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By ALEX WICKHAM
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Good Wednesday morning.
DRIVING THE DAY
OIL DEAL IN THE DESERT: Boris Johnson arrived in Abu Dhabi in the early hours of this morning, beginning a controversial trip where the prime minister will lobby the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia to increase oil production and attempt to secure major investment in green energy. Johnson is in the UAE right now, where he will meet Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed. He’s then traveling to Saudi Arabia later today for the key summit with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Investment Minister Gerry Grimstone is accompanying the PM on the visit.
On the agenda: An overnight trail from Downing Street said “the leaders are expected to discuss efforts to improve energy security and reduce volatility in energy and food prices, which is affecting businesses and consumers in the U.K. as well as regional stability in the Middle East.” No. 10 has been keen to stress Johnson isn’t jettisoning all his COP26 commitments and argued there is a dual oil/renewables purpose to the visit: “In addition to potential further measures to increase oil production, the prime minister is focused on diversifying the U.K.’s energy supply and working with international partners to ramp up renewables.”
The reality … however is that getting the likes of Saudi Arabia and the UAE to increase oil production in order to bring down prices is the main reason for the trip. As a government source told Monday’s Playbook: “If the leading oil producers of the world, in all their wisdom and good altruistic nature, were to decide to increase production, oil prices would come down and that would do more than anything [Chancellor] Rishi [Sunak] can do to help with the cost of living crisis.”
The danger: Getting a deal on oil production is not a dead cert, Playbook is told, and the U.K. government has found talks with allies on oil and gas production in the last few days have not been plain sailing as producers strike a hard bargain.
There will be some green deals announced as well: Saudi’s Alfanar group will confirm a new £1 billion investment in the Lighthouse Green Fuels Project in Teeside. “The prime minister is expected to visit SABIC’s innovation centre in Riyadh and meet representatives from the Alfanar group,” No. 10 says.
Don’t mention the bone saw: Realpolitik aside, it is obviously not ideal for the British government to be prostrating themselves in front of a despot who Western intelligence believes was personally responsible for ordering the murder and dismemberment of a journalist, not to mention the 81 executions this weekend or the Saudis’ brutal bombing campaign in Yemen. Labour leader Keir Starmer — who it’s fair to say has held back on criticism of the government in the past few weeks — makes his strongest intervention yet this morning to the FT’s George Parker: “Going cap in hand from dictator to dictator is not an energy strategy. Saying we are not going to rely on Russia and then going to Saudi Arabia is not an energy strategy.”
So would Starmer not ask MBS for cheaper oil? He doesn’t quite say that. Shadow Business Secretary Ed Miliband almost does: “It is a sign of our vulnerability and energy insecurity as a country that the prime minister is going to Saudi Arabia to seek an increase in oil production, despite the appalling human rights record of the regime.”
Truss talks: Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has given an interview to the Sun’s Natasha Clark — here are your top lines: The West didn’t do enough during the Cold War to repel Russia, it must do all it can to stop Russian President Vladimir Putin now … Truss U-turns on her previous position backing Brits to go to Ukraine to fight … Warns NATO countries are next … Praises Germany for increasing defense spending in a hint she thinks the U.K. should follow suit … Says that negotiating with Putin won’t work and that we have to be tough with him and play hardball … Concedes there is a cost to consumers of acting in Ukraine, but says it’s worth it to stop Putin before it’s too late.
To frack or not to frack: The Cabinet is divided — one again — this time on fracking. Leveling Up Secretary Michael Gove told a Conservative Environment Network reception last night that he is “not convinced” fracking is the way forward.
Budget prep: Stronger U.K. finances are piling pressure on Chancellor Rishi Sunak to do more to help Brits struggling with the cost of living crisis at next week’s mini-budget, the FT reports.
What would Tony do? Former PM Tony Blair has made his belated rare intervention on Ukraine with an essay predicting that “in the end, this aggression may well herald the downfall of Putin.” Blair writes that “the question to which no one knows the answer is: to what extent does Putin retain some ability to conduct policy rationally?” and lays out further measures he believes the West should take in the event of further escalation, including more sanctions, “complete ostracisation from the international financial community,” changes to energy policy, warnings to Belarus and the supply of more weapons to Ukraine.
