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Press review: Idlib hotbed in Astana trio’s crosshairs and Maduro’s secret talks with US

Top stories in the Russian press on Monday

Nezavisimaya Gazeta: Russia, Iran, Turkey planning mop-up operation in Idlib

The Munich Security Conference has significantly clarified the situation around Syria, Nezavisimaya Gazeta writes. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s statements show that Moscow and its partners in the Astana trio, Iran and Turkey, are preparing for a military operation in Idlib. It’s highly likely that the United States together with its coalition allies will create a buffer zone in Syria in order to keep control over the territory to the east of the Euphrates.

Certainly, this is illegitimate and is contrary to the interests of Damascus and its partners, but US Vice President Mike Pence and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham have not brushed aside this scenario, the paper says. Pence said Washington's decision to start pulling out troops from the war-torn Middle Eastern country does not mean that the US has revised its Syria strategy. Graham, who has been lobbying to keep America's military presence in Syria, said that US legislators and the Pentagon are trying to convince their European colleagues to send a contingent from Europe to Syria’s northeast to create a buffer zone there in order to ensure the security of the Kurds.

According to The Washington Post, the Pentagon is already working on a plan under which European countries (the United Kingdom, France and Germany) should deploy nearly 1,500 soldiers to fulfill this strategy. Subsequently, some 200 US troops may remain in Syria, the report said.

However, speaking on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference, Lavrov expressed his doubt that Washington's plans on setting up a buffer zone in northern Syria will contribute to any settlement. He confirmed that Moscow and its partners are determined to wipe out the militants in Idlib. Earlier, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke about a potential operation by Turkey, Russia and Iran against terrorist units in the Idlib de-escalation zone. The Turkish leader said that a trilateral agreement was signed in Moscow on February 14, envisaging joint military operations in Idlib, the Hurriyet Daily News reported.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said that only Erdogan's military should be present in the security zone in northern Syria, explaining that this concerns the US plan on creating a buffer zone along the 440-km stretch of the Syrian-Turkish border to the east of the Euphrates. Apparently, Moscow supports Ankara here, Nezavisimaya Gazeta writes. So, Russia and Turkey are acting as a single front in Syria. But this is unlikely to help change the goals of the US and its numerous partners in the occupied Syrian territories. France and other European countries are unlikely to abandon the US-led coalition and join the Astana trio instead, according to the paper.


Nezavisimaya Gazeta: How Trump's potential ouster of Maduro would affect Moscow

Incumbent Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has confirmed that members of his government had held secret talks with the Trump administration, Nezavisimaya Gazeta writes. Now Maduro hopes for a personal meeting with the White House occupant. US officials confirm that they are ready to meet with Venezuelan officials, including Maduro, to discuss their plans for him to step down. Venezuela’s economy will receive support only after the Maduro regime leaves, the US says. The International Monetary Fund is preparing to provide financial assistance to Venezuela, but only after Maduro’s departure, the Nacional newspaper reported citing its well-informed source. For Russia, this turn of events would spell disaster, experts warn.

Washington is considering several avenues of propping up Venezuela’s economy. The US Congress has also offered the opposition to pardon Caracas' debt to Russia. However, Venezuelan opposition leaders have promised that Russian and Chinese investments in the country won’t be affected.

Meanwhile, certain Russian companies are already leaving Venezuela, namely oil major Lukoil. Moscow has been actively supporting Caracas. According to Reuters, Russia has provided Venezuela with at least $17 bln in loans and credit. Maduro earlier said that Moscow had invested nearly $5 bln in Venezuela’s oil sector and another $1 bln in gold extraction. The Latin American country's debt to China is even higher - Caracas owes more than $20 bln to Beijing.

It’s important to understand that while helping developing countries, the IMF pursues both economic and political interests, Director of Veta expert group Dmitry Zharsky told the paper. In case the IMF takes Venezuela’s foreign debt under its control, for Russia this means that the chances of getting its loans back will shrink.

The situation around Venezuela’s debt to Russia is reminiscent of the story of the $3 bln loans which Moscow granted to Ukraine under the presidency of Viktor Yanukovich. After a long dispute between Moscow and Kiev, the IMF finally acknowledged that the debt to Russia was sovereign, but it actually backed Ukraine’s refusal to pay off the debt, the paper says.


