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Press review: EU leaders poised for Brussels' meeting and Hersh hits out at Scholz

Top stories from the Russian press on Thursday, March 23rd

MOSCOW, March 23. /TASS/. EU leaders prepare for a meeting in Brussels to discuss additional weapons supplies to Ukraine, Seymour Hersh accuses German Chancellor Olaf Scholz of aiding the Nord Stream explosions in his latest article, and Western allies rush a Ukrainian counteroffensive. These stories topped Thursday’s newspaper headlines across Russia.


Kommersant: EU leaders gear up for summit in Brussels

At a meeting in Brussels on March 23, EU leaders are expected to approve plans to supply Ukraine with 1 mln pieces of artillery ammunition. However, the Ukrainian topic on the agenda of the European Council is not limited to shells - the meeting’s participants will discuss the situation regarding the issuance of an arrest warrant for the Russian President by the International Criminal Court (ICC), and will touch upon the issue of the implementation of the grain deal, Kommersant writes. Ukraine's President Vladimir Zelensky will address the meeting's attendees via video link.

The agenda for the two-day event in Brussels is expected to be tight. The EU leaders will debate the state of the European economy, problems in the energy sector, including high resource prices and a gradual reduction of dependence on Russian fossil fuel, as well as a variety of other issues. The main subject, however, will be the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. President of the European Council Charles Michel noted in an invitation letter to meeting participants that since the last summit of heads of state and government in February, politicians and officials have been working to urgently scale up production and delivery of ammunition to Ukraine.

Although this means conventional artillery shells, the fact that EU states have banded together to solve the problem of their scarcity (both in the Armed Forces of Ukraine and in member countries' warehouses) is unusual for an organization that has traditionally left defense issues to national governments, Kommersant writes. And in the next two days, the EU leaders will have to make a final decision on this historic step, which would raise the defense component of the Alliance to a new level.

Meanwhile, Moscow has repeatedly stated that supplying weapons to Kiev only serves to escalate the conflict, and that sanctions against Russia are counterproductive. Furthermore, as Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova recently stated, achieving long-term peace will be impossible unless "all illegal sanctions and lawsuits against Russia in international courts are lifted."


Vedomosti: Seymour Hersh accuses Scholz of hiding truth about Nord Stream explosions

American journalist Seymour Hersh released a new article on his Substack account accusing German Chancellor Olaf Scholz of aiding US efforts to cover up its possible participation in the Nord Stream gas pipeline explosions in September 2022. According to him, his first publication on February 8 elicited a response in Germany and other European nations but was not picked up by the US media. At the same time, the White House and the CIA denied any involvement in the plot, Vedomosti writes.

The New York Times and the German daily Die Zeit reported on March 7 that a Ukrainian or pro-Ukrainian group may have blown up the Nord Stream and Nord Stream 2 gas pipelines. According to US officials in the know, the saboteurs were most likely Ukrainians, Russians, or both.

Hersh points out that these articles were released following Scholz's March 3 visit to the White House. The journalist believes the articles were an attempt by US and German intelligence agencies to organize a cover-up for the true perpetrators. Scholz, according to the reporter, has also been assisting the US presidential administration in concealing the operation in the Baltic Sea since at least last fall. At the same time, he noted that it is still unclear whether the German leader was aware of the sabotage ahead of time.

According to Artem Sokolov, researcher at the Center for European Studies at the Institute for International Studies at MGIMO, the meeting between Scholz and Biden was held behind closed doors, making it impossible to discuss its true nature. Objectively, the current international situation necessitates a variety of negotiations, particularly between the leaders of Germany and the United States, the world's two biggest economies. Meanwhile, the version involving Ukrainian saboteurs did not receive much support in the German media, failing to gain any traction from the very start, the expert noted.


