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Press review: Is Biden backing away from Ukraine and Moscow seeks original Iran nuke deal

Top stories from the Russian press on Tuesday, December 14th
US President Joe Biden EPA-EFE/SHAWN THEW
US President Joe Biden

Kommersant: Washington playing it safe, only ready to defend Ukraine economically

Ukraine became the main topic of discussion after Russian President Vladimir Putin and his US counterpart Joe Biden met last week, for both Washington and its Euro-Atlantic allies. Now, they are looking at what limits to set for their support, after calling the situation the biggest threat to European security. Having said that, the allies have made it clear that they are going to defend Ukraine economically, and not by force. Kommersant writes that the West is urging Kiev to use restraint and search for a peaceful solution.

The White House keeps talking about possible "Russian aggression" and the need to respond to it seriously. If tough measures are taken, the United States will need the support of a number of other countries, including other G7 member states.

Earlier, the American TV network NBC, quoted sources in the Biden administration that revealed that Washington had put the brakes on sending $200 mln military aid to Ukraine. According to the source, the aid package has been under review for 3-4 weeks, and President Biden has not made a decision on it.

Mikhail Pogrebinsky, director of the Kiev Center for Political Research and Conflictology, told Kommersant that the fact that the West is rethinking its position on Ukraine after the Putin-Biden virtual summit makes perfect sense.

"The turn in the West’s position on the Ukrainian issue, after the talks between Presidents Putin and Biden, was no coincidence. Biden finally realized that Moscow will go all the way, and won’t sit back if Kiev attempts to change the status quo by force. Biden does not want to put himself in a position where he will show his inability to defend the West’s allies, like it happened in Afghanistan, so he is thinking ahead and trying to avoid a military conflict.

Moscow is also doing its best to avoid being dragged into the Ukrainian conflict, which would have a serious financial burden on it. So, neither America nor Russia want a war in the Donbass Region, and regarding the efforts to prevent it, Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden have "found themselves quite unexpectedly in the same boat," Pogrebinsky said.

Further talks on restarting the negotiation process with Ukraine will be on the agenda of Karen Donfried, US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs. She is slated to visit Kiev and Moscow on December 13-15, after which she will travel to Brussels for two-day consultations with EU representatives and NATO.

A source in the presidential administration told TASS that in Moscow, Donfried will meet with Dmitry Kozak, the deputy head of the presidential administration.


Izvestia: Russia calls for return to original nuke deal

Moscow has called on the US and Iran to restore the nuclear deal in its original form, Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia’s Permanent Representative to International Organizations in Vienna told Izvestia. According to him, the negotiations were able to resolve a misunderstanding.

However, there is mounting pressure on Tehran. Washington said that it was ready to move to "other measures" if diplomacy fails to be successful.

The seventh round of negotiations on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) began on November 29, but ended on December 3. The delegates from France, Germany and the UK went home for additional consultations.

Ulyanov explained to Izvestia, that a technical break in the negotiations was announced, because of a "serious misunderstandings between the participants".

"But on December 9-10, when the negotiations resumed again, it seems to me, we managed to overcome this misunderstanding and get back on track," he pointed out.

"Work is in progress, and it's going well. But of course, there is always the fear that a careless word or action may set off major problems again. I hope it doesn’t happen," he said.

Adlan Margoev, an analyst at the MGIMO Institute for International Studies told Izvestia that he doesn’t think that Iranians will be the first to deem the negotiations unsuccessful and call them off.

"The Iranian delegation came with tougher demands than the previous government had and this delegation is more involved in the dialogue on what concessions the United States has to make to go back to the deal. Meanwhile, Iran is building up its nuclear program to use as leverage, they will either put the program on hold, if the deal goes through, or continue to develop it if the negotiations fail, However, there is no sign that Tehran wants to abandon negotiations," Margoev said.


Vedomosti: Experts unveil upbeat growth figures for Russia’s economy in 2021

The Russian economy may exceed the government's growth forecast of 4.2% for 2021, said Economic Development Minister Maxim Reshetnikov at a meeting with European Businesses Association representatives. While Reshetnikov did not give a specific estimate, he pointed to October’s optimistic data for the improvement.

According to the Economic Ministry, October’s GDP increase amounted to 4.9% year-on-year, yet in September that same figure was 3.7%. Recently, the ministry already improved its forecast for economic growth for 2021 from 3.8 to 4.2%.

