Two weeks ago, thousands of representatives from businesses and governments from across the world gathered in London to “support Ukraine’s recovery”. But was the gathering of all those Western corporate elites at the Ukraine Recovery Conference entirely altruistic? There are, after all, massive profit opportunities being created by the war, writes Thomas Fazi, an UnHerd columnist.
Last year, the Ukrainian government essentially outsourced the entire post-war “reconstruction” process to BlackRock, the world’s largest asset management firm. They signed an agreement to “provide advisory support for designing an investment framework, with a goal of creating opportunities for both public and private investors to participate in the future reconstruction and recovery of the Ukrainian economy”. In February, J.P. Morgan was brought on board as well.
The two banks will run the Ukraine Development Fund, which aims to raise private investment in projects potentially worth hundreds of billions of dollars across sectors including tech, natural resources, agriculture and health. BlackRock and J.P. Morgan are donating their services, but, as the Financial Times noted, “the work will give them an early look at possible investments in the country”. The opportunities are significant, particularly in the agricultural sector: Ukraine is home to a quarter of the world’s chernozem (“black earth”), an extraordinarily fertile soil, and before the war it was world’s top producer of sunflower meal, oil and seed, and one of the biggest exporters of corn and wheat.
From certain perspectives, the war is clearly good for business: indeed, the greater the destruction, the greater the opportunities for reconstruction. At Davos this year, Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, said he hoped the initiative would turn the country into a “beacon of capitalism”. David Solomon, CEO of Goldman Sachs, also spoke cheerily of Ukraine’s post-war future. “There is no question,” he said, “that as you rebuild, there will be good economic incentives for real return and real investment.”
Seeing opportunity amid the tragedy, 500 global businesses from 42 countries have already signed the Ukraine Business Compact “to help realise its huge potential” — or secure their slice of the Ukrainian pie. “Most are standing on the sidelines for now, given the security threat,” the FT reported. “But there are already companies on the cusp of moving in — especially in the low-hanging-fruit industries of construction and materials, agricultural processing and logistics.”
Over the years, across a series of similar events, Western governments and corporate leaders have made no secret of their enthusiasm to use the post-Maidan regime — and now the war — to radically alter Ukraine’s political economy. The agenda: to open up the country and make it safe for Western capital by transforming it into a special economic zone. This neoliberal shock therapy should, in their view, include “strengthening the market economy”, “decentralisation, privatisation, reform of state-owned enterprises, land reform, state administration reform”, and “Euro-Atlantic integration”, as well as widespread “deregulation” and the slashing of “outdated labour legislation leading to complicated hiring and firing process, regulation of overtime, etc”. In short, the Washington Consensus on steroids.
Western multinationals had long had their eyes on Ukraine’s vast agricultural wealth, but a 2001 moratorium on the sale of land to foreigners had always represented an obstacle to unrestrained privatisation. As post-Maidan governments turned again to the IMF for financing, aid was conditioned on a series of land reforms that would finally allow foreign corporations to acquire vast tracts of the country’s farmland. In 2020, Zelenskyy gave in to the IMF’s demands and finally repealed the moratorium.
“Agribusiness interests and oligarchs will be the primary beneficiaries of such reform,” said Olena Borodina of the Ukrainian Rural Development Network. “This will only further marginalise smallholder farmers and risks severing them from their most valuable resource.” But the World Bank could barely contain its excitement, gushing: “This is, without exaggeration, a historic event.” Even though the new law isn’t set to come into force until next year, US and Western European agrobusinesses have already bought up millions of hectares of Ukraine’s farmland — with 10 private companies reportedly controlling most of it.
As the Ukrainian government has simplified and accelerated the privatisation of state-owned enterprises, Zelenskyy would seem to have gone out of his way to similarly express the country’s “openness” to Western capital. Last September, he virtually opened the New York Stock Exchange, symbolically ringing the bell via video stream. He used the occasion to present “Advantage Ukraine”, his government’s new investment initiative (which relies on another British firm, WPP, for its marketing side). Zelenskyy said that his country was “open for business” — that is, for foreign corporations to come and exploit its resources and cheap labour. “I committed my administration to creating a favourable environment for investment that would make Ukraine the greatest growth opportunity in Europe since the end of the Second World War,” he wrote in the Wall Street Journal. Predictably, the president of the NYSE Group, Lynn Martin, wholeheartedly welcomed Ukraine’s decision to offer “unfettered access to capital”.