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Press review: UK vows retaliation over spy case and how Tillerson’s exit affects US policy

Top stories in the Russian press on Wednesday, March 14


Kommersant: UK eyeing new anti-Russian sanctions over ex-spy case

British Prime Minister Theresa May is expected to unveil tough measures against Russia on Wednesday over the alleged poisoning of former Russian military intelligence Colonel Sergey Skripal in the UK, Kommersant writes. She earlier accused Moscow of what she described as an "unlawful use of force" against the UK by the Russian state. Moscow, for its part, made it clear in advance that it had no intention of meeting May’s ultimatum.

Immediately after addressing the British parliament, May began talks with her European counterparts on how to hold Russia accountable for the attempted murder of Skripal and his daughter.

A British diplomatic source informed the paper that London will try to persuade Paris to reconsider plans for President Macron’s visit to the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum this coming May. However, Kommersant’s source in French diplomatic circles assured that so far there are no signs of canceling the visit.

Shashank Joshi, Senior Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London, told the paper, commenting on the attempt on Skripal’s life that Moscow is thus demonstratively warning all guardians of state secrets outside Russia against collaborating with the authorities or private intelligence companies in other countries. He also noted that Russian authorities allegedly sought revenge against the former military intelligence officer, because they feel that such actions are unforgivable. He recalled though that there is a lot of speculation around the case of Skripal, who has lived in Britain since 2010 and has had no access to classified information for a long time.

Meanwhile, a British diplomatic source stressed in an interview with Kommersant that Moscow and London began to step up bilateral ties recently, and that was largely due to close cooperation between the two countries’ law enforcement agencies in the run-up to the 2018 FIFA World Cup to be held in Russia. According to the information obtained by the paper, London unofficially expressed willingness to hold consultations with Moscow in those areas where there is no dialogue at all at the moment (primarily, on cyber security). Currently, the chances that such contacts will be maintained in the near future are very slim.


RBC: How Tillerson’s exit will shake up Washington’s foreign policy

US President Donald Trump’s decision to oust former Secretary of State Rex Tiillerson and appoint CIA Director Mike Pompeo who is widely referred to as a "hawk" will not have a profound effect on Washington’s relations with Russia, Chairman of the Presidium of Russia’s Council on Foreign and Defense Policy Fyodor Lukyanov told RBC. In his view, with Tillerson’s departure, a more hawkish administration would be formed, with former CIA Director Mike Pompeo joining the three generals in the president’s entourage, namely, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster. "Trump has never made it a secret that he admires strength and believes it is necessary to make America great, so he selected the people who think the same way," the expert noted.

For Russia, the departure of Tillerson who always played a counterbalancing role to Trump’s opinion is, rather, a negative signal. Meanwhile, Pompeo’s appointment can lead to an increase in the number of radical decisions made by the US administration, says Maxim Suchkov, an expert at the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC). Pompeo is a more dependent and weak director who, apparently, will act as an administrator rather than advisor, the expert stressed. "Now there is no one in the Department of State who will restrain the president’s impulses and ambitions," he said.

According to Vladimir Dzhabarov, First Deputy Chairman of Russia’s Federation Council (upper house) International Affairs Committee, Mike Pompeo is a well-informed person, which may help him iron out Russian-US relations. "He may get a chance to become the person who will prevent our relations from hitting their lowest point," the senator told RBC.


Media: Will the US risk a strike against Damascus?

Russia has warned that it reserves the right to respond to possible US strikes against Damascus and its vicinity. Chief of Russia’s General Staff Valery Gerasimov said that Moscow would have to retaliate, if this poses a threat to the lives of Russian military servicemen in Syria.

If the Americans decide to use force against Syria, the US command would likely order the use of Tomahawk cruise missiles, Kirill Semenov, Head of the Islamic Research Center at the Institute of Innovative Development, told Nezavisimaya Gazeta. "The Americans, of course, will not use aircraft. Those will be Tomahawk missiles. Apparently, the issue at hand is destroying those missiles, which can target Damascus’ suburbs. The problem is that Russia will hardly be able to shoot down something in the Mediterranean, as its capabilities are insufficient for thwarting an attack on Damascus."

