Media roundup: Russian media from across the political spectrum seemed to agree that Western sanctions – delivered at the same time as a ceasefire in Ukraine appeared to be holding – may be counter-productive this time around. 

Russian Minister of Economic Development Alexey Ulyukaev talks on the phone ahead of a trilateral meeting with the EU Trade Commissioner and the Ukrainian foreign minister at the EU headquarters, Brussels, September 12. Photo: AFP / John Thys

This past week Russian media was focused on the new round of Western economic sanctions against Russia. As well, members of the Russian media took a closer look at the results of the investigation into MH17 and examined the possible impact of events far removed from the Ukrainian conflict – such as President Obama’s decision to take the fight to the Islamic State.

The latest round of economic sanctions

The pro-government media (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, Izvestia, Channel One) tried not to force the debate about Western sanctions, stressing firstly, that the sanctions greatly undermine the positions of the EU member states themselves, and secondly, that Russia intends to take retaliatory action.

Channel One commented: “The Russian Foreign Ministry stated that the sanctions represent an unfriendly act against Russia and are contrary to the interests of the European Union. In the words of the Ministry’s official spokesman, Alexander Lukashevich, there will be an appropriate response. Meanwhile, presidential aide Andrei Belousov announced that a set of retaliatory measures had been drawn up, including restrictions on imports of certain European products.”

Rossiyskaya Gazeta quoted Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin and Russian Permanent Representative to the EU Vladimir Chizhov. Rogozin underlines the futility of sanctions: “The sanctions are aimed primarily at trying to weaken us. But it is a strategic mistake on the part of the West. We are becoming angrier and at the same time more organized and disciplined. That is a huge miscalculation by the West.”

Chizhov in turn said that the sanctions contradicted common sense: “The sanctions are devoid not only of political, not to mention economic, sense, but even of the most elementary logic. In eastern Ukraine a ceasefire has been declared. Despite some isolated violations, it is holding, a fact that is confirmed by both Moscow and Kiev, as well as Donetsk and Luhansk. So the situation is de-escalating, yet the pressure of sanctions continues. The European Union seems to be living in an alternate reality.”

Vedomosti and Novaya Gazeta also wrote about Russia’s potential response. What’s interesting is that publications such as Vedomosti appear to adhere to the same general logic as their pro-Kremlin counterparts. Yan Shabalin, Anton Filatov, and Vladimir Shtanov of Vedomosti also cite the words of Alexander Lukashevich: “Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said that Russia would react to these ‘unfriendly steps.’ He added that the sanctions were causing serious damage to the economies of all countries involved: “Business in Europe opposes such measures. Perhaps it has not yet fully dawned, but at least there are some very visible signs that Europe is beginning to realize that sanctions are counterproductive.”

Journalists, however, point out that the situation is critical, especially given the continued depreciation of the ruble and the decline in the Russian stock market: “The Russian stock market reacted to the threat of new sanctions. On Thursday the MICEX was down 1.13 percent against the previous close, falling to 1,451 points. The RTS index fell by 1.65 percent to 1,218 as a result of the weakening ruble.”

An expert from another opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta Alexander Mineev believes the EU is not particularly afraid of Russian retaliation: “Brussels reacted quite calmly to Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s threat to close off Russian airspace to Western airlines. Russia receives more than $300 million a year from the EU for flights over Siberia, which goes towards subsidizing Aeroflot.”

However, he notes that some EU countries are opposed to the new round of sanctions because they feel the detrimental effects at home: “Some countries, especially those close to Russia economically (namely Finland and Italy), called for less haste in adopting new sanctions given that a ceasefire was in place and a potential peace process on the table.”

The results of the investigation into MH17

The publication of part of the conclusions of the investigation into the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 caused quite a stir in the media, as was expected. But the excitement quickly gave way to disappointment: Russian media said that nothing in the report would clarify the situation.

Olga Prosvirova, correspondent for Novaya Gazeta, commented: “The report is short on specifics, but some facts confirm the previously stated versions.” Vedomosti once again quoted Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich, who emphasized that the results of the investigation would be used against Russia: “We are closely monitoring the investigation of the tragic crash of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, which not only resulted in numerous fatalities, but was then exploited to hike international tension and exert pressure on Russia through so-called sectoral sanctions.”

