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Inside Germany’s slaughterhouses: the human cost of cheap meat

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For more than 20 years, Raya had scraped by, earning the equivalent of €200 a month at a hospital in Sofia, ­Bulgaria. But in September 2019, the 48-year-old widow risked everything to move west. She did it for her daughter. “I wanted to give her the chance to realise her dreams,” Raya says, anxiously rolling cigarettes, her hands mottled by red scars. “Desperation forced me to Germany.”

Her initial attempts were humiliating. First, Raya (not her real name), was swindled by fake recruiters. They disappeared after she paid a deposit. Next, she was unwittingly hired by an eastern European mafia ring to work in a vegetable warehouse near Munich, where she was quickly arrested and deported.

Then, in December 2019, while scrolling through Facebook, Raya found “the Müllers”, two Macedonians based in Germany. They recruited workers for companies like Besselmann, subcontractors to major European meat producers such as Vion and Tönnies. One post showed workers in hair nets and rubber gloves, working with large cuts of meat. Wages, Raya was told, were €1,600-€1,900 a month.

She quickly headed to Rheda-Wiedenbrück — a north-west German town of white-washed, ­half-timbered buildings. Recruited by the Müllers and now employed by Besselmann, she started working at the largest abattoir in Germany, the Tönnies logo of a smiling bull, cow and pig twirling overhead.

A shift change at the Tönnies abattoir in Rheda-Wiedenbrück, north-west Germany © Jasper Bastian

The first hint something was wrong was her shabby hostel, arranged by Besselmann, where she was charged €300 a month for a bed in a shared room. Her paychecks, also from Besselmann, were the next blow: the first two came to just €496 apiece, and she could not understand why. Nor did she have time to try: she was put to work 10 hours a day, seven days a week, for three months straight.

On some days, Raya says, she wasn’t given gloves and her fingers went numb handling frozen meat. On others, she lifted so many 30kg boxes she could not feel her swollen wrists. She never called a doctor. The foreman, she says, yelled and threw boxes at workers to move them faster and threatened to fire anyone who took a sick day. “When I was arrested previously, in Munich, I discovered I’d been the victim of a mafia,” she says. “This felt the same, only worse — because this is actually legal.”

Raya kept working, depressed and in pain, until July, when a coronavirus outbreak infected 1,500 Tönnies workers and forced the entire municipality into lockdown. More than 7,000 workers — including Raya, who never knew whether she tested positive — endured weeks of strict quarantine.

The Tönnies outbreak became the worst of many to hit German abattoirs and farms, sparking a public outcry that forced Europe’s largest economy to reckon with an open secret, long ignored. While Germany is known for strong trade unions and harmonious labour relations, several pockets of its economy are dependent on cheap migrant labour and have been accused of exploitative conditions — from trucking and home nursing to parcel delivery and seasonal harvests. Nowhere was this starker than in the service of cheap meat.

Even after the pandemic shone a light on slaughterhouse conditions, it took labour minister Hubertus Heil months of wrangling to push a bill through parliament banning subcontracting systems in the meat industry. The law, which came into force at the start of January, has activists and trade unionists cheering. They agree it is the most exhaustive reform attempted yet. But court battles loom, and monitoring any violations or loopholes is up to the same political class that ignored the problem for decades. The coming months will test whether the fight is really won.

“When I read this law, I can see Heil fought hard,” says Jutta Krellmann, a Bundestag member from the leftist party Die Linke. “But it was a compromise that kept a few doors open … We don’t know yet what will happen.”

A Romanian couple who both work in the Rheda-Wiedenbrück abattoir. Under the terms of the new law, meat companies must hire all their workers directly — and pay them local rates © Jasper Bastian

Transforming Germany’s meat industry is an uphill slog: entrenched lobbies and political interests are deeply intertwined with industrialised food production; consumers have become accustomed to low prices. Even as meat consumption is declining within Germany, its ­production remains big business: 8.6 million tonnes in 2019, making the country one of the largest producers in Europe, and the third-largest pork exporter worldwide.

But this success comes at a price, not just to workers like Raya but by perpetuating inequalities across Europe — enabling corrupt practices in poorer eastern states and undermining western states’ attempts to impose fairer conditions. The unsettling lesson of Germany’s meat industry is that even apparently well-­regulated markets can inflict deep costs beyond a country’s borders.

