Media Roundup: Two major topics dominated the Russian media over the past week - the potential impact of Western sanctions on the Russian economy and the confirmation of the new U.S. ambassador to Russia.
John Tefft of Va., arrives to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, July 29, 2014, to be the new U.S. Ambassador to Russia. Photo: AP
This week, several political and economic events were actively discussed in the Russian media. Journalists and pundits expressed the greatest interest in the approval of John Tefft as U.S. Ambassador to Russia and the imposition of new sanctions against Russia by the West. And, of course, the Russian media delighted in the press briefings held by the U.S. State Department.
In anticipation of the new U.S. ambassador
On July 31, the U.S. Senate finally approved John Tefft as the new U.S. Ambassador to Russia. In Russia, rumors of his potential appointment months ago had already caused controversy and raised concerns. After all, the Russian media knows him as the “engine of the color revolutions” in the former Soviet republics.
However, this week, several leading Russian newspapers, including Kommersant and Gazeta.ru, published materials in which the character of Tefft was evaluated in a neutral, and some might even say, positive light.
Kommersant, positioning itself as an independent business publication, not only repeatedly emphasized the high professionalism of Tefft and his many years of experience in the diplomatic sphere, but also quoted a number of quite complimentary comments made by Russian experts - such as those made by the President of the Higher School of Economics, Alexander Domrin, and the President of the American University in Moscow, Edward Lozansky.
Domrin emphasizes: “He will be a tough negotiator, able, if necessary, to freeze US-Russian relations, but with him there will not be the clowning around that had become the hallmark of the ambassadorial style of McFaul.” Lozansky also refers to his own experience of talks with the new ambassador, saying: “It would seem, in the light of previous harsh statements made by Tefft against Russia, that nothing good can be expected from him. However, during my personal talks with him, when he was a counselor-minister in Moscow, I heard from him some quite reasonable things about the development of bilateral relations.”
Alexander Braterskiy, columnist of the Internet publication Gazeta.ru, also writes about Tefft in a neutral tone. He, along with other writers, emphasize Tefft’s solid grasp of the current Russian reality, as well as the future ambassador’s willingness to cooperate with Russia in spite of differences of opinion between the two countries.
Even the Echo of Moscow radio station, usually having opinions different from all others, had this to say about the appointment of Tefft: “The United States is sending to Moscow a career diplomat, who has impressive experience in the post-Soviet space,” which fits into the overall picture of evaluations made in the Russian media.
Part of the media - including such major publications as Vedomosti, Novaya Gazeta, Izvestia, and Rossiyskaya Gazeta - reacted to the news of the appointment of the new U.S. ambassador to Russia according to what seemed to be a formal protocol. They limited themselves to statements of facts and listed individual lines from the biography of the likely head of the diplomatic mission to Moscow.
In summary, it seems that Tefft as the new U.S. ambassador to Russia is already perceived as a kind of a “revolutionary” – but a “revolutionary” in a more positive sense. After the spectacular but inefficient “Twitter diplomacy” of Michael McFaul, people are expecting professionalism, pragmatism and sobriety from Tefft.
Can Russia be intimidated by sanctions?
This week in the Russian media, they also discussed the package of new sanctions imposed against Russia by Western countries, in particular, the EU sectoral sanctions. As could be expected, the public and the media reacted violently: On major news portals of leading business and political publications, hundreds of articles appeared on the effects of sanctions on the economic and political spheres of Russia.
Rossiyskaya Gazeta, Vedomosti, Izvestia, RBC-Daily, Kommersant, Slon, Gazeta.ru, etc. – virtually no major publication remained aloof from the discussion, not to mention the largest pro-government TV channels Life News and Channel One, as well as the main opposition radio station – Echo of Moscow.
There were two vastly different types of pictures being painted by the Russian media on the impact of Western sanctions on the Russian economy.
Option 1: Sanctions will not affect Russia
A number of publications and TV channels strongly emphasized that Russia is not afraid of new sanctions because they cannot do much damage to the economic and political system of the country. A number of areas will suffer, but this is a temporary phenomenon, which also can be compensated for by a shift of the economy to the East and by stimulating domestic Russian production. In addition, the publications noted the double-edged nature of sanctions: Western partners themselves will also suffer from these sanctions, and potentially, quite seriously.
