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Press review: Idlib’s fate hinges on Sochi summit and Prague vows not to host US missiles

Top stories in the Russian press on Thursday

Izvestia: Sochi trilateral summit to decide on fate of Syria’s Idlib enclave

Damascus hopes that the talks between the Russian, Turkish and Iranian presidents in Sochi on Thursday will result in signing a deal on handing control over the Idlib de-escalation zone to the Assad administration, Chairman of the Syrian parliament’s International Committee, Butrus Marjan, told Izvestia. The launch of the constitutional committee has been stalled, the politician said, placing the blame for it on the West and the opposition for their direct interference. However, the Astana trilateral conference may bolster the process, he noted.

Chairman of the Russian Federation Council’s (upper house of parliament) Media Policy Commission Alexei Pushkov told the paper that Western countries do not want to accept the fact that the initiative and the significant role in deciding on Syria’s future is in the hands of Russia, Iran and Turkey. "The West views the creation of the constitutional committee as Russia’s growing political might and actually its own defeat," the senator explained. So, Western states may seriously complicate the work of the future committee.

The senator confirmed that technically the transfer of the province to Damascus is possible, but a peace deal with the militants is needed for this. "Idlib is home to 2.5 mln people and the goal on handing control over the territory will be especially challenging. Technically, such a transfer is possible, but only provided that the militants agree to hold peace talks."

Pushkov also highlighted Turkey’s significant influence in the region and its impact on Sunni militants. Given this, it is too early to say if the Sochi talks will live up to Syrian legislators’ expectations and result in returning Idlib to Assad’s control, he said.

Experts interviewed by Izvestia explained that the future of Idlib, the constitution and the creation of a Turkish security belt in northeastern Syria would top the Sochi meeting’s agenda. However, it is impossible to predict how these three issues will be resolved, and a lot depends on the success of these talks.

The major bone of contention at the trilateral meeting is the mood towards Syrian President Bashar Assad, Turkish political scientist and professor at Kahramanmaras University Togrul Ismail told the paper. "Russia supports the Damascus government, the Turkish leadership does not eagerly back him and is not giving the go-ahead to any talks with Assad," the political scientist said. There is also a disagreement on Idlib. Moscow believes that Ankara is doing a poor job there, while Turkey is against Russia’s military interference in this region. The third point of contention is Manbij. We see that the Syrian leader is trying to hold talks with Kurdish groups, and this is alarming Turkey," he said.


Izvestia: Czech Republic won’t host US missiles after INF suspension

The Czech Republic has no intention of hosting US missiles after Washington, and later Russia, suspended participation in the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, Czech Defense Ministry Spokesman Jan Pejsek told Izvestia. He refuted Russian media reports on alleged plans to create a military base in the Central European country. On the contrary, Prague hopes that Washington and Moscow will return to their work under the treaty, which could be modified, he argued.

Any additional deployment of arms to European countries, including the Czech Republic, will be a counterproductive step, Czech MP from the Freedom and Direct Democracy Party Jaroslav Golik told Izvestia. "This will only create more tension on the international arena. Russia is not an enemy; not for the Czech Republic, nor for NATO. We should understand that the deployment of a missile base will arouse serious discontent among the majority of citizens," the lawmaker stressed. "Now, it is necessary to start restoring confidence between the West and Moscow. There are many areas of cooperation between our countries, among them the fight against terrorism and drug trafficking," he noted.

Against the background of the INF suspension, a serious split among NATO members may be expected, Alexey Chepa, Deputy Chairman of the State Duma (lower house of parliament) Foreign Affairs Committee, told the paper. According to him, the US seeks to deploy its weapons to the territory of its European allies. Those countries, which zealously back Washington’s foreign policy such as Poland and the Baltic states, may agree to host US armaments, he said. In contrast, other European states will certainly take a measured stance and are unlikely to agree to host new US armaments, the lawmaker pointed out.


Nezavisimaya Gazeta: West gearing up to slap ‘symbolic’ sanctions on Russia

The United States and the European Union are planning to introduce a new package of anti-Russian sanctions over the incident in the Kerch Strait, UK media reports said citing diplomatic sources. EU foreign ministers will discuss new restrictions initiated by London on February 18, Nezavisimaya Gazeta writes.

