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Russia vs the West: A War Scenario and a New Logic of Confrontation

Ivan Timofeev

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The aggravation of rivalry between Russia and the West in the past few months is raising the urgent question of a possible further escalation of tensions and its forms and consequences. Political relations between Moscow and Western capitals have gone beyond the critical point. The threadbare thesis about the lack of trust can be confidently discarded. Things are much worse. The sides do not want to and cannot listen to each other. Official positions and signals are perceived as provocations and trolling. Any opinion is described from the very start as manipulation, propaganda or diversion. Pragmatic voices are sinking in the growing flow of populism. The small islands of dialogue on common issues are rapidly narrowing or disappearing altogether. Hysteria in the media, hostility and vulgarity of rhetoric far exceed Cold War levels. We have entered a new and much more dangerous stage of the conflict, a stage that did not exist several weeks ago.

The current situation is fundamentally different from what existed since the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis and up to the Skripals case. The former logic of relations was obviously confrontational. The sides had sharp differences on major issues. But they continued political dialogue that was generally rational and relatively predictable. Any hostile actions against one another had a specific and more or less verifiable pretext. The exchange of sanctions was based on understandable reasons. Various incidents were thoroughly and repeatedly verified and taken with much caution. We might dislike Ukraine-related EU sanctions but Brussels carefully avoided any escalation of sanctions for “promoting propaganda and undermining democracy,” an accusation that is hard to verify but easy to turn into a conflict-prone and provocative form. We might dislike Robert Mueller’s investigation and the very pretext for it but it was at least systematic and relatively transparent. It was hard to suspect the EU and the US of encouraging Russia’s restrictions on their food exports but, albeit unpleasant, Russian counter- sanctions had a transparent and understandable logic. Both sides were concerned over potential incidents at sea or in the air but the military actively cooperated with each other to prevent them, despite deep political differences. Apparently, in the current confrontational conditions “stable deterrence,” a scenario that seemed to be the least harmful, is receding into the past.

At least three events have triggered the new logic of confrontation: the Skripal case, Washington’s new sanctions and the chemical incident in Syria. The Skripal case stands out because the collective West went for a sharp escalation without having authentic and transparent facts indicating Russia’s involvement in the incident. Not a single fact meeting these requirements has been presented to the public at large so far. The theory of Russia’s involvement is based on verbal lace, references to its “bad reputation” and some “secret information” whose value as evidence equals zero unless it is openly presented to the public. At the same time, more and more questions and discrepancies are arising, starting with the nature and origin of the toxic chemical and ending with the methods of its use. Symptomatically, the case of the recovering Skripals has become the subject of a growing number of jokes. However, the grotesque does not reduce the danger of it being a precedent. What if a similar provocation is staged tomorrow? What if several provocations are staged at the same time? What will our Western partners do and how will Russia react to this? Expel the remaining diplomats, including security officers and chefs? Or adopt some tougher measures?

The second event is Washington’s new sanctions against Russian companies, politicians and entrepreneurs. It would seem that everyone has already got used to sanctions. However, politically today they are like a nervous cowboy from a Western comedy, who is firing his two six-shooters, whether he has to or not. Previously, new sanctions were based on a specific pretext, whereas today they are becoming similar in nature to daily carpet bombings. No doubt, they are doing harm to Russia’s economy, business and citizens. But this version of sanction policy can only anger Moscow and perplex observers by the absence of any clear-cut strategy. Sanctions are losing their value as a tool of diplomacy and becoming an implement of war. Such an approach to sanctions is good for the domestic audience. Probably, it would have been rational in its own way were it not applied to a nuclear power that should hardly be overrated but certainly should not be underrated.

The third event is yet another chemical attack in Syria. This event was expected but is no less dangerous for that reason. Any objective investigation is highly unlikely under the circumstances. The sides will consider any version of events as fake, with the threat of force emerging as the only argument. And this is where the main danger lies. Today, Syria is the place where there is the greatest danger of the confrontation between Russia and the West turning into an open armed conflict. Such a scenario is easy to visualize.

