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Press review: Russia, Central Asia to hold drills and can Ukraine seek German compensation

Top stories from the Russian press on Thursday, July 15th

Izvestia: Russia, Central Asian republics to hold series of drills on Afghan border

In the coming months, Russia and the Central Asian republics will hold a series of joint exercises on the Afghan border. Russia will be represented by motorized infantry and mountain units, air mobile units, special purpose squadrons, aviation and artillery, as well as air defense forces. At the upcoming maneuvers, the troops will practice eliminating illegal armed units as well as countering destabilization attempts in the republics. According to experts, in modern conditions, the troops should be ready to repel an incursion of extremists from Afghanistan, Izvestia writes.

"The threat in the region is very pressing now since the situation in Afghanistan is spiraling out of control," military expert Vladislav Shurygin told the newspaper. "Despite the established contacts with the Taliban (terror group outlawed in Russia), we should fully prepare military structures, including the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), for being ready to repel any threats from this direction. The announced series of drills is aimed at practicing cooperation between the SCO countries’ armed forces and all possible scenarios. The idea is to switch to a new level of combat readiness - not one where Afghanistan is under weak control of the US, but a situation when a de facto boiling volcano is nearby.

According to Shurygin, a possible Taliban incursion into the Central Asian republics is not the main threat. "The incursions of those units, which will be fleeing from them, are more dangerous," the expert explained. "They may try to survive on the territory of the Central Asian republics or hastily capture some areas and redeploy their permanent bases there. We need to practice maneuvers by forces and means, and skills to quickly redeploy additional groupings to the region."

Colonel Valeriy Yuryev, Chairman of the Central Council of the Paratroopers' Union of Russia, believes that the upcoming drills are first of all a demonstration of force. "They are aimed at showing that we have sufficient capabilities. The second task is to organize cooperation with Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, if in fact the situation in the region critically deteriorates," he explained. The expert notes that although during the first year after the US troop pullout from Afghanistan an attack on the Central Asian republics from this country’s soil is unlikely, later extremists could try to test the borders for strength.


Nezavisimaya Gazeta: Biden seeks thaw in relations with China

US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman is due to meet with Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng in the city of Tianjin next week. The visit is expected to pave the way for talks between US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Although the White House has branded China a key potential adversary, Biden believes that face-to-face contact will clarify on which issues the sides would find common ground and where it would not. According to experts, the Chinese and US leaders could meet either in a bilateral format or at a G20 conference. In any case, Sherman’s choice for testing the waters is not a coincidence: she is more a dove than a hawk on the issue of China.

Deputy Director for Scientific Work at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of World Economy and International Relations Alexander Lomanov told Nezavisimaya Gazeta that a Chinese-US summit is unlikely to take place soon. "First of all, there is no certainty that the G20 meeting in Rome will be face-to-face. Second, the sides have so far failed to find a new agenda," the expert said.

The first high-level meeting of the Biden administration and Beijing in Alaska this March, showed that Washington seeks the same authority and influence like 10 years ago, whereas China has survived the pandemic, becoming more self-confident. "Therefore, this will be a summit, where the sides can only outline problems, while it will be very difficult to solve them. No tangible results should be expected, except for the issue of climate and the fight against cyber crimes (if the Americans are ready for this)," Lomanov said. The old informal agreement, when the US respected the Communist Party’s rule in China, and Beijing, in its turn, did not try to dismantle the US-led world order, is not being observed anymore. Partially, the reason for this is what Donald Trump did, when he started energetically exerting pressure on China. "No matter what, it’s very difficult to return to the previous relationship," the expert said.

The expert’s conclusion was confirmed by a virtual meeting between the US and ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations), where US Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated that Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea were illegal. Since the control over major sea routes and oil and gas resources is at stake, the prospect of easing the US-Chinese standoff is not on the horizon.


Izvestia: What awaits Ukraine in its gamble for a new long-term fuel transit deal

Moscow is ready for dialogue with Kiev on further gas transit. However, Chairman of the State Duma’s (lower house) Energy Committee Pavel Zavalny believes that these talks should be held on an equal basis and not from a position of force or through blackmail, which the Ukrainian leadership resorts to. Amid the imminent launch of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, Ukraine has started demanding guarantees for further pumping of Russian fuel through its territory. In particular, it suggests signing a new contract with Russia for 15 years. Kiev expects some clarity on guarantees after the July 15 meeting between the German and US leaders.

