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In a surprising new breakthrough in the Syrian crisis, Russia’s air force, together with the US-led coalition’s air power, carried out a joint strike on the positions of the Islamic State (terror group, outlawed in Russia) in the Al-Bab settlement in Syria’s Aleppo province, a source in the Defense Ministry told Kommersant daily. It was noted that this was the first joint operation since September 2015 when Russia launched its military action in Syria. According to the source, "this was a pleasant surprise from US and EU colleagues," since prior to this, the Pentagon and NATO reacted negatively to any proposal to coordinate joint operations with Russia in Syria, and out of several agreements, only one was sealed, ensuring the safety of flights in Syria’s air space. If this turns out to be "more or less consistent", other joint operations may follow, for example in the Homs, Hama or Idlib provinces, the source added.
Deir ez-Zor, another Syrian province containing a population of 150,000 is facing a dire situation, a source in the military authorities told the newspaper. For several years already, this war-ravaged region has been besieged by militants. Radical Islamists have an overwhelming superiority, while the forces of the Syrian army are being depleted daily, Kommersant writes. The paper’s military sources say this particular region is being thoroughly monitored as the Russian command is concerned about the state of the Syrian army. Yet, in several areas it is solely the opposition groups that joined the forces to defeat the Islamic State that are putting up a fight.
The conflicting sides and international mediators were initially expected to gather in Astana to hammer out the details on the truce agreement set at the end of 2016. However, in practice the negotiations in the Kazakh capital only turned into a new arena for a verbal battleground among diplomats, Izvestia writes on Tuesday. Still according to experts interviewed by the newspaper, the sheer fact that the meeting took place is an achievement in itself. According to member of Russian Federation Council’s International Affairs Committee Igor Morozov, the presence of representatives from official Damascus and the opposition around the table is an important step for settling the Syrian crisis. "The sides that have been at war with each other for more than five years, have met. They were not sitting in different rooms as it was in Geneva, but discussed particular issues brokered by global and regional players, which means the target was hit," Morozov told the newspaper, adding that "not the sides have to reach an agreement on a further ceasefire." "Also, those talks should be continued at a higher level in Geneva, with the involvement of the political opposition," he added.
Meanwhile, some experts have been less optimistic about the Astana meeting, Nezavisimaya Gazeta says. Issam al-Reis, an opposition representative, said at the talks that militants are ready to keep up the armed struggle if the parties fail to reach an agreement in Kazakhstan. "We’re fighting and making a revolution in Syria, and some of us are doctors and engineers," he said. According to Professor Leonid Isayev from Russia's Higher School of Economics, "the most they can agree on is signing the ceasefire agreement adopted by international actors at the end of last year." "The Russian side is aware of this. So, it is no mere chance that the delegations have a very low level at these talks, and the current goal is to buy time so that Astana turns into something global and significant," the expert said. He added that it is hardly possible to continue the process on the back of its trilateral format, involving Russia, Turkey and Iran. "This is good to begin with, but it is necessary to go ahead and engage other players," he said. According to Isayev, competition between the key players is the main negative element in the Astana talks. "Turkey seeks to be the leader in the Middle East, so do Iran and Saudi Arabia. They hardly see Russia’s own ambitions as something positive," he told the newspaper.
Ukraine, which has made European integration its main policy, cannot become a NATO member anytime soon, as the alliance sees no grounds for Kiev’s entrance into the Brussels-based ‘military family’, an armed forces source in Brussels familiar with the matter told Izvestia. With no consensus on the Ukraine integration issue, NATO has abandoned initiatives to promote the idea for a time and sidestepped public discussion, the source said. Another source in NATO’s press service told the newspaper that today’s top priority for Ukraine is modernization and reforms, though its full-fledged entrance into the organization is not on the agenda at the moment.
There are no contacts between Kiev and Brussels on Ukraine’s potential membership right now, Izvestia writes with reference to its source in the organization. "Ukraine has not applied for membership. If it does, we will estimate its readiness to join the alliance, similar to any other candidate. The current priority for Ukraine is to carry out reforms and modernization, and NATO supports it in doing so. A decision to become a member of the alliance is an individual matter of a country applying and all 28 NATO members," the source said, adding that no third force can influence or impose a veto on the membership decision for any country.
Meanwhile, a source in Brussels told Izvestia that NATO is not planning to expand the organization by taking Ukraine in, and the alliance has no understanding as to how Ukraine could enhance the security of other members. Jeffrey Rathke, a former State Department official and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington confirmed to Izvestia that the issue of Ukraine’s NATO entrance is not on the agenda as there is no consensus among the members on the issue. According to the expert, it is hard to predict any policy actions for the next decade or two, and Ukraine may announce its wish to become a NATO member, but it is not very likely.
Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto tallied up his country’s export losses from the EU’s sanctions policy and economic restrictions imposed against Russia in the amount of $6.5 bln over three years. This is quite a notable shortfall given that the annual volume of Hungarian exports stands at around $90 bln, he said in an interview with Kommersant business daily. Budapest’s position is clear: sanctions are inefficient and harmful, particularly for the Russian economy, and for the European economy as well, he said, adding that when he raises this topic with US and German businessmen he noted that they share the view.
The top diplomat noted that despite the fact that each EU member state has a veto right, Hungary wanted to avoid rocking the boat on this particular issue, in order to preserve EU unity. In addition, Szijjarto noted that Budapest, backed by a few states, had pushed for a change in the policy, but on the day when the decision was to be made Hungary found itself alone. He added that Budapest would like to become one of the key anchors in restarting cooperation between Moscow and Brussels, since the EU will only lose ground competitively to China, the US and Britain, if it fails to establish a dialogue with Russia on a pragmatic basis.
The Hungarian foreign minister said he expects sanctions to be eased in March, though he noted that much will depend on dialogue between Russia and the United States. He stressed that in the upcoming weeks once Donald Trump settled into his post, everyone would see his first policy decisions in the international arena. "This will not directly affect Budapest’s position but can have an impact on the European Union in general: if there emerges a positive shift in the dialogue between Moscow and Washington it will be easier to convince our European friends to follow track," he said, adding that business is obviously against the sanctions policy.
The 40% devaluation of the British currency has enabled Russians to reconsider investment opportunities in the UK. According to Izvestia, demand by Russian buyers for premium realty in London has been on the rise since the beginning of this year. Knight Frank’s Director of International Sales, Marina Kuzmina, told the newspaper that in January the number of requests to the Moscow office tripled compared with November and December of 2016. "In the second half of last year, Russian did not hurry with acquiring real estate in London as the market reacted to Brexit with a 5-15% price drop depending on the area. There were deals, though not many of them. However, since the start of 2017 we’ve noticed a sharp rise in demand for London’s premium realty among Russians," she said, adding that the recent announcement by British Prime Minister Theresa May about the country’s exit from the EU at the Davos forum boosted investors’ and buyers’ confidence. Well-to-do Russians are not the only ones seeking to invest in Britian, the newspaper writes, as the middle class has been increasingly interested in educational tours since the pound has plunged.
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