“The German meat sector has been a major source of unfair competition,” says Enrico Somaglia, deputy general secretary of EFFAT, an association of European trade unions. “It’s really time to act. There is no option B. It’s important for ­Germany, it’s important for Europe.”


The rise of Tönnies reflects a much broader story. Fifty years ago, the Tönnies family owned a small local butchery. But as food production became industrialised, local ­abattoirs became unprofitable. Brothers Bernd and Clemens ­Tönnies bought up, modernised and enlarged plants, while also fostering relationships with grocery chains through lower prices.

Today, its Rheda-Wiedenbrück abattoir alone slaughters 20,000 pigs daily, and Tönnies is one of four companies controlling 55 per cent of German pork production. Its 2018 revenues were €6.7bn. Clemens Tönnies, who is worth €2.3bn, now features on Forbes’ list of Europe’s wealthiest and enjoys relationships with powerful figures such as ­Russian president Vladimir Putin.

Critics say the success of Tönnies and other German businesses is rooted in agreements between the EU and eastern European countries that began in the 1990s, allowing EU companies to hire “posted workers” from companies outside the bloc, paying the same wages they would earn back home. They received the equivalent of €3-€5 an hour, roughly a third of what Germans typically earned. Some companies’ workers did 16- to 20- hour shifts and lived in tents in the forests.

Romanian abattoir workers in Rheda-Wiedenbrück in their shared apartment. Subcontractors – banned under the new law – were often accused of over-charging workers for poor accommodation and skimming their wages
Romanian abattoir workers in Rheda-Wiedenbrück in their shared apartment. Subcontractors — banned under the new law — were often accused of over-charging workers for poor accommodation and skimming their wages © Jasper Bastian

The advantage to German businesses became so great that producers such as Vion, from the Netherlands, and Danish Crown moved some operations to Gemany rather than try to compete. By 2014, public outrage and complaints from neighbouring countries pushed the industry in Germany to agree a minimum wage. A year later, to avoid legislation, companies also pledged to stop using posted workers.

But no sooner had unions and activists celebrated the end of the old model when a new one emerged. In place of posted workers, meat companies hired new subcontractors to recruit workers — now technically German companies, yet often with the same eastern ­European owners.

Subcontracting, which provided about two-thirds of abattoir workers, removed responsibility from meat companies. An abattoir did not hire workers directly; it paid subcontractors a flat rate for a given service — a certain amount of animals slaughtered or meat produced, for example. The subcontractors provided the workers, and thus were responsible for their pay, treatment and sometimes housing. But because subcontractors were paid by production, not by the hour, it was profitable to push workers to work ever faster, in long, gruelling shifts. Few workers withstood such conditions for longer than a year.

To keep a steady supply of fresh labour, subcontractors relied on middlemen, who regularly brought workers from eastern Europe. Some were formal operations but many, like the Müller brothers who recruited Raya, advertise on ­Facebook with cartoons, alongside pictures of themselves at casinos and partying.

“Sick tricks” by subcontracting companies to skim wages are common, according to a Besselmann foreman who requested anonymity. One involves helping register workers for child benefits and tax cuts — free state services — in return for commissions which can be €20-€500, according to interviews with subcontractors and groups that counsel migrant workers. Another, the foreman says, falsely inflates salaries by including commuter tax benefits for which migrant workers are not eligible. Inevitably, the state reclaims the taxes. “The worker doesn’t know what to do — they’re already in Germany and now they discover their salary is far lower,” the foreman said. He did not say whether Besselmann did this.

Both the Müllers and Besselmann declined repeated requests for comment.

The links between subcontractors, recruiters and other middlemen are murky. Piotr Mazurek, a counsellor at Fair Mobility, a government-funded programme for migrant workers, believes this is intentional.

He spends his days parsing confusing payslips and helping workers reclaim wages, fight unfair housing rentals or spot illegal “fees” for knives or protective abattoir gear. “You have farmers and workers on one hand, and you have consumers on the other hand, and you have a big black box in between,” says Mazurek. “That black box is making millions every year.”


