Media roundup: Russian media turned its attention to warning signs of intensifying military activity in Eastern Ukraine. Developments in Greece and the Korean peninsula also made headlines.


Tensions have been constantly rising in southeast Ukraine for the last few weeks. Photo: RIA Novosti

Last week, the Russian media focused on the potential implications of rising tensions in Ukraine as well as the unexpected resignation of influential Kremlin insider Vladimir Yakunin as head of Russian Railways. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras also caused a stir in Russian media circles last week by his resignation, as did new tensions on the Korean peninsula.

Escalation in Eastern Ukraine

Tensions have been constantly rising in southeast Ukraine for the last few weeks and both gunfire and provocations have been observed by both parties. Last week the situation deteriorated even further. Both sides are expecting provocations on the eve of Ukraine’s Independence Day on August 24, with both simultaneously increasing forces on the frontlines.

Kommersant analyzed the speech delivered by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to Ukrainian soldiers in Kharkov, pointing out Poroshenko’s preparedness to escalate the conflict. The newspaper believes that it was specifically Poroshenko who insisted on the new Normandy Format negotiations without the participation of Russian President Vladimir Putin to prepare European intermediaries for a possible increase in military activities. Any military escalation, of course, would impact the implementation of the Minsk Agreements.

Opposition-minded Novaya Gazeta is also anticipating a new round of military conflict. The media outlet believes that such an escalation is clear from both sides’ rhetoric and offers several scenarios for how the situation would develop. It also points out that neither side has a complete advantage. Escalation is inevitable, but its extent will depend on the progress of political negotiation efforts.

Pro-government Rossiyskaya Gazeta, citing reports from militia headquarters, provided details about Ukrainian military plans to undertake a large-scale assault with the aim of surrounding Donetsk and Luhansk. The newspaper also mentions the number of military equipment Ukrainian forces have concentrated on the borders of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR).

Yakunin’s resignation from Russian Railways

Last week, Vladimir Yakunin resigned from his position as the director of one of Russia’s largest monopolies, Russian Railways, which practically controls 100 percent of railway transportation in the country. Russian media are certain that such an important decision could not be taken without the knowledge of the president, who has always been well disposed towards Yakunin.

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Is this the start of a massive restructuring within Russia’s elite? This is the question journalists are asking. Opposition Novaya Gazeta believes that Putin is sending the Russian elite a very clear message that, in times of crisis and a decline in incomes within the country, loyalty to the president takes second place to economic efficiency.

Although Yakunin is considered to be one of Putin’s main companions, he cannot claim to have an impeccable reputation: the large-scale corruption within Russian Railways has been common knowledge in recent years. The publication believes the restructuring of the elite may also relate to Dmitry Peskov, the president’s press secretary, and Igor Sechin, the head of Russia's largest oil giant Rosneft.

Kommersant talks about Yakunin’s legacy, which he has left for the new head of Russian Railways, Oleg Belozerov. Incomplete reforms, chronic lack of money, outdated infrastructure and minimal opportunities for attracting investment from private investors are some of the results of Yakunin’s activities. The paper believes that Yakunin’s career is, essentially, over, and his transfer to the parliament of the Federation Council is a gesture of goodwill from the president, which ensures him a restful trip to his pension.

According to the webstite of the Echo of Moscow radio staion, Yakunin’s departure is the result of a political housecleaning, which Putin is carrying out: The former head of Russian Railways had become too active, including politically, which the president disliked. The Echo of Moscow raises the question of who will follow Yakunin and become the next victim of the intra-elite struggle.

Greek PM Alexis Tsipras resigns

The reason for the resignation of the Greek PM was a failure to achieve approval from part of the ruling coalition on a packet of economic measures, which had been agreed to by EU representatives and the Greek government in mid-August.

In essence, this is a serious split between the ruling Syriza party and its coalition parties, who condemned the resulting agreements. Tsipras’s departure and that of his government will lead to early parliamentary elections (with a tentative date set for the end of September). Russian media organizations have attempted to predict the election results and evaluate Greece’s internal political intrigues.

Kommersant believes that elections would help improve relations between the European Union and Greece, since it is possible that a more European-oriented party would gain power. However, the publication observes that public polls show that Tsipras continues to be extremely popular, and could quite possibly return as head of government in September.

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Business newspaper Vedomosti points out that, with this move, Tsipras is hoping to gain additional support for his agreement with creditors and also to counter the split in the governing party.

Tabloid Moskovsky Komsomolets discusses the intrigues within Syriza, from which 25 people have already resigned and formed a new party, Popular Unity. The publication believes that Syriza will not be destroyed by this split and predicts that there will be a complete regrouping of a left wing parties as a coalition in the Greek parliament.

Tensions on the Korean Peninsula

Tensions between North and South Korea continued to grow last week. After a series of mutual provocations on the border and announcements bringing troops onto a combat footing, the parties nonetheless agreed to talks, which were held on Saturday, August 22 and continued on Sunday, August 23.

Populist Moskovsky Komsomolets describes the position of both parties at the negotiations as not overly optimistic in evaluating their progress. The paper believes that much of the discussion focuses on South Korean propaganda played from loudspeakers on the border. South Korea will not remove these loudspeakers and it was specifically this issue, which has caused such severe anger in Pyongyang on this occasion.

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Vedomosti reports South Korea’s intention to maintain the loudspeakers on the border, a move that aroused North Korea’s discontent. The publication cites South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye, who stated that South Korea has no intention of curtailing border broadcasts even if North Korea apologizes for killing South Korean soldiers in the demilitarized zone.

Pro-government Rossiyskaya Gazeta believes that the dialogue is an important step towards de-escalation; however, the newspaper observes that the first round failed to achieve any agreement, and it is highly unlikely that an agreement will be achieved as part of the second round. The publication points to numerous disagreements and recriminatory claims between both sides.

Resignation of Mahmoud Abbas from the PLO

Another notable event for the week in Russian media circles was the resignation of the head of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), Mahmoud Abbas, who for a long time has been one of the participants in the negotiations between Palestine and Israel. Abbas announced his resignation on Friday. However, the Palestinian National Council has yet to confirm it. Along with Abbas, another ten of his colleagues intend to resign.

Pro-government Rossiyskaya Gazeta connects Abbas’ resignation with his disappointment in the peace process under American auspices, and also fatigue from the internal Palestinian conflict between the Fatah movement, which he heads, and the more radical Hamas.

The populist Moskovsky Komsomolets also believes that Abbas’ resignation is connected with the failure of negotiations and the inability of Palestine to influence Israel’s carrying out of agreements that have already been made. Vedomosti refers to complications in negotiations, observing that the Palestinian leader appears to be tired of such ongoing negotiations.

Quotes of the week:

Alexis Tsipras addressing the Greek people: “I feel a moral and political obligation to turn to you for a decision. Your votes decide: Can the deal that we have reached get us out of the crisis?”

North Korean Ambassador to Moscow Kim Hyun Joong: “The demilitarized zone is a continuous mine field. We have powerful forces and if we want to punish the South Korean militarists, we will not use such primitive weapons as mines.”

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko: “Today we are already much better prepared for the defense, for the protection of our Ukraine than a year ago. The Minsk Accords, despite their criticism, gave us leeway, gave us the time to strengthen our defenses. They helped us, even just a little, to overcome the clear technological gap between us and Russia.”

Eduard Basurin, Minister of Defense, DPR: “Despite the preparedness of the regime in Kiev to unleash war after Independence Day and the preparation for a resonating provocation to justify aggression and genocide against the people of Donbas, the DPR army is ready to respond immediately, effectively halting the blows of our enemy.”