RT: Think-tank [RAND] advises US how to avoid war with Russia

A nuclear blast

RT, 7/27/22

The US and its NATO allies need to take a series of steps to avoid a direct conflict with Russia over Ukraine, the Pentagon’s foremost think-tank advised in a report published on Tuesday. Sanctions against Russia have created conditions for one of the escalation pathways already, while the continuing flow of weapons and volunteers to Ukraine may trigger others, the RAND Corporation warned.

Concerns that the conflict in Ukraine will “escalate to a Russia-NATO clash” are “warranted,” said the outfit, which has been doing research and analysis for the US military since 1948. While plausible, such escalation is not inevitable if the US and its allies take some steps to fend it off, according to the report.

RAND researchers laid out “four plausible horizontal escalation pathways,” starting with the anti-Russian sanctions already implemented by the US and its allies. The other three possibilities involve Moscow coming to believe a direct NATO involvement is imminent; that weapons delivered to Ukraine are making a major difference on the battlefield; or that unrest within Russia is threatening the government.

“Moscow has yet to respond directly in any substantial manner,” to Western actions, from sanctions to arming Ukraine, which RAND assumes have “immiserated Russia and led to the death of many Russian soldiers.” The researchers explain this by offering up speculation that the “Kremlin’s preoccupation with its faltering campaign in Ukraine might be consuming senior leaders’ limited bandwidth.”

They also assume that Russia is running out of long-range missiles, a claim Western intelligence agencies have been making since March – and therefore may feel pressured to strike NATO territory if it feels the US-led bloc might get directly involved.

The most acute risk of a Russian decision to escalate directly to a kinetic strike on NATO allies would result from Moscow perceiving that large-scale, direct NATO attacks on Russian military forces in Ukraine are imminent.

Deploying long-range strike capabilities in the Baltic States, Poland, and Romania, or having volunteers from NATO member states take part in the fighting – which has already happened – would promote this conclusion, RAND warns, adding that this pathway may lead to “plausible” use of nuclear weapons.

“Continue to signal that the United States and NATO allies have no plans to directly enter the conflict,” RAND advised Washington, as this is needed to counter public statements by “current or former government officials” about Russian “atrocities” and calls for regime change.

NATO should still “increase force presence in the east” but focus on “defensive” capabilities and re-evaluate activities such as drills “to avoid creating a false impression of preparation for offensive action,” the researchers said.

If Western weapons flowing into Ukraine begin to “turn the conflict dramatically against Russia,” Moscow might target their supply nodes, the report claims. Such attacks could start out as “covert or non-kinetic” and escalate from there; one example given is the 2014 explosion at the Czech ammunition depot, which Western media and the intelligence-adjacent outfit Bellingcat blamed on Russia, without evidence.

One proposed countermeasure is to keep NATO training and supply facilities used to aid Ukraine “dispersed and covert, wherever possible.”

Another admission, buried deep in the report, is that Western weapons assistance has not managed to “turn the conflict dramatically against Russia.”

The last scenario envisions Moscow interpreting large-scale protests as “a non-kinetic NATO attack.” While mass demonstrations are yet to take place in Russia, “the dramatic economic contraction that has resulted from the war might well be the spark for such broader popular unrest once economic pain is felt over the medium to long term,” the RAND report said.

The trouble is that Moscow might perceive such protests as “evidence of a coordinated Western campaign to topple the Russian government,” so NATO needs to “maintain the message discipline” that its objective is “the cessation of conflict, not the end of the Putin regime.”

At the very end, the report cautions that the US and its allies “could be the engine of escalation as easily as Russia could,” and that any escalation spiral is as likely to start with their actions. As the report focused on possible Russian actions, however, that warning was left unexplored.

———

RAND Corporation

July 26, 2022

Pathways to Russian Escalation Against NATO from the Ukraine War

by Bryan Frederick, Samuel Charap, Scott Boston, Stephen J. Flanagan, Michael J. Mazarr, Jennifer D. P. Moroney, Karl P. Mueller

https://www.rand.org/pubs/perspectives/PEA1971-1.html

Oliver Boyd-Barrett: Approaching War with China

U.S. military bases surrounding China

By Prof. Oliver Boyd-Barrett, Substack, 7/29/22

Donbass and Kherson Developments

Drawing on Dima’s reports to the Military Summary Channel, it appears to Mercouris (Mercouris July 29 2022) that the Russian renewed offensive is now in full force, more intensely overwhelming than it has ever been, quite contrary to a recent BBC report.

Russia is clearly not running out of ammunition, again contrary of recent western media reports. One Ukrainian brigade or perhaps a smaller unit, has had to withdraw from the front line in the Donbass, overwhelmed with the force of Russian artillery, ignoring orders to hold.

The Russians are pushing hard on the Seversk-Bakhmut Ukrainian line and appear to be preparing to storm Bakhmut. There is a large Ukrainian infantry formation in this area that could be caught in a pincer, putting thousands at risk. Russians continue their attack even further south, punching one or even two holes through heavily fortified Ukrainian front lines close to Donetsk City. Shelling and bombing has been particularly heavy here.

Mercouris considers why Russia has been able to do this at this point in time when in the past they appear to have avoided these fortified lines. Perhaps it is because Ukraine has been redeploying troops and artillery from this area to Kherson, thinking, on the basis of western propaganda, that Russians were running out of steam, and that Ukraine did not have too much to worry about its forces in Donetsk. To launch the attack on Donetsk, Russians seem to have by-passed Ukrainian forces in Sloviansk and Kramatorsk.

There are increasing indications, meanwhile, that the Ukrainian advance in Kherson is not going well. Its force on the Inguletz river has been thrown back by Russia, with very heavy losses. Some Ukrainian forces are trying to distract from the debacle by calling the advance just a reconnaissance. As for the Antonovsky bridge it looks as though Russia has resolved problems of resupply and is busy building pontoon crossings of the Dnieper; there are plans for three such bridges. The railway bridge across the dam is still possibly fully operational.

CNN has visited this area (Angus and Ivan Watson and others) and is disparaging of Ukrainian claims to have made advances, noting that it is a large area of open rolling farmland, where advancing Ukrainians can easily be detected, and on which Russia has had three months to build strong 3-layered defenses, while western weapons supplied to Ukraine are not suited for ground conditions. Ukraine has no decent air cover, and soldiers lack armor, leaving them dangerously exposed.

Russians are reinforcing their positions in Kherson and in recent weeks large convoys have been moving from Mariupol to Kherson which Russia wants to strengthen so as to be in control of a continuing supply of water to the Crimean peninsula. Ukraine’s line between Mykolayiv and Kherson is struck almost every day. From there to Zaporizhzhia the situation is very contested by artillery. CNN has obtained video footage showing as many as 350 Russian missiles moving towards Kherson by rail from Crimea (Iskander/S300?) indicating an approaching long struggle. All this is interpreted by Mercouris as further confirmation as to the poor likelihood of a Ukrainian counteroffensive. If the CNN report is correct, things do not look good for Ukraine which appears to be short of just about everything.

