Russian President Vladimir Putin visited the Hmeymim air base near Syria’s Latakia on Monday and officially ordered the pullout of Russian forces from the Arab republic. A source close to the Russian Foreign Ministry told RBC that two-thirds of the contingent and equipment are expected to be withdrawn. The process will take around a month, First Deputy Chairman of the Federation Council Committee for Defense and Security Frants Klintsevich told the paper. "The supreme commander-in-chief’s decision on the pullout of a significant number of Russian forces from Syria is the official recognition that the war is over," Chairman of the Federation Council’s Defense and Security Committee Viktor Bondarev said.
Russia earlier announced plans to cut the number of its troops in Syria, but then it had to again boost the contingent. The scenario is unlikely to be repeated, military expert and editor-in-chief of the Arsenal Otechestva (Arsenal of the Fatherland) magazine Viktor Murakhovsky told RBC. In March 2016, the number of Russian troops in Syria was rolled back amid hopes that Damascus’ forces and their allies were capable of fighting, but they did not live up to the expectations and so Russian troops were again bolstered, he explained.
With the defeat of the Islamic State (terror group, outlawed in Russia) the military operation is shifting to a police phase, military expert and retired Colonel Andrey Payusov noted. "The local military together with the Syrian mukhabarat (military intelligence) will start working here," the expert said.
Meanwhile, Israeli professor Bar-Ilan Zeev Hanin warned that pro-Iranian armed units, which fought on the side of Assad’s forces, may expand their presence in Syria after the IS group’s defeat. "This does not solve the security issue in the region, but only complicates it," he cautioned. With the withdrawal of the Russian forces from Syria Moscow’s influence on Assad may also weaken, he pointed out.
Ilyan Masaad, leader of the Syrian opposition group Hmeymim, said Putin’s decision on the troops pullout will positively affect the Geneva peace talks. Some Syrian opposition members, especially from the Riyadh platform, will have no more reasons to sabotage progress at the negotiations under the pretext of ‘Russian meddling’ in Syria’s affairs, he explained.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov took part in the New Delhi-hosted Russia-India-China (RIC) talks on Monday. Although this was the 15th such summit already, there is still no unity between the three powers, Kommersant business daily wrote. Experts told the paper that Moscow does not always succeed in acting as a mediator between the two opposing sides.
As key players in global politics, Russia, India and China should have a more significant role, but this is only possible if they coordinate their efforts, said Guan Guihai, Associate Dean of the School of International Studies at Peking University, a major Chinese research educational institution located in Beijing.
Meanwhile, New Delhi complains that Beijing often acts in a non-constructive way and this de facto affects Indian-Chinese relations. The key sore points are different approaches to the war on terror and territorial disputes in the South China Sea, Indian political scientist Rajeev Sharma said.
According to Guan Guihai, Moscow could perform the role of "a wise mediator between Beijing and New Delhi." "Russia traditionally has a central role in global politics, while China and India have not had much influence for long. That’s why they need to adapt to each other. In this context, Russia should play a more constructive role," the Chinese expert said. "It often tries to be a mediator, but this effort has not always panned out."
Head of the Asia-Pacific Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center Alexander Gabuyev said no significant decisions were made in the RIC talks now and it only serves as another platform for dialogue. "When the RIC format was created, it looked stunning - three major powers of Eurasia unite to solve global problems. But now it is an outdated mechanism that continues existing only by inertia," he explained.
On Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Russia’s Hmeymim air base in Syria and after a meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad announced that "the most combat-capable group of terrorists" had been defeated with the assistance of the Russian military. The president ordered the Defense Ministry to begin pulling out forces from Syria.
According to Vedomosti, both Russia and the US-led coalition are rolling back the intensity of operations in Syria. However, the announcement of the full defeat of the Islamic State (terror group, outlawed in Russia) could be a hasty move, Alexander Shumilin, Director of the Center for the Analysis of Middle East Conflicts at the Institute of the US and Canadian Studies in Moscow, cautioned.
