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By ALEX WICKHAM
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Good Thursday morning.
SPOTTED: At outgoing BBC Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg‘s leaving do last night … Video montages from former Prime Ministers Gordon Brown … David Cameron … and Theresa May … as well as Judi Dench … and Joanna Lumley … plus a cast of SW1 A-listers: Cabinet Ministers Rishi Sunak … Sajid Javid … Ben Wallace … Nadhim Zahawi … Thérèse Coffey … London Mayor Sadiq Khan … Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle … Top Tories James Cleverly … Iain Duncan Smith … Nicky Morgan … Steve Baker … Justine Greening … Rob Buckland … David Gauke … David Mundell … Jesse Norman … Liz Sugg … Labour frontbenchers Ed Miliband … Louise Haigh … Jon Ashworth … Emily Thornberry … Jonny Reynolds …
… Plus … Several permanent secretaries and prominent civil servants including Antonia Romeo … Ray Tang … Ben Hemington … No. 10 aides past and present including Rosie Bate-Williams … Jack Doyle … SpAds Nissy Chesterfield … Hudson Roe … Samuel Coates … Harry Methley … U.K. Music’s Jamie Njoku-Goodwin … Labour aides Matthew Doyle … Steph Driver … Sophie Nazemi … Luke Sullivan … Deborah Mattinson … Sarah Brown … Lobby hacks Sam Coates … Glen Owen … Caroline Wheeler … Gordon Rayner … Joe Pike … Stefan Rousseau … and most of the BBC including Adam Fleming … Iain Watson … and Alex Forsyth.
DRIVING THE DAY
RUSSIA’S GREATEST LIE MACHINE: President Vladimir Putin is being lied to by his advisers about the performance of Russian forces in Ukraine, and Moscow’s military plans have been disastrous while its leadership is in total disarray, according to the latest publication of intelligence assessments by U.S. and U.K. spy agencies. The revelation continues the Western strategy of declassifying intelligence in order to expose the internal workings of the Kremlin, and this morning’s developments appear to have been coordinated by the White House and GCHQ, Britain’s intelligence, cyber and security agency. GCHQ Director Jeremy Fleming gave a rare behind-closed-doors speech in Australia overnight, which can be read in full here on the GCHQ website. Playbook will take you through the top lines …
Speaking to the Australian National University … Fleming said Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine had proven to be an immense miscalculation and that he “overestimated” the ability of Russia’s army. “It increasingly looks like Putin has massively misjudged the situation. It’s clear he misjudged the resistance of the Ukrainian people. He underestimated the strength of the coalition his actions would galvanize. He under-played the economic consequences of the sanctions regime. He overestimated the abilities of his military to secure a rapid victory.”
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Fleming revealed that Russian soldiers have mutinied: “We’ve seen Russian soldiers — short of weapons and morale — refusing to carry out orders, sabotaging their own equipment and even accidentally shooting down their own aircraft.”
And that Putin’s advisers had misled him: “We believe Putin’s advisers are afraid to tell him the truth, what’s going on and the extent of these misjudgements must be crystal clear to the regime.”
Russia’s military leadership has descended into disaster: “We know Putin’s campaign is beset by problems — low morale, logistical failures and high Russian casualty numbers. Their command and control is in chaos. We’ve seen Putin lie to his own people in an attempt to hide military incompetence.”
Fleming said it is too early to tell if Russia is genuine about retreating: “This week, the Russian MOD stated publicly that they will drastically reduce combat operations around Kyiv and a city in the north. It looked like they have been forced to make a significant change. But then they proceeded to launch attacks in both of those places. Mixed messages or deliberate misinformation — we’ll have to see how it unfolds.”
Putin is ramping up repression and disinformation: “He seeks brutal control of the media and access to the internet, he seeks the closing down of opposition voices, and he’s making heavy investment in their propaganda and covert agencies.”
In fascinating and candid remarks … Fleming confirmed the Western strategy of declassifying intelligence: “It is already a remarkable feature of this conflict just how much intelligence has been so quickly declassified to get ahead of Putin’s actions. From the warnings of the war. To the intelligence on false flag operations designed to provide a fake premise to the invasion. And more recently, to the Russian plans to falsely claim Ukrainian use of banned chemical weapons. On this and many other subjects, deeply secret intelligence is being released to make sure the truth is heard. At this pace and scale, it really is unprecedented. In my view, intelligence is only worth collecting if we use it, so I unreservedly welcome this development.”
