Russian media roundup: The results of the Normandy Four talks in Berlin, the final presidential debate in the U.S. and the possibility of new EU sanctions against Russia all made headlines last week.

German chancellor Angela Merkel, second right, next to German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, fourth right, attends talks with Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, fifth left, French president Francois Hollande, left, and Ukraine' s president Petro Poroshenko, fifth right, back to camera, at the chancellery in Berlin, Oct. 19. Photo: AP

The leaders of Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine met on Oct. 19 in Berlin to discuss the crisis in Ukraine in the “Normandy Four” format. They agreed to come up with a road map for bringing an end to military conflict in Eastern Ukraine by November. In addition, they touched upon the questions of security, weapons control and the mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Ukraine. 

The final round of U.S. presidential debates between the Republican candidate Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton took place on Oct. 19 in Las Vegas. The Russian media followed the discussion both during and after the debate for clues as to the future of the U.S.-Russia relationship.

Outcomes of the Normandy Four meeting in Berlin

As expected, the meeting in Berlin resulted in no breakthroughs, but the dialogue itself was seen as productive by all sides. Ukraine left the negotiations after discussing Minsk-2 agreements and the three remaining participants – Russia, France and Germany – continued the meeting, switching their attention to the situation in Syria.

The opposition Novaya Gazeta newspaper thinks that even though the meeting in Berlin did not result in a breakthrough, it was still productive and provided a basis for a gradual implementation of the Minsk-2 agreements. These agreements do not provide flexibility in political aspects, but technical details agreed upon in Berlin prepare the ground for further work. The newspaper suggests that a more detailed plan will prevent both sides from “free interpretation,” which will ensure the future success of the Minsk agreements.

The independent media outlet Slon is skeptical about the results of the meeting in Berlin. The real outcomes of the talks were almost zero, with the only positive decision reached on expanding the OSCE mission. At the same time, it is too early to “bury” the Normandy format: Today the parties are using it for other purposes.

For Russia and the EU, the Normandy Four has become a platform for discussing a wide spectrum of issues, including Syria. Although the format for now seems to produce nothing substantial, it still gives Moscow an opportunity to demonstrate its willingness to continue dialogue, while Berlin and Paris can use it to show their discontent with Russian policies in Syria.

Quoting Russian experts, the business newspaper Vedomosti points out that the topic of Syria overshadowed Ukraine during the talks in Berlin. While some specific details were agreed upon, a signal to the Ukrainian leadership was also sent that not all of its initiatives would find support in Germany and France. The main focus was clearly on the events in Syria, which are a priority for the EU and Russia. 

Both sides are seeking to use the negotiations to strengthen their positions globally and domestically, especially given the fact that German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande are getting ready for elections. However, neither of them is yet ready to make serious strategic steps.

Final U.S. presidential debate

The tabloid Moskovsky Komsomolets thinks that both candidates failed to change the priorities of U.S. voters or attract those who are still undecided. The final round turned into a more active exchange of accusations than during the previous rounds and the differences in candidates’ campaign platforms simply got lost in this rhetoric. Hillary has more chances to win the presidential bid, but she’ll find it hard to implement her program due to the majority of Republican representatives in the U.S. Congress.

The business newspaper Kommersant argues that both candidates clearly used all their diplomatic capabilities in the debates. Clinton and Trump did not even follow the protocol of courtesy, openly antagonizing each other without shaking hands. At the same time, the emotional level of the final debates was not as high compared to previous rounds, when the moderator found it hard to control the candidates and prevent them from direct argument. The newspaper thinks that the debates were not very helpful for the presidential campaign, as they were not effective in influencing those who have not yet decided on their votes. 

Nezavisimaya Gazeta writes that during the third round of debates, the candidates devoted too much time to discussing Russia and Vladimir Putin. Although foreign policy is not traditionally popular among the American electorate, its expanding role during the current campaign has become a unique feature of the elections. Voters pay attention to domestic policy and use it as a determining factor in their voting. For that reason, Russia-related debates can be considered a distracting factor. The paper also thinks that it was Clinton who may have gained least from the debate: It looked like Trump prepared for all of Clinton’s potential accusations in advance.

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Potential EU sanctions against Russia

One of the questions discussed during the EU summit on Oct. 21-22 concerned the potential strengthening of sanctions and even the prospect of introducing new ones on Russia in response to its policies in Syria. However, as a result of the talks in Brussels, the countries did not agree on any sanctions – no new sanctions were introduced while the current ones were not strengthened as Italy, Spain, Austria, Cyprus and Greece were against the decision. Russian media discussed this topic with enthusiasm, as this is practically the first time when Russia found some kind of defenders within the EU.

The business daily Kommersant says that the news from Brussels was treated in Moscow as a diplomatic victory with some policymakers speculating about the potential annulment of all economic sanctions. The paper, though, finds such optimism premature as the question of sanctions remains on the EU agenda and it is directly connected with the situation in Syria, which is unlikely to improve in the near future.

Novaya Gazeta also does not share the optimism of Russian policymakers: One can only dream about the annulment of sanctions, the paper says. There were such hopes before the escalation in Syria’s Aleppo, but today they are not viable. Among key decision makers in the EU, only Italy is openly against new sanctions, but its attitude might change if Russia’s actions in Syria become more active. Of course, there is no unity among the EU members and many of them have important economic interests in Russia, but this does not necessarily mean that the EU will make concessions with Russia during the current crisis of mutual trust.

Expertcommentary

Vadim Samodurov, director of the Agency for Strategic Communications, comments on the Normandy Four talks and Minsk agreements:

The absence of any breakthroughs in the Normandy Four negotiations can be mainly attributed to the resistance of the Ukrainian side, which insists on its own interpretation of the Minsk-2 agreements. It experiences virtually no pressure from French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who are both waiting for their re-election in 2017. The near future is unlikely to bring any new developments with regard to the conflict in Donbas – Paris and Berlin will be busy with election preparations.

Yet, if the level of anti-Russian rhetoric in the West were lower, everything could have been different. The events in Syria worsen the Western attitude towards Russia and its arguments at the negotiating table. Russia’s position is treated coldly, but there is no extra pressure on it or Ukraine, because Kiev’s unwillingness to follow the Minsk agreements becomes more and more evident. 

Russia agreed to the military mission of OSCE to the area of conflict. This is a wise step that shifts responsibility to the Europeans – they made the Ukrainian theme one of the key ones in the public consciousness of their citizens but they are unable to do something substantial for conflict resolution.

In fact, there is no understanding even among the members of the Normandy Four on how such a mission might be introduced, especially given that the leaderships of the separatist republics are highly against such an idea. The refusal to involve representatives of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics to the negotiating process was a mistake from the beginning: Europe and Russia should have made them come and make joint decisions with the representatives of the government in Kiev. There is no alternative to the Minsk agreements, but what is lacking is a mechanism of reaching compromise between conflicting sides as well as the stimulus for Europeans in pressuring Ukraine to implement the conditions of the agreement.