Blair vs. Biden: Blair also implicitly criticizes Western leaders such as U.S. President Joe Biden for making clear NATO would not stand in Putin’s way militarily: “I understand and accept that there is not political support for any direct military engagement by NATO of Russia. But we should be clear-eyed about what Putin is doing. He is using our correct desire not to provoke escalation alongside his willingness to escalate as a bargaining chip against us. When he is threatening NATO, even stoking fears of nuclear conflict, in pursuit of his attempt to topple by force a peaceful nation’s democratically elected president and wage war on its people, there is something incongruous about our repeated reassurance to him that we will not react with force … Maybe that is our position and maybe that is the right position, but continually signalling it, and removing doubt in his mind, is a strange tactic.”
SHAMING OF LONDON LAW FIRMS: Leading Britain journalists have revealed how London law firms intimidated journalists on behalf of mega-rich Russians, including harassing them with letters suggesting they were guilty of serious wrongdoing. Tom Burgis, the author of Kleptopia who was pursued unsuccessfully through the courts, named law firms Taylor Wessing, Schillings, Carter Ruck and Mishcon de Reya as having sent the letters. Burgis also said a source of his was sent a letter from the Quin Emmanuel firm on behalf of ENRC — the Kazakh mining company that was suing Burgis — after a meeting in an underground car park. The letter stated: “You attended a meeting with notebooks and folders, one of which appeared to be an orange/red notebook,” suggesting the source had been put under surveillance.
Aggressive tactics: Journalist Catherine Belton said Harbottle & Lewis, which represented Roman Abramovich, and Schillings used “very aggressive tactics” in defense of oligarchs. Belton also criticized CMS’s Geraldine Proudler for representing the now sanctioned Mikhail Fridman and Petr Aven — Proudler was on the board of the Guardian Trust “yet still saw fit to go after journalists like me for public interest reporting.” The Times’ Steve Swinford has the full details in a remarkable thread exposing the British law firms working for Russian interests. You can watch the key select committee exchange here.
Sanctions list: The U.K. sanctioned a further 370 Russians on Tuesday, including 51 oligarchs and their family members, as well as those in government, thanks to the passage of the Economic Crime Bill which allowed ministers to speed up the process and mirror EU measures. POLITICO’s Cristina Gallardo has the details. Britain has also cut Russia and Belarus out of preferential tariffs and has published a list of goods worth more than £900 million — including vodka — which will face an additional 35 percent tariff. It is also cutting off all export support for firms hoping to do business in Russia. Emilio Casalicchio has that one.
Oh no, how will they cope? Moscow retaliated (sort of) against the U.S. yesterday by sanctioning Joe Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, Press Secretary Jen Psaki, CIA Director William Burns, as well former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Biden’s son Hunter Biden. Axios has the details. Clinton tweeted in response: “I want to thank the Russian Academy for this Lifetime Achievement Award.”
ISC criticism: Parliament’s intelligence and security committee — authors of the famous Russia Report — has had a pop at Johnson for not doing more to deal with the problem Russian money in Britain. It said last night: “As the Intelligence and Security Committee made very clear in its ‘Russia’ report, the U.K. has been welcoming Russian money for many years with few questions — if any — being asked about the provenance of this considerable wealth. When we sent our report, together with a detailed classified annex, to the Prime Minister over two years ago, we highlighted then that there was an urgent need for the U.K. Government to disrupt this illicit financial activity, and questioned the efficacy of the measures which were in place. It is hoped now that this new legislation is at least the first step toward giving the authorities — and in particular the National Crime Agency which leads this effort the necessary clout and greater powers to ensure the U.K. is no longer a safe haven for the oligarchy and their enablers.”
HMG vs. CFC: The government is also embroiled in a row with Chelsea football club, which is having a bit of a comms nightmare as it fails to manage the fallout of its owner Abramovich being sanctioned. Chelsea yesterday demanded that an upcoming FA Cup fixture against Middlesbrough be played behind closed doors as it was somehow not fair on them not to be able to sell tickets. Pretty much the entire footballing world and beyond then spent the day pointing out Chelsea’s amateurish comms department that Middlesbrough’s owner wasn’t mates with Putin.
