Press review: Donbass recognition on hold and why Russia had to flex its military muscle

Top stories from the Russian press on Wednesday, February 16th

Vedomosti: No recognition of Donbass republics for the time being

On February 15, Russian President Vladimir Putin met with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who had just arrived from Kiev, for the first time Vedomosti reports. The Russian leader tried to put an end to the current escalation, and as a demonstration of good will, he made it clear that he would refrain from recognizing the Donbass republics so far for the sake of implementing the Minsk agreements.

Tensions in Ukraine to continue until Kiev starts talks with Donbass — Russian UN envoy

Artem Sokolov, an expert with the Valdai Club, believes that there will be no recognition of the Donbass republics after the State Duma’s appeal. It can be assumed that the Russian head of state made this decision following the outcome of the talks between the German chancellor and Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky in Kiev, where Kiev promised to present a package of documents on implementing the Minsk accords in the near future, according to the expert.

Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council Andrey Kortunov views possible recognition of the Donbass republics as an ace up Russia’s sleeve. According to the expert, now it is the Russian leadership that can accuse Kiev of non-compliance with the Minsk accords, however, in the event of recognizing the Donbass republics, Moscow would be the one to blame for undermining the agreements. Kortunov also pointed out that the hypothetical recognition of the republics should logically be accompanied by the signing of treaties with them, which would likely envisage deploying troops in Donbass. This could trigger Western sanctions, the Russian expert emphasized.


Kommersant: Russia had to flex its military muscle to convince West of its serious intentions

The Russian Defense and Foreign Ministries continued sending some de-escalation signals on Tuesday Kommersant reports. The military announced that the units of the Western and Southern districts would return to their places of permanent deployment. Russian top diplomat Sergey Lavrov also noted that once Moscow had exerted some pressure on the West, it responded to a large number of the initiatives that it had been rejecting to consider for many years.

Russia cannot ignore US’ free interpretation of indivisible security principle — Putin

During a press conference following talks with OSCE Chairman-in-Office, Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau, Kommersant asked Lavrov whether the return of the military to its bases indicated that the alleged ‘Russian invasion’ greatly aniticpated by the West on February 15-16 was cancelled or was not planned at all. The Russian diplomacy chief outlined that "Russia carried out the military exercises on its soil, complying with its own plans, so [the drills] were conducted and concluded according to schedule." Lavrov also told Kommersant that such decisions were made "regardless of what anyone thought, or if someone, somehow, throws a fit, or engages in information terrorism." "To make the long story short, life just goes on," the Russian foreign minister said.

According to Lavrov’s further comments, Russia deliberately flexed its military muscle, so that the West wouldn’t doubt its serious stance. Hence, amid large-scale military exercises, Moscow handed over proposals on security guarantees to the US and NATO, which included demands that NATO drop plans to expand eastward, a ban on the deployment of strike systems in Europe as well as the withdrawal of NATO forces to the positions of 1997.


Izvestia: Russian Central Bank to test digital ruble platform this autumn

Russia will launch the testing of a new system to pay for goods and services, including government payments, in digital rubles in the autumn of 2022, First Deputy Governor at the Russian Central Bank by Olga Skorobogatova told Izvestia.

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Skorobogatova noted that testing of the digital ruble platform was carried out by those banks that were already prepared for such operations. Three banks from the pilot group had passed the technical testing, while two more banks successfully completed client transactions.

The top official also pointed out that some clients had already opened wallets for the digital ruble platform using mobile apps, and exchanged cash for digital rubles and made some transactions.

According to Izvestia, the Central Bank seeks to test operations with the digital ruble among a wide range of Russian market players. "This is crucial for us, since it will give us the experience that will allow us to offer various services in diverse scenarios in the future," Izvestia quoted Skorobogatova as saying.


