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‘This War Shows It’s Very Fragile to Rely On Force’: Meet Ukraine’s Human Rights Activists

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 27/04/2022 - 6:00pm in

Sian Norris speaks to three campaigners fighting for a fairer, more equal Ukraine when the war ends

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Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, people around the world have become spectators to the horrors of alleged war crimes and human rights abuses – including mass rapes and massacres in the city of Bucha.

As we watch events unfold, Ukraine’s human rights activists have been actively responding to the devastation in their country – painstakingly collecting evidence of the crimes in order to one day hold Russian forces accountable. 

Byline Times spoke to human rights activists in Ukraine to find out what kind of future they hope to build for their country when the war ends, and how out of the ashes of conflict, a fairer and more democratic society can flourish. 

The LGBTIQ Activist

Since the first small and threatened Kyiv Pride March in 2012, the movement for LGBTIQ equality in Ukraine has grown and grown, explains Edward Reese. The activist fled Ukraine when war broke out.

“Last year, we had Pride marches in Kyiv, as well as in Odessa and even in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions,” Reese said. “We try to involve the whole country and work with a range of LGBTIQ and feminist groups.”

Before the Russian invasion, the LGBTIQ movement in Ukraine was focused on introducing a hate crime law that would provide better legal protections for the community.

“There are several transphobic and homophobic groups which are connected to Russia, the church and the far-right,” he said. “And, from time to time, particularly around elections, they become quite active. I hope we can start work on this law again after the victory.”

The war has caused specific issues for the LGBTIQ community in Ukraine. Trans women who do not have legal recognition of their gender have struggled to leave a country where all young men are facing conscription. Reese is also concerned about the welfare of LGBTIQ people who may face discrimination and prejudice at home, but are now obliged to live with their families.

“Pride organises activities to support them,” he said. “We offer psychological support to those forced to stay in difficult situations who are separated from the ones they love.”

Some LGBTIQ people have experienced violence since the war began.

“A lesbian activist named Olena Shevchenko was attacked when she was offering humanitarian aid,” he told Byline Times. “It was celebrated on far-right social media channels. But people who were not connected to the far-right did not support it as they saw her as helping those in need. They see that doing an attack like that before the war was crazy. Doing it during a war is even crazier.”

Reese believes that there is hope for the future of the community, however, not least because homophobia and transphobia are now so closely associated with Russia and Vladimir Putin’s regime. 

“I know a lot of the hate will be gone because it’s Russian, it’s Russian Nazi politics, and people will turn their backs on it,” he said. “LGBTIQ people are soldiers, we are fighting for our country and when the victory comes we will march together on Pride again.”

The Workers Rights Activist

Vitaly Dudin is a left-wing trade unionist activist who leads the Sotsialny Rukh – a socialist movement advocating for workers’ rights.

“Before the war we helped people to defend their rights in work and to demand better conditions from employers and the Government,” he said.

In recent years, Dudin has campaigned against growing neoliberalism in Ukraine and the introduction of laws which benefit employers and investors over workers. He is concerned that the war has created conditions for labour rights to be suspended or challenged – and he and his movement are determined to keep advocating for workers’ rights. 

Ukraine’s economy is set to shrink by 46% this year. Dudin has spoken to various workers who have had their wages reduced or suspended – but when the time comes to rebuild Ukraine’s infrastructure, those workers will be needed more than ever. 

“It is a way of deepening the social crisis in Ukraine,” Dudin warned. “I think it could make matters worse if people have their work suspended, their wages suspended, and can’t afford to buy food or essentials. People are not receiving their pay, they are reliant on state aid.”

Many of the people Dudin works with are experiencing intense suffering as a result of Russia’s invasion.

“A lot of people are being killed by Russian tank bomb and shells. People are suffering because of lack of food, water and so on," he said. "Homes are being destroyed.”

For this reason, he is clear that, when the war is over, the emergency labour laws must be lifted. But he also argues that Ukraine’s international debt should be cancelled in order to help the country rebuild. 

Dudin draws strength and solidarity from the energy and determination of Ukraine’s left-wing workers’ movement, even as war rages.

“We the people will not be defeated,” he told Byline Times. “We shall overcome. But we need to connect as a movement and recognise shared and common interests. We can show that capitalism and neoliberalism doesn’t work and that we don’t want to bear additional costs that risk making our lives more terrible.”

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The Human Rights Activist

Oleksandra Matvichuk has worked in human rights for two decades. She supported protestors who were prosecuted and mistreated during Ukraine's Euromaidan Revolution of Dignity and documented alleged war crimes in the Donbas region following Russia’s invasion of Crimea.

Now, she told Byline Times, “we are working in several directions, including recording war crimes".

“My major concern is how we can stop this war,” she said. “The question we face right now is not only how can we record evidence of war crimes, but how we can stop the war crimes before new victims emerge. Because we see Russia using war crimes as a message. Russia deliberately ruins critical civilian infrastructure, deliberately attacks the civilian population, in order to provide enormous loss and pain and to stop resistance of the nation.”

Matvichuk is very clear about what is needed to support human rights in Ukraine and calls for international solidarity, including “weaponry from Western democracies and real, tough sanctions that can freeze the Russian economy on the spot”.

Doing so, she argues, will stop war being profitable to Russia. “The main challenge for me is not only how to document war crimes for future justice,” she said. “But how we can help much more people to survive, and to be alive ready for the moment when this future justice will appear.”

Matvichuk recognises that many people will be struggling with trauma from seeing loved ones killed, surviving sexual violence, being separated from their families, and witnessing deadly violence.

“We will need efforts to restore the ruin to civilian infrastructure, to return people to real life and to provide adaptation for soldiers and for people who go through rape, tortures, and who suffers from post trauma syndrome. We will need to restore the belief that the law exists.”

Despite the horrors the country now faces, Matvichuk remains hopeful. “I look with optimism in the future. This war shows that it's very fragile to rely upon force.”

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An Unexpected But Welcome Call to Cap CEO Pay Comes From France

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 25/04/2022 - 8:25pm in

Neo-liberal Emmanuel Macron endorsed capping CEO pay as part of the recent French presidential campaign. Is the concept of a maximum wage an idea whose time has come?

