Russian media roundup: The fragile cease-fire in the Donbas region provided the context for reacting to Petro Poroshenko’s visit to Washington and the announcement of a new round of Western sanctions against Russia.
President Barack Obama, right, meets with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in the Oval Office of the White House on Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014. Photo: AP / Evan Vucci
The Ukraine crisis continues to generate headlines in the Russian media. In addition to the latest round of Western sanctions imposed against Russia, there was the announcement of the cease-fire in the Ukrainian southeast and the special status granted to the Donbas region by the Ukrainian parliament. However, the central news around Ukraine centered on Petro Poroshenko’s visit to Washington and his address to the U.S. Congress on Sept. 18.
Outside of Ukraine, the Russian media focused on the result of the Scottish independence referendum, the arrest of Russian billionaire Vladimir Yevtushenkov and the start of the International Investment Forum Sochi 2014.
Mr. Poroshenko asks for lethal aid, gets night vision goggles instead
In light of deteriorating U.S.-Russia and EU-Russia relations, Petro Poroshenko’s visit to the U.S. attracted a lot of attention in the Russian media. The Ukrainian president arrived in Washington to ask for financial and military assistance. He also expected that Kiev would receive special status as a major non-member ally of Washington. Kommersant, Vedomosti and Channel One commented on this event, indicating that Obama did not agree to arm Kiev with lethal weapons, although he expressed his full support to Kiev. Vedomosti underlined the U.S. refusal to grant Ukraine the status of major non-member ally, which President Poroshenko hoped to receive. Kommersant reported that the White House announced $46 million in military assistance to Ukraine which will include body armor, helmets, vehicles and night vision goggles but exclude lethal aid.
Regnum published experts’ comments on Poroshenko’s visit to the U.S. Vladimir Kornilov, director of the Center for Eurasian Studies described the visit to Washington D.C. as ‘mainly symbolical’ – the visit aims to broadcast a clear signal to Moscow that the U.S. is backing Kiev. Political analyst Yuri Palyichuk argued that Poroshenko’s visit to the U.S. did not mean to be a game changer for the Ukrainian crisis. It aimed, rather, to reiterate U.S. diplomatic support and ask for some financial assistance.
The Russian media has also been carefully watching the fragile cease-fire in southeastern Ukraine. Both sides have periodically violated the cease-fire since it was declared earlier this month. Now that there are signs that the cease-fire might hold, attention has shifted to the restoration of normal everyday life in the region.
For example, Russia’s Channel One noticed that, according to the OSCE monitoring mission working on the border-crossing “Donetsk-Gukovo,” more than 8,500 Ukrainian citizens left Russia during the last 7 days. The reason for that is the cease-fire declared in the southeast of Ukraine.
On Friday night, Sept.18, agreement was reached between Kiev and separatists during the meeting of the contact group in Minsk. The sides agreed to create a 30 kilometer buffer zone moving heavy weapons.
Special status for Donbas
On Sept. 16, the Ukrainian Parliament passed a law proposed by President Poroshenko that grants special status to the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Lenta.ru cited the leader of Ukrainian radical group “Right Sector” Dmitry Yarosh on passing this law. He hinted strongly that President Poroshenko could repeat the path of the former President Yanukovych.
Russian politician Sergey Stankevich commented on Poroshenko’s “special status” law on the pages of Izvestia. He argues that “Poroshenko’s law is the biggest political move of the Ukrainian President and the most dangerous one in every sense.” He comments further that “the law provoked resentment among the pro-war supporters who so far dominate political and media environment. Poroshenko is directly accused of ‘national betrayal’ and a desire to abandon Donbas.” However, Stankevich noted that this law unveils an opportunity to redirect the conflict from the battlefield to the negotiation table.
Victor Tregubov of Slon.ru argues that the law is a defeat for everyone. Ukraine is not ready for amnesty for the ‘separatists’ and for negotiations with them. Russia is in a much weaker position than it planned to be in before possible negotiations and Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics risk becoming a “grey zone with no money and prospects.”
Channel One put an emphasis on the scandals over the newly adopted law on the special status of Donbas within Ukraine. At the same time, it said that Russian Foreign Ministry hopes that this law will be implemented.
Rossiyskaya Gazeta commented on the ‘Poroshenko law’ in a positive way, saying that it is a positive basis for restoring a peaceful life in the region.
Investment Forum instead of retaliatory sanctions
The latest round of Western economic sanctions received a different reaction by the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, as compared with the previous round. Pro-government Rossiyskaya Gazeta highlighted the Russian president’s speech during a meeting of the State Council on Thursday, Sept. 18, where he said: “Russia has no plans to punish West with retaliatory sanctions… First of all, we are thinking about our own interests and development goals.”
