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Press review: Russia eyes other pipeline routes and Zelensky’s foes slam Steinmeier deal

Top stories in the Russian press on Thursday, October 3

Kommersant: Putin hints Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline could bypass Denmark’s waters

Russian President Vladimir Putin noted that Moscow was ready to consider other routes for the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project if Denmark refused to greenlight its laying in its exclusive economic zone. An alternative route through Sweden’s zone is being looked at, Kommersant business daily writes. This route is technically viable but it would be longer and more costly, and would take more time to get approved. Russia’s energy giant Gazprom is still focused on the route through Denmark, the newspaper states. Moreover, there is no more need to rush since the company’s objective to get the pipeline commissioned by January seems to be unachievable anyway.

Moscow is considering other options for the North Stream 2 route, judging by the statements made on October 2 by Vladimir Putin, Energy Minister Alexander Novak and Chairman of Gazprom’s Board of Directors Viktor Zubkov, Kommersant writes. The sticking point is that for more than two years Denmark has refused to give Gazprom permission to lay the gas pipeline in its exclusive economic zone, which is de jure in international waters, the newspaper explains. Although Denmark only has the right to deny the request due to environmental reasons, the country neither rejects nor backs Gazprom’s bids.

The pipeline’s construction through Sweden’s exclusive economic zone will stretch out the route by at least 100 km, which will increase the project’s construction and maintenance costs. But the key problem is that this route will require new permits from Sweden and Germany (because the route in Germany’s exclusive economic zone will be also altered). Sources in the sector estimate that the delay at this stage would be at least a year, so they are not seriously considering this option. Sources familiar with the pipeline’s construction affirm that currently there is no groundwork for building the route via Sweden. They say Gazprom still hopes to get Denmark’s permission by the end of this year. One of the sources said Putin’s remark could help protect Copenhagen from any possible negative reaction by Washington. "We might say that an effort to freeze the project was doomed to failure since Gazprom still has a chance to lay it through Sweden."


Izvestia: Belarus ditches proposal on hosting Russian military base

Belarus won’t host a Russian military base on its soil, the country’s Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei said. He explained that Minsk considered this facility to be senseless, given that modern Russian missiles fired from Smolensk or other parts of western Russia could reach any place in Europe within seconds and even fly across the ocean within minutes. The top diplomat also highlighted that the deployment of a base on Belarusian soil would not improve security and stability in the region. Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed that Russia and Belarus were not in talks on this issue. According to him, Moscow and Minsk had commitments that compensate for the lack of such a military facility. In late September, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov dismissed the Belarusian refusal to host a Russian base as an unpleasant move.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu unveiled a plan to establish an airbase in Belarus back in April 2013, with the hope of setting up an aviation regiment there by 2015, Izvestia writes. However, the Belarusian leader changed his mind several times. Now Belarus remains the only country in the post-Soviet security bloc — the Collective Security Treaty Organization — where there is no Russian military base. Meanwhile, there are two Russian military facilities in Belarus — the Hantsavichy radar station and the Vileyka very low frequency transmitter of the 43rd Communications Center of the Russian Navy. A 25-year lease agreement on these two facilities expires in 2020. According to the Belarusian Defense Ministry, the decision on extending the lease would be made by June 2020.

An expert at the International Center for Political Analysis and Information Security, Dmitry Bolkunets, told Izvestia that given the size of Belarus and modern types of armaments, the republic’s strategic importance for hosting an airbase is very low. Kirill Koktish, an assistant professor in the Department of Political Theory at the Moscow Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) shares the opinion, saying that Moscow had listened to Minsk’s arguments and considered that there was no need for this base.

However, Andrey Suzdaltsev, Deputy Dean at the Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs at the Higher School of Economics, thinks otherwise. According to him, Minsk is raising this issue again and again in order to demonstrate to the West that the country was allegedly under pressure from Moscow and that the topic of the base was still acute. "This looks simply improper because the Belarusian economy is alive only thanks to Russia’s assistance," he stressed.


RBC: Ukrainian opposition up in arms over Zelensky’s move to sign Steinmeier formula

After news broke on October 1 that all members of the Trilateral Contact Group on settling the crisis in Ukraine had signed the Steinmeier formula, outlining the terms for introducing a special status for Donbass, Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky’s political opponents condemned this move as "capitulation." They complain that the formula stipulates a political settlement through elections and introducing a special status for Donbass without resolving vital security problems. Yulia Timoshenko, the leader of the All-Ukrainian Union "Fatherland" that has 24 seats in the parliament, claimed that the Steinmeier formula would freeze the conflict in Donbass like in Moldova’s breakaway region of Transnistria.

