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Press review: Putin, Erdogan shape Syria's fate in Sochi and Moscow forgives Maduro’s debt

Top stories in the Russian press on Tuesday, November 14


Vedomosti: Putin, Erdogan shape Syria’s future in Sochi

The Syrian crisis was the focus of talks between Russian and Turkish Presidents, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Monday, Vedomosti writes. The negotiations were held shortly after the Russian and US leaders adopted a joint statement in Vietnam on supporting a peaceful settlement in Syria.

Ahead of the talks, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Ankara took into consideration Russia’s decision to convene the congress of all Syrian peoples and organizations with the participation of Bashar Assad’s government on November 17 in Sochi. Turkey handed over a list to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov of other organizations of Syrian Kurds, which it does not consider to be terrorists, he said.

The future of the self-defense militias of the Democratic Union, the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Forces supported by the West, is of crucial importance for Turkey. Ankara believes they are linked to the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party, the paper says.

According to a source close to the Russian Defense Ministry, this primarily concerns Turkish-US relations, but also affects Russia, which has a military police observation post in the enclave. Another difficult point in Syria for Russia and Turkey is the situation in the overpopulated Idlib region controlled by the opposition, most notably Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a Russian source close to the talks with Turkey said.

Viktor Murakhovsky, Editor of the Arsenal Otechestva (Arsenal of the Fatherland) magazine, said that Turkish forces were deployed to Idlib thanks to an accord with Russia, and the north and northwest of the enclave are considered as Turkey’s zone of responsibility, while the southeast is controlled by Russia. Once the partners establish order in Idlib, this will mean that the war in Syria is over and a peaceful settlement will begin, Murakhovsky stressed. However, Erdogan’s statement ahead of talks with Putin signals that Turkey seeks to have its forces in Syria until the peaceful settlement is finalized, he said.

Before the transition period starts, the mission is to crush the Islamic State (terror group, outlawed in Russia) in Syria’s southeast and stabilize Idlib, and this may take some time, a source close to the Russian Defense Ministry said.


Kommersant: US budget to bankroll missile build-up

Last week, the US Senate and House of Representatives finalized a $700 bln defense spending plan for 2018, which will be soon considered by US President Donald Trump, Kommersant writes. The National Defense Authorization Act allows the Pentagon to develop a non-nuclear ground-based cruise missile with a range of between 500 km and 5,500 km. Some $58 mln is expected to be earmarked for this program. These weapons are banned by the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) signed by the US and the Soviet Union in 1987, the paper says.

In mid-October, Russian President Vladimir Putin raised concerns about US budget plans enabling it to produce an intermediate-range missile stressing that the key bilateral deal is "thrown into question." He warned that if the US wished to withdraw from the treaty, Russia would respond in kind.

Experts questioned by the paper warned that the INF Treaty, signed almost 30 years ago, is in jeopardy.

"It’s regrettable that Russia and the United States have failed to sit down at the negotiating table and decide themselves on who violated what and how to preserve the treaty. If there is political will, all the claims may be dropped. But both sides lack it now, and this is a dangerous situation," Deputy Director of the Institute for US and Canada Studies, Pavel Zolotarev told the paper.


Kommersant: Putin to deliver New Year’s message to Russian military

Russian President Vladimir Putin will hold an extended meeting of the Defense Ministry’s board in the National Defense Management Center on December 22, military sources told Kommersant. Together with Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, Putin will sum up the year’s military achievements and will outline its mission for 2018.

The meeting will focus on the outcome of Russia’s military campaign in Syria, NATO’s eastward expansion, the pace of re-equipping and strengthening the army, and also fulfilling social commitments to military personnel, according to the paper.

The president’s address will emphasize the need to have a strong army capable of repelling any aggressor, but without excessive militarization or entering into an arms race with the US, a high-ranking source said. Putin’s speech will traditionally contain many figures, including on the campaign in Syria.

Viktor Murakhovsky, Editor of the Arsenal Otechestva (Arsenal of the Fatherland) magazine, stressed that Putin will unveil future goals, namely advancing nuclear weapons and maintaining parity with the US, equipping the army with modern weapons, focusing on space and high-precision weapons and also means of non-nuclear containment.

Political scientist Mikhail Vinogradov expects that Putin may declare the end of Russia’s campaign in Syria, "which no more arouses a storm of feelings in the public."


Izvestia: EAEU, Singapore to enjoy free trade by 2018

The Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) will sign a free trade agreement with Singapore by next year, sources in the organization told Izvestia. Russian President Vladimir Putin confirmed ahead of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Vietnam last week that the talks with Singapore were underway. He also backed the idea of setting up the Asia-Pacific Free Trade Area, with the EAEU (Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan) included in it.

The Economic Development Ministry explained that these are long-term goals and Russia is steadily shifting towards free trade based on EAEU agreements with certain countries.

Anton Tsvetov, an expert from the Center for Strategic Research, believes that it is much easier to establish trade and economic cooperation between the EAEU and a particular country than such huge schemes as creating a free trade zone of the EAEU plus the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Vietnam became the first member-state of APEC, which signed a free trade deal with the EAEU. "Just like with Vietnam, the free trade zone with Singapore will be the second trial balloon," he said, explaining that the deal would pave the way for cooperation in the areas of interest, such as finance, investment, and in the service sector.

In 2018, Russia and Singapore will mark their 50th anniversary of establishing bilateral diplomatic ties and signing this important agreement will be symbolic, the expert said.

The EAEU has almost agreed on a trade and economic cooperation deal with China. According to Izvestia, official talks on creating free trade zones are also underway with Iran, India, Egypt, Israel and Serbia.


Nezavisimaya Gazeta: Russia writes off Maduro’s debts

Russia’s Finance Ministry has hammered out an agreement on restructuring Venezuela’s $3 bln debt. The deal is expected to be signed on November 15. Nezavisimaya Gazeta writes that in the best scenario, Russia will get this money back in 10 years, but it is most likely that Russian taxpayers won’t see a red cent.

Venezuela’s overall debt today accounts for up to 40% of its GDP, and the country’s gold and foreign currency reserves are not enough to stabilize the situation.

The paper writes that since 2000, Russia has written off its partners’ debts to the tune of more than $140 bln.

Alexander Timofeyev, an associate professor at the Russian University of Economics, has compiled a rating of countries, which had their debts written off by Russia. Cuba is the unparalleled leader ($31.7 bln), followed by Iraq ($21.5 bln), African countries (more than $20 bln), and then Mongolia and Afghanistan ($11 bln).

According to experts, in theory Russia could expect that its influence might strengthen in these countries, but this is not always the case. 

"When Cuba’s $30 bln debt was written off, they promised us joint projects in energy, transport and healthcare. A year has gone by, and we haven’t heard a peep from them since," Timofeyev said.

Finam Investment Analyst Alexey Kalachev said: "Providing financial or commodity assistance to a country amid vague hopes of loans being paid back is a tool of influence that could pull countries into the orbit of Russia’s foreign policy. So there is no doubt, we have to write off these countries’ debts."


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