Washington may be ready to significantly concede to Russia on Syria over concerns for the southern part of the country, Nezavisimaya Gazeta writes. Amid rumors about preparations for an attack by government forces in the provinces of Quneitra, Sweida, and Daraa, the State Department is drafting a plan to tackle military escalation in the region. In particular, it has an idea in store to dismantle the US base and evacuate opposition forces to the north. Experts interviewed by the newspaper suggest that the US might demand Russia keep Iran out of the southern borders in return.
"The US used to consider the At-Tanf base important not only from the viewpoint of economic pressure on Syrian President Bashar Assad as it blocked the Damascus-Baghdad highway, but also in terms of monitoring Iran’s flurry of activity," Anton Mardasov, an expert at the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), told the paper. "As a matter of fact, the US has managed to construct another base recently - in Jordan - which is almost adjacent to the Syrian border. Judging by satellite images, it already has helicopters based there. In addition, unmanned aerial vehicles may be deployed there. The US may keep tabs on what’s going on even without At-Tanf. Another matter is that it is unlikely that Washington will dismantle the base just to observe agreements on the southwestern de-escalation zone with Russia. More likely Russia will be asked to influence Iranian activity somehow," the expert explained.
According to Mardasov, there is evidence indicating that after the US pulled out of the Iranian nuclear deal, Tehran started to reduce military activity slightly. "There have been cases of withdrawal of Shiite militia from Syria to Iraq, whereas in the Daraa province, for example, Iranian forces were replaced with those of the Syrian regime," he told Nezavisimaya Gazeta.
"However, concurrently Iranian intelligence is stepping up activities, with Syrians having been actively recruited into local militia groups known as informal divisions of Hezbollah, or ‘Syrian Hezbollah’. Thus, the Iranians are rolling back apparent activities and placing their stakes on local forces, or groups consisting of Syrians," the expert said, adding that the major question is whether the US and particularly Israel, which has always kept a close eye on any of Iran’s actions close to its borders, are going to put up with Tehran’s recent tactics.
The present climate between Moscow and Washington marks a deep crisis, not a cold war, Deputy Director of the Institute of World Economy and International Relations of the Russian Academy of Sciences Fyodor Voytolovsky said in an interview with Izvestia. "This is not a cold war, but a deep crisis in relations on a state-by-state level. An ideological standoff was one of the key elements of the Cold War, whereas now we are competing for areas of influence, and non-military means, such as sanctions, are being employed. Efforts are being undertaken to squeeze Russia out of globally promising fields, and restrict its development potential. This is a tough competitive struggle, but not a confrontation motivated by ideological factors, which makes the current situation much different from the classical Cold War," he differentiated.
Asked about the relationship between Russia and the European Union (EU), Voytolovsky said that he is optimistic about it. "There is an unprejudiced logic of expansion of economic ties in relations between Russia and the EU, despite serious contradictions. Russia and the EU are promising markets for each other," he said.
"Russia is actively promoting the Nord Stream 2 initiative. We see a degree of opposition it faces not only in the EU, but from the US side as well. It is understandable, since (the sides) are struggling for promising markets," the expert said. "The Nord Stream 2 case is a classic example of direct lobbying of US LNG producers’ interests. The US potentially has three main competitors on the EU gas market - Iran, Qatar and Russia - and it is trying to close access to the European market to those competitors," he said, adding that the task lies more in the political, rather than in the economic field.
Russian businessman Oleg Deripaska may axe an agreement between Rusal shareholders, a move requested by the US authorities to pull the aluminum producer out of sanctions, Vedomosti business daily reports citing sources. Breaking off the agreement is the only way out of the current situation, the paper’s sources said, adding that the businessman sees no other chance to save the company. Meanwhile, EN+ has not yet offered up the cancellation of a shareholder agreement to minority shareholders so far, one of the sources said, adding that no reorganization proposals have been put on the table either.
According to the deal, EN+ is considered to be the controlling shareholder of the company as long as its share exceeds 40% (currently it equals 48.1%). Initially, the document was meant to protect the rights of minority shareholders, a person close to one of the company’s co-owners said and which another source confirmed. The agreement between En+, Glencore and Sual Partners of Victor Vekselberg and Leonard Blavatnik was signed when Rusal was set up in 2007. Back then, the partners merged their assets in the aluminum industry as En+ contributed Rusal, Sual Parterns - Sual, and Glencore - aluminum and metal plants in non-CIS countries.
