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Press review: Russia open to Ukraine talks as West fuels fire and Israel, Hamas at impasse

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

MOSCOW, February 15. /TASS/. Russia remains open to talks on Ukraine, while the West is unwilling to engage in a dialogue as it keeps adding fuel to the fire; Israel and Hamas are facing difficulties in the Cairo ceasefire talks; and NATO countries appear determined to beef up their military spending. These stories topped Thursday’s newspaper headlines across Russia.


Vedomosti: Russia remains ready for talks on Ukraine, but West wants to keep fueling fight

Moscow is ready to resolve the conflict in Ukraine by political and diplomatic means based on the situation on the ground, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told the Russian State Duma (lower house of parliament). However, given the West’s desire to inflict "a strategic defeat" on Russia, there are currently no options for an agreement in sight, Vedomosti writes.

The last time delegations from Russia and Ukraine held peace talks was in Istanbul in March 2022. The parties agreed on a draft accord, with Ukraine accepting neutral status with guarantees from Western countries, while Russia withdrew troops from the Kiev and Chernigov regions as a gesture of goodwill. Russian President Vladimir Putin said later that Ukraine "ditched" all the agreements that had been reached. David Arakhamia, leader of Ukraine’s pro-presidential Servant of the People party, who led the Ukrainian delegation at the Istanbul talks, said in November 2023 that Kiev’s decision to reject Moscow’s proposal and continue fighting had been made at the insistent urging of then-British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

The Ukrainian leadership is still lacking the political will to launch peace talks with Russia, said Denis Denisov, an expert at the Financial University under the Government of the Russian Federation. As well, in the expert’s opinion, the West is not interested in bringing an end to military operations and, moreover, there are no platforms for contact between Moscow and Washington at this point.

There is zero chance that ceasefire negotiations with the US will be successful while President Joe Biden remains in the White House, Vladimir Vasilyev, senior research fellow at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute for US and Canadian Studies, noted. First, the very fact of such a dialogue would necessarily lead to the termination of aid to Ukraine. Second, according to the expert, the White House still cherishes the illusory hope that the Ukrainian armed forces are capable of achieving victory on the battlefield. Vasilyev also points out that former President Donald Trump, now seeking to make a comeback and regain the presidency, essentially views Ukraine as a bargaining chip and sees a Western failure in Ukraine as potentially benefitting him by dealing a painful blow to his domestic political rivals, the Democrats. "The Republicans continue to view China as the main US adversary. This is why they think that without the Ukraine factor in play, they would be able to entice Moscow to jettison its alliance with Beijing in the future," the expert concluded.


Kommersant: Israel, Hamas facing difficulties in ceasefire talks

The talks on a ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinian movement Hamas that kicked off in Cairo on Tuesday have not produced any tangible results thus far. Israel’s delegation left Cairo after the very first day of consultations, while Hamas representatives only arrived in Cairo on February 14. In the meantime, tensions are rising in Israel’s north, as the Shiite group Hezbollah carried out shelling attacks on the northern and central parts of the Jewish state and the Israelis responded with a massive strike on southern Lebanon, Kommersant writes.

The condition for the release of Palestinian prisoners is what Israel dislikes most about Hamas’ proposals. According to Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram, Egypt and Qatar are ready to pressure Hamas to accept a compromise solution. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has also called on Hamas to make a deal with Israel as soon as possible to prevent an offensive on the city of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip.

According to Ze’ev Khanin, professor in the Political Studies Department at Bar-Ilan University, Hamas seems to be in no mood to look for potential compromises because its very existence is at stake. "This is why Hamas officials have put forward maximalist demands and are sending messages to the West and the Arab world, warning about the possible consequences of Israel’s military operation in Rafah: ‘If you don’t want to see images [of destruction] from Rafah on every TV channel ahead of elections in America and Europe, then put pressure on the Israelis to make them agree to our terms,’" the expert pointed out.

He believes that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing a choice between two bad options: either accept Hamas’ demands and split the ruling coalition in Tel Aviv because his far-right coalition partners would not forgive him for taking such a step, or ultimately spoil relations with the US, which is insisting on a ceasefire. "It looks like Netanyahu would prefer the second scenario, given that relations with the US have already deteriorated," the expert surmised.


Vedomosti: NATO countries ramping up military spending

The leadership of NATO expects that 18 of the bloc’s 31 member states will increase their defense spending to 2% of GDP in 2024, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in Brussels ahead of a meeting of defense ministers from the North Atlantic Alliance’s member countries. Only 11 allies currently meet the spending criterion, Vedomosti notes.

The 2% defense spending threshold was set as NATO’s target back in 2006, but was officially enshrined only in 2023. Under former US President Donald Trump, Washington, which accounts for over 70% of the bloc’s defense expenditures, started making harsher demands on allies to comply with the spending mandate.

