Russian Media Roundup: The Merkel-Hollande mission to Moscow, the potential delivery of U.S. weapons to Kiev and the Munich Security Conference were the center of attention this week.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, gestures during his talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, left, and French President Francois Hollande, right, in Moscow, Friday, Feb. 6, 2015. Photo: AP
Throughout the week, the Russian media has been keeping a close eye on potential breakthroughs in the Ukraine crisis. The focal point, of course, has been the unexpected Merkel-Hollande peace mission to Kiev and Moscow. In addition, the question of whether or not the U.S. will supply lethal military aid to Kiev has been front-and-center in the Russian media.
Europe’s last-ditch peace overture
Quite unexpectedly for the Russian media, the leaders of France and Germany came up with a peace initiative for Ukraine to be discussed in Kiev and Moscow. Some Russian media (including the pro-government Aktualniye Kommentarii and the opposition Echo of Moscow) are skeptical that the “European duo” can rescue the situation, while others consider the actions of Hollande and Merkel to be a signal from the West that without Moscow nothing of any importance can be resolved (Aktualniye Kommentarii).
There are also those who reckon that Merkel and Hollande’s visit represents a small step towards a settlement. This includes both Kommersant and the pro-government Izvestia.
Aktualniye Kommentarii gave the floor to skeptic Rostislav Ishchenko, who remarked that “the conflict will not be frozen, so to speak. There will still be a war going on in Ukraine.” The expert also doubts the peacemaking capacity of Germany and France, asserting that if talks need to be held with anyone, it is with the United States.
“Merkel and Hollande will arrive and discuss the U.S. proposals, since the position of Germany and France on their own is of little interest to anyone,” says Ishchenko. “They are solving nothing in Ukraine.”
“Hollande and Merkel’s visit to Moscow is unlikely to be linked to any peace initiatives from Europe. But the preparations for U.S. arms deliveries to Ukraine, which have already been stated, could well be the reason behind the visit. Obama’s decision is crucial. If Washington goes ahead, the conflict will enter a wholly new dimension,” says Echo of Moscow blogger Sergei Kats.
Aktualniye Kommentarii published the expert opinion of Alexander Nosovich, who believes that Merkel and Hollande’s urgent trip to Moscow to meet with Putin means that Russia’s international isolation has failed to come true.
“It could be said that the main outcome of the meeting between Hollande, Merkel and Putin is what happened before: the fact that it is being held in Moscow and that it is taking place at all,” writes Nosovich. “The venue of the talks indicates that rumors of Russia’s international isolation are greatly exaggerated. Perhaps Europe wanted this isolation, but for the time being, they are forced to negotiate.”
Kommersant staff writer Maxim Yushin refers to experts and Western diplomats, who see Merkel and Hollande’s peacekeeping mission as a “final attempt to avert a ‘catastrophic sequence of events,’ in which the war in Ukraine could enter unchartered territory, with relations between Russia and the West teetering on the brink.”
“The joint Franco-German initiative is the most important step taken by the West to date, aimed as it is at ending the war in Ukraine,” writes Yushin.
Izvestia cites the opinion of politician Sergei Stankevich, who is optimistic about the meeting in Moscow.
“This sudden German-French voyage to Kiev and Moscow presents a unique opportunity to stem the fatal tide and pursue a more peaceful avenue,” believes Stankevich. “Merkel and Hollande intend to negotiate and even sign some kind of document that could stop the carnage in the Donbas region.”
Will Kiev get weapons from the United States?
The question of whether the West, in particular the United States, will carry through on the idea to supply weapons to the Ukrainian army caused a stir in the Russian press, especially given the escalating conflict. Some, such as Slon and the business daily Kommersant - believe that it is mere political speculation and that no one in reality is going to supply weapons to Ukraine.
But there are some journalists who believe that such a scenario cannot be ruled out, including both the opposition newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta and the pro-government newspaper Izvestia.
Ira Solomonova of Slon examines the issue in detail, citing Bloomberg News.
