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Press review: Hungary blocks new EU sanctions and NATO to bypass Trump threat to Kiev aid

Top stories from the Russian press on Friday, February 16th

MOSCOW, February 16. /TASS/. Hungary is blocking the EU’s 13th package of anti-Russian sanctions due to the inclusion of some Chinese companies; Trump’s anti-Ukraine aid rhetoric is forcing NATO to reconsider how it provides military assistance to Kiev; and US officials’ fears that Russia allegedly plans to deploy nuclear weapons in space is nothing but a "Star Wars" sequel meant to sell more Ukraine aid to Congress. These stories topped Friday’s newspaper headlines across Russia.


Vedomosti: Hungary blocks EU’s latest anti-Russian sanctions package due to China

EU ambassadors failed to reach an agreement on the bloc’s 13th package of sanctions against Russia due to Hungary's objections to the inclusion of Chinese companies, Vedomosti writes. According to the Financial Times, the Hungarian envoy was the only one at the February 14 meeting of EU ambassadors who decided to block the adoption of the latest set of restrictions. The negotiations are still expected to continue, with the EU hoping to officially unveil the measures on February 24 in a symbolic gesture to coincide with the second anniversary of the start of the special military operation in Ukraine.

Bloomberg reported, citing a draft document, that the EU’s latest package of sanctions, its 13th, would target about 200 entities and individuals, mainly from Russia, but also three companies from mainland China, and one each from India, Sri Lanka, Serbia, Kazakhstan, Thailand, Turkey and Hong Kong for allegedly supporting "Russian aggression" in Ukraine. Beijing is one of Budapest's most important partners, with Chinese investments in the Hungarian economy amounting to around $4 bln as of 2022.

According to Artem Sokolov, researcher at the Center for European Studies at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO University), Hungary will not be able to unilaterally defeat the adoption of the 13th package of sanctions all on its own. Therefore, according to him, a compromise between Budapest and Brussels is possible, both in terms of which specific companies end up on the sanctions list and concerning the precise measures to be implemented. At the same time, Budapest is likely to come under intense pressure, just as it did when the decision on providing more financial aid to Ukraine was made. At that time, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban opted to simply distance himself from the entire process.

Kirill Teremetsky, an expert at the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies, told Vedomosti that Hungary’s cooperation with China, which has been actively developing over the past decade, is critical for Budapest, and thus it will try to prevent attempts to threaten it. Hungary's stance on the 13th package of sanctions is primarily attributable to its strong trade relations with China, which are on a growth trajectory, the analyst noted, adding that cooperation with China remains Orban’s priority.


Izvestia: Trump’s threats to pull plug on Kiev force NATO to alter Ukraine aid format

NATO is reviewing its methods for providing military assistance to Ukraine, with an increasing focus on former US President Donald Trump, whose potential return to the White House could spell disaster for Kiev, Izvestia writes. Such fears might not be unfounded, as neo-isolationism is on the rise in the United States, thanks to Washington's "overreach" in foreign policy in recent years, and Trump is capitalizing on such sentiments, experts told the newspaper.

On February 15, a series of NATO discussions in the Ramstein format (formally the Contact Group on Ukraine's Defense) with Kiev representatives concluded in Brussels. Specifically, the possibility of modifying the framework of military support for Kiev was discussed at the meeting on February 14. There are growing concerns that the long-term viability of this arrangement may be in jeopardy. Presumptive Republican Party presidential nominee Donald Trump has long hinted that if he is elected to a second term, the US would not continue to offer military support to Kiev in the same volume.

According to Jeremy Kuzmarov, editor-in-chief of Covert Action magazine, Trump's threats to significantly alter how the US funds Ukraine are real, and resonate with many voters who perceive such assistance as a waste of taxpayer money.

Vladimir Vasiliev, senior researcher at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute for US and Canadian Studies, told Izvestia he believes that Trump is treating the military bloc as a business entity. "Over the 75 years of NATO's existence, the philosophy has changed: Before the United States provided a nuclear umbrella in exchange for loyalty, and Washington supported its allies in exchange for access to territories, but now it demands that its allies help it financially," the analyst said.

Trump has consistently said that Ukraine is not a priority for the US. "If Europe is interested, let them do it. Now Trump realizes that after the start of the special military operation Ukraine has become a problem rather than an asset, and a toxic asset that he would attempt to get rid of," Vasiliev added.


Nezavisimaya Gazeta: US sounds alarm about alleged Russian plan to deploy nukes in space

US officials are raising alarms about the development of a new anti-satellite weapon by Russia, alleging that Moscow is planning to deploy nuclear weapons in space, numerous US media outlets reported on February 14. The next day, White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan held a closed-door briefing in Congress, where he spoke of a "serious threat" to the country. For once, a major US newspaper and Russian Presidential Spokesman Dmitry Peskov unexpectedly found rare common ground in their opinions on the matter: The White House is attempting to influence members of Congress to pass legislation providing additional funding for Ukraine, Nezavisimaya Gazeta writes.