China, Taiwan, USA

Mercouris reads out the entirety of the Chinese statement on President Xi Jinping;’s recent conversation with Biden. Use of the term “candid” usually conveys something approaching a row. China refers to a world of disorder in which the global population expects the US and China to take a lead. Chinese-US relations are not to be interpreted in terms of rivalry and strategic competition, but in terms of cooperation.

The USA is responsible for the deterioration of the relationship between China and the USA. China and the USA need to maintain communication to protect global supply, energy and security. Sanctions, in other words, are an incredibly bad idea.

Attacks on supply chains will not help boost the USA economy and only the UNSC has the right under international law to impose sanctions. So the West is acting illegally by acting unilaterally. The two sides need to work towards regional de-escalation, to reduce the risk of stagflation and inflation and conform to international law.

On Taiwan, China is uncompromising. The USA is at serious risk of triggering a serious conflict. The Chinese President makes it clear that Taiwan belongs to mainland China. The one-China principle is fundamental to China-US relations. Any move by external forces to challenge that principle will be immediately challenged militarily by China. This is the firm will of 1.4 billion Chinese people. Those who play with fire will perish by it. It is hoped that the USA will be clear-eyed about this, and that its deeds will match its words.

Biden’s response is fuzzy and ambivalent. China clearly don’t believe Biden can be trusted.

Mercouris judges this exchange as the most confrontational since the time of the Clinton administration. China is issuing extremely grave warnings and Biden is personally playing with fire. It still looks as though Pelosi (3rd ranking American politician and therefore not a normal member of Congress and who, as Speaker, is an integral member of the US government) will visit Taiwan, in a preposterous pretense that somehow Pelosi is independent of the Administration. The US President is fully able and entitled to prohibit such a visit. China is not buying the Pelosi claim of Pelosi’s independence, anyway. The Global Times indicates that China will defend its core interests noting that the US follows the logic of power over the logic of reason, and is intent on global hegemony. Now is not the mid-1990s nor is it the 1950s: the time when the US could act as unchallenged global bully is over. today, China has the military power to challenge the USA with every prospect of success.

Mercouris worries that the neocons see this as their last chance to humiliate the Chinese, and that they think the Chinese are bluffing, even though the Chinese President has clearly indicated that he is not. We are closer to a military clash between the USA and China than we have ever been. China will deepen its relationship with Russia and work hard on their joint nuclear capability. American sympathy with Taiwan is not going to help Taiwan in the event of war, any more than Western sympathy with Ukraine has helped the Ukrainians. All this is testimony to the disastrous state of the competence of Western leadership.

The Bell: Measuring Russians’ Views of the War; Gas Wars; Duma Proposes Complete Ban on “Homosexual Propaganda” to All Ages

The Bell, 7/25/22

What’s going on

In June, the state-run VTsIOM pollster carried out a closed survey of Russians’ feelings about the ‘special military operation’ (as Russia officially describes its war). The survey, called ‘SMO: Problem Zones’, was discussed at a meeting within the presidential administration in late June, a Kremlin source told The Bell. The survey was also reported by Italy’s Corriere della Sera at the weekend, while Meduza uncovered the answers to one question last week.

The key findings from the survey:

  • The most striking result is the equal split in answers to the question of whether it is more important for Russia to continue pursuing its military activities in Ukraine or enter peace talks. Each option attracted 44 percent of respondents, while a further 12 percent could not answer the question.
  • Another question about the future of the operation went like this: “Some believe that the military operation in Ukraine must end as soon as possible. Others believe that the fighting should not stop now. Which point of view is closer to you – the first or the second?” Here, a majority supports the continuation of the war – 57 percent versus 30 percent, with the remainder unable to answer.
  • The proportion of survey respondents who gave positive answers to a question about their support for the ‘special operation’ was 70 percent. This figure has remained consistently high throughout the campaign: the lowest number (65 percent in support) was reported on the day after the war began. Seventeen percent said they did not support the SMO and a further 13 percent were unable to answer.
  • The 18-24 age group is least likely to support the ‘special operation’, with 37 percent ‘inclined not to support’ and 38 percent ‘inclined to support’ it. In the 25-34 group, these figures are 26 and 50 percent, respectively. Loyalty increases with age: there is 79 percent support among over-45s and 84 percent among the over-60s.
  • Support for the ‘special operation’ is highest among those who describe themselves as active TV viewers (81 percent against 11). Among active internet users, support for the war drops to 45 percent (and opposition rises to 33 percent).
  • It was not possible to identify trends among different wealth categories: among those who said their financial situation was ‘good’, support for the ‘special military operation’ runs at 75 percent; among those in a ‘poor’ financial situation, the figure is 61 percent.
  • Another question read: “Some people believe that due to the economic and humanitarian sanctions imposed on Russia by the West, it is essential to unite around the president and support him even if you do not entirely agree with him. Others believe that even under sanctions there is no need to rally around the president and support him. What do you think?” This question has been posed twice: in late April and on June 21. This time, the figure that agreed with the need to support the president fell from 81 percent to 75. In the youngest age group, those figures were 67 and 43 percent, a drop of 24 percentage points. In the 25-34 age group, the number who saw no need to rally around the president rose from 19 to 26 percent.

Can we trust these numbers?

Since the outbreak of the war, analysts in Russia and the West have debated the extent to which we can trust sociological data from Russia given the state’s effective monopoly on polling and the current wartime conditions. This question is even more pertinent when most polls produce numbers favorable to the Kremlin. There is no clear answer: it’s obvious that a significant proportion of the answers are insincere and polling technology can be steered towards numbers that favor the authorities, but it is not clear to what extent this distorts the findings.

Sociologist Grigory Yudin urges us to remember that the presidential administration is the client for these VTsIOM polls: “The results of these surveys are regarded as a reflection of the will of the people, so VTsIOM will highlight those results that strengthen its client’s position and not show any that are disadvantageous to the customer”. At the same time, Russians themselves believe that these polls are conducted by the state and tailor their answers accordingly. “People are well-attuned to the atmosphere: direct questions about ‘support’ are seen as a requirement to show loyalty. VTsIOM is also aware of this, and therefore asks indirect questions, asking about which scenario seems more favorable to respondents right now. These questions are less pressured and give more problematic answers, so VTsIOM does not publish the results.”

One of the more striking conclusions we can draw from this poll is the generation gap. Young Russians are more minded to halt the war, and their view of the president in the light of the war and sanctions is steadily becoming less positive. A clear split between the generations has emerged on all key policy questions of recent years, Yudin adds. “Putin’s core support comes from the older generation, who have lived through various crises in their middle age.” Independent sociologist Alexander Prokopenko sees this generational split as an important factor: the stability and sustainability of autocratic regimes largely depends on the younger part of the population.

Why the world should care

It’s hard to evaluate specific figures from the VTsIOM poll and during war or large-scale crises, sociology tends to change rapidly. However, it is possible to draw some unequivocal conclusions from the survey – support for Vladimir Putin and his actions is relatively low among young people, and it is falling fast.

As Vladimir Putin starts his gas war, Europe faces a difficult winter

Vladimir Putin has unleashed his most potent economic weapon against Europe: the threat of halting or restricting gas supplies. However, this gas war is no blitzkrieg, but a battle of attrition. After a week and a half of anxious waiting, Nord Stream 1 finally resumed operations – but at 40 percent capacity. This leaves Russia with plenty of wiggle room when it comes to applying future pressure – and clears the way for Gazprom to record increased profits against the odds and generate serious problems for Europe this coming winter.

