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Press review: Blinken to rein in rabid Macron and Iran to retaliate for Israeli air attack

Top stories from the Russian press on Wednesday, April 3rd
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken AP Photo/Thomas Padilla, Pool
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken
© AP Photo/Thomas Padilla, Pool

MOSCOW, April 3. /TASS/. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is visiting France in an effort to tame bellicose French President Emmanuel Macron; experts weigh in on the potential consequences of the devastating Israeli airstrike on Iran’s consulate in Syria; and Russia may lift its terrorist list ban on Afghanistan’s Taliban. These stories topped Wednesday’s newspaper headlines across Russia.


Izvestia: Blinken visiting France in effort to put rabidly bellicose Macron back on leash

The United States does not approve of Ukrainian strikes on Russian oil refineries, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said during an official visit to France. However, Washington continues to work toward preventing China, Iran and North Korea from supporting Russia. In general, judging from official statements, both the US and France are focusing their efforts on resolving the conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East, which in turn have been having a significant impact on the course of events in the West itself. Meanwhile, Russia sees the Blinken-Macron meeting as an attempt to compensate for the West’s shortfall in funding for Kiev and Western leaders’ ambition to deflect their respective citizenries’ attention away from mounting domestic problems.

In an interview with CBS News last week, Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky acknowledged, for the first time since the start of Russia’s special military operation, that Kiev risks losing the war without additional US aid. So, Blinken’s visit to France is perhaps meant to encourage Washington’s partners in Europe to accept a greater part of the responsibility for providing more funding to Kiev. But, Paris is hardly in a position to do so as France itself is also experiencing problems with finding additional resources for propping up Kiev, Alexey Podberezkin, director of the Center for Military-Political Research at Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO University), told Izvestia. "The allocation of an additional 4 bln euros is the maximum that Ukraine can hope to get," he argues.

Blinken’s visit to France also comes amid growing differences between Washington and Paris regarding a strategy for keeping the Ukraine aid pipeline flowing. At a Paris meeting of EU leaders in February, French President Emmanuel Macron did not rule out sending NATO troops to the conflict zone.

While European media outlets chalk Macron’s martial rhetoric up to his desire to fill the vacuum in Western support, such bellicosity being heard from the banks of the Seine is giving rise to certain concerns in the United States, where the administration of President Joe Biden fears an escalation that could transform the conflict into a direct military confrontation with Russia that would necessarily draw the US from the sidelines into the very heart of the crisis.

"In Paris, among other things, Blinken will probably try to reach some agreement and persuade Macron to at least refrain from making more public statements on this issue," said Dmitry Suslov, deputy director of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at the Higher School of Economics (HSE University).


Vedomosti: Experts assess potential blowback from Israeli attack on Iran’s Syria consulate

On the evening of April 1, the Israeli air force conducted a missile strike on the Iranian consulate in the Syrian capital of Damascus. According to the Iranian Foreign Ministry, the consulate building was completely destroyed in the attack, leaving at least seven people dead, including two senior generals of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Mohammad Reza Zahedi and Mohammad Hadi Haji Rahimi.

Russia has requested an open UN Security Council meeting following the Israeli attack on the Iranian diplomatic compound in Damascus, Russian First Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN Dmitry Polyansky wrote on his Telegram channel on Tuesday. Earlier, Iran’s UN mission lodged a similar request.

The Russian Foreign Ministry has condemned the attack. Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov labeled such strikes as an act of aggression in violation of the norms of international law, cautioning, however, that the Kremlin "would prefer not to jump to conclusions."

Iran will attack Israel in retaliation, and the response will show how serious Tehran’s intentions are, Ivan Bocharov, program coordinator at the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), believes. According to him, the Iranians will likely strike back at Israel with the help of their allies in the region, the Yemeni Houthis or Lebanon-based Hezbollah, as "Tehran is not seeking a major war, nor is Israel seeking that." On the whole, Bocharov continued, Israel’s airstrike on the Iranian consulate may be viewed as a warning to Iranian proxies not to play an active role in hostilities on the side of Hamas. "The incident in Damascus may not prompt Iran to take action so much as to simulate an active response with a view to preventing an escalation," the expert maintained.

Tehran has little space for maneuver, said Andrey Zeltyn, senior lecturer at the School of Asian Studies at the Higher School of Economics (HSE University). Delivering a return retaliatory strike on Israel would cause dire consequences not only for the two countries, but also for the entire region. So, instead of active hostilities, the Iranians will focus on provocations against Israeli diplomatic missions, the expert concluded.


