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Press review: Taliban to partake in Moscow talks and why the Pentagon chief visited Kiev

Top stories from the Russian press on Wednesday, October 20th

Media: Taliban members to represent Afghan government at Moscow consultations

On Wednesday, Moscow will host a new round of consultations on Afghanistan, which will involve representatives of the country and ten of its neighboring states. A Taliban delegation will take part in such a meeting for the first time since the terrorist organization, outlawed in Russia, seized power in Afghanistan. Another important nuance is that the United States will not take part in the consultations, Kommersant writes.

According to the Russian Foreign Ministry, the meeting's goal is "to discuss possible political and military developments in Afghanistan and prospects for the formation of an inclusive government," and there is expected to be a joint statement. Russian expert on Afghanistan Arkady Dubnov believes that the text of the statement will be a matter of a real debate. "The Taliban have managed to prove that it's possible to work with them, they are improving their ability to make agreements," Dubnov pointed out.

Meanwhile, when speaking about the situation in Afghanistan at a meeting of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) Council of Heads of States, Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed concern that members of the Islamic State terror group (outlawed in Russia), who used to fight in Iraq and Syria, were flocking to northern Afghanistan. "The issue of ISIL [the former name of the Islamic State group] and in general, any armed militant groups along the CIS borders is what concerns Moscow the most," Head of the Center for Contemporary Afghan Studies Andrei Serenko told Izvestia. According to him, the Taliban are depicting clashes with the anti-Taliban resistance as their fight against terrorists," while there is no fight against ISIL in Afghanistan's north, which is what Russia is interested in."

Besides, in the expert's words, Deputy Prime Minister Abdul Salam Hanafi, who will lead the Taliban delegation, is not a very influential figure and cannot provide any guarantees. Clearly, this is why Moscow does not expect much from the upcoming consultations. Russian Special Presidential Envoy Zamir Kabulov admitted that Russia did not expect any breakthroughs from the Moscow meeting.


Vedomosti: No new US sanctions in sight for Russia

The Biden administration will overhaul its approach to sanctions as a foreign policy tool. According to the US authorities, economic restrictions have proved effective but need to be calibrated. However, it is too early to talk about any significant improvement in economic relations between Moscow and Washington and the lifting of existing sanctions, Vedomosti notes.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the decision to revise Washington's position on sanctions is based on a nine-month audit of Washington’s policy of sanctions, led by the Department of the Treasury. Based on a new approach, the US authorities will pay more attention to the unintended harm that sanctions may cause vulnerable groups. According to the newspaper, the Biden administration will more closely coordinate restrictions with friendly states. This is the way the White House seeks to kill two birds with one stone, both reducing discontent among allies and preventing attempts to circumvent sanctions.

The paper points out that over the past 20 years, the number of US sanctions on governments, officials and companies increased ten-fold. The failures of the policy of sanctions against Iran, Venezuela and North Korea have particularly prompted the current US authorities overhaul the policy, the Wall Street Journal noted.

The US president seeks to move away from his predecessor Donald Trump's legacy, whose policy of sanctions considerably tarnished America’s reputation around the world, Research Fellow at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute for US and Canadian Studies Pavel Koshkin emphasized. Biden's move can be viewed as an effort to revive US diplomacy, particularly in terms of dealing with an unfriendly Russia and Iran. Biden does not seem willing to make any radical changes, Valdai Discussion Club Program Director Ivan Timofeev stressed. There are no plans to lift the existing restrictions, so in the best-case scenario, Moscow will have to make do with the absence of new ones, the expert concluded.


Kommersant: Pentagon chief gets Kiev's hopes up

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, who is currently on a tour of post-Soviet countries and Eastern Europe, has made a stop in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev. His talks with Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky and Defense Minister Andrei Taran gave a new impetus to bilateral defense cooperation. The focus of the Kiev meetings was on security issues in the Black Sea region that are common to Ukraine, Georgia and Romania, which are the destinations of Austin's trip, Kommersant writes.

The Pentagon chief’s visit to Kiev came shortly after a series of large-scale Ukraine-NATO drills, which took place in the former Soviet nation in the past 12 months and reached their peak this fall. The Ukrainian port city of Odessa hosted the Unbreakable Stability exercise on September 13-20, which, according to Kiev, was aimed "at ensuring the safety of critical infrastructure on the Black Sea."

