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Press review: Minsk’s forced plane landing triggers EU and Russia unveils its nukes count

Top stories from the Russian press on Tuesday, May 25th

Kommersant: West slaps new sanctions on Belarus after Ryanair plane’s forced landing

The forced landing in Minsk of a Vilnius-bound Ryanair plane that left Greece on May 23 due to a bomb threat, which later turned out to be a false alarm, was the main issue discussed at the EU summit that kicked off in Brussels on Monday evening. The forced landing and the arrest of opposition figure Roman Protasevich, who was among the passengers, showed that it is possible that Belarusian-EU relations can go from bad to worse. With the conclusion of the summit’s first day, EU leaders approved a political decision to ban flights of Belarusian air carriers to the EU. Besides, they called on European airlines to avoid flying over the territory of the CIS member state, Kommersant reports.

Russia, which expects a visit from Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko on May 28, was the only country to stand up for Belarus. Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said that the detention of Roman Protasevich is a domestic affair of the neighboring country.

Meanwhile, Belarusian observers have made pessimistic predictions about the situation. "The message of the government is simple: any actions against the state, or against Lukashenko, will have consequences. Protasevich does not pose a threat right now, but there is a psychological factor," Founder and Director of the Minsk Dialogue Council on International Relations Yevgeny Preigerman told the newspaper, adding that as the co-founders of the Nexta Telegram channel, Protasevich and his colleague Stepan Putilo coordinated the protests during their hottest phase. "Their actions were deliberate, and they are on a special list," the expert said.

Political analyst Artem Shreibman pointed out that so far, it is too early to say how deep the current crisis in the relations between Belarus and its Western neighbors will go. "This is an unprecedented crisis, and it’s hard to evaluate it as it is still unfolding. Of course, Minsk will become even more toxic on the international stage. The only question is how deep this toxicity will go."

Shreibman sees Protasevich’s detention as Lukashenko’s signal to all his adversaries. "With this arrest, he is saying that his only goal today is to punish his political adversaries, whom he considers terrorists and extremists. All other considerations with regards to its global reputation and relations with the West are irrelevant or relevant to a very small extent. The main lesson to be learned from the recent events is that there are no more domestic limits for extremely repressive and defiant actions. Absolutely anything can happen," the expert told Kommersant.


Vedomosti: Russia publishes strategic offensive weapon count for second time in 10 years

The Russian Foreign Ministry published a statement on its website on May 24, in which it presented the amount of strategic offensive weapons owned by Russia and the US declared within the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) as of March 1, 2021. Such publications are stipulated by the treaty, with the US State Department presenting its data twice a year, most recently in March 2021, Vedomosti reports. However, the Russian side did not use this opportunity often, publishing the weapon count only once before, in 2018, when the countries reached the maximum amount established by the accord.

In its statement, the Russian Foreign Ministry questions the US’ full adherence to the treaty. The ministry stated that the amount of 800 operational and non-operational ICBMs, SLBM launchers and heavy bombers declared by Washington was achieved not just due to the real US arms reduction but also due to the unilateral exclusion of 56 Trident II SLBM launchers and 41 B-52H heavy bombers from the armaments declared under the treaty.

Besides, the US had renamed four missile-launching facilities used for training, in order to fit into the category of "training facilities" not specified in the New START, refusing to declare them under the deal as non-operational ICBM launchers. Thus, the allowed count under the accord has been exceeded by 101 units, the ministry claimed.

Before this, Russia had not published almost any data about its adherence to New START, possibly due to the traditionally high level of secrecy in this sphere, revealed Dmitry Stefanovich, an expert with the Russian Council on International Affairs in an interview with Vedomosti. Perhaps, the decision to publish this information was tied to the fact that someone decided to reiterate Russia’s claims to the US regarding its adherence to New START, which have remained the same since 2018, he continued.

However, it is important to note that these claims are not qualified as a breach of the treaty by the US, and some of the claims may have been lifted if not for the mutual inspections that had to be suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Stefanovich added. It can be hoped that Russia’s publications of New START adherence data will continue and that it will include information on launcher types: this material is published by the US, but it has never been publicly declared by Russia, the analyst concluded.


Izvestia: US, Iran determined to move ahead towards resolving nuke deal, says Russian envoy

All participants of the Vienna talks on the revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on the Iranian nuclear program, including the US and Iran, plan to move towards regulation of this issue without additional delays, Russia’s Permanent Representative to International Organizations in Vienna Mikhail Ulyanov said in an interview with Izvestia.

