Review of Russian media

Review of Russian media, November 20-30, 2018

Russia-Ukraine: escalation in the Kerch strait

As it could be easily seen in my previous reports, the Russian media have hardened their tone in Ukraine coverage over the last months. Also, in the days preceding the incident in the Kerch straits, news reports and talk shows on Russian state TV stations dealt extensively, if not exclusively with the situation in the neighbor country. The occasion for these discussions was the celebration in Ukraine of 5th anniversary of the “revolution of dignity”, or Euromaidan – which for most of the Russian experts was one of the greatest disasters that happened to this nation and its relations with Russia. Most of the speakers, except for a few Ukrainian pundits invited regularly to Russian political shows, characterized the current state of affairs in Ukraine as catastrophic, its political elite and elected officials as “clowns”, and its President as a puppet of the West unable to conduct independent policy.

The incident in the Kerch strait when three Ukrainian vessels were captured by Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) during an alleged attempt to pass through the strait, has triggered an immediate and virulent media response in Russia, with exception of non-state press. It is worth mentioning that a public statement by President Putin came only 3 days after the incident. State TV channels have accused Ukrainian president of a deliberate provocation against Russia and suggested two explanations of Poroshenko’s motives. According to them, first, internal objective was to manipulate the upcoming Presidential elections in Ukraine: a few hours after the incident Poroshenko declared martial law in Ukraine which could jeopardize free and democratic elections. Even though the Ukrainian Parliament limited the application of martial law to 10 out of 27 regions in Ukraine and shortened its duration from 60 to 30 days, Russian experts fear that now Poroshenko “can do whatever he wants”. Second objective was geopolitical: Ukrainian President desperately tried to attract the attention of his western allies to Russia’s aggression against his country. 

Trump-Putin summit in Argentina: no event?

A cautious and balanced first reaction of President Trump and of European countries to the incident was presented as a clear failure of the Ukrainian government in achieving western political support. Many experts emphasized the fatigue of the West with Russia-Ukraine conflict and their dissatisfaction with Ukraine’s actions, reflective, in their eyes, of President Trump willingness to continue dialogue with Russia. Since the celebration of the end of WWI in Paris two weeks ago, Russian media repeatedly strengthened the importance of this upcoming meeting and urgent topics to be discussed between the countries, first and foremost, INF treaty and situation in Syria. It should be mentioned that many experts expressed their hope that the meeting will finally take place during G-20 in Buenos Aires, and President’s Trump tweet yesterday on his decision to cancel the meeting was received with palpable disappointment in Russia. Some experts pointed to disaccords in US administration on Russia, and one of the more prominent among them, Vyacheslav Nikonov mentioned the “deep state” in America that is traditionally anti-Russian. An assessment that Ukraine intentionally escalated the situation a few days before the planned Trump-Putin summit in order to bring to its cancellation is shared by many in Russia.

Russophobia in the USA

One of the recurrent topics in Russian media is an unprecedented level of Russophobia in the USA, even when compared to the Cold War period. One of the popular political talk shows, “Bolshaya Igra” (‘Big game’) of the First channel, invited two American experts, Professor Stephen Cohen from Princeton University, and Katrina Vanden Heuvel, the editor of “The Nation” news website. Together with other experts they expressed their concern of anti-Russian mainstream views in American political and media elite. Opposite views don’t have an equal access to the media and experts, like Cohen himself, who express them are immediately being accused of being Russian puppets. Among the reasons for American liberal elite’s negative attitude towards Russia, according to the panel of experts, are Putin’s personal image as a strongman nationalist; the fact that Russia became a symbol of America’s declining role in the world; and liberal elite’s hatred of President Trump whose image is associated with Putin’s because of his admiration of Russian leader and claims for possible collusion.

“Magnitsky act” – new developments

Media reported on Russia’s Prosecutor General office’s conclusion that UK financier Bill Browder was behind the death of his own lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, in Russian prison. This decision was criticized by some non-state media, like TV channel Dozd, who accentuated the absurdity of such an accusation (Browder stood behind the lobbying efforts in US Congress to pass the Magnitsky act that was signed into law in 2012)

Detention conditions of Maria Butina in US jail

Maria Butina’s detention conditions, who is charged as acting in the US as an agent of foreign government, are covered and discussed on Russian media. Butina was held in isolation for 67 days, which according to Russian pundits is against international norms. In media there are calls for Russian government to assure protection of the Russian citizen and to demand from US authorities to 
alleviate Butina’s “inhumane” detention conditions.