When discussing the origins of this “black box,” many activists point to MGM Handels- und Vermittlungs, owned by Romanian businessman Dumitru Miculescu. His company last year employed 1,700 workers, contracting with several of Germany’s biggest meat producers, including Tönnies.

Miculescu’s success was helped by a television station in Dambovita, an hour’s drive from Bucharest.

A January 2019 spot, for example, which looks like a news report, introduces a man called Gabriel, who describes working at a German abattoir for six years with MGM Handels and being “treated just like the other workers, who are from Poland or even Germany”. Similar spots ran as late as spring 2020. None mentions that MGM Handels and the TV station are owned by the same man’s family: Miculescu.

Alexandru Iancu, 28, who worked for MGM Handels at Tönnies for two years, describes a different reality. He says he regularly did 16- to 18-hour shifts, received no overtime and returned at daylight to a cockroach-infested room. One colleague cut off four fingers following pressure to work quickly, he recalls. When Iancu cut his own finger, he only saw a doctor three days later.

About 20,000 pigs are slaughtered daily at Tönnies’ Rheda-Wiedenbrück abattoir. The company, one of four controlling 55 per cent of German pork production, reported revenues of €6.7bn in 2018
About 20,000 pigs are slaughtered daily at Tönnies’ Rheda-Wiedenbrück abattoir. The company, one of four controlling 55 per cent of German pork production, reported revenues of €6.7bn in 2018 © Jasper Bastian

“Most come to us only once they can no longer stand the pain,” says one doctor in the area, requesting anonymity. The worst injuries, he says, are often hidden: severe depression, which fuels rampant alcoholism and brawling.

Iancu says some co-workers just gave up on weeks of unpaid salary and went home. Two recruiters and one former subcontractor say withholding final pay was one of many strategies to skim wages.

“[The] money never reaches that employee,” says the former subcontractor, who now works at a leading German meat company and requested anonymity. Subcontractors handling even just 150 employees monthly, he said, could “make tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of euros”.

Miculescu called allegations against his company “fabulations” during a phone call with the FT, but hung up before they could all be put to him. He did, however, say he was no longer in the subcontracting business as of December 2020. A follow-up email went unanswered.

Thomas Dosch, a spokesman for Tönnies, says his company never tolerated abuse. “I don’t think we can say they [workers] are exploited,” he says, arguing some kept silent about injuries in order to work enough hours for month-long home leaves. Dosch said Tönnies has taken major steps to improve the situation for workers after the public outcry last summer, including introducing “integration specialists” into the company’s work council and a confidential ombudsman. Responding to accounts read to him by the FT, he replied: “There has always been trouble with subcontractors … But the responsibility is put on the slaughter companies instead.”

Germany’s system of migrant abattoir workers is also a symptom of broader ‘east-west disparities persisting three decades after the Iron Curtain’s collapse’, says former MEP Clotilde Armand
Germany’s system of migrant abattoir workers is also a symptom of broader ‘east-west disparities persisting three decades after the Iron Curtain’s collapse’, says former MEP Clotilde Armand © Jasper Bastian
Inside a shared abattoir workers’ apartment. ‘Raya’, from Bulgaria, was charged €300 a month for a bed in a shared room in a shabby hostel by the subcontractor she worked for
Inside a shared abattoir workers’ apartment. ‘Raya’, from Bulgaria, was charged €300 a month for a bed in a shared room in a shabby hostel by the subcontractor she worked for © Jasper Bastian

For counsellors such as Mazurek, this is no excuse. He sees a vicious cycle, from consumers seeking cheap prices to the grocery chains competing to provide them, all pressuring meat producers for lower costs. They meet that demand by ignoring subcontractors’ aggressive practices on abattoir floors: “Ultimately, they are the cause of all this,” he says. “Everyone is in a race to the bottom. It’s naive to say, ‘We didn’t know.’”

The doctor, drinking a socially distanced beer after work, wonders what all this says about him, his neighbours, Germany and Europe. For years, he has driven to work past the labourers waiting outside the metal gates, cramming themselves into white vans, and said nothing.

“It’s a great system here — the only problem is, it can’t survive without all these poor people. If you think of it that way, this is what we want — we don’t want to pay the extra euros,” he says. “When you work a lot, you don’t think about it. I just sew those guys up and let them go. They survive their shift, and I survive mine.”


