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

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 own 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 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 carried out 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 US has officials shown an increasing willingness to take illegal actions and it is unlikely that the fact that this step is illegal would be enough in itself to deter them.

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 much as a third of the reserves is probably an 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 finance 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 galvanise more countries like China and Russia to set up their own alternatives to the world financial system and its 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 it.

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 having said.

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 have 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 purpose, 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 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 deepen 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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Whose Money Stoked Religious Strife in Ukraine – and Who Tried to Steal It?

Was $25 million in American tax dollars allocated for a payoff to stir up religious turmoil and violence in Ukraine?

Jim Jatras

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Authored by James George Jatras via Strategic Culture:


Was $25 million in American tax dollars allocated for a payoff to stir up religious turmoil and violence in Ukraine? Did Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (unsuccessfully) attempt to divert most of it into his own pocket?

Last month the worldwide Orthodox Christian communion was plunged into crisis by the decision of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I in Constantinople to recognize as legitimate schismatic pseudo-bishops anathematized by the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which is an autonomous part of the Russian Orthodox Church. In so doing not only has Patriarch Bartholomew besmirched the global witness of Orthodoxy’s two-millennia old Apostolic faith, he has set the stage for religious strife in Ukraine and fratricidal violence – which has already begun.

Starting in July, when few were paying attention, this analyst warned about the impending dispute and how it facilitated the anti-Christian moral agenda of certain marginal “Orthodox” voices like “Orthodoxy in Dialogue,” Fordham University’s “Orthodox Christian Studies Center,” and The Wheel. These “self-professed teachers presume to challenge the moral teachings of the faith” (in the words of Fr. John Parker) and “prowl around, wolves in sheep’s clothing, forming and shaping false ideas about the reality of our life in Christ.” Unsurprisingly such groups have embraced Constantinople’s neopapal self-aggrandizement and support for the Ukrainian schismatics.

No one – and certainly not this analyst – would accuse Patriarch Bartholomew, most Ukrainian politicians, or even the Ukrainian schismatics of sympathizing with advocacy of such anti-Orthodox values. And yet these advocates know they cannot advance their goals if the conciliar and traditional structure of Orthodoxy remains intact. Thus they welcome efforts by Constantinople to centralize power while throwing the Church into discord, especially the Russian Church, which is vilified in some Western circles precisely because it is a global beacon of traditional Christian moral witness.

This aspect points to another reason for Western governments to support Ukrainian autocephaly as a spiritual offensive against Russia and Orthodoxy. The post-Maidan leadership harp on the “European choice” the people of Ukraine supposedly made in 2014, but they soft-pedal the accompanying moral baggage the West demands, symbolized by “gay” marches organized over Christian objections in Orthodox cities like AthensBelgradeBucharestKievOdessaPodgoricaSofia, and Tbilisi. Even under the Trump administration, the US is in lockstep with our European Union friends in pressuring countries liberated from communism to adopt such nihilistic “democratic, European values.”

Perhaps even more important to its initiators, the row over Ukraine aims to break what they see as the “soft power” of the Russian Federation, of which the Orthodox Church is the spiritual heart and soul. As explained by Valeria Z. Nollan, professor emerita of Russian Studies at Rhodes College:

‘The real goal of the quest for autocephaly [i.e., complete self-governing status independent of the Moscow Patriarchate] of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is a de facto coup: a political coup already took place in 2014, poisoning the relations between western Ukraine and Russia, and thus another type of coup – a religious one – similarly seeks to undermine the canonical relationship between the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and Moscow.’

In furthering these twin objectives (morally, the degrading of Orthodox Christianity; politically, undermining the Russian state as Orthodoxy’s powerful traditional protector) it is increasingly clear that the United States government – and specifically the Department of State – has become a hands-on fomenter of conflict. After a short period of appropriately declaring that “any decision on autocephaly is an internal [Orthodox] church matter,” the Department within days reversed its position and issued a formal statement (in the name of Department spokesperson Heather Nauert, but clearly drafted by the European bureau) that skirted a direct call for autocephaly but gave the unmistakable impression of such backing. This is exactly how it was reported in the media, for example, “US backs Ukrainian Church bid for autocephaly.” Finally, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo weighed in personally with his own endorsement as did the US Reichskommissar for UkraineKurt Volker.