This opinion is held not only by the pro-government media, but also some moderate opposition publications. In particular, on the pages of the liberal Slon, Andrey Movchan writes about the total ineffectiveness of sanctions, calling them “soft and fluffy.” He continues, “There will be no catastrophic sanctions. It is not necessary to store up on crackers, hide dollars under the pillow, or sell one’s apartment and run.”
The prestigious business newspaper Kommersant is also in no hurry to paint everything in the darkest colors. In addition, experts of the publication, having analyzed the situation of foreign companies in Russia, came to the conclusion that they are the ones that will become the first victims of the sanctions policy being implemented against Moscow. An analyst of the publication, Kirill Sarkhanyants, notes in particular that, “The worsening state of the Russian economy, which is possible in the case of new sanctions, may also affect some European banks.”
Option 2: Sanctions will destroy the Russian economy, and with it, the political system will collapse
Hard times are coming for Russia. The economy will lose growth, production will wither, and the development of new regions will require larger and larger investments, which will be impossible to obtain anywhere. Reorienting towards the East will not produce anything, because Russia is too historically tied to the Western market and cannot be reconstructed in the short and even medium terms. All of these ideas, in one form or another, were expressed by representatives of the media who see a real threat to Russia posed by the sanctions (RBC-Daily, Echo of Moscow, Slon, and Gazeta.ru).
This is especially true among such publications and channels that consider themselves as opposition media outlets (Echo of Moscow, Slon), which are predicting the imminent death of Russian statehood. Several prominent opposition members and human rights activists, including Lilia Shevtsova, Lyudmila Alekseeva, Andrey Zubov, and Mikhail Kasyanov made a joint statement on the website of the opposition radio station Echo of Moscow, which reads: “Russia, which over the last decade has seen its state institutions destroyed, and suffered a degradation of its economy, will not survive in isolation from the civilized world. The country is facing disintegration under the weight of lawlessness, theft and primeval animal instincts, awakened by the regime for the purpose of self-defense.”
A less gloomy scenario is offered by Rustem Falyakhov, an expert at the moderately oppositional Gazeta.ru: “Sanctions against Russia could stop economic growth in Russia, as in the conditions of financial isolation, the corporate sector will begins to suffer from serious financial consequences.” “It is inevitable there will be bankruptcies and closing of business projects,” note the analysts of the portal.
Moreover, in its “From the Editor” piece, Gazeta.ru offers a warning message for Russia’s political system: “But in any case, the Russian government, which almost instantaneously, thanks to Crimea, consolidated the support of the record majority of the population, risks, in a very short time, to lose this support. With that, it is not clear which is more dangerous: losing support of the politically inert public (despite the war propaganda) or the elites – who are at risk of quickly losing their huge capital gains acquired over the last decade.”
Jen Psaki and Marie Harf, still favorites of the Russian media
This week, the Russian press also talked about the newest public appearances of Jennifer Psaki and Marie Harf, representatives of the U.S. State Department. The former appeared at a press briefing on July 29 in one boot, sparking a flurry of jokes directed at her. Psaki explained the situation herself: She had hurt her leg and had to wear a special orthopedic boot. Nevertheless, this reasonable explanation still did not save her from many withering comments.
Thus, Rossiyskaya Gazeta wrote: “What does all this mean? Why is Psaki forcing the whole world to make fun of her? Is she really as stupid as it seems, or just wants to appear that way? Such questions are replete on the Web.” One of the most popular Internet portals in Russia – KM.RU – pointed out that this is not the first time such incidents have happened to Psaki: “U.S. State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki has once again become a figure in a curious case.”
The political scientist and public figure Nikolay Zlobin (on the liberal opposition radio Echo of Moscow) stood up for Psaki, stating that, although he “himself was not against sometimes making a joke about her” asked the following, “Why, incidentally, does the Russian Foreign Ministry, in general, not have someone who daily, live and for a few hours, would be responsible to answer foreign journalists’ unexpected and often tricky and aggressive questions on virtually any aspect of foreign policy? This is extremely important, but a hell of a hard job.”
If the situation with Jen Psaki sometimes causes smiles rather than negative reactions, then the performance of her deputy Marie Harf on July 31 raised an outcry from the Russian public. Harf said that the U.S. considers the use of artillery against Donetsk justified and called the actions of the Ukrainian army “restrained.” This news was disseminated by prominent Russian media organizations, especially the pro-government media outlets (Channel One, Life News, and Vesti.ru). Such a position by the U.S., coupled with the lack of recognition of the many victims in Eastern Ukraine, seems to Russians very cynical and totally unacceptable.