What happened

Since the start of the war it has been clear that if Russia has any significant economic weapon against Europe, it would be gas. Most European countries are not hugely dependent on Russian oil and Europe itself decided to stop buying oil from Russia this spring. But the EU cannot wean itself off Russian gas so easily, while Russia has scope in its budget to risk some of its gas revenues: even in 2021, amid record prices in Europe, gas exports to Europe represented only a quarter of its total oil-and-gas revenues.

Moscow deployed its gas weaponry for the first time in mid-June. On June 14, Gazprom announced it was reducing the flow through Nord Stream to 60 percent of its planned capacity, followed by a further cut to 40 percent just one day later. The reduction was blamed on delays in the delivery of a turbine being serviced at a Siemens plant in Canada. While sanctions were lifted from the turbine in question, the gas pipeline operated at a reduced capacity for the following month. When, on July 11, it was closed completely for 10 days of planned maintenance, Europe was left to wonder whether the taps would re-open at all. On July 21, the gas pipeline began working once more, but at the same 40 percent of capacity. Putin warned that further repair work was scheduled and made clear that Europe should not count on receiving a full gas flow for the foreseeable future.

What’s the Kremlin’s plan?

Gas market players surveyed by Goldman Sachs at the start of the week (The Bell studied the investment bank’s report) never seriously believed that Nord Stream would stay closed after July 21. They correctly anticipated a restart at 40 percent of capacity, explaining the logic behind this for Russia:

  • First, cancelling all deliveries via Nord Stream would deny Russia any flexibility in its future decisions – after all, the only way to go from zero is up.
  • Second, cutting Europe off from Russian gas would ultimately hit the country’s budget.
  • And third, halting the pipeline would force Gazprom to mothball its production capacity, which is unwelcome if not disastrous. From a technical standpoint, there is no way to redirect gas intended for Europe toward other markets, Goldman Sachs explains in its report.

Independent energy expert Sergei Vakulenko explains Russia’s strategy thus: On the one hand, it demonstrates legal responsibility (‘We are fulfilling every obligation that we can given the force majeure situation that Europe along with Ukraine has created’) and does not completely sever trade relations with Europe, making it easier to restore them when the situation returns to normal (as the Russian side seems to expect). On the other hand, Russia continues to generate substantial revenues. All of this continues at a level that does not prevent Europe from falling into an energy crisis this winter.

The ultimate aim, as in any war, is to inflict enough pain on the opposition to force it to change its policies; in this instance, to force Europe to abandon its support for Ukraine and renew its relations with the Kremlin, Vakulenko concludes.

How will Europe survive the winter?

Closing Nord Stream would have been a catastrophe, but limiting gas flows to 40 percent still leaves Europe with serious problems. At this rate, Russian gas exports to Europe by the end of 2022 will fall from 150 billion cubic meters a year to 50 billion, an international oil and gas analyst calculated for The Bell.

Europe’s supply-and-demand situation on the gas market is ‘hanging by a thread’, James Henderson, head of the gas program at the Oxford Institute of Energy Studies, told The Bell. The EU’s gas storage facilities are currently 65 percent full, a figure that should reach 80 percent by Nov. 1 – but Henderson warns that this will not be enough in itself. If Russia cuts off the gas closer to winter, those storage facilities cannot compensate. This is because they are normally used to supplement the flow of imported gas.

“If pumping continues at 20-40 percent the situation will remain manageable only if the winter is not too cold,” said Henderson. A cold winter could increase demand by 20-30 billion cubic meters for a half-year, and if Russian supplies stop, Europe’s industrial production will begin to slow. Based on this figure, the European Commission’s latest recommendation is to reduce demand by 15 percent.

Both business and the general population in Europe have yet to feel the full increase in gas prices – actual retail prices for gas and electricity in many countries remain lower than the exchange prices, an analyst from an international company added. In the second half of the year, the increased price burden will steadily shift onto consumers and he believes this will bring a very severe price shock to businesses and civilians alike.

European politicians are aware of this. On Wednesday, speaking about negotiations with Canada to lift sanctions on equipment for Gazprom, Germany’s Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said: “If we don’t get the turbine, we won’t have gas. Then we won’t be able to support Ukraine because instead we will be busy with popular uprisings.”

What risks does Gazprom face?

None. Every expert approached by The Bell agrees that increased gas prices will fully compensate for any reduction in Gazprom’s exports. Russian gas expert Marcel Salikhov assumes that the cost of gas exported via the pipeline will rise by 50-60 percent over the course of 2022, enabling Gazprom to post a 15-20 percent increase in profits even after making allowance for the strengthening of the ruble and the decline in domestic demand for gas.

Why the world should care

Gas is the last economic weapon available to Vladimir Putin. The president himself understands full well that within as little as three or four years this threat will lose its potency – so while it exists, he will have no hesitation in using it to the fullest extent. This winter, Europe will have to pay for its support of Ukraine.

State Duma pursues a complete ban on “homosexual propaganda”

In the fifth month of the war, having dealt with the independent media, ‘foreign agents’ and opposition to the war, the Russian authorities remembered their antipathy toward the LGBT community. State Duma deputies from the Communist Party and the LDPR introduced a bill for a complete ban on “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships” and “denial of family values”. The current ban only affects “homosexual propaganda” aimed at under-18s. Immediately after the bill was launched, leading tennis player Darya Kasatkina became the first major athlete to come out as gay – and sparked a scandal on state TV.

  • The law banning “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships among minors” came into force in Russia back in 2013 and carries fines of up to 200,000 rubles ($3,000) for individuals or up to 1 million rubles ($15,000) for businesses (which can also be liquidated if found to be breaking this law). But in the context of the current conflict with the West, Duma deputies fear this is not enough. Six deputies from the Communist Party, A Just Russia and the LDPR are proposing a total ban on “gay propaganda”.
  • The bill’s authors propose to regard “promotion of non-traditional values” – i.e. any publication or statement LGBT relationships or identity – in the same light as distributing pornography or inciting ethnic hatred. The draft bill does not include any new level of legal responsibility, but one of the deputies spoke of the need to introduce criminal liability for violations. Meanwhile, the bill specifically calls for a list of all movies that “promote LGBT” and stripping them of their distribution licenses.
  • One of the bill’s authors is Communist Party deputy Nina Ostanina. Journalists immediately recalled how, in spring 2011, Ostanina was part of a group of Russian opposition figures who met with then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden on his visit to Russia. Others at that meeting included, for example, Boris Nemtsov (killed in 2015) and Garry Kasparov (who emigrated long ago and adopts a radical anti-Putin position). After that meeting, Ostanina said that she complained to Biden about electoral violations, discussed the fall of authoritarian regimes and presented the U.S. president with a copy of the communist newspaper Pravda.
  • Sources told Meduza and the BBC Russian service that this particular bill will not pass into law, since no United Russia deputies are involved. But this does not mean we will not see a new ban. At the start of July, State Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin directly called for a ban on the “propaganda of non-traditional values”. According to Meduza, United Russia is already drafting its own equivalent legislation.
  • Ironically, on the day that the bill was introduced, Russia faced its most notable ‘coming out’ of recent years. In an interview on YouTube, Russia’s top female tennis player (ranked No. 12 in the world) Darya Kasatkina announced her homosexuality, talked about her girlfriend and added that she was considering changing her citizenship. This is the first time ever that a Russian athlete at this level has come out.
  • Two days later, Kasatkina was discussed on a recently launched scandal-seeking talk show on Match TV, a national sports channel owned by Gazprom. The host devoted 45 minutes to Kasatkina in the company of State Duma representatives and veteran athletes. The participants concluded that Kasatkina came out in an attempt to curry favor in Spain, where she lives, and gain Spanish citizenship. They added that homosexuals in general – and Kasatkina in particular – “revel in dragging people into the dirt”.
  • After the broadcast, Match TV’s chief tennis correspondent Sofya Tartakova, who is also Kasatkina’s PR agent, called the program “a freak show for tongue-tied deputies, pseudo-experts and people seeking their five minutes of fame”, adding that no active tennis player would have any further contact with Match TV. In response, the channel removed the journalist from the airwaves.

