Top stories in the Russian press on Tuesday, December 22, prepared by TASS
Kommersant: Central African Republic requests Russian troops for aid
Russia has sent its troops to the Central African Republic (CAR) to help the republic’s government stop the advance of insurgents on the capital, a spokesman for the CAR government informed. Moscow has not commented on the statement, expressing concern over "reports of a mutiny." Russian military aides have been in CAR for a long time, along with private military contractors, Kommersant reports. Earlier, the local media reported that a group of "Russian mercenaries" had been defeated in the city of Mbaiki about 100 km away from the country’s capital. Meanwhile, Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov pointed out that "currently there is no threat to the lives of any Russian citizens."
Tensions in the Central African Republic escalated at the end of last week. The republic plans to hold presidential and parliamentary elections on December 27. Leaders of several armed rebel groups declared a new coalition, whose forces include over 9,000 people. Back on Friday, the coalition forces began to advance on CAR’s capital of Bangui. The country’s government accused former President Francois Bozize, who was not allowed to take part in the presidential election by the Constitutional Court, just like back in 2014, the nation’s government issued an international order for his arrest. Bozize is accused of murder, unlawful arrests, kidnapping and torture.
On Sunday evening, CAR’s government addressed its "friendly and brotherly countries," Russia and Rwanda, with a request for aid in ensuring the security of the election process. At the same time, reports on social networks informed of Russian planes arriving in the republic, supposedly transporting weapons and Russian mercenaries. Spokesman for the CAR Government Ange Maxime Kazagui told the AFP agency that Russia had sent several hundred people from its regular forces and heavy equipment within its bilateral cooperation agreement. He did not specify the exact number of Russian officers nor the date of their arrival.
"Russia-related business and businessmen have always been in CAR, however, [Russia] was only able to enter the country strategically back in 2018, possibly through Sudan and the UAE, which had ties to members of the Central African armed Muslim opposition and their business community. However, it was the letdown in the policy of France, which always bet on the titular political groups of the capital, as well as in the work of the UN, which created a favorable backdrop for Russia’s arrival," expert on African affairs Alexei Tselunov told Kommersant. He recalled that France’s Operation Sangaris had deepened the rift in the country between the groups under control of the central government in the capital and the uncontrollable north. Meanwhile, the UN did not see the country’s Muslim opposition as members of the negotiation process, deeming the opposition Islamic radicals, which does not correspond to the truth, the expert explained.
Kommersant: Navalny publishes alleged call with Russian FSB officer
Russian opposition figure Alexey Navalny has published a recording of his conversation with a person that he named among those behind his alleged poisoning in a joint investigation by Bellingcat, The Insider and Russia’s Anti-Corruption Foundation with the participation of CNN and Der Spiegel. The phone call, published on Monday, details Navalny’s conversation with Konstantin Kudryavtsev, an alleged member of a group of FSB operatives tasked with poisoning the Russian politician, Kommersant informs.
Navalny introduced himself as an aide of Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev. The alleged FSB operative told him about the work with Navalny’s clothes seized after the incident in Tomsk. The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) dismissed the phone call as a "planned provocation" against Russian security forces, which could not have been carried out without "the technical support of foreign intelligence services."
Navalny was rushed to a local hospital in the Siberian city of Omsk on August 20 after collapsing on a Moscow-bound flight from Tomsk. He fell into a coma and was put on a ventilator in an intensive care unit. On August 22, he was airlifted to Berlin and admitted to the Charite hospital. In late September, Navalny was discharged from hospital. He currently is continuing his recovery in Germany. Berlin later claimed that having examined Navalny’s test samples, German government toxicologists had concluded that the blogger had been affected by a toxic agent belonging to the Novichok family. Russia has dismissed the accusations, demanding that Germany provide the evidence pointing to Navalny’s poisoning. Meanwhile, the opposition blogger is accusing the FSB and the Russian leadership of staging the alleged attack.
In the published recording, the alleged FSB officer mainly talks about his efforts to cover up the traces of the alleged poisoning. Several experts quizzed by Kommersant expressed doubt in the recording’s authenticity. A Kommersant source in the FSB called it "an outrageous fake": according to the source, no intelligence officers would ever discuss the details of a special operation over the phone.
"There is an instruction that you learn by heart when you’re hired," another intelligence officer told the paper. "This recording definitely has nothing to do with us. It just can’t be true: if he really was involved in some investigation related to him [Alexey Navalny - Kommersant], he would have known everything about him, both his phone number and his voice."
Former KGB officer and a Soviet intelligence officer in London, later known as writer Mikhail Lyubimov, told Kommersant that he considers the Navalny poisoning saga a "farce," which "involves intelligence agencies from all sides."
It is impossible to believe any of the sides in this situation, Lyubimov said, expressing concern over "the FSB’s helplessness."
Izvestia: Gamaleya Research Center and AstraZeneca unite against COVID-19
International cooperation in the sphere of vaccine development is necessary to stop the COVID-19 pandemic and respond to any potential new strains of the novel coronavirus, experts told Izvestia, commenting on the signing of a memorandum of intent between the Gamaleya Research Center for Epidemiology and Microbiology, the Russian Direct Investment Fund, R-Pharm and UK-Swedish company AstraZeneca. The combination of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine and the vaccine developed by AstraZeneca may boost the effectiveness of immune response and create more lasting protection. On December 21, Russian President Vladimir Putin held a video call timed for the signing of the memorandum, in which he said that international cooperation alone can improve the results of separate countries and companies.
