Russian media roundup: The death of Russia’s UN ambassador, the Munich International Security Conference and President Vladimir Putin’s decree on the acceptance of Donbas passports made headlines.

Russia's UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, center, listens during a news conference after a private UN Security Council meeting in February, 2014. Photo: AP

The Feb. 17-19 Munich International Security Conference was the most talked about event of the past week in the Russian media. At nearly the same time, Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a controversial decree to recognize Donbas passports. This move further complicates the decision of what to do about Eastern Ukraine and attracted media attention. Finally, on Feb. 20, the Russian journalists covered the unexpected death of Russia's ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, who died at age 64 in a hospital in New York after suddenly falling ill.

Russia's UN ambassador passes away

Vitaly Churkin was a veteran diplomat known for his tenacity and rigor in defending his country’s national interests. The event shocked Russia, at least because his legendary figure was associated with the entire epoch of a new, more confident Russia on the world stage.

He had been Russia's UN envoy since 2006 and was seen as a great and highly respected advocate of Moscow’s national interests. He was respected by all for his integrity and strong will. Churkin was the longest-serving member of the UN Security Council. As the Associated Press reported, his diplomatic colleagues from around the world “mourned Churkin as a powerful and passionate voice for his nation, with both a deep knowledge of diplomacy and a large and colorful personality.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin praised Churkin's professionalism and diplomacy, according to the state news agency TASS. "The president was grieved to learn about the death of Vitaly Churkin," spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

Many Russian mainstream media included a quote from Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, who described Churkin as an outstanding diplomat, “an extraordinary person” and “a bright man.”

His death — the day before his 65th birthday — astounded UN officials, including former U.S. Ambassador to UN Samantha Power. She described him as a "diplomatic maestro and deeply caring man" on her Twitter page. Churkin had done his utmost to alleviate the tensions between the U.S. and Russia, according to her.

Likewise, the current U.S. ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, characterized him as a "gracious colleague." "We did not always see things the same way, but he unquestionably advocated his country's positions with great skill," she said.

Meanwhile, business daily Kommersant published a column by Sergei Strokan, who describes Churkin as “one of the brightest and the most charismatic” Russian diplomats. To quote Strokan, Russia’s UN envoy had never failed to convincingly tell Russia’s side of the story during the debates at the UN Security Council. The fact that legendary diplomat Henry Kissinger sent birthday wishes to Churkin shortly before his death indicates that the Russian envoy to the U.S. was highly respected among his foreign colleagues.  

“He was among the few people who did understand,” wrote Strokan. “He did understand what has to be done to prevent the world from going crazy. And we — not only diplomats — should follow his example for the sake of the survival of our world.”

At the same time, RBC, a daily newspaper, published Churkin’s most remarkable and toughest quotes about Crimea, Syria, Ukraine, the MH17 tragedy, the U.S. and other foreign policy events. In a nutshell, all these quotes reflect the official position of the Russian authorities. In one of his statements, he denounced the U.S. for its attempts to lecture other countries, because, according to him, Washington doesn’t have the moral right to preach and teach other nations.

Meduza, an independent media outlet, gives voice to Carnegie Moscow Center’s experts Alexander Baunov. He compares Churkin with a speaker from the Russian party in the global parliament — the United Nations. According to Baunov, Russia’s UN envoy had a way with rhetoric and Russia lost a unique and gifted man. At the same time, Churkin was a diplomat of the Boris Yeltsin era, when Russia tried to establish close ties with the West.

“Churkin worked well both for Boris Yeltsin’s democratic Russia and the Russia that subsequently became authoritarian,” Baunov concluded. “He would work well in the same manner for the Russia that would decide to restore freedoms and relations with the West”

Munich conference

With increasing tensions in Eastern Ukraine, Russia’s attempts to reclaim its regional influence, the aftermath of Brexit, Donald Trump’s uncertain foreign policy moves and ongoing turbulence in the Middle East, participants of the Feb. 17-19 Munich International Security Conference were discussing global challenges. “Post-Truth, Post-West, Post-Order?” read the title of the Munich Security Report. The authors of this report describe the current situation as “a geopolitical recession,” implying that the Western-centric world order might come to an end unless immediate measures are undertaken.  

As part of its coverage, the Russian media tried to assess the results of the conference and convey the moods that were prevailing during the conference. RBC, a daily business newspaper, published the opinion of Russian political expert Mikhail Troitskiy, who implies that it is too early to talk about the end of Western dominance in the world regardless of the overriding theme of the Munich conference.

