More stories

  • in

    Red Flags for Forced Labor Found in China’s Car Battery Supply Chain

    The photograph on the mining conglomerate’s social media account showed 70 ethnic Uyghur workers standing at attention under the flag of the People’s Republic of China. It was March 2020 and the recruits would soon undergo training in management, etiquette and “loving the party and the country,” their new employer, the Xinjiang Nonferrous Metal Industry Group, announced.But this was no ordinary worker orientation. It was the kind of program that human rights groups and U.S. officials consider a red flag for forced labor in China’s western Xinjiang region, where the Communist authorities have detained or imprisoned more than 1 million Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs and members of other largely Muslim minorities.The scene also represents a potential problem for the global effort to fight climate change.China produces three-quarters of the world’s lithium ion batteries, and almost all the metals needed to make them are processed there. Much of the material, though, is actually mined elsewhere, in places like Argentina, Australia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Uncomfortable with relying on other countries, the Chinese government has increasingly turned to western China’s mineral wealth as a way to shore up scarce supplies.That means companies like the Xinjiang Nonferrous Metal Industry Group are assuming a larger role in the supply chain behind the batteries that power electric vehicles and store renewable energy — even as China’s draconian crackdown on minorities in Xinjiang fuels outrage around the world.The Chinese government denies the presence of forced labor in Xinjiang, calling it “the lie of the century.” But it acknowledges running what it describes as a work transfer program that sends Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities from the region’s more rural south to jobs in its more industrialized north.Xinjiang Nonferrous and its subsidiaries have partnered with the Chinese authorities to take in hundreds of such workers in recent years, according to articles displayed proudly in Chinese on the company’s social media account. These workers were eventually sent to work in the conglomerate’s mines, a smelter and factories that produce some of the most highly sought minerals on earth, including lithium, nickel, manganese, beryllium, copper and gold.It is difficult to trace precisely where the metals produced by Xinjiang Nonferrous go. But some have been exported to the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom, Japan, South Korea and India, according to company statements and customs records. And some have gone to large Chinese battery makers, who in turn, directly or indirectly, supply major American entities, including automakers, energy companies and the U.S. military, according to Chinese news reports.It is unclear whether these relationships are ongoing, and Xinjiang Nonferrous did not respond to requests for comment.But this previously unreported connection between critical minerals and the kind of work transfer programs in Xinjiang that the U.S. government and others have called a form of forced labor could portend trouble for industries that depend on these materials, including the global auto sector.A new law, the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, goes into effect in the United States on Tuesday and will bar products that were made in Xinjiang or have ties to the work programs there from entering the country. It requires importers with any ties to Xinjiang to produce documentation showing that their products, and every raw material they are made with, are free of forced labor — a tricky undertaking given the complexity and opacity of Chinese supply chains.A Critical Year for Electric VehiclesAs the overall auto market stagnates, the popularity of battery-powered cars is soaring worldwide.Charging Stations: The Biden administration unveiled proposed regulations that would require stations built with federal dollars to be located no more than 50 miles apart.General Motors: The company hopes to become a leading force in the electric vehicle industry. Its chief executive shared how G.M. intends to get there.Turning Point: Electric vehicles still account for a small slice of the market, but this year, their march could become unstoppable. Here’s why.New Materials: As automakers seek to electrify their fleets and to direct electricity more efficiently, alternatives to silicon are gaining traction.The apparel, food and solar industries have already been upended by reports linking their supply chains in Xinjiang to forced labor. Solar companies last year were forced to halt billions of dollars of projects as they investigated their supply chains.The global battery industry could face its own disruptions given Xinjiang’s deep ties to the raw materials needed for next-generation technology.Trade experts have estimated that thousands of global companies may actually have some link to Xinjiang in their supply chains. If the United States fully enforces the new law, it could result in many products being blocked at the border, including those needed for electric vehicles and renewable energy projects.Some administration officials raised objections to cutting off shipments of all Chinese goods linked with Xinjiang, arguing that it would be disruptive to the U.S. economy and the clean energy transition.Representative Thomas R. Suozzi, a Democrat from New York who helped create the Congressional Uyghur Caucus, said that while banning products from the Xinjiang region might make goods go up in price, “it’s too damn bad.”“We can’t continue to do business with people that are violating basic human rights,” he said. To understand how reliant the battery industry is on China, consider the country’s role in producing the materials that are critical to the technology. While many of the metals used in batteries today are mined elsewhere, almost all of the processing required to turn those materials into batteries takes place in China. The country processes 50 to 100 percent of the world’s lithium, nickel, cobalt, manganese and graphite, and makes 80 percent of the cells that power lithium ion batteries, according to Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, a research firm.