The restrictive measures, expected to be imposed in late March, will target individuals and legal entities responsible for the seizure of three Ukrainian vessels in the Sea of Azov in November 2018. In particular, their assets will be frozen. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov noted that these sanctions are being introduced under heavy pressure from the US, signaling EU dependence.

"These will be symbolic measures. The Europeans want to show: we are dissatisfied with Russia’s behavior and support Ukraine, we won’t keep silent on this, but we are taking measures to punish people linked to the Kerch Strait incident," said Ivan Timofeyev, Director of Programs at the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), noting that the upcoming restrictions won’t affect Russia’s economy and business.

However, Russian businesses would face a serious threat from US restrictions under a 1991 act on chemical weapons, or from sanctions under the Defending American Security from Kremlin Aggression Act (DASKAA), which may target the energy and financial sectors. "Should DASKAA be adopted in its current form, this may set off a shock on Russia’s stock market. A full embargo on the energy sector and sanctions against Russia’s sovereign debt will potentially harm US businesses. I believe this may demand some milder wording," he concluded.


Kommersant: Palestinians fail to pass joint statement at Moscow talks

Representatives of 12 Palestinian parties and movements failed to adopt a joint statement after three-day talks in Moscow and apologized in public to Russia as an organizer of the event. The only thing that all participants of the talks saw eye to eye on is in condemning US plans on settling the Arab-Israeli conflict, Nezavisimaya Gazeta writes. They also criticized the February 13 Warsaw conference on the Middle East, and Russia shares this position.

Moscow insists that a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be found only after Palestinian political forces settle all problems facing them. This primarily concerns the standoff between Fatah, which controls the West Bank, and Hamas, which seized power in the Gaza Strip in 2007. In October 2017, two movements signed a national reconciliation deal in Cairo, but it was never implemented.

The Russian organizers of the Moscow meeting had no illusions about the Palestinians being able to overcome their differences and agreeing on forming a national unity dialogue. However, the fact that the inter-Palestinian dialogue resumed after a year-long pause was already a success, the paper says. The adoption of a joint statement would be a breakthrough, but this did not happen, although the Palestinians had assured themselves and the hosts that they were committed to the idea of restoring Palestinian unity.

The representatives of the Islamic Jihad Movement and Hamas refused to put their signatures on the document. The participants of the talks told Kommersant that the major dispute was around the wording on whether to write or to write about the creation of the Palestinian State within the 1967 borders and also how to call its capital - Jerusalem or East Jerusalem.

At the press conference after the talks, the Palestinians also tried to smooth their differences, stressing that they all wish to counter US plans to fulfill its plan on settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One of participants of the talks, Azzam al-Ahmad, blasted Trump’s proposed Middle East peace plan. "This deal of the century is trying to bury our aspirations and hopes of creating a Palestinian state within the borders of 1967 with its capital in East Jerusalem."


Kommersant: India's offer to buy Russia's MiG-29s could be best deal

India is mulling over buying an additional batch of Russia’s MiG-29 fighter jets, increasing the number of its Air Force squadrons equipped by these planes to four, Kommersant writes. The price tag of the contract to buy 21 planes comes to $900 mln, and this includes air-to-surface weapons, spare parts and training personnel, a top manager in an aviation industry enterprise told the paper.

India’s plans to purchase additional MiG-29 jets aim for several goals, sources told the paper. First, the Indian Air Force’s Fleet is becoming obsolete and New Delhi does not want its combat readiness to decline. By 2022, out of 11 squadrons of these fighter jets, only one will remain in service, and "the Indian military is making every effort to plug the gap," a source said.

Deputy Director at the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies Konstantin Makiyenko called India’s decision to buy more MiGs "the most rational one." In terms of quality-to-price ratio, Russia’s $40-mln MiG outperforms its French rival the Rafale fighter jet, which is worth $227mln, according to mass media assessments. The source stressed that the contract involves new MiG-29UPG jets rather than second-hand aircraft.


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