Media: Taliban back out of peace talks until NATO pullout from Afghanistan
US President Joe Biden announced the deadline for the NATO troop pullout from Afghanistan - September 11, 2021 - the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks in the US, which were the reason for Washington’s invasion of the country. The US president’s decision threatens to disrupt another important initiative from Washington-the Istanbul conference - which is set to breathe new life into the Afghan peace process, Kommersant writes. After hearing the news on postponing the date of the troop withdrawal from May 1 to September 11, the Taliban announced that they refused to take part in any international events until the US fulfilled the agreements.
The conference on Afghanistan in Istanbul will kick off on April 24 instead of April 16 as was announced earlier, according to Izvestia. However, it’s still unclear whether the Taliban’s (outlawed in Russia) delegates will attend. The Taliban hinted that they would not take part in any talks as long as there is at least one US soldier in Afghanistan. The problems do not end here: in Istanbul, the Afghan government is expected to draw up a single reconciliation program. Yet, now it seems to be more like wishful thinking rather than a real roadmap on a settlement. Moscow's consent to participate in this event will also rest on a clear plan and a specific agenda, Zamir Kabulov, the special envoy of the President of the Russian Federation for Afghanistan, admitted in an interview with Izvestia.
According to Kommersant, should the Istanbul conference turned out to be a failure, that would be a blow to Washington’s image. A diplomatic source told the newspaper that the success of the Istanbul conference would largely depend on whether there will be enough time to develop a comprehensive decision. Russian expert on Central Asia Arkady Dubnov points out that now the Taliban use well-known tactics: "to bargain until the very end and threaten to use violence." He noted that September 11 is an insulting deadline for the Taliban since this is a reminder that they were responsible for sheltering the notorious, ex-leader of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, who had masterminded the attack on the US. No full-fledged reconciliation should be expected from the Taliban and moreover, in case the group intensifies attacks on NATO forces and Afghanistan’s government troops, the September 11 deadline will be again extended.
Kommersant: US, NATO not ready to grant membership to Ukraine
The Biden administration is holding a brainstorming session with its allies to find out if the West is ready to undertake commitments on ensuring Ukraine’s security. Relations with Kiev dominated Wednesday’s talks in Brussels, including a video conference of NATO foreign and defense ministers. The situation on the Russian-Ukrainian border was discussed by delegates from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) member-states in Vienna. Meanwhile, the discussion on Ukraine exposed a serious issue for the US and NATO: allies just share stance on accusing Russia, but cannot decide who will bear responsibility for Ukraine, while the issue on its membership in the alliance is a distant prospect, Kommersant writes.
In case the US makes a political decision on ensuring Ukraine’s security, this does not necessarily stipulate using NATO mechanisms, Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council Andrey Kortunov noted. Washington has a vast network of bilateral military and political agreements with its allies, including security guaranties by the US, similar to Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty (on collective security). "A bilateral US-Ukraine treaty could in particular imply setting up US military bases on Ukrainian soil," he explained.
Meanwhile, according to the commentator, it’s not simple to carry out this scenario. "It would be a hard task to get this bilateral treaty with Ukraine passed in Congress, especially since the Americans are trying to curtail their military commitments in many regions of the world. After Ukraine, Georgia would stand in line as well as some other post-Soviet states. This treaty would be a constant irritant in relations with Moscow. And there are no financial resources for serious military presence in Ukraine in Washington now," Kortunov pointed out.
In this situation, it’s more advantageous for Biden to somehow use NATO by avoiding undertaking any extra unilateral commitments on Ukraine, he pointed out. "However, it’s difficult to say how the alliance could be used since Ukraine’s membership in NATO is not on the horizon yet."
Vedomosti: Russia wary of US proposal on Putin-Biden summit
US President Joe Biden suggested holding a summit with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in a third country in the coming months. Austria and Finland, members of the Munich Security Conference, have expressed their desire to host the event. Meanwhile, the Kremlin took Washington’s proposal with a pinch of salt, saying it was too early to discuss the venue and the date. Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said dialogue between Russia and the US was necessary, but the sides had disagreements on many issues.
According to Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of the US and Canadian Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences Pavel Koshkin, Moscow’s cautious reaction was attributed to the current fragile situation. The Ukrainian crisis could exacerbate, leading to a cancellation of the summit. So, the Kremlin simultaneously maintains "a realistic and a pessimistic position," he told Vedomosti.
The expert also notes that by seeking to hold the summit, Washington acknowledges that Biden lost his temper during the interview, in which he referred to Putin as a "killer." "Russia is showing that it got offended and is trying to define a framework and who will play what role during these talks," Koshkin said. Meanwhile, he noted that in order to iron out the crisis in Russian-US ties one summit wouldn’t be enough and a systemic effort by both countries’ agencies would be needed.