“If you were to look at any electric vehicle battery, there would be some involvement from China,” said Daisy Jennings-Gray, a senior analyst at Benchmark Mineral Intelligence.The materials Xinjiang Nonferrous has produced — including a dizzying array of valuable minerals, like zinc, beryllium, cobalt, vanadium, lead, copper, gold, platinum and palladium — have gone into a wide variety of consumer products, including pharmaceuticals, jewelry, building materials and electronics. The company also claims to be one of China’s largest producers of lithium metal, and its second-largest producer of nickel cathode, which can be used to make batteries, stainless steel and other goods.Xinjiang Non-Ferrous Metal Industry Group was one of the region’s earliest miners, operating the state-owned No. 3 pegamite mining pit beginning in the 1950s.Shen Longquan/Visual China Group, via Getty ImagesIn recent years, the company has expanded into Xinjiang’s south, the homeland of most Uyghurs, acquiring valuable new deposits that executives describe as “critical” to China’s resource security.Ma Xingrui, a former aerospace engineer who was appointed Communist Party secretary of Xinjiang in 2021, has talked up Xinjiang’s prospects as a source of high-tech materials. This month, he told executives from Xinjiang Nonferrous and other state-owned companies that they should “step up” in new energy, materials and other strategic sectors.Xinjiang Nonferrous’s role in work transfer programs ramped up several years ago, as part of efforts by the Chinese leader Xi Jinping to drastically transform Uyghur society to become richer, more secular and loyal to the Communist Party. In 2017, the Xinjiang government announced plans to transfer 100,000 people from southern Xinjiang into new jobs over three years. Dozens of state-owned companies, including Xinjiang Nonferrous, were assigned to absorb 10,000 of those laborers in return for subsidies and bonuses.Transferred workers appear to make up only a minor part of the labor force at Xinjiang Nonferrous, perhaps a few hundred of its more than 7,000 employees. The company and its subsidiaries reported recruiting 644 workers from two rural counties of southern Xinjiang from 2017 to 2020, and training more since then.Some laborers were sent to the company’s copper-nickel mine and smelter, which are operated by Xinjiang Xinxin Mining Industry, a Hong Kong-listed subsidiary that has received investment from the state of Alaska, the University of Texas system and Vanguard. Other laborers went to subsidiaries that produce lithium, manganese and gold.Before being assigned to work, predominantly Muslim minorities were given lectures on “eradicating religious extremism” and becoming obedient, law-abiding workers who “embraced their Chinese nationhood,” Xinjiang Nonferrous said.Inductees for one company unit underwent six months of training including military-style drills and ideological training. They were encouraged to speak out against religious extremism, oppose “two-faced individuals” — a term for those who privately oppose Chinese government policies — and write a letter to their hometown elders expressing gratitude to the Communist Party and the company, according to the company’s social media account. Trainees faced strict assessments, with “morality” and rule compliance accounting for half of their score. Those who scored well earned better pay, while students and teachers who violated rules were punished or fined.Even as it promotes the successes of the programs, the company’s propaganda hints at the government pressure on it to meet labor transfer goals, even through the coronavirus pandemic.A 2017 article in the Xinjiang Daily quoted one 33-year-old villager as saying that he was initially “reluctant to go out to work” and “quite satisfied” with his income from farming, but was persuaded to go to work at Xinjiang Nonferrous’ subsidiary after party members visited his house several times to “work on his thinking.” And in a visit in 2018 to Keriya County, Zhang Guohua, the company president, told officials to “work on the thinking” of families of transferred laborers to ensure that no one abandoned their jobs.Chinese authorities say that all employment is voluntary, and that work transfers help free rural families from poverty by giving them steady wages, skills and Chinese-language training.“No one has been forced to become ‘transferred labor’ in Xinjiang,” Wang Wenbin, a spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry, told reporters in Beijing this month.It is difficult to ascertain the level of coercion any individual worker has faced given the limited access to Xinjiang for journalists and research firms. Laura T. Murphy, a professor of human rights and contemporary slavery at Sheffield Hallam University in Britain, said that resisting such programs is seen as a sign of extremist activity and carries a risk of being sent to an internment camp.“A Uyghur person cannot say no to this,” she said. “They are harassed or, in the government’s words, educated,’ until they are forced to go.”Files from police servers in Xinjiang published by the BBC last month described a shoot-to-kill policy for those trying to escape from internment camps, as well as mandatory blindfolds and shackles for “students” being transferred between facilities.Other Chinese metal and mining companies also appear to be linked with labor transfers at a smaller scale, including Zijin Mining Group Co. Ltd., which has acquired cobalt and lithium assets around the globe, and Xinjiang TBEA Group Co. Ltd., which makes aluminum for lithium battery cathodes, according to media reports and academic research. Other entities that were previously sanctioned by the United States over human rights abuses are also involved in the supply chain for graphite, a key battery material that is only refined in China, according to Horizon Advisory, a research firm.An indoctrination center in Hotan, China. In 2017, the regional government announced plans to transfer 100,000 people from the cities of Kashgar and Hotan in southern Xinjiang into new jobs.Gilles Sabrié for The New York TimesThe raw materials that these laborers produce disappear into complex and secretive supply chains, often passing through multiple companies as they are turned into auto parts, electronics and other goods. While that makes them difficult to trace, records show that Xinjiang Nonferrous has developed multiple potential channels to the United States. Many more of the company’s materials are likely transformed in Chinese factories into other products before they are sent abroad.For example, Xinjiang Nonferrous is a current supplier to the China operations of Livent Corporation, a chemical giant with headquarters in the United States that uses lithium to produce a chemical used to make automobile interiors and tires, hospital equipment, pharmaceuticals, agrochemicals and electronics.A Livent spokesman said that the firm prohibits forced labor among its vendors, and that its due diligence had not indicated any red flags. Livent did not respond to a question about whether products made with materials from Xinjiang are exported to the United States.In theory, the new U.S. law should block all goods made with any raw materials that are associated with Xinjiang until they are proven to be free of slavery or coercive labor practices. But it remains to be seen if the U.S. government is willing or able to turn away such an array of foreign goods.“China is so central to so many supply chains,” said Evan Smith, the chief executive of the supply chain research company Altana AI. “Forced labor goods are making their way into a really broad swath of our global economy.”Raymond Zhong More