A senior government source weighed in with a punchy line: “We are working around the clock to enable Chelsea to continue operating as a club in the interests of the fans. This statement threatening Middlesbrough and the rest of the football league shows they do not seem to understand the seriousness of the situation they are in, being owned by an entity that has been sanctioned because of links to a person responsible for appalling acts in Ukraine. We are not opposed to Chelsea having fans at games in the long run, but we will not allow money from ticket sales to flow to a sanctioned entity. Chelsea should spend less time worrying about having a few thousand fans at one game, and focus on moving their club into the hands of someone who isn’t linked to a warmonger.” Chelsea later withdrew the behind closed doors request.
Well at least he’s not Saudi: The Sun reports that Woody Johnson, former U.S. ambassador to the U.K. and a “megabucks pal of ex-President Donald Trump,” is set to bid £2 billion for Chelsea.
Weaning off latest: European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič is in Washington this week, meeting with Energy Department and State Department officials — developing strategies to wean Europe and the U.S. off Russian and Chinese supplies when it comes to everything from oil and gas to critical minerals. Šefčovič told POLITICO’s Ryan Heath about EU plans for common gas purchases, but admitted it will take months rather than weeks for the EU to significantly reduce its reliance on Russian oil and gas (running at $700 million per day, according to the Ukrainian government). “There’s definitely no easy solution,” Šefčovič said. “We are already starting to buy the gas to make sure that our gas storage is filled 90 percent before the next winter starts,” he said. While “Europeans are ready to take on the big part of the [financial] pain,” Šefčovič says even the best-case scenario only sees the EU reducing Russian gas purchases by two-thirds by the end of the year. He admitted the EU was only able to keep the heating on this winter via “a lot of swap operations taking place during December and January” with the U.S., Japan and South Korea — even with Russian gas freely available.
Despite Brexit: Ryan also asked Šefčovič about what impact the Ukraine crisis was having on U.K.-EU relations. He replied: “I think what is very important to say that also this crisis, clearly demonstrated that how much we have in common with the U.K., that that we are staunch allies, we are eternal neighbors. And that when it comes to the difficult matters we are excellent, excellent partners. It was very symbolic that my counterpart, the foreign secretary, attended the session of foreign ministers of the EU. We’re actually even coordinating our next steps. This is exactly what we wanted from the beginning — that despite Brexit we are first and foremost neighbors, partners, allies, and we should really put it in the in the proper perspective.”
Good luck with that: The Tories should make a manifesto commitment to tear up the Northern Ireland protocol unless the EU agrees to renegotiate it, former Brexit Minister David Frost says, according to the Telegraph’s James Crisp.
Now read this: My Brussels Playbook colleague Suzanne Lynch has spoken with Brendan Boyle, the head of the EU Caucus on Capitol Hill. Boyle does not envisage much progress on the protocol talks before Northern Ireland’s election on May 5, he told Suzanne. “The reality is, I would be very surprised if we see any progress between now and the election,” he told Playbook. “A couple of the parties like the DUP do seem to see political advantage in being as stridently opposed to the protocol and any sort of compromise as possible. After the election, depending on what the results will be, I am optimistic that we can finally see progress.”
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NO NATO: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s statement on Tuesday conceding that his country will not join NATO makes plenty of running this morning. Zelenskyy said yesterday: “Of course, Ukraine is not a member of NATO. For years we have been hearing about the alleged open door, but we have also heard now that we cannot enter. This is true, and it must be acknowledged.” Later, Zelenskyy posted another video, in which he said the positions in the peace talks between Ukrainian and Russian negotiators “sound more realistic,” but added there was still work to be done to ensure any deal is ultimately “in Ukraine’s interests.”
Could this the off-ramp? For any optimism around the peace talks, there is little actual evidence a deal is close. Putin held a call with European Council President Charles Michel yesterday. Afterward, the Kremlin released a statement warning: “Kyiv is not demonstrating a serious commitment to searching for mutually acceptable solutions.”
Historic visit: Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala and Slovenia’s Prime Minister Janez Janša traveled to Kyiv last night, in a remarkable visit that put NATO leaders in the line of fire of Russian forces. Here’s a clip of their meeting with Zelenskyy.
