Weekly Media Roundup: The escalating situation in Ukraine – compounded by new allegations of an “invasion” in Ukraine’s southeast – dominated discussions in Russian media this week.
Local residents watch as smoke rises, during shelling, in the town of Novoazovsk, Eastern Ukraine, Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014. Photo: AP
This week Russian journalists and correspondents returned to the main topic of recent months — the situation in Ukraine. Two events in particular caught the eye of the media: the high-level meeting between Putin and Poroshenko in Minsk and Russia’s alleged military presence in Ukraine. Poroshenko’s statement on August 28 about Russian troops having been "brought into Ukraine" only intensified the debate.
These two events formed this week’s informational background, which, it must be said, is not rosy. Nor is optimism inspired by one other topic of discussion: the upcoming NATO summit, at which Russia's immediate neighbors, Sweden and Finland, could sign an agreement with the alliance to host a contingent force for deployment in crisis situations.
Minsk: A meeting without content or results
Russian media clearly expected more to come from the meeting in Minsk on Tuesday between the heads of state of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, and delegates from the European Commission. But the outcome was ambivalent: Both pro-government (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, Izvestia) and opposition (Slon, Vedomosti, Novaya Gazeta) media stressed the symbolism of the summit, but failed to glimpse any tangible results.
Pyotr Kozlov and Alexei Nikolsky from Vedomosti, in an article about the meeting in Minsk, cite the words of Russian political scientist Vladimir Markin: “The main positive outcome of the meeting in Minsk was the fact that it took place at all, and the potentially shameful situation whereby the presidents depart without holding one-to-one talks was avoided.” They also quote Ukrainian expert Dmitry Ponamarchuk: “The talks yielded no concrete results because the parties had different goals.”
Exclusively for Novaya Gazeta, renowned political analyst Gleb Pavlovsky gave a detailed commentary on the summit. He emphasized that the lack of results was by no means the most salient outcome of the meeting, and even had a positive undertone.
“The main outcome of the meeting was that there was no signing of an umpteenth peace agreement. So far all such agreements have been violated the very next day and people go on suffering as before," he wrote. "The point is that no pre-prepared formulaic agreement is in the offing, and it should be stated openly that neither side needs one.”
Another well-known contributor to Novaya Gazeta, Yulia Latynina, was more scathing.
“The net result of the meeting between Putin and Poroshenko in Minsk (following their failure to meet in Berlin) was zero,” she argues.
An interesting slant came from Slon's Alexander Baunov. Debating what Putin’s position at the talks in Minsk actually signified, he suggested that Russia could, unwillingly, be playing the role of global “bad guy.” That is the signal the Russian president is sending to the world as he tries to piece together the fragments of the status quo that existed a year ago.
“Look,” he seems to be saying, “If I wanted I could yet become a real outcast — an evil necromancer or a fire-breathing dragon, but I will not. And if anyone cares to remember the old fears, they would note that the Russia of the past 25 years has been a temporary, piecemeal phony. The real Russia is the one that sits and sings atop a red-starred tank on its way to Ukraine and then back again — so do not be afraid. Crimea was a one-off. Donbas is not us at all. Ukraine is a special case. Everything is as it was.”
Pro-government Izvestia published comments by political analyst Mikhail Pogrebinsky in which he intimates that the lack of a specific outcome should not be considered a failure.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton at the Minsk Summit. Photo: RIA Novosti
“I am yet inclined to assess the outcome of the talks as an albeit small, but important step on the long road towards detente between the Russian Federation and the European Union, as well as between Russia and Ukraine. And this step should be recognized as real, despite the absence of any signatures,” he said.
Stray paratroopers and Russia’s “invasion” of Ukraine
The news that Ukraine had discovered Russian paratroopers on the wrong side of the border caused a furor in the Russian media. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said that “Russian troops were actually brought into Ukraine.” Russian media reacted somewhat predictably: Pro-government media sought justifications, while the opposition launched attacks against the Russian government and President Putin personally.
Opposition media Novaya Gazeta, Slon, and Echo of Moscow saw it as a harbinger of greater tragedy ahead. “We are going to war” was the thesis propounded by most liberal opposition publications.