“The fact is that Washington and its allies do not want a scrap with Russia over Ukraine… and Kiev has no desire to see an escalation because it would almost certainly lose the war,” remarks Solomonova. “Moreover, while the U.S. is busy delivering weapons to the east and training the Ukrainian military in how to operate them, Vladimir Putin will have plenty of time to seize the territories he wants. The sooner Kiev realizes this, the better, according to the news agency.”
Kommersant quotes military expert Igor Levchenko, who believes that the short-term supply of arms to Ukraine is pointless.
“Anything more complicated than machine guns and grenade launchers would require additional training for soldiers, since the Ukrainian army is equipped with Soviet technology and unfamiliar with American gear. It will take months, if not years,” notes the expert.
Vadim Koval, military expert and author for Nezavisimaya Gazeta, believes that the supplies could go ahead. Indirect confirmation of that comes from a recent statement by U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, who announced that, starting from March of this year, the United States would assist in the training and retraining of Ukrainian military formations, helping them to acquire new skills.
Koval also sees a quite specific purpose behind the actions of the U.S.
“If one looks a little deeper, it entails the total elimination of Ukraine’s own military-industrial complex with all the ensuing consequences, followed by the establishment of direct military dependence on America and its transformation into the latter’s permanent donor client,” says the expert. “Isn’t that what the U.S. ultimately needs?”
Izvestia cites the opinion of political scientist Svetlana Lurie, who agrees with Koval that deliveries are possible.
“The discussion lays bare the distressing balance of power inside the U.S. administration,” notes Lurie. “Only Barack Obama appears to be against supplying arms. Almost all his officials are ready to take this fateful decision, without, it seems, taking his opinion into account. It’s unlikely they will be able to leave him completely out of the loop, but the president is under extreme pressure.”
Munich Security Conference to discuss Ukraine conflict
As expected, the Munich Security Conference was also the subject of media comment. The situation in the southeast of Ukraine and ways to settle the conflict is be on the agenda. Russian media were once again divided into cautious optimists (independent Kommersant, pro-government Izvestia) and skeptics (pro-government Aktualniye Kommentarii).
At the same time, media paid a special attention to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov's speech and the reaction of European diplomats to it, which - according to journalists - provoked another diplomatic scandal.
Before the conference special correspondent for Kommersant Elena Chernenko gave a detailed analysis of a report, “Collapsing World Order: Idle Defenders”, concluding that although Russia is seen by the West as a threat and an enemy, there is still room for negotiation between the two.
In particular, Chernenko notes that the format of negotiation on Ukraine at the conference in Munich depends directly on how the talks pan out between Merkel, Hollande and Putin in Moscow.
“If the talks in Moscow [between the three leaders] are successful, they can continue in Munich at the level of foreign ministers,” states Chernenko.
However, after Lavrov's speech at the conference, Chernenko's next article was more pessimistic. As she pointed out, the Russian Foreign Minister's comments about Ukraine brought about unxpected reaction from some European diplomats who "responded to his speech with load mockeries and yells, with Lavrov having parried with reserve.
Andrei Tikhonov of Aktualniye Kommentarii asked international affairs experts about their expectations on the eve of Munich. Most agreed that the conference was unlikely to produce a breakthrough, since the format of exchange is rather unorthodox.
In particular, MGIMO expert Alexander Tevdoi-Burmuli notes that, “It [the Munich conference] is not an organization, but a format for communication within which participants can afford to be quite frank with each other.”
“It is hard to say how much this format is needed right now, since at present frankness is too often expressed with the exchange of gunfire,” he added.
Natalia Bashlykova and Anastasia Kashevarova of Izvestia focus on Western Europe’s fatigue over confrontation with Russia, since both sides are suffering from sanctions and the deterioration of relations. It is this factor they believe that will play a key role in Munich.
“There is indeed a need to initiate a dialogue. The Munich conference is a litmus test that will reveal the true motives and desires of all players in the search for a solution to the political crisis in Ukraine,” according to Vasily Likhachev, ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary and State Duma MP.