The ‘Madman Despot’ Theory Only Serves to Embolden Vladimir Putin

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 25/04/2022 - 7:00pm in

Dimitris Dimitriadis and Iain Overton explore how accusations of insanity serve to strengthen the Russian President’s hand in Ukraine

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The Russian President, if commentators are to be believed, is “deranged”, “possibly crazed”, and in the grips of “hubris syndrome” and “COVID brain fog”. But to what degree has this psychological profiling of Vladimir Putin inadvertently strengthened the tyrant’s hand?

Quite a bit, potentially.

In the MacManus theory – a concept published in 2021 by Roseanne W McManus, a professor at Pennsylvania State University, following a major review of leaders’ reputations for madness – it was found that perceived madness could be harmful in crisis bargaining. A widespread perception of madness was an advantage, especially with an autocrat backed by a giant military, she wrote.

Admittedly, some see Putin as anything but a wild dictator with a loose finger on the nuclear button. Former Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev has described him as “a rational actor” whose invasion of Ukraine is “horrific but not irrational”. But many others have depicted a man on the edge of lunacy, and such attempts cast a long shadow over his words and deeds. 

Such armchair psychoanalysis must be resisted.

These attempts to put Putin on the couch are, at best, speculative leaps that make him look more erratic, unstable and unpredictable than warranted. And this may be in his interest: because as long as the Western press – and to an extent its leaders – perceive him to be unhinged and fundamentally irrational, Putin will know that he can (probably) get away with more. 

Indeed, depicting the Russian leader as deranged is an exercise in speculation that arguably says more about his commentators than their subject. It suggests one of two things: either that they do not understand him – or that they do not want to. The former perhaps cannot be helped (we never fully divine the contents of another person’s mind), the latter is obviously more problematic. 

The framing of a despot as mad has a long tradition but is all too often reductive and offensive to people with real mental health challenges. The depiction can also produce grotesque, irrational foreign villains and therefore geopolitical mistakes.

Saddam Hussein was painted as erratic and unpredictable, despised by his own people. And when the 'weapons of mass destruction' lie was used as a reason to invade Iraq, much of the Western press took it at face-value – a case of collective confirmation bias owing to a widespread investment in Hussein’s madness.

Today, the truth is that Putin’s motivation in invading Ukraine is more nuanced and strategic than madness permits. And, while a great deal has also been made of his obscure ideological convictions, his antediluvian desire to reunite the two countries and his strange obsession with Kyiv (often described as the “mother of Russian cities”), these are not in themselves indications of mental instability – even if they are entirely wrong-headed.

In the end, Putin is reduced by some to a caricature of mental pathology and warped ideology.

The Russian Rationale

Some leaders knew all too well the virtues of being seen as slightly unhinged. Yet, when former US President Richard Nixon tried to persuade the world that he was mad – and wasn’t above pressing the nuclear button to stop communist aggression – no one bought it. Nixon was outed as a hard pragmatist. Why not Putin?

For all the unspeakable atrocities and war crimes that many say have been committed in the past two months, there was nothing fundamentally irrational about the invasion of Ukraine. Desperate? Maybe. Abhorrent? Undoubtedly. But not unthinkable, and certainly not deranged. 

The invasion must be seen in the context of a country running out of options. Russia is a petrochemical state – a pariah among an increasingly broad tent of countries committing to net zero and renewable energy. Global politics and climate change dictate that fossil fuels, which currently fill the Russian state’s coffers, are a dwindling source of revenue. Meanwhile, climate change, the same phenomenon that Russia is refusing to tackle, is threatening to devour three-quarters of its territory that lies in the arctic north. 

Invading Ukraine does not solve climate change but it could, in theory, win Russia immense geopolitical leverage over global food and energy markets. Indeed, Ukraine is one of the world’s largest exporters of wheat, with reliable year-round access to the Black Sea, a key trade route.  

Known as the 'breadbasket of Europe', the country is also home to incredibly fertile ‘black earth’ (chernozem) covering an area larger than Italy – and vast, sprawling flatlands which, for decades if not centuries, have been part of the nationalist dream of Russian invaders.

This type of nationalism is not rooted in history or jingoism but hard-nosed pragmatism.

Together with Ukraine, Russia could control a-quarter of globally traded wheat, and even larger chunks of the global barley and maize markets – a dependency that threatens to bring countries in middle Africa and north Africa to their knees, with the World Trade Organisation foreshadowing bread riots, violence and social unrest. 

Meanwhile, Russia is already weaponising oil and gas – its main export – as a means of economic warfare. This is a response, in the Kremlin’s narrative, to Western sanctions and a stark reminder of just how dependent Europe still is on Russia to keep the heating on. Putin knows that Europe’s attempt to wean itself off Russian energy will be long and painful for its electorates, and he is pressing leaders where it hurts the most.  

It seems as if it will simply be a matter of time before he decides to do the same with wheat and other critical food stuffs, including barley and cereal. In a world in which climate change has rendered food security ever-more elusive, an autocrat who can credibly threaten starvation – at least among certain countries – or serious food upheaval, is a force to be reckoned with. 

While that may seem like a far-cry from the current realities of the conflict, it is in line with a broader, long-term strategic plan – one that a deranged mind would simply not be capable of hatching. But, as Niccolò Machiavelli remarked, “at times it is a very wise thing to simulate madness”.

Unless Western journalists resist the sensationalist urge to depict Putin as a madman – and seriously engage with the nuances of Russian aggression – he may yet succeed.

This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.

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The Ukraine War Clock Is a Time Bomb – It Blows Up On November 8, US Election Day

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 23/04/2022 - 8:40pm in

Yves here. Helmer gives interlocking updates, one of what can be inferred about the state of the war in Ukraine, the other on the prospects for Team Dem come November. Recall that Helmer was part of the Carter Administration, as so has some perspective. A couple of additions: Helmer provides evidence that Ukraine is regrouping […]

China vs. West: New World Disorder

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 22/04/2022 - 8:38pm in

Joanna Chiu's book, China Unbound, argues for engaging China to seriously address human rights, climate change, and economic development.