At the summit, Putin and Biden could hash over the issues of cyber security, cooperation in arms control and human rights. The leaders could also look for a substitute to the New START Treaty, which was extended for five years on January 27. The expert is more upbeat on the upcoming summit compared with the failed 2018 Helsinki summit between Putin and former US President Donald Trump. According to him, Trump was under pressure as he was an unwelcome president and was seen as ‘Putin’s puppet’, while Biden has greater legitimacy.
Head of the Center for Applied Research at the Institute of US and Canadian Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences Pavel Sharikov also noted that one of the issues up for discussion at the summit could be cyber security. On the whole, Putin and Biden have a vast agenda, and on each point the parties have "polar opposite approaches." However, if there is willingness to hold the summit, this means that there is a desire to hold productive talks, Sharikov said. He warned however that events could unfold in an absolutely unpredictable way.
Nezavisimaya Gazeta: Russia ready to join trans-Afghan railway project
On April 14, Uzbekistan’s President Shavkat Mirziyoyev and Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan held a video conference and discussed the issues of regional cooperation and fulfilling the trans-Afghan railway project, the Kabul Corridor, which will link Uzbekistan with the ports of Karachi and Gwadar in the Arabian Sea. Islamabad seeks to get access to the markets of Central Asia and Russia, while Tashkent is interested in improving ties with its neighbors and is looking for new markets, Nezavisimaya Gazeta writes.
"A unifying start in the third decade of the 21st century was the economy. For Uzbekistan it is crucial to get access to the sea, including through Pakistan. South Asia is a major market. As you know, today Uzbekistan’s economy is aimed at expanding export opportunities," said Alexander Vorobyov, a research fellow at the Center for Central Asian and Caucasian Studies at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
The key obstacle to cultivating bilateral trade is the lack of direct transportation links. Tashkent and Islamabad are convinced that the trans-Afghan railway will drastically boost the transit potential of Central Asia and will revive the region’s historic role as a bridge linking Europe and Asia by the shortest overland route.
The Chinese factor could also play a vital role in bringing the positions of Uzbekistan and Pakistan closer on building the railway, Vorobyov said. Over the past decade Pakistan has become very close with China and is actively participating in Beijing’s initiatives on creating transportation corridors in Eurasia. "China has basically created its way to the Indian Ocean through its friend Pakistan."
Russia could also become one of the Kabul Corridor’s participants because Moscow is on par with the other parties to the peace process - Beijing and Islamabad - and it is interested in political stabilization in Afghanistan, he said. Pakistan and Russia are discussing the expansion of economic cooperation. Islamabad is interested in selling its fruits and vegetables, and textiles to Russia. In addition, it seeks to modernize its steelworks in Karachi, which was built jointly with Russian specialists.
Izvestia: Russia’s equivalent to SWIFT to account for 30% of traffic by 2023
The Central Bank is planning to increase the share of financial messages through Russia’s equivalent to SWIFT by one-third, bringing it to 30% by 2023, according to the regulator’s strategy on developing the national payment system. Market participants believe that the mission is possible, given US pressure on the international system, credit organizations around the world are turning to regional solutions. Besides, the Bank of Russia’s system offers more advantageous rates. However, Russian financial companies won’t be able to fully give up SWIFT, experts told Izvestia.
In 2020, traffic along Russia’s SPFS (System for Transfer of Financial Messages) doubled, the regulator said. The goal of increasing the traffic to 30% is ambitious, but can be fulfilled since at the moment there are no limits for new participants willing to join it, VTB said. Vice President of Rosbank Alexander Rakhmanin noted that the regulator’s scenario is realistic given the current geopolitical situation. At the same time, the Russian equivalent cannot be viewed as a full-fledged alternative to SWIFT due to its limited functions, which do not allow transferring funds to non-CIS countries. The gradual acceptance of SPFS by foreign banks as well as the US permanent use of pressure on SWIFT could in the end push actors of the global financial system towards more decisive steps regarding regional integration, Rakhmanin noted.
"Now, the SPFS system could replace SWIFT, but only in terms of transactions of Russian banks and organizations in the Commonwealth of Independent States. Now neither US nor European banks have been connected to SPFS," said Executive Director of the Renaissance Credit Bank Mikhail Leites. The fee for operations at SPFS is lower than SWIFT’s and that’s why many Russian banks are switching to the national system of transferring financial messages, said Alma Obayeva, Chairman of the Board of the National Payment Council.
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