Georgia elections

Presidential elections in Georgia were also discussed in Russian media, through the prism of its impact on Georgia’s relations with Russia. The cautious assessment of commentators and TV hosts is that the new President, Salome Zurabishvili will stick to a traditional pro-Western orientation of her country, but at the same will avoid provocations and open confrontation with Russia that could have been expected from some other presidential candidates.  

Review of Russian media – November 1-19, 2018

Ukraine, Ukraine, Ukraine…

The situation in Ukraine persists to be one of the most central topics in Russian media. Beyond the news reporting, it is the political talk shows on the state channels that amplify enormously the coverage of Ukraine. Thus, the ambition of the Ukrainian government to create Ukrainian Orthodox Church (that should become independent from the Russian Patriarchate, according to the Ukrainian government) drew harsh comments from Russian officials, experts and TV hosts in the talk shows “Evening with Vladimir Solovyov” on RTR, “Big game” (‘Bolshaya Igra’) and “Vremya pokazhet” (‘Time will tell’) on First Channel. Refusal of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to accept this plan as well as unwillingness of the Ukrainian president Poroshenko to meet with their representatives were presented as another proof of failure of Ukrainian government.

Elections in self-proclaimed republics of Donbass and Luhansk organized on November 11 (and condemned by the Unites States and EU) were hailed by the Russian media as an important step in preventing power vacuum in these republics after assassination of Alexander Zakharchenko, the leader of the Donetsk People's Republic (DNR) on August 31, 2018. According to Russian media, the elections were hold in democratic and well-ordered way and did not contradict the Minsk agreement. 

By contrast, the situation in Ukraine was characterized by the state media as one of chaos and humanitarian catastrophe. For example, media reported on “gas riots” in Ukraine caused by shortage in fuel in face of the coming winter season. The host of one of the most influential political talk shows, Vladimir Solovyov, openly called the Ukrainian government “Nazi regime”, continuing this line of accusation already mentioned in my previous report. While distinguishing between the “brotherly” Ukrainian people and the Ukrainian regime, state media virulently attacks the policies of Ukrainian government and President Poroshenko personally. The words that can best describe the attitude of Russian state media towards Ukrainian government are disgust, repulsion and nausea, the same kind of rhetoric that characterized the period of Euro Maidan (2013-2014).  

US: mid-term elections, controversial vote in UN, WWI commemoration in Paris and expectation for talks between the presidents

Mid-term elections in the United States were covered by all Russian media outlets, meticulously explaining its results, potential consequences for US policies, as well as a growing political polarization of American society. While the political struggle between president Trump and democrats generated some condescending remarks among a few commentators, the bottom line for many experts is clear – the US international politics will not dramatically change.

The state media drew multiple comparisons between Russiansuccessful diplomacy and weakening of American global leadership. For example, participation of the Russian president at ASEAN summit in Singapore and the absence of the American President (US was represented there by VP Pence) was a clear demonstration, from their point of view, of the new trend in the world politics where USA is losing its leading role. Also, many commentators on state TV channels accused US of an attempt to drive a wedge between Russian and China by intimidating Russia with possible economic takeover by China.

The US vote against the UN resolution condemning the glorification of Nazism was shown as another proof of immorality of American foreign policy. Ukraine and the US were the only countries who voted against the declaration, which explains, according to Russian state media, American support for Ukrainian “—Āriminal” regime.

If commemoration ceremony in Paris dedicated to the end of WWI was covered by local media, it was more interested in other aspects of this gathering. First, Russian media repeatedly reported that the US and Russian presidents didn’t hold a meeting in Paris at the request of the hosting country who e feared that their meeting will draw all the attention at the expense of a memorial ceremony. Second, it was the political fallout of the event in form of Trump’s tweets against French president and the tensionsbetween US and Europe on the question of independent European army. Russian media presents transatlantic tensions as an opportunity for Russian Federation to strengthen relations with Europe. Through this prism are also seen the American attempts to prevent from a Russian Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project to reach EU countries, a project which will be beneficial to the Europeans, according to Russian pundits.

