WASHINGTON, September 18 (RIA Novosti) – US lawmakers are calling for a crackdown against leading Russian lenders VTB, Vnesheconombank (VEB) and Gazprombank for allegedly helping Syrian President Bashar Assad circumvent sanctions, accusations the state-owned banks sharply denied Wednesday.
“The Syrians could not conduct this war without Russian financing,” US Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, said Tuesday at a policy discussion in Washington, Politico reported.
Blumenthal was one of four senators who sent a letter to US Treasury Secretary Jack Lew last week calling for sanctions against the three banks, accusing the lenders of enabling Assad to finance a war against rebel forces.
The senators cited “numerous reports” as saying that VEB had facilitated Syrian payments for S-300 missile batteries and that VTB holds Assad’s “personal funds.” They also cited the reports as saying that Gazprombank made “payments for crude oil,” though they did not specify the source of the reports.
“This assistance eases much of the financial burden on the Assad regime, allowing it to continue military purchases and pay the soldiers that sustain the war in Syria,” the senators said in the letter.
The accusations come amid a standoff between Washington and Moscow over the possible use of force against Syria should Assad’s government fail to comply with a US-Russian plan to place Syria’s chemical weapons under international control.
Washington is pushing for inclusion of a military option in a UN Security Council resolution on Syria, though Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Tuesday called this condition a nonstarter.
The three banks rejected the allegations Wednesday, with VTB stating that it does not hold funds belonging to Assad “or any other member of the Syrian leadership” and accusing the lawmakers of intentionally harming the prospects for a peaceful resolution of the Syrian conflict.
“We consider these allegations to be a deliberate attempt to mislead the American people,” VTB, Russia’s second-largest bank, said in a statement. “These irresponsible insinuations are clearly intended to ratchet up tensions around Syria’s economic and financial situation, and to derail the recently launched peace process at any cost.”
VTB added that it would normally never comment on such allegations but that it made an exception “given the defamatory and highly public nature of these claims, and their relevance to an extremely delicate geopolitical situation.”
VEB, Russia’s state-owned development bank, denied carrying out any commercial transactions with Syria’s Central Bank, its government or affiliated organizations beyond acting as the Russian government’s “agent in servicing Russia’s foreign debt, including on financial settlements with Syria.”
“All of VEB’s activities are carried out in strict compliance with the sanctions imposed by the EU and the UN on the Syrian Republic,” VEB said Wednesday, according to the Prime business news agency, a RIA Novosti affiliate.
Gazprombank, Russia’s third-largest bank, also dismissed the accusations Wednesday.
“The information about the bank’s contacts with Syria’s financial and affiliated organizations is out of sync with reality,” Yekaterina Trofimova, a first vice president with the lender, told Prime.
VTB underperformed Moscow stocks on Wednesday in what analysts said was driven by the US senators’ call for sanctions on the three banks, Reuters reported.
“Such sanctions are unlikely to be supported by President Barack Obama, but investors’ play to push those shares down can have a negative impact on the overall trading on the Russian stock market,” Alexandr Kostyukov, an analyst at Veles Capital in Moscow, was quoted by Reuters as saying.
Lavrov said in September of last year that sanctions against Syria and Iran were beginning to impact the interests of Russian business, in particular Russian banks.
The Wall Street Journal reported in August 2012 that Assad’s government planned to use Russian banks to evade US and European sanctions. The report, based on documents reviewed by the Journal, said Moscow-based Novikombank was chosen by a Dubai-based oil trader to transfer money to the Syrian government.
Novikombank responded with a statement saying it “isn’t involved in any operations with Syria and doesn’t do business with Syrian individuals and legal entities.”