Russian media roundup: The current state of Russia’s Syrian military campaign, the release of a controversial new report on MH17 and the first U.S. presidential debate all made headlines.

An armed pro-Russian separatist stands on part of the wreckage of the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane after it crashed near the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region, July 17, 2014. Photo: Reuters

In addition to the ongoing tensions in Syria, two other events made headlines in the Russian media last week – the new MH17 report on the downed airliner over Ukraine and the results of the first U.S. presidential debate between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump.

Publication of new MH17 report

Last week, the Joint Investigation Team from the Netherlands released interim results of its investigation into the downing of the Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777, which was shot down in June 2014 over the territory of Ukraine. According to the document, the passenger airliner was brought down by a Buk missile of Russian production, imported from Russia onto the territory of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic.

The report also named the place of the missile launch, a settlement at the time under the control of the separatists. This new data raised great concern in Russia, which now turns out to be implicated in the deaths of the 283 passengers and 15 crewmembers.

The business newspaper Vedomosti, quoting Russian legal experts, pointed out that the publication of this report is unlikely to entail any legal consequences for Russia. There is now speculation that the Russian government will be required to make compensation payments to the families of the victims of the downed plane. However, in the report, there are no direct accusations leveled against Moscow, not to mention that the evidentiary base appears to be limited. In addition, the investigation itself has not yet been completed, and Russia has ample opportunity to come up with arguments in its own defense.

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“Someone at the international level wants to hide the truth,” according to the pro-government newspaper Izvestia, which considers this investigation biased and politicized. In fact, no one expected any other results, given the EU bias against Russia. Moreover, much of the data pointing to the real perpetrators of the tragedy – such as the Ukrainian air traffic controllers who sent the airliner across dangerous territory, the commission did not investigate at all. Obviously, the truth about the crash is inconvenient to someone, so there is little hope that it will become public soon.

The independent media outlet Slon published an article by opposition journalist Oleg Kashin, who believes that Russia is behaving like a “gangster” on the issue of the downed Boeing. Realizing that claims of the international investigation are unavoidable, the Russian authorities have placed their bets on delaying things, in any way possible – procedurally and politically – and have benefited from this. It has been two years already, and this is not the limit of the Russian Federation’s ability to stretch matters. Russia is waiting for new concrete accusations, and is ready to parry those as well. This strategy may be ugly and cynical, but very effective.

The first U.S. presidential debate

The online publication gave Hillary Clinton the victory, basing this on U.S. public opinion polls, as well as on the overall impressions of the debate. Clinton was calm, confident and very well prepared. She was able to control herself much better than Trump, who, although he tried, simply could not give up on his boorish manners and sweeping ad lib statements. The debate will not have a critical impact on decided voters, but undecided ones might now join Hillary’s camp.

The independent media outlet Slon called the results of this debate “predictable,” emphasizing that, in principle, no one should expect anything radically new or interesting from the debate format. From Trump, people expected to see a less irascible temperament, while from Clinton, they wanted to see a demonstration of physical stamina and good health.

At the same time, the majority of the debate was dominated by the Democrat – while Trump, who looked weak, and without his usual aggressive spirit, was lost against the background of a confident Clinton. Hillary was also able to dispel doubts about her health – appearing fresh, rested and confident; she spoke as though she already occupied the post of the presidency.

The opposition Novaya Gazeta was also inclined to think that Hillary Clinton won the debate. The Democrat really prepared for this debate, and this became obvious to all viewers. At the same time, Trump obviously did not have the zeal for careful preparations, which could not help but affect his performance in the debate. However, in the end, the importance of the first debate should not be exaggerated, as two more rounds lie ahead.

Also read: "The US presidential debates are just solidifying the narrative about Russia"

One-year anniversary of Russian operations in Syria

On Sept. 30, 2015, Russia launched one of the largest military operations in its modern history. This operation, which was planned as a short engagement, has now stretched for an entire year.

The business newspaper Kommersant says that the original decision to undertake the operation was a tough one for the country’s leadership. The decisive factor became the high risk of the spread of terrorism and Islamic extremism in Russia, should Syria collapse. The operation was also intended to restore the international image of Russia after the Ukrainian crisis.

However, the initial assessments of the results of the planned campaign were overly optimistic, and this is recognized even in the Kremlin. Serious successes were not achieved. The military overestimated the fighting capacity of the Syrian Army, while at the same time, seriously underestimated the strength of the extremists.

At the same time, the campaign is ambiguously perceived in the international arena. As a result, one year later, everything remains in place as it used to be – “a fierce confrontation between the two superpowers, clashes between the opposition and government troops, and radical Islamists growing stronger and more prepared to wage war.”