The expert added that the Russian General Staff’s statement is basically aimed at preventing any possible unilateral moves by Washington. Semenov believes that, in the event of a US strike, there will be no excessive risk for Russian military servicemen, the way it was when the Shayrat Airbase was attacked.

Given that militants’ defensive lines in Eastern Ghouta are collapsing, the use of chemical weapons by the advancing government troops is pointless from a military perspective. Therefore, Western governments’ statements on their readiness to carry out a strike against the area to punish the Assad regime for the alleged use of chemical weapons actually mean an attempt to rescue the terrorists remaining there, Vedomosti quotes Konstantin Makiyenko, an expert at the Center for Analysis, Strategies and Technologies, as saying.

Russia has warned, for the first time since the beginning of its military operation in Syria, about the possibility of a direct military counteraction to the US, though some general statements were made on the issue in the past, said Ivan Konovalov, Director of the Center for Strategic Studies. That means that tensions are on the rise, but when compared to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the current situation is premature, the expert noted. Back then, the US suddenly discovered Soviet missiles in close proximity, while now both sides are well informed about each other’s potential, he added.


Kommersant: Rosneft’s price tag could be too hefty for Chinese investors

The deal on purchasing a 14.2% stake in Rosneft from the Glencore-QIA Consortium by China’s CEFC has been frozen due to financial issues, Kommersant found out. Pouring $9.1 bln into obtaining the stake in the Russian oil and gas company could lead to a substantial increase in the debt burden. That being said, the deal is heavily (more than 50%) dependent on external borrowings, and therefore can lead to a significant increase in CEFC’s debt, according to China Chengxin Credit Rating Group.

Kommersant’s sources noted that the Chinese company has already made an initial payment for the transaction. One of the sources believes that, if China gives up the deal, it will forfeit a large sum of money to penalties, which can be equal to the down payment itself.

Meanwhile, political issues are exacerbating CEFC’s financial problems. In early March, Chinese media reports said the company’s Chairman Ye Jianming had been detained on suspicion of corruption.

"It is hard to say how seriously politics is involved here. However, considering Ye Jianming’s ties with the special services, his case may be related to (President) Xi Jinping’s campaign to purge the security services, which has been going on for several years now," said Igor Denisov, a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for East Asian and Shanghai Cooperation Organization Studies. He stressed that the company pursued an aggressive expansion strategy in foreign markets, and "any failure can be a blow to China’s image, including the flagship One Belt, One Road initiative, which is closely associated with Xi Jinping’s name."

For his part, Leonid Kovachich, an expert on the Chinese market, noted that CEFC began attracting loans in the so-called shadow banking system in the second half of 2017, often at very high interest rates. Taking into account the fact that the government has recently prioritized the fight against financial risks, "CEFC’s economic adventurism could not go unnoticed," he pointed out.


Izvestia: Russia to protect its civilian airports from drones

Russia’s Federal Air Transport Agency has drawn up measures to protect civilian airports from unauthorized unmanned aerial vehicles’ flights. Accordingly, any drones violating these rules would be forcibly grounded, Izvestia writes.

What the authorities fear most is the possible use of drones for terrorist objectives. Militants of the Islamic State (terror group, outlawed in Russia) have shown in Syria that even primitive drones are capable of carrying a significant bomb load.

Head of the Russian Federal Air Transport Agency Alexander Neradko told the paper that the agency had developed measures to forcibly ground unmanned aerial vehicles penetrating into airports’ controlled areas.

"These functions will probably be performed by the special services at the airports. The necessary equipment can be placed along the facility’s perimeter. An unmanned aerial vehicle can either be forcibly landed or returned to the point of departure," he explained.

According to Gleb Babintsev, Director General of the Association of Operators and Developers of Unmanned Aviation Systems, even light drones, which are gaining popularity among Russians, can be a potential danger to civilian passenger aircraft. "An amateur quadcopter can lead to a critical malfunction with fatal consequences when a plane is gaining altitude or descending, if it gets into the engine," he told Izvestia.

"Besides, one cannot rule out the use of drones against civilian airports for terrorist purposes. During an attack, the perpetrator is likely to use an aircraft-type drone, which is capable of retaining flight trajectory at a high speed even if electronic warfare systems disconnect its engines and onboard electronics," he concluded.


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