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Vladimir Putin takes spotlight as Eurasia connector

At his year-end press conference, the Russian president let drop nuggets essential to understanding what lies ahead on the Eurasian geopolitical chessboard

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(Asia Times) – At his trademark annual year-end press conference in Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin once again let drop selected foreign-policy nuggets essential to understanding what lies ahead on the turbulent Eurasian geopolitical chessboard.

By now it’s well known that Putin will run again in the presidential elections scheduled for March 18 (“it will be self-nomination” and “I hope for the overall support from the public”). The Man in Charge might as well continue to be in charge. So it’s always enlightening to bring down the (spin) noise: sit back, relax, and just listen.

On President Trump: “I am on first-name terms with Trump; yes, we would probably use the familiar ‘you.’ I hope he’ll get the opportunity to improve relations with Russia. Look at the markets, how they have grown. This means that investors trust the US economy, this means they trust what he [Donald Trump] is doing in this field.”

On Russiagate: “What’s so strange about this [diplomats speaking with officials in their host country]? Why do you have this ‘Russian spy’ hysteria?” On accusations of Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential race, Putin said, “They have been invented by those aiming to delegitimize Trump. These people don’t understand they are undermining their own country – they aren’t showing respect for the Americans [who] voted for Trump.”

On working together with Washington: “Russia and the US can work closely on a range of issues” even given the “well-known limitations” on Trump.

On potential US withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty: “We hear about the problems with the INF Treaty. Apparently conditions are being created and an information-propaganda campaign is being run for a possible US withdrawal from the treaty. There is nothing good about a US withdrawal, that [would] be highly detrimental to international security. The US has de facto left the INF Treaty already, with the deployment of the Aegis ashore, but Russia is not going to leave the treaty. We will not be dragged into an arms race.”

Putin stressed that Russia’s defense spending was US$46 billion a year, while the US plans to spend $700 billion in 2018.

On the Arctic: “I have visited [the Arctic archipelago] Franz Josef Land; several years ago foreign guides, accompanying foreign tourist groups, would say that these islands ‘recently’ belonged to Russia. They had forgotten that [Franz Josef Land] is a Russian archipelago, but we reminded them, and at the moment everything is fine. We shouldn’t forget it. Developing all those resources in the Arctic should take place in sync with taking care of the environment … we should not impinge on economic activities of ethnic minorities.”

On Ukraine: “The Kiev authorities have no desire to implement the Minsk agreements, no desire to launch a real political process, the completion of which could be the implementation of an agreement on the special status of the Donbass, which is enshrined in the relevant law of Ukraine, adopted by the Rada [Ukraine’s parliament]. Russians and Ukrainians are basically one people” (the audience is audibly pleased).

On Syria: “The US is not contributing enough to the successful resolution of the Syrian crisis. It is important that none of the participants in this [Syrian peace] process have the desire or temptation to use various terrorist or quasi-terrorist radical groups to achieve their immediate political goals.”

On Iraq: “Let’s say, militants are parting for Iraq. We are telling our US colleagues, ‘Militants have gone this or that way.’ There is no reaction, they [militants] are just leaving. Why? Due to thinking that they could be used in the fight with [Syrian President Bashar] Assad. That’s very dangerous.”

On Russia possibly influencing North Korea to abandon its nuclear program: “Your congressmen, senators look so good, they have beautiful suits, shirts, they are seemingly clever people. They put us alongside North Korea and Iran. At the same time they push the [US] president to persuade us to solve the problems of North Korea and Iran together with you.”

On a nuclear DPRK: “On North Korea, we don’t accept it as a nuclear country. As for the US, it has gone beyond previous deals [with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] … and has provoked North Korea to withdraw from agreements.  I think we heard the US would stop military drills, but no … they didn’t. It is vital to act very carefully when dealing with the DPRK’s nuclear program.”

On China: “I have full confidence that cooperation with China is beyond any political agenda. We will always remain strategic partners, for a long period of time. We have similar approaches to the development of the international system. We are both interested in joint [economic] projects, including integration of OBOR [One Belt One Road] and the Eurasian Union.”

Crafting the integration soundtrack

And that takes us to the heart of the geopolitical New Great Game in Eurasia: the Russia-China strategic partnership, once again reaffirmed, and the deepening of integration between the New Silk Roads, formerly OBOR, now Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and the Eurasian Economic Union (EAUA).

Putin is clearly positive about the benefits for Russia from this economic interpenetration. He noted how “Russia was able to overcome major crises: the collapse of prices for energy carriers and trade sanctions. But the country is moving in the right direction with a greater focus on domestic production. Our internal trade grew by 3%. This has to mean something.”