Why the world should care

The man behind the latest ban on LGBT propaganda, Vyacheslav Volodin, is one of those senior officials whose stock has been rising since the start of the war. He speaks even more radically than Putin himself (ex-President Dmitry Medvedev is another striking example of this). A complete ban on gay propaganda can be seen as an attempt at further political prestige. As long as the war continues, the number of repressive measures that are not directly related to the conflict will also increase.

Connor Echols: How China sees a Pelosi visit to Taiwan — and why it matters

US military bases surrounding China

By Connor Echols, Responsible Statecraft, 7/25/22

When news broke that Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi will visit Taiwan next month, China responded how everyone expected it to. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijiang condemned the visit, saying it would “severely undermine China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity” and “gravely impact the foundation of China-U.S. relations.”

“If the U.S. were to insist on going down the wrong path, China will take resolute and strong measures to safeguard its sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Zhao added. (Those “strong measures” could include a military response from Beijing, according to U.S. sources who spoke with the Financial Times.)

But few would have predicted that the Pentagon would take Beijing’s side. As President Joe Biden told reporters Wednesday, the Defense Department thinks the visit is “not a good idea right now,” a nod to growing tensions in the Taiwan Strait.

The unusual point of agreement highlights the dangers of Pelosi’s trip, according to experts who spoke with Responsible Statecraft. From Beijing’s perspective, Washington has been gradually shifting the goalposts on Taiwan toward explicit support for Taipei’s independence, a red line for Chinese officials. And a visit from a top U.S. politician would only make things worse.

“[Chinese officials] see it through the lens of how their own political system works,” said Shelley Rigger, a political science professor at Davidson College and a leading expert on Taiwan. “What they’re seeing is that the U.S. is sending the number three in their national hierarchy to Taiwan. How is this not a statement or an affirmation of Taiwan statehood?”

Pelosi waved off concerns about the trip Thursday, saying that the Pentagon was “afraid our plane would get shot down, or something like that, by the Chinese.” 

The speaker also downplayed Beijing’s concerns about a potential shift in U.S. policy. “None of us have ever said we’re for independence when it comes to Taiwan,” she argued. “That’s up to Taiwan to decide.”

America’s favorite diplomatic fiction

The challenge revolves around one of Washington’s most confusing yet successful strategies: the “One China Policy.” Since 1979, the United States has recognized the government in Beijing as the sole legitimate Chinese government while acknowledging — but never endorsing — Beijing’s view that Taiwan is an integral part of China. This requires a careful balancing act known as “strategic ambiguity” whereby Washington implies that it would defend Taiwan from an invasion but never says it outright. So far, this policy has stopped either side from crossing a point of no return (namely, Beijing invading Taiwan or Taipei declaring full independence).

If you find that a bit hard to follow, you’re not alone. The policy is flexible by its nature and has looked different over the years, with U.S. officials dialing public support for Taiwan up or down depending on how close each side is getting to the other’s red lines. But that complexity has been remarkably effective, allowing Taiwan to transform into a full-fledged democracy with a strong economy.

Despite increased tensions, experts say that U.S. policy is still best understood through the lens of strategic ambiguity. In the minds of American officials, any changes to Washington’s approach are simply a reaction to Beijing changing the status quo.

But, as Asian security expert Van Jackson noted, China “probably holds a mirror image of that view.” With growing calls from China hawks to abandon strategic ambiguity, officials in Beijing have become increasingly concerned that Washington is all in for Taiwanese independence. (Biden seemingly confirmed those concerns in May, when he said the U.S. had made a “commitment” to defend Taiwan before walking it back shortly after.) From China’s perspective, Pelosi’s visit would represent “a huge retreat from commitments the U.S. has made” to Beijing in the last few decades, according to Rigger.

“Politicians don’t appreciate the gravity and the risk of messing around in this policy area,” she said.

Little room for error

The last House Speaker to visit Taiwan was Newt Gingrich, who stopped through Taipei on his way back from a trip to China in 1997. As Jackson explained, the stakes of that trip were much lower than today.

“[W]e were deep into a project of integrating China into global capitalism,” he told Responsible Statecraft in an email. “We were on strategically very good terms with Beijing, which provides a cushion against instability.”

This time around, the room for error is a lot smaller. “The context for a Pelosi visit in 2022 is radically different,” Jackson added. “We’ve replaced a posture of détente with rivalry.”

Though they’re unlikely to say it publicly, even Taiwanese officials seem wary of the trip, according to Rigger. When she asked people in Taiwan’s foreign ministry if the visit was dangerous, they were evasive, saying “things along the lines of, ‘well, that is a very perceptive question.’” But underlying that evasiveness is a fear of upsetting Taipei’s most important foreign partner.

“Your survival depends upon making someone happy and stroking the ego of various American politicians,” Rigger said, “[so] you’re not going to say ‘we don’t want this kind of love.’”

So the main question for many observers is the following: How can the Biden administration mitigate the impact of Pelosi’s visit? One step is to distance itself from the visit by not sending Pelosi on a military plane, which would make the exercise look “like a military operation,” according to an official who spoke with Politico

Another is to do more to incorporate Chinese concerns into U.S. strategy, starting with an open mind about how Beijing views the situation, according to Rigger.

“I would just encourage people to consider another possibility, which is that […] PRC leaders are sincere when they express the concern that things, especially in Taiwan, are turning against China,” she said, noting that Beijing views the challenge as existential. “So everything that the U.S. does to respond to what it perceives as Beijing’s increasing aggression just reinforces that fear that the U.S. is about to encourage Taiwan to bust a move.”

Fred Weir: Some Ukrainians take different view of Russia: As haven from war

By Fred Weir, Christian Science Monitor, 7/20/22

It took nearly 100 days of subsistence in a dank basement while mechanized armies clashed back-and-forth in the streets above them before Alyona Lyashova fled the devastated city of Mariupol with her husband and two children.

