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Press review: Trump picking envoy to Russia and Sberbank investing $50 mln in venture fund

Top stories in the Russian press on Wednesday, December 28

Nezavisimaya Gazeta: Moscow, Tehran, Ankara to act as guarantors of Syrian peace

Kazakhstan’s readiness to host the intra-Syrian talks at the beginning of 2017 is a significant step in defusing the Syrian crisis, Viktor Nadein-Raevsky, a senior researcher at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations, told Nezavisimaya Gazeta. "It is very important that the powers which are involved in Syria’s developments and are able to influence the situation as a whole have joined the process," the expert said. "Without Turkey’s involvement, it would be difficult to maintain contacts with the opposition. Ankara’s participation made it possible to solve the Aleppo problem. Turkey controls the Free Syrian Army, so attempts to consolidate the entire Syrian opposition were made on Turkish soil. Yes, they were futile, but the fact remains that Turkey has contacts with it."

Kazakhstan’s President, Nursultan Nazarbayev, earlier confirmed during his meeting with Russian leader Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg that Astana would host the negotiations between the representatives of official Damascus and the Syrian opposition next year.

According to Vladimir Sotnikov, a senior researcher at the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences, Iran’s and Turkey’s willingness to act as guarantors of the intra-Syrian agreements alongside Russia indicates that they are likely to be implemented. "No one says today that Assad should resign immediately. This issue has been taken off the agenda. Now it is necessary to restart the political process. Since our Western partners have not been very successful in doing so, these three countries have taken on the role of guarantors. There is a good chance that it will be possible to convince other regional powers and our Western partners to join the process with the help of the three powers," he noted.

Izvestia: Trump may pick envoy to Moscow who knows "Russia’s soul"

US President-elect, Donald Trump, is eyeing the appointment of a new Ambassador to Russia in 2017, Izvestia writes. Among the main contenders are Congressman Dana Rohrabacher and diplomat Thomas Graham Jr, an aide to former US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger. Trump considers the position of the US ambassador to Russia as vital in smoothing over relations with Moscow, two sources familiar with the situation informed the paper.

An informed diplomatic source said in an interview with Izvestia that the US President-elect’s team is considering the appointment of a new ambassador to Russia next year, which is part of Trump’s program to renew his team. "This is a normal process, and everyone is ready for it," the source noted, adding that Congressman Dana Rohrabacher and the seasoned diplomat and expert on Russia, Thomas Graham Jr, are the main contenders. But there are other candidates too, he noted.

In an interview with the paper, a second source confirmed that Trump is considering candidates for the post of the new US Ambassador to Russia. He noted that there will be a reshuffling of responsible officials not only in Washington but also beyond it. "This particularly concerns diplomatic missions in key countries," he said. The source noted that the candidates for the posts of ambassadors to Israel and China have already been chosen, as well as the new US permanent representative to the UN.

Of all US Congressmen, Dana Rohrabacher perhaps adheres to the most balanced approach towards relations with Russia, Izvestia notes. He said in 2015 that there is no threat from Russia to the US and the West. In his view, this threat emanates from radical Islamic terrorism, and Washington should team up with Moscow to counter it instead of trying to focus on attempts to isolate Moscow. Besides, Rohrabacher makes no secret of the fact that he is proud to be personally acquainted with Russian President Vladimir Putin, given that they met in person in the 1990s.

Kommersant: Russia’s tank and machine producing powerhouse incorporated into Rostec

A directive issued transferring 100% stakes in Russia’s Uralvagonzavod tank manufacturer to the Rostec Corporation had been in the works for a month, Kommersant writes. The decree signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday authorizes the government to ensure the transfer of Uralvagonzavod’s stocks, a number of research institutes and enterprises to Rostec within an 18-month period.

