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Press review: Turkey ups the ante in Syria and why the US, China are expelling journalists

Top stories in the Russian press on Friday, February 28

Izvestia: Turkey raising stakes in Syria

Syrian troops have managed to seize the Al-Ghab Plain though the air forces are facing serious resistance for the first time since 2015. Izvestia’s sources point out that the enemy is widely using advanced anti-aircraft weapons. Turkish-backed militants keep trying to carry out an offensive and once again block the strategic M5 highway. They have already seized the town of Saraqib. However, experts believe that their success is temporary.

Idlib is filled with portable air-defense systems, which creates difficulties for warplanes and unmanned aerial vehicles that the Syrian government forces use to adjust artillery fire, military expert Dmitry Boltenkov explained. Anyway, the enemy’s use of anti-aircraft weapons did not stop the Syrian Army’s successful offensive in southern Idlib, where Turkey’s presence is minimal and terrorists from the Jabhat al-Nusra (terror) group (outlawed in Russia) failed to provide effective resistance.

On Wednesday, Syrian troops seized the hills surrounding the Al-Ghab Plain and on the next day, they took control of most settlements along the plain, where heavy fighting had been going on for several years. In response, militants launched a counter-offensive against Saraqib, which was supported by their allies. For now, Turkish troops don’t seem to be willing to engage in direct fighting, focusing on artillery support, but they are generously providing militants with weapons and armored vehicles.

However, the terrorists’ success in the Saraqib area is only temporary, military expert Vladislav Shurygin pointed out. "The Syrian Army’s main strike group had been redeployed to the south and the units that remained near Saraqib are not the best ones, so they failed to thwart a militant attack supported by Turkish artillery," he explained. "It is not an easy task to defend Saraqib because it is located on flat land. Once the operation in the south of the province is over, Syria’s strike forces will return and will once again force the militants and terrorists to retreat towards Idlib. They have no chance of regaining control of the M5 unless Turkey enters the conflict," Shurygin added.

Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan continues threatening to launch an operation to push the Syrian Army back to the line established by the Sochi agreements. His ultimatum will expire on February 29. Given Turkey’s threats, the prospects for a meeting between Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin remain unclear.


Nezavisimaya Gazeta: Beijing, Washington embark on tit-for-tat media battle

The United States and China have entered into a tit-for-tat conflict as far as the media goes. In response to the expulsion of Wall Street Journal reporters from China, the White House plans to get back at Chinese media outlets working in the US. The visas of up to a dozen of Chinese journalists may be cancelled. Beijing has vowed to take retaliatory steps, Nezavisimaya Gazeta writes.

Deputy Director of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of World Economy and International Relations Alexander Lomanov told the paper that "the media fray clearly shows that relations between the US and China have plunged to a serious low because all this is happening amid the coronavirus outbreak." "China is going through tough times. The country’s authorities are fighting the virus, at the same time trying to hold the economy together. And the Americans choose this particular moment to designate a number of Chinese state media outlets as foreign agents," he added.

The move comes amid an anti-China campaign in the Western media. "They allege either that China’s one-party system is ineffective, which is why the epidemic broke out, or that the authorities are infringing on people’s freedom by putting them under quarantine," the expert pointed out.

The last straw came with a Wall Street Journal article that labeled China "the real sick man of Asia." Beijing took it as an insult referring to the humiliation China had to endure in the late 19th and early 20th century.

"This is why I am pessimistic about the future of US-China relations. The Chinese are used to propaganda wars and they understand that their achievements don’t make America happy. However, the fact that Washington’s information attack came at such a time will keep torturing their minds," Lomanov emphasized.


Izvestia: Coronavirus will turn into flu-like seasonal illness

Mankind won’t be able to defeat COVID-19 and it will break out from time to time just like regular flu outbreaks, Russian medical specialists told Izvestia. Every year, the virus will target the most vulnerable, including the elderly, as well as those with chronic diseases and a weak immune system. In the future, people around the globe may need regular vaccinations but it will take at least a year to create a vaccine.

"The scope of the current outbreak and the death rate are not the main reason for concern. The virus may settle in humans who don’t show any symptoms and emit the infection into the environment over a long period of time," Professor at Novosibirsk State University’s Faculty of Science Sergey Netesov said.

