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Press review: Erdogan to occupy northern Syria and how much does cyber sovereignty cost

Top stories in the Russian press on Tuesday, December 25


Media: Erdogan eyes anti-Kurdish offensive in northern Syria in wake of US exit

The Pentagon confirmed that US President Donald Trump had signed a decree on the withdrawal of troops from Syria. All parties to the Syrian conflict will try to derive benefits from the current power vacuum and the Syrian Kurds will be the ones most affected by Trump’s decision, US experts say, according to Vedomosti.

It is evident that all forces in Syria will respond to the US pullout, the Arsenal Otechestva (Arsenal of the Fatherland) magazine’s Chief Editor Viktor Murakhovsky told the paper. The Al-Tanf enclave on the border with Jordan is likely to come under the Syrian government’s control, and fearing Erdogan's imminent offensive, the Kurds may redeploy their forces to the north, and in this climate, attempts by the Islamic State (terror group, outlawed in Russia) to resurface are highly likely, the expert notes. Therefore, the troops of the fifth assault corps of the Syrian army are preparing to counter the Islamic State and also take care of the issue with oil and gas fields in Deir ez-Zor, he said.

Trump’s decision to leave Syria and the subsequent resignation of US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis are goading the Turkish leadership towards carrying out a new operation against Kurdish units, Nezavisimaya Gazeta writes. This is confirmed both by the statements of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and reports about the concentration of pro-Turkish forces near Manbij, controlled by the Kurds.

"Turkey is planning to gain control over two sides of the Syrian-Turkish border," expert of the Russian International Affairs Council Timur Akhmetov told the paper. Meanwhile, Turkey is unlikely to get control of Syria’s entire northeast with all its problems, but will try to create a buffer zone along the border, he noted. If the US departure does take place, the Syrian military may occupy the rest of the territory. However, Russia won’t seek to become a party in solving the conflict between Turkey and the Kurdish units. "Russia will most likely monitor the situation without any evident interference, explaining its priorities and position to all parties. In any case, the Kurds’ initiative on withdrawing government troops should come from the Kurds themselves, and Turkey’s fears should be taken into account," the analyst said.

"The tone of Trump’s statement shows that the Americans will be gradually leaving while coordinating their steps with Turkey," Head of the Islamic Studies Center at the Institute of Innovation Development and Russian International Affairs Council expert Kirill Semenov told the newspaper.

It’s clear that Washington is not seeking to leave a vacuum, but wants its NATO ally, namely Turkey, to control northern Syria, he noted. Unlike Paris, Ankara has real opportunities to fill this vacuum. "The problem is how this will be technically implemented. How will local units of the Syrian Democratic Forces treat the substitution of the Americans with the Turks? Won’t the regime try to launch a retaliatory operation?"


Kommersant: Russian government experts tally up expenses on Runet’s sovereignty

A proposed bill on Internet autonomy may create risks of disrupting the work of the Russian Internet, known as Runet, and expand the powers of Russia’s telecom and media watchdog on managing the communications sector, members of the Government Expert Council told Kommersant. In order to compensate for the problems, telecom operators may need up to 134 bln rubles ($1.9 bln) per year, experts said. The authors insist that the bill is necessary to ensure the stable operation of the Internet, while the expenses have been already included in the Digital Economy national project.

The implementation of amendments to the Laws on Communication and Information, known as the bill on a sovereign Internet, will result in significant outlays of budget funds, although the document claims that this won’t be needed, a working group, Communications and IT, at the Government Expert Council said.

According to experts, one-time expenditures may reach 25 bln rubles ($365 mln) on research and development works, creating a registry of Internet exchange points and training. Besides, operators will need compensation in case the network is disrupted, with experts assessing this risk as high. This expenditure should be included in the federal budget at a level of up to 10% of the market volume, or 134 bln rubles ($1.9 bln) per year.

The bill on Runet’s autonomy was submitted to the Russian lower house, the State Duma, on December 14 by Chairman of the Federation Council (upper house) Committee on Constitutional Legislation and State-Building Andrei Klishas, his First Deputy Lyudmila Bokova and State Duma MP Andrei Lugovoi. They explained that the initiative is needed due to a potential threat from the United States, which had earlier adopted the National Cyber Strategy.


Nezavisimaya Gazeta: Trump’s Afghan pullout may bring down government in Kabul

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has announced a government shakeup, appointing two former chiefs of the country’s intelligence service as the Defense and Interior Ministers, and they are against reconciliation with the Taliban (outlawed in Russia) and Pakistan, Nezavisimaya Gazeta writes. Kabul is apparently trying to hinder collusion between the US and the terror group, but Washington’s announcement of cutting its contingent is playing into its hand. Observers fear that the US withdrawal will trigger chaos and spark a civil war.

Defense Minister Assadullah Khalid and Interior Minister Amrullah Saleh are "people who oppose dialogue with the Taliban and are against Pakistan," Omar Nessar, a researcher with the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Science, told the paper. The Afghan leader is seeking to show his discontent over Washington’s talks with the Taliban behind his back.