The Threat…

There soon became reason to believe that the State Department’s involvement was not limited to exhortations. As reported by this analyst in October, according to an unconfirmed report originating with the members of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (an autonomous New York-based jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate), in July of this year State Department officials (possibly including Secretary Pompeo personally) warned the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (also based in New York but part of the Ecumenical Patriarchate) that the US government was aware of the misappropriation of a large amount of money, about $10 million, from estimated $37 million raised from believers for the construction of the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and National Shrine in New York. The State Department warning also reportedly noted that federal prosecutors have documentary evidence confirming the withdrawal of these funds abroad on the orders of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. It was suggested that Secretary Pompeo would “close his eyes” to this theft in exchange for movement by the Patriarchate of Constantinople in favor of Ukrainian autocephaly, which helped set Patriarch Bartholomew on his current course.

[Further details on the St. Nicholas scandal are available here, but in summary: Only one place of worship of any faith was destroyed in the September 11, 2001, attack in New York and only one building not part of the World Trade Center complex was completely destroyed. That was St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, a small urban parish church established at the end of World War I and dedicated to St. Nicholas the Wonderworker, who is very popular with Greeks as the patron of sailors. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attack, and following a lengthy legal battle with the Port Authority, which opposed rebuilding the church, in 2011 the Greek Archdiocese launched an extensive campaign to raise funds for a brilliant innovative design by the renowned Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava based on traditional Byzantine forms. Wealthy donors and those of modest means alike enthusiastically contributed millions to the effort. Then – poof! In December 2017, suddenly all construction was halted for lack of funds and remains stalled to this day. Resumption would require having an estimated $2 million on hand. Despite the Archdiocese’s calling in a major accounting firm to conduct an audit, there’s been no clear answer to what happened to the money. Both the US Attorney and New York state authorities are investigating.]

This is where things get back to Ukraine. If the State Department wanted to find the right button to push to spur Patriarch Bartholomew to move on the question of autocephaly, the Greek Archdiocese in the US is it. Let’s keep in mind that in his home country, Turkey, Patriarch Bartholomew has virtually no local flock – only a few hundred mostly elderly Greeks left huddled in Istanbul’s Phanar district. (Sometimes the Patriarchate is referred to simply as “the Phanar,” much as “the Vatican” is shorthand for the Roman Catholic papacy.) Whatever funds the Patriarchate derives from other sources (the Greek government, the Roman Catholic Church, the World Council of Churches), the Phanar’s financial lifeline is the ethnic Greek community (including this analyst) in what is still quaintly called the “Diaspora” in places like America, Australia, and New Zealand. And of these, the biggest cash cow is the Greek-Americans.

That’s why, when Patriarch Bartholomew issued a call in 2016 for what was billed as an Orthodox “Eighth Ecumenical Council” (the first one since the year 787!), the funds largely came from America, to the tune of up to $8 million according to the same confidential source as will be noted below. Intended by some as a modernizing Orthodox “Vatican II,” the event was doomed to failure by a boycott organized by Moscow over what the latter saw as Patriarch Bartholomew’s adopting papal or even imperial prerogatives – now sadly coming to bear in Ukraine.

…and the Payoff

On top of the foregoing, it now appears that the State Department’s direct hand in this sordid business may not have consisted solely of wielding the “stick” of legal threat: there’s reason to believe there was a “carrot” too. It very recently came to the attention of this analyst, via an unsolicited, confidential source in the Greek Archdiocese in New York, that a payment of $25 million in US government money was made to Constantinople to encourage Patriarch Bartholomew to move forward on Ukraine.