Suppose another “chemical” or some other incident takes place in Syria. The “chemical” trigger looks most likely. This theme is well-covered by the media and is a serious pretext. Suppose Washington decides to use force, not just a cosmetic strike with ten or twenty Tomahawks, but a massive attack on the remaining military and civilian infrastructure of the Syrian Government. This is the scenario’s first bifurcation, or the matter of Russia’s involvement. Its bases can remain intact. But if Moscow uses its forces (as its military promised) a strike will be delivered at Khmeimim and Tartus. Technically it is possible to launch such a strike and destroy both bases and their military personnel, especially if US troops die during an attack on Bashar al-Assad.

This course of events could be unintentional but it could also be planned. The Russian group in Syria has done an excellent job fighting terrorists but it would be vulnerable in the event of a clash with the Americans. The TO is remotely located and it is difficult to deliver supplies. The Americans have an advantage as far as the concentration and support of their attack force is concerned. Stakes may be made on an utterly tough, hard-hitting and humiliating defeat of Russia as the result of a lightning strike. This could be like a new 19th-century Crimean war, albeit extremely compressed in time and space.

This scenario may seem extremely risky (if not crazy) but upon closer analysis it has logic of its own. And here comes the next bifurcation. What will Moscow do, if this happens? The first option (that would be the most desirable for Washington): Russia would have to bite the dust and admit defeat. Yes, Russia is a nuclear power but will it mount a nuclear strike because of a clash with the Americans in Syria, knowing that its strike will result in retaliation? In other words, the stakes here are on the hope that Moscow will not press the button because this would mean suicide. In this scenario, victory would be on Washington’s side without reservation. It will show that it is possible and necessary to cut down to size an opponent that has crossed the line. This will be a powerful signal to all the rest while America and Trump personally will gain the reputation of an uncompromising and tough player.

But there is also a second option. It is difficult to analyze it on the basis of the theory of rational choice. It may simply not work within Russia’s strategic culture and tradition. The Russians may press the button. Moscow is not confined to the option of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). It can also offer a limited, albeit very painful, response. Technically this is also possible and dangerous in its own way. If, say, an aircraft carrier or a big warship is demonstratively sunk, it is Washington that risks biting the dust. But this is not in the US tradition, either. As a result, tensions will escalate, considerably increasing the risk of MAD.

This scenario may seem excessively alarmist. The consciousness of people, who lived amid the stability of the Cold War and the subsequent 30 peaceful years, naturally rejects it as unrealistic. However, history shows that disasters happen contrary to usual patterns and are merciless to their makers.

It is possible to avoid the disaster in two ways: either by starting negotiations and finding a compromise or by strengthening alliances and maintaining a balance of power. The current realities are making the second option more likely. In all probability, Moscow will continue its course towards a rapprochement with China and other players and a new model of bipolarity will take shape in the world. However, making forecasts in international relations is a thankless task. History will follow its own path, a path it alone can fathom.

First published in Valdai Discussion Club

RIAC Director of Programs, RIAC Member, Head of "Contemporary State" program at Valdai Discussion Club, RIAC member.

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The Art of Expectation Management

Dr. Andrey KORTUNOV

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It is evident that Vladimir Putin yearns for a meeting with Donald Trump. He has always desired this meeting — since the day Trump had won the presidential election in November of 2016. The Kremlin would have apparently preferred an early summit to take place in spring of last year. However, the first full-fledged bilateral negotiations between the US and the Russian leaders will take place only year and a half after Trump’s inauguration. It will take place and after Donald Trump has already met not only with nearly every single president or prime minister from allied Western nations, but also with President of China Xi Jinping and even with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

Following a Russian proverb, “better late than never”. Vladimir Putin takes the forthcoming event in Helsinki very seriously. Unlike his US counterpart, he can afford not to care much about the domestic political opposition, moods in the legislature, and he has no Russian Robert Mueller following him closely. Still, it does not mean that sky is the limit for Putin’s aspirations and ambitions in Helsinki. There are certain limitations on what the Russian side can realistically hope for as the summit takeaways.

First, for Trump Russia remains a toxic asset back at home and this is no secret in the Kremlin.

Second, Putin should be very cautious in trying to drive a wedge between Donald Trump and his European allies.

