Weekly Media Roundup: Russia’s top journalists ponder the aftermath of the fragile Minsk peace agreement as well as the possible foreign policy ramifications of Putin’s visit to Hungary.

A Russia-backed rebel gestures while ridding on an armored vehicle in Debaltseve, Ukraine, February 20, 2015. Photo: AP

This week the Russian media focused on the implementation of the peace agreements in the Donbas region, Vladimir Putin’s visit to Hungary and the growing problem of the extremism of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) in the Middle East.

The aftermath of the Minsk peace agreements

Compliance with the provisions of the Minsk II peace process was a main topic of the week. The pro-government (Aktualniye Kommentarii) and opposition (Echo of Moscow, Nezavisimaya Gazeta) media debated how the truce and the withdrawal of troops could be implemented on the ground, agreeing on one thing — the ceasefire is being violated on a regular basis.

Pavel Dulman, a contributor for Aktualniye Kommentarii, points the finger at the Ukrainian army, which is forcing the rebels to respond. He adds that the Ukrainian leadership’s chief mistake was not to recognize the presence of the so-called “Debaltseve boiler” during the Minsk talks. It is part of the territory controlled by the separatists, in which the Ukrainian army ended up. Militia groups in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic surrounded it, cutting off the supply of provisions and ammunition.

This critical situation could have been resolved back in Minsk, but Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko made a different choice, the author believes.

“Heroically refusing to recognize the ‘boiler,’ and diligently factoring it out of the marathon talks in Minsk, Poroshenko entrapped not only himself and the regime in Kiev, but several thousand Ukrainian soldiers,” says the expert.

In addition,Aktualniye Kommentarii presented the views of analyst Vasily Stoyakin, who analyzes in detail the motives of all parties to the conflict, including the EU, the U.S. and Russia. Stoyakin concludes that, “A truce was made possible largely due to the unique set of circumstances, in which the majority of players actually wanted it.”

“But no one is interested in freezing the current situation as the basis for a lasting peace,” he surmises.

Anton Orekh in his blog for radio station Echo of Moscow remarks that the frontline activity is benefitial for pro-Russian separatists —“militias" and "warlords,” not the government in Kiev. Meanwhile, Vladimir Mukhin, an author for Nezavisimaya Gazeta, believes that Kiev’s behavior is incoherent, making it disinclined to fulfill its obligations.

No one in the Ukrainian capital seems willing to implement the new peace plan agreed under the ‘Normandy format’ in Minsk,” posits the expert. “National Guard battalions and their leaders are demanding that the war continue. Meanwhile, the political elite is still prevaricating about when to start discussing the new Constitution, key elements of which are assumed to be decentralization and the assignment of special status to certain districts in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.”

Novaya Gazeta correspondent Maria Epifanova analyzes the positions of all parties to the conflict with respect to the breach of the peace accords, concluding that violations are occurring on both sides, and that determining who broke the peace settlement first is no simple task. Nevertheless, Epifanova lays the emphasis more on the violations committed by the pro-Russian separatists.

Vladimir Putin's visit to Hungary

On Feb. 17 Vladimir Putin paid a state visit to Hungary. Almost immediately, the Russian press voiced the opinion that this was no ordinary trip and therefore worthy of close attention, especially in light of the trend toward Russia’s isolation in the international arena.

Alexander Bratersky, a contributor for Gazeta.ru discusses the similarities between Russia and Hungary, as well as Putin and Orban, noting that, “The two leaders started out more like Westernizers, but later abandoned their original ideals in varying degrees.”

What is more, Bratersky states that the agreements signed during the trip were not so vital as to require President Putin to visit in person, from which the conclusion is that “the content of the visit was less important than its political significance.” In addition, the expert argues, “for Orban it was an opportunity to present himself as an independent politician, and for Putin a chance to demonstrate that, despite the sanctions, there are countries at the heart of Europe still glad to receive him.”

Aktualniye Kommentarii gave the floor to publicist Stanislav Stremidlovsky, who believes that Viktor Orban is very much interested in cooperating with Russia, regardless of its isolation, as he is counting on securing profitable projects in the energy sector and increasing his own personal clout inside the EU.

“But in any case, even with one eye on Germany, which is wary of any form of expanded cooperation between Hungary and Russia, the Hungarian prime minister will focus on dialogue with Moscow,” adds the expert.

Yuri Paniev, a columnist for Nezavisimaya Gazeta interviewed political analyst Dmitry Danilov, who urged that Hungary should not be made into a “Russian fifth column” inside the EU.

“I do not think that Russia will needlessly add fuel to the fire: the situation is hot enough already,” says Danilov. “It’s a perfectly pragmatic approach on the part of the Kremlin: if someone in Europe wants to cooperate and somehow circumvent the sanctions, it will consider the option.”

Alexey Melnikov, a blogger for Echo of Moscow’s online website, believes that Putin’s visit to Hungary demonstrates once more the isolation in which Russia finds itself. “You cannot fill a void with a vacuum,” writes the blogger. “Putin’s empty visit to Egypt was followed by a no less empty visit to Hungary. The strategic encirclement was not broken, Russia is still stewing in the cauldron of his policies, and the degradation goes on.”

Melnikov adds that, “Putin has no desire to be an outcast, and is not used to such treatment. He is like a spoiled child denied his favorite candy.”

The growing ISIS problem in the Middle East

The execution of 21 Coptic hostages from Egypt by ISIS terrorists sparked numerous discussions in the Russian press. Both pro-government (Izvestia, RIA Novosti) and opposition (Nezavisimaya GazetaArgumenti i Fakti) media condemned the atrocity and considered the motives behind it and the possible consequences.

The terrorists’ motives were examined by political expert Veniamin Popov, who stated in an interview with Nezavisimaya Gazeta that, “This monstrous crime against Egyptian Christians is intended not only to intimidate Libyans, but also to demonstrate the power of Islamists in Libya.”

“What it means in effect is a sharp increase in extremist tendencies across the Middle East and North Africa,” he cautions.

At the same time Popov notes that the “endless series of terror attacks, explosions and acts of violence” is a response to Western policy in the Middle East.

Daria Tsilyurik-Frants, also of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, notes in an article that countries must unite in the fight against ISIS.

“Without Russia, Iran or Syria, nothing can be done,” she argues. “After all, what has the current coalition against ISIS achieved? The ‘caliphate’ has existed for eight months, and is only expanding. The fight against it is a sham. Only a truly broad coalition can tackle international terrorism.”

Likiwise, political analyst Alexei Malashenko of Carnegie Moscow Center argues in an interview with Argumenti i Fakti that the countries won't be able to fight ISIS alone, without extensive cooperation and coordination.

It [ISIS] is not simply a matter of isolated thuggery, but a general trend prevailing in the Islamic world that has been maturing for more than 30 years. Recognizing that fact, all global players — Obama, Putin, Europe’s leaders and others — must work together to develop a strategy to combat this malignant evil. Precision bombing cannot defeat what has become a strand of Islam,” believes Malashenko.

RIA Novosti gave a word to expert Mona Khalil, a theologian who believes that by executing Coptic Christians, ISIS hoped to split Egyptian society, but in fact, the opposite has happened. The expert notes that Egyptian Islamists were expected to support the execution, but “society has rallied together as never before.”

“Yesterday and today prayers have sounded all day long in Christian churches and Muslim mosques, and all those killed, according to Arab and Egyptian religious traditions, have been declared martyrs,” says Khalil.