by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.
In this holiday vacation period between Christmas and New Year’s, a time when we tend to put the cares of daily life aside, the Financial Times has published an interview with Herman Gref, chairman of Russia’s largest bank, Sberbank, that contains a clear warning of dire developments in the New Year should the United States push its economic sanctions to the limit, as may well occur given other very troubling items in the news with respect to Ukraine. See https://www.ft.com/content/9c25c852-e400-11e7-97e2-916d4fbac0da
It bears mention that Herman Gref is a highly intelligent, capable and widely respected Russian statesman and business leader. He is a key exponent of Liberal economics and democratization of state governance within Vladimir Putin’s inner circle. Gref is by nature reserved, not at all an alarmist.
The detonator of dire developments to which he alluded is the threat by some politicians on Capitol Hill to extend the economic sanctions against Russia to a cut-off of access to SWIFT, which is a vital component of the global infrastructure for interbank settlements. This threat has been in the air ever since the initial imposition of sanctions on Russia in 2014 following its annexation of the Crimea and intervention in the Ukrainian insurgency of Donbas.
Said Gref, termination of access to SWIFT would elicit Russian strong countermeasures against the United States. Whereas till now only Europe has paid a price for the sanctions and the United States got off scot free, in any new Russian response the United States will feel the pain. The result would be a confrontation that would “make the Cold War look like child’s play.”
This warning comes in the wake of very troubling signs that the Ukrainian conflict, which is the cause or pretext for U.S.-led sanctions against Russia, is spinning out of control. Russian television reportage in recent weeks speaks of a major intensification of shelling by Ukrainian forces directed against civilians in Donetsk and Lugansk provinces, reaching a level not seen for more than a year. Russia is in the meantime withdrawing its officers-observers from the Donbas, and this is remarked with alarm by Poland and other countries participating in the OSCE force. They believe Russian withdrawal jeopardizes the security of their personnel on the ground in the region. It also may be a prelude to larger Russian intervention in the conflict. And also in the meantime, the United States and Canada have authorized the shipment of lethal weapons to Ukraine, which crosses the “red lines” that Russia spelled out clearly.
The new and provocative military support by the United States for the regime in Kiev may well be part of a greater plan by the Deep State in Washington to completely neutralize the foreign policy initiatives of Donald Trump in favor of accommodation with Moscow. If there is an escalation of fighting in the southeast of Ukraine and Russia steps up its assistance to the insurgents, the arguments will be in place to implement the most drastic economic measures against Russia and expel it from the global financial system, leading to the scenario cited by Gref.
For those who are not familiar with the details of world banking, SWIFT is a private company based in Brussels, Belgium. Any order to deny Russia access to its infrastructure would have to come from the federal Belgian government, which is otherwise very busy these days planning the visit to Moscow at the end of January by Prime Minister Charles Michel.
In a speech last week to the 130 plus ambassadors from Belgium posted around the world, Prime Minister Michel called for a new and broader dialogue with Russia even as we have differences over Ukraine and other issues and even as sanctions remain in place. His mission to Moscow will surely have on the agenda the ongoing construction of an LNG terminal at the Flemish port of Zeebrugge implementing agreements between the Russian gas exporter Novatek and the Belgian gas distributor Fluxys. This enormous project would position Belgium as a major hub for distribution of Liquefied Natural Gas coming from the newly operational Russian field in Yamal, north of Siberia, a hub having pan-European importance. It would also position Belgium as a major competitor to Poland, which not long ago opened its own LNG terminal to receive American shale gas, also with aspirations to achieve pan-European scale.
Any US-led intensification of sanctions against Russia, and in particular any cut-off of Russia’s access to SWIFT will necessarily kill the Belgian gas project and cause grave harm to the local economy in Flanders. In this connection, it has to be stated that the power behind the coalition government of Mr. Michel is precisely the Flemish nationalist NV-A party. All of this means that here in Belgium a constitutional crisis would likely follow.
For all of these reasons, 2018 will be a year for vigilance and attention to detail in a world that is very troubled and moving towards disorder.
© Gilbert Doctorow, 2017
* * * *
Gilbert Doctorow is an independent political analyst based in Brussels. His latest book, Does the United States Have a Future? was published on 12 October 2017. Both paperback and e-book versions are available for purchase on http://www.amazon.com and all affiliated Amazon websites worldwide. See the recent professional review http://theduran.com/does-the-united-states-have-a-future-a-new-book-by-gilbert-doctorow-review/ For a video of the book presentation made at the National Press Club, Washington, D.C. on 7 December 2017 see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ciW4yod8upg