Russian media roundup: Putin’s visit to Japan, the extension of EU sanctions on Russia and Navalny’s announcement of a 2018 presidential bid all made headlines in the Russian media last week.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) with Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe. Photo: Kremlin.ru

Last week Russian President Vladimir Putin travelled to Japan to meet Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Even though there were talks about a potential resolution of the Kuril Islands territorial dispute, the leaders only agreed to carry out joint economic activities on the islands and signed a number of declarations of future cooperation.

On Dec. 15 the European Union decided to prolong anti-Russian sanctions, which were introduced in 2014 following the events in Ukraine. Although not many in Russia expected that sanctions would be cancelled, there were some hopes that they would be reduced following the election of Donald Trump as the next U.S. president and the pro-Russian rhetoric voiced by some European leaders.

Finally, Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny expressed his eagerness to take part in the 2018 presidential election. Last week he released a video statement and a preliminary program for the future election campaign.

Putin’s visit to Japan

The opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta thinks that Japan’s expectations from Putin’s visit were inflated from the start. The Japanese partners ignored signals showing that Moscow is not willing to give away even the smallest part of the Kuril Islands. The Japanese hoped to get far more that just joint economic activity, which will be difficult to implement in practice. So, after the visit, the Japanese were clearly disappointed. However, judging from official statements, they are not going to stop their efforts of attracting Russia to economic projects in Japan.

According to experts interviewed by the tabloid Moskovsky Komsomolets, the results of the negotiations were not surprising. They stress that it is impossible to settle the Kuril Islands dispute in one go. These negotiations were important, however, because they showed a high level of political will on both sides and flexibility on the part of Tokyo. They went as far as signed economic and financial agreements with Russia, which would appear to contradict Japan’s allied relations with the U.S. So, overall, this visit creates a positive atmosphere for the future development of bilateral relations.

The pro-government newspaper Izvestia interviewed political expert Andrei Fesyun. He is confident that Russia has achieved a significant diplomatic victory, almost without any significant efforts. Abe himself proposed economic agreements that benefit Moscow and Moscow, in turn, does not have to promise anything. At the same time, the resolution of the territorial dispute in the short term is possible, but it requires U.S. participation, the expert says. It is only Washington that can influence Tokyo and guarantee that there will be no military bases created on the Islands. A U.S. military presence, of course, would be a risky scenario for Russia.

Also read: "Better Russia-Japan relations would be good for stability in Asia-Pacific"

EU prolongs sanctions against Russia

Novaya Gazeta suggests that the EU is tired of sanctions, which have failed to influence the Kremlin and reduced the profits of European businesses. Yet idealist values and principles prevailed and the EU maintained the sanctions regime. According to the newspaper, it is actually good news for Russia that the situation did not worsen and the EU did not introduce a new package of sanctions over Moscow’s campaign in Syria.

Moskovsky Komsomolets points out that it is naïve to expect that sanctions will be cancelled or reduced any time soon. The U.S. is unlikely to influence the EU countries in this question, since this would mean a renouncement of EU principles. Brussels does not see any improvement in the resolution of the Ukraine crisis and this is the only criterion that might make the cancellation of sanctions possible. For now, it’s too early to talk about what a new U.S. administration might do to change the situation, given the fact that Trump is too unpredictable.

Referring to sources in EU diplomatic circles, business daily Kommersant says that the cancellation of sanctions is not such a distant possibility. The electoral cycle in the U.S. and a number of EU countries might seriously change the political map of the West bringing to power less idealist and more pragmatic politicians. In six months, the situation might change and Russia might hope for an emergence of a new European approach towards the topic of sanctions.

Opposition leader Alexei Navalny to take part in presidential elections

The business media outlet Vedomosti describes Navalny’s decision to run for the presidency a “strong tactical move.” In fact, Navalny now sets a tone for the entire opposition agenda of the presidential campaign. This is also true for the pro-Kremlin candidates as it raises questions about how to react to the opposition leader.

Now all actions against Navalny are going to be seen as a reaction to his presidential bid, which will negatively affect the image of the Kremlin elite. Besides, Navalny picked the right time to run for the presidency – during an economic crisis and a decline in the president’s popularity ratings. These two factors give him numerous opportunities for criticism and spreading of his own ideas.

The opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta points out serious institutional limitations that Navalny will face. According to the Russian political scientists interviewed by the publication, it is going to be extremely hard for the opposition to stay afloat until the beginning of the actual presidential race. Apart from the ongoing trial against Navalny, other complexities should be taken into account, such as the process of getting signatures required for an independent candidate and lack of the resources (financial, administrative and media).

Navalny is well-known in Russia’s big cities, but for an independent candidate to officially register as a presidential candidate, he will need support in at least 40 of the country’s regions. Also, it should not be forgotten that the Kremlin has plenty of instruments to sideline opposition leaders. 

The business publication RBC also cites experts' opinion. Even if Navalny succeeds in registering for the election, his chances are not very high. In a best-case scenario, he can hope for about 10-20 percent of the votes – and that’s only if other opposition figures won’t run for the presidency. Experts note that Navalny’s main task now is to increase his activity across the country, which is currently is way too low.

However, Navalny’s fate depends on the country’s authorities and whether they decide to make the electoral campaign of 2018 honest and competitive. If they decide to do so, Navalny has a chance to overcome all institutional barriers. If they do not, the opposition has a very low chance even to take part in the 2018 campaign.

Expert commentary

Oleg Ignatov, leading expert at the Center for Current Policy, about the extension of the European sanctions on Russia:

The Kremlin viewed the extension of sanctions as an inevitable event. Moreover, it even considered the possibility that the EU might introduce additional sanctions with regard to Syria or extend the existing sanctions for a year instead of six months. However, lack of unity in the EU helped Russia.

Russia’s official position is that the sanctions are entirely the EU’s concern and it does not intend to undertake any specific actions to get Brussels change its policy. However, on the eve of the Russian presidential elections of 2018, Kremlin needs big PR victories to prove its position. This is why in 2017 Russia will seek opportunities to weaken the sanctions, or to lift sectoral sanctions entirely. This is going to happen in two ways.

First, Moscow will continue to undermine EU policy in Ukraine. Russia expects that Europe's dissatisfaction with the performance of the Ukrainian authorities will rise and a possible political crisis in Ukraine in 2017 will ultimately undermine Europe's trust in Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s ability to manage the situation and to be a responsible partner. Also, the Kremlin is expecting a further increase in Euroscepticism within the EU.

Second, Russia will try to strike a deal with the new U.S. administration to soften American sanctions on Russia. After that, the Europeans won’t be able to stand alone, and that will make it harder for the anti-Russian actions to remain in place.