  • in

    U.S. Technology, a Longtime Tool for Russia, Becomes a Vulnerability

    Global restrictions on sending advanced technology to Russia are hampering the country’s military capacity, U.S. officials say, though Russia has stockpiled American equipment for years.WASHINGTON — With magnifying glasses, screwdrivers and a delicate touch from a soldering gun, two men from an investigative group that tracks weapons pried open Russian munitions and equipment that had been captured across Ukraine.Over a week’s visit to Ukraine last month, the investigators pulled apart every piece of advanced Russian hardware they could get their hands on, such as small laser range finders and guidance sections of cruise missiles. The researchers, who were invited by the Ukrainian security service to independently analyze advanced Russian gear, found that almost all of it included parts from companies based in the United States and the European Union: microchips, circuit boards, engines, antenna and other equipment.“Advanced Russian weapons and communications systems have been built around Western chips,” said Damien Spleeters, one of the investigators with Conflict Armament Research, which identifies and tracks weapons and ammunition. He added that Russian companies had enjoyed access to an “unabated supply” of Western technology for decades.U.S. officials have long been proud of their country’s ability to supply technology and munitions to the rest of the world. But since Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, the United States has faced an unfortunate reality: The tools that Russian forces are using to wage war are often powered by American innovation.Still, while the technology made by American and European companies has been turned against Ukraine, the situation has also given the United States and its allies an important source of leverage against Russia. The United States and dozens of countries have used export bans to cut off shipments of advanced technology, hobbling Russia’s ability to produce weapons to replace those that have been destroyed in the war, according to American and European officials.On Thursday, the Biden administration announced further sanctions and restrictions on Russia and Belarus, adding 71 organizations to a government list that prevents them from buying advanced technology. The Treasury Department also announced sanctions against a yacht-management company that caters to Russian oligarchs.While some analysts have urged caution about drawing early conclusions, saying the measures will take time to have a full effect, the Biden administration has called them a success. Since Western allies announced extensive restrictions on exports of semiconductors, computers, lasers, telecommunications equipment and other goods in February, Russia has had difficulty obtaining microchips to replenish its supply of precision-guided munitions, according to one senior U.S. official, who, along with most other officials interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss matters based on intelligence.On Tuesday, when asked if a chip shortage was crippling the Russian military, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, who oversees export controls, said the answer was “an unqualified yes.”“U.S. exports to Russia in the categories where we have export controls, including semiconductors, are down by over 90 percent since Feb. 24,” she said. “So that is crippling.”The restrictions halt direct technological exports from the United States and dozens of partner nations to Russia. But they also go beyond traditional wartime sanctions issued by the U.S. government by placing limitations on certain high-tech goods that are manufactured anywhere in the world using American machinery, software or blueprints. That means countries that are not in the sanctions coalition with the United States and Europe must also follow the rules or potentially face their own sanctions.Russia has stopped publishing monthly trade data since the invasion, but customs data from its major trading partners show that shipments of essential parts and components have fallen sharply. According to data compiled by Matthew C. Klein, an economics researcher who tracks the effect of the export controls, Russian imports of manufactured goods from nine major economies for which data is available were down 51 percent in April compared with the average from September 2021 to February 2022.The restrictions have rendered the old-school bombing runs on tank factories and shipyards of past wars unnecessary, Mr. Klein wrote. “The democracies can replicate the effect of well-targeted bombing runs with the right set of sanctions precisely because the Russian military depends on imported equipment.”Russia is one of the world’s largest arms exporters, especially to India, but its industry relies heavily on imported inputs. In 2018, Russian sources satisfied only about half of the military-related equipment and services the country needed, such as transportation equipment, computers, optical equipment, machinery and fabricated metal, according to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development compiled by Mr. Klein.The remainder of equipment and services used by Russia were imported, with about a third coming from the United States, Europe, Japan, Taiwan, Australia and other partner governments that imposed sanctions together on Moscow.A printed circuit board from a cruise missile internal computer collected by Conflict Armament Research during its investigation.via Conflict Armament ResearchU.S. officials say that in concert with a wide variety of other sanctions that ban or discourage commercial relations, the export controls have been highly effective. They have pointed to Russian tank factories that have furloughed workers and struggled with shortages of parts. The U.S. government has also received reports that the Russian military is scrambling to find parts for satellites, avionics and night vision goggles, officials say.Technology restrictions have harmed other Russian industries as well, U.S. officials say. Equipment for the oil and gas industry has been degraded, maintenance for tractors and heavy equipment made by Caterpillar and John Deere has halted, and up to 70 percent of the commercial airplanes operated by Russian airlines, which no longer receive spare parts and maintenance from Airbus and Boeing, are grounded, officials say.But some experts have sounded notes of caution. Michael Kofman, the director of Russia studies at CNA, a research institute in Arlington, Va., voiced skepticism about some claims that the export controls were forcing some tank factories and other defense companies in Russia to shutter.“There’s not been much evidence to substantiate reports of problems in Russia’s defense sector,” he said. It was still too early in the war to expect meaningful supply chain problems in Russia’s defense industry, he said, and the sourcing for those early claims was unclear.Maria Snegovaya, a visiting scholar at George Washington University who has studied sanctions on Russia, said the lack of critical technologies and maintenance was likely to start being felt widely across Russian industry in the fall, as companies run out of parts and supplies or need upkeep on equipment. She and other analysts said even the production of daily goods such as printer paper would be affected; Russian companies had bought the dye to turn the paper white from Western companies.“We expect random disruptions in Russia’s production chains to manifest themselves more frequently,” Ms. Snegovaya said. “The question is: Are Russian companies able to find substitutes?”U.S. officials say the Russian government and companies there have been looking for ways to get around the controls but have so far been largely unsuccessful. The Biden administration has threatened to penalize any company that helps Russia evade sanctions by cutting it off from access to U.S. technology.The Russia-Ukraine War and the Global EconomyCard 1 of 7A far-reaching conflict. More