Though the general tone of coverage is negative, it is important to mention that a short (10 minute) conversation between Putin and Pence in Singapore was reported more extensively than all other meetings of Russian president in ASEAN. Also, commentators and official representatives, including Kremlin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, stressed  the importance of a possible Putin-Trump meeting at G-20 summit in Argentina. According to them, among the issues to be discussed at the meeting are the US withdrawal from INF treaty, situation in Syria and Ukraine, and sanctions against Iran.

Situation in Russia

While state channels dedicate much time to international developments, non-state and liberal media report and discuss internal situation in Russia (see for example Moskovskiy Komsomoletz). Gubernatorial elections in 23 of the Russian regions that started in September 2018 and went on through second rounds of voting in November, exposed serious opposition in 4 regions (Primorye, Vladimir oblast’, Khabarovsk region and Khakassia) to candidates “parashuting” by the central government. In these regions the candidates from opposition parties – Liberal Democratic party of Russia (LDPR) and Communist party of Russian Federation (CPRF) - gained massive support of the population. Both LDPR and CPRF are considered loyal opposition and no major political change is expected to follow. However, analysts qualified this situation as crisis between the central government and the regions, where local population chose protest voting against any central government candidates. The discontent of the population, according to this explanation, was generated by the decision to raise the age of retreat in July and a general socio-economic situation in Russia. (More detailed analysis of regional elections will appear in a separate post later this month).

Speaking of economic conditions, the non-state media followed closely the falling prices of oil and its impact on Russian economy based on energy sector.

The state media also discussed some internal challenges, among them the malfunctioning of bureaucratic apparatus. State TV channels tend to accuse local authorities and expose their incompetence, lack of professionalism and indifference to the needs of people. At the same time, they emphasize personal involvement of president Putin in lives of ordinary citizen (watch the last edition of a new program “Moscow, Kremlin, Putin”). 

One of the narratives that is strongly promoted on the state TV stations is a rethinking and reassessment of the events in recent Russian history. Thus, the period of the 90s is being labeled as one of the worst periods in it, when “traitors” and “thieves” usurped the power in the country with the sole purpose of enriching themselves with disastrous consequences for ordinary citizens. Some talk shows used as a reference and a starting point for discussions the new TV serial by Sergei Ursuliak “Nenastye” (‘Bad weather’) that was released last week on RTR and portrays the terrible realities of this period.

At the same time the Soviet period, while being mildly criticized, is seen, in retrospective, as a more positive time for the Russian people. The soviet war in Afghanistan is also being re-evaluated giving way to a different narrative that simultaneously glorifies the Russian soldiers who successfully fulfilled their military mission and puts blame on the Soviet and a successive Russian government in the 90s for betrayal of national interest and of Afghan allies. For many experts, the lessons of Afghanistan were learned and allowed success of Russian engagement in the Syrian war.

The tone regarding Russian successes on the international arena sounds a bit self-congratulatory: hosts and experts praise Russia for saving its ally in Syria; for strengthening relations with allies and reaching out to old enemies; for crafting Russia’s image as predictable and solid partner. Some TV presenters and experts suggest that Russia should expand its international activities, for example, engage in mediating theIsraeli-Palestinian and other regional conflicts, as it is the only country whohas good relations with all regional players. This attitude goes hand in hand with gloating at US mistakes and embarrassing situations, like in the case of Khashoggi affair.

Thank you for your interest in the blog. Have a great day.

Review of Russian media - October 21-31, 2018

US withdrawal from the INF Treaty and the threat of a new arms race

That was the major topic that was discussed on Russian TV-channels. “Pervyi kanal” (‘First channel’)  and RTR-Planeta, two largest and most influential TV stations in Russia, dedicated hours of reporting, commentary and political talk-shows to President Trump’s announcement on US withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. The visit of John Bolton to Moscow and his meetings with Russian leadership to discuss this decision got the title “The bad news” at Dmitry Kiselyov’s weekly program “Vesti nedeli” (October 28)

The central narrative and arguments presented on these two state channels, as well as in many newspapers, go like this: Russia believes this agreement is an important part of the global security architecture. The agreement may have some problems that should be fixed and some Russian officials, like Sergei Ivanov, former Russian Defense Minister, expressed in the past their willingness to modify it. However, President Trump’s announcement came without any consultation and was based on unverified accusations on Russian violations of the treaty. Many Russian experts have warned that with American withdrawal from INF, announced 16 years after US withdrawal from ABM treaty, the arms control system is on the brink of total collapse. The American counter argument about the need to deal with new challenges emerging from China and other countries was rejected by many experts who reminded that the same argument was promoted by the Obama administration before deployment of the US missiles in Central Europe, supposedly against Iranian threat.

