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US mulls further sanctions on Russia; all of which however look counter-productive

Ambassador Huntsman says US preparing report on sanctions; no decision taken or expected soon on further sanctions

Alexander Mercouris

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Jon Huntsman, the new ambassador to Russia who President Donald Trump has appointed, has downplayed the prospect of further sweeping sanctions against Russian companies and businesspeople being announced by the US on 29th January 2018.

Ambassador Huntsman instead says that only a report will be published on that day

The date when additional U.S. sanctions may be imposed on Russian individuals and companies has not been set, while January 29 is the date of publishing the ‘Kremlin report’, U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman told reporters on Tuesday.

The media has reported the possibility of new sanctions but all that has been happening so far is the implementation of the law, there is nothing new, Huntsman said.

The law Ambassador Huntsman is referring to is the new sanctions law voted by Congress in August and signed under protest by President Trump that month.

There has been much secrecy about this report, which the law specifies must be published by 29th January 2018.  Latest reports say that a list is being drawn up of 300 businesspeople and companies who are to be placed on a new sanctions list.

As I have discussed previously, additional sanctions against individual Russian businesspeople and companies might cause serious problems for the businesspeople and companies concerned but they will have little or no impact on the Russian economy overall.  On the contrary if they lead to more Russian businesspeople and companies keeping their money in Russia they will serve the Kremlin’s interests.

However there have been rumours that the US is considering more sweeping sanctions targeting not just individual businesspeople and companies but the entire Russian economy.  Three sorts of such sanctions have been mentioned

(1) Cutting off Russian banks from the SWIFT interbank payment system;

(2) Freezing Russian gold and foreign currency reserves held in the US; and

(3) Prohibiting US investors from buying Russian sovereign debt.

What are the prospects of any of these sanctions being imposed?

The first thing to say is that all three of these sanctions would be exceptionally aggressive steps, which would send shockwaves across the international financial system.  Countries like China which also have issues with the US – and which the US is now also threatening with sanctions in connection with the North Korean crisis – would almost certainly interpret such moves as a long term threat to themselves.

Implementing actions of this sort would over time only hasten moves by countries like China and Russia to set up alternative international financial institutions of their own.  That would undermine the US led ‘globalisation’ of the international financial system.  Since the US is the principal beneficiary of this system implementing these sort of sanctions would hardly be in the US’s own long term interests, which is of course precisely why such sanctions were not imposed on Russia at the peak of the Ukrainian crisis in 2014.

Assuming however that in the current hysterical atmosphere there really are proposals to impose these sanctions on Russia, what would their consequences be?

(1) Disconnecting Russian banks from SWIFT

The first point to make about this proposal is that the US does not have the power to impose it unilaterally.  SWIFT is based in Brussels, not the US, and is regulated by EU law, not US law.  The US government is not in a position simply to order that Russian banks be disconnected from SWIFT.

As it happens it is known that the Obama administration and the British government did actively lobby for Russian banks to be disconnected from SWIFT back in 2014.  However they ran into a wall of opposition both from SWIFT itself and from European governments, with the German and Austrian governments especially strongly opposed.

There is no indication that such a proposal is being seriously debated at this time in European capitals, which makes it unlikely that it is being considered.

However assuming that it is being considered, what would its effect be?

US and British politicians who have lobbied for Russian banks to be disconnected from SWIFT seem to think this is some of ‘magic bullet’ or ‘nuclear option’ which would tip the whole Russian economy into crisis, but is this really so?

There is a huge amount of mystification about SWIFT.  However ultimately it is nothing more than an electronic transfer system which banks use in order to transfer money between each other.

Banks could transfer money between each other before SWIFT appeared.  I can remember a time not so long ago when most money transfers between banks did not use SWIFT.

The fact that SWIFT is an electronic transfer system means that it can be duplicated, and that is exactly what the Russians have reportedly done.

Back in 2014 the disconnection of Russian banks from SWIFT would indeed have been a heavy blow because Russian banks used SWIFT to transfer money between each other within Russia itself.

However the reports that the US and Britain were lobbying for Russian banks to be disconnected from SWIFT caused the Russian Central Bank to create its alternative to SWIFT as a back up system.

Not only does this system apparently already exist, but it has apparently been field tested, though for the moment it is not in actual operation because of the continued availability of SWIFT.

Most probably most Russian banks and bank branches are not yet connected to this alternative system.  However if Russian banks really were disconnected from SWIFT the alternative system would not only be rapidly brought into operation but priority would be given to extending it across the whole Russian banking system.