A Russian Diplomat, Graham Phillips and the Conservative Friends of Russia

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 22/04/2022 - 6:15pm in

The Byline Times Team investigates claims that a Russian diplomat with links to the Conservative Party assisted a British pro-Putin propagandist

Much media attention has been devoted in recent days to Graham Phillips – a British pro-Putin self-styled ‘independent’ journalist – for interviewing British-Ukrainian fighter Aiden Aslin in Russian captivity.

Speaking at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, former Cabinet minister Robert Jenrick suggested that Phillips risks prosecution for war crimes and that such videos should be banned from YouTube, which hosted Phillips’ broadcast, as well as other social media platforms. Phillips claims that Aslin himself asked to be interviewed. 

This was not the first time that Phillips has interviewed Ukrainian prisoners of war.

In its analysis of the Geneva Convention, the International Committee of the Red Cross says that images that identify prisoners of war or show them in humiliating or degrading situations should not be published unless there is a “compelling public interest” in doing so. Phillips denies any breach of the Geneva Convention.

Phillips is part of an ecosystem of pro-Russian propagandists in the UK claiming to be independent journalists. He was allegedly awarded a medal by Russia’s security service, the FSB – another allegation he denies.

In 2014, he reported for the Russian state-backed outlet RT from the Donbas region, where he was accused of spreading Kremlin propaganda. From 2014 to 2015, Phillips was employed by Zvezda – a media channel run by the Russian Ministry of Defence.

Phillips was reportedly expelled from Ukraine under suspicion for being a Russian spy – something he says is not true. The Ukrainian Government took the unusual step of issuing an open letter to UK authorities, condemning Phillips’ actions.

However, despite the ban, Phillips has returned to Ukraine where he has made videos for his YouTube channel, which has 250,000 subscribers.

One video focuses on the violence in Bucha, where Russian troops are accused of war crimes including rape and summary executions. Phillips’ video is titled '"Bucha Massacre": Truth versus Propaganda' – in which he repeats the conspiracy theory that Bucha was a staged provocation by the Kyiv regime designed to discredit Russia. 

Phillips then goes on to say that, because he was not in Bucha, he “cannot say for sure what took place there” but that, reporting from where he was 200 kilometres away, he “never saw any inappropriate actions by Russian soldiers”. 

Speaking to Byline Times, whistleblower Steven Lacey – formerly a member of the Westminster Russia Forum – claims that Phillips has previously attempted to solicit Russian diplomat Sergei Nalobin and the Russian Embassy in London for financial support. 

According to Lacey, Phillips was forced out of Ukraine in 2014 and into Poland, where he arrived with no money. He claims that Phillips told him that he then called Nalobin – at the time first secretary of the political section at the Russian Embassy to the UK – and the Russian Embassy in London to give him money so he could get out of Poland. Nalobin now works as a deputy director of the Information and Press Department at the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Phillips told Byline Times that he “never solicited anyone for money, let alone the Russian Embassy”.

In 2015, having returned from eastern Ukraine, where he was filming the ongoing impact of Russia’s invasion of the region, Phillips attempted to organise a fundraiser in Whitehall. The money raised, he claimed, would go to a hospital in Donetsk and “the city of Pervomaisk”.

According to reports at the time, Phillips thanked Steven Lacey for his support in organising the event.

The fundraiser was heralded by the Russian propagandist channel Sputnik but was eventually cancelled by its original Whitehall venue. 

Facebook messages shared with Byline Times by Lacey suggest that Nalobin was also involved in helping to arrange the event. The messages show Nalobin contacting Lacey and saying “I understand from Graham that you need a new venue”. The messages further show that Nalobin recommended the Marx Library and suggested a potential contact. The event did not take place at that location.

Lacey suggests that he cut ties with Phillips in the run-up to the fundraiser and told Byline Times that he did not attend the event. Phillips said that “things did not work out with Lacey’s proposals” and that he organised the event himself.

“As for any contact between Lacey and Nalobin, what is that to do with me?” he said.

Tory Ties

Sergei Nalobin has various ties to the Conservative Party, having once called future Prime Minister Boris Johnson a “good friend”. Photos emerged in 2018 of Nalobin with Johnson, as reported by Byline Times’ Adam Bienkov when he was at Business Insider. 

The former diplomat hosted the launch of the Conservative Friends of Russia, an organisation set up by communications specialist Richard Royal in 2012. The group’s launch was organised by Nalobin and took place in the grounds of the Russian Embassy. The Vote Leave campaigner Matt Elliott was a founding member and took part in a 10-day trip organised by Russia’s tourist government agency.

The group brought together politicians with business people and Russian enthusiasts, including Sir Malcolm Rifkind, and Conservative MPs John Whittingdale, Andrew Rosindell, Nigel Evans, and Robert Buckland. Event attendees have included Carrie Johnson, the Conservative Party’s former head of communications and now the Prime Minister’s wife.

Nalobin was a key figure in the reported Russian programme to deepen the 'co-operation' between senior Conservative politicians and the Russian Government under the group’s umbrella. Nalobin's diplomatic visa was not renewed, with RT initially reporting that he had been expelled from the UK.

Although Conservative Friends of Russia imploded months after launching, it relaunched as the Westminster Russian Forum, of which Lacey was a member until he left in 2018. It disbanded in March 2022, after Russia invaded Ukraine. 

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Russia’s Campaign in Ukraine and the West’s Response: The End of the Beginning?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 21/04/2022 - 8:54pm in

Even through the fog of the Ukraine war, it's possible to discern some contours of the future emerging.

Putin’s War On Net Zero: Controlling ‘Europe’s Breadbasket’ to Prevent Russia’s Fossil Fuel Collapse

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 21/04/2022 - 8:45pm in

Russian Government-backed scientific studies suggest that the war in Ukraine is the world’s first rear-guard military attack on the global climate movement, reports Nafeez Ahmed

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Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine may be far more intimately related to climate change than previously assumed.

So far, the invasion has been been largely viewed as an ideologically-charged blunder by an erratic dictator, inspired by neo-fascist fantasies of a return to Soviet-era glory.

