MOSCOW, April 15 (RIA Novosti)
U.S. scientists pinpoint new nuclear targets for President Obama / Russia may legalize remote electronic voting this year / LUKoil to sell 10% of its gas stations in U.S. / Largest global shipbuilder buys Russian farm
U.S. scientists pinpoint new nuclear targets for President Obama
The Federation of American Scientists (FAS), which includes 68 Nobel Prize winners, has published a report, "From Counterforce to Minimal Deterrence: A New Nuclear Policy on the Path toward Eliminating Nuclear Weapons."
The authors propose cutting the number of nuclear warheads to a deterrence minimum, and retargeting missiles from population centers "to a new set of targets we characterize as 'infrastructure' targets. Infrastructure targets are facilities such as oil refineries, iron and steel works, aluminum plants, nickel plants, thermal electric power plants, and transportation hubs that can be destroyed while minimizing collateral civilian casualties."
The new targets in Russia apparently include Gazprom, Rosneft, Rusal, Norilsk Nickel, Surgutneftegaz, Evraz, and Severstal, whose shareholders include Germany's E.ON and Italy's Enel.
According to the FAS, the United States has an excessive number of nuclear warheads (2,700 on combat duty and 2,500 in storage), which is potentially dangerous in case of a natural disaster.
"NATO's nuclear policy says that the role of its nuclear weapons is 'to preserve peace and prevent coercion and any kind of war,' a meaningless bluff that has been called against nuclear powers many times," the authors of the report write.
In their opinion, the U.S. needs only a few hundred nuclear warheads for "minimal deterrence" which "would reserve for nuclear weapons just one mission: To deter the use of nuclear weapons." They write that "conventional capabilities" can "augment or even replace nuclear weapons."
"If the United States abandons its counterforce capability under a minimal deterrence policy... the Russians could make some immediate changes in response."
However, Russian analysts view this precept as the main drawback of the new U.S. initiative. Leonid Ivashov, ex-chief of the Defense Ministry's main department of military cooperation, currently president of the Academy of Geopolitical Sciences, said: "The U.S. wants to negotiate a reduction of the Russian nuclear capability to a minimum, that is, a level which the U.S. ABM system would be able to neutralize."
He added that there was no parity between the two countries' conventional forces.
Sergei Rogov, director of the Moscow-based Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies, said: "The U.S. military superiority would be absolute in a nuclear-free world."
In his opinion, the Pentagon will not be enthusiastic about the liberal scientists' proposals, and Moscow is unlikely to accept them either.
"Russia is lagging far behind in the deployment of cutting-edge precision conventional weapons, and therefore considers nuclear weapons as a deterrence instrument in both a nuclear and a large-scale conventional war," Rogov said.
Russia may legalize remote electronic voting this year
Russia's Central Election Commission (CEC) has submitted to the Kremlin draft amendments to electoral laws, introducing a remote electronic voting option. The first vote using the new technology may be held in October.
Analysts believe the CEC may be creating an election environment that cannot be monitored.
Remote electronic voting largely refers to an election process whereby people can cast their votes over the Internet, most likely using a web browser. However, it also includes sending cellphone messages and using electronic social cards for this purpose.
In October 2008 and March 2009, the CEC experimented with these types of voting, and the results were recognized as a success.
However, critics repeatedly pointed out that the electronic system developers failed to consider many important issues that bring this type of voting into question. There are no tools to monitor the electronic voting process, no way to guarantee a single ballot casting by each voter, and no security system provided for transferring the results of the vote.
The only country that has officially introduced running national elections over the Internet is Estonia. As for SMS-voting, no one in the world has dreamed of it yet.
Analysts have brought a wave of criticism against the CEC's new initiative. Vadim Solovyev, lower house member and head of the Communist Party's legal department, said it would be hard to control the level of fraud.
"With the economic downturn at hand, voter sentiments have changed so dramatically that the usual corrections won't be enough to falsify the results. They need to invent something else now," he told Gazeta.ru.
"The electronic count system will be entirely controlled by the Kremlin and the Federal Agency for Government Communications & Information (FAPSI)," he added.
The observers institute is no longer effective at the federal elections, and in the regions it is used on the decision of local authorities, said Alexander Kynev, director for regional programs at the Foundation for Information Policy Development, a partner of USAID in Russia.
With political competition decreasing, there will be no way to control electronic voting, he said.
LUKoil to sell 10% of its gas stations in U.S.
LUKoil has revisited the idea of selling some of its filling stations in the United States - the Russian company plans to part with 160 of them, as it is finding them unprofitable. A year ago, LUKoil tried but failed to do this. At that time the company hoped to clear $140 million and now has the chance to see its wish fulfilled, experts believe.
Company president Vagit Alekperov has described the situation on the U.S. retail oil products market as "negative", but stressed that LUKoil does not plan to pull out of the area entirely. It opened its business in the U.S. in 2000.
The U.S. market accounts for one quarter of all LUKoil gas stations. The company, according to its latest annual report, has over 6,000 stations, of which 1,500 are in the U.S.
Lukoil Americas (which runs the company's network in the U.S.) said that the profit margin in the retail business is "low and volatile" and for this reason large companies are opting for the wholesale segment.
In its last IAS report, LUKoil conceded a $58 million loss from the depreciation of U.S. gas stations, but the company did not disclose the nature of the loss yesterday. LUKoil said that Lukoil Americas had ended the year in the black.
LUKoil has no refineries of its own in the U.S. - it is buying gasoline from outside companies. A few years ago, having purchased the stations, the company tried to create a vertically integrated chain, planning to produce oil in Venezuela and refine it in Cuba. But a year ago LUKoil abandoned its plans to invest in a Cuban refinery.
"The gas filling business in the U.S. has never been a good earner, rather it could only serve to promote the company's brand," said Maria Radina of UBS. The retail markup in the U.S. is on average 15%, practically unchanged from last year, said Denis Borisov, an analyst with Solid brokerage.
Largest global shipbuilder buys Russian farm
South Korea's Hyundai Heavy Industries, the world's largest shipbuilder, which has not signed a single ship contract since last fall, has decided to branch into farming. The company bought a stake of almost 70% in a Russia-based farming firm, Khorol Zerno LLC, for $6.5 million to grow grain for the import-dependent East Asian country.
Hyundai Heavy says it plans to use the company's 10,000 hectares of cropland in Russia's Far Eastern Maritime Territory to grow corn and soybean. However, analysts believe the shipbuilder could also grow rapeseed for biofuel production.
The Koreans could also have opted for the non-core assets to diversify business as a kind of anti-crisis insurance. Farming, along with another new business division, solar energy, will lower the company's dependence on shipbuilding which currently fetches it half of its annual revenue ($15.2 billion in 2008).
However, Hyundai Heavy hasn't signed a single shipbuilding contract since September 2008. "Shipbuilding is facing a difficult time," said Sevastian Kozitsyn, an analyst with BrokerCreditService. "Each project takes two or three years and is financed with long-term loans, which no one can afford these days."
The company might face problems with shipment of corn and soybean to South Korea. "Russia's Far Eastern ports have no grain terminals," said Alexander Korbut, president of the Russian Grain Union. It would be logical to assume that Hyundai Heavy will agree to build one.
Or, it could opt for growing rapeseed for biofuel production. Agriculture is a new and potentially lucrative branch of power generation. "Rape-growing will yield higher profits than shipbuilding," Kozitsyn concluded.
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