Top stories in the Russian press on Thursday, February 20, prepared by TASS
Media: Turkey gearing up for military operation in Syria’s Idlib
A military operation in Syria’s Idlib is just "a question of time," Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said, vowing that Turkey’s forces were prepared for the offensive. The Turkish leader’s emotional pledge to "pay any price" came the next day after another round of Russian-Turkish talks on Idlib, which did not bear any fruit. The Kremlin stressed that Erdogan’s looming military operation against the Syrian army would be the worst scenario.
Russia and Turkey are at loggerheads now over whether Turkish observation points will remain on the territory controlled by Damascus, Kommersant writes. According to Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, Ankara won’t abandon its positions, while Moscow believes that Turkey would have to recognize a new reality. While Ankara and Moscow are bickering, the Syrian army is continuing its offensive in Idlib and the de-escalation zone is rapidly shrinking.
Russian International Affairs Council expert Timur Ahmetov told Kommersant that Turkey was unlikely to violate international law and start a war with another UN member and an Arab state. "Turkey is fulfilling the concept of coercive diplomacy, flexing its military muscle, while its major goal is to improve its negotiating positions and diplomatic clout," the expert noted.
Moscow is calling on Ankara to iron out the situation in Idlib by diplomatic means, stressing that a military scenario would only worsen things, First Deputy Chairman of the State Duma (lower house) Defense Committee Andrei Krasov told Izvestia. According to him, only the terrorists would benefit from a direct clash between the Syrian and Turkish armies.
A Turkish lawmaker, Ozturk Yilmaz, told Izvestia that Ankara still believed there was a chance to settle the crisis in Idlib by diplomatic means. Turkey is ready to continue talks with Moscow before launching a military operation, he said, noting: "But the negotiations should be held soon since tensions in the country are running high over the death of Turkish troops in Idlib. The Syrian army continues its offensive deeper into the province and that’s why Turkey won’t hesitate to respond militarily," the politician said. "But at first talks with Russia should be held to rule out a direct clash between the two countries’ militaries."
Nezavisimaya Gazeta: Libya teetering between war and peace
Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu and Commander of the Libyan National Army Khalifa Haftar held talks in Moscow amid the sharp rise in violence in the North African country. The veteran Libyan commander’s chief foe, the government of Fayez al-Sarraj, has announced it was pulling out of the peace process because of the LNA’s recent attack on Tripoli’s port, Nezavisimaya Gazeta writes.
According to the Russian Defense Ministry, during the Moscow-hosted talks, the sides confirmed the need to fulfill the decisions announced at the Berlin conference on Libya in January. At the meeting, Shoigu and the LNA commander agreed that there is no alternative to a political settlement for the Libyan crisis.
The recent spike in violence in Libya was caused by a supposed violation of the arms embargo. Haftar’s forces allegedly struck a Turkish cargo ship near Tripoli, which was carrying ammunition and weapons. Sarraj’s government responded by pulling out of the Geneva meeting of the so-called 5+5 Joint Military Commission on Tuesday. This is the only platform for talks between the forces of Haftar and Sarraj, the paper notes.
The European Union has laid out plans to create a new mission to Libya to stop the flow of weapons into the country. This mission will impact the balance of powers in Libya, the paper says. Leading researcher at the Center for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences Vladimir Isaev noted that political levers of influence on Haftar are more important than military ones for Sarraj. "It’s clear. Sarraj’s government is dangling by a thread. It controls just Tripoli and a small part of the coastline, and not in it’s entirety. This government would have collapsed if Turkey had not helped it," the expert said.
Now, Sarraj will focus on destroying the coalition of countries supporting the LNA and will try to stonewall oil supplies to the territory controlled by Haftar while relying on Turkey’s support. "Whether he will succeed or not, this is really an important issue. And the refusal to take part in the Geneva talks is just a small episode, which should not be overestimated," Isaev said.