“There are no signs of drastic shifts in the configuration of the interests of the largest global powers and centers,” he wrote in his column. “The U.S., the EU countries, China and India are generally interested in the stable development of the global economy — without this it is impossible to foster the growth of their national economies. In this environment, a new wave of protectionism, which the Trump administration’s economic policy may bring about, might lead to a pause in the further liberalization of international trade.”

Read Russia Direct's debates: "Russia and the West offer very different views of the world in Munich"

“The U.S. and Russia have been transformed into the key ‘suspects’ who might play the role of global ‘revisionists.’ But, in reality, they are hardly likely to be ready to destroy the current world order with their own hands,” Troitskiy concluded.

At the same time, Rossiyskaya Gazeta, Russia’s official newspaper, published the opinion of Fyodor Lukyanov, the head of Russia’s Council on Foreign and Defense Policy (CFDP). He believes there are increasing differences among the members of the Euro-Atlantic world, as indicated by their lack of confidence and understanding of what is going on in the world.

“Although all participants tried to highlight that the unity of Europe is much more important than any differences, the Brexit-produced effect is impossible to hide,” added Lukyanov.  

According to him, the Munich Conference indicates that the uncertain and unconfident West is focusing on its internal problems, with the domestic agenda overshadowing Russia’s foreign policy and its moves in Ukraine. The Kremlin is mentioned primarily in the context of Western domestic policy, with Washington and Brussels pointing fingers at Russia’s alleged involvement in the hacking scandal and its interference in the U.S. electoral system. Lukyanov bluntly describes this environment as “a large-scale panic.”    

“This reveals the surprising lack of confidence of the West in its own powers, which looks like a far cry from the over-confidence that had been dominating at such forums for the last decade.”

At the same time, Kommersant, a daily business newspaper, paid a lot of attention to the speech of Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, which was met more favorably in comparison with last year, when Lavrov was ridiculed and even heckled while taking the floor. Lavrov described the new world order as “post-West,” which means the concept of realpolitik that prioritizes national interests will replace the liberal system of international relations. However, according to the participants of the Munich conference and key stakeholders, “this is just the wishful thinking of Moscow,” Kommersant reported.  

According to Novaya Gazeta, an independent Russian media outlet, Russia “was rather an object at the Munich Conference than the subject.” Most of the participants discussed Russia in the context of geopolitical threats for the West and the liberal world order. The West made it clear that it sees the Kremlin as a troublemaker. But at the same time, German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed her readiness to cooperate with Moscow to resolve the Ukrainian conundrum.     

Putin’s decree on Donbas passports

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decree on the recognition of passports from the self-proclaimed republics in Luhansk and Donetsk made headlines in the Russian media. During the 2017 Munich Security Conference, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko described this move as an overt violation of international law.

However, the pro-government media and news agencies quoted Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, who claims that this move results from humanitarian considerations and doesn’t violate international law. Peskov highlighted that this situation was triggered by Kiev’s blockade of the region, with hundreds of thousands of people having no possibility to receive passports, travel documents or driver’s licenses.

"I would like to stress once again: the entire region is living in conditions of a rigid blockade, a rigid embargo from its capital, from Kiev," he said on Feb. 20 as quoted by the TASS news agency.

Also read the debates: "Who is behind the recent military flare-up in Ukraine?"

At the same time, Nikolai Epple, a columnist from Vedomosti, a business media outlet, describes Putin’s decree as “an effective move, intended to exert pressure on Kiev and the Western countries.” Meanwhile, another Vedomosti columnist, Petr Kozlov, warns that the Kremlin’s recognition of the Donbas passports is “a signal to Kiev that it might lose these territories.” 

Expert commentary
Sergey Markedonov, an associate professor at Russian State University for the Humanities, about the death of Russia’s UN envoy Vitaly Churkin:

For the first time, I first found out about him in the 1990s, when he took the position of deputy foreign minister. At that time, I was impressed by the accuracy and the pithiness of his assessments. I personally know many ambassadors to the United Nations (from the U.S., Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan). All of them worked with Churkin and highly appreciated his activity and professionalism despite numerous disagreements with him. It is a big loss for Russian diplomacy.

Aurel Braun, a professor of International Relations and Political Science at the University of Toronto, about Putin’s decree on Donbas passports:

Putin’s decision to sign an executive order that temporarily recognizes travel identity documents issued by separatists in the Donbas, indirectly recognizes the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. As OSCE Secretary-General Lamberto Zannier noted this will not only hurt chances of a the ceasefire taking hold, but raises questions about the long-term intent of the Kremlin.

Read the full commentary here.