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Press review: IDF geared up for Rafah assault and Ukraine aid remains stuck in US Congress

Top stories from the Russian press on Thursday, April 4th

MOSCOW, April 4. /TASS/. Israel stands ready to launch a military assault on the city of Rafah in southern Gaza amid concerns over the fate of Palestinian refugees; further US aid to Kiev remains stalled in Congress amid election season partisan gridlock; and Washington is seeking to defrost its chilly relations with Beijing. These stories topped Thursday’s newspaper headlines across Russia.


Izvestia: Israel stands ready to launch military operation in Rafah

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is in the final stages of preparations for storming the city of Rafah in southern Gaza, where 1.5 mln refugees have taken shelter. Work is underway to create a humanitarian corridor to evacuate civilians, an official in the administration of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Izvestia. However, it seems that pressure from the US is preventing the start of a military operation in the last refuge of Palestinian civilians.

Still, the IDF is working on plans to evacuate civilians in order to launch active military operations, Dmitry Gendelman, an advisor to Netanyahu, told Izvestia.

"Preparations for an assault on Rafah are in their final stages. The Israel Defense Forces needed to widen the springboard for troops to move along all the directions of the future assault operation, as well as to create humanitarian corridors and prepare locations to accommodate the civilians who will leave the combat zone," he stated.

According to Gendelman, Israel is not fighting against civilians and is making every possible effort to ensure their safe exit from Rafah. This position has also been confirmed by the IDF. "The army is fully ready to continue operations to achieve our goals: first of all, release the 134 hostages, who have been held captive for six months," IDF Spokesperson Anna Ukolova told the newspaper.

In their quest to destroy Hamas, the Gaza-based radical Palestinian movement, Israeli forces carried out a strike on a humanitarian convoy being run by the World Central Kitchen (WCK), a US-based humanitarian NGO. As a result, seven people were killed, inducing Palestinians, British, Polish and Australian nationals, as well as a US-Canadian dual citizen.

Incidents like this, along with the fact that about 30,000 civilians have been killed to date in the Gaza Strip war, are to some degree hindering Israel from conducting further offensives. The Jewish state has recently come under criticism not only from many countries but also from the UN. Still, the US, Israel’s main ally, seems to have played the key role. Many are confident that Washington is generally ready to green-light a military operation in Rafah but it has not yet seen a clear plan for the evacuation of civilians.


Vedomosti: US aid to Kiev remains stalled in Congress amid pre-election partisan gridlock

The administration of US President Joe Biden has rejected an initiative floated by House of Representatives Speaker Mike Johnson (Republican-Louisiana) to link stalled Ukraine aid to the lifting of a pause on liquefied natural gas (LNG) export licenses, Vedomosti writes, citing US media outlets.

After the US Congress approved the federal budget for the current fiscal year, the US media began actively discussing Johnson’s plans to put a bill on additional military aid to Ukraine up for a vote.

Johnson’s chances of pushing a bill on Kiev aid through Congress right after a recess are low, however, because the speaker is not ready to discuss Ukraine aid unless the Democrats are ready to make concessions, Dmitry Suslov, deputy director of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at the Higher School of Economics (HSE University), pointed out. The Democrats, in turn, are not ready to make concessions as they hope to win some Republican lawmakers over. However, it would not help them much because only the speaker can put a bill up for a vote and it would be extremely difficult to circumvent him.

Johnson also fears being accused of undermining US national security, which has likely prompted him to make public statements highlighting his readiness to approve aid to Ukraine, Vladimir Vasilyev, senior research fellow at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute for US and Canadian Studies, noted. Meanwhile, Johnson is deliberately prolonging discussions of the aid package as he is reluctant to let Biden score a major win in Congress ahead of the November presidential election.

With the US unable to achieve a domestic consensus on Ukraine aid, Washington’s allies have been preparing a Plan B. According to the Financial Times, the NATO foreign ministers meeting that is taking place on April 3-4 will consider a five-year Ukraine aid package worth $100 bln. All allies are expected to chip in to fund it.


Nezavisimaya Gazeta: Washington seeking thaw in relations with Beijing

US Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen has arrived in China. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will also make a trip to the country soon. It is clear from what US President Joe Biden said in a recent phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping that it is critical for Washington to prevent military incidents and a rise in tensions ahead of the US presidential election in November, Nezavisimaya Gazeta notes.