  • in

    Seizing Russian Assets to Help Ukraine Sets Off White House Debate

    WASHINGTON — The devastation in Ukraine brought on by Russia’s war has leaders around the world calling for seizing more than $300 billion of Russian central bank assets and handing the funds to Ukraine to help rebuild the country.But the movement, which has gained momentum in parts of Europe, has run into resistance in the United States. Top Biden administration officials warned that diverting those funds could be illegal and discourage other countries from relying on the United States as a haven for investment.The cost to rebuild Ukraine is expected to be significant. Its president, Volodymyr Zelensky, estimated this month that it could be $600 billion after months of artillery, missile and tank attacks — meaning that even if all of Russia’s central bank assets abroad were seized, they would cover only half the costs.In a joint statement last week, finance ministers from Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Slovakia urged the European Union to create a way to fund the rebuilding of cities and towns in Ukraine with frozen Russian central bank assets, so that Russia can be “held accountable for its actions and pay for the damage caused.”Confiscating the Russian assets was also a central topic at a gathering of top economic officials from the Group of 7 nations at a meeting this month, with the idea drawing public support from Germany and Canada.The United States, which has led a global effort to isolate Russia with stiff sanctions, has been far more cautious in this case. Internally, the Biden administration has been debating whether to join an effort to seize the assets, which include dollars and euros that Moscow deposited before its invasion of Ukraine. Only a fraction of the funds are kept in the United States; much of it was deposited in Europe, including at the Bank for International Settlements in Switzerland.Russia had hoped that keeping more than $600 billion in central bank reserves would help bolster its economy against sanctions. But it made the mistake of sending half those funds out of the country. By all accounts, Russian officials were stunned at the speed at which they were frozen — a very different reaction from the one it faced after annexing Crimea in 2014, when it took a year for weak sanctions to be imposed.Those funds have been frozen for the past three months, keeping the government of President Vladimir V. Putin from repatriating the money or spending it on the war. But seizing or actually taking ownership of them is another matter.At a news conference in Germany this month, Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen appeared to close the door on the United States’ ability to participate in any effort to seize and redistribute those assets. Ms. Yellen, a former central banker who initially had reservations about immobilizing the assets, said that while the concept was being studied, she believed that seizing the funds would violate U.S. law.Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen has cautioned against seizing Russian central bank assets to help pay for Ukraine’s reconstruction.Ina Fassbender/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images“I think it’s very natural that given the enormous destruction in Ukraine and huge rebuilding costs that they will face, that we will look to Russia to help pay at least a portion of the price that will be involved,” she said. “It’s not something that is legally permissible in the United States.”But within the Biden administration, one official said, there was reluctance “to have any daylight between us and the Europeans on sanctions.” So the United States is seeking to find some kind of common ground while analyzing whether a seizure of central bank funds might, for example, encourage other countries to put their central bank reserves in other currencies and keep it out of American hands.In addition to the legal obstacles, Ms. Yellen and others have argued that it could make nations reluctant to keep their reserves in dollars, for fear that in future conflicts the United States and its allies would confiscate the funds. Some national security officials in the Biden administration say they are concerned that if negotiations between Ukraine and Russia begin, there would be no way to offer significant sanctions relief to Moscow once the reserves have been drained from its overseas accounts.Treasury officials suggested before Ms. Yellen’s comments that the United States had not settled on a firm position about the fate of the assets. Several senior officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal debates in the Biden administration, suggested that no final decision had been made. One official said that while seizing the funds to pay for reconstruction would be satisfying and warranted, the precedent it would set — and its potential effect on the United States’ status as the world’s safest place to leave assets — was a deep concern.In explaining Ms. Yellen’s comments, a Treasury spokeswoman pointed to the International Emergency Economic Powers Act of 1977, which says that the United States can confiscate foreign property if the president determines that the country is under attack or “engaged in armed hostilities.”Legal scholars have expressed differing views about that reading of the law.Laurence H. Tribe, an emeritus law professor at Harvard University, pointed out that an amendment to International Emergency Economic Powers Act that passed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks gives the president broader discretion to determine if a foreign threat warrants confiscation of assets. President Biden could cite Russian cyberattacks against the United States to justify liquidating the central bank reserves, Mr. Tribe said, adding that the Treasury Department was misreading the law.“If Secretary Yellen believes this is illegal, I think she’s flatly wrong,” he said. “It may be that they are blending legal questions with their policy concerns.”Mr. Tribe pointed to recent cases of the United States confiscating and redistributing assets from Afghanistan, Iran and Venezuela as precedents that showed Russia’s assets did not deserve special safeguards.Russia-Ukraine War: Key DevelopmentsCard 1 of 4On the ground. More

