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Press review: US-China diplomatic feud to heat up and Russia, NATO flex Arctic muscles

Top stories in the Russian press on Friday, July 24


Izvestia: US-China diplomatic feud far from over

China plans to close the US consulate in Chengdu in retaliation for Washington's shutdown of the Chinese consulate in Houston, according to the South China Morning Post newspaper. Chances are that other diplomatic missions will also fall victim to the United States’ full-scale feud with China, Izvestia notes.

According to the American media, China’s Houston consulate allegedly sought to cover up attempts by Chinese citizens to access sensitive information, particularly regarding the development of a coronavirus vaccine by the US.

"Trump is clearly poised to raise the stakes, he is prone to take risks and steps that his opponents can’t predict. The risk now is that in order to improve his chances of re-election, Trump may launch more scathing attacks on China that will prompt tough retaliation. The risk of unexpected tensions will continue to grow in the coming months," said Alexander Lomanov, chief research fellow at the Center for Asia Pacific Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of World Economy and International Relations.

This diplomatic feud has become another element in the overall grim picture of enmity between Washington and Beijing. Apart from starting a trade war against China, the Trump administration has also been assailing Beijing for its Hong Kong policy and human rights violations in the Xinjiang autonomous region, along with throwing a monkey wrench into the works of Chinese tech giants and accusing China of concealing information on the coronavirus outbreak.

The anti-Chinese legacy won’t be easily forgotten even if Trump’s Democratic rival Joe Biden wins the November presidential election. However, in Lomanov’s words, US-China relations may improve to some extent if that happens because Biden will be able to put the coronavirus blame on his predecessor instead of China. Besides, economic issues will take center stage next year and it will be difficult for the Americans to resolve them without Beijing.

Vedomosti: Parties to Donbass conflict agree to ceasefire monitoring measures

The Contact Group on resolving the situation in eastern Ukraine has agreed to additional measures to monitor the truce along the line of contact in Donbass. These measures will take effect on July 27, Vedomosti notes.

Right from the start of the talks on Donbass, the parties demonstrated different approaches to the military and political aspects of the Minsk Agreements, Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) Director General Andrey Kortunov pointed out. "The military issues are relatively solvable, but the political aspect turned into a challenge at the very start, particularly for Ukraine," he said. In this regard, the expert mentioned the issues concerning the special status of Donbass, elections and border control.

Ukrainian politicians believe that the political package included in the Minsk Agreements violates Ukraine’s sovereignty, Kortunov explained. "No one wanted to change the Constitution [of Ukraine to ensure the special status of Donbass] and it became clear when [Ukrainian President] Vladimir Zelensky took office and sort of tried to seriously address all these accords," the expert noted. The question now is how far the implementation of the military agreements can go if the political agreements are left aside, the analyst specified.

"If the political status [of Donbass] remains unresolved but stability on the border is ensured, prisoner swaps take place, the blockade is lifted, the bloodshed comes to an end and weapons are withdrawn - that is, the military package is implemented - this will be an important achievement. However, the final goal of the Minsk Agreements is not just to ease military tensions but also to find a political solution, reintegrating Donbass into Ukraine’s political field without affecting the people of the region. This is why the current situation is paradoxical: on the one hand, some breakthroughs have been achieved, but on the other hand, regarding the laws, it is only getting worse," the expert emphasized.


Nezavisimaya Gazeta: Russia, NATO drifting towards Arctic standoff

Apparently, Russia and NATO members are entering into a new round of confrontation in the Arctic. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pointed to the Russian threat on his recent visit to Denmark. Washington’s accusations of Moscow beefing up its military presence in the Arctic came amid Russia’s preparations for its Navy Day parades, which NATO views as Moscow flexing its military muscle, Nezavisimaya Gazeta wrote.

Russia has recently rebuilt its naval bases in the Arctic virtually from scratch. It can hardly be called an excessive military buildup because Moscow is simply restoring Soviet military infrastructure in the region. However, the Americans are shrugging off this reasoning. In June 2020, US President Donald Trump ordered the Pentagon and other federal agencies to draw up plans to beef up America’s presence in the Arctic in order to confront Russia and China. The main goal is to build at least three heavy icebreakers for the US Navy by 2029.

However, it takes a long time to create an icebreaker fleet. This is why, for the time being, the US and its NATO allies hold regular military drills in the Arctic. NATO’s Dynamic Mongoose 2020 took place off Iceland's coast between June 29 and July 10.

"One thing to note is that Russia deploys naval and ground forces in the Arctic on its own soil and near its borders," retired Colonel Eduard Rodyukov pointed out. "At the same time, the United States and some of its allies are active far from their domain and close to Russia’s boundaries. The Americans believe for instance that Russia’s military base on Franz Josef Land poses a threat to the United States’ Thule Air Base on the island of Greenland. But Greenland is not US territory while the Franz Josef Land archipelago is de-jure part of Russia. Russia has interests to protect in the Arctic zone that is under its jurisdiction. And this is what Russia does, pursuing research goals along with military ones," the expert emphasized.


Kommersant: Business travel on the rebound

Airline bookings by business travelers took a 90-percent nosedive in the second quarter of the year, but the industry is beginning to resuscitate. However, the remaining restrictions on business events and companies’ desires to save money on business trips hinder the industry’s recovery, Kommersant writes.

In the second quarter of 2020, business trips fell to 11% of the level recorded in the same period last year, according to Aeroclub. However, after coronavirus restrictions were eased, the number of business trips started to skyrocket. In May, the number of bookings rose 54% higher than in April and in June, it soared 173% higher than in May.

According to Aeroclub, Moscow is the most popular business travel destination. It is followed by St. Petersburg, Samara, Irkutsk and Novy Urengoy. The reason why these cities are at the top is because the majority of business travelers in the second quarter were staff members of mining, processing and energy companies.

Meanwhile, Aeroclub Director General Yulia Lipatova points out that travel restrictions are not the only obstacle hindering the recovery of business travel industry. "Many business trips involve mass events that remain banned in most countries. At the same time, offices have limited opportunities to host meetings due to strict sanitary regulations," Lipatova explained.

Aeroclub experts expect the business travel industry to get a boost in the fall, but even if the most optimistic scenario is implemented, the industry may still face a 40-percent decline in revenues compared to last year.


Izvestia: Russians ditching face masks

Medical mask sales are on the decline in Russia. Sales figures more than halved in the second week of July compared to May, when the demand for face masks had soared, Izvestia wrote, citing research by the DSM Group.

The most obvious reason behind the decline in mask sales is that people have stopped wearing face coverings, DSM Group Director General Sergei Shulyak said. Even before the easing of restrictions, many were unwilling to use them and now most Russian regions have either waived mandatory mask wearing or allowed people not to wear masks outdoors, the expert elaborated.

Russians have indeed grown tired of the restrictions and the authorities are doing little to enforce mask wearing, Plekhanov Russian University of Economics Professor Vyacheslav Cheglov noted. For instance, only one in five subway passengers in Moscow wear face masks and only one in 20 wear gloves though public service announcements reiterate that the use of personal protective equipment is mandatory, the expert stressed.

Russians are letting down their guard and abandoning safety measures also because the wave of bad news is fading, Alexander Shatilov, who heads the Department of Social Sciences and Mass Communication at the Russian government’s Financial University pointed out. The media keeps reporting about declining cases and people get the impression that the infection has been defeated, he explained.


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