Russia was unable to fundamentally change the situation in Syria, according to Slon. Bashar al-Assad remains as the head of a state immersed in chaos, the government’s forces are weakened and control a small part of the country’s territory, the terrorists, even though they have been weakened, are not broken, while the tensions and contradictions between Moscow and Washington have only deepened.

Moreover, under the current conditions, none of the parties has the capacity to change the situation, even with the support of extra-regional allies among the major powers. To radically change the situation requires a ground operation, but in the current circumstances, it is unlikely that anyone will attempt this.

In contrast, Moskovsky Komsomolets noted Russia’s military successes in Syria, including the interrupted expansion of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS), which, before Russia’s intervention, was developing at a prodigious rate.

Other achievements include the partial liberation of Palmyra, as well as a number of northwestern areas of Syria, and the ability to force the Islamists out of the Damascus suburbs. Success has not been achieved across the board, however, a large share of the blame for this lies not with Russia itself, but with the regional allies of the Russian Federation and the United States, who are not able to implement the agreements reached by the two powers.  

Discussions on a possible abortion ban in Russia

The theme of traditional family values ​​has long been the leitmotif of Russia’s domestic policy. Last week, a large public debate unfolded around “baby-boxes” and abortion. The ideas of prohibiting “baby-boxes” and abortions started being discussed on the initiative of the Russian Orthodox Church and some politicians, including the controversial Senator Elena Mizulina and the new children’s ombudsman, Anna Kuznetsova. Opponents and supporters of these two proposals have engaged in heated discussions.

The online publication refers to both of these proposals as “a path back to the Middle Ages.” Baby-boxes, which allow people to anonymously leave unwanted children in the hands of specialists, have already saved a lot of children, and are recognized as a positive initiative in international practice as well. The publication considers the arguments of the opponents of the “windows to life” more than doubtful. considers as “alarming” the initiative that calls for a comprehensive ban on abortions, including private practices that provide these services. According to the newspaper, this could lead to the spread of illegal abortions, and a greater abandonment rate of newborns.

Expert commentary

Sergey Veselovsky, Associate Professor at MGIMO University, expert on international affairs

On the intermediate results of the investigation into the downing of MH17:

“The report is interesting, primarily for two reasons: Firstly, it is stated that the Buk missile system was delivered from Russia, and secondly, it indicates the exact location of the launching of the rocket that hit the plane (a field near the village of Pervomayskoye, which was under the control of the Donetsk militias).

In addition, for the uninitiated reader, the report and its supplementary visuals may form the impression that the Buk missile system was delivered to Ukraine from Russia in order is to shoot down a civilian aircraft. And this, in turn, is already an additional argument in favor of the inhumanity of the Russian regime.

But there are plenty of questions about the report itself.

Why was the Buk missile system, if it really was Russian and delivered illegally to the Ukrainian territory, haphazardly transported through the Luhansk and Donetsk regions for almost half a day? It even traveled to Donetsk, where for some time it stood near a busy road, almost without any camouflage. Who were the persons talking in the video to the report? How were these recordings received and is there an opportunity to verify when they were made? Why did the Buk missile system end up near the village of Pervomayskoye? What crew was driving the vehicle? Were there Buk missile systems of the Ukrainian Army in the area?

This list of questions can be expanded, and it is rather long. As we know, any criminal act has three components – the means, the opportunity and the motive. While the first and second components are revealed in detail in the report, the motive, for some reason, has been left beyond the scope of the investigation. And not being able to fully reveal this, the crime in the skies over Ukraine cannot be proven.”

On the one-year anniversary of Russian military operations in Syria:

“The results of the first year of the Russian operations in Syria are clearly ambiguous.

On the one hand, Moscow has had an opportunity to support the allied regime of Bashar al-Assad, has demonstrated the high combat readiness of its armed forces, and even new weapons, and has become a key player in the settlement of the Syrian crisis.

On the other hand, Russia, while becoming an equal member of the international coalition in Syria, which was to serve as a kind of normalization of relations with the West, has further worsened its relations with the U.S., and placed itself under attack from the Islamists. Will this be a winning bet for Russia? Only time will tell.

However, the increasing criticism from Western countries, with regard to Russia’s activities in Syria, can lead to adjustments of policy. The ‘first destroy the militants of the Islamic State, and then work on the internal political settlement’ approach may undergo some changes. The main problem for Moscow is that it does not have a pool of allies with similar views on the settlement of the Syrian crisis. In this situation, it will be very difficult to resist the Western world led by the United States.”