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Press review: Talks resume on Ukraine gas transit and Trump plots anti-Iran scheme in Gulf

Top stories in the Russian press on Friday, September 20
Patriot missile defense system  EPA/VALDA KALNINA
Patriot missile defense system

Media: Ukraine gas transit negotiations getting pumped up

Another round of trilateral talks on the transit of Russian gas via Ukraine has taken place in Brussels. According to experts interviewed by Izvestia, the negotiations with the new Ukrainian authorities will be more productive so the parties are likely to come to an agreement before December 31, when the current contract expires.

"New government bodies have been established in Ukraine and politicians are ready to take responsibilities. In addition, the two countries’ leaders have begun a dialogue, which can provide a foundation for further negotiations," head of the Department for Russian and Global Energy Sector Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Energy Research Institute Vyacheslav Kulagin explained.

Moscow is unwilling to engage in new long-term agreements because alternative gas pipelines are about to be launched, National Energy Institute Director General Sergei Pravosudov added, pointing to Nord Stream 2 and TurkStream, which are planned to be put into operation later in the year. However, they won’t be able to reach full capacity by the end of December so for the time being, the Ukrainian gas transit system will remain as important for Moscow as it is for Kiev.

Meanwhile, complications have surfaced in the talks between Russia and Ukraine. This particularly concerns the European Court of Justice's move to overrule the European Commission’s 2016 decision to allow Russia’s Gazprom to use 90% of the OPAL pipeline connecting Nord Stream to Germany. Now the company will be able to use only half of OPAL’s capacity.

"If Gazprom rejects unfavorable conditions imposed by the EU and Ukraine, including an extremely high volume of gas transit, gas underpricing for Ukraine’s gas transmission system and the long term of a new agreement, then, after a while, the Ukrainian gas transmission system will turn into a junk pile and the idea of Europe’s energy independence will go up in flames," Assistant Professor at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA) Tamara Safonova told Nezavisimaya Gazeta.


Kommersant: Trump embarks on scheme to build Persian Gulf anti-Iran coalition

After accusing Tehran of attacking Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities, the Trump administration announced that it was going to widen sanctions against Iran. According to the US media, Washington will now seek to create an international coalition to increase pressure on Iran, Kommersant writes.

Despite harsher rhetoric and plans to toughen sanctions, US President Donald Trump answered in the negative when asked if the White House was considering a military option. Meanwhile, Tehran sees the tougher sanctions and Washington’s crusade to build an anti-Iran coalition as a possible overture to a military operation.

According to Andrei Baklanov, Deputy Chairman of the Association of Russian Diplomats, an international military coalition against Iran is unlikely to be set up for a number of reasons. First and foremost, because Washington is not ready to use force: the US military is not sure that "possible military actions against Iran will turn out to be really effective." Rather than waging a war, the US is interested in creating a pre-war situation in the region to turn the heat up on Iran, the expert pointed out, adding that the US plan to establish a coalition was aimed at making the world see that most countries of the region share the US position on Iran. However, in Baklanov’s words, this idea is highly unlikely to get much support.

"The big question is whether Persian Gulf countries, other than Saudi Arabia, will be willing to join a US-led coalition," Professor of the Modern East Department of History, Political Science and Law at the Russian State University for the Humanities Grigory Kosach emphasized. He pointed to the lack of unity among the Gulf monarchies. The Qatari crisis has not been resolved yet and recent developments in Yemen’s Aden have revealed differences between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.


Nezavisimaya Gazeta: Lebanon may purchase Russia’s S-400 systems

Tensions around Iran are paving the way for talks on the export of Russia’s air defense systems. Rumors about such a deal are circulating in Lebanon, which have probably been triggered by the increasing number of Israeli airstrikes on the country’s territory, Nezavisimaya Gazeta notes.

