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Press review: Dozens die in Kemerovo blaze and Iran’s gambit to imperil Russia in Syria

Top stories in the Russian press on Monday, March 26

RBC: Shopping mall blaze kills dozens of people in Siberia

On Sunday afternoon, a deadly fire broke out at the Zimnyaya Vishnya (Winter Cherry) shopping mall in central Kemerovo. The fire began on the top floor of the four-storey building and ended up taking dozens of people’s lives. The blaze spread over a thermally insulated section, engulfing an area of some 1,500 square meters, which substantially complicated fire-fighting operations, a source in the Emergency Ministry’s regional center told RBC. Two hundred people were evacuated from the burning building, a representative of the local division of the Emergency Ministry told the newspaper.

A source familiar with the files of the investigation told RBC that the automatic sprinkler system failed to work when the fire broke out. "Visitors to the shopping mall left the building on their own," he said. People also said that the alarm system did not work.

The shopping mall with an overall area of 23,000 square meters was opened in 2013. It has a parking lot for 250 cars, shops, a bowling alley, a children’s center, a cinema, food courts and a petting zoo.

So far, rescuers have found 53 bodies at the site of the fire that engulfed the shopping mall in the Russian Siberian city of Kemerovo, the operation headquarters told TASS. Twelve people have been hospitalized and another 36 victims have received medical assistance. Four people have been detained and questioned, including the tenant of a facility where the blaze’s epicenter had been reported.


Media: Moscow to come up with tit-for-tat response if EU members expel Russian diplomats

Russia will be forced to reciprocate if EU states decide to expel Russian diplomats, Izvestia writes on Monday citing sources in diplomatic circles. This comes after leaders of countries in the European Union passed a decision to recall EU Ambassador to Russia Markus Ederer for consultations over the Skripal case. Given that some member states were reportedly looking at either recalling their diplomats from Russia or expelling Russian diplomats, decisions are expected later in the day, the newspaper says.

Experts interviewed by Izvestia view the expulsion of diplomats to be a troubling sign. Head of the Federation Council (upper house) International Affairs Committee Konstantin Kosachev believes that "any decision like this should be followed by a tit-for-tat response from the Russian side." "Each of our opponents should clearly understand that such decisions are not only taken against the headcount of Russia’s diplomatic staff in the country, but against the total headcount of its diplomatic representation," he specified. "This is not our choice, but we should leave no space for any ambiguity here," Kosachev stressed. Sources in Russia’s foreign ministry confirmed that Moscow would have to stick to a tit-for-tat approach in this case.

Meanwhile, Mark Galeotti, senior research fellow at the Institute of International Relations in Prague, expects potential sanctions imposed by several allies "to become a crucial political signal. "Such measures are necessary because they will hinder Russia from carrying out intelligence operations, which apart from information collection contain such active measures as fueling tensions in EU society and supporting European populists," he told Nezavisimaya Gazeta, adding that he sees "those actions assumed by Moscow to be part of an undeclared political war." However, few experts anticipate Russia to change stance after more restrictions are imposed, Nezavisimaya says.

The participants of the EU Council meeting expressed solidarity with London late last week and pledged to support an investigation into the alleged poisoning incident with ex-Colonel Sergei Skripal formerly of Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate who was convicted for spying for the United Kingdom. The European Council agreed with London’s assessment that it was ‘highly likely’ that the Russian Federation is responsible, it said in a final statement released after the meeting. However, the European Council adopted no practical measures against Moscow concerning the Skripal case.


Nezavisimaya Gazeta: Israel signals Kremlin about Iran building ploy that would put Russian forces at risk

Israel suspects Iran is intentionally building up its military presence under the guise of residential construction near Russian positions in Syria, Nezavisimaya Gazeta says citing the Times of Israel. Its sources said those construction facilities allegedly built for civilians, are accommodating Tehran-backed Shi’ite militias. Moreover, the construction works have not been agreed on with the Russian military command, which may turn Russian servicemen into human shields for pro-Iranian military forces in the event of a potential Israeli strike. According to the Times of Israel, Iran is employing this tactic for "expanding its footprint" militarily and avoiding Israeli strikes, since Israel’s armed forces usually hate to expose their Russian partners to danger. Experts polled by Nezavisimaya confirmed that those reports are a crucial signal to Kremlin.

