In this sense there was a very eloquent report by Vladimir Golstein published by Russia Insider. The author harshly criticises European countries, considered guilty of having an attitude that is a priori hostile to Moscow and excessively dependent on American directives. This prejudice undermines an ability to fully understand the evolution of political events in Ukraine.
There is an even harsher comment from Oleg Tsarev, speaker of the parliament for the Republics of Donetsk and Lugansk, published by the Echo Moskvy. The article severely criticises the cynicism of European and American politicians, the real architects of the war in Ukraine that has deprived the country not only of peace but also of the possibility to “sign multi-million dollar contracts with Moscow should Kiev have joined the Eurasian Union.” In opposition to these opinions there are articles more critical of the policies adopted by the Kremlin and the manner in which this crisis is presented to the Russian public. In a very interesting article by Igor Jakovenko published in the Ezhedevnij Zhurnal, the author attacks the bias (described as “mediaphrenia”) with which news is broadcast in Russia, emphasising how the Kremlin’s communications strategy is based on the three fundamental pillars; politics, journalists and experts.
In Eho Moskvy, Vladimir Ryzhkov criticises the levels of hysteria that Kremlin propaganda has spread among the population, with paranoid hatred for the external enemy preventing Russia’s real problems from being addressed. A strategy that is, however, succeeding, as confirmed by the outcome of a survey by the “Public Opinion Foundation” (Фонд Общественное Мнение -ФОМ). The survey reveals that in February Putin’s approval rating was at an all-time high of 85%. There are four events linked to the Ukrainian crisis that have dominated the Russian media debate; the Munich Security Conference, the Normandy Quartet negotiations in Minsk, the anniversary of the Euro-Majdan protests that marked the beginning of the revolution (or according to some the “civil war”), and the tragic murder of Boris Nemtsov.
The Munich International Security Conference
The majority of the Russian media has supported the strong positions assumed by Putin and by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov concerning the management of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. Articles by Kira Latuchina and Evgenij Shestakov emphasise how Russia cannot accept to live in conditions of “semi-occupation” by Western states in neighbouring countries. The West must therefore choose whether or not the organisation of European security should include Moscow or not.
Minsk 2.0 winners and losers
A great deal of attention was obviously paid to peace talks held in Minsk between the representatives of the “Normandy Quartet”(France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine). Most Russian newspapers interpreted the agreement reached as a diplomatic victory for the Kremlin – and for pro-Russian separatists – and as a defeat for Kiev and Poroshenko. Leonid Radzichovskij emphasised in the Rossijskaja Gazeta how Putin had managed to reach a good compromise on the Donbass’ status. Moscow in fact ensured that Kiev accepted at last to discuss the state’s federalisation. Kirill Benediktov was rather more sceptical in Izvestija, emphasising how this agreement still contains a number of omissions, in particular references to control over the “ceasefire area”. The author’s warning concerns the “war party” in Kiev, whose intention it is to play for time in order to rearm and use the demilitarised zone to reconquer “Novorossija” with help from the United States.
Along the same lines, previously quoted Tsarev, who, based on the assumption that Kiev is a puppet in Washington’s hands and that Obama’s hidden objective is to weaken Moscow with an economic war leading to a “coloured revolution”, believes that Ukraine needs to return to be a neutral country in which Russian-speaking people can decide their own fate, joining Russia or being part of a Federal Ukraine. Vasilij Kashin, an expert from the “Centre for Strategic Analysis” wrote in RosBusinesKonsulting that Putin and the pro-Russians have achieved a series of important results, among them the fact that the European Union will have to ensure that Kiev keeps the promises it has made regarding constitutional reform. Euro-Atlantic strategy, on the basis of which sanctions and an economic crisis would ensure Moscow would change its mind, has turned out to be a failure.In addition to these mainstream positions there is, however, no lack of critical opinions. The news desk of the Meduza platform analyses in a rather disillusioned way a series of issues not resolved by the Minsk negotiations. In primis the subject of the status of the Donbass. Kiev has committed to start a debate on the country’s federalisation, but this must necessarily take place through constitutional reform. This, however, envisages the rather unrealistic scenario of a two-thirds majority in Kiev’s Verchovna Rada. Andreij Babitskij shares this opinion, emphasising in Vedomosti how the agreement is excessively favourable to Moscow. Putin has ensured that Moscow is not officially acknowledged as being part of the conflict, in spite of an article published by the Novaja Gazeta that revealed a Kremlin plan to annex Ukraine’s Eastern regions. The Minsk agreement put the burden all on Kiev, but it remains unclear how the national institutions can regain control of the East since the militias will continue to manage regional courts. There is also the interesting opinion expressed by former Russian Prime Minister Michajl Kasjanov, leader of the Russian Republican Party – People’s Freedom Party (RPR-PARNAS), in the Echo Moskvy. The author believes that the agreement only results in Kiev’s loss of sovereignty, with a promise to return to Ukrainian territorial integrity only after the legalisation of the status quo in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions. In other words, the author states that peace talks are an “excessive punishment” inflicted on the Ukrainian people’s desire to live in freedom and autonomously determine their own fate.
