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‘Long way to go’ before Russia-Ukraine repair relations after prisoner swap



Soldiers of the Ukrainian army on the front line during the Joint Forces Operation in Donbass area, Luhansk region, Ukraine, on June 2018.

NurPhoto | NurPhoto | Getty Images

A high-profile prisoner exchange between Russia and Ukraine is being seen as a boost to the possible resumption of peace talks, but some experts are tempering those hopes.

Ambassador Kurt Volker, the U.S. special representative for Ukraine negotiations, told CNBC Wednesday that “there is a long way to go before there would be any normalization between the two countries.”

“Russia’s invasion, occupation, and claimed annexation of Crimea will never be accepted by Ukraine,” Volker, who is also the executive director of the McCain Institute for International Leadership, told CNBC. “That said, it is possible to make progress toward peace in Eastern Ukraine.”

“This prisoner exchange is a good step, that could pave the way for further exchanges, a more durable cease-fire, withdrawal of heavy weapons and — ideally — a decision by Russia to proceed with implementing the Minsk agreements. If so, it would tremendously improve the lives of the local population,” he added.

On Saturday, a possible thawing of frosty relations between the two neighbors came about after Russia and Ukraine exchanged a total of 70 prisoners, including Ukrainian sailors that were detained in November 2018 following a skirmish in the Kerch Strait.

The incident in the strait was just one of a number of incidents reflecting heightened tensions between the countries since 2014, following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its role in a pro-Russian uprising in the Donbass region in the east of the country.

The uprising prompted Russian-backed separatists within the Donbass to proclaim two “people’s republics” in Donetsk and Luhansk, exacerbating the destabilization of (and tensions with) Ukraine. It has also led to Russia becoming something of a pariah in the international community and it is still subject to sanctions for its actions.

What’s happened?

The conflict in the Donbass region is now in its fifth year, although it has been characterized more by regular skirmishes than outright war. Nonetheless, the human cost has been high. Over 13,000 people (including civilians and combatants from both sides) have died since 2014, according to the United Nations, and hostilities have affected 3.9 million civilians living in the region.

Efforts by France and Germany in 2015 to broker a cease-fire and peace deal, known as the Minsk agreements, were widely seen to have failed with both Russia and Ukraine accusing each other of failing to meet the conditions of the deal.

Against a backdrop of bitter relations, a lot of focus has been on how the new Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, a comedian and TV star by trade, would handle Russia after he campaigned on a pledge to end the conflict in the Donbass region. During his inauguration, Zelensky said that the government’s “first task is to achieve a cease-fire in Donbass.”

‘Normalization’ of Ukraine-Russia relations?

Zelensky said Saturday that all steps must be taken “to finish this horrible war,” Reuters reported, while Russian President Vladimir Putin said the swap would be “a good step towards the normalization of relations.”

Even President Donald Trump got enthusiastic, tweeting his approval and his hope for peace.

Experts are cynical, however. Otilia Dhand, senior vice president at Teneo Intelligence, is also not convinced that the exchange means conflict resolution, noting that there are major barriers to peace in place.

“First, this was just another (though high-profile) among several exchanges of prisoners between Ukraine and Russia under the 2015 Minsk cease-fire agreement,” she said in a note Tuesday.

“Second, the political conditions of the cease-fire agreement require constitutional reform in Ukraine prior to the restoration of Kyiv’s territorial control. Separatists would likely demand decision-making powers in foreign policy to prevent any possibility of Ukraine’s westward economic and security integration, which remains unacceptable for Kyiv.”

Nonetheless, Dhand noted that the recent increase in bilateral activity suggests that some form of talks over the Donbas conflict will likely take place soon, with both sides having vested interests in a resolution.

“Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, seeks a substantial political victory to foster his position in the political system … Russia seeks a normalization of relations with the EU and the U.S., the easing of sanctions and the return to the global political stage,” she said.



Spaceflight Industries says sale of rideshare business a “win-win” for all parties




WASHINGTON — Spaceflight Industries’ decision to sell its rideshare launch services company, Spaceflight, to two Japanese firms will benefit both Spaceflight and its parent company, executives of the two companies say.

Spaceflight Industries announced Feb. 11 that it had an agreement to sell Spaceflight to Japanese companies Mitsui & Co., Ltd. and Yamasa Co., Ltd., who will own it in a 50/50 joint venture. Spaceflight will continue to operate as a U.S.-based company, while Spaceflight Industries will focus its attention on BlackSky, its geospatial intelligence business.

The companies did not disclose the value of the deal, and Brian O’Toole, president of Spaceflight Industries and chief executive of BlackSky, declined to discuss terms of the sale in a Feb. 14 interview. However, he said the proceeds of the deal will go towards accelerating the deployment of the BlackSky’s satellite constellation.

“This is going to provide us an opportunity to potentially get those satellites up on orbit faster and accelerate a lot of our platform investment,” he said. “We’re seeing a lot of demand right now and our customers are interested in us going faster.”

BlackSky has four satellites in orbit now and plans to launch eight more later this year. Those are part of a group of 20 satellites under production at LeoStella, Spaceflight Industries’ joint venture with Thales Alenia Space to manufacture smallsats. O’Toole said the rest of that set of 20 satellites should be in orbit by early 2021.

Imagery from those satellites, as well as other data sources, feed into a platform that uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to provide specific information for both government and commercial customers. “It’s really about moving away from delivering just pixels to delivering insights,” he said. “This capital will allow us to accelerate that for our customers.”

One reason Spaceflight Industries decided to sell Spaceflight, he said, was that the company had already been working with Mitsui, who invested in Spaceflight Industries. “Mitsui has been a partner for us for a while and they had a long-term interest of getting more into space,” he said. “We’re seeing pretty large market opportunities for both businesses and I need to get each business resourced and focused on their opportunities.”