The Biden-Xi telephone conversation marked the first contact between the two leaders since their meeting at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Leaders' Summit in San Francisco in November. The White House’s statement highlighted the need to maintain peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait and ensure freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. Meanwhile, according to China’s Xinhua news agency, Xi pointed out that although China-US ties had started to stabilize, they still might "slide into conflict and confrontation."

Alexander Lomanov, deputy director of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO RAS), noted that "the San Francisco meeting created a certain stability." "However, some negative things have emerged in relations between the two powers since then. Reports of what Xi said make it clear that the US does not respect China’s red lines. This concerns Taiwan and US attempts to contain China’s development through sanctions. The Chinese president plainly said that Beijing would not tolerate it. In my view, such statements by the two leaders give no reason to expect relations to improve," the analyst added.

Alexander Lukin, research director at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of China and Contemporary Asia, pointed out that Biden and Xi had also talked about Ukraine. "Washington wanted Beijing to put pressure on Moscow to accept US or Ukrainian conditions for talks. Naturally, China won’t do that. It has its own position. It’s an important issue for China, but basically, it has nothing to discuss with the US. I think that the Chinese had even sought to avoid discussing this topic and focus on economic problems," the expert said.


Izvestia: Russia reduces foreign debt to record lows

Russia’s foreign debt declined to $317 bln, the lowest level since 2007. Such a low debt burden increases the country’s resilience against sanctions, Izvestia writes.

Restrictions introduced by unfriendly countries are the obvious reason behind the debt reduction. It has become significantly more difficult for Russia to borrow in foreign debt markets. However, Russia continues to pay on its obligations. Moscow’s external debt shrunk due to the scheduled payment of loans that were about to mature, while no new debt has been floated. Internal debt is slowly replacing external debt, Yekaterina Bezsmertnaya, head of the Economics and Business Department at the Financial University under the Government of the Russian Federation, pointed out.

In general, Russia has little need for foreign borrowing, especially since the country’s own fiscal revenues are the funding source for budget expenditures. Domestic funding is more than enough. In addition, last year’s budget deficit was lower than predicted, Natalya Milchakova, lead analyst at Freedom Finance Global, emphasized.

Today, Russia is successfully handling its public debt obligations, despite sanctions and adverse economic conditions created by the coronavirus pandemic. The public sector has managed to reduce its debt by $25.6 bln. The private sector, in turn, is also reducing its debt, mostly in the energy field. Russia’s foreign debt remains stable and safe, which has created a favorable situation for 2024, Vera Kalistratova, accounting consulting expert at the Prostye Resheniya (Simple Solutions) company, said.


Kommersant: Middle East risks push oil prices up

The global benchmark Brent crude oil price has passed the $90 per barrel level for the first time in six months. The price of Russia’s benchmark Urals oil blend exceeded the $78 per barrel mark. Rising geopolitical risks in the Middle East, created by the Israeli attack on the Iranian consulate in Syria, are pushing prices toward multi-month highs. Analysts point to the increased risk of Iran getting actively involved in a conflict with Israel, which may reduce oil supplies to the global market and send prices soaring above $100 per barrel, Kommersant writes.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi vowed that the strike on the country’s consulate would not go unanswered. As a result, the risk has grown that Tehran will get fully involved in a conflict in the Middle East, Konstantin Samarin, senior analyst at SberCIB Investment Research, noted.

Iran is one of the world’s largest oil exporters as it sells about 2 mln barrels per day, accounting for 2% of global demand. Even if half of the amount is gone, it would have a significant impact on global oil prices, Ronald Smith, senior analyst at BCS World of Investments, said.

In addition, Iran could seriously complicate ship traffic in the Persian Gulf. About 20 mln barrels of oil pass through the Strait of Hormuz every day, which represents 20% of global demand for oil coming not only from Iran but also from Iraq, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, Smith pointed out. If Iran launches outright military operations, it may temporarily lead to a spike in oil prices to $100 per barrel, even if oil flows are not affected, the expert added.

If the situation in the Middle East does not escalate further, however, the period of rising oil prices will not last long, analysts say. Still, Samarin expects the Brent price to settle at the level of $85-90 per barrel.

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