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Press review: White Helmets may stall Syria pullout and how low will US-Russia ties go

Top stories in the Russian press on Wednesday

Izvestia: Moscow believes imminent White Helmets false flag may delay US exit from Syria

Russia has not brushed aside the fact that the White Helmets continue to cook up provocations with chemical weapons. The Russian Foreign Ministry believes that Washington could use a false flag to delay it's troop withdrawal from Syria and justify possible military actions against the Assad government, the ministry told Izvestia. According to the Foreign Ministry, Moscow supports creating a new UN structure that would investigate all cases of chemical weapons use in the region without exception.

"Damascus, which has completely destroyed its national stocks of chemical weapons under international control and has been under the scrutiny of the UN Security Council and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, has never had any reason to use chemical weapons. We do not rule out that provocations with chemical weapons can be utilized not only to discredit Assad’s government, but also to preserve the illegal US military presence in Syria and justify any possible military action against the UN member country," the ministry told Izvestia.

The Foreign Ministry also said that Russia favors the creation of an impartial and highly professional international mechanism under the auspices of the UN Security Council.

"However, our efforts were blocked by Western countries who are satisfied with the state of affairs when the structures they control create endless chemical provocations in order to use them for pinning the blame on the legitimate government of Syria," the ministry said.

The Syrian parliament told the newspaper that the militants in Idlib want to stage a chemical attack to disrupt the efforts of the Astana process of returning the region under Damascus' control.

Vladimir Fitin, an expert at the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies (RISS), told Izvestia that a potential chemical 'attack' in Idlib would not create any great effect, but it can add on more difficulties to the relations between Russia and Turkey, which would further complicate the disengagement process of separating the militants from the moderate opposition.


Izvestia: US eyes lowering status of relations with Russia, says ex-ambassador

The United States is capable of lowering the level of diplomatic ties with the Russian Federation given the domestic political climate, Russia’s former ambassador to the United States, and now First Deputy Chair of the Federation Council Committee on Foreign Affairs Sergey Kislyak told Izvestia. Sources in Washington’s political circles confirmed to the newspaper that now three out of six positions are being looked at in the second package of sanctions related to the Skripal case.

"The relations between our countries are not at a very good level. They were are already downgraded by the Americans, who have closed several Russian consular missions," Kislyak told the newspaper. "However, right now given the internal strife, they might lower the level of diplomatic relations. Nevertheless, I believe that the channels to carry out diplomatic functions will remain," he added.

A source in Washington’s political circles confirmed to Izvestia that the blacklist is indeed being finalized. "The point about diplomatic relations is the only non-economic one. Paradoxically, it seems to be the most painless," the source explained.

Washington is unlikely to completely break off diplomatic relations, Deputy Chairman of the Committee on International Affairs Aleksey Chepa told Izvestia. However, the US might take other unfriendly steps and Moscow will take tit-for-tat measures in return, he noted. In addition, a cut in the number of American diplomats can be expected if the US decides to curtail the presence of the Russian diplomatic mission, the politician cautioned.


Vedomosti: Mechel might part with Elga project

In order to pay off debts after 2020, Russia's mining and metals powerhouse, Mechel, could part with its largest investment project, the Elga deposit, by this year, five sources close to various parties to the potential deal told Vedomosti. There are several key contenders for the asset - Rostec, VostokCoal or Coalstar may take up the project. The sources did not disclose the volume of the future transaction or shares in the asset of any interested parties.

At the beginning of 2019, Mechel’s creditors began searching for claimants for the company's and Gazprombank’s stakes in Elga, several sources told Vedomosti. According to the sources, Rostec CEO Sergey Chemezov suggested that the country's leadership approve the sale of the Elga deposit so as to "speed up the development of the Far East along with one of Russia's largest coking coal deposits" containing reserves of over 2.2 bln tonnes. One of the sources told the newspaper that an overleveraged Mechel (debt - 5.1 EBITDA) could transfer the deposit to another player, with a smaller credit load. After 2019, Mechel will either have to restructure its debt to state banks, or pay off its loans, the source said.

"Investors are interested in the Elga deposit, and the bank is interested in selling the deposit, this is a non-core asset for it," a person close to Gazprombank told Vedomosti. Meanwhile, sources told the newspaper that there were no official proposals to Mechel.

Presumably, the buyer or consortium will acquire 100% of the entire project, three sources told Vedomosti.


Kommersant: Politics may have caused US cybersecurity and data analytics firm to exit Russia

Splunk, a major American IT company specializing in cybersecurity and big data analytics, announced it was withdrawing from the Russian market. The company’s press service confirmed the move to Kommersant. The cybersecurity firm clarified the decision by saying it revised its investment strategy. However, its local partners were surprised by the decision. They are not ruling out political reasons for the move, Kommersant wrote. In recent years, major developers in this field have not left Russia, market participants told the newspaper.

On February 15, the company closed access to its customer portal, according to VolgaBlob. "We have not received any official statements as a partner," General Director and founder of VolgaBlob Alexander Skakunov told Kommersant. According to the VolgaBlob website, MegaFon, Rosgosstrakh, and Mars all use Splunk’s solutions. MegaFon reported that all current Splunk contractual obligations continue to function, and "the company has no need for new purchases from Splunk".

The company’s departure from Russia could be due to political reasons, according to market participants interviewed by Kommersant. In recent years, major developers of solutions in this area "did not explicitly leave Russia", with the exception of McAfee, which officially did not stop business in Russia, but closed its office and removed Russian user support, leaving only one distributor.

Splunk technologies are among the most advanced in Big Data analytics and incident monitoring, the company’s exit will reduce competition and discourage some companies on the Russian market from import solutions, Head of Jet CSIRT Alexey Malnev told the newspaper. However, many foreign developers continue to invest in Russia, he noted. QRadar and ArcSight, two top security information and event management (SIEM) solutions owned by IBM and HP, respectively, are some of Splunk’s competitors in Russia, in addition to local Russian developers.


Kommersant: Lawmakers back subsidizing Russian film and TV exports

The Russian Ministry of Economic Development proposed subsidizing the export of Russian cinema and animation content. According to Kommersant, lawmakers are hashing over expanding funding for content producers, as well as tax breaks for companies selling films and TV series abroad for more than $1 mln per year. However, there are still very few of these companies in Russia. Similar measures were also discussed at the Russian Export Center, a representative confirmed to the newspaper.

In all, there are 43 Russian exporters in the content sphere, but not all are ready to export for $1 mln per year, the Russian Export Center said. The Yellow, Black & White studio sold the rights to the series "Better than Humans" to Netflix for around $1 mln, which is considered a record transaction for the export of online rights. Art Pictures took home $2 mln for selling "Attraction" to cinemas in China, the studio’s co-owner Fyodor Bondarchuk told Kommersant. According to Roskino, in 2018 total revenues from Russian films sold abroad reached around $27 mln.

There are few producers of movies and TV shows capable of exporting for $1 mln per year, General Director of the Sreda studio, Ivan Samokhvalov, told the newspaper. He considers optimizing profit tax and reducing VAT rates on export transactions as the best option in terms of benefits.

Meanwhile, animation is more versatile and easier to adapt to different countries, so it has great export potential, General Director of the Aeroplan studio Yulia Sofronova told Kommersant.


TASS is not responsible for the material quoted in the press review