Just a few kilometres away, at a lakeside café in Rheda-Wiedenbrück, Raya chain-smokes and waits for a friend. She fears being watched closer to her hostel, though in her baggy work clothes she stands out among the tables of women wearing delicate jewellery, sipping cappuccinos.

Earlier that week, Raya and some fellow workers confronted Besselmann about unpaid wages. It sent them to their German middleman, a woman known as “Heidi”. Heidi sent them to their original recruiters, the Müller brothers, who directed her back to Heidi. Afterwards, one co-worker believed he was being followed and they panicked.

So now, Raya and her friend pore over her payslips, trying to make sense of where her money went. One problem is missing hours that Raya insists she worked. Another is that Besselmann transferred money for “transport services”, which Raya says she was not using, to an account associated with the Müllers. “I feel like a victim of some kind of modern slavery,” she says. “The worst part is the helplessness and desperation.”

That desperation has turned into anger. In September, Raya left Rheda-Wiedenbrück, seeking work elsewhere. Every month since, she has made a 120km drive back to demand her unpaid wages.

Experiences like Raya’s are an example of inequality that has been perpetuated across the continent, according to Clotilde Armand, a former member of the European parliament and now mayor of a district in Bucharest. She sees the system of migrant abattoir workers in Germany as a symptom of east-west disparities persisting three decades after the Iron Curtain’s collapse.

Corporate EU legal infrastructure created advantages for western companies, she says, so that while products such as meat should in theory be processed in eastern Europe, where raw materials are cheaper, instead they are made by eastern European workers in ­Germany — then exported back to eastern Europe and sold in German-owned supermarkets. Meanwhile, EU subsidies are imbalanced: the subsidy per cattle head or hectare of land in Romania is at most half that in the west, Armand says: “The money is flowing from the east to the west, not the other way around.”

Seventeen per cent of Romania’s population are employed but on the brink of poverty — the highest rate in Europe, according to Eurostat. The EU average is 9.6 per cent. So many Romanians left the country in 2001-2016 that they became the fifth-largest national group of emigrants, according to OECD figures.

Eastern Europeans notice the disparity, Armand says, and it fuels Eurosceptic populism in their countries. “It is to our advantage [for the EU] to be more just.”


It is shift change on a wet morning at the Vion abattoir in the northern German town of Cloppenburg. Triple-tiered trucks filled with pigs clatter through the metal gates, their cargo squealing frantically. Refrigerated trucks of meat roll out. Mazurek is waiting outside with his colleague, Manuela Szabó, one of many new hires to bolster Fair Mobility; the group has been tasked with informing workers about the law and seeking their help for its enforcement by the labour ministry. Armed with fliers in several languages, they wait for white vans packed full of workers — despite pandemic conditions.

Men and women, teenagers and middle-aged, emerge in sweatpants. Their hands, covered in cuts, clutch plastic bags filled with sodas, sandwiches and hand towels. Workers finishing their shifts head toward the vans, their limbs so stiff many are limping, their foreheads creased red by hair nets. For three hours, the cycle repeats. Szabó, Mazurek and members of the NGG food and beverage union pass out fliers, call out promises of a new era: “Full salaries! No more wage deductions! No more subcontractors!”

Manuela Szabó and Piotr Mazurek from the government-funded Fair Mobility programme, which informs workers about the new law. Its fliers demand ‘Full salaries!’, ‘No more wage deductions!’ and ‘No more subcontractors!’
Manuela Szabó and Piotr Mazurek from the government-funded Fair Mobility programme, which informs workers about the new law. Its fliers demand ‘Full salaries!’, ‘No more wage deductions!’ and ‘No more subcontractors!’ © Jasper Bastian

Szabó translates for Romanian workers who have crowded around her. Two teenage sisters in sequined trainers pump their fists and dance in celebration: “Finally!” But one older man shakes his head and pushes up toward Szabó. He waves away her fliers, then says gently: “I’ve been working in Germany for six years. For the last five, I’ve been told things would get better. Trust me: here, nothing changes.”


