steel makers are given allowances of EUAs and incentivised to pollute less because they can sell those they don’t use. At first the EU gave out far too many. The market has since found a useful equilibrium. If only it were global.


Over candid(ate)
Kate Forbes’s campaign to succeed Nicola Sturgeon as leader of the SNP is flailing after backers withdrew support over her opposition to same-sex marriage. Scotland’s youngest finance secretary was favourite in the race, but a series of frank interviews (in which she also said that according to her Free Church of Scotland faith it’s “wrong” to have children outside marriage and that “trans women are biological men”) have “f***ed it”, according to a senior campaign manager. More than a third of MSPs who backed Forbes have un-endorsed her. Health secretary Humza Yousaf is now favourite at 8/15 to replace Sturgeon after her surprise resignation, while Forbes trails at 15/8. Ash Regan MSP, who is also an opponent of gender reform, is expected to sweep up more endorsements from the resurgent right of the party. Voting will begin on 13 March and a new leader will be decided on 27 March.

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Giles Whittell

Additional reporting by Barney Macintyre and Phoebe Davis.

Photographs Getty Images

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