Ukraine's defense cooperation with the US and NATO was stepped up following the ascent of Joe Biden and his administration to the White House in January and the Verkhovna Rada's passing of a bill that made it possible for foreign troops to enter Ukraine to participate in drills. The bill was later signed by President Zelensky.

"Lloyd Austin's mission in Kiev and Tbilisi was to assure Ukraine and Georgia of the United States' unconditional support for them and to boost their confidence in Washington as a reliable ally, which was shattered by the Afghan fiasco," Senior Research Fellow at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute for US and Canadian Studies Vladimir Vasilyev pointed out.

According to the expert, the United States seeks to increase its military presence in the Black Sea region. "Constant statements about NATO's doors being open to both Ukraine and Georgia, and at the same time, unwillingness to provide membership to them, create a one-way street situation where these countries have obligations to NATO but don't have any rights. The NATO accession of Ukraine and Georgia would de jure provide them with rights with regard to relations with their Western allies but neither Washington nor Brussels is interested in that," the expert emphasized.


Izvestia: Energy shift to cost Russia billions of dollars

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Andrei Belousov has announced that the shift to a green energy grid will cost the country 90 trillion rubles ($1.3 trillion). The plan is to take the money from major companies rather than from the state budget, Izvestia writes.

Executive Director of the Capital Market Department at Univer Capital Artem Tuzov pointed out that investment in a carbon-neutral economy first and foremost means the need to upgrade thermal power plants so that they can run on gas and hydrogen instead of coal and fuel oil. "Once the energy they produce turns green, it will be possible to develop vehicles running on gas and hydrogen as an alternative to those using diesel fuel and gasoline. Eventually, the plan will be close to what the European Union is doing because it's the carbon tax that the EU plans to introduce that is the the economic driver behind these innovations," the analyst noted.

"The energy shift will not only cost Russia a lot of money that corporations will have to pay but it will also require a remodeling of the entire fuel and energy complex," WMT Consult Managing Partner Ekaterina Kosareva said.

The EU's desire to ensure the energy shift and decarbonization has created the current energy crisis, Tuzov stressed. "Once coal and fuel oil power generation had been made costly and partially shut down, and the wind and sun renewables had failed to ensure uninterrupted power supplies, the demand for gas skyrocketed, along with gas prices, and it eventually turned out that it's more cost-effective to use coal for power generation than gas, even after paying fines," the expert explained.

Games like these are probably acceptable in the EU, where the climate is warmer, but in Russia, energy security is a matter of survival, Tuzov added. "This is why the shift to a carbon-neutral economy should not be the government's top priority. Still, the global political consensus on the green shift is inevitably pushing Russia towards participating in the process," the analyst noted.


Media: Russia tightening measures to fight coronavirus

On Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin and cabinet members will discuss an initiative to declare non-working days on October 30 through November 7 as part of efforts to fight the coronavirus. Yesterday, Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin instructed people over the age of 60 and those suffering from chronic diseases to stay at home and employers to move at least 30% of their staff to remote work. Infectious disease experts believe that these measures can slow down the spread of the virus, Kommersant notes.

The timing of new steps to combat COVID-19 is not random. On October 19, Russia recorded 1,015 coronavirus deaths, the highest daily number since the beginning of the pandemic, and the daily number of new cases stood at 33,970. At the same time, according to the US-based Johns Hopkins University, Russia is in 96th place globally in terms of vaccination rates per 100,000 people.

The move to declare non-working days may prove effective in regions that are reporting a spike in cases and hospitalizations, infectious disease expert Andrei Pozdnyakov told Vedomosti. Epidemiologist Eduard Shunkov agrees that it's possible to take the number of new cases down provided that no mass events are held on the non-working days and people comply with preventive measures. However, vaccination is the only way to reverse the negative trend, Pozdnyakov pointed out.

Infectious disease expert Ilya Akinfiyev told Kommersant, that since the start of the pandemic, the need for new restrictions had been based on the number of occupied hospital beds. According to the health minister, 255,000 out of 274,000 hospital beds for coronavirus patients are currently occupied in Russia. According to Akinfiyev, the proposed "vacation" will hardly help prevent new infections but it can "slow down the process" and ease the burden on the healthcare system. Director of the Institute for Interdisciplinary Medical Research at the European University Anton Barchuk, who shares the opinion, pointed out: "Measures that reduce the number of contacts are always effective."

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