For them, the final straw was news, in early June, that the bodies of over 200 of their neighbors had been pulled from the ruins of a nearby building. “Our city smelled of death, and all around were the graves of our neighbors,” she says. “The buildings were blackened and ruined. There was no water, electricity, or phone service. Nothing for us. Even though the fighting seemed to be over, it was impossible to even think of staying there.”

Ms. Lyashova and her family left for the nearby Russian city of Rostov, using an evacuation service organized by the Russians, where they joined thousands of other Mariupol residents who were promised accommodation, food, temporary documents, and distribution to more permanent places around the country that would grant jobs, homes, and, if they wished, a fast-track to Russian citizenship.

While precise figures are difficult to come by, about 12 million Ukrainians are thought to have been displaced by the war, and as many as 5 million have left the country. Most have headed west, to European countries that have flung open their doors to take them in.

But about 2.3 million Ukrainians, mostly from the war-torn and Russian-speaking east, have arrived in Russia since late February, according to the Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations. Though the Ukrainian government, backed by the United States, alleges that many Ukrainians have been “forcibly deported” to Russia and subjected to various kinds of abuse, several war refugees, including Ms. Lyashova, and the volunteers who work with them, offered different accounts at an aid center run by the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow in mid-July.

Although most of those who seek refuge in Russia hail from the Russian-speaking parts of eastern Ukraine, it would probably be a mistake to view their choice as “voting with their feet” in some neo-Cold War sense, experts say. For many, Russia is just an enduring fact, familiar and relatively safe, and it’s possible for them to blend in easily.

“Almost every family in Ukraine has close friends or relatives in Russia. So many come to Russia because they have people here who can help,” says Mikhail Chernysh, an expert with the official Institute of Sociology in Moscow. “It’s not ideological. There can be political disagreements within families, even quite bitter ones, but they still help each other. … Russia is big, it has demographic problems, and many regions have serious labor shortages. I know the logic sounds strange, but an influx of friendly population is welcome in many parts of the country. Russia has the capacity to receive them, offer opportunities, and it’s nothing to do with politics.”

“It’s just where they perceive safety lies”

Ms. Lyashova and her family actually wanted to go to Germany, where her godmother lives, and they heard conditions for Ukrainian refugees are optimal. But they headed east, not west, for one simple reason.

“My husband, Eduard, is of military age. Under present Ukrainian laws, he would not have been allowed to leave the country, and might have been drafted,” she says. “Our top priority is to stay together as a family, no matter what. So, we came to Russia. We still hope, maybe, to go to Europe, but for now we’ve found good conditions. We’re swimming with the current.”

But it was rough to start. Arriving at the border, Ms. Lyashova and her husband were aggressively questioned by Russian FSB security police for about 20 minutes, she says, before being allowed to proceed.

“Everyone was getting interrogated. It was 2 a.m. My children couldn’t sleep. We were met by volunteers who were helpful, but it was not a pleasant experience,” says Ms. Lyashova. “I think the FSB were trying to find out my attitude toward Ukrainian nationalism. But I’m not political. I’m a mother. I’m against the war. I want peace, and I told them so. My husband, Eduard, was a railway worker for 15 years and never had anything to do with the military. So, they let us go.”

The family stayed with distant relatives in Rostov for several days before heading on to Moscow, where church volunteers helped them to get temporary documents, and Eduard found a job in his profession as a mechanic. Ms. Lyashova says she has seen no help from Russian state institutions, but that most people they’ve met along the way have been very kind.

The Russian Orthodox Church is one of many organizations, public and private, that have recruited volunteers, collected donations, and set up facilities to aid the new flood of refugees. The Russian Red Cross says it has set up 130 reception points in 57 regions, and mobilized hundreds of volunteers to help refugees with everything from immediate needs to long-term settlement. As for the latter problem, the Kremlin appears to have turned implementation over to regional governments, who are obliged to take in a certain quota of refugees and put them up in hotels, sanitariums, and summer camps, until more permanent arrangements can be made.

Danil Makhnitsky, a political activist associated with the liberal-nationalist New People party whose mother’s family lives in Ukraine, has set up a volunteer organization that now works in 16 Russian regions and claims to have helped 15,000 new arrivals with food, clothing, temporary accommodation, and transportation.

“We have no connection with government, it’s all person to person. And we are just one of many groups doing this,” he says. “There are so many people coming from the war zone, and they all need help of every possible kind. Once they get past the border process, it’s mainly volunteer groups like ours who are there to help them. The federal government still doesn’t have a single central agency to coordinate this work.”

(Experts and volunteers do note that many of the problems encountered by more than a million refugees from the troubled Donbas who poured into Russia when the conflict first erupted eight years ago, including difficulties obtaining documents and legal status, have since been addressed by the Russian government.)

Mr. Makhnitsky says it’s not a mystery that many, especially in eastern Ukraine, would choose to flee to Russia. Three decades of independent Ukraine did little to instill a Ukrainian identity among people who had lived in Russian-led states for three centuries, he says. Of course large numbers of Ukrainian-minded people have headed westward to escape the danger, but lots of others opt for Russia, which is nearby and – he insists – welcoming.

“These are basically Russian people,” he says of the refugees he works with. “They may carry Ukrainian passports and even be ethnically Ukrainian, but they are culturally and linguistically indistinguishable from Russians. It’s not a political choice, it’s just where they perceive safety lies.”

“People with broken destinies”

Nina Milovidova, the head of the church-run Moscow refugee center, says that when they started in early March they were seeing about 15 people per day, mostly from the separatist republics of Luhansk and Donetsk, many of whom already had Russian passports. Now the flow has swollen to around 250 daily, and they are mostly people with Ukrainian passports from places like Kharkiv, Kherson, and the Donbas war zone.

She says the center has about 500 volunteers working with Moscow-area arrivals, and since March they have raised over 200 million rubles ($3.6 million) to cover costs of everything they provide, including translation, legal assistance, psychological support, job-seeking, and other services.

“We try to greet each person with warmth. It’s very painful. These people are in trouble. They don’t seem angry – at least I have not encountered aggression – but they are people with broken destinies, who are in distress. We try our best to help,” she says.

Ms. Milovidova believes the majority would prefer to return to their homes one day. But some, especially those with close relatives, are planning to stay in Russia. Mr. Makhnitsky says his impression is that about half the refugees he meets would rather remain in Russia, while a quarter – mainly older people – hope to return to their native places if there is a prospect for peaceful life, while another quarter want to move to Europe or beyond.

For those who plan to remain in Russia, President Vladimir Putin made things much simpler in early July by issuing a decree that entitles any Ukrainian to apply for Russian citizenship and receive it within three months.

“It’s becoming really easy,” says Rimma Mulkidzhanyan, a Moscow lawyer who works pro bono with refugees. “A Ukrainian citizen need only obtain temporary residence in Russia, which is a fairly simple procedure, then apply for citizenship. … The government seems quite serious about expediting this, and it looks like it can work quickly in most cases.”

Several of the refugees interviewed for this story said prospects for returning depend upon whether the Russians will rebuild the shattered towns and cities they have fled from, and create prospects for a decent life. Few seem to care whether the government will be Russian or Ukrainian.