Doubtless there would be a period of disruption, but a country like Russia has the technological and administrative resources to solve that sort of problem, and I suspect doing so would take no more than a few months.

Russian banks would of course still be prevented from making electronic transfers via SWIFT to Western banks.  However the impact of this can be exaggerated.

Since 2014 the big state owned Russian banks which account for 70% of the Russian banking system and an even higher proportion of the foreign operations undertaken by Russian banks have been effectively cut off from borrowing in Western financial markets.  Their foreign based customers would no doubt suffer if they were disconnected from SWIFT, but it is unlikely the big state owned banks would themselves be seriously affected.

Which brings me back to the main objection to cutting off Russian banks from SWIFT.  Many of the bank customers who would be most seriously affected are Western companies and businesspeople with investments in Russia.

With trade between Russia and Western European actually increasing over the last few months, many European businesspeople and companies would be very seriously affected.

Not only would that hurt them badly but some of these are influential people and companies who would be likely to complain.  That of course is why the decision was taken back in 2014 not to disconnect Russian banks from SWIFT in the first place.

Overall disconnecting Russian banks from SWIFT looks neither like a magic bullet nor like something that European business would willingly accept.  Frankly the political and financial costs of doing it look greater than any conceivable benefit.

(2) Freezing Russian gold and foreign currency reserves

Since this would be tantamount to seizing the sovereign property of the Russian state it would unquestionably be illegal and would as Russian officials have said be equivalent to an act of war.  However the US has shown an increasing willingness to take illegal actions and it is unlikely that the fact that this step is illegal would be enough to deter it.

If the US did take this step what would its economic impact be?

Russia does keep some of its foreign currency reserves in the US with the IMF, but it is not clear how great the amount is and claims that it is as much as a third of the reserves is probably a wild overstatement.

There is no doubt that such a step would have a serious impact, causing the value of the rouble to fall, at least for a short time.

However Russia runs a trade surplus and has paid off most of its foreign debt and the Central Bank since 2014 has been letting the rouble float.

The economy would swiftly adjust as it did to the crisis of 2014, with the Russian trade surplus growing still further as Russia’s trade position benefitted from the rouble’s fall and from the surge in oil prices which would be likely follow such a measure.

Doubtless inflation in Russia would be higher, though it would be unlikely to go as high as it did during the inflation spike of 2015.  However the political impact of the increase in inflation within Russia would be mitigated with the Russian government in a position to blame the US for causing it.  Besides as happened following the inflation spike of 2015, once the economy adjusted inflation would fall back again.

If freezing the Russian state’s foreign currency reserves in the US would only have a short term impact on the Russian economy, it would nonetheless constitute a colossal shock across the world financial system.

It would show that the US is prepared to abuse its position at the core of the world financial system and as the host of institutions such as the IMF to target not just the financial reserves of the smaller economies such as Libya, Venezuela or Iran but also the reserves of big G20 economies such as Russia.

The Chinese especially – who have been on the receiving end of similar threats against their reserves for some time – would be horrified.

It would be difficult to imagine any step the US might take that would be more likely to galvanise countries like China and Russia to set up their own alternatives to the current US dominated world financial system and to its various institutions which have historically been under the control of the US.  Such moves are already underway and following the freezing (ie. seizure) of whatever proportion of Russia’s reserves are on US territory that process would be bound to accelerate.

It is impossible to see how that would benefit the US.

(3) Prohibiting US investors from buying Russian sovereign debt

In my opinion this is by far the most likely of any further sectoral sanctions the US might introduce.  It is the one further sectoral sanction the Democratic Senators who published the recent report about Russia which I discussed in a recent article have actually recommended

The U.S. Treasury Department is required to report in early 2018 on the possible effects on Russia’s economy of sanctions on sovereign debt, which could have the potential to foreclose external sources of funds. While the head of Russia’s central bank believes that ‘‘there won’t be any seriously negative consequences’’ from such sanctions, economists have warned that such sanctions ‘‘may totally stop other foreign investors, not the U.S. investors only, from buying the new government debt, fiercely pushing up borrowing costs for Russia.”

This sanction would also almost certainly be illegal but as I have said in my previous discussion of the proposals to freeze whatever foreign currency reserves the Russian state has located on US territory (see (2) above) that no longer seems to be a significant constraint on US actions.

It would however only be a limited sanction.  The US cannot prevent Russia from floating bonds in the international money markets – in Asia if not in Europe – and the Democratic Senators’ assumption that prohibiting US investors from buying such bonds will dissuade other international investors from doing so is also almost certainly wrong (the cited authority for the claim are not ‘economists’ but two articles in Bloomberg Markets).

