Russian media roundup: Obama’s State of the Union speech, new anti-crisis measures for Russia’s economy and a new round of negotiations on the Ukraine crisis in Germany made media headlines this week.

People light candles on Independence Square in Kiev on Jan. 24 in solidarity with the victims of a rocket attack on the coastal city of Mariupol that claimed at least 30 lives. Ukraine's top separatist leader said earlier in the day that an offensive had begun on the strategically important port. Photo: AP

This week, the greatest interest among Russian journalists was evoked by Obama’s State of the Union address, the meetings in Berlin between the foreign ministers of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France to negotiate an end to the conflict in Ukraine, and the anti-crisis measures being implemented by the Russian government.

Negotiations on Ukraine

Negotiations on Ukraine, which took place this week in the so-called “Normandy Format” (Russia, Germany, France and Ukraine), evoked considerable interest in the Russian media.

The pro-government press (Aktualnyie Kommentarii), as well as the business publication Kommersant, sees very faint hope in this process, but still there is hope that the parties will somehow find common ground. Moreover, these publications consider that this negotiation process is still better than none at all. The opposition press (Novaya Gazeta) does not believe the negotiation process will lead to a positive outcome. In fact, it considers them as simply an act of hypocrisy.

The Aktualnyie Kommentarii website quotes Rostislav Ishchenko, President of the Center of Systems Analysis and Forecasting, who believes that the “initiatives of Lavrov will be supported by the Normandy Four.” The expert bases this opinion on the fact that Ukrainian President Poroshenko wants to stay in power as long as possible – and for this, he has no choice but to continue the peace process.

“Even if peace does not come, at least there will be no war,” said Ishchenko. “The European Union, in general, is fully interested in resolving the Ukrainian crisis, the sooner, the better, because they have their own big problems.”

The website also cites the well-known Russian political scientist Timofey Bordachev, who believes that, “Any agreement that will lead to at least to weakening of the intensity of fighting and save human lives, the lives of civilians – is already a good start.” However, he does note that, “Hope that a compromise will be reached soon, is very, very small – practically non-existent.”

Maxim Mitchenkov, anchorman at Kommersant FM, interviewed the political analyst Alexander Gusev, who also noted that staying in contact is absolutely necessary, despite the fact that hopes for a peaceful settlement are fragile and “the current Kiev authorities have no plans of ceasing hostilities in the conflict zone.”

“This will be quite a long process, but I am convinced that maintaining communication lines open, meetings and negotiations are needed, even while understanding that these will achieve very little,” said Gusev. 

Novaya Gazeta's Alexander Mineev notes that, “Diplomacy around the Ukrainian conflict is full of lies, hypocrisy, omissions, allusions and painfully familiar clichés – very few people believe anything that is said now.”

Mineev considers that Russia’s position in these negotiations is deeply cynical, accusing Russian authorities of being involved in this conflict.

“The real question – Where did the rebel militias get all their heavy modern military equipment and the military professionals trained to handle it, and where in Donbas Region is the inexhaustible source of shells, mines and diesel fuel? – remains taboo for Russian diplomats,” says Mineev.

Obama’s State of the Union Address

The U.S. President Barack Obama’s State of the Union Address evoked a great deal of interest in the Russian media. The pro-government press (Moskovsky Komsomolets, Rossiyskaya Gazeta) gave the floor to representatives of the Russian government or pro-government experts who expressed outrage at the wording Obama used when it came to the Russian economy, which he described as being “in tatters.”

Independent and business publications (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Echo of Moscow) suggest not taking to heart the specific words of the U.S. President, but rather, looking at the situation in a wider context.

Tatiana Pelipeyko, writing on the Echo of Moscow radio station website, believes that it is wrong to be looking for some special insults against Russia made by Obama, and sensationalizing the translation of some phrases:

“In short, what Obama was saying is – that the Russian economy is in poor condition. Actually, it is in a very bad state. (And what, we do not know this ourselves?) Well, it is, as we would say in Russian, for example – “out of hand”. Using dictionaries for translating quotes is not the best way to proceed. Neither is looking for some great insults in ordinary colloquial expressions.”