Vedomosti also cited Putin on a new round of Western sanctions. The Russian President said this move shows that the West defies the basic principles of the World Trade Organization. “The sanctions imposed on Russia are nothing but a departure from the basic WTO principles by some of our partners,” he said. “They violate the principle of all countries’ equal access to the markets of goods and services. They ignore the most favored nation status in trade and the principle of fair and free competition.”
In the context of the new round of Western sanctions, Russia is holding the VIII International Investment Forum Sochi 2014, which opened on Sept. 18 with an estimated 9,000 participants and delegations from more than 30 countries. Channel One commented: “New opportunities for business under anti-Russian sanctions, import substitution from the West, protection of entrepreneurs’ rights, and other topics are being discussed in the Forum.”
Maksim Klyagin, finance analyst at Finam Management, commented for Rossyiskaya Gazeta that under the current sanctions the main sources for big projects in Russia will have to come from internal state sources, firstly in the form of state investments. He argues that it is hardly possible to attract foreign investors now due to the cooling in Russia-West relations.
The system worked against Sistema
Billionaire Vladimir Yevtushenkov, the major shareholder and president of the large Russian holding company Sistema AFK, was accused of laundering money and placed under house arrest. Russian media immediately started to draw parallels with the Yukos case and the Mikhail Khodorkovsky trial. However, the opposition media saw a political pretext to the accusations while pro-government outlets concentrated on the purely economic reasons for the move.
Vedomosti cited governmental officials who said that this situation with Yevtushenkov reminds them of the Yukos case. Such a turn of events makes Yevtushenkov the richest Russian to face criminal charges since Mikhail Khodorkovsky. However, ITAR-TASS quoted Russian business ombudsman, Boris Titov: “The arrest of Sistema’s owner is not politically motivated.” “Situations connected with corporate, legal or legislative issues should not affect the business image,” Titov said in an interview with Rossiya-24 TV Channel. “I’m almost 200 percent sure that there are no political motives in this situation,” the Russian president’s business ombudsman said.
Vedomosti also published the comments of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who believes that the time for criminal charges against Yevtushenkov is totally inappropriate. He continued with his understanding of the situation by claiming that the accusations against Yevtushenkov were initiated by Igor Sechin, the president of Rosneft oil company, who arguably needs to restore oil output decline and the easiest way to do it is to acquire Bashneft, which is owned by Yevtushenkov. Khodorkovsky concluded arguing that commercial interests in this case are at the forefront.
The accusations of Yevtushenkov provoked a genuine discussion within Russian business circles and some ambiguous remarks.
Slon.ru published the remarks of Alexander Shokhin, head of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs. He said that Yevtushenkov’s arrest might prompt some Russian businesses to pull even more money out of the economy in light of the recession and relocate abroad. It might even call into question the entire privatization process.
ITAR-TASS also published the comments of the participants of the International Investment Forum Sochi 2014. German Greff, head of Russian Sberbank noted, “I treat it as a big tragedy. His arrest negatively affects the Russian business climate.” Vagit Alekperov, head of Lukoil, said, “I think that arrest of Yevtushenkov is a mistake.” Oleg Deripaska, head of the company Rusal, remarked: “We should expect a positive resolution of the story.”
On Friday, Sept. 19, there was a brief news item in the Russian media about Yevtushenko’s release from home arrest, which was supposedly conveyed by a source within AFK Sistema. However, an official spokesman of the Russian Investigative Committee quickly refuted this news item.
Scotland votes “No”
Russian media closely followed the Scottish independence referendum. It was one of the most anticipated international events for Russia due to the current crisis in Ukraine that has already resulted in three referenda in Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk. Many experts were comparing the referendum in Crimea with the one in Scotland.
Rossiyskaya Gazeta, Channel One and Kommersant did not draw parallels between Crimea and Scotland, and instead, concentrated mainly on the outcome of the Scottish referendum. Namely, political reforms that were promised by the government in London now are on the table. British Prime Minister David Cameron already confirmed that political reforms are on the way.
Boris Tumanov of Gazeta.ru commented on Scottish referendum in the context of Crimea and southeast of Ukraine and a broader move for independence in Europe within Spain, Italy, Belgium and France. He remarked that the results of Scottish referendum were to the pleasure of Queen Elizabeth and Prime Minister Cameron while they greatly disappointed Crimea's acting head Sergey Aksyonov who “sincerely believed that Scotland’s secession will justify legitimacy of referendum in Crimea.”
Gazeta.ru followed the referendum thoroughly with its own correspondent on the ground and a live feed. It mentioned the empathy of some of the Scottish independence supporters to Russia and noted negative remarks about Russia from independence opponents.