Experts told Izvestia that Kiev’s demand to sign a new long-term contract could have a boomerang effect for Ukraine. "From my point of view, this is insolent, and this will backfire on Ukraine," said Deputy General Director of Russia's National Energy Security Fund Alexei Grivach. "Transit through Ukraine’s system is possible but only in the framework of trilateral commercial agreements. If there is insufficient demand for Russian natural gas in Europe, no one will use it and pay for transit through Ukraine. And if no artificial restrictions emerge, Ukrainian transit may be in demand also in case Nord Stream 2 is fully loaded," he noted.

According to the expert, the best solution for Kiev would be signing a contract with Moscow on the import of Russian gas. Otherwise, Ukrainians will keep paying extra money for purchasing it from European traders, Grivach pointed out. "However, I’m afraid that it will be hard to reach this format of cooperation."

Some German mass media outlets voiced an idea that Berlin could pay compensation to Kiev, should Ukraine cease to be a transit country. "In my view, there can be no talk about compensation payments from Germany to Ukraine, they should not be expected from German taxpayers," said Klaus Ernst, who chairs the Bundestag Committee on Economics and Energy. "It is absolutely unacceptable that Germany pursues its energy policy in order to meet Ukraine’s interests."


Nezavisimaya Gazeta: Lukashenko cracks down on Belarusian elite ahead of referendum

A new wave of searches and detentions has swept Belarus. Wednesday was a ‘rainy day’ for public organizations in the country. Experts believe that this is a response by the authorities to Europe’s sanctions and groundwork for a constitutional referendum. Human rights activists claim the major task in Belarus is to stamp out all dissidents.

"The key goal of the authorities is to eliminate the political, cultural and national counter-elite in Belarus. The elite that comes up with alternative ideas," political scientist Pavel Usov told Nezavisimaya Gazeta. He also shares the idea that President Alexander Lukashenko won’t stop here. "After destroying the elite, the authorities will start exerting pressure on the private community, which was a social basis for the revolutionary movement in Belarus," the expert said.

Political scientist Igor Tyshkevich believes that by cracking down on civil society, the authorities are getting ready for a referendum on the Constitution. "For the authorities it is very important to have only two options at the future referendum: an old Constitution by Lukashenko or a new Constitution by Lukashenko." In any case, the authorities will say: "people support the president." So, the goal is to prevent even the possibility of any other options. It is necessary to get rid of human rights activists so that nobody finds out about the repressions or possible protests, the expert noted.

However, given the current development of technologies it will be impossible to fully purge the media and discussion space. At the same time, Lukashenko’s opponents claim that the repressions won’t force Europe to cancel sanctions.

Ahead of the ‘black Wednesday,’ Lukashenko visited Russia and met with President Vladimir Putin. Many experts and activists see a direct link between these events. "I think there could be a connection between the internal repressions and the activity of Russia’s special services and security structures in Belarusian zone," Usov noted.


Kommersant: OPEC+ close to approving new terms

OPEC+ countries are getting closer to a compromise with the UAE that blocked agreements on new production levels. Abu Dhabi may receive a higher production baseline from April 2022 if the deal is extended until the end of next year. Initially, the OPEC+ members were inclined to increase production by 2 mln barrels a day (bpd) before the end of 2021 but the decision and the official meeting date have not yet been announced.

OPEC+ made progress at unofficial talks with the UAE on the terms for the second half of 2021 and 2022. According to Reuters, Saudi Arabia agreed to a higher baseline for the UAE of 3.65 mln bpd instead of 3.17 mln bpd after the effective agreement expires. Such a compromise is possible if all OPEC+ members concur on extending the deal until the end of next year, but this has not yet been announced. The UAE’s Energy Ministry did not comment on the agreements with Saudi Arabia but stressed that they have not yet been reached at the OPEC+ level.

The UAE is an important OPEC member and Riyadh thought it was easier to make concessions to partners rather than threaten the existence of the entire alliance, according to Fitch expert Dmitry Marinchenko. It is highly likely that other countries will follow suit.

According to Darya Kozlova of Vygon Consulting, the demand may grow by 2-3 mln bpd by the year’s end, thus OPEC+ members have to react to market demand, otherwise the deficit may grow to 4 mln bpd, which will affect prices and the post-crisis economic recovery. Anna Kishmariya of Aton points out that other countries may also ask to review their quotas. According to BCS World of Investments expert Igor Galaktionov, the most likely scenario with the UAE receiving a slightly lesser concession than it is bargaining for will not significantly influence oil prices. He noted that Russia could support the decision since it was one of the mediators at the talks.

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