Now, the leaders of the Normandy Quartet (Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany) will have to coordinate a roadmap on settling the crisis, RBC writes. Although the sides have endorsed this formula, some fundamental issues still need to be ironed out, Ukrainian political scientist Vladimir Fesenko told the paper. "This ‘formula’ alone won’t solve anything. If military operations are not stopped, if it is impossible to carry out and consolidate the troop withdrawal, as agreed on at present, if the issue of security during the elections is not resolved, who and how will ensure it, which is impossible without deploying peacekeepers, then the formula won’t work," the expert predicted.

According to Fesenko, there is a compromise solution to the dispute over the border control issue: it will be implemented by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe during the elections and after that by Ukraine. Besides, Kiev will reject the proposal that the Donbass authorities should organize the elections. Under the most probable scenario, the Normandy Quartet should consider the proposals, mull over possible problems and hand instructions to the aides to continue the job in order to sign the roadmap by the next meeting.

"We have a reason for optimism because unlike Poroshenko, Zelensky is determined to reach a compromise," Fesenko said. However, the parliament is unlikely to pass the new law on a special status for Donbass without solving the above mentioned problems, he stressed. According to an expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center Tatiana Stanovaya, Ukraine’s move to ink the Steinmeier formula is a symbolic gesture, and it is too early to speak about any serious progress in Kiev’s dialogue with Moscow. "This is a small step, which Ukraine has taken in order to open up the path towards holding the Normandy Quartet’s summit, but there will be more tough bargaining ahead," she told the paper.


Izvestia: Russia to hand out record number of loans to foreign states

Russia is planning to grant more than 1 trillion rubles ($15.5 bln) in loans to foreign governments and organizations over the next three years, Izvestia writes, referring to the draft budget for 2020-2022. This exceeds the figures recorded over the past five years. The Finance Ministry has not unveiled the list of major credit recipients but experts told the newspaper that Turkey, India and Iran would be among them.

Foreign credit recipients need these funds to complete projects developed jointly with Russian partners, the ministry notes. Besides, Moscow will also bankroll buyers of Russian goods. Meanwhile, in 2020-2022, Russia will get back a significantly smaller sum out of the earlier granted loans: 370 bln rubles ($5.4 bln).

Moscow will borrow less than it plans to lend: roughly 640 bln rubles ($9.7 bln). However, Russia intends to get only $700 mln in direct loans from foreign governments and organizations, according to the draft budget. At the moment, other countries owe Russia some $35 bln, Russian Deputy Finance Minister Sergei Storchak said, while staying muted on the "geography of the borrowers."

Russia’s major debtor is Belarus, which owes Moscow $7.5 bln, according to the Finance Ministry. Venezuela’s debt to Moscow stands at $3.5 bln, Russian President Vladimir Putin revealed earlier.

Expert of the Center for the Analysis of Strategies and Technologies Andrei Frolov has linked the spike in Russia’s loans to foreign states to the $20 bln Russian-Turkish project on building the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant in southern Turkey.


Kommersant: Outgoing US envoy certain Washington will hold talks with Moscow

Outgoing US Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman said in an interview with Kommersant that he considered that bilateral relations stabilized during his two-year tenure in Moscow. The diplomat recalled that by the time he had assumed office, Russian-US ties had hit rock bottom and he feared that his future job would be impossible. However, it turned out that "mission impossible" was actually a "mission possible."

Speaking about his diplomatic success, Huntsman highlighted that new important communications channels were opened, which actually had not existed earlier. The outgoing US envoy also compared bilateral relations with a patient, who was dying on a doctor’s table in an intensive care unit and who already had no pulse.

According to Huntsman, the period when he was appointed envoy to Russia could not be compared to any historic period, even with the last years of the Cold War. Russian-US ties were actually frozen, he said, attributing this to many factors, namely the Ukrainian conflict, the alleged meddling in the 2016 US presidential election and the then incoming administration.

Speaking on whether Russia and the US need to sign a new treaty or to extend the New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty), which expires in February 2021, Huntsman said there was still some time to shape plans for the future. He said there was no doubt that the US would sit down at the negotiating table with Russia to discuss these important issues.


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