“Who am I? Well, I was born in Ukraine, so I am Ukrainian. But I am from the Donbas, and we’ve always been something different, not Russian, not Ukrainian,” says Ms. Lyashova. “I don’t know. I want to live in peace, with my family, to see my children grow up. If Mariupol is restored, of course we’ll go back there. It’s so hard to say anything right now. We just want to survive.”

Paul Robinson: Status Anxiety and the War in Ukraine

By Prof. Paul Robinson, Canadian Dimension, 7/21/22

Years ago, I was an exchange student in the Soviet Union. Margaret Thatcher was prime minister of Britain, and Ronald Reagan president of the United States. The Soviets were fighting a war in Afghanistan. Martial law was in place in Poland. Soviet-Western relations were hardly what one might call “good.” And yet, one could go to the USSR as a student. There were numerous direct flights. Politicians and diplomats retained a degree of decorum in their language. And arms control agreements functioned reasonably successfully. Despite mutual hostility, both sides made an effort to keep doors open.

Compare that to today. Following the invasion of Ukraine in February, Western states have almost entirely severed relations with the Russian Federation. A student today who tried to go to Russia would find it very difficult, if not impossible. Even the most benign cultural ties have been cut. Meanwhile, Western states are sending a steady stream of heavy weapons to Ukraine, encouraging it to wage war against Russia to the bitter end. The current state of Russian-Western relations makes the Cold War look like an era of mutual love and respect.

The harsh policies enacted by the West against Russia have come at a heavy price. Sun Tzu said that if you know your enemy and know yourself, you will never be defeated. But how can one know another country if you make it impossible for people to travel or do research there? One cannot. Meanwhile, the West’s economic sanctions have arguably hurt the West more than they have hurt Russia, stoking inflation, while higher energy prices mean that Russia is earning more money from oil and gas than ever before.

One would imagine that states would only endure such costs if especially important interests were at stake. But, harsh though it may sound, Ukraine’s fate, while a matter of extreme importance for Ukrainians, isn’t desperately significant for the West. Russia’s original demands—that Ukraine become neutral and accept the loss of Donbass and Crimea—while undesirable from a Western perspective, were not exactly existential threats. The extreme nature of the West’s response to Russia’s actions requires some explanation.

One possible reason why Western leaders have responded as they have is that they believe in a modern version of the domino theory. One might imagine the logic to be that if Ukraine falls, the Baltic states will follow, and before one knows it, the Soviet flag will once again be flying over the Reichstag. It may be that some people believe this, and indeed American and NATO officials have parroted this line. But the scenario outlined above is as farfetched as the original domino theory. The Russian army is struggling to defeat the Ukrainians. It is hardly going to be able to invade western Europe and defeat NATO. The Russian threat is overblown.

That said, it could still be that the West’s response is justified by the need to uphold what some like to call “the rules-based international order.” The Nuremburg Tribunals in 1947 established the principle that waging aggressive war is the supreme international crime. It requires a firm response.

But if a commitment to the rules of the international order were really what drove our political leaders, they would have behaved very differently over the past 30 years. Russia is undoubtedly waging aggressive war against Ukraine. But Western states have done likewise on multiple occasions, most notably the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Were Canada, for instance, truly driven by concerns relating to the fundamentals of the international system, it would have imposed on the United States and the United Kingdom the same sanctions it has now imposed on Russia. It did not. That doesn’t mean that we don’t care about those fundamentals, but breaches of them do not per se provoke a tough political response. Something else is at play.

At this point, one might appeal to values and institutions. Following the line of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, some claim that the war in Ukraine is a decisive battle of democracy versus autocracy and that the very future of liberalism and democracy is at stake.

This idea doesn’t stand up to serious scrutiny. The Russians have consistently shown themselves to be indifferent to other states’ political systems. Moreover, almost nobody in Russia considers Ukraine a democracy, especially since the current Ukrainian state owes its existence to a violent coup back in 2014. The idea that the Russian government fears Ukrainian democracy completely misrepresents how Russians view both Ukraine and themselves.

A final explanation of Western behaviour lies in the moral realm—the sense that Russia’s military methods are beyond the pale. Media stories repeatedly use words like “barbaric” and “brutal” to describe Russian military operations. The physical destruction of Ukrainian towns, and the concomitant loss of civilian life are evidence of this barbarity.

Yet Western armies act much the same way when military necessity demands it. The destruction inflicted by the Russians on towns like Mariupol is no different than that inflicted by the Americans on cities like Fallujah, Mosul, and Raqqa. Western leaders have shown a complete lack of concern over the past eight years for the civilians killed by Ukrainian shelling in Donbass. The death and destruction wrought by the Russians in recent months clearly exceeds the latter by many degrees. Nevertheless, the selective nature of Western moral indignation suggests that moral objections don’t lie at the heart of our response to what Russia has done. So what is going on?

In his 2010 book Why Nations Fight: Past and Future Motives for War, Richard Ned Lebow argues that the primary cause of wars, past and present, is not matters of security, or the pursuit of profit, but rather issues of status, which one may fit within the broader category of honour. What holds for war holds for international relations more generally. Honour in its many manifestations—status, prestige, face, credibility, esteem, self-esteem, the desire to avoid shame, and so on—plays a decisive role in politics. Hegel noted that international disputes were often “struggles for recognition.” This is indeed the case. The international hegemon—the United States—demands recognition of its supremacy. Others push back and demand recognition of their autonomy. The mutual refusal of recognition strikes at each side’s sense of worth—i.e. their honour—so producing conflict.

Honour comes in many forms—internal (one’s sense of one’s own worth) and external (others’ recognition of one’s worth), absolute (one has it or one does not) and relative (one’s position relative to others). Status is external and relative. It is a matter of where others rank you. Zoological and medical studies suggest that status-seeking is a biological imperative—irrespective of material conditions, low status is associated with high stress and a shorter life span. Low rank (external honour) impacts one’s sense of self-worth (internal honour) producing anxiety and a resulting desire to achieve the recognition one lacks.

The problem, however, is that rising to the top of the pile doesn’t provide security. Quite the opposite. From the top, the only place one can go is down. In his book The Human Zoo, Desmond Morris noted that baboons have a simple strategy to deal with this. The moment even a semblance of a challenger appears, the top baboon stomps down hard on him with disproportionate force, pour encourager les autres, as it were.

And so it is in human affairs. States seek status, and those who have risen to the top (which means the United States and its Western allies) feel a need to put anyone who might challenge them firmly in their place. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is such a challenge. Ever since the Maidan revolution of 2014, the West has determined that Ukraine lies within its own sphere of influence. By arguing otherwise, Russia is challenging the West’s honour. The West feels that it must respond or lose face.

In duelling cultures, to which international relations may to some degree be compared, gentlemen don’t fight duels with people of lower social status. A challenge does not have to be met. One can brush it off as beneath contempt. The fact that the West has chosen not to do so in this instance is revealing. It demonstrates that the West feels insecure in its hegemonic status. It is aware that as economic power shifts to the east, political power is shifting with it, and as a result its relative status is declining. It cannot let the challenge pass—thus the vehemence of the response.

