America, Russia agree on cargo transit to Afghanistan / Moscow trying to change Ankara's priorities / Russia's wealthiest people recruited to run state-owned companies / U.S., Russian satellites collide in space
America, Russia agree on cargo transit to Afghanistan
The outcome of the Afghan supply talks U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Patrick Moon held at the Russian Foreign Ministry became known on Thursday.
Unidentified sources at the ministry said Moscow and Washington agreed to open new supply routes across Russian territory to NATO forces in Afghanistan.
Kommersant sources in NATO headquarters in Brussels have dubbed the agreement a breakthrough in relations between Russia and the West.
"European officials are happy that Russia has eventually come to make important decisions on the issue," one of the NATO sources said. Although an agreement on shipping non-military cargos across Russia was signed in April 2008, "it didn't work because of misunderstandings between Moscow and Washington," while Russia "lost a lot of money that it could have received for the transit." However, the two countries finally reached a compromise after the U.S. administration changed.
"This agreement is extremely important for the Americans," believes Andrei Serenko, an expert at the Russian Center for Contemporary Afghanistan Studies. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov declared that Moscow would process each cargo transit request within 24 hours, which "in fact means the creation of a joint Russian-American logistics hub," and, moreover, an important improvement of Russia-U.S. relations.
"This can be compared with land-lease supplies during World War II," Serenko said.
The United States plans to send container cargos meant for its forces through the Riga seaport. From there, the containers will be shipped by rail across Russia and Kazakhstan, and further via Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
"Although several NATO countries have air transportation agreements with Russia, it does not solve America's problem, because NATO and the United States are different things. America cannot use NATO's transit routes. That is why it was compelled to hold separate talks with Russia," the source in Brussels explained.
However, neither Russia, nor the United States named a date for opening the "northern transit" route, despite their optimistic assessment of Moon's talks.
Moscow trying to change Ankara's priorities
Turkish President Abdullah Gul has arrived in Moscow on a four-day visit. Although his agenda sounds optimistic, problems plague the two countries' relations. One of them is Turkey's participation in the EU-backed Nabucco pipeline project, which Russia strongly opposes; another is Turkey's attempts to become a key player in the Caucasus.
Turkey is one of the key links of the Nabucco project, a gas route bypassing Russia lobbied by the West, which Russia expects to "kill" Gazprom's South Stream, a route to connect Russia and southern Europe under the Black Sea by 2015.
Because of Russia's conflict with Ukraine, Europe might eventually prefer the longer route via Turkey's offshore areas to the shorter one (South Stream, along the coast of Russia, Ukraine, Romania and Bulgaria).
The fact that Gul was invited to Moscow shortly after Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov (Serbia was talked into joining South Stream earlier) could mean the Kremlin is trying to win Ankara over.
But Russia is unlikely to succeed, because Turkey expects to obtain the desired EU membership in exchange for Nabucco accession. And, even without that, Ankara would benefit more from Nabucco than from South Stream.
"South Stream will only cut Turkey's profits, whereas Nabucco will pay it high transit fees. Gul wouldn't want to lose the profit, and South Stream can be seen as a rival to Nabucco," said Mikhail Korchemkin, director of the East European Gas Analysis consultancy.
Russia and Turkey also have unresolved political issues. Although Gul, before traveling to Moscow, dubbed Russia somewhat clumsily an important player in its region, Turkey is obviously playing its own game in the Caucasus. While Russia is backing Armenia in the Nagorny Karabakh conflict, Turkey prefers to side with Azerbaijan.
Alexei Malashenko from Moscow's Carnegie Center suggested that Gul's visit is a sign of the two countries' willingness to settle the Caucasus issue.
"The talks will be interesting. They will tackle the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states, the Nagorny Karabakh conflict, and gas," Malashenko told Gazeta.ru.
However, the analyst said he expects no important results.
Russia's wealthiest people recruited to run state-owned companies
The government is likely to invite businessmen from the Forbes "golden hundred" to manage state-owned companies. Mikhail Prokhorov may join the Sheremetyevo board, while a representative of the Sistema joint-stock finance company will be allowed to manage Aeroflot.
The state intends to recommend independent directors, some of whom are big-time businessmen, for state company boards, said an official close to the Kremlin. He did not say who among the Forbes "golden hundred" might become a director.
The 43-year-old Prokhorov told Vedomosti that he had accepted the offer to be nominated for the Sheremetyevo board. He believes that the trend - for the state to attract business leaders as independent directors - is right. But he did not say who invited him to join the board. The entrepreneur, whose fortune in March 2008 was estimated by Forbes at $22.6 billion, intends to make Sheremetyevo more effective and improve its corporate structure. He added that he was also ready to use his experience as independent director in other "serious" companies if the state made such a proposal.
Perhaps this marks the beginning of recruitment of big businessmen into state company boards, with the state deciding to benefit from their knowledge and their money, said Steven Dashevsky, the manager of Unicredit Securities. But this might be a one-off event, the analyst said.
The government has mulled for years the need for independent directors to sit on the boards of state companies instead of officials, but it was only in the middle of last year that it resolved to take this step. At that time, only 26 of 85 candidates nominated to the boards of eleven companies 100% owned by the state were independent, and former officials were preferred. There was, however, one exception: Surgutnefetgaz general director Vladimir Bogdanov (ranking 40th in the Forbes 100, with $2.9 billion) joined the Zarubezhneft board.
"We have long been speaking of the need to replace officials with professional independent directors, but we have never thought of attracting big company owners into those jobs," said Andrei Sharonov, former deputy minister of economic development and Troika Dialog managing director. "Perhaps now the oligarchs are seen as potential investors," he said, "but in this case there might be a conflict of interests."
U.S., Russian satellites collide in space
On Tuesday, the commercial U.S. Iridium 33 satellite collided with a spent Kosmos-2251 Russian satellite hundreds of miles above northern Siberia. This is the first major collision involving a pair of intact spacecraft.
Although the international system for tracking space objects has so far detected about 600 large fragments after the collision, the number of smaller fragments less than 10 cm in diameter is not known.
Each undetectable fragment is a potential hazard for satellites flying along the most popular circumpolar orbits, which provide the best view of the Earth's surface.
A high-ranking Russian missile-defense analyst said the country could locate spacecraft fragments but was unable to destroy them because satellite speeds were much faster than the targets flying at 4.8 km per second that Russian missile interceptors could hit.
"S-300 surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems can destroy targets flying at 1,800 meters per second. Their modified S-300-PMU-2 Favorit versions can hit targets with a maximum speed of 2,800 meters per second. And only S-400 SAMs are capable of hitting targets travelling at 4,800 meters per second," the analyst said.
He said only two S-400 battalions were deployed around Moscow, that nuclear-tipped missile interceptors in the Moscow Region could destroy spacecraft fragments only at low altitude and contaminate a vast territory with nuclear debris.
Igor Lisov, a commentator with the journal Novosti Kosmonavtiki (Space Exploration News), said it would take a hundred years for space junk to fall to the planet's surface from 800-km altitudes, explaining this by high braking speeds in low orbit.
Although analysts say the odds are one in several million that a spacecraft fragment will hit someone on Earth, the chances of orbital collisions also seemed minimal until February 10.
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