In particular, Novaya Gazeta’s Pavel Felgengauer predicted that "if Russia fails to push the Ukrainians back, we could see the start of a real war — an aviation war across the whole of Ukraine and tens of thousands of Russian soldiers on the ground. They will seek to gain air superiority and force the Ukrainians out, perhaps not only from the territories of Donetsk and Lugansk looking further ahead. It’s almost upon us...”
Slon's Ivan Davydov also paints a fairly grim picture, underscoring that war has already begun and should be recognized: “How long and what more before it is recognized that war has already started? What will it take to eliminate the fear of this short, catastrophic statement of fact?”
This key issue was also touched upon by some prominent opposition-minded figures. For instance, Echo of Moscow published on its website the words of Mikhail Khodorkovsky: “We are at war with Ukraine. For real. We are sending in soldiers and equipment. The Ukrainians are fighting hard, but retreating. The forces are not equal.”
Pro-government media Izvestia and Rossiyskaya Gazeta painted a different picture. Their approach is that Ukraine and the West are deliberately fanning the flames, primarily because they see no other way out of the disastrous situation.
Konstantin Volkov of Izvestia explains: “The threat of Russian troops in Ukraine, stated on August 28 by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, could play into his own hands surprisingly well, given the incipient third Maidan uprising in Kiev and the calls for his impeachment.”
He also quoted Russian Federation Council member Valery Shnyakin:
“Poroshenko makes such statements [about the threat from Russia] to whitewash his own actions and to justify the unprofessional behavior of the Ukrainian army. The idea most likely came not from him, but from his advisers abroad.”
Rossiyskaya Gazeta argues in a similar vein, citing Russia’s permanent representative to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov: “The swell of new accusations against Russia is linked to the failures of Ukraine’s military in the southeast of the country.”
Sweden, Finland and NATO
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen addresses a news conference during a NATO foreign ministers meeting. Photo: Reuters
The news that NATO forces were brushing up against the borders with Russia (more precisely that Sweden and Finland could host a NATO contingent force for deployment in crisis situations) did not trigger an informational tsunami. The Russian media response was restrained, but slightly startled.
Pro-government media Rossiyskaya Gazeta and Izvestia laid emphasis on public disgruntlement in Finland and Sweden over the proposed measure and on the additional outlays that the two countries would incur.
Nadezhda Yermolayeva from Rossiyskaya Gazeta stressed that “the Finnish government ... is hastening to reassure the population, which is strongly opposed to the siting of NATO bases in the country. The government has stated that the potential agreement does not impose obligations on Finland to host foreign military forces on its territory or permit their transit through it.”
Izvestia quoted Finnish political scientist Johan Beckman. “This is an attempt to entice Finland and Sweden into NATO by any means possible,” Beckman says. “And joining the alliance would mean American occupation.”
The article also cites the opinion of Alexei Pushkov, head of the Russian State Duma Committee on International Affairs: “For Russia, it could signify a NATO presence on its very borders. And although most people in Finland oppose NATO membership, the country’s political leadership is lobbying the idea of accession, primarily the military. And it will make efforts to mold public opinion accordingly.”
An editorial in the independent newspaper Vedomosti emphasized that the situation could induce further Western consolidation against Russia: “It is clear that Russia has done all it can to rally the West to unite against it.”
However, it notes that, “Even if the forthcoming NATO summit in Wales adopts the proposals, it would not automatically turn Russia into an enemy of the alliance. For the time being, NATO is treating Moscow as it would a dangerous and unpredictable opponent, refusing to discuss the new arrangement of forces and preferring instead to confront it with a fait accompli.”
Business newspaper Kommersant refers to surveys in Finland and Sweden. “The prospect of Sweden and Finland joining NATO is presently unrealistic. According to a survey by Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat, the move is supported by only 26 percent of the population. And in the words of Magnus Kristjansson, in Sweden the figure is no more than 30 percent,” it said.
The newspaper also published an interview with Alexey Arbatov, a well-known expert in the field of international security.
“In a certain sense, the proposed agreements are intended as a warning to Russia," Arbatov notes. "Their proponents in the West believe that Russia is providing direct military assistance to separatists in the southeast of Ukraine. Moreover, there are certain military groups that believe Russia harbors far-reaching plans for geopolitical expansion in respect to Transdniestria, Ukraine, the Baltic countries, and Kazakhstan, and contend that NATO should oppose this with a very strict policy of containment.”