The question of whether the new law can produce lasting change remains. Labour minister Hubertus Heil fought for it up to the final weeks of the Bundestag’s 2020 session, as MPs from the Christian Democrats (CDU), the senior member of Germany’s ruling coalition, demanded concessions. “This is about a fairer European level playing field,” he told the FT at the time. “We must now, at the very latest now, radically clean up.” He even issued an unusual warning to politicians: Do not speak to the meat industry.

Dosch, the Tönnies spokesman, says Heil’s aggressive stance prevented consensus critical for the law’s success. “There are politicians who come forward, declare solidarity in private, but in public they are against the meat industry,” he adds.

The CDU in particular illustrates the deep relationships between agribusiness and Germany’s political class. Several CDU MPs sitting on parliamentary agricultural or economic committees have received tens of thousands of euros in recent years from positions with agricultural associations, according to German transparency website Parliament Watch. This is also true for Heil’s own Social Democrats — former SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel earned €10,000 a month for a three-month consultancy for Tönnies last year, according to transparency filings.

Historically, industry ties were so strong that, according to Beatte Müller-Gemmeke, a Green MP, one former CDU parliamentarian actually hid a planned amendment to a 2017 law from fellow party members until voting time. The amendment, which required higher abattoir inspection rates, passed. But two years later, when she requested statistics, Müller-Gemmeke discovered inspections had dropped, even as injuries and violations had risen.

In the state of Thuringia, she found, every inspection turned up a violation. “That law came to nothing.”

Müller-Gemmeke cautiously welcomes Heil’s law; banning subcontracting is a major step. But inspections remain a concern. The law only requires a 5 per cent of abattoirs to be inspected by 2026, and she worries it could take years to know whether the law works. “Just because there is the law, it doesn’t get better,” she says. “It simply must be inspected.”

But the government faces a tricky balancing act. Some associations vowed legal challenges for unfairly singling out the meat industry.

A few companies hinted at moving abroad. “Tönnies himself comes from Rheda … He is rooted in the region,” says Dosch. “But it must still be possible to work. A company that pays €50m taxes in the district also contributes to the common good.” Tönnies already has factories in Spain, Denmark and the UK, where Dosch says the company is, by contrast, “treated as welcome guests”.

He says Tönnies is complying with the new law, directly hiring thousands of workers. Meanwhile, subcontractors such as Besselmann, and middlemen such as the Müllers, are recruiting for other industries, from cigarette and cosmetic factories to parcel deliveries.

Pigs arriving at Tönnies Weidemark abattoir in Sögel. ‘Raya’, a Bulgarian woman who worked 10-hour shifts, seven days a week, during her first three months in Germany, hopes ‘something good will happen with the new law’
Pigs arriving at Tönnies Weidemark abattoir in Sögel. ‘Raya’, a Bulgarian woman who worked 10-hour shifts, seven days a week, during her first three months in Germany, hopes ‘something good will happen with the new law’ © Jasper Bastian

Industry opponents suspect these outfits will survive, whether through unforeseen loopholes or because companies still need help finding thousands of workers to bring to Germany. Meat companies are also struggling to buy nearby housing — much of it, according to local activists, has already been bought up by middlemen. The Orbis database of private companies shows both MGM Handels and Besselmann have registered real estate agencies.

As for Raya, she has a new job at a poultry abattoir, chopping and cleaning carcasses, with weekends off. One former colleague was directly hired by Tönnies and says conditions are improving. Another gave up on his unpaid wages and returned to Bulgaria. Raya has clawed back all but €700 of hers, and is still fighting. The new law has buoyed her: “I hope something good will happen.”

Erika Solomon is the FT’s Berlin correspondent. Valerie Hopkins is the FT’s south-east Europe correspondent. Alexander Vladkov is an FT editorial assistant based in Frankfurt. Additional reporting by Cynthia O’Murchu

Follow @FTMag on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first. Listen to our podcast, Culture Call, where FT editors and special guests discuss life and art in the time of coronavirus. Subscribe on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you listen.





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German ruling party backs Laschet as candidate to succeed Merkel as chancellor

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Armin Laschet has won the backing of Germany’s governing Christian Democratic Union in his bid to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor, after a campaign that exposed deep rifts in the party five months before national elections.