The Wagner mercenaries are on the rise: “Recently, we have seen that Wagner is looking to move up a gear. We understand that the group is now prepared to send large numbers of personnel into Ukraine to fight alongside Russians. They are looking at relocating forces from other conflicts and recruiting new fighters to bolster numbers. These soldiers are likely to be used as cannon fodder to try to limit Russian military losses.”
On the Russian-Chinese alliance: “We can see China is seizing the opportunity to purchase cheap hydro-carbons from Russia at the moment, to meet its needs too. But there are risks to them both (and arguably more for China) in being too closely aligned. Russia understands that long term, China will become increasingly strong militarily and economically. Some of their interests conflict; Russia could be squeezed out of the equation.”
And Fleming called for more cash for cyber: “Our cybersecurity isn’t good enough and we need to invest in making it better.”
The US shares GCHQ’s assessments: Briefing journalists on Wednesday night, White House Director of Communications Kate Bedingfield said: “We believe that Putin is being misinformed by his advisers about how badly the Russian military is performing and how the Russian economy is being crippled by sanctions, because his senior advisers are too afraid to tell him the truth. Bedingfield added that it was “increasingly clear” the war had been a “strategic blunder” that would leave it weaker over the long term. The BBC has her comments.
Don’t believe Moscow: Bedingfield also stressed that Russia’s claims to be withdrawing from Kyiv should not be believed, revealing the U.S. had “continued to see evidence today of Russia attacking and advancing in places where they had previously said they would not.”
Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said … the intelligence assessment that Putin was being misled by his own team was “disconcerting.” “It’s his military. It’s his war. He chose it … the fact that he may not fully understand the degree to which his forces are failing in Ukraine, that’s a little discomforting,” Kirby said.
Zelenskyy latest: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his nightly address that the country is at a “turning point,” but also warned against believing Russia’s claims. “We don’t believe anyone. Not a single beautiful word,” he said. “There’s a real situation on the battlefield and that’s the most important thing. We will not give anything away.” H/t BBC. Zelenskyy will address the Australian parliament in half an hour, and Belgian lawmakers this afternoon.
Coming tomorrow: The next round of peace talks between Ukrainian and Russian negotiators will take place on Friday, the Ukrainian government announced overnight.
Also breaking overnight: U.S. President Joe Biden is considering releasing a million barrels of oil a day from American reserves for several months to ease the pressure on energy prices, in what would be a record amount released from U.S. emergency oil reserves. Bloomberg’s Alberto Nardelli, Saleha Mohsin and Jennifer Jacobs got the scoop. The total release may be as much as 180 million barrels, they report.
Latest from Europe: Germany and Austria are planning for gas rationing amid a stand-off with Russia over whether buyers of its gas must pay in roubles. The FT splashes the story, while this article by POLITICO’s Karl Mathiesen and Zia Weise probes why European leaders are so scared of telling people to put on a sweater to beat Putin.
Meanwhile, in Kazakhstan: Firms under pressure to move their business from Moscow want “to be somewhere in the neighborhood, and we would like to be that neighbor,” Timur Suleimenov, first deputy chief of staff to the Kazakh president, told POLITICO’s Sarah Anne Aarup and America Hernandez in an interview.
Diplomacy, Delhi style: U.K. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss is in India today where she will challenge Prime Minister Narendra Modi over his weak position on the Ukraine war. An already awkward trip has been made more uncomfortable by Russian foreign minister and international wrong ‘un Sergey Lavrov also arriving in India on the same day, the Guardian’s Patrick Wintour notes.
Speaking of Lavrov: The Russian traveled to China to meet with his counterpart Wang Yi on Wednesday. Wang, according to Chinese state media, told Lavrov that “China is willing to work with Russia.” On the subject of Ukraine, he praised what he called Russia’s efforts in “preventing large-scale humanitarian crises.” Lavrov’s trip came ahead of a EU-China summit, which kicks off on Friday. POLITICO’s Stuart Lau has the essential analysis of what to expect from Beijing.
Labour on tour: Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy is in the U.S. giving a speech calling for a “rethink” of foreign policy to counter “the age of authoritarians.”
TODAY IN WESTMINSTER
HOUSE OF COMMONS: Sits from 9.30 a.m. with Cabinet Office questions … Any UQs will be followed by the weekly parliamentary business statement from Commons Leader Mark Spencer and any other ministerial statements … The main business will be two backbench-led debates: The first on the impact of long COVID on the U.K. workforce and the second on matters to be raised before the forthcoming adjournment. After an adjournment debate from new Lib Dem MP Helen Morgan on ambulance response times in her North Shropshire constituency, MPs will rise for recess until April 19.