  • in

    U.S. Will Start Blocking Russia’s Bond Payments to American Investors

    WASHINGTON — The Biden administration will start blocking Russia from paying American bondholders, increasing the likelihood of the first default of Russia’s foreign debt in more than a century.An exemption to the sweeping sanctions that the United States imposed on Russia as punishment for its invasion of Ukraine has allowed Moscow to keep paying its debts since February. But that carve-out will expire on Wednesday, and the United States will not extend it, according to a notice published by the Treasury Department on Tuesday. As a result, Russia will be unable to make billions of dollars of debt and interest payments on bonds held by foreign investors.The move represents an escalation of U.S. sanctions at a moment when the war in Ukraine continues to drag on, with Russia showing few signs of relenting. Biden administration officials had debated whether to extend what’s known as a general license, which has allowed Russia to pay interest on the debt it sold. By extending the waiver, Russia would have continued to deplete its U.S. dollar reserves and American investors would have continued to receive their guaranteed payments. But officials, who have been trying to intensify pressure on Russia’s economy, ultimately determined that a Russian default would not have a significant impact on the global economy.Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen signaled how the Biden administration was leaning at a news conference in Europe last week, when she said that the exemption was created to allow for an “orderly transition” so that investors could sell securities. It was always intended to be for a limited time, she said. And she noted that Russia’s ability to borrow money from foreign investors has already essentially been cut off through other sanctions imposed by the United States.“If Russia is unable to find a legal way to make these payments, and they technically default on their debt, I don’t think that really represents a significant change in Russia’s situation,” Ms. Yellen said. “They’re already cut off from global capital markets, and that would continue.”Although the economic impact of a Russian default might be minimal, it was an outcome that Russia had been trying to avoid and the Biden administration’s move represents an escalation of U.S. sanctions. Russia has already unsuccessfully tried to make bond payments in rubles and has threatened to take legal action, arguing that it should not be deemed in default on its debt if it is not allowed to make payments.“We can only speculate what worries the Kremlin most about defaulting: the stain on Putin’s record of economic stewardship, reputational damage, the financial and legal dominoes a default sets in motion and so on,” said Tim Samples, a legal studies professor at the University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business and an expert on sovereign debt. “But one thing is rather clear: Russia was keen to avoid this scenario, willing even to make payments with precious non-sanctioned foreign currency to avoid a major default.”Sanctions experts have estimated that Russia has about $20 billion worth of outstanding debt that is not held in rubles. It is not clear if the European Union and Britain will follow the lead of the United States, which would exert even more pressure on Russia and leave a broader swath of investors unpaid, but most of the recent sanctions actions have been tightly coordinated.The prospect of a Russian default has already saddled some big U.S. investors with losses. Pimco, the investment management firm, has seen the value of its Russian bond holdings decline by more than $1 billion this year and pension funds and mutual funds with exposure to emerging market debt have also experienced declines.In the near term, Russia has two foreign-currency bond payments due on Friday, both of which have clauses in their contracts that allow for repayment in other currencies if “for reasons beyond its control” Russia is unable to make payments in the originally agreed currency.Russia owes about $71 million in interest payments for a dollar-denominated bond that will mature in 2026. The contract has a provision to be paid in euros, British pounds and Swiss francs. Russia also owes 26.5 million euros ($28 million) in interest payments for a euro-denominated bond that will mature in 2036, which can be paid back in alternative currencies including the ruble. Both contracts have a 30-day grace period for payments to reach creditors.The Russian finance ministry said on Friday that it had sent the funds to its payment agent, the National Settlement Depository, a Moscow-based institution, a week before the payment was due.The finance ministry said it had fulfilled these debt obligations. But more transactions are required with international financial institutions before the payments can reach bondholders.Adam M. Smith, who served as a senior sanctions official in the Obama administration’s Treasury Department, said he expected that Russia would most likely default sometime in July and that a wave of lawsuits from Russia and its investors were likely to ensue.Although a default will inflict some psychological damage on Russia, he said, it will also raise borrowing costs for ordinary Russians and harm foreign investors who were not involved in Russia’s invasion Ukraine.“The interesting question to me is, What is the policy goal here?” Mr. Smith said. “That’s what’s not entirely clear to me.”Alan Rappeport reported from Washington, and Eshe Nelson from London. More

  • in

    U.S. Eyeing Russian Energy Sanctions Over Ukraine War, Officials Say

    BERLIN — The Biden administration is developing plans to further choke Russia’s oil revenues with the long-term goal of destroying the country’s central role in the global energy economy, current and former U.S. officials say, a major escalatory step that could put the United States in political conflict with China, India, Turkey and other nations that buy Russian oil.The proposed measures include imposing a price cap on Russian oil, backed by so-called secondary sanctions, which would punish foreign buyers that do not comply with U.S. restrictions by blocking them from doing business with American companies and those of partner nations.As President Vladimir V. Putin wages war in Ukraine, the United States and its allies have imposed sanctions on Russia that have battered its economy. But the nearly $20 billion per month that Russia continues to reap from oil sales could sustain the sort of grinding conflict underway in eastern Ukraine and finance any future aggressions, according to officials and experts.U.S. officials say the main question now is how to starve Moscow of that money while ensuring that global oil supplies do not drop, which could lead to a rise in prices that benefits Mr. Putin and worsens inflation in the United States and elsewhere. As U.S. elections loom, President Biden has said a top priority is dealing with inflation.While U.S. officials say they do not want to immediately take large amounts of Russian oil off the market, they are trying to push countries to wean themselves off those imports in the coming months. A U.S. ban on sales of critical technologies to Russia is partly aimed at crippling its oil companies over many years. U.S. officials say the market will eventually adjust as the Russian industry fades.Russia’s oil industry is already under pressure. The United States banned Russian oil imports in March, and the European Union hopes to announce a similar measure soon. Its foreign ministers discussed a potential embargo in Brussels on Monday. The Group of 7 industrialized nations, which includes Britain, Japan and Canada, agreed this month to gradually phase out Russian oil imports and their finance ministers are meeting in Bonn, Germany, this week to discuss details.“We very much support the efforts that Europe, the European Union, is making to wean itself off of Russian energy, whether that’s oil or ultimately gas,” Antony J. Blinken, the secretary of state, said in Berlin on Sunday when asked about future energy sanctions at a news conference of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. “It’s not going to end overnight, but Europe is clearly on track to move decisively in that direction.”“As this is happening, the United States has taken a number of steps to help,” he added.But Russian oil exports increased in April, and soaring prices mean that Russia has earned 50 percent more in revenues this year compared to the same period in 2021, according to a new report from the International Energy Agency in Paris. India and Turkey, a NATO member, have increased their purchases. South Korea is buying less but remains a major customer, as does China, which criticizes U.S. sanctions. The result is a Russian war machine still powered by petrodollars.American officials are looking at “what can be done in the more immediate term to reduce the revenues that the Kremlin is generating from selling oil, and make sure countries outside the sanctions coalition, like China and India, don’t undercut the sanctions by just buying more oil,” said Edward Fishman, who oversaw sanctions policy at the State Department after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.As President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia wages war in Ukraine, the United States and its allies have imposed a range of sanctions that have battered the Russian economy.David Guttenfelder for The New York TimesThe Biden administration is looking at various types of secondary sanctions and has yet to settle on a definite course of action, according to the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss policies still under internal consideration. The United States imposed secondary sanctions to cut off Iran’s exports in an effort to curtail its nuclear program.Large foreign companies generally comply with U.S. regulations to avoid sanctions if they engage in commerce with American companies or partner nations.“If we’re talking about Rubicons to cross, I think the biggest one is the secondary sanctions piece,” said Richard Nephew, a scholar at Columbia University who was a senior official on sanctions in the Obama and Biden administrations. “That means we tell other countries: If you do business with Russia, you can’t do business with the U.S.”But sanctions have a mixed record. Severe economic isolation has done little to change the behavior of governments from Iran to North Korea to Cuba and Venezuela.One measure American officials are discussing would require foreign companies to pay a below-market price for Russian oil — or suffer U.S. sanctions. Washington would assign a price for Russian oil that is well under the global market value, which is currently more than $100 per barrel. Russia’s last budget set a break-even price for its oil above $40. A price cap would reduce Russia’s profits without increasing global energy costs.The U.S. government could also cut off most Russian access to payments for oil. Washington would do this by issuing a regulation that requires foreign banks dealing in payments to put the money in an escrow account if they want to avoid sanctions. Russia would be able to access the money only to purchase essential goods like food and medicine.And as those mechanisms are put in place, U.S. officials would press nations to gradually decrease their purchases of Russian oil, as they did with Iranian oil.“There wouldn’t be a ban on Russian oil and gas per se,” said Maria Snegovaya, a visiting scholar at George Washington University who has studied sanctions on Russia. “Partly this is because that would send the price skyrocketing. Russia can benefit from a skyrocketing price.”But enforcing escrow payments or price caps globally could be difficult. Under the new measures, the United States would have to confront nations that are not part of the existing sanctions coalition and, like India and China, want to maintain good relations with Russia.In 2020, the Trump administration imposed sanctions on companies in China, Vietnam and the United Arab Emirates for their roles in the purchase or transport of Iranian oil.A U.S.-led assault on Russia’s oil revenues would widen America’s role in the conflict.Alexey Malgavko/ReutersExperts say the measures could be announced in response to a new Russian provocation, such as a chemical weapons attack, or to give Kyiv more leverage if Ukraine starts serious negotiations with Moscow.Russia-Ukraine War: Key DevelopmentsCard 1 of 3In Mariupol. More