Nezavisimaya Gazeta: Syria’s reconciled southern provinces rebel against its leadership and Moscow

The territories recovered by Damascus are giving the Syrian leadership major headaches says Nezavisimaya Gazeta. The Syrian government had to redeploy its regular army units and security forces to the southeastern province of As-Suwayda, which came back under Syria’s control four years ago. Major anxieties over the security in this area have been caused by mass protests that erupted in recent weeks amid Damascus’ decision to limit food subsidies. Unrest in Syria’s south has been occurring for more than a year, and some experts believe that such actions are doomed to repeat.

According to Istanbul-based think tank Jusoor, these developments are happening due to a number of reasons. First of all, the leadership does not seek to better the economic conditions, yet it is organizing forced conscription for the local population. "Protests in the southern provinces, Deraa and As-Suwayda, have become regular, and there are few reasons for that," said non-resident scholar in MEI's Syria Program, non-resident military affairs expert at the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) Anton Mardasov. "There are some reconciled areas, where Russia acted as a guarantor of the agreement between Damascus and its local population, however, the terms of this agreement are being ignored by the security forces. Also, this reconciliation resulted in <…> the disbanding of local councils that had maintained a certain standard of living in the provinces. And after their withdrawal, the standard of living sharply plunged," the analyst noted.

"In fact, there is some kind of buffer against Iranian influence, <…> which is extremely challenging to establish amid the existing relationship with Damascus," Mardasov stated. According to him, neither Syria’s security structures nor Iran or the Hezbollah political party are interested in this. It affects the level of discontent of the local population," the expert emphasized.

"Theoretically, these areas could serve as a demonstration of some kind of Syrian democracy. More active trade could be established there, while Moscow could use them to re-legitimize [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad and attract investment, but in reality, this did not happen, despite some efforts in this direction," Mardasov said.


Kommersant: Russian video game developers likely to get foreign support

The Russian government is weighing an option that a fund to support patriotic video games would be filled through an additional tax on foreign distribution platforms, including Steam, PlayStation Store, Epic Games Store, and others, Kommersant writes. They may be obliged to transfer 5% of their turnover to the Russian budget, and, according to the official calculations, this would provide the fund with an additional 10 bln rubles (almost $13 mln) a year. Market participants believe that the measure is unlikely to be a significant burden for foreign companies. However, experts are concerned that the money raised will go to game projects with political agitation.

Spotify opens local office in Russia under Moscow’s requirements

A Kommersant source in the government said that the Ministry of Digital Development, Communications and Mass Media is finalizing the business model of the future fund to support Russian video game developers who popularize Russian history and culture. According to the preliminary concept, plans are in store to introduce a five-percent fee on sales in Russia for foreign digital video game distribution platforms, such as Steam, Xbox Games Store, PlayStation Store, and others.

The government expects to provide the fund with up to 10 bln rubles (almost $13 mln) in revenues a year, the Kommersant source said.

Xbox Games Store is owned by Microsoft, and according to the corporation's report in 2020, the service had a global audience of about 100 mln people. Kommersant could not provide data on the number of players in Russia, but according to estimates of the project ‘xboxstat’, 403,000 domestic gamers have accounts with Xbox Games. Steam is controlled by the Valve Software, an America-based corporation. The global number of active users at the end of 2020 is estimated at 120 mln people, but statistics for Russia have not been disclosed.

According to Sony, in December 2021, the global number of active PlayStation Network (which includes PlayStation Store) users totaled 111 mln people. That said, Microsoft declined to comment, while Valve and Sony did not respond to Kommersant's requests.

The Ministry of Digital Development, Communications and Mass Media told Kommersant that a report with proposals for creating the fund has been sent to the government. The office of Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Chernyshenko said that the proposals are subject to interagency coordination and scrutiny. SberGames believes that the project to create the fund is "in the process of development, the possible concepts have not been approved and are currently being considered as hypotheses". MY.Games (part of VK) also declined to comment.

According to MY.Games, the volume of the Russian video games market (the company took into account purchases of games on physical and digital media, in-game purchases, and subscriptions) will grow by 1% year-on-year in 2021 to 165.5 bln rubles (almost $2.2 bln).


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