Latest Zelenskyy: In his last video posted Tuesday night, Zelenskyy issued an open invitation for other leaders to come to the Ukrainian capital. “I invite all friends of Ukraine to visit Kyiv,” Zelenskyy said. “It can be dangerous here, it is true. Because our sky is not yet closed to Russian missiles and aircraft. The decision to strengthen our arsenal in the air has not yet been made. We have not received aircraft,” the president added, referring to the back-and-forth between Ukraine and the U.S., EU and Poland over supplying fighter jets to Kyiv.
‘Just quit’: Zelenskyy also called on Russian officials and propagandists to quit their jobs en masse in his video. “I want to tell it straight, to all the functionaries of the Russian Federation, all those who are related to those who are now in power,” Zelenskyy said in Russian. “If you remain in your posts, if you don’t come out against the war, the international community will strip you of everything. Everything you have earned over these last long years. They’re already working on it.” Playbook’s own Zoya Sheftalovich has the highlights from the address here and here.
Pressure on Biden: Zelenskyy will today give an address to the U.S. Congress by video link asking Washington to do more to help. My POLITICO colleagues report on how this may turn up the pressure uncomfortably high on Joe Biden.
Next week: Biden will travel to Brussels on March 24 for an extraordinary NATO summit and European Council meeting. POLITICO has the story. No word yet from No. 10 on whether Johnson will also attend.
Huge Russian losses: In its overnight update, the U.K.’s ministry of defense said the Russian military campaign was stalling as a result of the huge losses it had suffered. “Russia is increasingly seeking to generate additional troops to bolster and replace its personnel losses in Ukraine. As a result of these losses it is likely Russia is struggling to conduct offensive operations in the face of sustained Ukrainian resistance. Continued personnel losses will also make it difficult for Russia to secure occupied territory,” the MoD said. “Russia is redeploying forces from as far afield as its Eastern Military District, Pacific Fleet and Armenia. It is also increasingly seeking to exploit irregular sources such as Private Military Companies, Syrian and other mercenaries.”
Russia could default on its debts today: The BBC reports: “It is due to make $117m in interest payments to investors on two dollar-denominated bonds on Wednesday. But Russia’s access to $630bn (£470bn) of foreign currency reserves has now been frozen.”
Marina latest: The Russian state television employee who protested against the war in Ukraine on primetime TV was fined 30,000 rubles (around €250) on Tuesday — and may still face jail. Marina Ovsyannikova, an editor at the Kremlin-backed Channel One, briefly jumped behind a newsreader on Monday brandishing a sign that read: “No war. Stop war, don’t believe in propaganda, they’re lying to you here. Russians against war.” POLITICO has the story.
Two more journalists died in Ukraine on Tuesday: Fox News cameraman Pierre Zakrevskiy and Ukrainian journalist Oleksandra Kurshinova. Ukrainian journalist Tanya Kozyreva has a list of all the journalists killed and injured so far.
TODAY IN WESTMINSTER
HOUSE OF COMMONS: Kicks off at 11.30 a.m. with Scotland questions … before DPMQs at midday … then any urgent questions and ministerial statements … before Labour has opposition day debates on Ukraine refugees and the cost of living.
DPMQs KLAXON: A reminder that as Johnson is in the Gulf, Deputy PM Dominic Raab will be taking PMQs.
NZR latest: There is some optimism this morning that the end of British-Iranian detainee Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s ordeal may be in sight. She had her U.K. passport returned yesterday, and a team of British officials are in Iran attempting to secure her release. The BBC has the story.
Wallace at NATO: Defense Secretary Ben Wallace will travel to Brussels for a NATO defense ministers’ meeting.
Another Met scandal: The latest shocking investigation into the conduct of Met Police officers has found that a Black schoolgirl was strip-searched without an adult present after being wrongly accused of carrying cannabis. The report found the girl’s race “was likely to have been an influencing factor.” MailOnline has the story.
Lord Macca? Paul McCartney is in line for a peerage, the Sun reports.
Committee corridor: Best of the action is Home Office Minister Kevin Foster up in front of the home affairs committee at 10 a.m.
LORDS: Health and Care Bill scrutiny.