While this is not entirely off the mark, an exclusive Byline Times review of scientific studies funded by the Russian Government in recent years suggests that the war amounts to a full-frontal assault on the global food system – aimed at capturing fertile land that can bolster Russia’s “future agricultural power” as its fossil fuel export economy declines due to accelerating global climate action.

This is supported by new analysis by Chatham House, the Royal Institute for International Affairs, which in early April concluded that the global energy transition away from fossil fuels threatens to derail Russia’s economic and geopolitical power as the world’s number one oil and gas exporter.

With fossil fuels bound to become increasingly obsolete in the years ahead, as the report suggests, control of land as a “strategic asset" for the production of key food commodities seems to have played a prominent role in the Russian President's war calculations in Ukraine.

The biggest existential threat to Russia through this lens comes from global net zero commitments on climate change. Now, Byline Times can reveal that this is corroborated by recent research papers tied to key Russian state institutions close to Putin.

One crucial paper in particular, which highlighted the direct risk posed by global climate action to Russia’s economy, was produced by a member of the elite Valdai Club founded in 2004 with Russian Government support.

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Net Zero: An Existential Threat

The Chatham House report connects global energy transformation directly to the war in Ukraine. It argues that Vladimir Putin’s Ukrainian land grab may have been designed to compensate for Russia’s diminishing economic clout as its primary export commodities – oil and gas – experience unstoppable decline.

“For Russia, global efforts to realise more sustainable economies pose an existential threat to its own vision for economic growth,” it states. Net zero pledges by more than 130 countries together responsible for around 88% of global carbon emissions “signal an imminent decline in demand for Russian energy”.

With its fossil fuel leverage over Europe collapsing over the next decade, a war to control 'Europe’s breadbasket' could have been the answer – or at least, one answer to a range of geopolitical and ideological goals.

The report states: “As the world looks ahead to projected growth in demand for food, land is also becoming an increasingly strategic asset. Russia may well have factored Ukraine’s fertile land into its decision to invade as a means of bolstering its future agricultural power; other neighbouring allies, particularly Belarus and Kazakhstan – major exporters of potash and wheat, respectively – may further add to its sphere of influence if they choose to align with Russia in any future economic war.”

This analysis suggests that Putin’s goals in Ukraine are complex. While undoubtedly motivated by longstanding ambitions to reassert Russian power over former Soviet territories, the fundamental roles of energy, land and food are playing a larger role than previously assumed.

“In the face of the energy transition and declining fossil fuel export revenues, Russia will be looking with urgency for ways to maintain its economic and political power; the current situation shows that no strategy is off the table, whatever the consequences in terms of Russia’s ostracisation by the international community,” the report observes.

Food Instead of Energy

The idea of controlling land and food as a potential antidote to the demise of Russia’s fossil fuel economy can also be found in a research paper published two years earlier – the lead author of which is closely connected to one of the most powerful institutions in Russian politics: the Valdai Club.

The Kremlin-sponsored Valdai Club is an elite gathering hosted in Russia – widely described as the Russian ‘Davos’ – which regularly includes senior Russian Cabinet ministers, oligarchs, and industry leaders. Its annual meetings with members are attended every year by Putin himself.

The club includes many other influential figures in Russian politics and finance, including controversial figures such as Joseph Mifsud, the Maltese academic accused of being a go-between for the Trump campaign and the Russian Government during the 2016 US Presidential Election.

In his book Putin’s Propaganda Machine, Marcel Van Herpen – a Dutch security expert on Russia – describes the Valdai Club as a Kremlin soft power forum to “create a testing ground for the Kremlin’s foreign policy initiatives”.

The paper in question – published in the Climate Policy journal in 2020 – is authored by Dr Igor Makarov, head of the School of World Economy and Laboratory for Economics of Climate Change at the Moscow-based Higher School of Economics (HSE). The HSE, which partly funded Dr Makarov’s paper, is one of the founding institutions of the Valdai Club Foundation, which runs the Valdai Club – and Dr Makarov himself is a contributing member of the club.

Dr Makarov’s study concluded that carbon emission reduction commitments under the Paris Agreement pose a direct threat to Russian economic growth to 2030, intensifying even more by 2050.

“Russia will not be able to sustain its current trajectory of fossil fuel export-based development due to climate policies worldwide,” the study states. This necessitates a “comprehensive development strategy” including economic diversification, with the largest areas for investment encompassing “manufacturing, services, agriculture and food production”.

In the study’s most stringent scenario of carbon emission reductions, “Russian fossil fuels exports would decrease dramatically for all categories of fossil fuels except oil products”.

The paper also points out that the fate of Russian oil exports will depend on the evolution of the world’s transport systems, noting the trend towards “tightening vehicle and fuel standards, development of public transportation and further progress in electric vehicles, especially in developed countries... would reduce their demand for crude oil and oil products”.

The study even flags up “progress in electric vehicles” as “the main factor” that could “result in additional risks for Russian oil exporters”.

Extraordinarily, this paper does not beat about the bush: Russia’s fossil fuel economy cannot survive the coming decades, it warns – and the only option is to rapidly diversify.

It states: “It is highly unlikely that Russia will be able to substantially expand its exports of fossil fuels that were the major driver of the country’s economic development in the 2000s. Restraints to exports that were previously observed on the supply side would shift to the demand side as the leading national economies tend to limit their consumption of fossil fuels.”

The way out suggested by this study is for the Russian Government to gently raise taxes on fossil fuel enterprises, while massively reinvesting in agriculture and food exports. But there is a problem: in recent years, Russia has faced mounting obstacles to further boosting its agricultural output.

Food as a National Security Tool

Other scientific papers commissioned and funded by the Russian Government reviewed by Byline Times throw new light on how Russian experts with state backing have perceived the inter-relationship between energy, land and food.

In 2010, Russia adopted its 'Food Security Doctrine' to achieve complete self-sufficiency in domestic food production. It made clear that Russian agriculture was integral to its wider national security strategy. By 2020, the doctrine was upgraded to achieve the goal of total independence from food imports.

But Russia’s food security strategy came at a cost – with domestic producers shielded from external competition, there was no drive to improve quality and reduce costs. As quality and competition declined – with the bulk of Russia’s food production controlled by a handful of oligarchs – the result was skyrocketing prices, exacerbated by the economic impact of the Coronavirus pandemic. Putin openly complained about the price hikes and responded with price-caps policed with ever more heavy-handed state interventions. But this is only a short-term solution.