According to him, Russia and its JCPOA colleagues expect that the talks will conclude "in early June or at least by mid-June, so that the Iranian presidential election does not create any problems around the negotiation process." "Time will tell whether we will be able to do it. On the whole, the attitude of all delegations, including the American and the Iranian ones, is good. What’s more, there is a desire to move forward without additional delays. On May 25, the fifth round will begin, which, we hope, will be the final one and will lead to reaching an agreement on the JCPOA," Ulyanov said.

The envoy told the paper that it is important to conclude the negotiations before the election in Iran set for June 18, as "a new space of political uncertainty" may open up after the vote, which will make the talks more difficult.

The participants of the face-to-face negotiations in Vienna since early April have noted steady progress in their work. Experts within three working groups are hammering out the text of a future agreement with the aim of renewing adherence to the JCPOA: the lifting of Washington’s sanctions against Iran (and the future return of the US to the deal), and Iran’s adherence to its nuclear obligations.


Nezavisimaya Gazeta: US intelligence pitting WHO against China

The annual session of World Health Assembly kicked off in Geneva in an online format, with a special focus on the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the dispute regarding access to vaccines triggered disagreements not only between the developing and developed world, but also between Western countries, Nezavisimaya Gazeta reports. The situation is also worsened by Washington’s campaign seeking to prove that the virus first appeared at a lab in China’s Wuhan.

During the session, WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called on vaccine-producing countries to voluntarily hand over their technology and patents to other states, first and foremost developing ones. Chinese President Xi Jinping said that Beijing approved the handover of technology from Chinese vaccine producers to developing states. For its part, the US administration also agreed earlier to waive intellectual property rights for COVID-19 jabs. A final decision will be made by the end of the year during the talks within the World Trade Organization.

If there is no agreement reached on this and other issues, the WHO risks becoming "a paper tiger," Swiss media outlets cited by Nezavisimaya Gazeta point out. This option is not ruled out, given the tensions between China and Washington, with US intelligence sending an unpublished report to the Wall Street Journal, which claims that in November 2019, three researchers working at the Wuhan Institute of Virology became seriously ill and were rushed to the hospital. However, the report does not prove that the researchers were infected with the novel coronavirus.

Many virologists think that the virus first began circulating in Wuhan in November 2019. Beijing informs that the first official case of COVID-19 was registered on December 8. However, the Wuhan Institute of Virology did not provide the WHO delegation that visited Wuhan in January-February with the unredacted reports on the institute’s work with bats and the research safety dossiers. This gives some experts reason to claim that the virus "escaped" from the lab somehow, the paper says.

Meanwhile, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Zhao Lijian said that the reports of three employees of the Wuhan Institute of Virology becoming sick in November 2019 are not true. Beijing also recalled that the WHO delegation deemed the version about the virus escaping from the lab as a highly unlikely one.

In this regard, Head of the HSE Department of International Relations Alexander Lukin told Nezavisimaya Gazeta: "I think that the WHO, which didn’t receive all the necessary documents, may request an additional investigation, and additional documents. The Chinese will refuse to provide them, and this is how things will end. However, unfriendly states will continue to criticize China. What is strange is that both American and British specialists cooperated with the Wuhan lab. Why China refuses to let them into the lab and give them documents is completely unclear," he mused.


Izvestia: Disposable face masks sales in Russia down 61% in a year

The sales of disposable masks in Russia have gone down by 61%, with a reported decrease in the sales of protective gloves (by 65%) and sanitizers (by 29%) as well, the Check Index analytical resource informed Izvestia. As summer nears, Russians are purchasing individual protection items more rarely, experts note. People who became immune to COVID-19 (naturally or through vaccination) think that they no longer need masks, however, they are mistaken, doctors warn. Meanwhile, the demand for reusable masks has grown 12.6 times compared to April 2020, the press service of AliExpress Russia told the paper.

In May 2020, people were panic-buying individual protection means, stocking up on masks, as there was little information about the novel coronavirus, Alexey Pozdnyakov, chief physician of Invitro-Siberia, told Izvestia. However, the public’s attitude has changed since then, he added. "Right now, people switch to reusable masks more often, understanding that this protective measure is here to stay regardless of the epidemiological situation," he said.

From a medical viewpoint, the lowered demand for masks can be explained by the rising number of people with immunity, who are buying fewer individual protection means, simply using masks to conform to societal norms, Pozdnyakov explained.

However, such carelessness can be dangerous, Chief of the Laboratory Department at Hadassah Medical Moscow Lubov Stankevich stressed. "We see that the pandemic hasn’t gone anywhere judging by the patients coming into the clinic and the conducted tests. However, many vaccinated persons stop wearing masks and social distancing. It is important to remember that no vaccine gives a 100% guarantee, and if a person was sick a year ago, they are at risk of contracting the disease again. So, masks should still be worn in public places," she told the paper.

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