Izvestia: Moscow wants new INF to include US allies

Russia will welcome a new all-encompassing deal on intermediate-range and shorter-range missiles provided that all countries possessing these armaments will join it, a high-ranking Russian diplomatic source told Izvestia. Both China, North Korea and Iran, as well as Washington’s allies in Europe, namely France and the United Kingdom, should be parties to this potential new deal. Such an agreement would be an "ideal scenario," but the US establishment is not expected to back it, noted Frants Klintsevich, a member of the Defense and Security Committee of Russia's Federation Council (upper house).

Since announcing its plans to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, Washington has been implying to Moscow that the move was not aimed against it and the key goal was to include China in the arms control deal, a diplomatic source told Izvestia. Meanwhile, when speaking about a global agreement, Washington clearly does not mean its allies in Europe, the diplomat explained. "Russia would accept such a treaty, but only on condition that all countries possessing these armaments will join it. It’s absolutely unclear how the Americans are going to convince France to sign such a document, for example," he noted. Another source said that India, Pakistan and Israel also have these missiles and it’s unlikely that they will abandon them.

According to Director of the Center for Military-Political Studies at the Hudson Institute Richard Weitz, a truly global INF Treaty, which bars any country from possessing ground-based cruise missiles with a range of 500-5,500 km, is unlikely to be signed. For example, such nuclear missiles could be banned or these weapons could be limited in Europe or Asia. But any "Asian" treaty should involve both China and other regional states, while the "European" deal should include Russia, the US and other members of NATO and the post-Soviet security bloc, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the US expert told Izvestia. It’s crucial that the new treaty should have an inspection mechanism to control states’ actions, he stressed.

Knut Fleckenstein, a member of the European Parliament from Germany, is sure that instead of ditching the INF Treaty, Washington should have involved third parties into it. Europe could play a more important role, acting as a mediator at talks between the US and Russia, and therefore ensuring the development and extension of the treaty, he said.


Kommersant: New EU rules may offset Nord Stream 2 operation at full capacity

Despite Germany’s active and seemingly successful resistance, the EU’s new regulations may seriously stonewall Gazprom’s work. It’s highly likely that the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline will be underutilized at least during the first several years of operation, Kommersant business daily reports.

Just like with the Opal gas pipeline, the European Commission could slap a ban on Gazprom using more than 50% of Nord Stream 2, leaving the second half for potential third parties, who are unlikely to pop up, the paper says.

The approved text of the amendments to the EU’s gas directive stipulates that both the European Commission and the committee comprising representatives of all EU member-states should give the go-ahead to the project’s exemption from the new norms. This will make the procedure lengthy, complicated and unpredictable. In practical terms, this means that Germany will have to obtain the support of major EU countries, say France and Italy, in order to ensure the Nord Stream 2 pipeline’s exemption from the rules.

Meanwhile, the directive’s approval is expected to allow Denmark to issue permission for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline’s construction. Until recently, the lack of this document has been the only factor jeopardizing the plans to complete the pipeline’s construction by late 2019.

Sources in the sector acknowledge that the situation is challenging and the European Commission and Berlin will have a new lever of pressure for Gazprom. The Russian energy giant has started bracing for any worst-case scenario, signaling that there is an option of building the TurkStream 2 gas pipeline.


Izvestia: Russia to offer foreign investors 15 projects worth $14 bln

The Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) is planning to start talks with its foreign partners in the coming months on priority projects for the Russian economy outlined by a working group co-chaired by Finance Minister Anton Siluanov and Chairman of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs Alexander Shokhin, RDIF CEO Kirill Dmitriev told Izvestia.

Some 15 projects in the areas of petrochemicals, logistics and transport infrastructure have been selected for foreign investors to the tune of 906 billion rubles ($13.6 bln). "We are pitching an offer to investors from China, Japan, France, Italy and Arab states," Dmitriev told the paper. The RDIF has analyzed more than 400 plans in the framework of working on implementing national projects.

According to Shokhin, a key condition for selecting projects is that minimum revenues should be at least 15%, this is a market benchmark for good projects with low risks. Thanks to this requirement, those state projects, which initially were formulated mainly for Russian businesses, will be really attractive to foreigners. On the other hand, this may spark competition to partake in lucrative projects, he noted. In some cases, Russian investors will gain an advantage to invest in strategic projects.

It’s crucial to attract foreign investors to fulfill priority projects for the Russian economy, Professor at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration under the Russian President (RANEPA) Alexander Arshavsky said. Strategic Russian products such as transportation rely on imported parts, and foreign participation will make it possible to obtain modern technology and skills, thereby reducing dependence on imports, the expert explained.

However, international investors are not eager to share their technologies, General Director Sputnik management Alexander Losev told the newspaper.


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