Tough policy serves two purposes. First, it suppresses challengers, protecting external honour. Second, it makes people feel better about themselves, protecting internal honour. The ancient Greeks referred to hybris as the feeling of superiority one gets as a result of humiliating others. The easiest way to go up in relative terms is to push others down. Tough measures and harsh rhetoric against Russia serve this purpose, giving us that pleasurable feeling of our superior worth that is the mark of hybris. We might imagine that we have moved on since ancient times, but the same psychological processes continue to propel our actions.

Hybris is dangerous. The Greeks recognized this, noting that hybris produces a negative, often violent, reaction from those who resent being pushed down. Just as the West cares about its status, so too do others, including the Russians. For them, this is also a struggle of recognition, and as such linked to a fundamental psychological need. Consequently, it is unlikely that they will back down.

The shifting balance of international power means that we may expect a prolonged period of status anxiety in the West. It can respond in two ways—accept the loss of status, however uncomfortable that may feel, or resist it through hybris and attempts to suppress challenges wherever they appear. The first option will allow a peaceful transition to a new global system. The second will drag out the process and make it decidedly messier, without altering the ultimate outcome. If the West’s policies towards Russia are anything to go by, it appears that our leaders have rooted firmly for option number two.

Stephen Kinzer: Neutralism returns — and gets more powerful

By Stephen Kinzer, Boston Globe, 7/23/22

Make way for the Abstainers. It’s the new band in town, though they play geopolitics, not music.

When the United Nations voted to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, 35 countries, representing half the world’s population, abstained. Soon afterward the UN passed an American-backed resolution to suspend Russia from the UN Human Rights Council. Fifty-eight countries abstained.

War in Ukraine has galvanized the US-led NATO. It has also, however, led a growing number of countries to conclude that they have no stake in a European conflict or a confrontation with Russia. President Biden summons them to “the battle between democracy and autocracy,” but they remain noncombatants. When pressed to support NATO’s campaign against Russia, they reply, like Bartleby the Scrivener, “I would prefer not to.”

There have always been countries unwilling to follow America’s lead in the world. What is new is their eagerness to join together. A bloc is emerging that may become a robust global force in coming decades. The recent meeting of Russian, Turkish, and Iranian leaders foreshadows it. This would be one of the farthest-reaching consequences of the Ukraine war.

One new axis of power is likely to be the partnership known as BRICS, which groups together Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. Founded in 2006 to promote trade among its members, it is morphing into a political bloc and planning its first expansion. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Argentina, and Iran want to join.

Iran is also set to join Eurasia’s other major axis of Abstainers, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Its original members were China, Russia, and four Central Asian republics. Pakistan joined in 2017, and Iran is to be admitted next year. The combined size and strength of these quasi-alliances makes them potent challengers to American power in the world.

Even some countries whose support we have usually had in the past, like Israel, Mexico, and Indonesia, have refused to join us in sanctioning Russia. So have almost all African and Latin American countries. The Ukraine war has made them more skeptical of the United States and more reluctant to support American positions in the world.

Many countries recoil from us-versus-them confrontations like the one Biden is now promoting. They prefer to resolve disputes through compromise and to maintain good ties even with countries they fear or dislike. Besides, Biden’s insistence that he is leading a global war against autocracy is hard to take seriously as he kowtows to Saudi Arabia, where dissent is punished by beheading or dismemberment.

A second reason more countries are drifting away from the United States is that to many of them, we seem unreliable. In recent years our foreign policies have zigzagged wildly. Written accords with other countries appear and disappear according to election results. Add our acute domestic problems to this mix, and it’s easy to understand why some countries feel reluctant to hitch their wagon to our star.

One recent American step has especially spooked several large countries. As soon as war broke out in Ukraine, we and our allies froze billions of dollars that Russia keeps in Western banks. Other countries fear they might suffer the same fate if they one day fall afoul of the United States. To prevent that, they are looking for other places to park their money and imagining banking networks outside of Washington’s control. Saudi Arabia is negotiating with China to price its oil in yuan as well as dollars. Iran’s stock market opened a legal exchange this month for trading the Iranian and Russian currencies.

Perhaps most important, few countries want to weaken their relations with Russia or China. Russia provides many countries with vital goods from oil to fertilizer. China is reaping the fruits of two decades of intense engagement with countries the United States either ignores or takes for granted. China is now the largest trading partner of both Africa and Latin America. Its multi-trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative aims to draw more than 70 countries into its sphere. Biden’s counter-project was something he called Build Back Better World, which the White House said “will collectively catalyze hundreds of billions of dollars of infrastructure investment for low- and middle-income countries.” Since that announcement a year ago, Congress killed the idea, and the White House no longer mentions it.

Few countries among the Abstainers support Russia’s action in Ukraine. They simply want to pursue their own national interests and stay out of big-power conflicts. This is hardly a new impulse. In 1954, leaders of 29 African and Asian countries representing most of the world’s people met in Bandung, Indonesia, to form what became the Non-Aligned Movement. The United States refused to recognize or acknowledge the conference, but it unleashed forces that still reverberate around much of the world.

Throughout the Cold War, American leaders sought to crush the threat they called “neutralism.” They failed. Today the United States confronts a similar challenge, but we are less powerful and perhaps less attractive than we were then. We face a difficult choice.

One option would be to curb our overseas crusades, compromise with Russia and China, and concentrate on rebuilding our own country. That would mean accepting a new world order in which we would be less dominant than at any time in the last 75 years — quite unpalatable both politically and strategically. Yet if we insist on trying to maintain our top-dog status forever, we will periodically have to use the kinds of coercion that much of the world now rejects. Either course is likely to strengthen the Abstainers.

Ukraine Uses Russian Invasion to Wreck Workers’ Rights

Trade Unions Building in Kiev in September 2018 during reconstruction. (VoidWanderer, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons)

By Thomas Rowley and Serhiy Guz, Consortium News, 7/20/22

These labor policies reflect the tendency by the Zelensky government to pass unpopular neoliberal economic policies ever since it came to power, as expressed in my interview with Olga Baysha. Emphasis via bolding is mine. – Natylie

Thomas Rowley is lead editor at oDR. Follow him on Twitter at @te_rowley. Contact email: tom.rowley[at]opendemocracy.net Serhiy Guz is a Ukrainian journalist and one of the founders of the country’s journalism trade union movement. He headed Ukraine’s independent media union between 2004 and 2008 and is currently a member of Ukraine’s Commission on Journalistic Ethics, a self-regulation body for the country’s media. He is also a council member of the Voice of Nature NGO and editor-in-chief of the Clever City Kamianske newspaper.

The Ukrainian parliament has passed two new radical measures on labour liberalisation, prompting fears of Ukrainians losing workplace rights permanently as Russia’s war puts huge pressure on the country’s economy.

In two laws passed on Monday and Tuesday, MPs voted to legalise “zero-hours contracts” and made moves towards removing up to 70 percent of the country’s workforce from protections guaranteed by national labour law.

The latter measure means the national labour code no longer applies to employees of small- and medium-sized enterprises; instead, it is proposed that each worker strikes an individual labour agreement with their employer. It also removes the legal authority of trade unions to veto workplace dismissals.

Draft law 5371 had previously been criticised by the International Labor Organization, as well as Ukrainian and European trade unions, on the basis that it could “infringe international labour standards.”