Thirty-one of 46 members of the CDU’s executive committee backed Laschet in a secret vote, with his rival, Markus Söder, prime minister of Bavaria, receiving just nine, according to the party. There were six abstentions.

The result means Laschet is all but certain to be the centre-right’s candidate for chancellor in September’s Bundestag election, when Merkel will bow out after 16 years as Germany’s leader.

Söder, who is leader of the Christian Social Union, the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, had said he would accept a clear vote in favour of Laschet.

But the ballot revealed deep misgivings among senior Christian Democrats about Laschet’s suitability to run. The party executive had given its unanimous backing to his candidacy last week, but he garnered just 77.5 per cent of the vote, with 22.5 per cent going to Söder.

Laschet, 60, was elected CDU leader in January. But he has struggled in the polls, and many in the CDU/CSU bloc thought they had a better chance of winning the election with Söder as their candidate.

The chaos within the ruling party has also reflected its performance in the polls. The CDU surged to almost 40 per cent last year as voters rewarded it for Germany’s deft handling of the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic.

But its approval rating has slumped in 2021 as public anger mounted over the slow pace of Covid-19 vaccinations and the revelation that some MPs earned huge commissions on deals to procure face masks.

The CDU also faces a strong challenge from the opposition Greens, which some pollsters believed could take the chancellery in the election. The party chose Annalena Baerbock, a 40-year-old MP, as its candidate for chancellor, in a smooth process that marked a sharp contrast with the open power struggle in the CDU/CSU.

The son of a miner, Laschet studied law and edited a Catholic newspaper before being elected to the Bundestag in 1994. He served as a minister in the government of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, in the 1990s and became prime minister there in 2017.

Laschet is an ideological ally of Merkel and has said that if elected chancellor, he would continue her middle-of-the-road policies. He was long considered her natural successor.

But his popularity has suffered over the course of the pandemic, when he has come across as hesitant and erratic. By contrast, Söder, who earned a reputation as a decisive crisis manager, has seen his polling soar.

The poll ratings of Markus Söder, prime minister of Bavaria, had soared, but he said he would respect the CDU executive committee’s decision ahead of the vote © Reuters

Laschet was endorsed on Monday by some of the CDU’s most influential grandees, such as Wolfgang Schäuble, the former finance minister and Bundestag president, Volker Bouffier, prime minister of the western state of Hesse, and Ralph Brinkhaus, leader of the CDU/CSU parliamentary group.

But other members of the executive, such as Peter Altmaier, economy minister and a close Merkel ally, favoured Söder, a move that will badly dent Laschet’s authority.

The prime ministers of Saxony-Anhalt and Saarland also broke ranks with Laschet in recent days and threw their weight behind Söder, saying he enjoyed far more support among the party’s rank-and-file members. The powerful youth wing of the CDU, the Junge Union, also backed the Bavarian.

Söder garnered support among many CDU MPs who fear they will lose their seats in September if Laschet leads the campaign.

Some attendees of Monday’s meeting said the CDU/CSU parliamentary group and regional party bosses should be involved in any decision on who should run for chancellor.

But Laschet insisted that only the executive could decide and demanded a vote to resolve the issue. “We should decide today, as we planned to at the beginning,” he said, according to participants.

Söder made clear he would respect the CDU executive’s decision, telling reporters this week he had made the party a proposal “but only the CDU can decide if it wants to accept this offer”.



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After Afghanistan, China and Russia will test Biden

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“America is back” proclaimed Joe Biden, a few weeks ago. But in Afghanistan, America is out. The US president has just announced the withdrawal of all remaining American troops from the country. A 20-year war will end on the symbolic date of 9/11, 2021.

The watching world will wonder if a gap is emerging between White House rhetoric about re-engagement with the world, and a reality of continuing retreat. Biden insists that this is not the case. He argues that America has achieved its counter-terrorism aims in Afghanistan and now intends to “fight the battles for the next 20 years, not the last 20”.

But perception matters. The danger is that the pullout from Afghanistan will be seen outside America as a Vietnam-like failure that could eventually lead to the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, a replay of the fall of Saigon to North Vietnam in 1975.

