Russian media roundup: The situation in Ukraine dominated Russian media coverage at the end of 2015, with new focus on the Minsk Agreements for Eastern Ukraine and recent energy-related events on the Crimean peninsula.

An electronics store employee uses a lamp to show items to potential customers after a power failure, in Simferopol, Crimea, Sunday, Nov. 22, 2015. Photo: AP.

Last week, Russian media focused on the prolongation of the Minsk Agreements, Russia’s new national security strategy and the issue of Crimea’s energy security. In addition, new information released by investigators working on the assassination case of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov led to extensive discussions in the Russian media about the relationship between the Kremlin and Chechnya.

Minsk agreements prolonged

On Dec. 30, during a telephone conversation between leaders of the “Normandy Quartet,” the Minsk Agreements on Ukraine were extended to 2016. This extension had been expected; after all, since the moment of their signing, not one of the 13 points in the agreements has been fully implemented.

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The business newspaper Kommersant is not too optimistic about the chances of the Minsk Agreements being fulfilled in 2016. Despite all efforts undertaken by Moscow, which is suffering more than all the others from the non-execution of the Minsk Agreements, due to large-scale sanctions imposed by the West, these accords will inevitably come face to face with Ukrainian domestic contradictions.

In particular, this concerns the status of the self-proclaimed republics - the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR), the situation with the victims of the conflict, as well as the exchange of prisoners. Even if it is possible that the technical arrangements have some hope of being implemented, then the political settlements – including the role of the two republics – will be virtually impossible to reconcile, says Kommersant.

The business newspaper RBC noted that during these recent negotiations, the leaders were suddenly faced with the issue of the Kremlin’s new economic policy towards Ukraine, and Vladimir Putin had to explain Russia’s position, justifying the introduction of a restrictive economic and trade regime with Ukraine.

The newspaper also pointed to the continuing sharp differences between the parties when it comes to conducting elections in the breakaway republics. President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko insists on having these elections cancelled, and to have special EU missions sent to territories that are not under Kiev’s control.

The analytical website “Expert” presented the views of the expert Gevorg Mirzayanov. He also believes that hard times await the Minsk Agreements in 2016. It is unlikely that Poroshenko will suddenly change his position on political reforms and seriously work on implementing all provisions contained in the Minsk Agreements, as there is significant opposition in parliament to these reforms.

At the same time, the self-proclaimed republics can benefit from this protracted implementation – a truce would give them an opportunity to strengthen their economic positions and their recent public statements are invariably of a peaceful character, allowing them to score some political points as well.

Russia gets a new national security strategy

On the last day in 2015, President Vladimir Putin approved a new national security strategy for Russia. The updated document reflects the changes in the international situation, as well as Russia’s position on the world stage. Among the listed threats are ISIS, Western sanctions, the bloc approach to international affairs, as well as internal factors, including the country’s dependence on raw materials.

The business newspaper Vedomosti believes that this new strategy contains a clear message for Washington – which appears in the document both as a potential partner, and as a destabilizing element in the global system (especially noted are the negative roles played by the U.S. and EU in the conflict in Ukraine). Russia is ready to cooperate, and expects that the West will somehow respond to its readiness, notes the newspaper.

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The website of the Echo of Moscow radio station featured the views of politician Tatiana Sukhareva. She criticized the new strategy, particularly highlighting the two phobias of the Russian regime, “color revolutions” and “destruction of traditional values.” The interpretation of both these threats can be arbitrarily quite broad, which frees the hands of the government for undertaking security measures in the country. The politician believes that if Putin and his inner circle would only pay more attention to the development of the country, and the problems of ordinary citizens, they would not have to be so fearful of social movements.

Results of the Boris Nemtsov murder investigation

In late December, the Investigative Committee of Russia (ICR) published the preliminary results of its official investigation into the murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, which took place nearly a year ago in Moscow. The report lays the blame on Zaur Dadayev, a retired officer of the Sever (“North”) Regiment of the Interior Ministry Troops, and five of his accomplices.

According to the ICR, the organizer was Ruslan Mukhudinov, who is on the federal wanted list. In general, the main result of the investigation was a de facto recognition that this case had nothing to do with any political conflict, but a murder motivated by personal hatred.

The business newspaper Kommersant noted that just like in all other cases where Chechens were involved in a crime, the investigation results never revealed the real instigators and organizers. The accused Mukhudinov could not have been the organizer, the newspaper believes, because of his young age and the position he held (i.e. he worked as a driver), and that means that the investigators did not want to follow the existing leads, since these could bring them to very high-ranking Chechnya politicians. Kommersant noted that even some obvious witnesses, whose testimony could have radically changed the situation, were not questioned.

