Media Roundup: Russian media focused on the new law on undesirable foreign NGOs, the fate of Russian military prisoners in Ukraine and Islamic State’s claims that it obtained nuclear weapons.

Human Rights Watch might be included in the list of "undesired" organization, in accordance with a new law. Pictured: Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch. Photo: AP

Last week, the Russian media focused on a highly controversial law that makes it harder for foreign NGOs to operate in Russia. In addition, the media pondered the fate of Russian military prisoners in Ukraine and analyzed the implications of recent political activities in Ukraine that appear to close the door on any Russian-Ukrainian cooperation in the near future.

Russia’s new Law on Undesirable Organizations

Last week Russian President Vladimir Putin signed the so-called Law on Undesirable Organizations, which regulates the activities of foreign organizations in Russia.

Human rights activists believe that this law will put an end not only to the active work of foreign organizations in Russia but also to freedom of speech in the country. The law has generated the greatest interest among opposition and business papers.

Business paper Vedomosti published an opinion from political scientist Ekaterina Shulmann, who believes that, in reality, the law is not aimed at foreign organizations. Rather, she says, the law is directed against Russian citizens. The Russian government is operating on the logic of “defeat one’s own so that they fear others.”

Independent Slon expressed its outrage concerning the law, noting that it is aimed against the Russian opposition and also voluntarism (for example, closing “undesirable” organizations without courts or investigation). Slon experts emphasize the weak legal elaboration of the law, which provides almost unlimited room for wrongful and malicious use.

Opposition TV channel Dozhd reports the response from European and American political circles about the passage of the law, in particular, discussion within the U.S.

Russian military prisoners in Ukraine

Some time ago, Ukraine officially announced that the State Security Service of Ukraine were holding two Russian citizens who had been allegedly fighting on the side of pro-Russian fighters in Donbas.

The Russians are being shown as conclusive evidence of Russia’s involvement in the conflict in Ukraine. In the meanwhile, opposition and independent media is concerned about the fate of Russian citizens.

Opposition Novaya Gazeta published a large amount of material as a Novaya Gazeta reporter attempted to get help for the prisoners at the Russian embassy and then at the Russian consulate in Kiev, but his attempts unsuccessful.

The Echo of Moscow radio station website published information on the Russians’ interrogation. The soldiers talked about belonging to the Russian armed forces and also how they ended up in the war. Kiev is calling this evidence of Russian forces in Ukraine. Furthermore, Echo of Moscow published an interview with the wife of one of the prisoners. She believes that her husband has been tortured and forced to confess on camera.

Opposition Dozhd TV channel also discussed the fate of the prisoners. The TV channel observed that Russian representatives in Kiev had not provided any assistance to the prisoners of war. Furthermore, Dozhd contradicts the announcements made by the Russian Ministry of Defense that the prisoners of war left the Russian army a long time ago.

Ukraine rejects military cooperation with Russia

Last week the Ukrainian parliament denounced the 1993 treaty between Ukraine and Russia on military cooperation. Among other things, the denunciation will affect Russian Federation peacekeeping contingents in Transdniester, whose transit routes go through Ukrainian territory.

The populist Moskovsky Komsomolets points out that such actions by Ukraine could undermine the country’s authority as a participant in the peace process regulating the Transdniester conflict.

Pro-government Rossiyskaya Gazeta states that the “Ukrainian parliament is churning out anti-Russian laws” and that this decision is drawing a line through many years of military and technical cooperation between the two countries.

Business paper Kommersant publishes the opinion of various military specialists, noting that essentially the same denunciation has been in place since spring 2014.

ISIS and nuclear weapons

Information leaked to the media last week that  the militants of the Isamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) might gain access to nuclear weapons resulted in a great deal of interest in the Russian media.

Business paper Kommersant named possible channels for acquiring weapons through Pakistan, however, it observes that rumors of possible acquisition of technology may simply be an attempt by ISIS to wreak havoc and terrify people, after all, so far there is no confirmation of this.

Echo of Moscow radio station’s website cites Elena Suponina, an expert from the Institute for Strategic Studies, stating that ISIS’s announcement is a bluff and that terrorists cannot acquire nuclear weapons.

Populist Moskovsky Komsomolets cites Russian and foreign specialists who observe that ISIS would have difficulty getting hold of devices for delivering nuclear weapons and, in the event of them acquiring nuclear weapons, one should expect “dirty bombs” using normal explosive detonations with nuclear material.

ISIS and Palmyra

ISIS became one of the main newsmakers this week, not only due to the bold announcements about possibly acquiring nuclear weapons, but also because the Islamic State has captured the city of Palmyra in Syria by force.

Palmyra is a city in Syria between Damascus and the Euphrates River and is a UNESCO cultural heritage site. It has some of the best preserved examples of ancient Roman architecture. ISIS militants, sadly famous for their barbaric treatment of non-Islamic heritage, captured Palmyra last week and threatened to destroy the city to its very foundations.

Business newspaper Kommersant published a long, analytical article about the state of the Syrian regime, examining several possibilities for the development of events, including the deliberate relinquishment by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of territory occupied by the Islamists and the potential for turning Syria into a tiny state centered around Damascus. One way or another, the capture of Palmyra, observe Kommersant experts, is the most serious blow to government forces during the four-year war.

Pro-government Channel One reported that Syrian forces, nonetheless managed to evacuate some of the treasures from Palmyra; however, the majority of the treasures comprise the ruins of the ancient city and they cannot be transported. Channel One expects that these architectural monuments will be barbarically destroyed, citing militant behavior in Iraq earlier this year.

Russia takes second place at Eurovision

Russia has always had a reverent attitude to the European song competition, and the current Eurovision competition in Vienna is no exception. Practically all Russian media reported on Russia’s Polina Gagarina taking second place, while simultaneously discussing the political aspects of Europe’s main musical competition.

Moskovsky Komsomolets believes that it is good news that Gagarina took second place, after all the “insidious” Europeans might have been able to arrange things so that, in the midst of a crisis, Russia would have to hold Eurovision at its own expense next year.

Official Rossiyskaya Gazeta believes that politics always affect the Eurovision results, however, this time European viewers remained distant from politics “voting with their hearts,” feeling in its entirety the wonderful message Gagarina gave the audience with her song “A Million Voices.”

Business paper Vedomosti observed, commenting on Gagarina’s second place finish that this year, in contrast to last year, competitors focused not on shocking appearance or complicated dance numbers, but on the vocal components and ideas making up the song.

Selected quotes of the week

Irina Bokova, UNESCO head, on Palmyra: “Any destruction in Palmyra will not simply be considered a war crime. It will be a colossal loss to humanity. Unfortunately, over the past two years we have already witnessed destruction in the city. Palmyra has become a military camp.”

Official statement from the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Palmyra: “As regards to Palmyra, there is an increasingly serious concern for the fate of objects in the city which are of world cultural and historical importance, and are justifiable items of pride for Syrians. Their destruction would be seen as an unforgivable act of vandalism, a violation of human values and an insult to civilization.”

Human rights activist Lyudmila Alexeyeva on the Law on Undesirable Organizations: “I am certain that this law is aimed against organizations which are not included in the Law on Foreign Agents. I hope that this will not affect the Red Cross - it is a very quiet organization. But the obligations of Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International include monitoring human rights and freedoms, they often produce critical reports and many do not like this.”

Captured Russian soldier Evgeny Erofeev on how he ended up in Donbas: “I don’t even know how to put it… [it was] a tour of duty. I’m an unimportant person. They instructed me, I came.”