There are also journalists who consider the agreement as positive for both parties involved. Sergej Aleksashenko wrote in the Echo Moskvy that he believes that both Putin and Poroshenko have reason to be optimistic. Putin has in fact avoided a new wave of economic sanctions against a country with an economy showing clear signs of a crisis. Poroshenko instead will benefit from the new agreement with the International Monetary Fund, which will help the government avoid economic collapse. Finally, there is an article that is very critical of the government, written by Boris Vishnevskij (a member of the opposition party “Jabloko”). According to this author, Putin did not obtain everything he wanted from the Minsk accord, since Ukraine has not become a Russian “vassal state.” The author attacks the Kremlin’s patriotic and nationalist ideology, which has damaged the country’s international credibility transforming it into a “rogue state” and bringing the entire economy to its knees.
The Euro-Majdan protests’ anniversary
Finally, a great deal of attention was paid to the anniversary of the Euro-Majdan protests. Most newspapers reported a negative assessment of the past year in Ukraine. The famous English-language (pro-government) Russian website Russia Today emphasised how reality had betrayed the expectations of Ukrainians. The GDP fell 6% over the past year, with inflation reaching 27% and unemployment rising to 9%. The economic war waged against the Russian Federation resulted in trade with Moscow collapsing, with an estimated loss of $160 billion. Furthermore, the IMF’s recent decision to provide Kiev with additional financing will not have positive effects on the national economy, but may even lead to a 280% increase in bills to be paid. In the Rossijskaja Gazeta, Rostislav Ishenko harshly attacked President Poroshenko. The author does not exclude that there may be a “new Majdan”. Poroshenko is a weak president who does not have the army’s support and finds it hard to contain the centrifugal forces in some of the nation’s regions. Furthermore, the president is surrounded by “hawks” and “pro-Nazi” parties who disapprove of the manner in which Ukraine silently accepted the conditions imposed by the Minsk peace talks. This author also said that the conflict is destined to continue, because Kiev and the separatists have totally opposing visions regarding Ukraine’s future political status. Kiev cannot accept federalisation because its government is based on rigid centralisation and “terror policies.”
Further harsh criticism was expressed by Andrew Korybko in Sputnik International. Euro-Majdan is described as a “coup d’état” that allowed a pro-Western government to come to power illegally to the detriment of democracy. The article underlines how the destabilising elements that resulted in Yanukovich fleeing are still present and risk taking the country to total dissolution. Unlike the “coloured revolutions” in the early years of the 21st century, Euro-Majdan distinguished itself from the very start for its violence, especially due to the presence of extreme right-wing and pro-Nazi movements that were then represented in national institutions, first among them the “Pravij Sektor” Party. The war in the Donbass is the symbol of the Russian-speaking population against an illegal authority and the will to defend the principle of “self-determination.” In other words, Euro-Majdan betrayed those “freedom of thought” and “democracy” ideals, while there is the risk that extremist forces will organise another coup and gain the upper hand. Leonid Kanfer does not agree and in the Echo Moskvy emphasises that Euro-Majdan marked a historical phase for the country, painful, but essential for embarking upon a process of change. The alternative – still dominant in countries such as Russia and Byelorussia – is “stagnant conservativism”, in which the political elites use an “external enemy” to project the people’s dissatisfaction with other issues, using them as real “soldiers” for a war in which there is nothing at stake.
In the meantime, on February 21st, an “Anti-Majdan” movement protest was organised in Moscow with an estimated over 30,000 people taking part in the march. Shouting “Не забудем, не простим” (“We do not forget, we do not forgive”), the participants protested against the idea that Russian could be involved in a bloody uprising such as the one in Ukraine. It is obvious that in addition to enthusiastic reports about this event, there was no lack of criticism, including an allegation published by the Novaja Gazeta, according to which, many of the partecipants had been paid by Kremlin authorities.
February ended with the tragic news of Boris Nemtsov’s assassination. In his blog on Echo Moskvy and from the pages of the Novaja Gazeta, Nemtsov had never hesitated when criticising Putin about the Kremlin’s interference in the war in Ukraine. Nemtsov had been on the front lines in organising the protest – then cancelled – called “Весна” (Spring), opposing the economic crisis and the war in the Donbass. His death caused various reactions in the press. More conservative newspapers, such as Izvestija, have followed the Kremlin’s official position, which describes the murder a “provocation” – and often added critical analyses of Nemtsov’s political past. Ashkerov and Prokhanov, for example, spoke of how the Russian politician (described as a “post-Soviet Hamlet”) belonged to the group of people (El’cin, Gajdar) who during the Nineties destroyed Russia politically and financially. On the other side of the barricades, Sergej Aleksashenko says that Nemtsov was assassinated because he opposed the vertical and nepotistic political system created by Putin, “a system not capable of discussing matters with its enemies, but only of eliminating them.” Muratov and Ganapolskij believe that Russia has now fallen into an abyss of collective hysteria as in the days of the Soviet Union, and that the idea of a “surrounded fortress” simply fuels extremism and hatred of all forms of dissent. Finally, there is a very interesting article by Aleksandr Baunov from the Carnegie Moscow Centre, in which the author states that Nemtsov’s murder is a sign of the degradation of the Kremlin’s authoritarianism, whose propaganda portrays opponents as members of a “fifth column” the only objective of which is to destroy the country and its fundamental values.
Translation by Francesca Simmons