Third, Putin has to keep in mind possible negative reactions to a new rapprochement with Trump coming from Russia’s traditional partners and allies all over the world.

In view of all these limitations, the Russian side is not in a position to offer too much to US in Helsinki or to expect a true revolution in the relationship.

The current positions of Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin are asymmetrical. Anything but a clear and decisive US success will be considered a failure in Washington. Anything but a clear and decisive Russian failure will be considered a success in Moscow. This asymmetry is a complicating factor, but it should not necessarily prevent the meeting in Helsinki from tuning into a diplomatic victory for both sides.

It is evident that Vladimir Putin yearns for a meeting with Donald Trump. He has always desired this meeting — since the day Trump had won the presidential election in November of 2016. The Kremlin would have apparently preferred an early summit to take place in spring of last year. However, the first full-fledged bilateral negotiations between the US and the Russian leaders will take place only year and a half after Trump’s inauguration. It will take place and after Donald Trump has already met not only with nearly every single president or prime minister from allied Western nations, but also with President of China Xi Jinping and even with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

Following a Russian proverb, “better late than never”. Vladimir Putin takes the forthcoming event in Helsinki very seriously. Unlike his US counterpart, he can afford not to care much about the domestic political opposition, moods in the legislature, and he has no Russian Robert Mueller following him closely. Still, it does not mean that sky is the limit for Putin’s aspirations and ambitions in Helsinki. There are certain limitations on what the Russian side can realistically hope for as the summit takeaways.

First, for Trump Russia remains a toxic asset back at home and this is no secret in the Kremlin. Any far-reaching Trump-Putin agreement short of a complete and unconditional surrender of Moscow to Washington would meet with a fierce and not always fair criticism within the US foreign policy establishment. The odds are that the Congress would overrule or water it down, and high-ranking bureaucrats within the Administration itself would find a way to sabotage it.

Second, Putin should be very cautious in trying to drive a wedge between Donald Trump and his European allies. It has always been tempting to go for a grand bargain with US above the heads of Europeans. There might be more personal chemistry between the US and the Russian leaders than between any of them and German Chancellor Angela Merkel or UK Prime Minister Theresa May. There might also be a shared Trump-Putin skepticism about the future of the European Union. Nevertheless, in many ways Europe remains indispensable for Moscow. Despite all the recent sanctions and counter-sanctions, EU remains the largest Russia’s trading partner, the prime source of FDIs and new technologies to the country. Moreover, on a number of important international matters – like the Iranian JCPOA — Russia and major European powers stand shoulder to shoulder against the revisionist US. From Putin’s vantage point, European leaders might look stubborn, boring and even antiquated, but most of them still appear to be more reliable compared to the flamboyant and unpredictable US President.

Third, Putin has to keep in mind possible negative reactions to a new rapprochement with Trump coming from Russia’s traditional partners and allies all over the world. How can President Hassan Rouhani interpret it from Tehran? What should Bashar Assad think in Damascus? Nicolas Maduro in Caracas? Above all, how are they likely react in Beijing? The latter should be of particular concern to Vladimir Putin because the meeting in Helsinki takes place against the background of rapidly deteriorating US — Chinese relations.

In view of all these limitations, the Russian side is not in a position to offer too much to US in Helsinki or to expect a true revolution in the relationship. If there is anyone, who might push hard for innovative, out of the box solutions in order to turn the Helsinki summit into an epic event, it should be Donald Trump rather than Vladimir Putin. The Russian leader is more likely to take a cautious approach, keeping in mind that any far-reaching deal between him and Trump would be a risky political investment for both, at least at this particular point.   The most important thing for Putin today is to change the overall dynamics of the US — Russian relationship, indicating the beginning of a new period of gradual normalization.

What does this approach mean for the US-Russian agenda? As for the strategic arms control, it is not evident that this issue is a top priority for the Kremlin these days. Judging by Putin’s March Address to the Federal Assembly, the Russian leader is confident that he can assure national security even in the absence of a US — Russian strategic arms control. However, politically strategic arms control is still important for the Kremlin; it gives Russia a very special status in the international system and puts Moscow on equal footing with Washington. This is one of not to many areas where Moscow can significantly contribute to global commons. The Russian military might lack enthusiasm about the New Start and, especially, about INF, but the political considerations can outweigh skepticism of the military provided that President Trump is also interested in salvaging INF and/or in extending the New Start.