The problem anyway is that with Russia now expected to run a budget surplus next year, and with Russia’s trading position also in healthy surplus, and with Russia’s gold and foreign currency reserves now standing at more than $430 billion and growing, it is not obvious that Russia needs to borrow at all.

Unless this measure is combined with a freezing of Russian gold and foreign currency reserves, it is difficult to see how this could be more than a pinprick, just as the Democratic Senators report Russian Central Bank Chair Nabiullina saying..

However if the US were to freeze Russian gold and foreign currency reserves this step would not be necessary anyway, since US investors would not want to buy Russian foreign debt in those circumstances if the Russian reserves were frozen.

At that point of course the US would be facing all the consequences outlined in (2).

Needless to say, if US investors were prohibited from buying Russian debt but no action was taken against Russia’s reserves, then the US would simply be forcing its own investors to forego an opportunity to make money by buying into a strong financial asset which was being bought by other international investors elsewhere.

Again it is not obvious how this would benefit the US.

Summary

What all these proposals in common is that they highlight is the simple fact that the sectoral sanctions which were imposed by the West on Russia in 2014 have failed.

The sanctions did not break the Russian economy, or cause a popular revolution in Russia, or lead to an oligarchs’ coup against Putin – all things their advocates variously predicted would happen because of them.

Nor have they achieved their stated person, which is to force Russia to change its policies towards Ukraine.  Even the Democratic Senators in their recent report very grudgingly admit as much

Sanctions Pressure Has Been Insufficient: U.S. and EU sanctions have not resulted in the implementation of the Minsk Agreements nor the return of Crimea to Ukrainian control.  The Russian government appears to have been able to resist this pressure because the cost imposed by sanctions has been manageable.

The trouble is that faced with this simple fact the advocates in the US and elsewhere of more confrontation with Russia refuse to learn the lesson that sanctions against Russia do not work.

Instead they demand more and more sanctions of a sort which were rejected in 2014 when the original sanctions were imposed precisely because they are the sort of sanctions that over the long term are more likely to cause harm to the US and the West than they are to Russia.

The key point is that the Russian economy is many orders of magnitude bigger and more sophisticated than the sort of economies – such as those of Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea and Venezuela – upon which the US has imposed sanctions previously.  Applying the supposed lessons of the impact of sanctions on those economies in the case of Russia makes no sense, even if those lessons had been learnt correctly, which they have not. Unlike all those economies Russia’s economy is far bigger, already possessing the technology, capital and resources it needs to develop autonomously.

As a self-sufficient continental economy sanctions on Russia almost by definition can have only a limited impact, and one which over time must diminish anyway.

As it happens the most effective sanctions the West could have imposed on Russia, both in terms of their impact on the Russian economy and their limited impact on the economies of the West, were the sectoral sanctions which were imposed in 2014.

Those sanctions did stop for a time the flow of capital from the West into Russia at a time when Russia was facing heavy debt repayments and when the price of its main export products – oil and gas – was collapsing.  The result was to deeper the recession caused by the collapse of oil and gas prices whilst further lowering the value of the rouble in a way which intensified the inflation spike.

With oil prices now rising, most short term Russian foreign debt repaid, and with the rouble floating, none of the sanctions discussed in this article look like they can have anything like the impact on Russia that the sanctions imposed in 2014 did.

The fact that the Russian economy successfully – in fact almost effortlessly – adjusted to those sanctions despite the difficult conditions ought to serve as a warning that further sanctions against Russia will not work, and if they are of the sort discussed in this article are counter-productive.

Jon Huntsman’s comments may suggest that there are people in the US who understand this, and that the demands of those who want ever more confrontation on this occasion are unlikely to be followed.

However the lesson of the last few decades is that to expect rational decision making in Washington especially on the subject of Russia is to expect altogether too much.

One way or the other the next few weeks will show the direction decisions in Washington are taking.

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US media suffers panic attack after Mueller fails to deliver on much-anticipated Trump indictment

Internet mogul Kim Dotcom said it all: “Mueller – The name that ended all mainstream media credibility.”

RT

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Important pundits and news networks have served up an impressive display of denials, evasions and on-air strokes after learning that Robert Mueller has ended his probe without issuing a single collusion-related indictment.

The Special Counsel delivered his final report to Attorney General William Barr for review on Friday, with the Justice Department confirming that there will be no further indictments related to the probe. The news dealt a devastating blow to the sensational prophesies of journalists, analysts and entire news networks, who for nearly two years reported ad nauseam that President Donald Trump and his inner circle were just days away from being carted off to prison for conspiring with the Kremlin to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.