Igor Morozov, who sits on the International Affairs Committee under the Council of the Federation, is also quoted as saying that “in the last six months the political circles of Western Europe have radically altered their understanding of what is happening in Ukraine,” and that “it is Western Europe that has suffered economically from U.S. sanctions against Russia.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov looks out from the meeting room as he awaits Secretary of State before their bilateral meeting at the 51st Munich Security Conference (MSC) in Munich, Germany, Saturday, Feb. 7, 2015. Photo: AP
Charges of treason against Svetlana Davydova
The unprecedented nature of “the Svetlana Davydova affair” split Russian public opinion. A Russian citizen, she was accused of treason for passing information on the movement of Russian troops, having simply phoned the Ukrainian embassy to say that a Russian military unit stationed near her home in Vyazma could be sent to the Donbas region. Davydova was eventually released, but the case was a media sensation.
The situation is absurd and demonstrates the weakness of the Russian authorities, believe opposition media (Echo of Moscow, Slon), while pro-government sources called for the matter not to be blown out of proportion (Aktualniye Kommentarii). Gazeta.ru, that identifies itself as independent, also spoke out against the absurd charges. Business publications (including Vedomosti) accuse the national media of a hush job and believe that the Davydova affair shows the public’s ability to come together and influence the course of events.
Prominent opposition political commentator Matvei Ganapolsky (Echo of Moscow) was particularly forthright, slamming the accusation as the height of absurdity.
“So the court is in favor of Davydova calling the embassy of Ukraine, a ‘brotherly country’ as our president calls it, and informing it of the strange fantasies of two soldiers who were spouting all sorts of nonsense about Russian soldiers being in Ukraine — so there’ll be a trial! And the blame will be on Davydova, oddly enough, for espionage, which means 20 years in the camps. Why? Can anyone figure it out?” writes Ganapolsky.
Andrei Pertsev of Slon believes that the Davydova affair evinces a very dangerous trend of turning members of the public into enemies.
“Citizens are now potential enemies of the state — for having a thought, for making a phone call, for writing a letter, for posting a comment online!” writes Pertsev.
“The Ministry of Truth has chosen a different path. It was decided apparently to turn the arrest of Svetlana Davydova into an exhibition. This resident of Vyazma turned out to represent an entire group of ‘citizens’ in need of punishment, or else the Motherland was done for. Official and semi-official (which usually means even more official) media treated the arrest of Davydova and the investigation of her case almost as a show trial and a lesson and caution to others: ‘Citizens, time to come to your senses,’ so to speak.”
Aktualniye Kommentarii published the opinion journalist Kirill Martynov, who believes that the case against Davydova was a genuine PR campaign, but that Davydova herself will not suffer too much as a consequence.
“As for the fate of Svetlana Davydova, I, like many, believe that the brakes will be applied to this case,” notes Martynov. “And it will be done for the simple reason that the punishment does not fit either the ‘crime’ or the situation that was created around it. ... I for one think the matter will turn out relatively well for Svetlana. No one will gain from trying to prosecute her after such a furor.”
“Regarding the high-profile case of ‘spy’ Svetlana Davydova, generally suspects accused of such a serious offense as treason are not released on their own recognizance. Of the two versions for the arrest of this mother of many from Vyazma — ‘a warning to others’ and ‘overzealousness by the authorities’ — the latter is more likely. All the more so given that the amendments to the Criminal Code and the Code of Criminal Procedure introduced by assiduous MPs back in 2012 expanded the applicability of the article on treason to almost anyone,” reads an article at Gazeta.ru.
Meanwhile, Maria Eismont of Vedomosti writes that “it is important to note that for some the desire to help a nursing mother get out of jail overcame their personal hostility towards the regime, compelling them to sign an appeal to the president, and for others their personal hostility towards ‘traitors of the Motherland.’ Amazingly, in a divided country with rising levels of aggression and intolerance, society managed to unite on the grounds of common human values.”