Mark Solonin of Echo of Moscow highlighted the lack of results, at which he was indignant: “The most conspicuous void in the report was the lack of any description of those ‘high-energy objects that punctured the plane from outside’ and caused the 300-ton airliner to fall from the sky. There is not even a preliminary hypothesis about their origin, size, weight, and appearance. But amazement turns to consternation on a careful reading of the report: ‘The investigation team has not yet had the opportunity to recover these components for forensic examination.’ What the hell were they examining then? ‘Photographs from the wreckage indicated that the material around the holes was deformed in a manner consistent with being punctured by high-energy objects.’ So for six weeks they were looking at pictures of holes...”

Rossiyskaya Gazeta also expressed dissatisfaction with the results of the investigation, citing Russian Permanent Representative to the UN Vitaly Churkin. “The preliminary report on the causes of the crash provides little understanding of what actually happened and many questions remain,” he is quoted by RIA Novosti as saying. Churkin also said that the report skirted the question of whether warplanes were in the vicinity at the time of the tragedy: “Russia is concerned about the ‘secrecy and vagueness’ of the investigation into the crash of the Boeing in Ukraine.” commented on the situation as follows: “Experts say that the report was hardly likely to deliver a breakthrough, since the work of the investigators was hampered by military action and the lack of immediate access to the site of the tragedy.”

The portal also published statements by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, who placed the blame for the crash on the Ukrainian side: “The disaster occurred in the airspace of Ukraine, which must bear full responsibility for what happened.”

US-Russian relations in the context of ISIS

Russian media reacted stormily to Barack Obama’s “declaration of war” on Islamic State (IS) militants. Pro-government media (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, Izvestia, etc.) said that Obama’s plans were not thought-out, and pondered the prospects for cooperation between Moscow and Washington in this area.

Maxim Makarychev of Rossiyskaya Gazeta cited political analyst David Gergen: “In welcoming the apparent resoluteness of the president, many experts have emphasized that this counter-terrorism strategy depends on the goodwill of America’s Iraqi, Saudi, and Turkish partners, who are often at loggerheads with each other. The question of assisting the Syrian rebels has also been in the spotlight, and no one can say for sure that this third way between the pro-Assad loyalists and the IS jihadists is a real alternative. This uncertainty is a major weakness in Obama’s plan.”

Alexander Lazarev (Channel One) also casts doubt on the success of the operation: “To destroy a terrorist organization through air strikes alone with no ground operation is impossible. The White House gets that. Obama has promised there will be no U.S. troops on the battlefield. Instead, Washington will arm the Syrian opposition. Déjà vu.”

Izvestia printed an article by well-known publicist Israel Shamir, who suggested looking at the situation from the other side: The U.S. wants to drag the world into another mythical war against terrorism. That was the case with Afghanistan and Iraq, when Russia stood in line. He advises against such an approach this time around: “It would be unwise to expand cooperation with countries that are actively waging economic warfare against Russia, introducing new sanctions, and pushing NATO troops closer to Russia’s borders. On the contrary, their attempts to abuse the UN’s mechanisms should be stopped. The problems of the Arab world will not be solved through Anglo-American bombing. Russian support should not be forthcoming. Russia could even head a coalition for the sovereignty of nations and oppose U.S. intervention.”

Opposition media (Novaya Gazeta, Echo of Moscow) looked far more favorably on Obama’s decision, although here, too, there were mixed opinions. Georgi Mirsky (Novaya Gazeta) highly praised the U.S. president’s speech: “President Obama’s speech on the fight against Islamic State was the most eagerly awaited by any head of state for a long time. And it lived up to expectations. The president said exactly what most Americans – and millions of people around the world – wanted to hear. That America accepts the challenge, and not only on its behalf, but in the interests of all mankind, which may be facing its worst threat in seventy years.”

In his blog on Echo of Moscow’s website, Mirsky also mooted the possibility of joining the U.S. in the fight against radical Islam: I have always said that Americans will never send suicide bombers to blow up the Moscow metro. But a caliphate would, make no mistake.”

His polemic was opposed by his Echo colleague Anton Haschenko, who asserts that little good will come of America’s new military escapade: “The U.S. president is not short of supporters, including in Russia. And, indeed, as always with Washington, the pretext looks plausible – who will argue that terrorism is an evil that must be fought anywhere in the world? It’s just that we all remember well the outcome of America’s previous sallies against terrorists in Afghanistan, the ‘genocide of Albanians’ in Kosovo, the proliferation of chemical weapons in Iraq, etc. And each time those ‘brave boys from across the pond’ leave behind nothing but chaos. Not only that, international law has yet to be repealed. And military operations on the territory of a sovereign state, which Syria happens to be, are in direct violation of it… As far as I remember, Bashar al-Assad has not given his consent. Neither does Obama have a mandate from the UN Security Council, which in such cases is required.”