  • in

    Russia’s Economic Outlook Grows ‘Especially Gloomy’ as Prices Soar

    LONDON — After sanctions hobbled production at its assembly plant in Kaliningrad, the Russian automaker Avtotor announced a lottery for free 10-acre plots of land — and the chance to buy seed potatoes — so employees could grow their own food in the westernmost fringe of the Russian empire during “the difficult economic situation.”In Moscow, shoppers complained that a kilogram of bananas had shot up to 100 rubles from 60, while in Irkutsk, an industrial city in Siberia, the price of tampons at a store doubled to $7.Banks have shortened receipts in response to a paper shortage. Clothing manufacturers said they were running out of buttons.“The economic prospects for Russia are especially gloomy,” the Bank of Finland said in an analysis this month. “By initiating a brutal war against Ukraine, Russia has chosen to become much poorer and less influential in economic terms.”Even the Central Bank of Russia has predicted a staggering inflation rate between 18 and 23 percent this year, and a falloff in total output of as much as 10 percent.It is not easy to figure out the impact of the war and sanctions on the Russian economy at a time when even using the words “war” and “invasion” are illegal. President Vladimir V. Putin has insisted that the economy is weathering the measures imposed by the United States, Europe and others.Financial maneuvers taken by Moscow helped blunt the economic damage initially. At the start of the conflict, the central bank doubled interest rates to 19 percent to stabilize the currency, and recently was able to lower rates to 14 percent. The ruble is trading at its highest level in more than two years.Empty shelves in a supermarket in Moscow in March. Food prices have shot up, especially for items like imported fruit.Vlad Karkov/SOPA Images/LightRocket, via Getty ImagesAnd even though Russia has had to sell oil at a discount, dizzying increases in global prices are causing tax revenues from oil to surge past $180 billion this year despite production cuts, according to Rystad Energy. Natural gas deliveries will add another $80 billion to Moscow’s treasury.In any case, Mr. Putin has shown few signs that pressure from abroad will push him to scale back military strikes against Ukraine.Still, Avtotor’s vegetable patch lottery and what it says about the vulnerabilities facing the Russian people, along with shortages and price increases, are signs of the economic distress that is gripping some Russian businesses and workers since the war started nearly three months ago.Analysts say that the rift with many of the world’s largest trading partners and technological powerhouses will inflict deep and lasting damage on the Russian economy.“The really hard times for the Russian economy are still in front of us,” said Laura Solanko, a senior adviser at the Bank of Finland Institute for Emerging Economies.The stock of supplies and spare parts that are keeping businesses humming will run out in a few months, Ms. Solanko said. At the same time, a lack of sophisticated technology and investment from abroad will hamper Russia’s productive capacity going forward.The Lukoil refinery in Volgograd. Russia has had to sell oil at a discount, but its tax revenues have risen along with prices.ReutersThe Russian Central Bank has already acknowledged that consumer demand and lending are on a downhill slide, and that “businesses are experiencing considerable difficulties in production and logistics.”Ivan Khokhlov, who co-founded 12Storeez, a clothing brand that evolved from a showroom in his apartment in Yekaterinburg to a major company with 1,000 employees and 46 stores, is contending with the problem firsthand.“With every new wave of sanctions, it becomes harder to produce our product on time,” Mr. Khokhlov said. The company’s bank account in Europe was still blocked because of sanctions shortly after the invasion, while logistical disruptions had forced him to raise prices.“We face delays, disruptions and price increases,” he said. “As logistics with Europe gets destroyed, we rely more on China, which has its own difficulties too.”Hundreds of foreign firms have already curtailed their business in or withdrawn altogether from Russia, according to an accounting kept by the Yale School of Management. And the exodus of companies continued this week with McDonald’s. The company said that after three decades, it planned to sell its business, which includes 850 restaurants and franchises and employs 62,000 people in Russia.“I passed the very first McDonald’s that opened in Russia in the ’90s,” Artem Komolyatov, a 31-year-old tech worker in Moscow, said recently. “Now it’s completely empty. Lonely. The sign still hangs. But inside it’s all blocked off. It’s completely dead.”Nearby two police officers in bulletproof vests and automatic rifles stood guard, he said, ready to head off any protesters.In Leningradsky railway station, at one of the few franchises that remained open on Monday, customers lined up for more than an hour for a last taste of McDonald’s hamburgers and fries.The French automaker Renault also announced a deal with the Russian government to leave the country on Monday, although it includes an option to repurchase its stake within six years. And the Finnish paper company, Stora Enso, said it was divesting itself of three corrugated packaging plants in Russia.A closed McDonald’s in Podolsk, outside Moscow, on Monday. The company said this week it was putting its Russian business up for sale.Maxim Shipenkov/EPA, via ShutterstockMore profound damage to the structure of the Russian economy is likely to mount in the coming years even in the moneymaking energy sector.The Russia-Ukraine War and the Global EconomyCard 1 of 7A far-reaching conflict. More

