Russian media roundup: Russia’s military exit from Syria, an event that was completely unexpected even for veteran Kremlin watchers, was the primary focus of the Russian media during the week.


Russian pilot gets into a cockpit of a Su-25 ground attack jet before a take off at Hemeimeem air base in Syria on Wednesday, March 16, 2016. Photo: Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision on Mar. 14 to withdraw Russian military forces came as a big surprise for Russian journalists, who have had diverging views of the results of the Syrian campaign. Russia’s Syria withdrawal became the major news story of the week for Russian media.

In addition, journalists focused on the tragic plane crash of a FlyDubai passenger jet in Rostov-on-Don and a growing scandal within Russia’s Ministry of Culture. 

Withdrawal of Russian troops from Syria

When Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the withdrawal from Syria of Russia’s main military forces, he suggested their assigned mission had already been completed. At the same time, Russian military bases will remain in Syria, keeping open the option of a return of Russian forces. This led to conflicting views of the current situation. 

Kirill Martynov, a journalist at opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, believes that with this operation, Russia has lost more than it has won. Moreover, he says, Russia is leaving Syria with very dim prospects. The main result of this campaign was the strengthening of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as well as a temporary distraction from Russian domestic problems and the Ukrainian crisis. Russia has been left with a range of costs, among which are damaged relations with Turkey and an increase in terrorist threats to Russia from radical Islamists.

Also read: "Three lessons from the Kremlin's decision to withdraw from Syria"

Mikhail Rostov of Moskovsky Komsomolets does not agree with his colleague: Russia is leaving Syria as an undisputed victor, and has avoided being drawn into a long protracted ground operation, which could have become a disaster for Moscow. In departing from Syria militarily, Moscow has not ended its political campaign in the Middle East, but only demonstrated Russia’s confidence and control of the situation. Further actions will be left to high-level diplomacy and now hope for a peaceful settlement remains alive.

The website of the Echo of Moscow radio station published an article by political analyst Andrey Piontkovsky, who says that Russia’s exit from Syria is a severe image defeat for Moscow, and for Putin personally, who has long been assuring the world community, and his own citizens, about the long-term strategy of the Kremlin in Syria.

Piontkovsky wonders what might be the real reason for this withdrawal, suggesting that the Assad regime has perhaps come to an agreement with Washington, and on this background, Moscow was simply “asked to leave.”

Corruption scandal in the Russian Ministry of Culture

Another Russian ministry became a center of a major corruption scandal. This time, it was the waste and abuse found in Russia’s Ministry of Culture. 

Mar. 15 saw the arrest of several high-ranking ministry officials, including Deputy Minister Gregory Pirumov, and several of his subordinates. In addition, several heads of companies, which were performing large state orders involving the restoration of cultural objects, were also arrested. 

According to the investigation, officials from the Culture Ministry, in collusion with contracting companies, artificially inflated prices for restoration works, and as a result, the state suffered damages of at least 50 million rubles.

The online publication expressed indignation at the absence of any serious reactions from senior Russian officials. The publication believes that in this situation, the Minister of Culture, Vladimir Medinsky, should also be removed from his position. Thus far, Medinsky has limited himself to stating that he was shocked by the corrupt activities of his deputies.

Writing for the analytical portal Aktualniye Kommentarii, Maxim Artemyev also talks about the possible resignation of Medinsky, on the background of a corruption scandal involving his subordinates. Artemyev, however, is not so categorical as his colleagues from The minister could well have been unaware of the schemes implemented between his deputies and the contracting companies, he writes. 

Moreover, corruption in the ranks of an agency should not lead to the automatic resignation of its minister, especially when there are no charges against him personally. In the case of Medinsky, it is extremely unlikely that he will be forced to resign, because of his quite good public image and excellent relations with the Kremlin, said Artemyev.   

The independent media outlet Slon published an article by opposition journalist Oleg Kashin, who believes that, by launching an anti-corruption campaign against the Ministry of Culture, the Kremlin is sending a clear signal personally to Minister Medinsky. The time of ultra-conservative and nationalist ideologues, among which Medinsky certainly can be listed, is coming to an end. These are giving way to ideas more relevant for 2016, said Kashin. 

In this light, the current charges levied against Medinsky’s subordinates only demonstrate that in the future, the minister’s life will never be the same again, his career climb will stop, and his wide popularity and publicity will gradually come to an end. 

Plane crash in Rostov-on-Don 

On Mar. 19, while attempting a landing at the Rostov-on-Don airport, a FlyDubai passenger plane flying from Dubai crashed, killing all 55 passengers and 7 crewmembers. The reason for the crash is still unknown, but investigators are looking at technical failure, adverse weather conditions and pilot error. 

Also read: "FlyDubai plane crash in Russia: Pilot error, technical failure or terror act?"

Independent media outlet Slon interviewed experts in the field of aviation on the possible causes of the crash. The majority are saying that, apart from the obvious adverse weather conditions (a storm warning was declared in Rostov), there is a high probability that this was pilot error. The pilot decided not to go to an alternate airport, even after an unsuccessful attempt to land the airplane the first time. Besides this, the experts told Slon, the descent angle suggests that this accident was the result of pilot error – it being too steep for a normal approach angle.

The business publication RBC also discussed with experts the possible causes of the crash. The experts were especially surprised by the reluctance of the crew to divert to an alternate airport. Moreover, the aircraft was only half-full, which in bad weather and abnormally strong winds, could be fatal. With reference to the investigating authorities and the opinions of experts, a terrorist attack version has been ruled out, says the publication. 

The opposition Novaya Gazeta published an article by Galina Mursaliyeva, who asked a first class pilot with years of experience, Andrey Litvinov, for his take on this situation. Litvinov is also very surprised that the plane circled for two hours over the airport of Rostov after the first attempt to land failed. In his experience, if the weather does not change within 40-50 minutes, there is every reason to go to an alternate airport.

Litvinov urges people not to make any hasty conclusions, noting, however, that in this disaster, it is likely several negative factors came into play, including the terrible weather, a long difficult flight, flying at night, and possibly even some arrogance on part of the crew. 

Quotes of the week: 

Russian President Vladimir Putin on the Syrian withdrawal: “I believe that the task put before the defense ministry and Russian armed forces has, on the whole, been fulfilled. With the participation of the Russian military… the Syrian armed forces and patriotic Syrian forces have been able to achieve a fundamental turnaround in the fight against international terrorism and have taken the initiative in almost all respects.”

Syrian opposition group spokesman Salim al-Muslet, welcoming Russia’s withdrawal from Syria: “What really keep(s) Assad in power now… is the presence of the Russian forces there.”

Opposition politician Lev Schlossberg about the possible involvement of Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky in the corruption schemes of his subordinates: “I can hardly imagine a situation in which the minister of culture was not aware of what some of his subordinates, when it comes to the distribution finances, were doing. At least very least, Medinsky bears political responsibility for what happened, in a civilized state, a conscientious minister would have immediately resigned in this situation, taking responsibility for allowing this to go unnoticed.”

State Duma deputy Iosif Kobzon on the purported corruption in the Ministry of Culture: “Who was forcing [Russia’s top culture officials] to become involved in corruption scandals? It is the government, which refuses to allocate the proper resources needed for the maintenance of the monuments of history and culture of Russia. Only 0.74 percent of the budget goes to support culture, including the restoration and maintenance of monuments.”