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Press review: Russia beefs up presence near US base in Syria and West split on Kosovo army

Top stories in the Russian press on Monday, December 17


Nezavisimaya Gazeta: Moscow beefs up presence in Syria near US base

The Russian-US standoff in Syria has been intensifying, thus stonewalling efforts on stabilizing the situation to the east of the Euphrates River and in the south near Al-Tanf controlled by Washington, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu said in a message to his US counterpart Jim Mattis last week, Nezavisimaya Gazeta writes.

Shoigu also voiced concerns over the growing Kurdish-Arab standoff on US-controlled territory and mass deaths of civilians in bombings carried out by the US-led coalition. He drew attention to the problem of the Rukban refugee camp, where more than 50,000 are forced to live in dire conditions. The Russian Defense Ministry is also dissatisfied about the smuggling of hydrocarbons from the US-controlled areas, accusing Washington of turning a blind eye to the problem.

However, the US Defense Department has not yet responded to Moscow’s accusations, Russian Defense Ministry Spokesman Igor Konashenkov noted. The Pentagon keeps saying that the Islamic State (terror group, outlawed in Russia) still poses a threat to Syria. Meanwhile, Russia’s top brass says that after all IS units are destroyed, Washington won’t have a formal reason to keep its military presence in Syria. Judging by US President Donald Trump’s statements, there are no plans to leave Syria in the near future, the paper says.

According to Syrian reports, after the US rejected Moscow’s idea to jointly ensure security near the US base Al-Tanf, Russia's top brass started equipping its military base near this region. The facility was built near Al-Zazi, in the northeast of the Homs Governorate, directly on the border of the 55-km zone around the US base. Modern air defense systems have been deployed there and heavy missile launchers are due to be delivered there soon, the reports claimed. The units, which have already repelled the offensive of the pro-US militants, are on duty there.

"I don’t think that the Russian units will be engaged in a conflict with the Americans near Al-Tanf," military expert Colonel Shamil Gareyev told Nezavisimaya Gazeta. "The Russian military is in Syria on a legitimate basis, unlike the Pentagon’s units. The Russian and Syrian forces are concentrated near Al-Tanf to ensure stability, eliminate groups of IS terrorists and help the refugees at the Rukban camp. Certainly, these steps will be aimed at forcing US units from Syrian territory by non-military means."


Media: US pushes for Kosovo army, while NATO raises doubts

On Monday, the UN Security Council will hold an emergency meeting at Serbia’s request following the decision by Kosovo’s parliament to create a regular army based on the Kosovo Security Force (KSF). The United States has endorsed this move, while the NATO Secretary-General has branded it as untimely. As for Russia and Serbia, they both condemned the plan, Kommersant writes. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic is convinced that Kosovo’s steps have been encouraged by the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany. Moscow backed Belgrade’s stance, warning that the creation of a Kosovo army could trigger severe consequences for security in the Balkans.

A source close to the Kosovo leadership told Kommersant that Pristina would not have decided to take this crucial step without Washington’s support. However, diplomatic sources in the region are urging everyone not to lose their cool over this decision by Kosovo, stressing that the creation of this army could take at least ten years.

A senior lecturer at Moscow State University’s World Politics Department Alexei Fenenko told Nezavisimaya Gazeta that talk about creating a Kosovo army started back in 2002. The expert stressed that Pristina is creating a regular army as part of Washington’s large-scale plan. "The US seeking to execute a plan on creating Greater Albania, which will become its stronghold in the Balkans. They want to establish a single Albanian state made up of parts of Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia and probably Montenegro and even Greece," Fenenko said. "That’s the Americans’ ultimate goal in the Balkan region. So for this objective, Kosovo needs a strong army," he explained.


Nezavisimaya Gazeta: Can Trump freeze the Nord Stream 2 pipeline?

In January, Russia, Ukraine and the European Union are due to start talks on Russian gas transit to Europe after 2019. Until Washington’s intentions of halting the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline are fulfilled, Moscow still has the upper hand over Kiev in the dispute on transit volumes and tariffs, Nezavisimaya Gazeta writes. However, the situation may significantly change if Naftogaz achieves its objective of arresting Gazprom’s sensitive assets and Berlin is forced to give up its support for the Nord Stream 2 project. Then Ukraine will restore control over Russia’s energy exports, the paper says.