  • in

    Economic Headwinds Mount as Leaders Weigh Costs of Confronting Russia

    BRUSSELS — The world economy is heading into a potentially grim period as rising costs, shortages of food and other commodities and Russia’s continuing invasion of Ukraine threaten to slow economic growth and bring about a painful global slump.Two years after the coronavirus pandemic emerged and left much of the globe in a state of paralysis, policymakers are grappling with ongoing challenges, including clogged supply chains, lockdowns in China and the prospect of an energy crisis as nations wean themselves off Russian oil and gas. Those colliding forces have some economists starting to worry about a global recession as different corners of the world find their economies battered by events.Finding ways to avoid a global slowdown while continuing to exert pressure on Russia for its war in Ukraine will be the primary focus of finance ministers from the Group of 7 nations who are convening in Bonn, Germany, this week.The economic challenges that governments around the globe are facing could begin to chip away at the united front that Western nations have maintained in confronting Russia’s aggression, including sweeping sanctions aimed at crippling its economy and efforts to reduce reliance on Russian energy.Policymakers are balancing delicate trade-offs as they consider how to isolate Russia, support Ukraine and keep their own economies afloat at a moment when prices are rising rapidly and growth is slowing.Central banks around the world are beginning to raise interest rates to help tame rapid inflation, moves that will temper economic growth by raising borrowing costs and could lead to higher unemployment.Global growth is expected to slow to 3.6 percent this year, the International Monetary Fund projected in April, down from the 4.4 percent it forecast before both Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s zero-Covid lockdowns.On Monday, the European Commission released its own revised economic forecast, showing a slowdown in growth to 2.7 percent this year from the 4 percent estimated in its winter report. At the same time, inflation is hitting record levels and is expected to average 6.8 percent for the year. Some Eastern European countries are in for much steeper increases, with Poland, Estonia, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Lithuania all facing inflation rates in excess of 11 percent.Last week, Christine Lagarde, president of the European Central Bank, signaled a possible increase in interest rates in July, the first such move in more than a decade. In a speech in Slovenia, Ms. Lagarde compared Europe to a man “who from fate receives blow on blow.”Eswar Prasad, the former head of the International Monetary Fund’s China division, summed up the challenges facing the G7 nations, saying that its “policymakers are caught in the bind that any tightening of screws on Russia by limiting energy purchases worsens inflation and hurts growth in their economies.”“Such sanctions, for all the moral justification underpinning them, are exacting an increasingly heavy economic toll that in turn could have domestic political consequences for G7 leaders,” he added.Still, the United States is expected to press its allies to continue isolating Russia and to deliver more economic aid to Ukraine despite their own economic troubles. Officials are also expected to discuss the merits of imposing tariffs on Russian energy exports ahead of a proposed European oil embargo that the United States fears could send prices skyrocketing by limiting supplies. Policymakers will also discuss whether to press countries such as India to roll back export restrictions on crucial food products that are worsening already high prices.Against this backdrop is the growing urgency to help sustain Ukraine’s economy, which the International Monetary Fund has said needs an estimated $5 billion a month in aid to keep government operations running. The U.S. Congress is close to passing a $40 billion aid package for Ukraine that will cover some of these costs, but Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen has called on her European counterparts to provide more financial help.Finance ministers are expected to consider other measures for providing Ukraine with relief. There is increasing interest in the idea of seizing some of the approximately $300 billion in Russian central bank reserves that the United States and its allies have immobilized and using that money to help fund Ukraine’s reconstruction. Treasury Department officials are considering the idea, but they have trepidations about the legality of such a move and the possibility that it would raise doubts about the United States as a safe place to store assets.Ahead of the G7 meeting this week, American officials saw the economic challenges facing Europe firsthand. During a stop to meet with top officials in Warsaw on Monday, Ms. Yellen acknowledged the toll that the conflict in Ukraine is having on the economy of Poland, where officials have raised interest rates sharply to combat inflation. Poland has absorbed more than three million Ukrainian refugees and has faced a cutoff in gas exports from Russia.“They have to deal with a tighter monetary policy just as countries around the world and the United States are,” Ms. Yellen told reporters. “At a time when Poland is committed to large expenditures to shore up its security, it is a difficult balancing act.”A downturn may be unavoidable in some countries, and economists are weighing multiple factors as they gauge the likelihood of a recession, including a severe slowdown in China related to continuing Covid lockdowns.The European Commission, in its economic report, said the E.U. “is first in line among advanced economies to take a hit,” because of its proximity to Ukraine and its dependence on Russian energy. At the same time, it has absorbed more than five million refugees in less than three months.Deutsche Bank analysts said this week that they thought a recession in Europe was unlikely. By contrast, Carl B. Weinberg, chief economist at High Frequency Economics, warned in a note on Monday that with consumer demand and output falling, “Germany’s economy is headed for recession.” Analysts at Capital Economics predicted that Germany, Italy and Britain are likely to face recessions, meaning there is a “reasonable chance” that the broader eurozone will also face one, defined as two consecutive quarters of falling output.Vicky Redwood, senior economic adviser at Capital Economics, warned that more aggressive interest rate increases by central banks could lead to a global contraction.“If inflation expectations and inflation prove more stubborn than we expect, and interest rates need to rise further as a result, then a recession most probably will be on the cards,” Ms. Redwood wrote in a note to clients this week.A bakery in Al Hasakah, Syria. The interruption of wheat exports from Ukraine and Russia is causing food prices to spiral and increasing global hunger, particularly in Africa and the Middle East.Diego Ibarra Sanchez for The New York TimesThe major culprit is energy prices. In Germany, which has been most dependent on Russian fuel among the major economies in Europe, the squeeze is being acutely felt by its industrial-heavy business sector as well as consumers.Russian gas shipments “underpin the competitiveness of our industry,” Martin Brudermüller, the chief executive of the chemical giant BASF, said at the company’s annual general meeting last month.While calling to decrease its dependence, Mr. Brudermüller nevertheless warned that “if the natural gas supply from Russia were to suddenly stop, it would cause irreversible economic damage” and possibly force a stop in production.Russia-Ukraine War: Key DevelopmentsCard 1 of 4In Mariupol. More