It is impossible not to bring regional issues to the table in Helsinki, but here opportunities are limited as well. Looking from Moscow it is very hard to imagine any US — Russian ‘compromise’ on Ukraine, which would fly on the Hill and would be acceptable to the Kremlin at the same time. On the other hand, the predominant perception in Russia is that nothing significant can be accomplished in Donbas until the end of next year’s election cycle in Ukraine. Finally, the United States is not even a participant to the Normandy process and is not a signatory to the Minsk agreements. All the significance of the Volker-Surkov bilateral consultations notwithstanding, they can hardly be regarded as an efficient alternative to the German and French engagement.

Today, Russia has little to offer to US on the North Korean nuclear matter. It could have played a role of an honest broker on the Korean Peninsula when the relations between Pyongyang and Beijing were at historic lows. After Kim Jong-un’s trip to Beijing and the Chinese-North Korean reconciliation in spring, the window of opportunity shut fast for Russia. In the nearest future Moscow is more likely to follow the Chinese line on the North Korean problem rather than to advance its own innovative ideas.

A potentially more promising subject for conversation is Syria. At minimum, Trump and Putin can agree on future arrangements for the Syrian South-West and on a tactical deal regarding accommodating Syrian Kurds, at maximum — they can give a push to the Geneva process on political settlement. Does Trump intend to convince Putin to drop Russia’s current partnership with Iran and to shift to the ‘right side’ of the conflict? If so, the US President is likely to be disappointed: Iran is simply too important for Moscow in places like Afghanistan, Central Asia and South Caucasus to sacrifice this relationship in order to please Donald Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or Saudi King Salman. One should also keep in mind that the ability to keep good relations with all major sides to numerous Middle East conflicts has been a key, if not the key Russia’s comparative advantage in regional politics; with this advantage removed the Russian role in the region is likely to decline sharply.

The US sanctions against Russia might also be a part of the conversation though the official Russia’s position is that it does not conduct any negotiations about sanctions and leaves it up to states-initiators to decide on their sanctions’ future. The last round of US anti-Russian sanctions announced in April included RUSAL, Russia’s largest aluminum producer, and had a substantial negative impact not only on this company, but also on the global aluminum market at large. Vladimir Putin should know pretty well about the US legislative process that makes it impossible for Donald Trump to lift the existing sanctions against Moscow. What he can hope for is some kind of informal pledge from the US executive not to initiate any further increase of the sanction pressure on Russia. Another issue that Russians might wish to discuss in this regard is the modalities of the extraterritorial dimension of US sanctions — a politely sensitive matter that can become a nuisance for both sides.

Vladimir Putin is also well aware of the importance that Americans attach to the “Russia’s interference” into the US political system. Under no circumstances will he confess that such an interference authorized by Russian authorities did take place. The odds are that he will stick to his standard narrative about some unspecified independent actors (“patriotic hackers”) who had nothing to do with the Russian state. Nevertheless, one cannot exclude Putin offering Trump to sign a US-Russian “non-interference pact” — a mutual commitment not to mess with domestic affairs of each other. The problem for the US side is that the term “interference” is likely to be interpreted by the Kremlin in the broadest sense possible — it might include international activities of American NGO, foundations, media outlets, think tanks, Universities and so on. It is not clear how the two leaders can possibly reach a compromise on such a divisive issue.

The last but not the least, the Russian side would like to unlock doors to intergovernmental cooperation or, at least, to intergovernmental communication at various levels and in various fields including more contacts between diplomats, military, state bureaucrats, and intelligence agencies. The Russian Embassy in Washington should stop being a besieged fortress, the paralysis in the visa services on both sides should be dealt with. A symbolic progress in resolving the diplomatic property problem would also be appreciated by Moscow. One of the positive outcomes of Helsinki would be a decision of the two leaders to start planning a next summit meeting — either on the margins of a multilateral gathering like the G20 summit in Argentina or another bilateral event later this year.