In December 2021, a scientific paper – partly funded by the Ministry of Science and Higher Education of the Russian Federation – warned that the “narrowness” of Russia’s remarkable agricultural recovery over the past 20 years, with a small number of producing regions accounting for the bulk of output, “fosters fragility, which suggests that a downturn in production among main producers may cause a spike in food insecurity”.

The study found that second-tier food producing regions in Russia “are not able to compensate for significant production declines in the top 10... The upshot is that Russia’s agricultural production base will remain narrow and fragile, a fact that impacts domestic food security and food security in its export markets”.

Just a few months before this paper was published, Russia’s Ministry of Agriculture had already slashed its official grain harvest estimate for 2021-2022 from 127 to 123 million tonnes. Its wheat crop harvest projection was slashed to 75 million tonnes, down from 85 million last in 2020.

The Foreign Agricultural Service of the US Department of Agriculture had also projected an even smaller wheat harvest of 72.5 million tonnes, with Russian wheat exports expected to decline from 38.5 to 35 million tonnes. Unusually dry weather was identified as one culprit of the decline.

Climate Impacts – and the Lebensraum Solution

Climate change is likely to further destabilise Russia’s food system in the long-run, but Vladimir Putin has seen a potential opportunity in this development.

Another paper funded by the Russian Ministry of Science found “a significant and mostly positive influence of global climatic variables, such as the CO2 concentration, El Niño and La Niña events on both harvests and yields”.

These findings are broadly consistent with wider scientific literature showing how hotter temperatures could contribute to increased agricultural yields in certain northern regions.

Putin has long seized on such findings to trump the benefits of global heating. As early as 2003, he declared: “An increase of two or three degrees wouldn’t be so bad for a northern country like Russia. We could spend less on fur coats, and the grain harvest would go up.”

But this is only part of the picture. Buried within the conclusions of the same 2022 Russian Government-backed paper is the following acknowledgement: "The other side of the global warming trend is droughts. The forecasted increase in climate aridity poses additional risks to crop yields. In our models, the July temperatures have a significant and strong negative influence on most of the specifications. The main risks to crop production in Russia are increased aridity in the southwestern regions, which are currently the main producers of agricultural products, and the increased negative impact of pests and crop pathogens, which may spread their habitat to other regions.”

An earlier paper funded by the Russian Government’s Foundation for Basic Research published in Studies in Russian Economic Development came to similar conclusions. It offered a somewhat familiar solution: increasing the land area subject to Russian agriculture.

This paper concluded that “the impact of climate change on agricultural productivity is estimated to be moderately negative (due to the fact that the main negative effects will be observed in the southern regions with the most developed agricultural production)”.

The hope was that this can be compensated by an increase in expected yields due to climate change in central and north-west regions of Russia. Even so, the study warned that “the negative impact of global warming on crop yields in the southern regions will hamper the development of agricultural exports”.

Grain exports from Russia’s southern regions due to deteriorating “agro-climatic conditions” could fall by four to five million tonnes before 2030, the paper warned presciently. Relying on Russian agriculture alone, then, as an antidote to the world’s declining appetite for Russian fossil fuel exports would be a major gamble.

“To overcome these negative consequences”, the paper said, “it is necessary to carry out certain structural and technological shifts” with state support. Among the shifts it identified were changing crop structures and tillage methods, but most crucially to “increase the area of reclaimed land”.

It also called for Russia to substantially increase its stocks of emergency grain reserves.

Yet with production falling from 2020 to 2021, it was unclear how either of these could happen. While the paper did not call for a land war, it set up the logic that might make this appear a rational option.

Thus, in the years prior to the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Russian experts connected to Government institutions were warning that the country's fossil fuel export-dependent model of economic growth was bound to unravel in 2030 and beyond. The biggest driver of this, they anticipated, would be a combination of concerted, collective climate action and accelerating technology disruptions including electric vehicles – pinpointed as a particular risk to Russia’s oil hegemony.

One answer to the coming crisis was to massively ramp up other economic sectors, especially Russia’s other chief exports: food. But Russia was already in the midst of a domestic food system crisis.

Enter Ukraine.

Europe’s Breadbasket

These factors provide some indication of why Vladimir Putin may have decided to invade Ukraine at this time.

The suggestion is not that the Russian President personally read all of the studies documented in this article – but they surely reflect the tone of discussions going on at a high-level across the Russian Government.

Putin's strategy is consistent with many of these analyses. All in all, they help to explain how the perception of an imminent convergence of energy, food and economic crises intersected with his ideological vision of an expanded Russia and a reshaped Europe – culminating in the decision to launch an invasion of Ukraine. If Putin had waited any longer, the chance to reassert Russian power would have evaporated.

According to historian Lizzie Collingham, author of Taste of War: World War II and the Battle for Food: “People of the West are amazingly unaware of the importance of Ukraine to Russia, not only as a strategic location on the map of Europe but as the main competitor and potential contributor to Russian grain production.”

Ukraine is the former breadbasket of the Soviet Union and today is among the top three grain exporters in the world – with the capacity to feed half a billion people if not more. The country is the world’s top sunflower and sunflower oil producer and exporter, the fourth-largest potato producer, the fourth-largest exporter of maize, and the fifth-largest exporter of wheat – as well as a major producer and exporter of barley, corn, rye, and soybeans.

With 42 million hectares of agricultural land consisting of some of the most fertile soils in the world, its agricultural growth potential is significant.

Together, therefore, Russia and Ukraine play critical roles in global energy, food and fertiliser markets – with their exports representing more than a tenth of all the food calories traded in the world.

According to the Chatham House report, Russia and Ukraine collectively account for just over one half of global trade in sunflower oil and seeds, around a quarter of all traded wheat and barley, and around a sixth of traded maize and rapeseed. They are also “critical suppliers to food-deficit countries across North Africa and the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia”.