Nezavisimaya Gazeta: Western allies rush Ukrainian counteroffensive

Washington revealed plans to expedite the delivery of Abrams tanks and Patriot air defense systems to Kiev, while UK Minister of State for Defense Annabel Goldie announced the transfer of armor-piercing shells containing depleted uranium to Ukraine's Armed Forces. Western partners are rushing to arm Ukraine before the final decisive battle against the backdrop of a shift in the balance of power on the front as well as in the international arena, in connection with China stating its position on strategic partnership with Russia, experts told Nezavisimaya Gazeta. However, even in such circumstances, Ukrainian Armed Forces may be asked to accelerate the promised counteroffensive.

Editor-in-chief of Arsenal of the Fatherland magazine Alexey Leonkov told the newspaper that reports about the Russian military's impending offensive were a deliberate attempt to get Moscow to finally reveal when they planned to start an attack. "But we're not going to reveal anything. One of the keys to success is the surprise factor, which expands the possibility of securing a strategic initiative," Leonkov said. According to him, the overall improvement of the situation is also facilitated by a shift in the balance of power on the front as well as recent events on the international arena stemming from China showing its desire for a strategic partnership with Russia during Xi Jinping's visit to Moscow.

With this in mind, Lieutenant-General Igor Romanenko, former Deputy Chief of the General Staff of Ukraine's Armed Forces, admitted that there are objective reasons for Czech President Petr Pavel’s recent comments about Ukraine having a chance for a successful counteroffensive only this year. Nonetheless, he expressed confidence that a counteroffensive will take place.


Izvestia: Russia's Mercedes plant may launch production of Chinese cars

The assembly of "Chinese Rolls-Royces" may begin at the Mercedes plant in the Moscow region, according to Izvestia. The new owner, Avtodom dealer, is contemplating this option, having previously stated its plans to start producing high-end cars from China at the site, without specifying the brands. Two industry sources told the newspaper the plan might be to start making Hongqi brand cars. Initially, this manufacturer only produced luxury vehicles for China's political elite, but later it started to offer them to the general public. However, experts believe that the Chinese will have to work on building the company’s brand in Russia.

Two Izvestia sources in the automobile industry said that apart from Hongqi, there are no other notable brands in the premium segment in China. According to one insider, crossovers could be the first to go into production. One of them, the HS5, was already certified in Russia at the end of 2022. The H9 sedan, the flagship model, has also been approved.

According to a third source in one of the Russian manufacturers, negotiations on the possible start of production are underway not only with Hongqi, but also with its parent state-owned holding FAW (First Automobile Works), the oldest Chinese automaker.

Russia's premium car market looks attractive after the departure of Western players, but Chinese brands will not completely replace the more familiar BMW, Mercedes and others any time soon, Project Manager at SBS Consulting Dmitry Babansky told Izvestia. Hongqi is a relatively new brand for Russia, and the target audience is unlikely to be familiar with it.


Vedomosti: Russia’s gasoline exports reach record-breaking volumes

Russian oil companies have significantly expanded their offshore gasoline supplies in the last four months. According to statistics from analytical company Kpler, the export of this form of fuel set an all-time record in January 2023, reaching 205,500 barrels per day, Vedomosti writes.

Gasoline is not the most widely exported type of oil product. For example, in 2021, Russia exported only 4 mln metric tons out of the 41 mln metric tons of produced gasoline volume. (84,000 barrels per day on average). Russian gasoline shipments averaged 105,000 barrels per day in 2022.

However, following the start of the special military operation in Ukraine in 2022 and the tightening of anti-Russian sanctions, Western countries began to move away from Russian oil products. As a consequence, Russia diverted oil product supplies to friendly nations that did not join the sanctions.

According to Kpler, the largest share of gasoline supplies from Russia were shipped to Nigeria in March 2023, reaching 54,800 barrels per day (30% of total shipments). According to Kpler Lead Crude Analyst Victor Katona, there is a big demand for gasoline in Nigeria, but there is insufficient domestic supply. Nigeria is followed by the United Arab Emirates - regular deliveries of fuel to this country started in June 2022, peaking at 55,800 barrels per day in November 2022.

The increased supply of gasoline to Nigeria and the United Arab Emirates reflects a trend of growing Russian fuel exports to Africa and the Middle East, the newspaper writes.

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