Uralvagonzavod and Kurganmashzavod, one of the leaders in Russia’s military-industrial complex, may form the basis for setting up an armor-building holding, since they have similar functions, Rostec CEO, Sergei Chemezov said. A source in Uralvagonzavod told Kommersant that the plant had always supported the idea of merging into a united armor corporation "as the next stage in its development." Chemezov noted that the urgency for the transfer of Uralvagonzavod to Rostec was the plant’s dire financial situation, which cropped up in 2014 when the profitability of the enterprise’s railroad car production dropped due to surpluses.

At the same time, the plant fulfilled State Defense Order (supplies of T-72B3 and T-90 tanks) in due time and had been successfully developing new military equipment, such as the T-14 Armata tanks, a source in the Russian Defense Ministry confirmed in an interview with the paper.

Uralvagonzavod’s chief dilemma is that the plant, which had an opportunity to become the first manufacturer of innovative railroad cars, did not entirely switch to their production and continued manufacturing standard railroad cars, says Mikhail Burmistrov, head of Infoline-Analitika. According to the expert, another minus was that Uralvagonzavod lagged behind its rivals in terms of the number of maintenance centers.

Izvestia: Hezbollah guns for Syrian opposition in Idlib

The Lebanon-based Shiite organization, Hezbollah, has begun a targeted elimination campaign of Syrian opposition field commanders in the Idlib province, Izvestia writes. Three militant leaders were killed over the weekend alone. According to regional media, Hezbollah’s special forces receive information from Syrian intelligence services and the Iranian military. These tactics are new, which implies renunciation of large-scale military operations in favor of targeted, individual strikes on opposition leaders, the paper notes.

This province located in northwest of Syria is a stronghold for the two most powerful Islamist groups, including Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra, terror group, outlawed in Russia). This terrorist organization controls the city of Idlib, the provincial capital.

According to Konstantin Truevtsev, a senior researcher at the Center for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Institute of Oriental Studies, the surgical strikes tactics in Idlib are fully justified, considering the situation on the frontline. "The most critical situation is now not in Idlib but around al-Bab. Palmyra comes second in terms of importance. While there is a respite in the north, Syrians will think about liberating Palmyra, as this is a matter of prestige."

He noted that the situation in Idlib as well as contacts between Russia, Turkey and Iran provide hope for a political solution to the issue. "There is a big game around Idlib. Turkey wants an end to the crisis on favorable terms and is ready to play a constructive role in the settlement in return," he explained. "Radically-minded opposition members can be separated from the moderate opposition with the help of Turkey, which can persuade ‘the moderates’ to negotiate with Damascus. Meanwhile, radically-minded opposition members are likely to be gradually killed by either their supporters, or by the Syrians and their allies."

Vedomosti: Sberbank to invest $50 mln in its venture fund

Russia’s banking giant, Sberbank, will invest $50 mln in a $200-mln venture fund, while the remainder will be bankrolled by co-investors it hopes to attract, Sberbank CEO, German Gref, told Vedomosti.

The paper recalls that Sberbank opened its first venture fund, SBT Ventures, with capital of $100 million in 2012 to fund start-ups. In April it became known that Russia’s largest bank is planning to set up another fund.

According to Gref, Sberbank is the largest shareholder in the first fund. As for the second fund, both individuals and companies - Russian and foreign - can be its investors, which will have equal conditions.

The second fund designed for 10 years will deal with investment in startups in the areas of artificial intellect, biometric technologies, cybersecurity and predictive analysis, Gref said. The first stage of raising capital is to be completed at the beginning of 2017 and will be immediately followed by the first deal. On average, the fund is expected to invest $8-10mln in minority stakes of US, Israeli and Russian companies that have revenues and a growing customer base.

The annual rate of return for venture capital funds is 30%, but only about 10% of the funds stick to this figure globally, says Alexei Solovyov, Managing Director of Prostor Capital. He noted that individuals are not only financially motivated to invest in a particular fund. Very often there is a desire to be involved in the development of tech start-ups. The feeling of involvement in the fund run by Sberbank could be a strong motive. Sberbank is also a strategic investor, which increases the survival rates of portfolio companies and, hence, profitability, the expert said.


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