Dmitry Kulikov, director of the Group of Sovereign Ratings and Macroeconomic Analysis at ACRA told Vedomosti that so far, there are no significant preconditions for enhancing the forecast. Kulikov believes that these prerequisites are unlikely to appear before the end of 2021 and are possible only if Q1-Q3 industry data is seriously revised.

ACRA's estimates generally coincide with the latest forecasts in the base scenario, economic growth is expected to be 4.1-4.2% for the entirety of 2021, Kulikov said. The effect of the low base has already generally been exhausted, and in Q4, GDP growth will be less, about 2.9-3.4%.

Investment Director at Loko-Invest Dmitry Polevoy told Vedomosti that he anticipates a higher rate of about 4.5%. However, deviations from the original projections are not so critical, considering that the growth in 2021 is a recovery, and the update to the official data from the Russian statistics watchdog is expected to be significant, Polevoy said. The GDP growth is explained by the persistence of good growth indicators in private consumption and investment, as well export recovery of primary and non-primary goods, Polevoy explained.

In early October, the World Bank raised its forecast for Russia's 2021 GDP growth from 3.2% to 4.3%. The International Monetary Fund also improved its estimates from 4.4% to 4.7%. On December 13, Finance Minister Anton Siluanov said in an interview with TASS that Russia's GDP growth would reach 4.3-4.5% in 2021 and 3% in 2022.

Not all experts that Vedomosti spoke to are as optimistic. Chief Economist for Russia and the CIS at VTB Capital Alexander Isakov said that the group "expects growth to slow down next year to 2.5% due to recovery growth exhaustion, stricter credit conditions and the fading of the credit impulse in the bank lending retail segment," Isakov specified. According to him, the main growth drivers will be oil production and oil-related industries, like refining and manufacturing.


Nezavisimaya Gazeta: Moldova may ask Romania for military aid

Transnistria’s presidential elections were held on December 12. The fact that Russian legislators arrived in Chisinau and went there has been called a challenge to the sovereignty of the Republic of Moldova. The Reintegration Bureau of the Republic of Moldova also said that it is counterproductive for the Transnistrian settlement. The leader of the Moldovan Social Democrats, Victor Shelin, told Nezavisimaya Gazeta that Chisinau does not want to discuss the status of the region and that there will be no amicable relations between Moldovan President Maia Sandu and the leader of Transnistria.

Anatol Tsaranu, former Moldovan ambassador to Russia, told the newspaper that if the situation in Ukraine escalated, then Chisinau could turn to Romania for military aid, since Russian troops are stationed in Transnistria.

"The fact that the Russian deputies did go to Transnistria for the elections won’t add anything positive to our relations with Moscow. Chisinau, as before, does not recognize the elections in Transnistria. Negotiations on settling the Transnistrian armed conflict will be frozen. Moldova will monitor the events in Ukraine," Tsaranu said.

The leader of the Social Democratic Party of Moldova, Viktor Shelin, also believes that the situation in Moldova will depend on Ukraine. "There may be one main issue on the agenda - the status of Transnistria, but the current Moldovan authorities are not ready to discuss [this]," Shelin said.


Nezavisimaya Gazeta: EU slaps sanctions on Russian private military contractor

On December 13, the EU imposed sanctions on the Wagner Group and several people allegedly associated with it. They are accused of human rights violations in Africa and Ukraine. And the foreign ministers of EU member-states threatened Moscow with even additional harsher restrictive measures, if Russia is to use force against Ukraine. However, the Kremlin replied that the Ukrainian government is to blame for the escalation on the border and demanded to see security guarantees from the West.

The Wagner Group is facing sanctions for its work in Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic (CAR), Sudan, Mozambique and Ukraine, Nezavisimaya Gazeta writes.

The EU has said that the company seriously violated human rights while conducting business in these countries. In particular, they mean torture, extrajudicial executions and killings. Several specific episodes are mentioned that took place in Syria in 2017, in which its mercenaries were allegedly involved or otherwise responsible for the torture and murder of a Syrian deserter, the murder of three Russian journalists in the CAR in 2018, and operations against the Ukrainian military in the Donbass Region.

Ivan Timofeev, Program Director of the Russian International Affairs Council, believes that EU sanctions will not do much damage to the Wagner Group or its employees "For Wagner itself the imposed sanctions are no more than a pin prick. The group doubtfully has assets in Europe, it is unlikely that its activities have anything to do with the European Union, not being able to enter the EU is not that big of a deal to them," Timofeev noted.

TASS is not responsible for the material quoted in these press reviews