Russia itself is a major fertiliser supplier, accounting for “one-sixth of global trade in potassic fertilisers, more than one-tenth of nitrogenous fertilisers, and around one-sixth of mixed fertilisers”. Russia also dominates natural gas exports for the production of nitrogenous fertilisers across Europe.

“Who controls wheat supply can shape global politics,” Dimitris Dimitriadis and Iain Overton observed in these pages last month. “And if Putin’s end goal is to gain a dominance on global food markets – alongside reliable, year-round access to winter ports and key trading routes – Ukraine could well be the means”.

This appears to be a multi-pronged strategy: derail the clean energy transformation with a huge geopolitical, economic and raw materials supply shock; drive up fossil fuel prices indefinitely to facilitate immediate Russian energy firm profits but more importantly to make feasible the exploitation of expensive unconventional resources in Siberia; consolidate control of a strategic source of future agricultural power integral to both Europe’s and the entire world’s food system; allow continued climate change to increase northern agricultural yields to compensate for a brewing food crisis in the south, potentially buttressed by leveraging Ukraine’s agricultural potential for expanded food imports.

Given Russia’s 'hybrid war' approach, it is likely that we are witnessing a complex, shifting and not entirely consistent military, geopolitical and economic strategy for Russian resurgence – launched in response to intensifying warning signals of imminent decline. Central to that decline is the promise of accelerating global climate action on a scale never before contemplated.

Seen through this lens, Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine may well be, in effect, the world’s first organised state assault on the global climate movement. And it may not be the last.

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Lessons for the Left from Scandinavia

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 21/04/2022 - 6:00pm in

Progressive parties in the Nordic countries have also been wrestling with reactionary views towards immigration in recent years, documents Shafi Musaddique

Gaze towards northern Europe and you will see an alternative universe, one in which the left rules.

Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Norway and Iceland all have social democrat-led governments – an anomaly in the decline of the European centre-left. 

All these countries appear to be the realisation of a progressive, liberal democracy based on a strong welfare state and relative economic equality. When Sweden elected Magdalena Andersson as its first female leader in November, it cemented four out of five female leaders among the Nordic nations. 

But, scratch the surface, and you will find that the Nordic left is less rooted in the liberalism of equal opportunities than the stereotypes suggest. Indeed, decades of economic liberalisation and inflammatory right-wing rhetoric has co-opted a less generous mood. 

A pervasive narrative that non-European immigrants are largely to blame for a surge in crime has seen much of the Nordic left absorb elements of right-wing nationalism. This was witnessed in violence instigated by hardline anti-immigrant groups targeting Muslims in Sweden in recent weeks – the fruition of years of anti-immigrant rhetoric and policy.

Denmark has shifted the most against immigrants, shutting out non-native-born Danes from its welfare state – requiring them to work for 37 hours a week in order to receive benefits. Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen has openly admitted that the rules are directly aimed at women from “non-Western backgrounds” living on benefits.

Frederiksen has implemented ‘ghetto laws’ first established in 2010, that seek to break up neighbourhoods, particularly among Copenhagen’s Pakistani and Somali communities, in what Danes have called the “biggest social experiment of the century”.

Areas with higher than average jobless and crime rates, lower than average educational attainment and those with more than half of the population being first or second-generation migrants fall into the ‘ghetto’ list. More than 11,000 social homes are set to go, along with mass evictions of lower-income people, displacing them to areas where they have no prior links. 

The guidelines do not differentiate between non-Danish born residents and native Danes born to foreign parents. To put it simply, Denmark’s social cleansing policies hinge on race discrimination; high crime neighbourhoods with similar problems but occupied by mostly white Danes would not qualify as a ‘ghetto’.

Former Social Democrat Housing Minister Kaare Dybvad phased out the term ‘ghetto’ – seemingly believing that a change of labels is the way of applying a ‘tolerant’ touch when, in reality, the Danish centre-left has maintained previous right-wing policies. 

Sweden, too, appears to be copying Denmark’s playbook. Prime Minister Andersson has vowed to clamp down and deport “immigrant criminals”. It later turned out that an illegal immigrant, among the very people she has pursued with her rhetoric, had cleaned her house. 

Ideological Shape-Shifting

Britain’s left can heed the lessons of its Nordic counterparts.

According to Home Office figures, the Labour Government deported nearly 21,000 people in 2005. In 2019 to 2020, Priti Patel’s Home Office deported 13,000.

The Nordic left’s loosening grip of its identity, ideology and vision is a lesson for the British left, unable to catch the shifting of the sands. 

Working-class voters have moved towards the right at home and abroad through a growing antipathy towards immigrants and outsiders. In the Nordic countries, there are consequently more and more examples of the left pandering to this bigotry in order to win votes – sacrificing its principles in the process.

Though the UK Labour Party has condemned the Conservative Party’s reactionary policies on asylum seekers – notably its latest promise to deport certain asylum seekers to Rwanda – it has also failed to make the case for a new, tolerant and liberal settlement. Instead, Labour stands on the precipice of lurching right for short-term gain.

This is the strategy of Denmark’s ruling Social Democrats, harvesting voters from the populist Danish People’s Party. 

Nordic progressives used to win 40% or more of the vote – a share of the pie that has reduced in recent years, forcing them into coalitions with opponents, by virtue of their countries’ proportional voting systems.

Perhaps this is why ideological shape-shifting is more acceptable in these countries – the blurring of lines between political parties, involving coalitions and policy haggling – is built into their democracies.

But there have been new attempts from the left to reach a right-wing base without pandering to anti-immigration sentiments.

Sanna Marin, Finland’s popular Prime Minister, has focused on improving paternity rights by increasing parental leave for new fathers, from 2.2 months to 6.6 months. Critics argue that she must widen her appeal beyond urbanites – however, at a time when the UK Conservative Party thinks of itself as the cradle of ‘family values’, leftist policies from the Nordic countries point to an opportunity for Labour.

Meanwhile, there are those who continue to celebrate diversity in the Nordic countries – wrestling with perceptions and stereotypes of history that have cast these nations as mono-ethnic states, much like in Britain.