  • in

    Russian Shipping Traffic Remains Strong as Sanctions Take Time to Bite

    WASHINGTON — Shipping traffic in and out of Russia has remained relatively strong in the past few months as companies have raced to fulfill contracts for purchases of energy and other goods before the full force of global sanctions goes into effect.With the European Union poised to introduce a ban on Russian oil in the coming months, that situation could change significantly. But so far, data show that while commerce with Russia has been reduced in many cases, it has yet to be crippled.Volumes of crude and oil products shipped out of Russian ports, for example, climbed to 25 million metric tons in April, data from the shipping tracker Refinitiv showed, up from around 24 million metric tons in December, January, February and March, and mostly above the levels of the last two years.Jim Mitchell, the head of oil research for the Americas at Refinitiv, said that Russia’s outgoing shipments in April had been buoyed by the global economic recovery from the pandemic, and that they did not yet reflect the impact of sanctions and other restrictions on Russia issued after its invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24.Crude oil typically trades 45 to 60 days ahead of delivery, he said, meaning that changes to behavior following the Russian invasion were still working their way through the system.“The volume has been slow to decline, because these were contracts that have already been set,” Mr. Mitchell said. Defaulting on such contracts is “a nightmare for both sides,” he said, adding, “which means that even in the current environment nobody really wants to breach a contract.”Russia has stopped publishing data on its imports and exports since Western governments united to announce their array of sanctions and other restrictions. Exports of oil or gas that leave Russia through pipelines can also be difficult for outside firms to verify.But the global activities of the massive vessels that call on Russian ports to pick up and deliver containers of consumer products or bulk-loads of grain and oil are easier to monitor. Ships are required to transmit their identity, position, course and other information through automatic tracking systems, which are monitored by a variety of firms like Refinitiv, MarineTraffic, Kpler and others.These firms say that shipping traffic was relatively robust in March and April, despite the extraordinary tensions with Russia since its invasion of Ukraine. That reflects both how long some of the sanctions issued by the West are taking to come into effect and an enduring profit motive for trading with Russia, especially after prices for its energy products and commodities have cratered.Data from MarineTraffic, for example, a platform that shows the live location of ships around the world using those on-ship tracking systems, indicates that traffic from Russia’s major ports declined after the invasion but did not plummet. The number of container ships, tankers and bulkers — the three main types of vessels that move energy and consumer products — arriving and leaving Russian ports was down about 23 percent in March and April compared with the year earlier.“The reality is that the sanctions haven’t been so difficult to maneuver around,” said Georgios Hatzimanolis, who analyzes global shipping for MarineTraffic.Tracking by Lloyd’s List Intelligence, a maritime information service, shows similar trends. The number of bulk carriers, which transport loose cargo like grain, coal and fertilizer, that sailed from Russian ports in the five weeks after the invasion was down only 6 percent from the five-week period before the invasion, according to the service.In the weeks following the invasion, Russia’s trade with China and Japan was broadly stable, while the number of bulk carriers headed to South Korea, Egypt and Turkey actually increased, their data showed.“There’s still a lot of traffic back and forth,” said Sebastian Villyn, the head of risk and compliance data at Lloyd’s List Intelligence. “We haven’t really seen a drop.”Those figures contrast somewhat with statements from global leaders, who have emphasized the crippling nature of the sanctions. Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen said on Thursday that the Russian economy was “absolutely reeling,” pointing to estimates that it faces a contraction of 10 percent this year and double-digit inflation. Earlier this week, Ms. Yellen said that the Treasury Department was continuing to deliberate about whether to extend an exemption in its sanctions that has allowed American financial institutions and investors to keep processing Russian bond payments. Speaking at a Senate hearing, she said that officials were actively working to determine the “consequences and spillovers” of allowing the license to expire on May 25, which would likely lead to Russia’s first default on its foreign debt in more than a century.Global sanctions on Russia continue to expand in both their scope and their impact, especially as Europe, a major customer of Russian energy, moves to wean itself off the country’s oil and coal. Trade data suggest that shipments into Russia of high-value products like semiconductors and airplane parts — which are crucial for the military’s ability to wage war — have plummeted because of export controls issued by the United States and its allies.But many sanctions have been targeted at certain strategic goods, or exempted energy products — which are Russia’s major exports — to avoid causing more pain to consumers at a time of rapid price increases, disrupted supply chains and a growing global food crisis.Truckers lined up to cross into Panemune, Lithuania, near the Russian port of Kaliningrad last month.Paulius Peleckis/Getty ImagesSo far, Western governments have levied an array of financial restrictions, including banning transactions with Russia’s central bank and sovereign wealth fund, freezing the assets of many Russian officials and oligarchs, and cutting off Russian banks from international transactions. Canada and the United States have already banned imports of Russian energy, and also prohibited Russian ships from calling at their ports, but the countries are not among Russia’s largest energy customers.The Russia-Ukraine War and the Global EconomyCard 1 of 7A far-reaching conflict. More