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Press review: US-Taliban deal still on the table and Power of Siberia brings gas to China

Top stories in the Russian press on Monday, December 2
US President Donald Trump at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan AP Photo/Alex Brandon
US President Donald Trump at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan
© AP Photo/Alex Brandon


Izvestia: Normandy Quartet to avoid gas transit talk

The topic of gas transit will not be discussed on December 9 at a meeting between the leaders of Germany, Russia, Ukraine, and France. A source close to the summit preparations told Izvestia that the Minsk Agreements will be the main topic of the talks and, in particular, transitioning to a political settlement of the conflict in Donbass. Nevertheless, according to another source, it is possible that the Presidents of Russia and Ukraine Vladimir Putin and Vladimir Zelensky will touch upon the gas issue in a face-to-face conversation on the sidelines of the summit. Therefore, the resolution of the dispute may reach the presidential level.

"Transit of Russian gas through Ukraine will not be discussed separately at the meeting of the four leaders. Negotiations will be devoted exclusively to the settlement of the Donbass conflict. There are special channels for resolving the gas issue, and no one is going to water down the summit’s agenda," the source told Izvestia.

Meanwhile, another source told the newspaper, the talks will focus on the settlement in Donbass, in particular on the special status of territories not controlled by Kiev. Thus, in Paris, the Quartet will have to discuss many nuances of the settlement, and covering gas transit as well would be a very difficult task, the newspaper wrote. At the same time, another government source told Izvestia that Russian and Ukrainian leaders will be able to discuss the gas dispute in a personal conversation.

"In these negotiations, Russia is the supplier, Ukraine is the transit country, and the European Union is the direct buyer," Head of the National Energy Institute Sergey Pravosudov told Izvestia. "It is obvious that Moscow and Kiev will sign the contract. However, the European Commission is hinting to its Ukrainian partners that the agreement should be signed. Given that Kiev is heavily dependent on the EU, they pay attention to these hints," he added.

According to the expert, the negotiations are bound to pick up momentum by the end of the year - the parties simply have no other choice. Kiev and Moscow have one month left to resolve the dispute over hydrocarbon supplies - the ten-year term of the agreements expires on December 31, 2019.


Kommersant: US, Taliban return to Afghan settlement discussions

A deal between Washington and the Taliban (banned in Russia), which US President Donald Trump called "dead" in September, is once again on the table - speaking at the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan on the Thanksgiving Day, Trump confirmed that work is underway on the agreement, but the US is demanding a truce from the Taliban. A representative of the Taliban in Doha told Kommersant, they believe that there should be two cease-fires - one with the US and one with Kabul, which will be concluded only after inter-Afghan negotiations. Meanwhile, experts believe that progress in the negotiations is possible only if the Taliban is ready to renounce violence.

Donald Trump called the Afghan deal "dead" on September 9 - after an explosion near the US embassy. However, even at the time experts suggested that it was only a pause and that the negotiations would resume.

Spokesman for the Taliban’s office in Qatar Mohammad Sohail Shaheen explained to Kommersant that representatives of the movement believe that not one, but two separate cease-fires should be concluded. One truce is with the American side, which will be concluded after the signing of the agreement, and the second with Afghan politicians in Kabul that will be discussed during the inter-Afghan negotiations, Shaheen told the newspaper.

According to a Central Asia analyst Arkady Dubnov, despite firm intention of the United States to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, they will not do this without receiving a guarantee from the Taliban that they will subdue violence. "Perhaps the Americans will also undertake a commitment not to attack Taliban facilities, but first it should be expected from the Taliban. If the US withdraws troops, and the Taliban continue to attack them and the Afghan military, this will be perceived as running away," he said.

Other countries participating in the Afghan settlement, including Russia, instantly reacted to the news. "We welcome the statement. It is long past time to resume negotiations with the Taliban, to complete this protracted process, because it has hindered the launch of the most important thing - the inter-Afghan negotiations, the process of national reconciliation," Russia’s special envoy for Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov told the newspaper. "We really hope that such negotiations between the US and the Taliban will be completed in the very near future and we will be able to see a new environment in Afghanistan," he added.


Izvestia: Power of Siberia could challenge Europe’s energy market

Commissioning the Power of Siberia gas pipeline will allow Russia to take 10-15% of the Chinese gas market, according to experts interviewed by Izvestia. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping are launching the pipeline on December 2. Analysts told the newspaper they believe that the emergence of a new export route will reduce Russia's dependence on supplying natural gas to Europe, but will not become a full-fledged alternative to the western route.