Alexey Agranovsky, Professor of the Department of Virology at Moscow State University’s Faculty of Biology, told Izvestia that the world does not need "a vaccine race" right now. The expert stressed that the signing of the memorandum is an important event, considering the skeptical opinion of some foreign colleagues regarding the Russian vaccine.
"There were reports that the vaccine had been registered against all rules and so on. Although it received a temporary registration under our laws. Gradually, the situation changed, and the opinion shifted. Calm and informative answers in the research community and in the media worked. Our foreign partners realized that we can do something useful as well. In this situation, it is better to unite efforts than to compete," he said.
The pandemic and its consequences affect every country, so international cooperation is of crucial importance, member of the Russian Federation Council and a doctor in medical sciences Vladimir Krugly said. According to him, it is important to avoid any politicization of the issues related to the fight against coronavirus. Besides, it cannot be allowed that only a handful of countries or certain sectors of society get privileged access to the vaccine. The expert told Izvestia that international cooperation is also required to provide an adequate response to the appearance of new coronavirus strains.
Nezavisimaya Gazeta: Japan sees China, North Korea as potential military rivals
Tokyo has named its key potential adversaries - Beijing and Pyongyang - with Russia looming in the background, Nezavisimaya Gazeta reported. Japan has approved a new defense budget, with the money allocated for stealth fighter jets, the defense of the islands claimed by China, and long-range missiles for preventive strikes on enemy bases. In case of a war, Tokyo is counting on US support, however, the new government seeks to make Japan an independent military power.
Compared to the previous fiscal year, Japan’s military spending is only up 1.1%, however, in the future, the Japanese armed forces intend to create their own next-generation military equipment or purchase it from the United States.
The administration of new Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga will continue the course set by his predecessor Shinzo Abe. Japan’s military spending has been on the rise for nine years in a row. In the next fiscal year, Japan’s military budget will reach $51.7 bln, compared to Russia’s $46 bln, the paper pointed out.
Although during Abe’s rule, Moscow and Tokyo made numerous efforts to normalize relations and establish cooperation, the Southern Kurils issue remains a source of disputes and mutual misunderstandings. Commander of the US Armed Forces in Japan Kevin Schneider said earlier that "there's little to no return on investment in any of those conversations," so the territorial dispute continues to be a source of tension between Japan and Russia.
This, in turn, allows the Americans to maintain a firmer grip on Japan. Valery Kistanov, who heads of the Center of Japanese Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Far Eastern Studies, told Nezavisimaya Gazeta: "The corresponding agencies in Russia monitor everything related to Japan’s military plans. For example, Russia was concerned over the fact that Japan had planned to deploy the Aegis missile defense system on land. Its radars would cover a part of our Far East. It could also be used to launch cruise missiles. Japan refused to go through with this. Now the system will be deployed on destroyers. Nevertheless, when Japan obtains long-range missiles, Russia will see this as a big threat. If the Japanese choose the path of building up attack potential aimed against other states, Russia may take response measures. Namely on the Kurils, I do not rule this out."
Izvestia: New coronavirus strain affects markets and the Russian ruble
The stock market is unlikely to experience a profound collapse over the outcomes of the discovery of a new coronavirus strain and a drop in oil prices, experts quizzed by Izvestia noted, adding that the ultra-loose monetary policy of central banks supports the current appetite for risk assets. However, the position of the Russian national currency will depend on the epidemiological situation in Europe and on the effectiveness of the vaccines. By the end of the year, the Russian ruble exchange rate is likely to oscillate between 73-76 rubles to the dollar and 89-93 rubles to the euro.
The escalation of the pandemic in the Eurozone will affect the dynamics of the ruble exchange rate until the end of 2020 and at the beginning of 2021, Finam analyst Anna Zaytseva told the paper. The lack of precise information on the response of the new virus strain to the vaccine creates a high level of uncertainty on global markets, affecting the prices of risk assets, namely the price of the Russian currency, she stated.
Under a positive scenario, if restrictive measures in the world and in Russia last no longer than the first two months of 2021, the average ruble exchange rate next year will reach about 71-72 rubles to the dollar, Associate Director of ACRA’s Sovereign Ratings and Macroeconomic Analysis Group Dmitry Kulikov told Izvestia. A more pessimistic forecast suggests that if the amount and the period of the restrictive measures is similar to 2020, the Russian currency will be much weaker, reaching about 77-78 rubles to the dollar, he stressed.
Meanwhile, experts suggest that during the holidays, private investors need to be more careful playing the stock market. The market’s high volatility and the sudden changes in prices may give a wrong impression on new trends, analysts note. Head of the information and analytical content department of BCS World of Investments Vasily Karpunin told Izvestia that there is no reason to expect a sharp drop on the stock market if there isn’t any highly negative news related to the pandemic. The ultra-loose monetary policy of central banks all over the world will support the demand for risk assets, including the stock markets of developing countries. Besides, the influx of retail investors that entered the market in 2020 has a positive effect as well.