Russian media roundup: The alleged Ukrainian provocations in Crimea, the appointment of a new head of the Presidential Administration, and the meeting between Russian and Turkish presidents in St. Petersburg all made headlines last week.

Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko, right, and Oleksandr Turchynov, Head of the country's Defense and Security Council, chair the Council extraordinary session in Kiev, Aug. 11, 2016. Photo: Pool Photo via AP

The Kremlin continues to surprise the media with unexpected personnel changes and decisions. The massive political reshuffle two weeks ago has now been followed by the Aug. 12 resignation of Sergei Ivanov, who had headed the Presidential Administration for nearly five years. In his place, Putin appointed Ivanov’s deputy, Anton Vaino.

On Aug. 9, Vladimir Putin also met with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan in St. Petersburg. Since the end of last year, when the Turkish Air Force shot down a Russian Su-24 that was flying on a combat mission in Syria, bilateral relations between the two countries have been strained. With the visit to Russia, the Turkish president may be preparing the way for a thaw in relations.

New signs of instability in Crimea

On Aug. 7 and 8, Russia reported two suspicious incidents that took place in Crimea. According to the FSB, Ukrainian saboteurs were preparing terrorist acts on the territory of Crimea. On the night of Aug. 7, a skirmish broke out with the saboteurs near the town of Armyansk, which resulted in the deaths of one FSB officer and two commandos. The remaining saboteurs were detained for interrogation, and these confessed that they were planning to set off several explosions at Crimean resorts, in order to “kill the tourism sector.”

A second group of saboteurs was arrested on the night of Aug. 8. The FSB seized explosives, ammunition, grenades, guns and mines. Among the detainees, there were both Ukrainian and Russian citizens. The Ukrainian side denies any involvement in the Crimean events, referring to the FSB claims as “fantasies.”

Understandably, the two incidents have led to the worsening of relations between Russia and Ukraine. Both sides intensified their military presence near their respective borders, with the Russian side calling the “Normandy Process” hopeless now, having been sabotaged by Kiev.  

The independent media outlet Slon published an article by opposition journalist Oleg Kashin. The journalist noted that the most dangerous thing in this tangled story of events in Crimea, is that the official version — which is very doubtful as it is — has involved officials at the highest level of government.

President Putin personally believes the version of sabotage and terrorist acts on the part of Ukraine, and therefore, Russia has quite deliberately entered on a path of aggravating relations with its neighbor. For now, it is not obvious why this is being done, and why the Normandy peace talks are being buried. The most likely explanation is that the “threat against Crimea” will be used for domestic purposes. For example, for a further tightening of the screws and the adoption of new restrictive laws.

The opposition Novaya Gazeta categorically does not believe the official version of events, calling it absurd. There are too many incongruities in the actions of the so-called subversives. Most likely, both parties are mixed up in this — the Russian security forces have decided to carry out a provocation, and to implement it using Ukrainian and pro-Ukrainian activists.

In this case, the provocation clearly did not go according to script, because they could not avoid victims. Now, Russia is making the most out of this story, blaming not only Kiev, but also alluding to the long arm of the U.S. State Department, which might have played a role.

The pro-government newspaper Izvestia echoed the official version, and believes that the Ukrainian authorities are becoming less predictable. Kiev needed a diversion in Crimea, not only to destabilize and disrupt the tourist season, but also to return Crimea into a state of isolation.

From Ukraine’s perspective, there have been signs — such as the visits of foreign delegations from France and Italy — that the situation might be normalizing in Crimea and that was deemed unacceptable. The newspaper warns that Russia must give a hard, but very clear response, and be prepared for new provocations.

The departure of Putin’s long-time chief of staff

After his surprise resignation, Ivanov will now become the special representative of the president on environmental protection activities, the environment and transport. Understandably, Russian journalists tried to understand what was behind this unexpected change in the high-ranking position.