Yuri Paniev, columnist with Nezavisimaya Gazeta reflects on the meaning of the domestic political speech that Barack Obama delivered, citing Valery Garbuzov, Deputy Director of the Institute of USA and Canada Studies: “Obama’s mission in his remaining two years as president is not to lose the electoral base of the Democratic Party, and bring it to the presidential elections in 2016 in a more or less fair condition, – this is exactly what the president’s speech was aiming at.”

Garbuzov also noted that we should not expect anything new in the foreign policy field from Obama. According to the expert, Obama will continue developing his concept of “world leadership from the back rows, which Obama has tried to implement during his first term as president.”

Meanwhile, Moskovsky Komsomolets cites several high-ranking Russian politicians, including Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, and Franz Klintsevich, First Deputy Head of the United Russia faction and member of the State Duma's Defense Committee, who, like Rogozin, is unequivocal in his judgments.

Klintsevich believes that Obama’s statement that – thanks to the US actions, Russia has become isolated and its economy – is “torn to shreds”, “with the utmost frankness expresses the aspirations of the American ruling circles. This is exactly how they would like to see Russia.”

Rossiyskaya Gazeta quoted Alexey Pushkov, Head of the State Duma’s Committee on Foreign Affairs, who notes that Obama is cynical in his comments about the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. “In his address to the nation, Obama said many things, but forgot all about the 4,800 civilians that Kiev has killed in east Ukraine,” he said. “ISIS has killed fewer than that.”

Political scientist Alexander Gusev on the portal of Aktualnyie Kommentarii noted that, “Throwing around such phrases – that he tore the Russian economy into shreds is, at the very least, short-sighted.”

Anti-crisis measures of the Russian government

This week there was also an announcement made of an action plan of the Russian government to confront the difficult economic situation in the country. The vast majority of publications, including even some pro-government ones (Aktualnyie Kommentarii), not to mention the opposition and business press (Echo of Moscow, Vedomosti), consider these new measures as a case of too little, too late.

Alexander Oskin, a blogger for of the website of the Echo of Moscow radio station, noted that all the anti-crisis and quite reasonable proposals made by the Ministry of Economic Development of Russia “should have been implemented a long time ago, and this is plain common sense.”

“But this was not done, despite the obvious need,” continues Oskin. “I could say that the new proposals made by Ulyukayev’s team will turn out to be simply additional tiles on the road to hell. Cosmetic surgery will not help, and our economy will not be able to avoid dealing with obvious and necessary measures – such as supporting small businesses, reducing the length of winter holidays, revising the retirement age, and other issues. Cosmetic surgery is just ‘window dressing’, it cannot cure serious illnesses.”

Aktualnyie Kommentarii quotes Oksana Dmitrieva, First Deputy Chairman of the State Duma Committee on Budget and Taxes, who openly calls these measures poorly timed and ineffective.

“A set of measures has been introduced that is either very insignificant, or directly opposite to what we should be doing, or measures that have proven to be extremely slow in their implementation and shown their inability in overcoming the previous crisis,” she said.

Vedomosti is also very pessimistic regarding the package of measures proposed by the Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Economic Development, and the Government of the Russian Federation as a whole. The experts interviewed by Vedomosti believe that, even if the measures are adequate, it is far from certain that they will actually be implemented.

“Even if the Ministry of Economic Development presents a plan for making structural reforms, it is difficult to believe that this will be successful,” pessimistically notes Natalia Akindinova, General Director of the Development Center of the Higher School of Economics. “There would be talk about reducing the administrative and tax burdens, something that government officials will resist,” according to the newspaper.

Vedomosti adds the words of Natalia Orlova, an expert at Alfa Bank, who believes that, “If concrete solutions are proposed, this will have an impact, but if these will once again be measures involving the distribution of public resources, then such a program will not change the mood of the market.”