COVID-19 outbreaks will come in waves in the future, Dean of the Department of Biological and Medical Physics at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT) Alexander Melerzanov pointed out. "As a rule, coronavirus incidences surge in the fall and winter. If we take this particular strain, it will be possible to control it like various flu strains, but not fully defeat it," the scientist emphasized.

The risk is high that humans will keep contracting COVID-19, said Alexander Lukashev, the Director of First Moscow State Medical University’s Martsinovsky Institute of Medical Parasitology, Tropical and Vector Borne Diseases. This is how the widespread respiratory syndrome coronaviruses came to be, which are not dangerous and circulate among humans in the form of acute respiratory viral infections.

"The novel coronavirus situation points to a scenario implying that it will become part of our lives," the expert said. "However, since the current developments are unprecedented in the history of modern virology, it is hard to predict how the situation will unfold," he added.


Vedomosti: Democratic support for Bernie Sanders keeps growing

On Saturday, the Democratic presidential primaries will take place in South Carolina. US Senator from Vermont Bernie Sanders was the one who won the two previous primaries in New Hampshire and Nevada. In South Carolina, presidential hopeful Joe Biden will have a chance to improve his standings because more than half of the state’s voters are African-Americans who support him, as he served as Barack Obama’s vice president, Vedomosti writes.

Three days after the South Carolina primaries, the big event — Super Tuesday — is scheduled to occur, when voting will take place in 14 states at once. According to RealClearPolitics, Sanders is the most popular candidate in all those 14 states. However, many in the Democratic establishment still believe that in order to defeat incumbent President Donald Trump, the party needs a more moderate candidate.

Ex-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who will enter the race on Super Tuesday, may become Sanders’ main rival. However, unlike Biden, Bloomberg is seen as a stranger to the Democrats and has little chance of gaining wide support, said Yevgeny Minchenko, president of Minchenko Consulting.

From an emotional standpoint, the situation is changing for the Democrats, the expert said. "When Biden, the mainstream moderate, was the frontrunner, followed by the socialist Sanders, it was one thing. In such a situation, it was clear to most Democrats for whom to campaign. However, Biden’s campaign has run out of steam, besides, he is facing financial issues, while Sanders has seen a surge in donations, particularly after his Nevada win. Bloomberg, too, has no funding problems," Minchneko noted.

Biden is now being pushed back by "turncoat" Bloomberg, who, like Trump, has switched parties, the expert noted. Democrats don’t have much of a choice and it only increases Trump’s chances, which already look stronger because the failed impeachment bid has united Republican voters, the expert stressed.


Media: Coronavirus fears weaken Russian ruble

The ruble-to-dollar exchange rate in Russia has exceeded 66 rubles per dollar for the first time since September 2019. Stock indexes have plunged to their lowest levels in months. The rapid spread of the novel coronavirus outside of China is making investors withdraw from risky assets, and ruble assets have turned out to be the weakest ones due to a decline in oil prices, Kommersant notes.

International investors are overwhelmed with panic because the epidemic, which they thought was a local one, is now rapidly spreading across the world. "Pessimistic sentiment mounted in the middle of the week, when the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated that Americans needed to get ready for a possible coronavirus outbreak, which might have a huge negative impact on everyday life in America," Sberbank Commodity Market Strategist Mikhail Sheibe noted.

The coronavirus scare will continue to influence markets, including the oil market, as economic and transport activities decline, said Head of Equities at Otkritie Asset Management Vitaliy Isakov. Markets fell due to concerns that COVID-19 would reduce fuel demand not only in China but in Europe and the US as well.

"Coronavirus fears and an oil price drop, the biggest since May 2019, are the reasons behind the ruble’s decline," Finam analyst Sergei Drozdov told Nezavisimaya Gazeta.

If a nightmare scenario, namely a global pandemic, comes true, the ruble exchange rate may fall to 70 rubles per dollar in the spring or summer, Chief Analyst at BCS Premier Anton Pokatovich said. However, in his words, if the worst expectations are shattered and the situation turns out to be moderately negative, the rate will reach 67-68 ruble per dollar in the near future.


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