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Press review: Russia’s latest treason case and South China Sea showdown on the horizon

Top stories in the Russian press on Thursday, July 8

Izvestia: Personal motives may be behind Russian journalist’s high treason case

Journalist Ivan Safronov, an advisor to the head of Russia’s Roscosmos space agency, who has been detained on suspicion of high treason, could have cooperated with foreign intelligence agencies out of a personal grudge over his father’s death, a Federal Security Service (FSB) source familiar with the investigation told Izvestia. Safronov’s lawyer said that his client was suspected of passing information about Russian arms supplies on to Czech intelligence agencies. The journalist refused to plead guilty.

"He collected information about Russia’s defense and economic cooperation with other countries, including foreign contracts. It was easy for him to do it because he worked on military and economic topics as a reporter," the FSB source pointed out.

According to one theory, Safronov probably decided to cooperate with foreign intelligence agencies due to lingering resentment over his father’s murky death. Ivan Safronov Senior, who covered military topics for the Kommersant daily, died under suspicious circumstances in 2007. He fell out of a hallway window in his apartment building. Investigators came to the conclusion that there was nothing criminal about the incident but people who knew Safronov Senior closely did not believe it, saying that his professional activities must have been the true cause.

As for high treason cases, the main question is whether the defendant made a conscious choice, said Oleg Zherdev, founder of the Russian association of law enforcement lawyers Gvardia. "If a person received information from sources with knowledge of the situation and knew that it was classified, punishment is inevitable. If he did not know that it was classified information and did not give a written promise not to disclose it, then it will be difficult to prove his guilt," the expert noted.

"Before carrying out a sentence, a judge must weigh all the circumstances: whether any harm was done, whether the defendant repented and cooperated with the investigation and what his motives were. It is almost impossible to predict what the penalty may be without knowing all the circumstances," retired federal judge Sergei Pashin emphasized.


Nezavisimaya Gazeta: Parallel drills in South China Sea may escalate tensions between Washington, Beijing

The United States and China have simultaneously conducted large-scale military exercises in the South China Sea. The American exercise involved the USS Ronald Reagan and USS Nimitz. The Chinese Foreign Ministry accused Washington of flexing its muscles in order to get full control of the region and sow discord between China and its neighbors. To reinforce its diplomatic pushback, Beijing carried out naval and air force drills. According to experts, neither of the two powers wants a direct conflict but hostilities could break out due to a misunderstanding, Nezavisimaya Gazeta noted.

Both countries have justified the deployment of major military forces to the strategically important region of the world by citing their legitimate interests and international law.

Deputy Director of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of World Economy and International Relations Alexander Lomanov pointed out that "the risk of a conflict does exist, what’s more, it keeps escalating." According to him, the risk "is the highest at sea, not on land." "Taiwan remains the most dangerous place as far as the possibility of a conflict goes. If developments around the island take an unpleasant turn, leading to military interference by Chinese military forces, then Americans may decide that it is their duty to come to Taiwan’s aid," the expert added.

As for the South China Sea, both are playing a game to display their fundamental position. The Taiwan dispute may boil over into a regional war, while conflicts at sea are packed with hazards of unanticipated accidents. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the United States learned from experience about how to make concessions to one another when necessary. The situation is different in the South China Sea because both sides have different views on the status of the artificial islands. China considers them part of its territory but the US believes that they were seized illegally. The Americans seek to bring their ships as close to the islands as possible to show that they are not Chinese territory. And as both countries hold drills at the same time, tensions have begun to mount, the expert concluded.


Izvestia: Gas producers mull over setting up OPEC-style group

Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak said last week that talks were underway on the creation of an OPEC-style gas organization. With the recent plunge in gas prices, which has impacted all producers from Russia to the US, establishing a regulator that would limit output in order to ensure maximum revenues for all market players seems like a timely move, Izvestia notes.

The industry is facing a difficult situation. The already depressed natural gas spot prices sank even lower due to the coronavirus pandemic, the global lockdowns and the economic crisis. However, it’s not the current low prices that are the problem but the overall volatility. Prices below the cost of production would mean a drop in investment, which would lead to declining output, rising prices based on market shortages, and a new plunge in prices would emerge as a result of overproduction.