ECONOMY: Latest GDP stats will be published by the Office for National Statistics in the next few minutes.
MATERNITY SCANDAL: Most of today’s papers lead on the shocking NHS maternity scandal revealed by the Ockenden inquiry yesterday, which found 201 babies and nine mothers died due to poor care. The Times splash leads on the finding that women are not safe in childbirth in England.
LOCAL CAMPAIGN LAUNCH: Labour leader Keir Starmer is launching Labour’s local election campaign telling voters to “send the Tories a message they cannot ignore” on the cost-of-living crisis. Starmer unveils new research which claims the Tories are leaving families £2,620 worse off, even after the spring statement. Labour’s slogan will be “on your side.” Labour sources tell the Guardian’s Jess Elgot the slogan is “intended to evoke the feeling of ‘one rule for them’ that the public had expressed during the exposés of lockdown breaches.”
Gutter politics: Environment Secretary George Eustice announces a plan to deliver “the largest program to tackle storm sewage discharges in history.”
Also today: The FCDO will co-host a virtual donor conference with the U.N. to raise funds for Afghanistan.
MISSIONS IMPOSSIBLE: The government’s 12 leveling up “missions” — as set out in the white paper many political seasons ago at the start of February — will not reduce regional inequality or “deliver change on the scale that is needed,” a new Institute for Government report argues. The IfG runs through the 12 missions and says five are not ambitious enough … Three are too ambitious to be realistic … Four fail to define what success really looks like … Two have too narrow a focus … and one has little to do with the aim of leveling up. All in all the think tank reckons only four out of the 12 missions are up to scratch.
Future of UK defense: The IfG also has an event today for defense and security wonks, with Chief of the Defense Staff Tony Radakin in conversation with MoD Permanent Secretary David Williams. Register to watch here live from 1.30 p.m.
Committee corridor: The Lords public services committee will look at designing a public services workforce for the future with wonks and Met Police official Robin Wilkinson (9 a.m.) … Treasury Minister John Glen will take questions on the government’s plans for post-Brexit changes to financial regulation at the Lords industry and regulators committee (10.30 a.m.) … and the Commons DCMS committee will hold a probably newsy pre-appointment hearing with the government’s preferred choice to be the next chair of Ofcom, Michael Grade (10 a.m.).
LOAD OF GEIDT: New powers for the independent adviser on ministers’ standards which were promised to be in effect by the end of March “at the latest” … are to be delayed until April. Insider’s Henry Dyer has the story.
Lords: Sits from 11 a.m. with questions on support for businesses to increase exports, WhatsApp government and the sale of Chelsea Football Club … Followed by report stage consideration of the Elections Bill … Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill ping pong … and the Judicial Review and Courts Bill’s report stage. Peers will continue to sit next week while MPs head home for Easter.
MASKS STAY IN SCOTLAND: Rules requiring the use of face coverings in most public places will remain until April 18 in Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon announced yesterday. The first minister’s announcement means Scotland remains the only area in the U.K. that has retained the mask mandate, something Sturgeon blamed on record Scottish COVID cases in recent weeks. BBC Scotland has the detail.
COMING TO CITIES NEAR YOU: The European city of the future will have a lot in common with the hyper-local living of previous generations, Aitor Hernández-Morales writes as part of a new collaborative POLITICO project looking at the future of urban living. The new Living Cities project wants your input on the future of city life — answer our survey here and sign up for a free weekly newsletter here.
**A message from Lowell: The latest update to the Financial Vulnerability Index shows worrying signs for Leeds as many constituencies in the city have seen very little improvement in their vulnerability since the peak of the pandemic. These results are from the Spring 2022 update to the Financial Vulnerability Index, which provides a in depth look at the evolving picture of financial health across the UK based on data from 9.5m of Lowell’s UK Customer accounts. Leeds is one of a number of UK cities outside of the South East which are struggling with high levels of financial vulnerability. As the cost-of-living continues to rise, areas within the City project to be amongst the hardest hit. Lowell helps to produce the Financial Vulnerability Index as part of its efforts to make credit work better for all. Our customers never pay a penny more than is owed, with no fees or interest charged. For more information, please click here.**
Trade Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan broadcast round: Sky News (7.05 a.m.) … Times Radio (7.20 a.m.) … talkRADIO (7.33 a.m.) … LBC (7.50 a.m.) … ITV GMB (8.10 a.m.).
Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves broadcast round: ITV GMB (7.20 a.m.) … Today program (7.50 a.m.) … Sky News (8.05 a.m.) … Times Radio (8.35 a.m.).