Izvestia: Russia mulling lifting terrorist list ban on Afghanistan’s Taliban

News about the possible arrival of a delegation from Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban movement in Kazan, Tatarstan, to attend an international forum titled "Russia-Islamic World: KazanForum" has revived discussions about the possibility of removing the Taliban (currently banned in Russia) from the official list of terrorist groups. The Russian Foreign Ministry said on April 1 that the issue was currently under consideration.

Experts say that Russia may reverse its designation of the Taliban as a terrorist organization at the national level, and that such a decision would not run counter to UN norms.

"Russia has the right to adopt any acts on this issue, and they will work at the national level. Certainly, at the UN Security Council (UNSC), a unanimous decision of its permanent members would be needed. These are completely different issues that are not always related to each other," Nikita Mendkovich, head of the Eurasian Analytical Club, told Izvestia. Removing the Taliban from the list of terrorists at the level of the UN would require a new UNSC resolution, but such an initiative seems unlikely as Western countries would probably block it, he said.

Omar Nessar, a researcher at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Oriental Studies, noted that Russia and other countries still do not fully trust the Taliban. "If the international community removes the Taliban from the list of terrorists, this would look like a Taliban victory, while the majority of countries view [the group] as a jihadist movement," he said.

In addition, the Taliban is doing too little to fight terrorism in Afghanistan, which is a major concern for the Russian leadership. "Apart from security issues, including combatting drug trafficking, Russia is mulling the possibility of boosting economic cooperation with Afghanistan," the expert explained.


Vedomosti: Russian gas exports to EU rise to highest level since August

In March, Russian pipeline gas exports to Europe (the European Union and Moldova) saw a 26% increase year on year to 2.74 bln cubic meters, according to Vedomosti calculations based on data from Russian gas giant Gazprom and the European Network of Transmission System Operators for Gas (ENTSOG). This is the highest level since August 2023, when monthly exports amounted to 2.84 bln cubic meters.

Despite the absence of freezing temperatures in Europe and the impending end of the heating season in EU countries, supplies in March were higher than in the winter. At present, Russia uses two routes to pump its natural gas to Europe, namely transit via Ukraine and one of the two TurkStream pipelines.

And deliveries to Europe have been growing, despite the record high volume of gas reserves at the EU’s underground gas storage (UGS) facilities. Experts attribute the increase in Russian gas supplies to Europe to the attractive price of Russian gas for importers.

Sergey Kaufman, an analyst at Finam, said that the availability of much gas at UGS facilities enables EU countries to buy natural gas when the fuel price is the most comfortable for them. According to his estimate, while Gazprom prices in March were the lowest in recent months, EU spot prices have returned to the level above $300 per 1,000 cubic meters. Ronald Smith, a senior analyst at BCS World of Investments, argues that Russian natural gas is the cheapest in the European gas market now.

However, any further monthly increase in gas supplies to the EU should not be expected as Russia is currently pumping as much gas as technically possible, National Energy Security Fund lead analyst Igor Yushkov warned.


Kommersant: Russia may reap benefits from embracing AI innovations in hydrocarbons sector

Russia’s oil and gas sector could bring in over 300 bln rubles ($3.2 bln) per year if hydrocarbons enterprises began proactively using Generative AI, experts at Vygon Consulting argue. GenAI can tackle more than half of applied problems in design engineering in the future, they insist, but the models would require more specialized training, thus bringing the cost of building such world-class systems up to nearly $1 bln. And Russia could afford this only if the entire sector consolidates. Other experts argue that oil and gas companies have a lot of other pressing issues to address in making their processes more digitalized.

"Despite the rapid development, industry expertise and functionality of Large Language Models (LLM) in the oil and gas sphere are still limited," Grigory Vygon, the head of Vygon Consulting, explains. "Nevertheless, they will learn to solve multi-level engineering tasks, analyze the existing technology and develop new ones in the near future," he added. According to him, it will be important for Russian oil and gas majors, living under strict sanctions and reorienting their exports amid energy transition, to join this race as quickly as possible and equip themselves with applied tools to achieve technological sovereignty.

However, other experts believe that investing in GenAI is not a priority for Russian companies now. At present, they are faced with issues even in the field of much less complex systems, such as automated control systems, Timofey Khoroshev, technology consulting leader at DRT, said. Companies are handling issues of basic automation, so they "have no time for artificial intelligence right now," agrees Maxim Malkov, head of the oil and gas advisory practice at Kept. In his opinion, for now, oil and gas companies are focused on import substitution of existing software products, the bulk of which Russian vendors will have to develop independently.

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