In sum, the current positions of Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin are asymmetrical. Anything but a clear and decisive US success will be considered a failure in Washington. Anything but a clear and decisive Russian failure will be considered a success in Moscow. This asymmetry is a complicating factor, but it should not necessarily prevent the meeting in Helsinki from tuning into a diplomatic victory for both sides.

First published in our partner RIAC

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Russia warns foreign football fans to voluntarily leave after the end of World Cup

Kester Kenn Klomegah

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As the end of FIFA World Cup draws nearer, Russian authorities have reminded foreign football fans, including those from Africa, participating in the month-long event, to leave voluntarily or face deportation.

Head of Russian Federation of Migrants (RFM), Vadim Kozhinov, a non-government organization that deals with foreign migrants disclosed that “due to the simplified visa regime introduced for the period of the World Cup, some foreign citizens want to take advantage of the legal entry into the territory of the Russian Federation to stay in Russia.”

However, such foreign citizens should understand that, starting from July 26, they would be in Russia illegally and accordingly, such citizens would be deported from the country, he warned. “If among these citizens there are those who have previously been deported, they will be sentenced to imprisonment,” Kozhinov said.

The warning comes as both local and foreign media have reported a number of foreign fans, notably from Asia and Africa, attempting to cross borders illegally into Belarus, Poland, Latvia and Finland to Europe.

Kommersant Daily, a Russian newspaper, has reported that some foreign nationals from Cameroon, Pakistan, Congo, Ghana, Nigeria, Bangladesh and Morocco have been arrested for illegal crossing near Poland border, last week.

Foreign fans have taken advantage of this opportunity to find work abroad or get political asylum. According to human rights activists, foreigners who found themselves in the Russian Federation without money, housing and the opportunity to return home, were turning to them every day with requests for all kinds of assistance.

Yulia Siluyanova, Coordinator of the “Alternative”, a human rights organization, said there had been complaints and requests for assistance from several citizens of Nigeria.

“Every day we take three or four people, but it is obvious that they are much more. The fact is that the Nigerian Embassy knows about us and immediately sends its citizens here for help.”

When GNA contacted, the Nigerian Embassy, the officials said, they were using all possible resources to help their fellow citizens. Nearly a hundred Nigerian football fans could not fly home due to scam, according to reports.

Maria Zakharova, Spokeswoman for Foreign Affairs Ministry (MFA), said at a media briefing that “winding up with no money by the end of the World Cup is not something unique to Nigerians, but all foreign fans who have come to Russia for the World Cup.”

She said that “unfortunately, it is quite natural (and we can confirm this) that when this large and very long sporting event ends all of them must leave the Russian Federation, because the FAN IDs will no longer work.”

“Some fans might wound up without money or return tickets by the end of their stay. This is also natural. Unwanted, but natural. And this is really a problem to be solved by fans, first of all, together with their countries’ diplomatic missions and consulates,” she explained.

Zakharova finally gave a firm warning: “We cannot rule out that some foreign guests are hoping to cross the Russian border, one way or another, often illegally, into a European country during the World Cup. We cannot rule this out. If this action is deemed illegal, then corresponding agencies will take the necessary administrative measures.”

To enter Russia during the tournament, football fans needed to get a “Fan ID”, which was free of charge after buying a ticket for the match. “This document gives the right to multiple visa-free entry, from June 04, until July 15, inclusive, but one must leave the country before July 26.”

The easing of the visa regime had given cause for concern by countries bordering Russia. Lithuania, in June, officially announced the strengthening of border control for fear that the citizens of third countries, using the championship, would try to get into the European Union (EU), illegally.

Russian President, Vladimir Putin, before the start of the FIFA tournament, said in his welcome video address posted to Kremlin website that he wanted the event to be considered as a global family celebration, filled with passion and emotions.

He expressed the hope that all participants and guests were going to have an unforgettable experience, not only watching the matches of their favourite teams and admiring the players’ skills, but also getting to know Russia, learning about its identity and culture, its unique history and natural diversity, its hospitable, sincere and friendly people.