Spaceflight Industries decided to sell Spaceflight rather than raise more capital and keep the company along with BlackSky. “We are continuing to raise capital. Fundamentally, it’s about where do you deploy that capital,” he said. “These are very different businesses, so this path just made sense for both.”

In a separate interview Feb. 13, Curt Blake, president and chief executive of Spaceflight, agreed that the sale would help his business. “From our standpoint, it definitely gives us a lot more financial strength,” he said. “There’s a lot that we can get out and do that we had on our radar that we’ve been unable to tackle.”

He said the company isn’t ready yet to disclose many of those plans, but one area of growth will be to expand Spaceflight’s portfolio of services. “You can extend the services that you provide beyond launch as the end game, to other pieces,” he said. “That can include all kinds of different alliances or potentially even acquisitions.”

Spaceflight’s Japanese owners, he added, should help it win additional business in Japan and elsewhere in Asia, and offer closer ties with Japanese launch providers. “Both of those are interesting, and ways we can solidify our position in Asia,” he said.

While owned by Japanese companies, Spaceflight will remain based in the U.S. and will structure itself to allow it to do business as it has, including putting protections in place on export sensitive information.

“We’re really excited. Strong financial backing really opens up a whole multitude of possibilities for us,” he said. “We have to do the foreign national protections, but that’s a small price to pay for having this kind of opportunity available to us.”

O’Toole said he saw the sale as a “win-win” for both Spaceflight and BlackSky, and added that the two companies will work together even after the sale closes. “We will continue to have a very close working relationship with the Spaceflight launch services group,” he said. “They are going to remain our primary launch provider, and we are actively working with them to explore options with the entire launch market to accelerate our constellation.”


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The language of tyranny | US NEWS LIVE



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Here are the Chinese industries likely to be hit hardest by coronavirus




A man cycles past a closed Apple store in Beijing on February 8, 2020.

Greg Baker | AFP | Getty Images

The extended shutdown in China due to the coronavirus outbreak brought the economic giant to a virtual standstill, as factories struggle to get back on their feet and consumers stop traveling, shopping or eating out.

Progress on the return to work has been slow, analysts say. Even after workers come back they must follow quarantine orders, limiting production at factories.

“Controls in place to stem the spread of the virus have halted the movement of people, brought business activity to a standstill and closed offices up and down the country,” ratings giant S&P Global said in a report on Wednesday.

The outbreak, it said, will cause a short-term blow to consumption, an increasingly vital part of the country’s growth, and that will have a knock-on effect on other sectors, the S&P Global report said.

This is how the fallout from the outbreak will affect various sectors in China, according to reports from S&P Global and Morgan Stanley this week.

Restaurants, retail and leisure

The restaurant sector in China will see a “significant” fall in first-quarter sales, S&P Global said. The firm projected those figures will only be around 45% to 55% of sales revenue during the same period last year.

“The coronavirus outbreak coincided with this year’s Spring Festival. After the city of Wuhan was effectively sealed off and quarantined on January 23, restaurants all over the country closed their shutters for the Chinese New Year,” it said.

As a large number of people remain stuck at home, the situation has even forced bars to deliver happy hour drink orders.

Morgan Stanley added that the two-week shutdown of casinos in Macao will cost operators. It could result in a decline of more than 50% in first-quarter earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization for the sector — a measure of a company’s operating performance.


Tourism revenue for the first half of the year will suffer a “severe blow,” affecting overall performance for whole year, S&P Global said, even if the epidemic is under control by March.

The outbreak coincided with the Lunar New Year holiday season — a peak travel period that S&P Global notes made up 16% of tourism revenue for the first half of 2019.

“These areas have proved particularly vulnerable during this outbreak and highlight the weaknesses in the revenue structure of domestic tourism,” the report said. “Most tourism destinations, hotels, resorts and theme parks have been temporarily closed.”

Real estate

As compared to the 2002-2003 SARS epidemic, the new coronavirus outbreak will have a “more severe impact” on the property sector, said S&P Global.

Sales growth in third- and fourth-tier cities will likely not recover this year, its report said.

“This is because of a halt in demand from migrant workers, who traditionally return to their hometowns during Spring Festival, and typically use the period to buy property,” it said.

The long-term impact on commercial property, such as office buildings and malls, also shouldn’t be underestimated, S&P Global said.

“It will take a long time to recover foot traffic in shopping malls. More importantly, the virus has encouraged Chinese firms to attempt large-scale shifts towards online operations, further increasing the reach of e-commerce to new consumers,” it said.

According to Morgan Stanley, over 50 Chinese cities shut down property sale sites, or suspended marketing events as well as on-site construction.


Cinemas have already suffered a “clear blow,” and the sharp losses at the box offices over the Spring Festival will be “difficult to fully turn around,” the S&P Global report said.

The virus had come during one of the biggest sales seasons of the year for China’s movie theaters. Seven films scheduled for release during the Chinese New Year season were pulled, costing 1.4 billion yuan ($210 million) in losses at the box office. Most theaters also shut down for two weeks.


While people are shopping online more as they stop going out, those companies could also be temporarily hit.

Morgan Stanley pointed out that the logistic disruptions are affecting deliveries, and is a near-term negative for Chinese e-commerce players. Shutdowns throughout China means roads and highways have been closed.

Alibaba last week warned that virus-related disruptions may hit its revenue growth in the March quarter. Its CEO Daniel Zhang said that the delay in employees returning to work is preventing merchants and logistic companies from resuming operations.


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