RA’s Daily Russia News Blast – Mar 18, 2016

TODAY: Putin applauds own military intervention in Syria which, he says, paved the way for peace process, says troops could be remobilised in a matter of hours; NGO head attacked in Chechnya has own self to blame; VTB bank could hit zero profits again; Sharapova proves an effective advertisement for banned drug; anti-Russia sanctions to remain until Crimea is returned; Obama weighs in over Savchenko.

President Vladimir Putin credited Russia’s military operation in Syria with creating the conditions for the start of peace talks, and then reminded everyone that the remaining Russian military units in Syria can be reinforcedliterally within a few hours, if necessary’.  Russia will also continue to bomb terrorist groups in Syria, despite the partial withdrawal.  Putin says the military operation in total has cost Russia about $484 million so far (about $100 million less than this week’s estimate).  Igor Kalyapin, the head of NGO the Committee Against Torture, was attacked in the Chechen capital earlier this week, with the republic’s human rights ombudsman saying it was his own fault for not coming with good intentions (i.e., Kalyapin criticised Ramzan Kadyrov during his trip).  Former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin is urging that pension contributions remain mandatory and that the retirement age be raised.  VTB bank is in danger of making almost zero profit for the second year running, with the CFO citing ‘rather meaningful risks’ despite a slowly stabilising economy.  It is estimated that Russia’s known oil resources will last another 28 years (29 billion tons). Maria Sharapova’s meldonium doping admission seems to have boosted the drug’s popularity with Duma officials.

According to the US State Department, anti-Russia sanctions will remain in place until Crimea is returned to Ukraine (which, at least according to both Russian and Crimean officials, and some residents, will never happen). US President Barack Obama called for the release of Ukrainian pilot Nadezhda Savchenko, currently on trial in Russia over the death of two Russian journalists; Russia is rejecting pressure from both Obama and the EU on the case.  Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov gave a negative assessment of the bizarre campaign video posted on Instagram by US presidential hopeful Donald Trump yesterday, which featured President Vladimir Putin as one of America’s ‘toughest opponents’.

The Washington Post reminds us that the death of former Putin ally Mikhail Lesin in Washington is still completely mysterious.  The prospect of Russia cutting off gas deliveries to Europe for a prolonged period of time may be ‘too absurd to contemplate’, but contemplate it they did.

PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin presents a banner to Russian air-space forces in Moscow’s Kremlin, Russia on Thursday, March 17, 2016.(Alexei Nikolsky/Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)