Head of the analytical department of the National Energy Security Fund Alexander Pasechnik sees no objective reasons, which could stop the Nord Stream 2 project. "All German strategies already take into account the flow of Russian gas through Nord Stream 2. Germany is ready to replace Ukraine and become an important gas hub. All current authorizations ensure its further layout, and more than 300 km of offshore gas pipelines have been laid down, that’s 25% of its entire length. The partners have earmarked over 6 bln out of 9.5 bln euro, so two-thirds of the financing have been shelled out, and even if the funding is halted, Gazprom will handle it through its own funds," Pasechnik said.

The expert is cautiously optimistic about the US resolution. "There have been calls on Trump to turn up the heat on Nord Stream 2, and here we expect encouraging initiatives from Germany and Austria. However, in my view, Trump won’t decide to slap sanctions, despite the intense pressure on him. If he does impose sanctions and Nord Stream 2 is still built, then that would inflict a severe blow to the US president’s reputation."

Trump assured Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel that he was ready to be engaged in a fair rivalry. The White House occupant was satisfied by Germany’s decision to build a terminal for liquefied natural gas to the tune of 600 mln euro. "This was Merkel’s concession to distract Trump’s attention from Nord Stream 2," the expert noted.


Izvestia: Russia’s central bank revises its forecast for 2019

Russia’s central bank has published another report on its monetary policy, Izvestia writes. Prior to that, the Bank of Russia had raised the key rate to 7.75%, for the second time this year. This was a preventive measure since the regulator needs to contain inflation and preserve the financial market’s stability. Among the factors, which could contribute to rising prices would be increasing the VAT (value added tax) rate starting from January 1, 2019 and the outflow of capital from developing markets amid rising US rates.

In its new report, the Bank of Russia revised its basic scenario of economic development in 2019-2021. The crucial change is the oil price forecast. The regulator expects that next year a barrel will cost $55, rather than $63. The central bank had earlier forecasted that the price would drop to $55, but now the fall will be more quickly due to growing oil production in the US and milder terms for fuel imports from Iran.

The regulator emphasizes that the oil price drop won’t significantly affect Russia’s economy. Due to the budget rule, actually we have been living with an oil price of $40, Otkritie Broker analyst Timur Nigmatullin noted. Under this rule, the Russian Finance Ministry buys foreign currency on the open market using super profits from oil and gas sales, namely the funds earned from oil exports at prices of over $40 per barrel. This money goes to the reserve fund, he explained.

The ruble rate and the GDP growth also fit the $40 oil price, the expert said. So, the regulator’s forecast is rather conservative, and the fuel price may grow to $70 per barrel.


Kommersant: Top Russian vegetable producer eyes project in China

Russia's biggest vegetable producer, Eco-Culture, has agreed to create a greenhouse complex on the area of 250 ha in China, Kommersant writes. The project holds a price tag of $625 mln and will be financed by China’s state company Huafa Group. Eco-Culture will be engaged in the administration of business, allowing the holding to study the market ahead of launching exports of its goods to China.

The holding’s President and Co-Owner Alexander Rudakov told the paper that Huafa would bankroll the project, while Eco-Culture would oversee the construction and be in charge of business administration. The holding’s building partner and supplier of materials will be a Lipetsk greenhouse complex plant. The first leg of the compound in Guangdong, South China, located on an area of nearly 20 ha will be launched by late 2019.

Director General of Growth Technologies Tamara Reshetnikova estimates that the construction of the greenhouse complex will be worth up to 2.5 mln euro per 1 ha. The first leg of the project may cost 50 mln euro, and the price tag of the entire complex may come to $625 mln. According to Rudakov, tomatoes, cucumbers and salad may be grown there. At the first stage, the vegetables will be only supplied to the Chinese market.

The entire complex is expected to produce between 125,000 tomatoes and 150,000 tonnes of cucumbers per year. These goods will be in high demand in China, Reshetnikova notes. Most vegetables in China are grown in wooden greenhouses, which cannot ensure year-round production and proper control over quality and safety.


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