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Press review: What we know about Omicron and EU vows retaliation against Lukashenko

Top stories from the Russian press on Monday, November 29th

Kommersant: US, EU try to decide on strategy for Russia

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken embarked on a tour of Europe with the main goal of discussing the situation regarding European security, aggravated by the escalation around Ukraine and the migration crisis along the EU’s borders. According to The Wall Street Journal, at a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Riga, the United States will offer its allies to choose one of two models of relations with Moscow: either an exacerbation that raises the threat of a military conflict, or a decrease in NATO's military activity in Europe. Some allies are demanding increased pressure on Moscow, but Washington would prefer to reduce the risk of confrontation with Russia, Kommersant writes.

One of the scenarios that Kiev, as well as Poland, and the Baltic states are counting on, assumes a further escalation of the situation. This scenario would require strengthening the defense potential of Ukraine, increasing supplies of air defense systems to Kiev and other military assistance, as well as the introduction of new tough sanctions against Russia. The second one is a softer scenario that envisions a rollback in the alliance's military activity near Russia’s borders, which this year has reached an unprecedented scale, Kommersant writes. This scenario calls for limiting military exercises in Europe, suspending military aid to Ukraine, and returning to the Minsk agreements.

"The article in The Wall Street Journal should be seen as a hint to the most radical European allies that Washington’s plans do not include a ‘small victorious war’ in southeastern Ukraine, which after Afghanistan may turn into a European fiasco for the United States. This position is also determined by the state of the US economy. In November, the situation on the stock market deteriorated sharply: the Dow Jones index sank by almost 900 points," Chief Research Fellow at the Institute for the US and Canadian Studies Vladimir Vasiliev explained to Kommersant.

US experts also do not believe in the possibility of a radical increase in sanctions pressure on Moscow, Kommersant writes. Director of the New York Center for Foreign Policy Affairs Justin Russell told the newspaper it is unlikely that the US and its allies will be able to come up with any serious measures. European partners are too dependent on Russia, and the United States does not have the leverage to contain it either, he added.


Vedomosti: What do we know about the new Omicron coronavirus variant

First identified in South Africa, the new Omicron coronavirus variant has caused global concern. On November 26, experts from the World Health Organization (WHO) discussed it at an emergency meeting. Omicron has not yet been officially identified in Russia, but its appearance could become a much more serious test for its people and the Russian economy than the Delta variant discovered at the end of June 2021, which is now prevalent in the country, Vedomosti writes.

Molecular biologist Irina Yakutenko told Vedomosti that Omicron’s potential resistance to the immunity of those who were vaccinated or have already had coronavirus is the main concern of scientists. Preliminary evidence also shows that it may be more contagious than other variants, she added.

Federation Council member Vladimir Krugly believes that the new variant could have already reached Russia, he told Vedomosti. The source could be Russians who returned from Egypt, he added.

The Russian headquarters for combating coronavirus have decided to restrict the entry of citizens from African states into Russia, as well as from Hong Kong starting from November 28. In the coming days, the headquarters will receive reports on the effectiveness of vaccines and other preventive measures against the new variant, a federal official told Vedomosti. Sources in aviation and travel companies told Vedomosti that they have not yet received news about suspending flights to any new countries.

According to Yakutenko, it is not yet clear whether a new round of vaccination will be required. Specialists from the Gamaleya Center will test the effectiveness of Sputnik V against the new variant as soon as they receive a sample.


Nezavisimaya Gazeta: EU not abandoning plans to retaliate against Lukashenko for migrant crisis

The migrant crisis on the Belarus-EU border has subsided. European diplomats were able to guarantee that the arrival of potential illegal immigrants was stopped and evacuation flights have started. Meanwhile, Alexander Lukashenko is still trying to mobilize migrants who still remain in Belarus, which will keep the tension simmering for some time, Nezavisimaya Gazeta writes. Last Friday, he visited a migrant camp and promised that he would support them to get into the EU.

Lukashenko’s intention to scare Europe is understandable, but hardly feasible, political scientist Valery Karbalevich told the newspaper. "The transit is virtually blocked, there are no new migrants. <…> Lukashenko still has, so to speak, this one trump card of 2,000 refugees at the border camp," he said.

The expert emphasized that the Belarusian leader himself was not responsible for scaling back the border tensions. "The migrant crisis is dying down because the European Union has begun to talk seriously with the governments and airlines of the Middle East countries that bring migrants to Belarus," he told the newspaper.

So far, Europe has withstood the migrant blackmail and has not sat down at the negotiating table with the Belarusian head of state. However, "Lukashenko won to some extent in this situation", Karbalevich believes, saying that the leader of Belarus has indeed taken revenge on his neighbors by creating a serious problem and also managed to change the agenda - "the world is not discussing repression in Belarus, but the migrant crisis at the border," the expert said.

Meanwhile, the EU has been threatening to introduce its fifth package of sanctions since mid-summer. According to Lithuania’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Gabrielius Landsbergis, the restrictions will still be approved, and this may happen as soon as December 1.


Kommersant: Pandemic strikes Russian stock market

International investors began to massively shed their investments in the Russian stock market. Over the past week, they took out $210 mln, the maximum volume since April 2020, Kommersant writes. Interest in investing in stocks has declined worldwide amid a worsening epidemiological situation in Europe and the emergence of a new coronavirus variant. At the same time, rising geopolitical risks against the background of aggravated relations between Russia and the West had a major impact on the outflow of funds, the newspaper writes.

The declining interest in Russian stocks is occurring against the backdrop of a general global decline in risk appetite. The past week was difficult for the stock markets, especially after the new Omicron coronavirus variant was added to the previously known inflationary fears, Managing Partner of Amber Lion Partners Ilya Sushkov told Kommersant. The risk-aversion of investors also affected oil prices, which put additional pressure on the Russian market.

According to Tatiana Simonova, who heads the investment consulting department of General Invest, global investors do not like geopolitical risks very much, and recently the Biden administration and its NATO partners started discussing possible restrictions on the purchase of Russian hydrocarbons.

Possible threats to herd immunity and fears of new restrictions are creating additional pressure on risky assets, which will hinder the flow of investment to Russia. If it turns out that the new strain is resistant to existing protection, the reaction of the markets could take a sharp negative turn, she added.


Vedomosti: Can Russia adopt mandatory QR codes before February 1?

Russian lawmakers might not pass laws on mandatory QR codes in public places and transport before the end of 2021, a source the State Duma Committee on Health Protection told Vedomosti. According to the proposed amendments, starting from February 1 to June 1, 2022, all adults will be required to present QR codes documenting either vaccination against COVID-19 or a past diagnosis, or a medical exemption certificate to visit most public places. A transition period until February 1 will be set. The exact list of places requiring QR codes will be determined by local governors.

The first reading of both bills is now scheduled for December 16. A source in the State Duma leadership told Vedomosti that the laws can be fully adopted after the New Year. "The first reading will pass, after that, the initiative will be distributed to other subjects of a legislative initiative to collect amendments, it will take a month, and after that, the second reading will take place - in January," the source said. The pause between the second and third readings will be less than a month, so the laws will most likely be adopted by February 1, the source added.

"These are high-profile laws, everyone understands that they are needed," the source emphasized, but it would take time to "convince people".

Secretary of the Civic Chamber Lidia Mikheeva said that the chamber proposes to soften some norms. For example, allow people to buy train or plane tickets without QR codes in emergencies and also include hospitals in the list of places that do not require QR codes.

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