Ukraine’s ruling Servant of the People party argued that the “extreme over-regulation of employment contradicts the principles of market self-regulation [and] modern personnel management.”

Red tape in Ukraine’s HR laws, it suggested, “creates bureaucratic barriers both for the self-realisation of employees and for raising the competitiveness of employers.”

The Federation of Trade Unions of Ukraine will now ask President Volodymyr Zelensky to veto draft law 5371 when it goes to him for signature — but will not make the same request over the proposed law on zero-hours contracts, Ukrainian MP Vadym Ivchenko told openDemocracy.

Nataliia Lomonosova, an analyst at Ukrainian think tank Cedos, warned that the two laws could further deteriorate an already difficult socio-economic situation for Ukrainians suffering from Russia’s military campaign.

According to the U.N.’s latest numbers, Russia’s invasion has led to at least 7 million people becoming displaced inside Ukraine itself, which has been compounded by a severe economic crisis hitting families and individuals hard. At the same time, the World Bank has predicted that Ukraine’s economy will contract by 45 percent this year.

With these factors in mind, Lomonosova argued that Ukrainians have little choice or bargaining power when it comes to employers — the number of available vacancies is vastly disproportionate to the number of people now looking for work in the country. “People right now have no bargaining power, and trade unions cannot protect them,” she said.

Speaking to openDemocracy, Lomonosova expressed a fear that, as a result of the displacement, “many people will find themselves in the situation of Ukrainian migrant workers” in their own country — meaning, for instance, people will have little choice but to accept poor conditions and to be ever more dependent on their employers.

‘Window of Opportunity’

A leading member of Zelensky’s party promised further liberalisation of Ukraine’s labour legislation earlier this month.

“These are draft laws that business is waiting for, draft laws that will protect the interests of all entrepreneurs. And workers, too, by the way,” wrote MP Danylo Hetmantsev on Telegram on 9 July.

“A worker should be able to regulate his relationship with an employer himself. Without the state,” noted Hetmantsev, who is head of the Ukrainian parliament’s finance committee.

“This is what happens in a state if it’s free, European and market-oriented. Otherwise, the country will be travelling with one leg on an express train to the EU, and with another inside a Soviet-era train going in the other direction.”

Ukrainian labour lawyer George Sandul previously told openDemocracy that MPs had used Russia’s invasion of the country as a “window of opportunity” in which to try to push through drastic changes to labour legislation.

Lomonosova, of Cedos, agreed with Sandul, arguing that deregulation and the stripping back of social guarantees was a long-term policy of the Ukrainian government even before the war and was likely part of an effort to attract foreign investors.

She pointed to the fact that both of the laws passed this week date to an early attempt by the Zelensky administration and the ruling party to deregulate labour legislation in 2020-21. This attempt was beaten back as a result of a protest campaign by Ukrainian trade unions, a prospect now hard to imagine due to the war and martial law, Lomonsova said.

As she put it, the Ukrainian government and ruling party are also now increasingly talking about the fact that the state “cannot afford welfare, employment benefits or protection of labour rights” because of the war.

In contrast to the deregulation trend, Lomonsova says that there is clear support among the Ukrainian public for social democracy.

“Year on year, opinion surveys have shown that Ukrainians have strong social democratic attitudes, including in favour of welfare,” Lomonosova said. “They expect the government to protect their labour rights and offer a complete social package. Not even war can change this.”

Zero-Hours Contracts

Under Ukraine’s new zero-hours legislation, employers who choose to use the contract option will be able to call up workers at will, though contracts must define the method and minimum timeframe for informing an employee of work, and the response time of the worker to agree or refuse to work.

The legislation also says people employed on these new contracts must be guaranteed a minimum of 32 hours’ work a month, and that the percentage of employees on zero-hours contracts at company can’t be more than 10 percent.

In its explanation of the law, the Ukrainian government stated that people involved in irregular work are currently employed “without any social or labour guarantees.”

Therefore, it says, zero-hours contracts — a term the government used — will help “legalise the work of freelancers, who mostly work on short-term projects and are not limited to working for a single client.”

Labour lawyer and activist Vitaliy Dudin told openDemocracy that, as a result of the economic crisis caused by the war, Ukrainians are facing ever greater “economic risks” and poverty — and this means that Ukrainian employers “will be able to radically reduce labour costs”.

The new contracts proposed under zero-hours legislation, he suggested, could also lead to two-tier workplaces, where employers offer secure jobs to loyal or non-unionised staff, while others face precarious employment or immediate dismissal for reasons manufactured by the employers.

This could affect workplaces with hundreds of workers, including public sector jobs at risk of austerity policies, such as hospitals, railway depots, post offices and infrastructure maintenance, Dudin said.

“This is a disastrous step towards precarisation,” Dudin said, and one that “calls into question the very right of Ukrainians who have been affected by the war to get a means of living.”

What Happens After the War?

European trade union groups have long criticised the growing trend towards labour liberalisation in Ukraine since Zelensky and his political party, Servant of the People, came to power in 2019.

On July 14, as rumours of a new vote on draft law 5371 spread, three European trade union confederations expressed their concern that the Ukrainian government and ruling party “continue to reject the E.U.’s values of social dialogue and social rights” with its labour liberalisation programme.

“We are strongly concerned about regressive labour reforms continuing after the emergency of war is over,” the unions’ letter said, claiming the reforms “go in the opposite direction to E.U. principles and values”.

Ukrainian parliamentarians have previously criticised draft law 5371 as a potential danger to the country’s integration into the European Union. Ukraine was granted E.U. candidate status in late June.

Both Ukraine’s 2014 Association Agreement with the E.U. and its 2020 Political, Free Trade and Strategic Partnership Agreement with the U.K. contain provisions on ensuring workplace protections — including against attempts to attract international investment.

László Andor, a former E.U. commissioner for employment, social affairs and inclusion between 2010 and 2014, told openDemocracy that he believed this new legislation suggested that Ukraine was going in a “completely different direction” from E.U. norms on decent work.

“This case is a big dose of opportunism,” said Andor, now secretary general of the Foundation for European Progressive Studies, a Brussels think tank. “Ukrainian lawmakers need to understand better what the difference is between a continental European model and these moves towards a very precarious labour market. Ukrainian trade unions are not being listened to sufficiently. This would be elementary in the European Union.“

“There is an enormous amount of national cohesion in Ukraine, which the rest of the world admires,“ Andor continued. “But these moves, in my opinion, can also undermine national unity — something very much needed for resisting a foreign invasion.“

Proponents of the law consider Ukrainian trade unions’ efforts at defeating labour liberalisation an attempt to “preserve their influence“ and that ILO conventions on workplace protections are “out of step“ with the modern labour market and the needs of small and medium-sized businesses.

While ruling party MPs have suggested that draft law 5371 will be passed as a temporary, wartime measure, MP Mykhailo Volynets, a member of the same Batkivshchyna party as Ivchenko, argued in a post on Facebook that “it is clear that no one will be able to undo this situation later.”

“The labour code will no longer apply, collective agreements will be eliminated, and even those mechanisms of employee protection that are in place today will not work. This is a brazen violation of international norms and standards in the field of labour,” he said.

This article is from openDemocracy.