Beyond the factual arguments, the tone of the discussions on these channels was somber and extremely alarmist. A few participants, like Vladimir Zhirinovsky, head of LDPR party and a veteran populist leader, talked about fast approaching nuclear war between Russia and USA. Other experts agree that there is a real urgency and a threat on Russia and called on Russian leadership to respond to American decision by preparing itself to a war. It should be noted that the US perspective was also presented on these talk-shows by American experts of Russian origin - Nicolai Zlobin (on RTR) and Dimitry Simes (On Pervyi kanal). But the attitude of most of the speakers was openly negative to the US (which is a common feature for majority of the Russian media and political elite - see below more on that).

Non-state TV channel, Dozhd (TV Rain), who regularly criticizes Russian government, also dealt with this issue but in a different tonality. While not supporting American decision to withdraw from INT, it emphasized the need for a realistic position that will consider Russia’s conditions and will avoid a new arms race that will be detrimental to Russia’s economy. 

Russia – Ukraine: confrontation around status of Ukrainian Orthodox Church

The latest development that have caused a wave of indignation in Russian media was the pronouncement of the Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew in favor of the autocephaly of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. This decision was received as another affront of the Ukrainian leadership that was immediately accused by Russian officials in instigating religious war and using religious war for political confrontation. Speakers, as well as hosts on Russian talk-shows don’t bother to hide their openly hostile attitude towards Ukrainian government and politics which is applauded by the audience in studio (“Vecher with Vladimir Solovyov”). Ukrainian government is being accused of antisemitism and support of Nazi-style Ukrainian nationalist organizations. Comparisons to Nazi Germany don’t stop there. Thus, one of the speakers, Yaakov Kedmi from Israel, called Kurt Volcker, US special representative to Ukraine, “the Gauleiter of Ukraine”. 
According to the Russian media, US administration stands behind this pronouncement of Bartholomew, as part of its policy of weakening Russia.

Other topics

- NATO’s Arctic drill, “Trident Juncture 18”, with 50,000 troops, 140 aircraft and 70 ship simulating a response to an attack from the north was widely covered by the media. In this context, Russian military observers and experts warned about unprecedented military activity along the Russian borders since the end of the Cold war. This opinion is shared by both state-controlled and independent media (Pervyi kanal, Ezhednevnyi zurnal news site). However, unlike state media, independent newspapers tend to accuse Russian policies for tensions between NATO and Russia.

- On October 31 in Moscow started the 6th World Congress of compatriots living abroad – an effort by the Russian government to strengthen relations with Russian diaspora around the globe. According to the Russian media there are about 127 million people who belong to the “Russian world” (which is almost equal to the population of Russia today, 141 million people). The talk-show “Bolshaya Igra” (‘The big game”) discussed the major problem of the Russian diaspora today – Russophobia, that is being actively promoted in media and by political elites in many countries, but mostly – in Ukraine, USA and Baltic states.

- The tensions between Chechnya and Ingushetia, two autonomous republics in Northern Caucasus, was reported primarily by non-state media: TV-Rain, Kommersant, Novaya Gazeta, Echo Moskvy and others. The reports focused on ongoing mass protests in Ingushetia against the agreement on swap of territories between the republics signed by their respective leaders, Ramzan Kadyrov and Yunus-bek Evkurov

 - Civil war in America is imminent, that was a headline in numerous newspapers and TV channels in Russia last week. The media cited an article by Niall Fergusson who discussed this possibility in The Globe and Mail (the name of Fergusson's article is “The US nears its boiling point”).

- The explosive devices sent by Cesar Sayoc to American prominent public figures and CNN have been widely reported and discussed as well. In the talk show “Vremay pokazhet” on the First channel, the hosts ridiculed the American attitudes to Russia by repeatingly asking “When they will accuse Russia for being behind this attack also?” 

- The decision by NBC to fire Megyn Kelly over racist remarks was also widely reported in Russia. This story got an unexpected twist when Kirill Kleimenov, the host of the news edition of the First channel invited Kelly to be his co-host, and called her “our favorite American talk show host”.

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