Also on the Today program: Nick Parker, former adviser to the Ukrainian ministry of defense, and former Ukrainian Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk (8.10 a.m.).
BBC Breakfast: Shrewsbury maternity report author Donna Ockenden (7.30 a.m.).
Also on Kay Burley at Breakfast (Sky News): Former Chief of the General Staff Richard Dannatt (7.30 a.m.) … Defense committee Chairman Tobias Ellwood (8.25 a.m.).
Also on Nick Ferrari at Breakfast (LBC): Former Justice Secretary Robert Buckland (8.05 a.m.).
Also on Times Radio Breakfast: Solicitor Kim Huggins, who is working on maternity negligence cases across the country (7.35 a.m.) … Labour MP Rosie Duffield (7.45 a.m.).
Also on Julia Hartley-Brewer breakfast show (talkRADIO): Former UKIP MEP Nikki Sinclaire (7.20 a.m.) … Environmental audit committee Chairman Philip Dunne (8.05 a.m.) … Labour MP Khalid Mahmood (8.33 a.m.).
Politics Live (BBC Two 12.15 p.m.): Labour MP Stella Creasy … Economist Miatta Fahnbulleh … Scottish Tory MP Andrew Bowie … The Telegraph’s Christopher Hope.
The Briefing with Gloria de Piero (GB News 11.50 a.m.): Safeguarding Minister Rachel Maclean … Labour MP Andrew Gwynne … Tory MPs Alberto Costa and Steve Brine … DUP MP Ian Paisley.
Question Time (From Bath, BBC One 10.35 p.m.): Primary Care Minister Maria Caulfield … Shadow Justice Secretary Steve Reed … SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford … Editor-in-Chief of the Economist Zanny Minton Beddoes … talkRADIO presenter Julia Hartley-Brewer.
Reviewing the papers tonight: Sky News (10.30 and 11.30 p.m.): Columnist Carole Malone and Editor of the Courier David Clegg.
**Connect with insiders with POLITICO Pro. Engage in real-time meaningful connections with POLITICO newsroom and high-level policy professionals. Discover more here.**
TODAY’S FRONT PAGES
(Click on the publication’s name to see its front page.)
Daily Express: Justice coming for every baby.
Daily Mail: Natural birth dogma left mothers and babies to die.
Daily Mirror: Stolen lives.
Daily Star: He fought until the end.
Financial Times: Germany and Austria prepare gas rationing in stand-off with Russia.
HuffPost UK: Russia ‘shooting down own aircraft.’
i: Biggest maternity scandal in history of the NHS.
Metro: Rape ordeal of trans MP.
POLITICO UK: Russia crisis gives EU a grim sense of what’s to come with China.
PoliticsHome: U.K. toughens Russia sanctions and pledges more until ‘every single’ troop leaves Ukraine.
The Daily Telegraph: Putin’s aides are lying to him, says GCHQ chief.
The Guardian: NHS maternity scandal — Police investigate 600 further cases.
The Independent: Mothers wrongly blamed for their babies’ deaths.
The Sun: Masked raider in Becks mansion.
The Times: Childbirth ‘is not safe for women in England.’
TODAY’S NEWS MAGS
POLITICO Europe: Russia crisis gives the EU a grim sense of what’s to come with China.
The New European: Defiance — The spirit of Ukraine.
The New Statesman: The new iron curtain — A divided Europe and the next Cold War.
The Spectator: Biden’s war — Does he know what he’s doing, asks Matt Purple.
WESTMINSTER WEATHER: 🌥🌥🌥 Cold, but with sunny intervals. Highs of 8C.
NEW RELEASE: Florence Wilkinson’s book “Wild City,” about how we can protect urban wildlife, is out today. She’s on the Today program at 7.40 a.m. and will be appearing on Ed Miliband’s podcast to discuss the book as well. More here.
BIRTHDAYS: Grantham and Stamford MP Gareth Davies … Former Liberal Party leader David Steel turns 84 … Lib Dem peer Don Foster … Tory peer David Trefgarne … ITV Deputy Political Editor Anushka Asthana … Former Europe Minister Alan Duncan … Former Lib Dem MP Bob Russell … Former Tory MP Nicholas Winterton … Appeal Court judge Peter Coulson … Former British Ambassador to Russia Roderic Lyne … and former U.S. Vice President Al Gore turns 74.
PLAYBOOK COULDN’T HAPPEN WITHOUT: My editor Zoya Sheftalovich, reporter Andrew McDonald and producer Grace Stranger.
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