The source for this confidential report was unaware of earlier media reports that the same figure – $25 million – was paid by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to the Phanar as an incentive for Patriarch Bartholomew to move forward on creating an independent Ukrainian church. Moreover, Poroshenko evidently tried to shortchange the payment:

‘Peter [Petro] Poroshenko — the president of Ukraine — was obligated to return $15 million US dollars to the Patriarch of Constantinople, which he had appropriated for himself.

‘As reported by Izvestia, this occurred after the story about Bartholomew’s bribe and a “vanishing” large sum designated for the creation of a Unified Local Orthodox Church in Ukraine surfaced in the mass media.

‘As reported, on the eve of Poroshenko’s visit in Istanbul, a few wealthy people of Ukraine “chipped in” in order to hasten the process of creating a Unified Local Orthodox Church. About $25 million was collected. They were supposed to go to the award ceremony for Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople for the issuing of a tomos of autocephaly. [A tomos is a small book containing a formal announcement.] However, in the words of people close to the backer, during the visit on April 9, Poroshenko handed over only $10 million.

‘As a result, having learned of the deal, Bartholomew cancelled the participation of the delegation of the Phanar – the residence of the Patriarch of Constantinople, in the celebration of the 1030th anniversary of the Baptism of Russia on July 27 in Kiev.

‘”Such a decision from Bartholomew’s side was nothing other than a strong ultimatum to Poroshenko to return the stolen money. Of course, in order to not lose his face in light of the stark revelations of the creation of the tomos of autocephaly for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Peter Alexeevich [Poroshenko] had to just return those $15 million for the needs of Constantinople,” a trusted source explained to reporters.

‘For preliminary information, only after receiving the remaining sum, did Bartholomew finally give his consent to sending a delegation of the Phanar to Kiev … ‘

Now, it’s possible that the two identical figures of $25 million refer to two different pots of money (a cool $50 million!) but that seems unlikely. It’s more probable the reports refer to the same sum as viewed from the sending side (the State Department, the Greek Archdiocese) and the delivery side (Poroshenko, Constantinople).

Lending credibility to the confidential information from New York and pointing to the probability that it refers to the same payment that Poroshenko reportedly sought to raid for himself are the following observations:

  • When Poroshenko generously offered Patriarch Bartholomew $10 million, the latter was aware that the full amount was $25 million and demanded the $15 million Poroshenko had held back. How did the Patriarch know that, unless he was informed via New York of the full sum?
  • If the earlier-reported $25 million was really collected from “a few wealthy people of Ukraine” who “chipped in,” given the cutthroat nature of disputes among Ukrainian oligarchs would Poroshenko (an oligarch in his own right) have risked trying to shortchange the payment? Why has not even one such Ukrainian donor been identified?
  • Without going into all the details, the Phanar and the Greek Archdiocese have a long relationship with US administrations of both parties going back at least to the Truman administration, encompassing some decidedly unattractive episodes. In such a history, a mere bribe for a geopolitical shot against Moscow would hardly be a first instance or the worst.

As one of this analyst’s Greek-American connections puts it: “It’s easy to comprehend the Patriarchate bowing to the pressure of State Dept. blackmail… not overly savory, but understandable. However, it’s another thing altogether if Kiev truly “purchased” their autocephalous status from an all too willing Patriarchate … which would relegate the Patriarch to ‘salesman’ status and leave the faithful wondering what else might be offered to the highest bidder the next time it became convenient to hold a Patriarchal ‘fire sale’ at the Phanar?!”

To add insult to injury, you’d think Constantinople at least could pay back some of the $7-8 million wasted on the Crete 2016 debacle to restart the St. Nicholas project in New York. Evidently the Phanar has better things to spend it on, like the demonstrative environmentalism of “the Green Patriarch” and, together with Pope Francis, welcoming Muslim migrants to Europe through Greece. Of course maybe there’s no need to worry, as the Ukraine “sale” was consistent with Constantinople’s papal ambitions, an uncanonical claim to “universal” status, and misuse of incarnational language and adoption of a breathtakingly arrogant tone that would cause even the most ultramontane proponent of the Rome’s supremacy to blush.