Tertychny Agabalyan’s Ivan Tertychny considers the termination of the shareholder agreement to be a serious argument for En+ and Rusal in the discussion with the US Treasury. However, it does not guarantee an automatic exit from the sanctions, the expert adds. "When making a decision, the US Treasury will take into account not only the judicial aspects of the shareholder agreement, but matter-of-fact aspects as well - how and who makes decisions for company’s management," he explained. Moreover, Rusal was slapped with sanctions as an independent company, not as a subsidiary of En+, which means it may be not enough to terminate the shareholder agreement where EN+ is defined as a controlling shareholder, in order to get out of the sanctions list, Tertychny told Vedomosti.
Given that Russian top oil producer, Rosneft, has been rolling back investments in refineries over the past couple of years, it has put off the completion of its refinery upgrade program from 2020 to 2027, Kommersant says. Other top oil firms, such as Lukoil, Gazprom Neft, Gazprom and Surgutneftegaz, have almost reached their targets, whereas Rosneft has only met its obligations halfway on modernizing refineries within four-way agreements between the government and oil producers clinched back in 2011. By 2020, the company, which owns 13 large refineries, and controls 36% of the country’s primary crude oil processing, would have constructed 42 process units at its plants, though it has only constructed 20 as of now, and abandoned plans on building two of them, the paper says. According to the data provided by the Energy Ministry, the remaining 20 units are planned to be built up to 2027.
"The information on the company rescheduling its refineries’ modernization program for up to seven years is utterly inaccurate," Rosneft’s representative told Kommersant, adding that it is "implementing the modernization program in accordance with the approved business plan and operation schedule." He did not specify when the upgrade is going to be completed. Meanwhile, a source in the Energy Ministry told the paper "the rates of investment in modernization have slowed down due to changes in the macroeconomic, tax and price conditions." There is no "understanding of the long-term system of tax and customs regulation" in the sector, while investment profitability is low, the source said, adding though that the government is discussing measures to support refining.
Market watchers view the rescheduling as an expected move, since it looks more profitable to export crude oil, rather than invest in refining now. An analyst at Commodity Market Analytics Consultancy (ATR), Mikhail Turukalov adds that domestic prices for oil products have been below the export parity price over the past nine months, which causes foregone earnings for oil producers. Vasily Tanurkov, an expert at the Analytical Credit Rating Agency (ACRA), says Rosneft will need another 400 bln rubles to complete its modernization program.
Crimean authorities are floating the idea that visa-free travel be introduced for foreigners seeking to come to Russia for medical care at health resorts and sanatoriums, Kommersant writes. "We suggest that foreign citizens willing to receive treatment in Russia could visit the country without a visa for a 30-day period. Obviously, the goal of such treatment should be confirmed," Adviser to the Head of Crimea Sergey Strelbitsky told the publication. He also offers special medical visas valid for up to six months received on a simplified basis to be introduced for those who need extended treatment.
"Medical tourism is a global phenomenon, and developed countries are doing their best to simplify the arrival of those people there. It substantially fills the budget," the official noted. "Unfortunately, (Russia) does not occupy a rightful place on this market. We believe that the time is ripe to focus on it and do our best to attract foreign citizens here for treatment. According to Strelbitsky, the initiative will boost revenues in Russia’s medical sector, particularly the sanatorium-and-health-resort industry, and "raise (heath) facilities to a brand new level," as heads of such sanatoriums and health facilities will put their energy into getting up to international standards, which will benefit Russians as well. He also hopes that the introduction of visa-free travel will "help break the sanctions regime." "This is going to be a fitting reply to the sanctions, and the information war against our country," he stressed.
A source in Russia’s Healthcare Ministry told Kommersant "the possibility of introducing a special visa arrangement for foreign nationals willing to get treatment in Russia is currently being developed together with the Foreign Ministry." Experts interviewed by the paper consider medical tourism to be a promising idea, adding that there are facilities meeting European standards in Russia. However, market players state that few foreigners come to Russia for medical services so far.
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