The Times of Israel report should be seen as a signal addressed to Russia and Iran, that Israel is aware of the new tactics used by Tehran, Elizaveta Tsurkova, a research fellow at Israel’s Forum for Regional Thinking told the newspaper. "Israel agreed with the Kremlin once Russia’s military operation in Syria was launched in September 2015 that the risks of conflicts would be eliminated by preventing any accidental exchange of fire between the Israeli Defense Forces and the Russian military," she said. According to the expert, being perfectly aware of Israel’s strategy not to hurt Russian interests and forces in Syria, Iran uses it to shield its own groups. "On its part, Israel is attempting to establish good working relations with the Kremlin," Tsurkova emphasized, adding that Israel would be using diplomacy, trying to convince Moscow to prevent the construction of Iranian facilities close to Russian positions.

"Currently, the interests of Russia and Iran in Syria go hand in hand: Russia knows that it needs Iranian militants in order to clear the territory from terrorists. However, over the long-term, Tehran’s and Moscow’s interests will not totally coincide as Russia seeks to present Syria as its own success story," the expert told Nezavisimaya. Meanwhile, she doubts that Russia and Iran would become adversaries in the future, since both states are too interested in the partnership, despite the fact that they are now competing for some projects in Syria.


Kommersant: Russia to come up with advanced Sukhoi Superjet 100

Russian President Vladimir Putin welcomed the Industry and Trade Ministry’s initiative to develop a new smaller model of the SSJ100, Russia’s modern fly-by-wire twin-engine regional jet, Kommersant writes. The newspaper’s sources in the aviation industry said that the president had also approved plans to earmark 85 bln rubles ($1.5 bln) for the project, sources in the government office and presidential administration confirmed the information. The new jet will have less seats than its predecessor, and as few imported components as possible, including the possible replacement of the engine.

The Rossiya Special Flight Unit, which transports Russia’s top officials, is ready to order 10 such jets to the tune of 35 bln rubles ($614 mln) and the Defense Ministry is looking into ordering roughly 30 planes, Kommersant says. The first civil order may come from Russian air carrier, S7. Two sources among industry players told the publication that co-owner of S7 Vladislav Filev is negotiating the purchase of 75 jets. Sukhoi Civil Aircraft, a division of the Russian civil aerospace company United Aircraft Corporation (UAC), which develops the Sukhoi Superjet, said that the new model may be available in end-2022 or early 2023, though several sources in the sector told Kommersant they consider those plans very optimistic, as documentation development and construction of several test articles would take at least eight years.

Sukhoi Civil Aircraft announced plans to design a smaller version of the Sukhoi Superjet-100 with 75 seats instead of 98 in late 2017. In an interview with TASS, Company President Alexander Rubtsov said that this new aircraft might enter the market in 2022. Sukhoi Superjet’s maiden flight was conducted on May 19, 2008. Commercial passenger flights began in 2011. Airline companies of Mexico and Ireland have SSJ-100 in their fleets.


RBC: Viber refuses to provide codes to Russia’s FSB

Viber has refused to provide codes needed to read users’ electronic messages to Russia’s Federal Security Service, or the FSB, RBC business daily says. Viber Media S.a.r.I., a subsidiary of Japan’s Rakuten, which owns one of the most popular messengers in Russia, is ready to cooperate with authorities of various countries, though it will not provide codes for the descrambling of messages, COO of Viber Michael Shmilov told the newspaper.

"One has to understand that in the majority of countries cooperating with law enforcement bodies is required for providing assistance to users - search for spammers, apprehending plotters who use platforms similar to ours for illegal actions and so on. It is obligatory for us to cooperate with them. But there are things we will never do," he said, adding that this concerns furnishing encrypting keys. "They may be requested from users, but we as a company do not see and store them, and even when the special services arrive our reply does not change," he added.

This comes after Russia’s Supreme Court turned down a request from the management of the electronic messaging service provider Telegram to declare an order void issued by the Federal Security Service that established the rules and procedures of obtaining codes for reading users’ electronic messages. In October 2017, a Moscow court found the Telegram Messenger responsible for violating the Code of Administrative Procedure’s requirement for disclosing to law enforcement officials requested information about messages being exchanged by its users and fined the company 800,000 rubles ($14,000). Telegram said the FSB order violates civil rights. Now the company faces the threat of being blocked in Russia.


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