Finally, it seems that, for the time being at least, Constantinople doesn’t intend to create an independent Ukrainian church but rather an autonomous church under its own authority. It’s unclear whether or not Poroshenko or the State Department, in such event, would believe they had gotten their money’s worth. Perhaps they would. After all, the issue here is less what is appropriate for Ukraine than what strikes at Russia and injures the worldwide Christian witness of the Orthodox Church. To that end, it doesn’t matter whether the new illegal body is Constantinopolitan or Kievan, just so long as it isn’t a “Moskal church” linked to Russia.

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U.S. May Impose Sanctions Against Turkey Over S-400 “Threat” To F-35

The United States continues to consider the S-400 air defense system a threat to its F-35 fifth generation stealth fighter platform.

The Duran

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Authored by Al Masdar News:


Turkish officials have repeatedly insisted that Ankara’s purchase of the advanced Russian air defense system poses no threat whatsoever to the NATO alliance. Last month, the Turkish defense ministry announced that delivery of S-400s to Turkey would begin in October 2019.

The United States continues to consider the S-400 air defense system a threat to its F-35 fifth generation stealth fighter platform, and may impose sanctions against Ankara, Turkey’s Anadolu news agency has reported, citing a high-ranking source in Washington.

“I can’t say for certain whether sanctions will be imposed on Ankara over the S-400 contract, but the possibility is there. The US administration is not optimistic about this issue,” the source said.

While admitting that Turkey was a sovereign state and therefore had the right to make decisions on whom it buys its weapons from, the source stressed that from the perspective of these weapons’ integration with NATO systems, the S-400 was “problematic.”

The source also characterized the deployment of S-400s in areas where US F-35 fifth-generation stealth fighters are set to fly as “a threat,” without elaborating.

Emphasizing that negotiations between Washington and Ankara on the issue were “continuing,” the source said that there were also “positive tendencies” in negotiations between the two countries on the procurement of the Patriot system, Washington’s closest analogue to the S-400 in terms of capabilities.

Designed to stop enemy aircraft, cruise and ballistic missiles at ranges of up to 400 km and altitudes of up to 30 km, the S-400 is currently the most advanced mobile air defense system in Russia’s arsenal. Russia and India signed a ruble-denominated contract on the delivery of five regiments of S-400s worth $5 billion late last month.

Last week, the Saudi Ambassador to Russia said that talks on the sale of the system to his country were ongoing. In addition to Russia, S-400s are presently operated by Belarus and China, with Beijing expecting another delivery of S-400s by 2020.

Washington has already slapped China with sanctions over its purchase of S-400s and Su-35 combat aircraft in September. India, however, has voiced confidence that it would not be hit with similar restrictions, which the US Treasury has pursued under the 2017 Counter America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA).

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The Ukrainian President Signs a Pact With Constantinople – Against the Ukrainian Church

There is still a chance to prevent the schism from occurring.

Dmitry Babich

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Authored by Dmitry Babich via Strategic Culture:


Increasingly tragic and violent events are taking their toll on the plight of the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Ukraine . After several fights over control of the church’s property, prohibitions and blacklists are starting to spread, affecting respected church figures coming from Russia to Ukraine. The latest news is that the head of the Moscow Theological Academy, Archbishop Amvrosyi Yermakov, was deported from Ukraine back to Russia. Amvrosyi’s name popped up on the black list of Russian citizens who are not deemed “eligible to visit” Ukraine. Obviously, this happened right before his plane landed in Zhulyany, Kiev’s international airport. After a brief arrest, Amvrosyi was put on a plane and sent back to Moscow. This is not the first such humiliation of the Orthodox Church and its priests that has taken place since the new pro-Western regime came to power in Kiev in 2014. Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church has been declared persona non grata throughout Ukraine since 2014. That decision was made by humiliatingly low-level officials. A department within the Ukrainian ministry of culture published a ruling stating that Kirill’s visit to Ukraine’s capital of Kiev “would not be desirable.”