Showing true integrity, journalists and television anchors took to Twitter and the airwaves on Friday night to acknowledge that the media severely misreported Donald Trump’s alleged ties to Russia, as well as what Mueller’s probe was likely to find. They are, after all, true professionals.

“How could they let Trump off the hook?” an inconsolable Chris Matthews asked NBC reporter Ken Dilanian during a segment on CNN’s ‘Hardball’.

Dilanian tried to comfort the CNN host with some of his signature NBC punditry.

“My only conclusion is that the president transmitted to Mueller that he would take the Fifth. He would never talk to him and therefore, Mueller decided it wasn’t worth the subpoena fight,” he expertly mused.

Actually, there were several Serious Journalists who used their unsurpassed analytical abilities to conjure up a reason why Mueller didn’t throw the book at Trump, even though the president is clearly a Putin puppet.

“It’s certainly possible that Trump may emerge from this better than many anticipated. However! Consensus has been that Mueller would follow DOJ rules and not indict a sitting president. I.e. it’s also possible his report could be very bad for Trump, despite ‘no more indictments,'” concluded Mark Follman, national affairs editor at Mother Jones, who presumably, and very sadly, was not being facetious.

Revered news organs were quick to artfully modify their expectations regarding Mueller’s findings.

“What is collusion and why is Robert Mueller unlikely to mention it in his report on Trump and Russia?” a Newsweek headline asked following Friday’s tragic announcement.

Three months earlier, Newsweek had meticulously documented all the terrible “collusion” committed by Donald Trump and his inner circle.

But perhaps the most sobering reactions to the no-indictment news came from those who seemed completely unfazed by the fact that Mueller’s investigation, aimed at uncovering a criminal conspiracy between Trump and the Kremlin, ended without digging up a single case of “collusion.”

The denials, evasions and bizarre hot takes are made even more poignant by the fact that just days ago, there was still serious talk about Trump’s entire family being hauled off to prison.

“You can’t blame MSNBC viewers for being confused. They largely kept dissenters from their Trump/Russia spy tale off the air for 2 years. As recently as 2 weeks ago, they had @JohnBrennan strongly suggesting Mueller would indict Trump family members on collusion as his last act,” journalist Glenn Greenwald tweeted.

While the Mueller report has yet to be released to the public, the lack of indictments makes it clear that whatever was found, nothing came close to the vast criminal conspiracy alleged by virtually the entire American media establishment.

“You have been lied to for 2 years by the MSM. No Russian collusion by Trump or anyone else. Who lied? Head of the CIA, NSA,FBI,DOJ, every pundit every anchor. All lies,” wrote conservative activist Chuck Woolery.

Internet mogul Kim Dotcom was more blunt, but said it all: “Mueller – The name that ended all mainstream media credibility.”

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Canadian Lawmaker Accuses Trudeau Of Being A “Fake Feminist” (Video)

Rempel segued to Trudeau’s push to quash an investigation into allegations that he once groped a young journalist early in his political career

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Via Zerohedge

Canada’s feminist-in-chief Justin Trudeau wants to support and empower women…but his support stops at the point where said women start creating problems for his political agenda.

That was the criticism levied against the prime minister on Friday by a conservative lawmaker, who took the PM to task for “muzzling strong, principled women” during a debate in the House of Commons.

“He asked for strong women, and this is what they look like!” said conservative MP Michelle Rempel, referring to the former justice minister and attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould, who has accused Trudeau and his cronies of pushing her out of the cabinet after she refused to grant a deferred prosecution agreement to a Quebec-based engineering firm.

She then accused Trudeau of being a “fake feminist”.

“That’s not what a feminist looks like…Every day that he refuses to allow the attorney general to testify and tell her story is another day he’s a fake feminist!”

Trudeau was so taken aback by Rempel’s tirade, that he apparently forgot which language he should respond in.

But Rempel wasn’t finished. She then segued to Trudeau’s push to quash an investigation into allegations that he once groped a young journalist early in his political career. This from a man who once objected to the continued use of the word “mankind” (suggesting we use “peoplekind” instead).

The conservative opposition then tried to summon Wilson-Raybould to appear before the Commons for another hearing (during her last appearance, she shared her account of how the PM and employees in the PM’s office and privy council barraged her with demands that she quash the government’s pursuit of SNC-Lavalin over charges that the firm bribed Libyan government officials). Wilson-Raybould left the Trudeau cabinet after she was abruptly moved to a different ministerial post – a move that was widely seen as a demotion.

Trudeau has acknowledged that he put in a good word on the firm’s behalf with Wilson-Raybould, but insists that he always maintained the final decision on the case was hers and hers alone.