“A multi-ethnic Denmark is not an option to be accepted or rejected; it is existing fact of life, for better or worse, [but] integration is much less problematic than the rhetoric of politicians on the national scene would have us believe,” says Richard Jenkins in his study of paradoxical identities, Being Danish

The Swedish city of Malmo, pigeonholed by journalists who have overplayed the ‘immigrant crime’ sentiment, hosts an annual festival celebrating Turkish, Indian, Middle Eastern and Chinese food, packed with multi-ethnic locals. 

And, as the author Micheal Booth describes in his book, The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind The Myth Of The Scandinavian Utopia, Malmo’s diversity is a cause for celebration by all. When its migrant population is not targeted by hate, it can be – and is – “a city at peace with itself”.

Europe’s left, as in Britain, must settle on its place in a diverse, globalised world – establishing how it can appeal to socially conservative voters without sacrificing the cause of progress.

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The Neoliberal Origins of Russia’s War

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 21/04/2022 - 5:30pm in

US President Biden has called for ‘regime change’ in Russia, a statement that should recall previous US-led regime change crusades – in Chile (1973), Iraq and Afghanistan, among many. To put it mildly, they have not been unmitigated successes. But the regime change initiative that deserves our scrutiny today was the United States’ most ambitious and most relevant to the latest demand for change, which one would dearly like to see. This is because it embraced Russia and Ukraine thirty years ago.

Let me preface this article by saying that, fortuitously, I witnessed what the USA, the UK and others did on the ground. In 1990, on behalf of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), I organised an international conference on labour policy in Moscow, which emerged as a report just as the Soviet Union was dissolving. I was then appointed director of a programme set up by the ILO to advise governments in the region on social and labour policies in what was euphemistically called the ‘transition’ from ‘communist’ to a ‘market’ economy. 

Based in Budapest, for about four years I interacted with senior government ministers and officials of Russia, Ukraine and neighbouring countries while also having numerous meetings with economists and officials from the USA, other countries and international bodies such as the World Bank, the latter all committed to their version of regime change. It was a bizarre experience. I even met the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh and the Queen of The Netherlands as they played walk-on parts in helping to legitimise the expensive regime change plans.

From the outset, I strongly opposed what was happening, and gave numerous speeches and published articles and several books to that effect. Today, I believe that the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 is partly attributable to the neo-liberal strategy led by the USA in that period. The precise details of what has been happening were not predicted or predictable, but it was clear at the time that the fault lines leading to today’s quagmire lay in that strategy. One way of putting it is that it failed to lay the ghost of Stalinism, and created fertile ground for its resurgence. 

Shock doctrine

So, what was the foreign-directed strategy? Although different proponents had variants, it enshrined a doctrine fostered by economists at Harvard, LSE and elsewhere known as ‘shock therapy’, designed with one objective, turning Russia and Ukraine into capitalist economies. This was based on three premises. First, it was reasoned that pro-market reforms had to be introduced quickly, so that there was no time for ‘socialist’ forces to regroup and block reform. 

Second, a more technical premise was that priority had to be given to macro-economic policy, backed by aid conditionality to force the Russian (and Ukrainian) government to adhere to it, over and before micro-economic (structural) policy. This was based on the orthodox economic view that macro-stabilisation was a necessary prior for structural reform. This was the dominant reasoning of the International Monetary Fund. The third premise was that there had to be a particular sequencing of the macro-economic reforms. The combination of these three premises was literally the fatal, hubristic mistake.

Before describing what the shock therapy advisers prescribed in their frenzy of activities in Moscow, Kiev, St.Petersburg and elsewhere, I should mention that as soon as I was appointed to my ILO post we mobilised funds to conduct a series of detailed surveys of hundreds of industrial enterprises in Russia (1991-94) and in Ukraine (1992-96), and extensive household surveys covering many thousands of households in both countries. In effect, the data mapped the context and outcomes of the shock therapy doctrine. This seemed an essential task, but the shock therapy advisers charged ahead without worrying about evidence.   

Folly and hubris

It was an exercise of hubristic folly. The first set of reforms in the sequencing were price liberalisation, coupled with removal of price subsidies (except on energy). Bear in mind that production had collapsed, that strict price controls had existed for generations and that the production structure consisted of huge industrial enterprises with monopolistic characteristics, dominating whole sectors and regions. 

The effect of price liberalisation was thus an extraordinary burst of hyper-inflation. While we were working in Ukraine, in one year inflation was estimated at over 10,000%, and in Russia it was estimated at over 2,300%.[1] The impoverishment was lethal. Millions died prematurely; male life expectancy in Russia fell from 65 to 58 years, female from 74 to 68; the national suicide rate jumped to over three times the high level of the USA. 

In a collective state of denial, the western economic ‘advisers’ were almost Stalinist in their zeal. Their second policy was to slash public spending, with the double objective of squeezing inflationary pressure by curbing monetary demand and weakening the state. This had the immediate consequence of intensifying the rising mortality and morbidity. But it did something else that is affecting the whole world today. Wages and salaries in the public sector fell so low that the state ceased to function. This created a vacuum in which the kleptocrats thrived. I recall government ministers asking for $50 bribes just so they could feed their family. They were easy prey to ruthless gangsters, who in turn were bedfellows with ex-KGB officers, led by the new First Deputy Mayor of St.Petersburg, a certain Vladimir Putin.

One cannot overemphasise the folly of the anti-state ideology, when what was needed desperately was the nucleus of a professional civil service, backed by a proper legal system. But all the RCAs wanted was full-blown capitalism, which they saw as leading to a ‘Russian Boom’, in which ‘democracy and free markets have taken root for good’.

Mass privatisation

The third plank of the shock therapy sequencing was mass privatisation. It began as a bit of a joke, with privatisation ‘shares’ being handed out like confetti. I still have one somewhere, given to me by the Mayor of St.Petersburg. But it soon became a wild-west plunder. The World Bank, USAID, the new European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) in London and other foreign bodies allocated vast amounts to assist in speeding up the transfer to the new ‘entrepreneurs’. Over 15,000 state firms were sold off; kleptocrats became oligarchs overnight; their American and other foreign ‘advisers’ became multi-millionaires. This is when the criminality stretched across the Atlantic.