Since the ancestors of modern Russians, Belarusians, and Ukrainians were first baptized in 988 in Kiev, the Patriarchs of the Russian Church have never had problems visiting Kiev, the birthplace of their church. Not even under the Bolsheviks did such prohibitions exist. So, for Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church to be denied permission to visit Kiev can only be compared to a possible prohibition against the pope visiting Rome. Since 2014, there have also been several criminal cases filed against the priests of the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC MP) because they have called the hostilities in eastern Ukraine a “civil war” and have discouraged the faithful from supporting that war. This has been interpreted by the Ukrainian state authorities as a call for soldiers to desert the army.

Why Poroshenko’s meeting with Bartholomew is ominous

Despite the fact that the UOC MP has become used to all sorts of trouble since 2014, things have been looking even worse for the canonical church lately, as 2018 draws to a close. In early November 2018, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko broke the wall of separation between church and state in the most overt manner possible — he signed “an agreement on cooperation and joint action” between Ukraine and the so called Constantinople Patriarchate, the oldest institution of Orthodox Christianity, which is now based in Turkish Istanbul.

Rostislav Pavlenko, an aide to Poroshenko, wrote on his Facebook page that the agreement (not yet published) is premised on the creation of a new “autocephalous” Orthodox Church of Ukraine — a development that the official, existing Orthodox Churches in Russia and Ukraine view with foreboding as a “schism” that they have done all they can to prevent. Why? Because Poroshenko’s regime, which came to power via a violent coup in Kiev in 2014 on a wave of public anti-Russian sentiment, may try to force the canonical Orthodox Church of Ukraine to merge with other, non-canonical institutions and to surrender to them church buildings, including the famous monasteries in Kiev and Pochai, as well as other property.

President Poroshenko was visibly happy to sign the document — the contents of which have not yet been made public — on cooperation between the Ukrainian state and the Constantinople Patriarchate, in the office of Bartholomew, the head of the Constantinople Patriarchate. Poroshenko smiled and laughed, obviously rejoicing over the fact that the Constantinople Patriarchate is already embroiled in a scandalous rift with the Russian Orthodox Church and its Ukrainian sister church over several of Bartholomew’s recent moves. Bartholomew’s decision to “lift” the excommunication from two of Ukraine’s most prominent schismatic “priests,” in addition to Bartholomew’s declaration that the new church of Ukraine will be under Constantinople’s direct command — these moves were just not acceptable for the canonical Orthodox believers in Russia and Ukraine. Kirill, the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), as well as Onufriy, the Metropolitan of Kiev and all Ukraine, are protesting loudly, viewing this situation as a breach of two basic principles. First of all, the Ukrainian state has interfered in the church’s affairs, asking Constantinople to give the Ukrainian church “autocephaly,” which that church never requested. Second, Constantinople itself has interfered in the affairs of two autonomous national churches, the Russian and the Ukrainian. In the eyes of Ukrainian and Russian clergy, Bartholomew is behaving like the Roman pope and not as a true Orthodox leader who respects the autonomy and self-rule of the separate, national Orthodox Churches.

The Russian President sympathizes with the believers’ pain

Two days before Poroshenko made his trip to Istanbul, Russian president Vladimir Putin broke with his usual reserve when commenting on faith issues to bitterly complain about the pain which believers in Russia and Ukraine have experienced from the recent divisions within the triangle of Orthodoxy’s three historic capitals — Constantinople, Kiev, and Moscow.

“Politicking in such a sensitive area as religion has always had grave consequences, first and foremost for the people who engaged in this politicking,” Putin said, addressing the World Congress of Russian Compatriots, an international organization that unites millions of ethnic and cultural Russians from various countries, including Ukraine. Himself a practicing Orthodox believer, Putin lauded Islam and Judaism, while at the same time complaining about the plight of Orthodox believers in Ukraine, where people of Orthodox heritage make up more than 80% of the population and where the church has traditionally acted as a powerful “spiritual link” with Russia.