As much as Beijing in relation to its BRI, Moscow has been on a charm offensive to enlarge the Eurasian Economic Union. Turkey is a possible EAEU candidate for the near future, as well as India and Pakistan

Stressing how Moscow is totally on board the BRI, Putin implied how this cooperation extrapolates to both the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization) spheres as well; and that’s where we should place Moscow’s current efforts to convince New Delhi – also a BRICS and SCO member – that betting on the BRI favors India’s interests.

As recently as early this week in New Delhi, after a trilateral meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has been adamant: “I know India has problems, we discussed it today, with the concept of One Belt and One Road, but the specific problem in this regard should not make everything else conditional to resolving political issues.”

New Delhi has to be listening, as it was one of Moscow’s staunchest allies during the Cold War.

In a parallel development, Iran is bound to join the EAEU as early as February, according to Behrouz Hassanolfat, director of the Europe and Americas Department of Iran’s Trade Promotion Organization, as quoted by the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA).

As Asia Times has reported, India and Iran are getting more in sync economically via a parallel Silk Road to Central Asia centered on the port of Chabahar. Iran is also an essential BRI hub, and now will become an EAEU hub as well.

As much as Beijing in relation to its BRI, Moscow has been on a charm offensive to enlarge the EAEU. Turkey – already on board the BRI – is a possible EAEU candidate for the near future, as well as India and Pakistan.

Even as Putin at his presser once again advanced the cause of these multiple cross-pollinations of Eurasian integration, India sometimes may give the impression of being the odd partner out. New Delhi has just hosted the first ASEAN-India Connectivity Summit, which can be interpreted as an attempt to go against the BRI. Yet the emergence of an anti-China bloc across Southeast Asia seems far-fetched.

In parallel, Moscow certainly does not welcome a somewhat evolving “Indo-Pacific” US/India/Japan alliance. The undercurrent narrative in Putin’s script could not be more crystal clear: The roadmap for Eurasia integration is all about the coming together of the BRI, EAEU, the SCO and BRICS.

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Russia’s Lukoil Halts Oil Swaps In Venezuela After U.S. Sanctions

Under the new wide-ranging U.S. sanctions, Venezuela will not be able to import U.S. naphtha which it has typically used to dilute its heavy crude grades.

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Via Oilprice.com


Litasco, the international trading arm of Russia’s second-biggest oil producer Lukoil, stopped its oil swaps deals with Venezuela immediately after the U.S. imposed sanctions on Venezuela’s oil industry and state oil firm PDVSA, Lukoil’s chief executive Vagit Alekperov said at an investment forum in Russia.

Russia, which stands by Nicolas Maduro in the ongoing Venezuelan political crisis, has vowed to defend its interests in Venezuela—including oil interests—within the international law using “all mechanisms available to us.”

Because of Moscow’s support for Maduro, the international community and market analysts are closely watching the relationship of Russian oil companies with Venezuela.

“Litasco does not work with Venezuela. Before the restrictions were imposed, Litasco had operations to deliver oil products and to sell oil. There were swap operations. Today there are none, since the sanctions were imposed,” Lukoil’s Alekperov said at the Russian Investment Forum in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

Another Russian oil producer, Gazprom Neft, however, does not see major risks for its oil business in Venezuela, the company’s chief executive officer Alexander Dyukov said at the same event.

Gazprom Neft has not supplied and does not supply oil products to Venezuela needed to dilute the thick heavy Venezuelan oil, Dyukov said, noting that the Latin American country hadn’t approached Gazprom Neft for possible supply of oil products for diluents.

Under the new wide-ranging U.S. sanctions, Venezuela will not be able to import U.S. naphtha which it has typically used to dilute its heavy crude grades. Analysts expect that a shortage of diluents could accelerate beginning this month the already steadily declining Venezuelan oil production and exports.

Venezuela’s crude oil production plunged by another 59,000 bpd from December 2018 to stand at just 1.106 million bpd in January 2019, OPEC’s secondary sources figures showed in the cartel’s closely watched Monthly Oil Market Report (MOMR) this week.

By Tsvetana Paraskova for Oilprice.com

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Germany Pulls Rank on Macron and American Energy Blackmail

Why France’s Macron, at the last minute, attempted to undermine the project by placing stiffer regulations is a curious question.

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Authored by Finian Cunningham via The Strategic Culture Foundation:


It was billed politely as a Franco-German “compromise” when the EU balked at adopting a Gas Directive which would have undermined the Nord Stream 2 project with Russia.