Quoting Russian political scientists, the business newspaper Vedomosti emphasized that Vaino is the most suitable candidate for the post of head of the Presidential Administration. Vaino is neither associated with the security forces, nor with any political “clans” within the Kremlin. He is a pure apparatchik and an effective manager and functionary, who is tactful and does not enjoy getting involved in intrigue. The newspaper’s sources noted that the new head of the Presidential Administration is “Putin’s personal man,” not associated with any groupings of the Russian elite.

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The independent media outlet Slon calls the outgoing Sergei Ivanov “one of the worst managers on Putin’s team.” The publication lists numerous failures of Ivanov in different positions, explaining that the president put up with Ivanov’s shortcomings because he has known him from their early days in the KGB, and has always considered him as a close associate. Perhaps the President’s patience had snapped, and this important position was given to Vaino, a meticulous executive who served for many years as Putin’s protocol officer.

Slon also suggests that removing Ivanov is perhaps the signal of the beginning of a new political system, and a new period of turbulence and transition. Maybe Putin is preparing for early presidential elections and possibly seeking to transfer power to his successor as effectively as possible.

The pro-government newspaper Izvestia, on the contrary, sees nothing new or significant in this change in the head of the Presidential Administration. Experts interviewed by the publication emphasize that the resignation of Ivanov was in the works for a long time, and the choice of his deputy to take over this position was a logical and understandable step.  No major changes are expected in the course of the Presidential Administration. As the experts point out, the high level of professionalism and extensive experience of Vaino should help him in the difficult work as the head of the Presidential Administration.

Putin’s meeting with Erdogan in St. Petersburg

In St. Petersburg, the presidents of Russia and Turkey discussed mainly economic issues, including the revival of the “Turkish Stream” gas pipeline project. However, Russian journalists believe that big political issues were also on the agenda.

The Internet website of the Echo of Moscow radio station published an article by commentator Anton Orekh, who believes that the heads of two isolationist states were brought together in St. Petersburg. Russia and Turkey are linked not only by the authoritarian inclinations of their respective presidents, but also by the growing isolation of the two powers from the EU and the United States.

For Putin, as well as for Erdogan, Russian-Turkish rapprochement becomes another tool to apply pressure on the West, which has been endlessly pressing both countries on issues of human rights and political freedoms. Both politicians have something to discuss, but how long this latest friendship between the two “hooligans” will last this time is impossible to predict.

The popular tabloid Moskovsky Komsomolets believes that Russian-Turkish relations have been smoothed over by pragmatism and economic interests. Moscow and Ankara have decided to put aside their complicated geopolitical differences. Erdogan and Putin might be divided by their visions of the world and the fate of Syria, but objective economic and trade interests require cooperation between the two countries.

In this sense, even if Russia and Turkey become friend only “temporarily,” it is still a good thing, because the sanctions that Russia imposed against Turkey after the Su-24 was shot down hit domestic consumers and importers hard. These importers had to massively replace their suppliers, which led to a significant increase in prices. Now, this current reconciliation offers hope for the resumption of normal economic and trade cooperation, which is so necessary to both countries.

The business newspaper Kommersant underlines that, for now, expressing optimism about the future of Russian-Turkish relations is premature. Russia and Turkey have extensive “baggage” in the form of unresolved contradictions, which go far beyond the controversy about the fate of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime. The Kurds, the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, Ankara’s political expansion in the post-Soviet space, as well as a profound crisis of confidence  these issues are just the tip of the iceberg.

In such circumstances, it’s impossible to speak about any special or strategic partnership, no matter what the two countries might say. Nevertheless, on the whole, the meeting can be considered as at least a step forward.

Quotes of the week:

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, speaking in St. Petersburg: “I am certain that… a new page in Russian-Turkish relations will be opened.”

Vladimir Putin on the alleged terrorist incidents in Crimea: “I think it is obvious to everyone that the current Kiev authorities are not looking for ways to solve problems with talks, and have decided to adopt terror tactics. This is a very disturbing development.”

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on the events in Crimea: “These are nothing by fantasies — only a pretext for more military threats against Ukraine.”