Despite his complaints about “politicking,” Putin was careful not to go into the details of why exactly the state of affairs in Ukraine is so painful for Orthodox believers. That situation was explained by Patriarch Kirill. After many months of tense silence and an unsuccessful visit to Barthlomew’s office in Istanbul on August 31, Kirill has been literally crying for help in the last few weeks, saying he was “ready to go anywhere and talk to anyone” in order to prevent the destruction of the canonical Orthodox Church in Ukraine.

Politics with a “mystical dimension”

Kirill said the attack against the Orthodox Church in Ukraine “had not only a political, but also a mystical dimension.” Speaking in more earthly terms, there is a danger that the 1,000-year-old historical Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) — which now owns 11,392 church buildings, 12,328 parishes, and two world-famous monasteries in Ukraine — will be dissolved. The roots of the UOC MP go back to the pre-Soviet Russian Empire and even further back to the era of Kievan Rus, the proto-state of the Eastern Slavs in the tenth-twelfth centuries AD, when the people who would later become Russians, Ukrainians, and Byelorussians were adopting Orthodox Christianity from the Byzantine Empire. It is by far the biggest church in Ukraine, as Mikhail Denisenko’s non-canonical “alternative” church has only 3,700 parishes that include church buildings (fewer than a third of what is owned by the UOC-MP, despite the fact that Denisenko enjoys official support from the Ukrainian state).

What many Russian and Ukrainian believers fear is that the Istanbul-based Patriarch Bartholomew will eventually grant Kiev what is being called autocephaly. In that event, the UOC-MP may be forced to merge with two other, non-canonical churches in Ukraine that have no apostolic liaison. The apostolic succession of the UOC-MP consists in the historical fact that its first bishops were ordained by medieval bishops from Constantinople, who had in turn been ordained by Christ’s disciples from ancient Israel. Apostolic succession is crucial for the Orthodox Church, where only bishops can ordain new priests and where the church’s connection to the first Christians is reflected in many ways, including in the clergy’s attire.

Metropolitan Hilarion (his secular name is Grigory Alfeyev), the Russian church’s chief spokesman on questions of schism and unity, accused the patriarch of contributing to the schism by officially “lifting” the excommunication from Ukraine’s most prominent schismatic church leader — the defrocked former bishop Mikhail Denisenko. That clergyman stands to gain most from the “autocephaly” promised to Poroshenko by Patriarch Bartholomew. A hierarchical Orthodox Church is considered to have autocephalous status, as its highest bishop does not report to any higher-ranking bishop. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has stated that for Ukraine to be granted autocephaly from Istanbul, this would mean a complete “reformatting” of the country’s religious status quo and the severing of all links to Orthodox Russia and its “demons.”. Most likely, the new “united” church won’t be headed by the UOC MP’s Metropolitan, but by Mikhail Denisenko, who was excommunicated by both the UOC MP and the Russian church back in 1997 and with whom real Orthodox priests can only serve against their will and against the church’s internal rules.

Constantinople’s first dangerous moves

On October 11, 2018, the Constantinople Patriarchate made its first step towards granting autocephaly by repealing its own decision of 1686 that gave the Moscow Patriarch primacy over the Kiev-based Metropolitan. This 17th-century decision reflected the political reality of the merger between the states of Russia and Ukraine and established some order in the matters of church administration. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Moscow gave the Ukrainian church complete independence in financial and administrative matters, but the two churches retained their cherished “spiritual unity.” “Constantinople’s decision is aimed at destroying that unity,” the ROC’s Patriarch Kirill explained. “We can’t accept it. That is why our Holy Synod made the decision to end eucharistic communication with the Constantinople Patriarchate.”

