Sentinel minutes for week #20/2024


Forecasters did not anticipate events spiraling into global catastrophes this week.



President Ebrahim Raisi and the country’s foreign minister, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, were killed in a helicopter crash. While Iranian state media claimed that the crash occurred as a result of a “technical failure,” other causes should not be ruled out at this time. Raisi was widely regarded as a potential successor to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. An acting president with ties to Khamenei has been appointed, and elections must be held within 50 days.

An Iranian politician has said that Tehran might already have nuclear weapons. However, this possibility seems unlikely to our team.


German politicians from a number of political parties (the FDP, Greens and CDU) have floated a proposal to position NATO air defense systems outside Ukraine in order to shoot down Russian drones operating in parts of Western Ukraine and ease the burden on Ukraine’s defenses. This would be a clear escalation of hostilities and increase the risk of a NATO-Russia conflict; however, the main governing party (the SPD) rejected the proposal. One team member gives such an arrangement a 15% chance of happening within the next 12 months.

A national security advisor to the President of Estonia said that the country is studying the possibility of sending troops to Western Ukraine to take up rear, non-combat roles that would free up more Ukrainian soldiers to fight on the front lines. He said that the idea of Estonia doing this alone could not be ruled out. However, he also said that a decision was not imminent – and the defense minister later said that the country “certainly” wouldn’t be doing anything alone.

The EU has also been discussing proposals to train Ukrainian troops on Ukrainian soil by 2025. One team member thinks that this is very unlikely to occur (~2% chance), given EU bureaucracy and consensus requirements. However, this possibility brings to mind similar deployments of US military advisors in South Korea before 1950 and in South Vietnam before the Vietnam War.

A big Russian breakthrough in Ukraine would raise the probability of some of these things happening. A Russian offensive near Kharkiv has taken place in the past week, which caused Zelensky to cancel all foreign trips.


Sergei Shoigu is no longer the Russian defense minister. He appears to have been replaced with a goal of achieving greater efficiency in military operations.

Russia’s main energy company, Gazprom, reported a record $6.8 billion loss, its first since 1999 – a sign that European restrictions on Russian energy are having an impact.

Putin visited China, vowing “a new era” for relations between Russia and China. This visit is but one of many illustrations of the growing relationship between Russia and China.

Russia says it will hold nuclear drills to simulate battlefield use of nuclear weapons, specifically in response to statements by Western European officials. It is unusual for Russia to link nuclear drills to statements by officials.

The majority of the remaining fewer than 1000 US troops deployed in Niger will soon be withdrawn; negotiations are ongoing to allow some US troops to remain. At the beginning of the month, in a sign of growing Russian influence in Niger, Russian troops moved into the same military base in the country that is being used by US troops.


Slovakia’s fairly pro-Russian PM was shot, but his condition is improving.


There were large pro-EU, anti-government protests in Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, leading up to a vote on a ‘Russian-inspired’ law that could be used as a pretext to crack down on civil society. However, polling suggests that the ruling party is likely (~70%) to win the general election that is to be held in October, although the opposition may try to form a pro-European coalition that could increase the chance of an upset (which brings to mind how the Ukraine war began).


Israeli war cabinet minister Benny Gantz has said that he will quit if PM Netanyahu does not make a post war plan for the Gaza strip.

China and Taiwan

The newly elected next president of Taiwan, Lai Ching-te, has pledged to achieve stability in Taiwan’s relations with China. According to Reuters, Lai stated that, “We will make sure that Taiwan plays an indispensable role in the global economy and geopolitics while maintaining the status quo and working with all parties to ensure the status quo will not be eroded.”

Increasingly, new undersea cables are being laid that do not connect to China. The Eurasian Times notes that, “China’s presence in international subsea cable networks is diminishing rapidly, with no new undersea projects scheduled beyond 2025..

Nuclear weapons

UK PM Sunak warns that the world is facing the greatest risk of nuclear war that it has seen since the Cuban missile crisis.

The US aims to boost production of bunker-busting tactical nuclear weapons that are capable of striking underground nuclear facilities.

Artificial Intelligence

It has been a big week for AI news!

OpenAI released GPT-4o, a free version of GPT-4 that is faster and much more powerful. However, the model likely poses a greater safety risk because it can be made to answer questions it shouldn’t; it seems to refuse harmful requests much less frequently than GPT-4 and Claude. When a member of our team switched from GPT-3.5 to GPT-4o, the new model immediately fulfilled requests that 3.5 had blocked.

Jan Leike, who was the co-lead of OpenAI’s superalignment team, resigned and said that the company is not doing enough to protect humanity. The team has now been disbanded. Ilya Sutskever, OpenAI’s chief scientist, resigned from OpenAI as well. Sam Altman and Greg Brockman later put out a statement saying that they would be willing to delay the release of a model if there were safety concerns. Another safety researcher, Cullen O’Keefe, also reportedly left the company last month.

In the midst of these resignations, it was reported that OpenAI employees who resign must either sign a lifelong non-disclosure agreement or lose equity in the company; however, Sam Altman has stated that this policy is in the process of being reversed.

Biological Risks

HPAI H5N1, aka “bird flu”

H5N1 continues to be detected in more dairy cattle herds in the US but has not yet been reported in any beef cattle herd.

A new website for influenza virus detections in wastewater in the US has been launched. Because human flu cases have died down for the season, any influenza signal in wastewater can largely be attributed to H5N1 in cattle; wastewater monitoring can thus offer a broader picture of the spread and prevalence of H5N1. Wastewater monitoring also does not require farmers’ consent to test their herds.

Many dairy farms do not want their milk samples to be tested for H5N1, either.


An HIV-positive sex worker is believed to have had sexual contact with more than 211 partners in Ohio, USA since testing positive for HIV in 2022. The scale perhaps gives a floor to what a motivated adversary could get up to.


Solar-flare drama died down this week, even as Active Region (AR) 3664 let loose an X8.7 flare, the largest of the current solar cycle to date and the 17th most intense ever recorded, just before it rotated out of view. Because AR3664 was largely facing away from earth when that flare was released, the flare had little effect on earth. AR3664 will rotate into view again in a couple weeks, but its activity is likely to have died down at least somewhat by then. However, other active regions continue to release solar flares and coronal mass ejections.

Flooding in northern Afghanistan has devastated villages and killed at least 315 – and a poor government response illustrated poor government function. Hundreds of thousands of people live in the affected areas, which then lacked basic necessities and services. The Taliban has called for foreign aid to help flood victims. Team members wonder whether the lack of aid in flooded areas could represent an early sign of a near-total lack of state capacity to respond to urgent needs.

An extremely intense line of thunderstorms tore through Houston, Texas, USA, killed at least 7 people and caused power outages for millions of people. The storms produced hurricane-force winds that shattered glass windows on skyscrapers. Such storms are a harbinger of the stronger storms we can expect to see with climate change.

Linux maintainers may have been infected with an SSH-dwelling back door for two years after a 2011 cyberattack on, according to a recent retrospective analysis.

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