Nevertheless, diplomatic rhetoric aside, Berlin’s blocking last week of a bid by French President Emmanuel Macron to impose tougher regulations on the Nord Stream 2 gas project was without doubt a firm rebuff to Paris.

Macron wanted to give the EU administration in Brussels greater control over the new pipeline running from Russia to Germany. But in the end the so-called “compromise” was a rejection of Macron’s proposal, reaffirming Germany in the lead role of implementing the Nord Stream 2 route, along with Russia.

The $11-billion, 1,200 kilometer pipeline is due to become operational at the end of this year. Stretching from Russian mainland under the Baltic Sea, it will double the natural gas supply from Russia to Germany. The Berlin government and German industry view the project as a vital boost to the country’s ever-robust economy. Gas supplies will also be distributed from Germany to other European states. Consumers stand to gain from lower prices for heating homes and businesses.

Thus Macron’s belated bizarre meddling was rebuffed by Berlin. A rebuff was given too to the stepped-up pressure from Washington for the Nord Stream 2 project to be cancelled. Last week, US ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell and two other American envoys wrote an op-ed for Deutsche Welle in which they accused Russia of trying to use “energy blackmail” over Europe’s geopolitics.

Why France’s Macron, at the last minute, attempted to undermine the project by placing stiffer regulations is a curious question. Those extra regulations if they had been imposed would have potentially made the Russian gas supply more expensive. As it turns out, the project will now go-ahead without onerous restrictions.

In short, Macron and the spoiling tactics of Washington, along with EU states hostile to Russia, Poland and the Baltic countries, have been put in their place by Germany and its assertion of national interests of securing economical and abundant gas supply from Russia. Other EU member states that backed Berlin over Nord Stream 2 were Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Greece and the Netherlands.

Washington’s claims that Nord Stream 2 would give Russia leverage of Europe’s security have been echoed by Poland and the Baltic states. Poland, and non-EU Ukraine, stand to lose out billions of dollars-worth of transit fees. Such a move, however, is the prerogative of Germany and Russia to find a more economical mode of supply. Besides, what right has Ukraine to make demands on a bilateral matter that is none of its business? Kiev’s previous bad faith over not paying gas bills to Russia disbars it from reasonable opinion.

Another factor is the inherent Russophobia of Polish and Baltic politicians who view everything concerning Russia through a prism of paranoia.

For the Americans, it is obviously a blatant case of seeking to sell their own much more expensive natural gas to Europe’s giant energy market – in place of Russia’s product. Based on objective market figures, Russia is the most competitive supplier to Europe. The Americans are therefore trying to snatch a strategic business through foul means of propaganda and political pressure. Ironically, the US German ambassador Richard Grenell and the other American envoys wrote in their recent oped: “Europe must retain control of its energy security.”

Last month, Grenell threatened German and European firms involved in the construction of Nord Stream 2 that they could face punitive American sanctions in the future. Evidently, it is the US side that is using “blackmail” to coerce others into submission, not Russia.

Back to Macron. What was he up to in his belated spoiling tactics over Nord Stream 2 and in particular the attempted problems being leveled for Germany if the extra regulations had been imposed?

It seems implausible that Macron was suddenly finding a concern for Poland and the Baltic states in their paranoia over alleged Russian invasion.

Was Macron trying to garner favors from the Trump administration? His initial obsequious rapport with Trump has since faded from the early days of Macron’s presidency in 2017. By doing Washington’s bidding to undermine the Nord Stream 2 project was Macron trying to ingratiate himself again?

The contradictions regarding Macron are replete. He is supposed to be a champion of “ecological causes”. A major factor in Germany’s desire for the Nord Stream 2 project is that the increased gas supply will reduce the European powerhouse’s dependence on dirty fuels of coal, oil and nuclear power. By throwing up regulatory barriers, Macron is making it harder for Germany and Europe to move to cleaner sources of energy that the Russian natural gas represents.

Also, if Macron had succeeded in imposing tougher regulations on the Nord Stream 2 project it would have inevitably increased the costs to consumers for gas bills. This is at a time when his government is being assailed by nationwide Yellow Vest protests over soaring living costs, in particular fuel-price hikes.

A possible factor in Macron’s sabotage bid in Germany’s Nord Stream 2 plans was his chagrin over Berlin’s rejection of his much-vaunted reform agenda for the Eurozone bloc within the EU. Despite Macron’s very public amity with Chancellor Angela Merkel, Berlin has continually knocked back the French leader’s ambitions for reform.