Izvestia: Hacker activity and data breaches on the rise in Russia
Last year, the volume of stolen data of financial organizations around the world grew 27-fold compared with 2018, surpassing 1 bln in confidential records from banks, insurance companies and pension funds, a study carried out by InfoWatch company revealed, according to Izvestia. The number of these incidents globally grew only 7.9%, while in Russia these breaches rose 57.6% last year, with some 2.7 mln records stolen. This is six times more than in 2018. Analysts blame this situation on expanding databases, explaining that companies are amassing more information about clients, including their interests, seeking to use it for marketing goals.
Hackers mostly target personal data about Russians, which accounts for nearly 77% of all stolen confidential information. Perpetrators also seek to obtain data about payments (13.5%) and commercial secrets. Last year, 218 leaks of financial organizations’ data were reported around the world, including 33 in Russia. A significant number of personal data leaks is related to its insufficient protection when information is stored on cloud services, the research says.
Igor Bederov, who heads an Internet research company, noted that the volume of stolen data in Russia is on the rise amid the growing digitalization of the economy. Russia’s Central Bank told the paper that it plans to pay special attention to the issues of controlling the information flow of financial organizations and safeguarding data.
Nezavisimaya Gazeta: US targets Nord Stream 2 but invests in Gazprom
This year, Russia could face more economic sanctions but market participants are calm about the looming prospects and the new restrictions are unlikely to stir up panic among investors, S&P Global Ratings found out, according to Nezavisimaya Gazeta. According to the ratings agency, Russian companies are now less exposed to the risk of slumping prices on raw materials than a few years ago. Meanwhile, analysts expect that the Russian currency will decline some 5-10%. However, S&P assures that a depreciating ruble would be good news for exporters of raw materials, who will benefit from less spending dollar-wise.
The forecast was confirmed by the news that Russia’s energy giant Gazprom has announced a record-high placement of Eurobonds to the tune of $2 bln at 3.5%. The demand exceeded the supply threefold, with one-third of the bonds purchased by US investors. Other bonds were bought by investors from Russia (20%), Europe (17%), Asia (15%) and the United Kingdom (10-11%), according to First Vice President Denis Shulakov of Gazprombank. This placement of bonds shows that Western investors’ relation to Russia is better than for Iran, the paper says. If they really feared that "sanctions from hell" could shatter Russia’s economy, they would not have decided to buy the securities of the Russian company, which has come under pressure.
Shulakov notes that Gazprom’s bond placement was with the lowest rate in the company’s history on international capital markets. This means that Gazprom, led by CEO Alexei Miller, has offered more advantageous terms than other companies such as Saudi Arabian Oil (Saudi Aramco) and Total. Natalya Milchakova, deputy head of Alpari think-tank says that this shows investors’ trust in the emitter and in the entire Russian economy.
Izvestia: Russia bans Chinese delicacies over coronavirus fears
Russia’s agricultural watchdog, the Federal Service for Veterinary and Phytosanitary Surveillance, has prohibited the deliveries of meat products from China, which has been hit by the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. The new measure is aimed at preventing the spread of the deadly disease from China, which has killed more than 2,000 people, as well as African swine fever.
Head of the National Meat Association’s executive committee Sergey Yushin told Izvestia that most often Russians order Chinese sausage and byproducts, for example, pig ears. Other popular Chinese delicacies are spicy chicken feet in jelly, chicken necks or legs, as well as pork and beef jerky.
The Russian agricultural watchdog has ordered its personnel to stop passengers carrying prepared meat products from China in their luggage. Russia has beefed up control over people traveling from Southeast Asian countries since the beginning of this year, and 100% of their baggage has been checked. However, heat-treated products and factory-sealed goods, which were earlier allowed, have now been banned.
Executive Director of the National Association of Remote Trading Mikhail Yatsenko told Izvestia that the volume of orders for meat products from China is not large in Russia. Usually, Chinese delicacies are purchased by the residents of bordering regions. The expert also notes that the Russian agricultural watchdog’s prohibition won’t target Chinese non-food packages since they don’t pose any threat.