The Lebanese media points out that at a recent meeting in Sochi, Russian President Vladimir Putin criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the attacks on Hezbollah’s facilities in Lebanon because Moscow is concerned that amid a domestic crisis, Netanyahu may go for escalating tensions with Israel’s neighbors. However, it is doubtful that Moscow is seriously considering selling the S-400 systems to Lebanon because it would mean bringing them within Hezbollah’s reach.

Samuel Ramani, a doctoral researcher at the University of Oxford who specializes in relations between Russia and Middle Eastern countries, confirmed to the newspaper that the Putin-Netanyahu meeting was the main reason for rumors buzzing about an S-400 deal. Given the range of the S-400 systems, it would facilitate efforts to protect Syria from Israeli airstrikes, the expert admitted but emphasized that the delivery of such weapons to Lebanon was unlikely to take place any time soon. Ramani pointed out that rumors about a possible deal between Moscow and Beirut were being spread mostly by pro-Hezbollah media outlets.

According to the expert, Russia seeks to maintain ties with all players in the Middle East in order to bolster its influence as much as possible, so balancing between Israel and Iran is crucial for this strategy. In addition, a deal like this with Lebanon would greatly damage Russia’s relations with Israel.


Vedomosti: No clear winner in latest Israeli election

The ballot count in Israel’s parliamentary election is not over yet but it is already evident that there will be no obvious winner, just like during the April election, Vedomosti wrote.

With 98% of the votes counted, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party has won 31 seats in the Knesset, coming in at a close second to the Kahol Lavan bloc led by former army chief of staff Benny Gantz with 33 seats. Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc may finally get 55 seats and Gantz’s left-wing alliance is expected to receive 57. That said, in order to get the 61-seat majority, the two blocs will have to set up a coalition or make an agreement with a third party, namely former Prime Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s "Israel Our Home."

According to Yair Lapid, one of Kahol Lavan’s leaders, Netanyahu is unwilling to accept the vote’s outcome and "plans to drag the country into a new snap election." "Israel Our Home," in turn, would like to enter a coalition government but has no intention to cooperate with religious parties. It was Lieberman’s refusal to join a Netanyahu-led coalition together with religious parties that led to a repeat election following the April vote.

Much will depend on Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, who has already pledged to do his best to prevent another election, Chief Researcher at the Center for Arab and Islamic Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences Irina Zvyagelskaya explained. Despite everything, Netanyahu remains a popular figure with great political experience. He will now have to undergo an even more serious test than the election that he has lost by a slim margin. Kahol Lavan is ready to cooperate with Likud but not with Netanyahu. However, according to the expert, Likud has long made it clear that Netanyahu’s leadership cannot be called into question.


RBC: US legislators mull new sanctions on Russia and good old deterrence

American senators and congressional representatives have begun hashing over the final annual defense spending bill, RBC writes.

There are currently two versions of the bill, one of which, passed by the House, imposes restrictions on Russia’s sovereign debt. The Senate’s bill doesn’t contain sanctions on Moscow but stipulates the allocation of additional money for upgrading America’s nuclear arsenal.

The US Congress is likely to support the sanctions, Georgetown University Professor Anders Aslund told RBC. At the same time, according to him, the new restrictions will only serve as an addition to the sanctions on the Russian sovereign debt that were imposed following the Skripal poisoning incident. The House explained the need for new sanctions by citing the risk of Russia’s interference in US domestic politics. The restrictions may be removed if, following the next election, the US National Intelligence director comes to the conclusion that Moscow did not try to interfere in the vote, and both Houses of Congress confirm the decision.

The new sanctions will have little short-term effect but they will significantly reduce the potential for further financial cooperation between the United States and Russia, Aslund pointed out. Chances that American lawmakers will pass a compromise bill containing sanctions on Russia do exist, said former Senior Adviser to the Director of the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) Brian O'Toole.

The US sanctions against Moscow’s sovereign debt may force foreign investors to sell 8%-10% of Russian state bonds, Russia’s ACRA rating agency estimates. According to the organization’s experts, US residents hold 8% of Russia’s sovereign debt.


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