“The market can certainly regulate itself, maintaining cycles, when a drop in prices leads to a decline in investment and, consequently, to reduced supplies, then the subsequent surge in demand would send prices up once again, so that it just goes round and round,” Finam analyst Alexei Kalachev explained. "The benefit of an OPEC+-style output cut, is that it will be more evenly shared by all participants, allowing them to keep the industry going," the expert pointed out.

According to Nikos Tsafos, a senior fellow with the Energy Security and Climate Change Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the gas market’s special features would pose a challenge to an organization like that. The group may at some point wrongly assess the market situation. For instance, about 40% of gas is used for power generation. If prices go too high, consumers may move to coal in the short term and invest in renewable energy sources in the long run. Countries’ anti-monopoly policies may also become a problem. Accordingly, even if key producers established an effective regulatory organization, it would have to act with great caution, balancing the interests of exporters and consumers.


Nezavisimaya Gazeta: Turkey expands front against Libya’s Haftar

The Libyan conflict has recently made it clear that European countries have a different view of ways to resolve the issue and Turkey’s actions, aimed at supporting the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli. Experts believe that these divergent stances could potentially drive a wedge between European capitals and Ankara, Nezavisimaya Gazeta writes.

Turkey appears to be determined to provide military support to Tripoli. Ankara has signed a defense agreement with the GNA, which gives the Turks a mandate for direct interference, particularly to protect the cabinet headquartered in the Libyan capital. The document also provides for the establishment of a Turkish military base in Libya.

Tensions in the country are escalating. The Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar has been put on high alert to respond to possible attacks by the Turkish air force following an LNA airstrike on the Al-Watiya Air Base controlled by the GNA. Tripoli does not rule out that Egypt or the United Arab Emirates could have been involved in the airstrike. Both are considered to be Haftar’s allies. France is also seen as his supporter. Meanwhile, Italy’s defense minister visited Ankara on July 7 to discuss Libya’s future.

Research Fellow at the Netherlands Institute of International Relations Clingendael Jalel Harchaoui told the paper that France, together with Greece and Cyprus, was committed to supporting the UAE in Libya. That said, Turkey could take advantage of Italy’s position aimed at restoring relations with the GNA. However, countries like Germany will remain impartial, the expert believes. Nevertheless, in his opinion, Paris is confident that it can influence any other EU member state. In time, it could lead to a painful covert war between Western Europe and Turkey, Harchaoui predicted.


Izvestia: Africa may emerge as new hotbed of coronavirus pandemic

When discussing the consequences of the global coronavirus crisis, experts scarcely touch upon the situation in Africa. The continent was indeed the last to report cases of the new infection but figures keep growing. At the same time, the number of forcibly displaced persons and refugees migrating within the continent in search of a better life is also on the rise. Once the borders reopen, these people may resume their efforts to move to other countries, which may become a problem for developed nations, Izvestia wrote, citing the Roscongress Foundation’s experts.

According to the Foundation's research, the most obvious reason behind the rise in Africa’s coronavirus cases is that the healthcare systems of most African nations aren't sufficiently advanced for a comprehensive fight against COVID-19. Besides, analysts point out that it is hard to ensure any quarantine due to a high concentration of people in cities. Moreover, quarantine measures run counter to African traditions. And a high level of migration is another serious obstacle to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. According to analysts, armed conflicts are among the major reasons why people move around the continent. Another motive to migrate is the quest for better economic opportunities.

Dmitry Bondarenko, Deputy Director of the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute for African Studies, emphasized that once the borders reopen, countries will boost medical border controls, paying particular attention to people arriving from Africa because there was little trust in African testing.

Leading Researcher at Higher School of Economics Alexandra Arkhangelskaya noted that the pandemic would lead to improved control of illegal migration. However, many powers are interested in migration from Africa. European countries are in need of migrant workers, particularly from Africa, because they are facing demographic problems and seek to reduce production costs.


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