Rival powers, in particular Russia and China, could now be emboldened to test the Biden administration’s resolve a little further. The obvious flashpoints are Ukraine and Taiwan. In recent weeks, the Kremlin has assembled more troops on its border with Ukraine than at any time since 2014 when Russia grabbed Crimea. Last week, China sent a record number of military jets into Taiwanese airspace. Both countries are combining military muscle-flexing with warlike rhetoric.

Biden himself has used confrontational language with Russia and China. He has called Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, a killer and his administration has branded China’s actions in Xinjiang a genocide. The US also recently imposed sanctions on Russian and Chinese officials and has eased restrictions on American officials meeting their Taiwanese counterparts.

The strategic situation in Asia and Europe is similar in one key respect. The US has expressed strong support for both Taiwan and Ukraine, but neither country enjoys an explicit American security guarantee. The US relies on a policy of “strategic ambiguity” over Taiwan. The idea is that China should understand there is a strong chance that the US would fight to defend Taiwan, without a firm promise being made. In a similar way, the US has never spelt out what it would do if Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Although Taiwan and Ukraine are separated by thousands of miles and involve different antagonists, the two stand-offs feel connected. Ivo Daalder, a former US ambassador to Nato, believes that: “Moscow and Beijing will look closely at how we react in one situation to set the stage for the other.” Daalder argues that “we need greater strategic clarity on what we would do if Russia moved militarily against Ukraine, or China on Taiwan”.

There are voices in the US calling for America to now make an explicit security guarantee to Taiwan, and for Nato to accelerate the process that would allow Ukraine to join its alliance. The hope is that these moves would deter Moscow and Beijing, and so reduce the risk of war starting by miscalculation. The argument against these policy changes is that China and Russia may interpret them as a threatening shift in the status quo — and feel compelled to respond. American allies in Asia and Europe may also feel that explicit security guarantees for Taiwan and Ukraine are too provocative. The joint statement issued by Biden and Yoshihide Suga, the Japanese prime minister, after a meeting last week, stressed the importance of peace in the Taiwan Strait, but remained vague about how Washington and Tokyo might respond if conflict broke out.

It would obviously be particularly difficult for the Biden administration to respond to simultaneous crises over Taiwan and Ukraine. Some western strategists are concerned that Moscow and Beijing may be co-ordinating their actions, to maximise the pressure on the Biden administration. They point to an increase in the frequency of high-level meetings between the Russian and Chinese governments. Beijing and Moscow also made statements, after a recent meeting between their foreign ministers, which signalled a deepening of their strategic relationship and a more open rejection of a western-led world order.

The internal situations in Russia and China may also be raising the dangers of conflict. Putin recently imprisoned Alexei Navalny, the most popular and dangerous opposition leader he has ever faced. Navalny is currently on hunger strike and may soon die, sparking further protests. The Kremlin knows that conflict over Ukraine boosted Putin’s popularity back in 2014. Another small war may look like a tempting option.

As the Chinese Communist party prepares to celebrate the centenary of its foundation later this year, President Xi Jinping may be looking for a triumph over Taiwan. American officials believe that Xi and his advisers have convinced themselves that the US is in deep and terminal decline. They fear that the Chinese leadership may believe the US would ultimately back down rather than fight over Taiwan.

But even the most confident and nationalistic officials in Beijing and Moscow will still be conscious of the risks of head-on confrontation over Taiwan and Ukraine. The likelihood is that Russia and China will continue to use “grey zone” tactics that stop just short of all-out conflict. As America discovered in Afghanistan, it is much easier to start a war than to control its outcome.

gideon.rachman@ft.com



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Alexei Navalny’s supporters say his life is ‘hanging by a thread’

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Supporters of jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny have called on Russians to protest against his harsh treatment in prison, saying that it could end in his imminent death.

Leonid Volkov, who runs Navalny’s foundation from exile in Vilnius, Lithuania, said in a video message on Sunday that the anti-corruption activist’s life was “hanging by a thread” 19 days into a hunger strike in protest at the prison’s refusal to let him see a doctor of his choice.

“However we might want not to think about it, distance ourselves, or change the subject — it doesn’t change the fact that they’re killing Alexei Navalny. In the most terrible fashion. In front of all of us,” Volkov said.