One still has to be circumspect in how one puts this. However, it was widely known that prominent economists in the ‘regime change’ community were linked to the rising oligarchy and making millions of dollars. Eventually, one case was brought to the Massachusetts High Court, where several professors pleaded guilty to insider trading. They paid modest fines, with Harvard paying much more, but the main one was allowed to continue his stellar career. Rest assured, he and others did very well.

Meanwhile, there was the awkward onset of the fourth phase of the sequencing, characterised as the ‘therapy’ after the ‘shock’. This was touted as building a new social policy system, based on standard neo-liberal lines, that is, a residual welfare state with as much privatisation as possible, beginning with pension systems and education. As some of us had argued from the outset, the erection of a universalistic social protection system should have been done before any ‘shock’ policies. Callously, implementing social policies was left to afterwards, and then only done patchily, with interminable delays.  

Carnage

The carnage was palpable. In this period, two personal events occurred that epitomised the madness of what was happening. In 1992, I was invited as a ‘labour market expert’ to give a lecture to Ministers of Finance and Ministers of Education from eastern European countries, organised by the World Bank in a Dutch castle, symbolically with its own moat. There I listened while the Ministers were told what policies they should be introducing if they wanted foreign loans or grants. 

The other event was even more bizarre. In 1993, I was chairing a small conference in France on minimum wages and basic income policies for eastern Europe when I received a phone call from a US Ambassador inviting me to Washington to give a briefing in the State Department. After doing background checks, I accepted and so found myself taken to the basement of the State Department. Sitting at a long table with a ‘minder’, I was surprised to find 12 men come in to sit on the other side. Chaired by an Under-Secretary of State, they identified themselves individually, and most said CIA.  

I told them that their policies were disastrous, that huge numbers of Russians and Ukrainians were dying as a result of shock therapy and that contrary to what they were reporting, real unemployment was about 25%, concealed by the fact that enterprises were retaining the work history books of workers to claim subsidies. I argued that the people with whom they were working at the political level were deeply corrupted, and that they should focus on providing direct aid to ordinary people if a lurch to neo-fascism was to be avoided.

I argued that restructuring of enterprises and the substitution of rules of regulation and law should take precedence over macro-economic reforms and privatisation. I poured as much scorn as I could on claims being made by the World Bank and prominent RCA economists that there was no unemployment, and argued that it was crazy for the Bank to withhold a large loan to aid the unemployed on the presumption that as one Bank report claimed, the unemployment rate was only 1%, backed by the statement, ‘Contrary to initial expectations, unemployment remains not only low but declining.’[2]  

This was ridiculous. It was clear that the neo-liberal strategy was simply creating a kleptocratic capitalism, a virulent form of rentier capitalism that was taking shape globally. A new class structure emerged, with a plutocracy of oligarchs, a tiny salariat (including educated people trying to build a decent society), a lumpenised proletariat (ageing, atavistic) and a rapidly growing precariat. The oligarchs in Ukraine were split, with Russian-speaking heavies allied to their Russian counterparts in mafia-style conflict with Ukrainian-speaking oligarchs. There were also a few Bulgarians, Romanians and others in their orbit, and they all soon found they could mingle comfortably with the financial and other plutocrats in London, Wall Street and elsewhere. 

Venal kleptocracy

After the State Department meeting, I returned to Hungary. Several months later, I was invited back to Washington to brief the Department of Labor. Afterwards, they gave me a cocktail, and at the back I saw two of the CIA officers who had been in the State Department briefing. I asked them what had happened after the first briefing. One said to me, conspiratorially, ‘Quite frankly, it went right to the top….and he doesn’t believe you.’ He meant President Clinton. 

Several months after that, the Russian elections took place, and the new party of the neo-Stalinist ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who advocated invasion of Ukraine, gained 23% of the vote, with the US-backed neo-liberal party reduced to a rump. I sent a one-liner telegram to one of the CIA officers, ‘Does the State Department believe me now?’ I was told later that this caused some wry amusement.[3]

In sum, the regime change strategy had generated a venal kleptocracy, and in line with that today we have globally a morally indefensible form of rentier capitalism where plutocrats are funding major political parties and politicians in their interest. It is the most unfree market economy ever conceived and it is not sufficient to see the UK as Butler to the World, however apt that description might be. The state is deeply corrupted, and we will not escape the quagmire until a new progressive, transformative politics emerges, one that could mobilise the precariat in all parts of the world. 

The evil being perpetrated by Russia will not be defeated by military means alone. Of course, we should all admire and support the incredibly courageous Ukrainians. But it is a transformation of our own societies that must be achieved. In response to the rush towards an ecological dystopia and a grotesquely unequal and insecure existence for so many, progressives in politics must have a coherent, well-articulated strategy for dismantling rentier capitalism.

Today, neo-liberalism is not the primary enemy. Today is the time for a new radicalism based on principled opposition to the global plutocracy and to the system of rentier capitalism that is based on rapacious plunder. We need a new Renaissance, to revive conviviality, commoning, republican freedom and equality. So far, in Britain and elsewhere, that transformative vision is being held back by excessive pragmatism by old-left parties. However, just as Nature abhors a vacuum, so does the human condition. We need a progressive revolt, one that crosses national boundaries and that is ecologically redistributive. One can see the green shoots, but must just hope there is time for them to grow. 

Guy Standing is Professorial Research Associate, SOAS University of London, a Fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a councillor of the Progressive Economy Forum. His new book is entitled The Blue Commons: Rescuing the Economy of the Sea.

[1] These and following statistics were collated for two books at the time. See G.Standing (ed.), The Ukrainian Challenge: Reforming Labour Market and Social Policy (Budapest, ILO-UNDP, 1994); G.Standing, Russian Unemployment and Enterprise Restructuring: Reviving Dead Souls (London, Macmillan, 1996).

[2] This view was backed by leading shock therapy advocates, such as Jeffrey Sachs and Anders Aslund. For references, see my book

[3] [Zhirinovsky remained in the Duma until his death from Covid, ironically on April 6, 2022, with his dream of invasion of Ukraine realised. His original party had been funded by the right-wing French politician, Jean-Marie Le Pen, with whom he remained close.]

The post The Neoliberal Origins of Russia’s War appeared first on The Progressive Economy Forum.

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