“We have done our best to ensure that all of our guests – the athletes, the staff and, of course, the fans – feel at home in Russia. We have opened both our country and our hearts to the world.”

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Russia: Improving public diplomacy in Africa

Kester Kenn Klomegah

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Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), collaborating with Ministry of Communications, Diplomatic Academy and the Institute for African Studies, plans to launch a short orientation and training programme for senior editors working in the state media organisations in African countries.

The media initiative came up as a follow up to Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s discussions during his African tour early March about rolling out a comprehensive strategic roadmap for a more integrated cooperation and find effective ways of improving public diplomacy in Africa.

On May 16, Sergey Lavrov chaired the Foreign Ministry Collegium meeting on the subject “Cooperation with Sub-Saharan African countries as part of implementing important tasks of Russian foreign policy.”

The meeting noted that the consolidation of versatile ties with the Sub-Saharan African countries remains a major part of Russia’s foreign policy strategy, which is acquiring special significance in the context of deep changes in the global arena.

The MFA has released an official document, available to its website, titled “Concept of the Russian Federation on Cooperation with African Media” stresses the need to cooperate with African media as Russia looks forward to strengthening relations and share strategic interests with Africa on international arena.

According to the MFA “the Russian Federation is implementing programmes of cooperation with various African countries which include education, culture, art, the media and sport.”

The Russian Government supports the pilot programme and will be organised for African media groups in two phases: in October and in May, and planned for a two-year period from 2018 to 2020.

The participants from this pilot programme will be at the forefront to highlight or propagate post-Soviet economic and cultural reality, shape the African perception about Russia and raise Russia’s image and reputation among the political and business community and the general population in Africa.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, this is the first significant step on media cooperation by the official authorities to address the information gap between the two regions. The initiative particularly seeks to bridge the widening business information gap that has existed and might help strengthen bilateral relations between Africa and Russia.

Experts have acknowledged that, for Russia, there are important geopolitical implications working with Africa and unreservedly praised Russia’s initiative for creating this mechanism for media cooperation and for more diversified aspects of its policy with Africa.

Canadian-Nigerian Professor O. Igho Natufe, Head of Ukraine-African Study Center in Kiev, says looking into the future it is important to continue approaching the relationship beyond natural resources and the economy, and to include soft power, so the move will boost the overall relationship in the long-term since the media has a huge role to play.

Undoubtedly, Natufe further explains that frequent exchange of visits by Russian and African journalists as well as regular publications of economic and business reports could help create public business awareness and raise, to an appreciable level, the understanding of the relationship between Russia and Africa.

Earlier, Dr Olga Kulkova, a Research Fellow at the Moscow based Center for the Study of Russian-African Relations, Institute for African Studies, also pointed out that “more quality information about modern Russia should be reported in Africa. Indisputably, it might take a lot of money and efforts, but the result will pay off.”

“It is excellent to adequately collaborate with African partners and attract Russian business to Africa. Russia ought to take this into account, if it wants to improve the chances for success in Africa,” Kulkova said.

Professor Gerrit Olivier from the Department of Political Science, University of Pretoria in South Africa, noted that “Russian influence in Africa, despite efforts towards resuscitation, remains marginal. The cultural gap (language in particular) is a great handicap. The official visits are mainly opening moves and symbolic and have little long-term concrete results.”

While prioritising Africa now, Russia has to do more, particularly, in the cultural-intellectual field (like China, EU and US) with a view to the longer term and work on its image problem in Africa, Professor Olivier, who previously served as South African Ambassador to the Russian Federation from 1991 to 1996, wrote in an email comment from Pretoria, South Africa.

For decades, a number of foreign countries are cooperating with African media to push their strategic policy interests. For example, the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation has fixed China-Africa Press Exchange Center in Shanghai to encourage and promote exchange and visits between Chinese and African media.

In June 2018, China held the Fourth Forum on China-Africa Media Cooperation. A Joint Statement on Further Deepening Exchanges and Cooperation was adopted. During the Johannesburg summit held in 2015, President Xi Jinping said China would implement access to satellite TV for 10,000 African villages and provide training for 1,000 media professionals from Africa.

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