Russian media roundup: The assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey, the terrorist attack in Berlin, Putin’s annual press conference and the ISIS-related trial of Varvara Karaulova made headlines last week.

A coffin with a body of killed Russian ambassador to Turkey, Andrei Karlov is carried out of the Foreign Ministry headquarters in Moscow, Dec. 22. Photo: AP

Last week started with the barbarous assassination of the Russian Ambassador to Turkey Andrei Karlov and the terrorist attack in Berlin. Those incidents occupied a great deal of the Russian media’s attention as they are tightly connected to Russia’s Syria policy and concerns over domestic national security.

The week ended with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annual end-of-year press conference, in which he summarized the results of the year.

Finally, on Dec. 22, a Russian court ruled that former Lomonosov Moscow State University student Varvara Karaulova was guilty of an attempt to join the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) as a terrorist.

Also read: "Tragedy in Ankara: Causes and implications"

Assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey

On Dec. 19, during the opening ceremony of a photo exhibition, Russian Ambassador to Turkey Andrei Karlov was assassinated. The gunman was a young Turkish policeman who was fired after the failed coup attempt in July. The media unanimously called the barbaric incident “a stab in the back.” However, they gave very different assessments about the motivations of the assassin.

The tabloid Moskovsky Komsomolets suggests that the Turkish leadership is in no way involved in the assassination. The publication argues that there is an invisible war of a new type that is being waged against Russia and that the main targets in this war are Russian citizens abroad. The crash of the Russian A321 airliner over Sinai last fall and the assassination of the Russian ambassador in Ankara are just pieces of a bigger puzzle. This is the war of international terrorism against Russia and until it is over, no one can feel safe and secure.

The opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta believes that the fundamental reason for the ambassador’s assassination is Russia’s military campaign in Syria. The Kremlin’s statements that some powers intended to disrupt the normalization of Russia-Turkey ties and the peace process in Syria look very doubtful, argues Yulia Latynina, a columnist of the newspaper.

The pro-government newspaper Izvestia suggests that the murder brings many advantages to the radical Islamist organizations that intend to break the dialogue between Moscow and Ankara. The alliance between the two in Syria could seriously hit the Islamists’ positions, which the radicals want to avoid at any price. Ultimately, the fight against terrorism can’t be effective using a policy based on double standards; instead, it must be the common policy of all countries. Izvestia argues that Russia’s Western partners would better improve dialogue with Russia.

The business daily Kommersant writes about the security of Russian diplomats abroad. As practice shows, diplomats are extremely vulnerable, especially outside of the embassy building. Participating in events outside of the embassy walls, diplomats can rely only on the professionalism of a host state. Karlov’s murder proves that additional security measure should be provided.

Recommended: "What the assassination of an ambassador means for Russia, Turkey"

Terrorist attack in Berlin

On Dec. 19, a heavy truck crashed through a crowd at a busy Christmas market in the German capital, leaving 11 people dead and over 50 injured. Initially German authorities did not view the incident as a terrorist attack despite its similarities with the earlier incident in Nice in July. However, later the police confirmed it was a terrorist act as ISIS took responsibility for the attack.

The opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta underlines that this attack is a huge blow to Germany – the stronghold of European integration and values. Germans have hosted more than a million of refugees – and now the same refugees might be responsible for this terrorist attack, either directly or indirectly. The country now is in a very difficult situation. Even the German ruling authorities, who previously refused to acknowledge the problem of radicals who have not been integrated into German society, now recognize the severity of the challenge.

The business publication Vedomosti suggests that the series of events that happened over 2016 call into question the capabilities of the German government to handle the situation with the refugees. Germany will have federal elections in 2017 and most likely security concerns caused by the refugee flow will become the central issue of the campaign.

Putin's annual press conference

On Dec. 23, Russian President Vladimir Putin held his annual end-of-the-year press conference. He took 47 questions from Russian and foreign journalists, as the event lasted about four hours and touched upon many issues of Russian domestic and foreign policy.

The tabloid Moskovsky Komsomolets notes that there were no sensations during the press conference and, in fact, no one should have expected them. The only fresh and unexpected statement Putin made during the conference was one about the Turkish President Recep Erdogan. Putin said that now he does not think that the Turkish president was personally involved in the downing of the Russian Su-34 jet last year.

Everything else - about 90 percent of Putin’s answers - consisted of previously rehearsed responses to well-known questions. In the case of the other 10 percent, the president masterfully avoided hard questions, paying more attention to the topics of his personal interest.

The liberal publication Meduza notes that this year’s press conference was surprisingly friendly and conciliatory in nature. There were no traditional rebukes towards either Russia’s external enemies or domestic ones. Quite the opposite, in fact, Putin often mentioned the necessity to consider different opinions, to be more attentive to each other and search for compromises. However, Meduza also suggested that Putin avoided most of the hard questions.

Also read: "Putin's year-end press conference offers few hints about nation's future"

The radio station Echo of Moscow quotes Russian politician Igor Chubais who notes the total dissonance in the tone of the press conference with public mood and sentiment. Nervousness and lack of understanding dominates Russian society, while the president keeps talking with a great deal of optimism and wishful thinking. In addition, Chubais underlines that in general the press conference was “boring” and “not topical.”

Sentence for Varavara Karaulova

On Dec. 22, the court held that former Lomonosov Moscow State University student Varvara Karaulova was guilty of attempting to join the terrorist organization ISIS. In May of 2015, Karaulova ran away from home. A bit later, she was detained on the Turkey-Syria border attempting to cross it to join ISIS. She insists that she went to Syria because of her affair with a person who appeared to be an ISIS recruiter.

She is sentenced to four and one-half years in a penal colony. Even though her lawyers will appeal against the judgement, the media is already discussing the outcomes of this case, which has the potential to resonate with society.

The opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta believes that the sentence is too tough for the young student whose fault is yet not clear. Of course, Karaulova is guilty for an attempt to join ISIS and a show trial was needed to scare away youngsters from the extremist ideas.

However, the way that the state treated her is a complete failure. There were no rehabilitation programs, no psychologists and no attempts to help her with the depression, which forced her into the arms of ISIS recruiters. In this context, parents of other youngsters with similar problems or youngsters themselves won’t ask the state for assistance in similar situations as they know how it will end.

The tabloid Moskovsky Komsomolets also thinks that the sentence is not fair. Referring to legal experts, the publication notes that Karaulova was in fact judged for her “thoughts and intentions” rather than for real actions. There is not enough evidence in her case that she intended to join ISIS rather than simply wanted to reunite with her lover, with whom she fell in love being young and naive.

Besides, Karaulova worked with the prosecution, testified and helped to find the recruiters. The publication foresees that the lawyers will hardly be able to make a successful appeal in the Russian courts and eventually the case will end up in the European Court of Human Rights.

Expert commentary
Andrey Tatarinov, political scientist and director of the Center of Actual Politics, on the sentence for Varvara Karaulova:

Those who are unfamiliar with the  Karaulova case do not think that the sentence is unfair. In the news, people notice only buzzwords like “ISIS,” “recruiter,” “intention to leave,” “terrorists in Syria” and “guilty.” I think that the Karaulova case was doomed to be a show trial and the judge acted exactly in the capacity of a mentor demonstrating how those facing trial must learn to take responsibility for their actions.

The fate of Karaulova aimed at publicly demonstrating to other members of her generation that there is no means of secure communication with terrorists and that the virtual can quickly become real. Also, it is important to remember that ISIS is a terrorist organization of a new type. Its recruiters do not work covertly, they actively use the Internet and various social networks for their own purposes.