“And the question rises before all of us, whether we want it or not: are we ready to do something to save the life of a man who’s risked his own for us for many years?”

Yaroslav Ashikhmin, a cardiologist, posted test results on Saturday that he said showed Navalny had heightened creatine levels that could bring about kidney failure, as well as potentially fatal levels of potassium that could cause a cardiac arrest at “any moment”.

The sharp deterioration of Navalny’s health comes as the Kremlin appears increasingly resolved to eliminate the threat from President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent critic.

Russian prosecutors said on Friday they would move to have Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation and his network of regional offices declared an “extremist organisation”, an unprecedented step that would essentially shut down his operations while exposing his team to potential criminal prosecution.

Navalny’s supporters described the crackdown on their group and his harsh treatment in prison as a “desperate attack” by the Kremlin in response to Putin’s declining approval ratings amid a years-long economic decline.

“If we don’t speak up now, the darkest times for free people are at hand. Russia will descend into total hopelessness. Peaceful political activity in Russia will be impossible,” Ivan Zhdanov, the head of Navalny’s foundation, said.

Navalny’s team called for the protest — which they called “the final battle between good and neutrality” — to be held on Wednesday evening on a square outside the Kremlin. Putin is set to give his annual state-of-the-nation speech to Russia’s elite just a few hours earlier.

The rally will be a big test of support for Navalny — and the Kremlin’s willingness to crack down on it — after a heavy-handed police response forced them to abandon protests over his arrest in more than 100 cities this January.

Navalny, 44, was arrested at a Moscow airport in January immediately upon returning from Germany, where he spent five months recuperating from a poisoning with the military nerve agent novichok.

He was then ordered to spend two and a half years in prison for missing parole meetings relating to a 2014 suspended sentence — including several while he was in a coma after the poisoning.

On Saturday, US president Joe Biden said Navalny’s treatment was “totally, totally unfair, totally inappropriate on the basis of having been poisoned and then on a hunger strike. Wrong”.

The Kremlin has denied any involvement in Navalny’s poisoning, imprisonment, and the terms of his confinement.

“He will not be allowed to die in prison, but I can say that Mr Navalny, he behaves like a hooligan, absolutely,” Andrei Kelin, Russia’s ambassador to the UK, said in an interview with the BBC on Sunday. “His purpose for all of that is to attract attention for him.”

Jake Sullivan, US national security adviser, told CNN on Sunday: “We have communicated to the Russian government that what happens to Mr Navalny in custody is their responsibility and they will be held accountable by the international community . . . [T]here will be consequences if Mr Navalny dies.”

Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, tweeted on Sunday: “I am deeply worried about Alexei Navalny’s health. He must immediately receive access to proper medical treatment. The EU continues to call for his immediate and unconditional release.”

Leonid Volkov, left, and Ivan Zhdanov at a press conference
Leonid Volkov, left, and Ivan Zhdanov are calling for Russians to protest against Alexei Navalny’s harsh treatment in prison © John Thys/AFP/Getty Images

Last month, Navalny was moved to a prison colony with a reputation for its harsh treatment of detainees.

He went on hunger strike in late March in protest at wardens’ refusal to let him be treated by a doctor of his choice for severe nerve pain from two herniated discs in his back, as well as sleep deprivation tactics he said amounted to “torture”.

Navalny’s team is likely to face significant difficulties organising the protest after prosecutors deemed their organisation “extremist”.

That designation equates Navalny and his supporters with neo-Nazis, al-Qaeda and the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo. It means his foundation’s leadership could be jailed for up to 10 years and supporters could face as many as eight years in prison for donating to it, according to Pavel Chikov, head of Agora, a legal aid foundation.

Since Russia declared the Jehovah’s Witnesses an “extremist organisation” in 2017, 463 members of the Christian denomination have faced criminal charges, while police have searched 1,416 homes of members of the group, Chikov said.

Several of Navalny’s top allies are under house arrest on charges of violating public health rules by organising unsanctioned protests for his release in January.

Police have detained Zhdanov’s elderly father, as well as several employees at Navalny’s regional headquarters in recent weeks.

On Friday, a court also sentenced Pavel Zelensky, a cameraman for the foundation, to two years in prison for writing two tweets deemed “extremist”.





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