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Press review: EU expels scores of Russian diplomats and Russia may de-escalate Yemeni war

Top stories in the Russian press on Tuesday, March 27


Media: Russian diplomats expelled from Europe in ‘solidarity’ with UK

Seventeen European Union member-states, joined by the United States, Ukraine, Canada, Norway and Albania, announced on Monday their decision to expel Russian diplomats, showing "solidarity" with the United Kingdom, which accuses Russia of having been behind the alleged poisoning of former Russian military intelligence officer and British spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in England. More than 100 Russian diplomats will return home earlier than scheduled. Moscow has voiced a stern protest against the moves, slamming the accusations as unfounded. Moscow will announce a tit-for-tat response, which may be even more serious, a high-ranking Russian diplomatic source told Izvestia.

"Russia will possibly think about an even harsher response than acting based on the reciprocity principle. We will respond to the expulsion of each diplomat," the source said.

From the very outset, the entire Skripal case has been a carefully planned provocation by the United Kingdom and the United States with the goal of targeting Russia, Deputy Chairman of the Federation Council’s (upper house) Foreign Affairs Committee Vladimir Dzabarov said. "Certainly, we will expel US and European diplomats from Russia in a tit-for-tat move."

Meanwhile, experts questioned by RBC believe that the West’s massive demarche against Russia may ignite a further escalation of tensions. According to Maxim Suchkov, an expert at the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), this step may touch off a "spiraling confrontation" and spark a wave of measures and countermeasures.

Richard Sakwa, Professor of Russian and European politics at the University of Kent, calls the current events a turning point and warns that a further escalation between London and Moscow is on the horizon, confirming that bilateral ties are in a deadlock.

Andrei Baklanov, Deputy Chairman of the Council of the Association of Russian Diplomats who served as Russia’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia in 2000-2005, told Nezavisimaya Gazeta that the massive expulsion of Russian diplomats is a new phenomenon which has been announced under the UK’s pressure.

However, Moscow should not respond to this move, he said. "The voices calling to respond automatically are an ill-conceived and emotional reaction. What’s behind the expulsion decision? That’s the wish to get a number of countries entangled in a conflict with us. If we fall for this and get drawn into this confrontation, which is artificial, this will worsen our relations with more countries."

The Russian diplomat stressed that Moscow should declare a tit-for-tat response against the UK rather than target all the countries.


Kommersant: Russia may prevent escalation of Yemeni conflict

On the third anniversary of Operation Decisive Storm, launched by a coalition of Persian Gulf monarchies led by Saudi Arabia, the conflict around one of the most troubled Middle Eastern states heated up, Kommersant writes. Yemen’s Houthis rebels from the Ansar Allah movement delivered a surprise missile strike on the Saudi Kingdom targeting airports and other strategic facilities. In contrast to Syria, while assessing the Yemeni conflict, Russia and the West showed unanimity condemning the strikes against Saudi territory. The actions of the Houthis may drag the Yemeni conflict into a hot phase.

Russia, which is the only global power with close contacts with both Saudi Arabia and its key opponent Iran, who backs the Houthis, may play a special role in preventing the conflict’s escalation, the paper writes.

According to a military and diplomatic source, the incident may strengthen Moscow’s positions at talks with the Saudi military on purchasing Russia’s S-400 systems: Riyadh can acquire air defense systems of various types and different manufacturers.

The Russian Foreign Ministry condemned the attack against Saudi Arabia as a further destabilizing factor.

Given Russian ties with both Iran and Saudi Arabia, "Moscow’s neutral stance in the Yemeni conflict and also its contacts with all the conflicting sides emboldens global NGOs with hope that the crisis will be settled," Elsa Vidal, who heads the Moscow office of Oxfam, a UK-based confederation of independent charitable organizations, told the paper.


Nezavisimaya Gazeta: Poland sparks spy spat that may derail Russia’s gas exports

Poland announced on Monday that it detained a spy who had allegedly provided Moscow with secret data on how Warsaw planned to counter the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. The new spy scandal comes on the heels of the gas conflict between Ukraine and Russia, Nezavisimaya Gazeta writes. Kiev is still not satisfied by the concessions, which both countries had made earlier. After its win in the decision by the Stockholm court, Ukraine is pushing for additional, even unattainable, advantages on transit.