As for Trump’s decision to reduce the number of US troops in Afghanistan, many observers in Kabul did not take it seriously as the US leader often changes his decisions, the paper says. The expert did not rule out that US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad has come to terms with the representatives of the Taliban and Pakistan. "Trump’s statement on troop reduction is the first step towards fulfilling this agreement with the Taliban and Islamabad," he noted.

Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, believes that Ghani’s new appointments indicate that in spite of the talks, the army and police would continue struggling against the enemy. Meanwhile, Asfandyar Mir, a fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) at Stanford University, argues that Trump’s directive to pull out 7,000 troops from Afghanistan may set off catastrophic consequences. He warned that the US troop cutback could destabilize the political situation. Politicians in Afghanistan recall what happened after the Soviets had pulled out in 1989. After losing direct support of a great power, the government of Najibullah failed to control the country. Shortly after, armed groups led by field commanders got the upper hand.

However, Indian political scientist Melkulangara Bhadrakumar calls Trump’s decision a thoroughly planned diplomatic move aimed at ending the war in Afghanistan, which has lasted for 17 years.


Kommersant: OPEC+ deal added $120 bln more to state coffers, says energy minister

Russia received at least $120 bln in additional revenues from the deal with OPEC+ countries over the past two years due to oil price adjustments, Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak said in an interview with Kommersant.

"Over the two years of the deal with OPEC+, Russia earned at least an additional $120 bln, according to estimates. That's why it is important to assess the effectiveness of cooperation with OPEC countries for the country’s economy as a whole," Novak explained.

The energy chief noted that over these past two years, this arrangement has proven to be effective. The key issue is to reduce risks, namely falling demand in winter and consequently a decrease in the oil price. On the eve of the decision to extend the deal, despite limited growth, the reserves were lower than the five-year average, he explained. "There was a need to predict the situation in the first and second quarter of 2019 with many countries and OPEC’s Secretariat."

Besides the balance of demand and supply, there are other factors, which can significantly influence the market, Novak said. For example, Libya, where an oil deposit and a gas pipeline were shut down recently because of the rebels and several hundred thousands of barrels per day were lost.

In order to stabilize the market, output in the first and second quarters of the year needs to be cut because a revival in demand in the summer may change the situation, Novak said. "We discussed the approach both with companies and with the Finance and Economic Development Ministries," the energy chief said, noting that they reported this to the country’s leadership. "A consolidated decision was made on joint steps with colleagues in OPEC and non-OPEC countries on cutting production by 2.5% for OPEC states and by 2% for non-OPEC states," Novak specified.

Russia agreed to cut nearly 230,000 barrels per day. "OPEC+ will monitor the situation and if it changes we will have a chance to immediately make another decision," the energy minister told the paper.

"We agreed with our OPEC colleagues like before [in 2017] that the reduction will be carried out gradually, since it is impossible to do this in our climate and geological conditions. The output cut will begin in January," he said.

Speaking on whether Russia’s cooperation with OPEC is becoming long-term, Novak said, "it is difficult to jump ahead even for several months." "As you remember, this summer before the US decision was made on temporarily easing sanctions against Iranian oil, there was a deficit on the market. Prices were skyrocketing and this deficit needed to be covered. And if the toughest anti-Iranian sanctions scenario had been adopted, some 1 mln barrels per day would have been withdrawn from the market and the prices could have surged to the level of 2014," the minister explained.


Izvestia: Russia seeks to expand UN Security Council, diplomat says

Moscow wants to widen the United Nations Security Council to include the developing countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America, but the overall number should not be more than 20 members, Russia’s Permanent Representative to the UN Geneva office Gennady Gatilov said in an interview with Izvestia.

Gatilov stressed that even 20 years down the road, after launching talks to reform the Council, no consensus on this issue has been reached. He also noted that any attempts to make the Council more representative should not harm its effectiveness.

The diplomat, who assumed his post in February 2018, said this year, important dramatic events also affected the Geneva platform. "We are also facing anti-Russian escapades, and first of all this concerns the conference on disarmament, where some delegations tried to pursue politicized issues, which are not related to the conference’s mandate. This is also the Syrian chemical dossier, the North Korean issue, and the notorious Skripal case. Unfortunately, some of our Western colleagues, primarily the United States and the United Kingdom, tried to sidetrack the work of the disarmament format."

However, Russia maintained working-level contacts with these countries and other delegations, and managed to scale back this senseless debate. Many delegations said on the sidelines of the forum that they understand Moscow’s stance and oppose the forum’s politicization.

"Summarizing the outcome, I’ll say that we have worked honestly and sought to unite our partners based on constructive dialogue," the diplomat stressed.

Speaking on the US decision to leave several platforms as part of the organization and cut UN funding, the envoy said, "I believe this is a non-constructive approach. Instead, in order to solve common international problems, countries should unite."


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