NATO’s European member states urgently need to invest in their defense industries and logistics, while their most pressing problems include the depletion of their own weapons stocks after supplying Ukraine, as well as staff shortages and competition with business for skilled personnel. Meanwhile, Washington wants Europe to increase its procurement and import of US-made weapons and the European defense industry to focus only on certain sectors while reducing its competition with the US defense industry, said Prokhor Tebin, head of the Department of International Military-Political and Military-Economic Problems at the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at the Higher School of Economics (HSE University).

Rising defense spending in Italy, Spain and Turkey may seriously enrich the US defense industry, Ilya Kramnik, researcher with the Center for Strategic Planning Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO RAS), points out. The defense sectors of these NATO countries have close ties with the US, he explained. However, it is precisely these countries that, unlike Poland and other Eastern European nations, are in no rush to increase their military expenditures at the expense of social spending.

"There are highly motivated professionals in Europe, the overall industrial power is significant and they are capable of ramping up production in a couple of years. The Europeans are bracing for [presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald] Trump’s potential election win [in November]. For Russia, this is a challenge because, even if Trump wins, the US will not withdraw from Europe," Tebin emphasized.


RBC: Democrats anxiously eye stable of possible stand-in alternatives to faltering Biden

A report by the US Department of Justice (DOJ), which describes President Joe Biden as an "elderly man with a poor memory," has triggered a new wave of debate about whether the 81-year-old incumbent is capable of managing another term in office, RBC writes. According to an ABC News poll, 86% of Americans believe that Biden is too old to be president.

The US Democratic Party has fallen into "a terrible trap," Russia in Global Affairs Editor-in-Chief Fyodor Lukyanov, who is also research director at the Valdai Discussion Club’s Foundation for Development and Support, told RBC. He pointed out that when Biden launched his previous election campaign back in 2019, he promised at closed-door meetings with party members and supporters that he would be a one-term president, precisely because of his advanced age. "It’s unclear what happened and when he changed his mind. However, in my view, the current situation should cause panic among the Democrats," Lukyanov noted.

Biden himself has no plans to pull out of the presidential race and the Democratic Party cannot withdraw his candidacy, as even the party’s national convention, set for August 19-22 in Chicago, has no such authority, Pavel Dubravsky, political strategist and head of Dubravsky Consulting, explained. "If Biden withdraws from the election after securing [the Democratic nomination] at the convention, then the party would have to convene a special meeting to decide what to do next," the expert went on to say. The Democratic National Committee would need to nominate another candidate after consulting with leading Democratic members of Congress and governors.

The most pressing unanswered question is who could potentially replace Biden at the top of the Democratic ticket in the November presidential election. Vice President Kamala Harris looks like the obvious choice because, under the US Constitution, she is next in line of succession to the president himself should anything happen to the elderly head of state, such as an illness, that would incapacitate him and render him unable to perform his duties. According to Dubravsky, other potential substitutes include Michelle Obama, former First Lady as wife of ex-President Barack Obama, and California Governor Gavin Newsom. "The former has already refused to run, while the latter waged a shadow campaign and even participated in debates against Republican hopeful [and Florida Governor] Ron DeSantis, who later dropped out. Biden himself described [Newsom] as the Democratic Party’s possible hope and a future US president. However, we haven’t been hearing much from him [lately]," the political strategist noted.

Still, Biden is highly likely to remain in the campaign and carry the Democratic Party banner in the November 5 general election, experts say. However, Lukyanov notes that his chances for re-election are looking increasingly murky. "The fact that Democratic voters view Trump’s possible return to power as a bigger disaster than [his surprise election win] in 2016 will be [Biden’s] only hope. The reason is that it would mean that Trump represents a trend rather than a one-time fluke, or deviation from the norm," the analyst concluded.


Kommersant: Global gas market may soon reach its limits

Energy giant Shell has cut its forecast for long-term global gas demand until 2040. According to the corporation’s estimates, gas demand reached its peak in Japan, Australia and Europe in the 2010s and will peak in North America in the 2030s, followed by the rest of the world in the 2040s, Kommersant writes.

As for liquefied natural gas (LNG), Shell points out that the market volume reached 404 mln tons in 2023, up from 397 mln tons the year before, and in 2024, supplies may rise by another 7-20 mln tons. The United States was the biggest LNG exporter in 2023, followed by Australia, Qatar, Russia and Malaysia. In 2025-27, global LNG supplies will mostly grow through the second wave of facilities that will be put into operation in Qatar and the US.

Independent expert Alexander Sobko believes that Shell’s forecast looks pessimistic for the gas industry as a whole. Suffice it to say that total global gas demand may rise just 13% by 2040. "Meanwhile, there is virtually no growth in gas demand in the power generation sector, on which certain hopes were pinned. Renewable energy must have turned out to be a more robust solution, while gas has been reduced to a backup position," he said.

In the LNG sector, the situation looks slightly better at first glance, Sobko notes. However, most of the demand growth here will be recorded in the next several years and demand will be met by the facilities that are currently under construction. "As for new projects, the main competition will begin after 2030, and it will be quite tough because increase in demand is expected to be very small after 2030," the expert stressed.

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