However, given Kiev’s special demands, this transit is becoming unprofitable for Gazprom. Meanwhile, the Russian energy giant apparently has a very little room for maneuver and if it does not want to undermine its current contracts with Europe, it is almost impossible for it to give up the Ukrainian transit route, the paper says.

"Speaking on Nord Stream 2, due to the political factor, uncertainty is mounting over the timeframe for completing the project. To be more precise, it is becoming more certain that the timeframe for building the gas pipeline will be delayed," analyst at Sberbank CIB Valery Nesterov told the paper. "A delay of one or two years will mean that Russia will have to sign a serious transit agreement with Ukraine."

The contracts between Russia and Ukraine on gas supplies and transit expire in late 2019. After the Stockholm court’s decision, which ordered Russia to pay some $2.6 bln to Ukraine, Gazprom notified the Ukrainian energy company, Naftogaz, that a procedure of terminating the contracts is getting underway, Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller said. The company’s new projects would serve to become an alternative for this transit route, the paper said.


Kommersant: North Korean leader pays historic visit to China, braces for US show of force

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has left his country for the first time since taking the reins of power and arrived on a landmark visit to Beijing, according to foreign media reports. Pyongyang is stepping up diplomacy due to a growing threat that the United States may launch a military operation against North Korea, Kommersant writes. Pyongyang increased its diplomatic efforts after the White House decided to appoint ex-CIA chief Mike Pompeo as its new Secretary of State and John Bolton as national security adviser. Both of them favor military force against North Korea.

Konstantin Asmolov, Leading Research Fellow at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute for Far Eastern Studies, said the North Korean leader’s visit to Beijing, if confirmed, comes from the changing security atmosphere in the region. "First, the appointment of hawks in the US to the key foreign policy positions has made Washington’s military operation more possible," the expert pointed out. Another key moment is that Beijing has changed its attitude towards North Korea amid a deteriorating relationship with the US.

Pyongyang is apparently mobilizing its potential foreign policy allies, including Russia, the paper said. The Russian and North Korean Foreign Ministries are gearing up for a visit to Russia by North Korea’s top diplomat Ri Yong-ho, according to Russian media reports.

The North Korean minister’s visit comes amid Pyongyang’s efforts to create "a climate for talks with the US," Go Myong-Hyun, a research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said. North Korea’s goal is to force all countries to exert pressure on Washington to ensure that the meeting between the leaders of North Korea and the US will be held without any preconditions. Despite poor relations between Moscow and Washington, coordination on North Korea remains one of areas of cooperation, the paper writes.


Nezavisimaya Gazeta: Russia, Qatar boost commercial, political ties

Moscow hosted talks between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani on Monday. The leaders discussed fostering economic partnership and also the Middle East situation. The severed diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia drove Doha into searching for new economic partners and expanding political cooperation with Russia, representatives of the Qatari delegation told Nezavisimaya Gazeta.

Qatar is an important political player in the Middle East, the region where Russia has been increasing its influence by leaps and bounds, Majid Al Ansari, Professor of Political Sociology at Qatar University, told the paper. The blockade of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain, served as an additional impetus to step up Doha’s cooperation with Russia, he said. "Qatar is diversifying its foreign policy and economic ties to make its course more stable," said Al Ansari, who arrived in Moscow as part of a scientific delegation accompanying Al Thani.

A better political climate between Doha and Moscow will enable them to transform their potential rivalry on the energy market into an alliance that would define the rules of the game, Al Ansari noted.

Doha and Moscow are also boosting military cooperation as can be seen by a preliminary agreement reached on Qatar’s purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile systems.

However, closer military cooperation between Doha and Moscow may raise Washington’s eyebrows, which is trying to contain Russia’s defense potential, the paper writes. Meanwhile, Doha does not anticipate any harsh steps from the US regarding the purchase of the S-400s. "Today there is an understanding that our relations [between Russia and Qatar] are not deep enough, and that’s why the US is unlikely to react in a hostile way," a source in the emirate’s Foreign Ministry told the paper.

Al Ansari noted that banning Doha’s cooperation with third countries is not part of the US’ purview. "Qatar and Russia are two sovereign states and that’s why I don’t consider it is appropriate for anyone to have a right to disturb them."


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