The terrorists have not been eliminated, and Putin’s announcement will have major importance only in the run-up to the elections, Shumilin noted. Moscow is placing its stake on a diplomatic solution and is sending a signal to Assad that he should be more flexible, the expert noted.
Meanwhile, Russia, Turkey and Iran all still have some differences. The Kurdish issue still remains a concern for Russia and Turkey, whereas for Moscow and Tehran the issue of Russia’s complete exit from Syria touches a nerve, he explained. The Iranians are not going to leave Syria and consider Russia’s withdrawal as a betrayal, the expert noted.
The announcement on the Russian pullout from Syria is timed for Putin’s annual press conference on December 14, political scientist Evgeny Minchenko highlighted. Putin’s decision to wrap up the military operation during his current presidential term is a good comparison to US presidents, most notably Barack Obama, who promised to put an end to ongoing wars, but only stirred up several new military conflicts, he pointed out. According to Minchenko, the victory in Syria may be used during Putin’s election campaign: he might be portrayed as a winner and as a figure who has invigorated Russia’s Armed Forces.
The operation in Syria showed a new quality of the Russian army - the low number of casualties and brand new technological advances compared with the war in Afghanistan, the expert explained.
Director of the Levada Center pollster Lev Gudkov also agrees that the Syrian operation could serve as fuel for the election campaign. "It is important for Putin to be viewed as a peacemaker. People are waiting for this, and the meaning of the Syrian operation is unclear for them. There were some concerns that this could become a second Afghanistan and that Russia could find itself on the brink of a third world war. That’s why the end of combat actions will be perceived with a sigh of relief."
Last week, Russia’s second plant on producing liquefied natural gas - Yamal LNG, built by Novatek gas producer and its partners, started operations, Vedomosti writes. The shipping of the first batch for export began on December 8 and the ceremony was attended by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller. Gazprom controls Russia’s first LNG plant located in Sakhalin, Russia’s Far East.
Once the upcoming December 19 meeting opens, Viktor Zubkov, Chairman of Gazprom’s Board of Directors, will announce plans to discuss the prospects of shale gas and LNG and their influence on the company. In addition, plans are in store to review Gazprom’s long-term program of development.
Gazprom is building two more LNG projects - in the Baltic Sea and in Vladivostok. The company also intends to construct the third leg of the plant in Sakhalin by 2023-2024, increasing its capacity by 30% to 15 mln tonnes per year.
LNG has huge prospects globally, but Gazprom has not made major progress on this issue, analyst at Sberbank CIB Valery Nesterov said.
LNG exports are expected to grow in the coming years, analyst at Raiffeisenbank Andrey Polischuk said. European countries, which receive gas via Gazprom’s pipelines, will seek to purchase more LNG to achieve energy independence from a single supplier, Nesterov explained. If Gazprom does not invest in developing technologies, its share on export markets will significantly decrease, Polischuk warned.
Gazprom has enough reserves of traditional gas and the monopoly has no need to pour money into more expensive technologies to produce shale gas, the analyst said.
In the future, the LNG share in global trade will increase, but over the next quarter of a century, pipeline supplies will play a leading role, Alexey Grivach, Deputy Director of Russia’s National Energy Security Fund, said.
Next year will be a busy time for the Russian crew of the International Space Station (ISS), Izvestia writes, citing the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center. Under the flight program, they will make three spacewalks. The cosmonauts will be tasked with installing the equipment to monitor the migration of animals and preparing to launch a new Russian module Nauka (Science).
"Initially, three spacewalks are scheduled for 2018 under the Russian flights program," the press service said. Since 2014, the Russian crew at the ISS has left the station just once a year.
The first spacewalk, due on February 2, had been earlier expected to be made late this year. Its key task will be to install on the external surface of the ISS the equipment for data broadcasting in the Earth through the Luch satellite system.
The second spacewalk will be made in May. The cosmonauts will install the equipment on the external surface of the Zvezda module of the Russian segment of the ISS for monitoring the migration of wild animals and birds from the orbit.
The date of the third spacewalk has not yet been determined, but most likely it will take place in late 2018, the paper writes. The effort will be linked to the preparations for launching the new multi-purpose laboratory module Nauka.
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