How Moscow “excommunicated” Bartholomew

The end of eucharistic communication means that the priests of the two patriarchates (based in Moscow and Istanbul) won’t be able to hold church services together. It will be maintained as long as the threat of autocephaly continues. The Western mainstream media, however, interpreted this decision by the Russian church as a unilateral aggressive act. The NYT and the British tabloid press wrote that it simply reveals Putin’s “desperation” at not being able to keep Ukraine’s religious life under control.

However, Patriarch Bartholomew seems undeterred by the protests from the Russian faithful and the majority of Ukraine’s believers. Bartholomew said in a recent statement that Russia should just follow the example of Constantinople, which once granted autocephaly to the churches of the Balkan nations. Bartholomew’s ambassadors in Kiev do not shy away from communicating with the self-declared “Patriarch” Filaret (Mikhail Denisenko’s adopted religious name from back when he was the UOC MP’s Metropolitan prior to his excommunication in 1997). For true Orthodox believers, any communication with Denisenko has been forbidden since 1992, the year when he founded his own so-called Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate (UOC-KP). Unfortunately, Denisenko enjoys the full support of Ukrainian President Poroshenko, and recently the US State Department began encouraging Denisenko, by giving its full support to Ukraine’s autocephaly.

The lifting of Denisenko’s excommunication by Patriarch Bartholomew in Istanbul both upset and embittered the Orthodox believers in both Ukraine and Moscow, since Denisenko was excommunicated by a joint decision of the Russian church and the UOC MP in 1997, after a five-year wait for his return to the fold of the mother church. So, by undoing that decision, Constantinople has interfered in the canonical territory of both the Ukrainian and the Russian churches.

The UOC-MP protested, accusing not only Patriarch Bartholomew, but also the Ukrainian state of interfering in the church’s affairs. “We are being forced to get involved in politics. The politicians do not want Christ to run our church; they want to do it themselves,” said Metropolitan Onufriy (Onuphrius), the head of the UOC-MP, in an interview with PravMir, an Orthodox website. “Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate has been independent. Our church did not ask for autocephaly, because we already have independence. We have our own Synod (church council) and our own church court. Decisions are made by a congress of bishops and priests from all over Ukraine. We have financial and administrative independence, so autocephaly for us will be a limitation, not an expansion of our rights.”

Poroshenko’s premature jubilation

Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Poroshenko did not conceal his jubilation about Constantinople’s moves. “This is a victory of good over evil, light over darkness,” Poroshenko said when the news about the lifting of Denisenko’s excomnmunication came from Istanbul in early October.

Poroshenko said he wanted a “united Orthodox Church” for his country, and he openly pressured Patriarch Bartholomew to provide autocephaly to Kiev during his visits to Istanbul in the spring of 2018 and in November of the same year. Meanwhile, Denisenko said that the provision of autocephaly would mean the immediate dispossession of the UOC MP. “This Russian church (UOC MP) will have to cede control of its church buildings and famous monasteries to the new Ukrainian church, which will be ours,” Denisenko was quoted by Ukrainian media as saying. “These monasteries have been owned by the state since Soviet times, and the state gave them to the Russian church for temporary use. Now the state will appoint our communities of believers as the new guardians of this heritage.” Denisenko also made a visit to the US, where he met Undersecretary of State Wess Mitchell, obtaining from him America’s active support for the creation of a “unified” Ukrainian church.

There is still a chance to prevent the schism from occurring. Poroshenko’s presidential aide, Rostislav Pavlenko, made it clear on Tuesday that the actual “tomos” (a letter from the Constantinople Patriarchate allowing the creation of an autocephalous church) will be delivered only IN RESPONSE to a request from a “unifying convention” that represents all of Ukraine’s Orthodox believers in at least some sort of formal manner. This new convention will have to declare the creation of a new church and elect this church’s official head. Only then will Constantinople be able to give that person the cherished “tomos.”

Since the UOC-MP has made it very clear that it won’t participate in any such convention, the chances of the smooth transition and easy victory over the “Muscovite believers” that Poroshenko wants so badly are quite slim. There are big scandals, big fights, and big disappointments ahead.

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