Russian media roundup: The revelations of the Panama Papers, the new escalation of the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh as well as the absence of Russia at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C. made headlines in the Russian media last week.

The name of President Vladimir Putin (pictured right) is not included in the Panama documents, they do contain the name of Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov (pictured left). Photo: RIA Novosti

The lead stories making headlines this week were the revelations of the Panama Papers, which include the names of Russia's famous politicial figures, and the flare-up of tensions in Nagorno-Karabakh, a hotly contested territory located between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The other foreign policy story generating media attention was Russia’s absence from the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C. on Mar. 31 and Apr. 1.

The Panama Papers and Putin’s inner circle

On Apr. 3, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) revealed the secret documents of Mossack Fonseca, a Panama-based offshore services provider that is reportedly used by the world’s political leaders, business tycoons and criminals to hide wealth, evade taxes and commit fraud. The controversial exposure was conducted within the framework of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP).

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The publication of these materials was met with a great deal of sensationalism because they include the names of famous politicians, sports figures and entertainment celebrities, as well as their relatives.  Even though the name of President Vladimir Putin is not included within the documents, they do contain the names of his close friends and high-profile Russian officials, including Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov.

Apparently, Moscow had been preparing for these revelations in advance: A week before the leak the Kremlin announced that it was waiting for a large-scale information attack on the Russian president and his inner circle. After the exposure of the documents to the public, the Kremlin described it as speculation and a sign of what it calls the West’s “Putinophobia.” 

An opposition media outlet, Novaya Gazeta, an ICIJ partner, ran a series of articles on the exposure. In particular, it presents the story of one of Putin’s closest friends, the musician Sergey Roldugin. According to the documents, he is linked to a number of offshore businesses as well as to substantial assets in Russia. Most importantly, Novaya Gazeta argues Putin entrusted to Roldugin his own assets, implying that the President himself is involved in some form of corruption.      

Meanwhile, the Moskovsky Komsomolets tabloid highlights that the scandal has implications not only for Russia, but also other countries within Europe. As an example, it mentions Iceland’s Prime Minister, Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, who turns out to have owned an offshore company and undeclared assets in the country’s banks that received financial aid during the 2008 crisis.

The ICIJ exposure also affected British Prime Minister David Cameron, whose father was accused of tax evasion through offshore entities. The Russian media outlet mentions that the documents don’t appear to involve any citizens of the U.S., which it finds very dubious and illogical. However, not all the materials have been exposed, with new revelations expected.

Business newspaper Kommersant presents an ironic response from the Kremlin to the leak of the Panama Papers. The Russian authorities “are disappointed with the quality of the investigation,” which, according to the Kremlin, “doesn’t reveal anything new.” Russia sees it as another speculative attack targeting the Russian president and high-ranking Russian officials.  

The independent online media outlet Meduza quotes Transparency International’s Vice President Elena Panfilova, who sees “the Panama archive” as “an international Watergate.” She argues that the Panama revelations are not necessarily directed against Russia and its politicians, because they also target high-profile officials of the West

Aggravation of the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh

There are several different versions of what actually took place in Nagorno-Karabakh on Apr. 2, with the leading theory being that Azerbaijan was the aggressor. However, even the information about deaths, injuries, and the mobilization of forces coming from both sides is contradictory. It is safe to say only that it is one of the most serious episodes of confrontation between the two sides since the ceasefire in 1994.

Aktualniye Kommentarii notes that, in the present circumstances, such a conflict is beneficial to only one of the regional powers – Turkey. Armenia and Azerbaijan have nothing to gain from the exacerbation of the situation. Turkey, on the other hand, is in a hurry to show itself as a serious player even on the territory of the former Soviet Union, hoping thus to draw major world powers into the conflict, and get an additional lever of influence in the settlement of the Syrian conflict.

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Experts interviewed by the opposition Novaya Gazeta do not believe that the current conflict will grow into a new war. Similar events have happened in the past, but the parties will try to prevent history from repeating itself, since none of them has adequate resources to bring the situation to a peaceful conclusion.

Experts also believe that Azerbaijan’s ally Turkey could have been involved in this conflict, which thus wanted to send signals to Moscow about the need to return to dialogue. Otherwise, Moscow can expect an escalation of the conflict right on its own borders, and it will likely have to intervene, because it is committed to an alliance treaty with Armenia.

Business newspaper Vedomosti believes that this aggravation is a logical continuation of the development of the situation around Nagorno-Karabakh in recent years. The conflict has been frozen and no progress has been made on its settlement. In Azerbaijan, there’s still a sense of injustice about the fate of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is periodically used by the country’s leadership to achieve a wide variety of political goals.

Given the economic crisis at home, Baku perhaps is attempting to regain control over this territory as a way to divert the public. Anyway, Vedomosti points out that Russia is a hostage in this situation – although it has allied relations with Armenia, Moscow is also interested in having good relations with Azerbaijan, and there is no desire to see a disruption of the current balance.

Nuclear Security Summit without Russia

On March 31 and April 1, the Nuclear Security Summit took place in Washington, D.C. – but without the participation of a Russian delegation. That led, an online media outlet, to refer to it as the “summit of disappointment because the very format of the event clearly was not successful and has not brought any significant results during the entire time of its existence since 2010.

In addition, quoting Russian political pundits, stresses that nuclear issues are directly linked to relations between Russia and the United States, and no significant progress has been seen there, and this is unlikely to change in the near future. In this sense, the absence of the second-largest nuclear power makes this summit simply pointless.

Business newspaper Kommersant sees Russia’s refusal to participate as a signal of the continuing numerous contradictions between Russia and the West. The previous summit in The Hague in 2014 left a bad feeling, because there they talked more about “Russian aggression against Ukraine” than the necessity of nuclear disarmament. In such circumstances, Russia has no interest in participating in this summit, even against the backdrop of an incipient thaw in relations brought about by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Moscow in March.

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Tabloid Moskovsky Komsomolets underlines that the summit has clearly moved its agenda beyond nuclear security. In particular, this was seen in the meeting between U.S. President Barack Obama and Ukrainian leader Petro Poroshenko, who discussed Ukrainian reforms and the prospects of a new tranche of financial assistance for Ukraine. With the absence of Russia, as well as the absence of countries such as Iran or North Korea, which had not even been invited, it is impossible to conduct full-fledged negotiations on disarmament and nuclear non-proliferation.

Quotes of the week:

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov on the Panama revelations: “Obviously, Putinophobia [in the West] has reached such a level that it is forbidden a priori to talk about Russia and its successes in a favorable way.”

Transparency International’s Vice-President Elena Panfilova on the Panama Papers: “Obviously, people who use offshore transactions are very smart. They have a way with validating, hiding and covering up, but the problem is this is like playing the Counter-Strike game on 10 different monitors. You might miss something on one of them. Something [inconvenient] is bound to be revealed.”

Ben Rhodes, U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser on Russia’s absence at the Nuclear Security Summit: “Russia’s decision to not participate at a high level, we believe, is a missed opportunity for Russia above all. They have benefited enormously from cooperation on nuclear security and non-proliferation in the past. Frankly, all they’re doing is isolating themselves in not participating as they have in the past.”

Kremlin press spokesperson Dmitry Peskov on Russia’s refusal to take part in the summit: “There was an absence of interaction [before the summit] and a deficit in preliminary studies of the issues and themes of the summit, and this is why the Russian side decided not to participate.”