It’s hard to discern what are the real objectives of Macron’s reforms. But they seem to constitute a “banker’s charter”. Many eminent German economists have lambasted his plans, which they say will give more taxpayer-funded bailouts to insolvent banks. They say Macron is trying to move the EU further away from the social-market economy than the bloc already has moved.

What Macron, an ex-Rothschild banker, appears to be striving for is a replication of his pro-rich, anti-worker policies that he is imposing on France, and for these policies to be extended across the Eurozone. Berlin is not buying it, realizing such policies will further erode the social fabric. This could be the main reason why Macron tried to use the Nord Stream 2 project as leverage over Berlin.

In the end, Macron and Washington – albeit working for different objectives – were defeated in their attempts to sabotage the emerging energy trade between Germany, Europe and Russia. Nord Stream 2, as with Russia’s Turk Stream to the south of Europe, seems inevitable by sheer force of natural partnership.

On this note, the Hungarian government’s comments this week were apt. Budapest accused some European leaders and the US of “huge hypocrisy” in decrying association with Russia over energy trade. Macron has previously attended an economics forum in St Petersburg, and yet lately has sought to “blackmail” and disrupt Germany over its trade plans with Russia.

As for the Americans, their arrant hypocrisy is beyond words. As well as trying to dictate to Europe about “market principles” and “energy security”, it was reported this week that Washington is similarly demanding Iraq to end its import of natural gas from neighboring Iran.

Iraq is crippled by electricity and power shortages because of the criminal war that the US waged on that country from 2003-2011 which destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure. Iraq critically needs Iranian gas supplies to keep the lights and fans running. Yet, here we have the US now dictating to Iraq to end its lifeline import of Iranian fuel in order to comply with the Trump administration’s sanctions against Tehran. Iraq is furious at the latest bullying interference by Washington in its sovereign affairs.

The hypocrisy of Washington and elitist politicians like Emmanuel Macron has become too much to stomach. Maybe Germany and others are finally realizing who the charlatans are.

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Russia Readies Own Web To Survive Global Internet Shutdown

Russia is simultaneously building a mass censorship system similar to that seen in China.

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Via Zerohedge


Russian authorities and major telecom operators are preparing to disconnect the country from the world wide web as part of an exercise to prepare for future cyber attacks, Russian news agency RosBiznesKonsalting (RBK) reported last week.

The purpose of the exercise is to develop a threat analysis and provide feedback to a proposed law introduced in the Russian Parliament last December.

The draft law, called the Digital Economy National Program, requires Russian internet service providers (ISP) to guarantee the independence of the Russian Internet (Runet) in the event of a foreign attack to sever the country’s internet from the world wide web.

Telecom operators (MegaFon, VimpelCom (Beeline brand), MTS, Rostelecom and others) will have to introduce the “technical means” to re-route all Russian internet traffic to exchange points approved by the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media (Roskomnadzor), Russia’s federal executive body responsible for censorship in media and telecommunications.

Roskomnazor will observe all internet traffic and make sure data between Russian users stays within the country’s borders, and is not re-routed abroad.

The exercise is expected to occur before April 1, as Russian authorities have not given exact dates.

The measures described in the law include Russia constructing its internet system, known as Domain Name System (DNS), so it can operate independently from the rest of the world.

Across the world, 12 companies oversee the root servers for DNS and none are located in Russia. However, there are copies of Russia’s core internet address book inside the country suggesting its internet could keep operating if the US cut it off.

Ultimately, the Russian government will require all domestic traffic to pass through government-controlled routing points. These hubs will filter traffic so that data sent between Russians internet users work seamlessly, but any data to foreign computers would be rejected.

Besides protecting its internet, Russia is simultaneously building a mass censorship system similar to that seen in China.

“What Russia wants to do is to bring those router points that handle data entering or exiting the country within its borders and under its control- so that it can then pull up the drawbridge, as it were, to external traffic if it’s under threat – or if it decides to censor what outside information people can access.

China’s firewall is probably the world’s best known censorship tool and it has become a sophisticated operation. It also polices its router points, using filters and blocks on keywords and certain websites and redirecting web traffic so that computers cannot connect to sites the state does not wish Chinese citizens to see,” said BBC.

The Russian government started preparations for creating its internet several years ago. Russian officials expect 95% of all internet traffic locally by next year.

As for Russia unplugging its internet from the rest of the world for an upcoming training exercise, well, this could potentially anger Washington because it is one less sanction that can keep Moscow contained.

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