Fortunately for Canadians who agree with Rempel, it’s very possible that Trudeau – who has so far resisted calls to resign – won’t be in power much longer, as the scandal has cost Trudeau’s liberals the lead in the polls for the October election.

 

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Why Joe May be Courting Stacey

Joe Biden has a history on compulsory integration dating back to the 1970s that Sen. Jesse Helms called “enlightened.”

Patrick J. Buchanan

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Authored by Patrick Buchanan via The Unz Review:


Of 895 slots in the freshman class of Stuyvesant High in New York City, seven were offered this year to black students, down from 10 last year and 13 the year before.

In the freshman class of 803 at The Bronx High School of Science, 12 students are black, down from last year’s 25.

Of 303 students admitted to Staten Island Technical High School, one is African-American.

According to The New York Times, similar patterns of admission apply at the other five most elite high schools in the city.

Whites and Asians are 30 percent of middle school students, but 83 percent of the freshman at Bronx High School of Science, 88 percent at Staten Island Technical and 90 percent at Stuyvesant.

What do these numbers tell us?

They reveal the racial composition of the cohort of scientists and technicians who will lead America in the 21st century. And they tell us which races will not be well represented in that vanguard.

They identify a fault line that runs through the Democratic Party, separating leftists who believe in equality of results for all races and ethnic groups, and those who believe in a meritocracy.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has expressed anger and frustration at the under-representation of blacks and Hispanics in the elite schools. But Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state legislature have ignored his pleas to change the way students are admitted.

Currently, the same test, of English and math, is given to middle school applicants. And admission to the elite eight is offered to those who get the highest scores.

Moreover, Asians, not whites, are predominant.

Though 15 percent of all middle school students, Asians make up two-thirds of the student body at Stuyvesant, with 80 times as many slots as their African-American classmates.

The egalitarian wing of the Democratic Party sees this as inherently unjust. And what gives this issue national import are these factors:

First, the recent scandal where rich parents paid huge bribes to criminal consultants to get their kids into elite colleges, by falsifying records of athletic achievement and cheating on Scholastic Aptitude Tests, has caused a wave of populist resentment.

Second, Harvard is being sued for systemic reverse racism, as black and Hispanic students are admitted with test scores hundreds of points below those that would disqualify Asians and whites.

Third, Joe Biden has a history on compulsory integration dating back to the 1970s that Sen. Jesse Helms called “enlightened.”

Here are Biden’s quotes, unearthed by The Washington Post, that reflect his beliefs about forced busing for racial balance in public schools:

“The new integration plans being offered are really just quota systems to assure a certain number of blacks, Chicanos, or whatever in each school. That, to me, is the most racist concept you can come up with.

“What it says is, ‘In order for your child with curly black hair, brown eyes, and dark skin to be able to learn anything, he needs to sit next to my blond-haired, blue-eyed son.’ That’s racist!

“Who the hell do we think we are, that the only way a black man or woman can learn is if they rub shoulders with my white child?

“I am philosophically opposed to quota systems. They insure mediocrity.”

That was 44 years ago. While those views were the thinking of many Democrats, and perhaps of most Americans, in the mid-’70s, they will be problematic in the 2020 primaries, where African-Americans could be decisive in the contests that follow Iowa and New Hampshire.

Biden knows that just as Bernie Sanders, another white male, fell short in crucial South Carolina because of a lack of support among black voters, he, too, has a problem with that most loyal element in the Democratic coalition.

In 1991, Biden failed to rise to the defense of Anita Hill when she charged future Justice Clarence Thomas with sexual harassment. In the Senate Judiciary Committee, he was a law-and-order champion responsible for tough anti-crime legislation that is now regarded as discriminatory.

And he has a record on busing for racial balance that made him a de facto ally of Louise Day Hicks of the Boston busing case fame.

How, with a record like this, does Biden inoculate himself against attacks by rival candidates, especially candidates of color, in his run for the nomination?

One way would be to signal to his party that he has grown, he has changed, and his 2020 running mate will be a person of color. Perhaps he’ll run with a woman of color such as Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost the 2018 governor’s race in Georgia.

An ancillary benefit would be that Abrams on the ticket would help him carry Georgia, a state Donald Trump probably cannot lose and win re-election.

Wrote Axios this morning:

“Close advisers to former Vice President Joe Biden are debating the idea of packaging his presidential campaign announcement with a pledge to choose Stacey Abrams as his vice president.”


Patrick J. Buchanan is the author of “Nixon’s White House Wars: The Battles That Made and Broke a President and Divided America Forever.”

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