"It is obvious that the White House is trying, by hook or by crook, to encourage Congress to vote on a bill to appropriate money [for Ukraine]," Peskov said in response to reporters' questions. Meanwhile, the New York Times drew virtually the same conclusion, acknowledging that the argument about an imminent threat to US national security could be used as a means to persuade recalcitrant Republicans in the US House of Representatives, who have thus far proven stubbornly unwilling to get behind a legislative package providing additional money for Ukraine.

The Republicans, especially the dominant Trumpist wing of the party, are standing their ground on the position that handling the conflict between Russia and Ukraine should largely be Europe’s responsibility, while the United States should focus on its rivalry with China and providing aid to Israel, Nezavisimaya Gazeta writes. Now the specter of a space-based military rivalry between the two countries, so familiar to US audiences brought up on "Star Wars," is being rolled out again to direct the flagging attention of the American public, and thus of Republican voters, back to the ever-useful "Russia threat."

But things may be simpler, the newspaper noted. "This is a typical American reaction to a scientific achievement by Russia, about which Moscow has been warning for a long time. This happened, for example, during the launch of the first Soviet satellite (Sputnik in 1957 - TASS), which took the Americans by surprise. The fact that our country developed such weapons during the Soviet period and then resumed it under the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev was no secret to anyone," Vladimir Batyuk, head of the Political and Military Research Center at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute for US and Canadian Studies, told Nezavisimaya Gazeta.


Vedomosti: EU loses interest in maintaining gas transit through Ukraine

The European Union is not interested in buying Russian gas via Ukraine, European Commissioner for Energy Kadri Simson said. According to Simson, EU studies have shown that countries that continue to receive Russian gas via Ukraine (such as Austria, Italy and Slovakia) will be able to obtain fuel from other sources. However, she did not specify the price at which such deliveries would be made, Vedomosti writes.

Currently, Russian gas is transported through Ukraine's gas transportation system under a transit agreement signed by Gazprom and Naftogaz at the end of December 2019. Russian gas is exported to Europe via only two routes: Ukraine and one of the sections of the Turkish Stream gas pipeline. The Turkish Stream pipeline supplies gas to the countries of the Balkan Peninsula (Bulgaria, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia and Croatia) as well as to Hungary. The Ukrainian gas transportation system delivers gas to Central and Western European countries.

Ronald Smith, senior analyst at BCS World of Investments, told the newspaper that the EU could acquire liquefied natural gas (LNG) as an alternative to Russian gas supplies. He noted that the United States and Qatar are likely to produce significantly more LNG in the coming years.

Sergey Kaufman, analyst at Finam Financial Group, added that the EU is also developing renewable energy, which will help reduce gas consumption. According to him, out of the countries that still receive Russian gas via Ukraine, Hungary and Slovakia are the most interested in maintaining energy cooperation with Russia.

Leading analyst at the National Energy Security Fund Igor Yushkov believes that blocking the transport of Russian gas through Ukraine will lead to higher gas prices in the EU, to which Smith agrees. But the impact on prices is expected to be mild. The effect will be determined by European winter weather and other variables, he added. March gas futures at the TTF hub in the Netherlands traded between $271 and $285 per 1,000 cubic meters on February 15, according to ICE exchange data.


Izvestia: Russia discusses trade settlements in DFAs with African countries, Myanmar

Russia is discussing executing trade settlements in digital financial assets (DFAs) with Myanmar and several African countries, according to Izvestia. In particular, the issue could be discussed with Mali, Niger and Angola, experts suggested. Interaction with partners from friendly countries takes place together with the development of legislation. It is assumed that the DFA will be linked to commodity assets or exchange rates. Such transactions will be more difficult to track, which means the risks of secondary Western sanctions will be reduced, the newspaper writes.

The Industrial Mining Association (IMA) confirmed to the newspaper that the issue is being considered. According to Oleg Ushakov, an adviser to the IMA director, Myanmar and some African countries were named as potential partners, as well as South American and the CIS countries. He added that the Bank of Russia had created an entire division for these purposes called the Department of International Settlements.

"Discussions on the DFAs can be conducted with those African countries that have active trade relations with Russia and are open to cooperation bypassing Western sanctions. Possible candidates include Angola, Nigeria and South Africa. Zimbabwe, Sudan and Algeria, which already have a history of working with Russia in the field of energy and the military-technical complex, could also be involved in the discussions," Finam Director of Strategy Yaroslav Kabakov told Izvestia.

Trade relations between Russia and Myanmar are developing actively, with bilateral trade turnover having increased 2.7 times to $200 mln as at the end of 2023, Freedom Finance Global analyst Vladimir Chernov noted. "At the same time, Russia sees Myanmar as a unique entry point into Southeast Asia due to its location and logistics, because it borders on India, China, Thailand, Malaysia, Bangladesh, and Laos," the expert said.

Russia is experiencing difficulties with international payments due to sanctions. DFA is one of the alternatives, Alexander Baryshnikov, head of digital projects development at BitRiver, noted. Although completely hiding transactions with DFAs from the international community is impossible, these measures could reduce dependence on Western-centric financial mechanisms and strengthen the economic sovereignty of participating countries.

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