The website of the Echo of Moscow radio station aired the opinions of politician Gennady Gudkov. He directly accused the Chechen leadership in the death of Nemtsov. Gudkov believes that the Kremlin was not involved in the murder of the opposition leader – and initially was extremely outraged at the arbitrariness of the regional authorities.

However, maintaining calm in the rebellious region is still more important for the Kremlin than seeking justice for the murder of an opposition leader, and thus the Investigative Committee was issued a command from the “top” – to put brakes on the case, the leads of which could lead to the Chechen leadership. This explains the final statement issued by the ICR.

Moskovsky Komsomolets considers that the version claiming that there was no connection between the murder of Nemtsov and his political activities simply does not hold water. The murder of such a major opposition figure simply cannot be blamed on simple violence, which the ICR report claims.

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The publication refers to the lawyers of the daughter of the murdered politician, who say that the published results lack the most important factor – the motive for the murder. The newspaper also reminds its readers that the head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, has not responded to numerous accusations, made by opposition politicians, concerning his involvement in the murder, nor have the investigators questioned him.   

Energy ultimatum and Crimea’s energy security

The contract between Ukraine and Russia for the supply of electricity to Crimea ended on Jan. 1, 2016. In the negotiations for concluding the new contract, the Ukrainian side insisted on inserting a clause that stated that Crimea belonged to Ukraine, as a condition to supply electric energy.

In light of this, Russia will most likely not sign any new agreement, which will lead to new problems when it comes to supplying the peninsula with energy (which still has not recovered from the sabotage of electricity transport towers in Ukraine back in November). President Putin ordered the Russian Public Opinion Research Center to conduct a survey of residents of Crimea, the results of which show that 94 percent of the inhabitants of the peninsula are quite ready to “suffer” from energy shortages, rather than be a part of Ukraine.

Ivan Zhilin, correspondent of the opposition Novaya Gazeta in Crimea highlighted the unique character of this survey – this time, in contrast to the referendum on Crimea joining the Russian Federation, the residents were not asked to vote for “Russia” and “against Ukraine.” The Ukrainian authorities who initiated a product and energy blockade against Crimea themselves forced inhabitants of the peninsula towards this decision. To return the confidence of a population after punishing it is not an easy task, concluded Zhilin.

The pro-government Channel One highlighted the almost subversive activities taking place in Ukraine, which, contrary to its obligations under the contract, failed to supply energy to the peninsula. The TV channel quoted Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak, who called Ukraine’s demands “blackmail,” and expressed outrage at the actions taken by the Ukrainian government.

The survey, according to the editorial board, was necessary precisely because energy is an important issue for all Crimeans – many of who have not recovered fully from the November blackouts. The unanimous opinion of the inhabitants of Crimea and Sevastopol indicates that this ill-considered decision of Kiev has decisively turned these former citizens of Ukraine against that government.

Political analyst Gleb Pavlovsky, speaking live at the Echo of Moscow radio station, criticized the way the survey was conducted. The analyst believes that it was absurd to carry out such a survey, because the results were obvious from the beginning, and ridiculous to turn to citizens on an issue in which they have no authority to act.

Moreover, Pavlovsky believes that in this “Crimean survey” the Russian authorities have launched a new political technology, with the assistance of which they plan to legitimize other unpopular decisions, concerning not only Crimea, but also the country as a whole.

Quotes of the week:

Sergey Lavrov on Petro Poroshenko’s position on the Minsk Agreements: “Poroshenko had every opportunity to push through, past the radicals… solutions that would have brought into life the provisions of this important document. However, the very terms that he selected, speak of the fact that he is boiling for a fight, and thus, perhaps, gaining some domestic political points. How successful this stance is, I do not know. His ratings indicate the opposite.”

Head of DPR Alexander Zakharchenko: “The main thing that both the European Union and Russia must clearly understand – the Donbas is prepared to consistently keep implementing the Minsk Agreements, in accordance with all listed measures, point by point – however, in the very order in which they are written. If the Kiev authorities cannot comply with the “road map” that they themselves have signed, that is, implementing all the listed measures, then that is their problem. We can help the Kiev authorities, but only if they ask us. We are willing to be forgiving, because we want to stop the war.”

Head of Crimea Sergey Aksenov: “It is high time Kiev stopped dancing on the rake, and forget about Crimea ever returning to Ukraine. This is a case when, contrary to the old adage, it is bad to dream.”

Political analyst Gleb Pavlovsky about the survey in Crimea: “This of course was no sociological survey, because it cannot be called such, when the president has outlined his position, the correct answer, and then ordered such a poll to be conducted. And then, they call a person at home via a landline, and he is asked to express his opinion, right? This, certainly, is no survey, but an opinion poll at gunpoint.”