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss broadcast round: Sky News (7.05 a.m.) … Times Radio (7.15 a.m.) … BBC Breakfast (7.30 a.m.).
Shadow Economic Secretary to the Treasury Tulip Siddiq broadcast round: BBC Breakfast (6.50 a.m.) … Times Radio (7.35 a.m.) … Sky News (8.05 a.m.) … LBC (8.20 a.m.) … talkRADIO (8.50 a.m.).
Also on BBC Breakfast: Lib Dem leader Ed Davey (6.30 a.m.).
Also on Kay Burley at Breakfast (Sky News): Lib Dem leader Ed Davey (8.40 a.m.).
Also on Times Radio Breakfast: Victor Gao of the Centre for China and Globalization (7.35 a.m.) … Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams (8.15 a.m.) … Armenian Ambassador to the U.K. Varuzhan Nersesyan (8.20 a.m.).
Also on Julia Hartley-Brewer breakfast show (talkRADIO): Former U.K. Ambassador to the United States Christopher Meyer (9.05 a.m.) … Founder of Ecotricity Dale Vince (9.20 a.m.)
GB News PMQs show with Gloria de Piero (11.50 a.m.): Tory MP Henry Smith and Labour’s Tan Dhesi.
Politics Live (BBC Two 12.15 p.m.): Tory MPs Miriam Cates and Lee Rowley … Labour’s Siobhain McDonagh … Brexiteer peer Claire Fox … UCU General Secretary Jo Grady.
Cross Question with Iain Dale (LBC 8 p.m.): Shadow Minister for Asia and the Pacific and Labour MP for Hornsey and Wood Green Catherine West … Former Secretary for Housing, Communities and Local Government Robert Jenrick … Daily Mail’s Andrew Pierce … and James Brittain-McVey, lead guitarist in The Vamps.
On Peston tonight (9 p.m. on Twitter, 10.45 p.m. on ITV): Health Secretary Sajid Javid … Labour’s Stella Creasy … Former Justice Secretary Robert Buckland.
TODAY’S FRONT PAGES
(Click on the publication’s name to see its front page.)
Daily Express: Hell On Earth … But Glimmer Of Hope For Peace.
Daily Mail: A City Of Fear And Defiance.
Daily Star: Mission Imposter.
Financial Times: West turns up heat on Moscow with moves against oligarchs and military.
HuffPost UK: Will NATO concession being peace?
i: Putin turns to Plan C.
Metro: You’re Not Blinging Anymore.
POLITICO UK: 5 reasons war in Ukraine is a gut punch to the global food system.
PoliticsHome: Proposals for a new nuclear power plant in Wales pick up momentum.
The Daily Telegraph: Zelensky: Ukraine will never join NATO.
The Guardian: Ukraine’s NATO concession as airstrikes batter capital.
The Independent: Zelensky: Ukraine must accept it won’t join NATO.
The Sun: Chel$ea.
The Times: Zelensky: We can’t join NATO.
WESTMINSTER WEATHER: Rainy all day but mild. 13C.
NEW GIG: ITV’s Good Morning Britain has appointed Louisa James as its new political correspondent. She’s one of GMB’s most experienced journalists and will be a familiar face having been a presenter, done the royal beat, and also frequently covered politics over the past weeks and months. James takes over from Ranvir Singh, who is now presenting full time.
MORE NEW GIGS: Aoife White is joining POLITICO as our new technology and competition editor. She comes to POLITICO from Bloomberg, where she spent the past 11 years covering competition and technology. Global Cybersecurity Correspondent Laurens Cerulus has been promoted to cybersecurity editor. You can read the details here.
GOOD LUCK: The Economist’s Tom Rowley has his last day today — he quit his job to start his own bookshop. Read more on his Substack.
BIRTHDAYS: Labour Party Chair Anneliese Dodds … Airdrie & Shotts MP Neil Gray … Former Bank of England Governor Mark Carney … Reach PLC Editor-in-Chief Lloyd Embley … NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg … Director General of Strategy and International at the MoD Angus Lapsley … and POLITICO’s Cristina Gallardo.
PLAYBOOK COULDN’T HAPPEN WITHOUT: My editor Zoya Sheftalovich, reporter Andrew McDonald and producer Grace Stranger.
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