Head of the HSE School of Oriental Studies Alexey Maslov believes that Russian gas may occupy 10-15% of the Chinese market. "Theoretically, Russia could cover up to 20% of China’s gas needs, but Beijing is unlikely to allow this. Firstly, it does not allow anyone to occupy a market share of above 12% for any type of product. In addition, China is currently negotiating with Turkmenistan on expanding gas supplies. It is cheaper, and the gas pipeline was built by the Chinese and belongs to them. So, Turkmenistan is our main competitor in this market," Maslov told Izvestia. At the same time, according to the expert, the launch of the Power of Siberia is timely, because it fits perfectly into China’s plan to gradually transfer industry to gas and oil instead of coal.

According to the newspaper, the Asia-Pacific region in the last ten years has become a premium market compared to Europe. Starting pipeline deliveries to China would stabilize Russian exports, which relies solely on the European route, Deputy Director General of the National Energy Security Fund Alexey Grivach told Izvestia. However, the expert believes that the gas pipeline to China will not be able to become a full-fledged alternative to Europe.

"It will be impossible to redistribute gas flows, as the Power of Siberia has a different resource base, which is being developed specifically for the project. After the gas pipeline reaches its design capacity, approximately 20% of European volumes will be delivered to China," the expert told Izvestia.

BCS Premier Senior Analyst Sergei Suverov nonetheless believes that commissioning the pipeline will strengthen Russia's negotiating position on gas issues with Europe. Now the market has a second major buyer of Russia’s gas, the expert noted.


Nezavisimaya Gazeta: Russia plans to test hypersonic weapons in the Arctic

Russia continues to develop and test new hypersonic weapons - in mid-November, the Kinzhal air-launched ballistic missile was reportedly tested in the Arctic. Last week, according to the press service of Russia’s Northern Fleet, the Admiral Gorshkov frigate arrived in the White Sea to test new missile weapons - likely the 3M22 Zircon hypersonic cruise missile, Nezavisimaya Gazeta wrote. According to experts, Russian President Vladimir Putin will watch the first test launch of Zircon via telecommunication channels.

"I believe it is possible that in the near future the Zircon hypersonic cruise missile will be tested in the White Sea from the Admiral Gorshkov frigate," Chairman of the Central Committee of All Russian trade union of servicemen Oleg Shvedkov said. "This is a practically closed sea, which prevents the passage of foreign ships and submarines. There are marine landfills in the White Sea, and enterprises that manufacture warships and weapons for them are located on the coast, which should help successful trials," he added. Shvedkov pointed out that missile armament of the Admiral Flota Kasatonov frigate had already been tested in the area.

According to former Navy Main Staff Chief, retired admiral Viktor Kravchenko, "the new Russian hypersonic missile Zircon, capable of hitting land and sea targets, can be put into service this year." Retired rear admiral Vsevolod Khmyrov believes that ships and submarines armed with Zircon in neutral waters many hundreds of kilometers away from the positions of a potential enemy, in the event of war could be able "to destroy key government elements in the US in five minutes".

Head of Tactical Missile Weapons Corporation Boris Obnosov in August 2019 said that work on the Zircon was carried out "on schedule" and would be finished according to the terms agreed with the customer.


Kommersant: Money transfers from Russia to Tajikistan at risk

Money transfers from Russia to Tajikistan could discontinue from December 3 - although financial regulators of both countries were in negotiations with market participants all last week, they could not reach a consensus, Kommersant writes. None of the payment systems providing 90% of transfers from Russia to Tajikistan with a total volume of about $2.5 bln per year connected successfully to the National Bank of Tajikistan. It is still unknown whether the Russian financial authorities will apply retaliatory measures, but they have the right to do so, the paper says.

From December 3, Tajikistan will switch to a new system, under which all settlements without opened accounts must be processed through the National Bank of Tajikistan. To clarify the "technical and regulatory nuances", Russian companies providing money transfer services to the country asked the regulator to postpone the date, but the request was denied.

Tajikistan is one of the largest market for money transfers from Russia, second only to Uzbekistan. In 2018, the volume of money transfers without opening accounts, according to the Central Bank, to $2.55 bln, for the Q1 of 2019 - $462 mln. Given the market volume, the inability of the National Bank of Tajikistan for compromise has perplexed Russian players, Kommersant wrote.

According to experts, both parties are interested in retaining transfers between Russia and Tajikistan. "Unfortunately, during the transition period, the end consumers are most likely to see negative effect, ordinary people who go to work and plan to regularly transfer funds home," Commercial Director at Chronopay Sergey Alpatov told Kommersant.

According to Head of the Investment Department at BCS Broker Narek Avakyan, money transfers from labor migrants make up 30% of the Tajik economy. "Meanwhile, Russian payment systems will lose up to 6-7 bln rubles of revenue per year, which is quite substantial, so I think that in the end they will agree on something and a compromise between the parties will be found," Avakyan told Kommersant.


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