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Press review: French-German rift over Nord Stream 2 and more Novichok hype from UK media

Top stories in the Russian press on Friday, February 8


Kommersant: Nord Stream 2 might split Europe

The construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline may spark an open conflict between the two most influential countries in the European Union, France and Germany. Paris has suddenly made it clear that it will support amendments to the EU Gas Directive. If adopted, they will not suspend the project but may slow it down and call its payback into question. In a worst-case scenario, Gazprom will be able to use only half of the pipeline’s capacity, which would give Ukraine an advantage during the upcoming talks on Russian gas transit starting from 2020, Kommersant writes.

The amendments in question stipulate that the European Union's Third Energy Package will apply to subsea gas pipelines from third countries. Though they were developed in 2017, Bulgaria and Austria, who presided over the EU in 2018, swept the document under the carpet.

On January 1, Romania took over the EU presidency and a revamped package of amendments was ready by January 9. Permanent representatives who will need to decide whether to submit the amendments to the European Parliament will now vote it on.

The vote will be a moment of truth for opponents of Nord Stream 2. The European Parliament elections are scheduled to take place in May and after that, a reshuffling of European Commission officials is on the agenda, so if they fail to launch an approval process for the amendments, there is little chance that they will be adopted this year. In late 2019, the construction of at least the first line of Nord Stream 2 is expected to be completed, which will make it an active project, and there are far softer regulations for such projects. Kommersant’s sources in Brussels say that even if the pipeline’s supporters lose the February 8 vote, they will seek to delay the final approval.

According Vygon Consulting’s Maria Belova, if these amendments are adopted as they are, Gazprom will have to step down as the gas pipeline’s operator and hand the role over to an independent company. In addition, it will have to give up 50% of the pipeline’s capacity. No one else has the right to export pipeline gas from Russia, so as a result, only half of Nord Stream 2’s capacity will be used. In that case, the project’s payback will fall into question. At the same time, it means that gas transit via Ukraine will continue, which is going to strengthen Kiev’s position at this summer’s negotiations.


Rossiyskaya Gazeta: British media continues to stoke Salisbury hysteria

On February 7, the UK’s The Daily Telegraph published another "leak" concerning the Salisbury incident: it claimed, citing sources, that a third Russian was involved in the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal. Russian Ambassador to the UK Alexander Yakovenko told Rossiyskaya Gazeta what was behind such bogus stories and what turn relations between Moscow and London might take next.

While commenting on British media reports, he pointed out that they were "part of a robust information campaign to tarnish Russia’s image without presenting any evidence, which was initiated by British authorities." "There have been hundreds of articles and TV reports citing the so-called leaks, aimed at keeping the official version afloat without presenting any facts. Nevertheless, reasonable people continue to ask themselves why London still hasn’t put forward hard evidence to prove its accusations," the ambassador noted.

Speaking about the Skripal case, Yakovenko stressed that "although a year has passed, Great Britain hasn’t presented the investigation’s outcome to us, we still don’t have consular access to Sergei and Yulia Skripal, we don’t know what is going on with them and what kind of pressure they are facing." "Clearly, we will continue demanding that the British authorities fulfill their obligations under consular conventions and ensure full transparency concerning what happened in Salisbury on March 4 last year," he added.

"We will continue to use every opportunity to benefit from relations with Great Britain. Despite the British government’s tough policy, the task for Russian diplomats remains the same: to consistently explain our approaches not only to the government and parliament members but also to the British public. There is an interest in that. For instance, the British public has a demand for the information we post on social media, as our Twitter account is the most popular of those run by foreign diplomatic missions in London," Yakovenko said.

At the same time, in his words, "bilateral trade has been progressing rather actively, even despite the robust media campaign depicting Russia as a practically decaying country." "The same goes for cultural ties that are least affected by political fluctuations," the Russian ambassador emphasized.


Nezavisimaya Gazeta: Buryatia set to host potential Putin-Kim summit

Russia’s Buryatia Region is ready to host a Russia-North Korea summit that is supposed to take place in the spring, a source in the regional government told Nezavisimaya Gazeta. Experts believe that a meeting between the Russian and North Korean leaders is long overdue as Pyongyang needs to make agreements with each of the interested players to ensure the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

For now, a meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump is expected to be held. According to Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov, the American authorities have requested Moscow’s assistance in shaping an agenda concerning specific aspects of North Korea’s disarmament.

Experts think that every international mediator involved in talks on North Korea would like to take credit for a potential diplomatic victory. "Donald Trump wants to take all the credit so that it will pay off during his campaign for a second presidential term," Head of the School of Oriental Studies at the Higher School of Economics Alexei Maslov told the paper. "China, for its part, does not want to cede any glory and join four-party talks. What Kim Jong-un is doing is aimed at making separate agreements with different countries, as he seeks security guarantees form each of them. The expert concludes that the initiative regarding high-level talks between Russia and North Korea is in line with the North Korean leader’s scheme.

"In theory, there should be another two meetings before this one (between Putin and Kim)," Maslov resumed. "First, Kim’s talks with Trump and second, his meeting with Xi Jinping, because ahead of such difficult negotiations, the North Korean leader always holds consultations with the Chinese. I would like to point out that there was serious talk that the (Putin-Kim) meeting was going to take place last year but it got canceled as Kim himself was not ready for it. What does Russia want? It wants to put forward an entire program. First, it will definitely include a joint railway project. Second, it may involve establishing some production facilities in North Korea and third, a pipeline from North Korea to South Korea. However, all of this will become possible only once it is clear that international sanctions are removed, for it is pointless with sanctions still in place," the expert explained.


Kommersant: Ukraine slaps ban on Russian observers

Kiev has ultimately prohibited Russians from monitoring the country’s elections. On Thursday, the Verkhovna Rada hastily passed their highly sought-after amendments to the nation’s election legislation in order to provide legal grounds for an earlier decision to ban members of international observer missions with Russian passports from entering the country. The US and the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) opposed this sort of discrimination based on the nationality of the observers. According to Kommersant, the ODIHR even discussed the possibility of not sending observers to monitor the presidential election in Ukraine. Meanwhile, Moscow is determined to go all the way. The newspaper learned that the first Russian observers included in the ODIHR mission would arrive in Kiev on February 11.

The Russian observers were hardly chosen at random. Ukrainian border guards often refuse entry to Russian men aged between 16 and 60, citing security reasons or giving no reason at all. It means the observers Russia will send to Ukraine will be women working for non-governmental organizations who will have a clear purpose to participate in an international monitoring mission.

Given its relations with Ukraine, Russia could have given up the idea of taking part in the ODIHR observer mission but decided against it. A source in the Russian Foreign Ministry told Kommersant that the current scandal was a test not only for Ukrainian authorities but also for the ODIHR and the West. "We’ll see if they turn a blind eye to the violations of democratic procedures or take measures to make Kiev return to fulfilling its international obligations," the diplomat said.

Carnegie Foundation expert Balazs Jarabik told the newspaper that Kiev would stand its ground as a matter of principle. "Although [US Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations] Kurt Volker noted that within the OSCE mandate, Russian observers could not pose ‘a threat,’ it is a matter of principle for Kiev so it is trying to find legal ways to implement the ban," the expert said. According to him, such actions "will not make the election non-free" but they "will limit independent monitoring possibilities."


Rossiyskaya Gazeta: Envoy says Russia, EU are past lowest point in relations

Russian Permanent Representative to the European Union Vladimir Chizhov told Rossiyskaya Gazeta about whether it was possible for the parties to resume dialogue and lift mutual restrictions.

The envoy stressed that Moscow’s ties with the EU were still strong. "The EU has been and remains our number one trade partner. Moreover, our trade with the European Union has been on the rise following a certain slowdown around mid-2017," Chizhov noted.

"It seems to me that we are already past the lowest point. We haven’t climbed very high yet, but some positive signs are quite clear. In this regard, EU member states’ business circles play an important role, as they are objectively interested in contacts with Russia and they are displeased with the sanctions and other antics. Political dialogue also continues," the envoy pointed out. "The problem is that we used to have a rather well-developed sectoral cooperation architecture, which is actually frozen now. Experts continue to maintain dialogue but it is stalled at higher levels. However, we will work on that," he stressed.

When asked if sanctions would ever be removed, Chizhov said it would happen once there was enough political will but "it is a slow process."

In connection with Washington’s plans to leave the INF Treaty, the Russian envoy pointed out that "the security architecture in Europe had found itself in a crisis long before Trump came to power." "Some time ago, we developed a concept and then even a draft European Security Treaty, which, given the current situation, would make it possible to harmonize different integration processes and create a space with equal obligations and guarantees for all countries," Chizhov noted.

"When NATO was working on its concept documents back then, at some point we said: ‘Great ideas you have in the Alliance, let us spread them to the entire OSCE and the Euro-Atlantic region.’ But NATO replied: ‘No, these guarantees are only for member states’." What does that mean? It means various security levels are created. And when there are various security levels, there will definitely be tensions and conflicts," the Russian envoy concluded.


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