Russian media roundup: The ongoing political reshuffle within the Kremlin’s inner circle, suspension of the U.S.-Russia agreement on weapons-grade plutonium and renewed military escalation in Syria all made headlines last week.

Sergei Kiriyenko, the new first deputy chief of staff of the Russian Presidential Administration. Photo: Reuters

One of the most important events of last week, in the eyes of the Russian media, was the appointment of Sergei Kiriyenko as the new first deputy chief of staff of the Presidential Administration. He replaces the former “chief ideologist” and domestic policy chief of the Kremlin, Vyacheslav Volodin, who is now the State Duma speaker.

The Russian media also covered deteriorating relations between the U.S. and Russia. On Oct. 3, Vladimir Putin introduced a bill suspending the agreement between Russia and the United States on plutonium disposition. Russia had put forward unacceptable conditions for the renewal of the agreement, including the lifting of sanctions, the end of the Magnitsky List, and the reduction of NATO troops in Eastern Europe.

Finally, the media covered the Russian military operation in Syria, where the situation continues to deteriorate. The United States cut off dialogue with Russia on seeking a settlement to the Syrian conflict, with Washington even hinting at accusing Moscow of war crimes. Of course, all this is happening against the background of the present catastrophe in Aleppo, where Russian and Syrian aircraft are carrying out bombing missions in this city.

Also read: "What is behind the changing of the political guard in Russia?"

New chief of domestic policy in the Kremlin

Sergei Kiriyenko earned his fame in the late 1990s, when he became the youngest-ever Prime Minister of the Russian Government. He has a reputation as a reformer and a liberal, and Russian media are linking his arrival to a possible restart of the political agenda.

The business newspaper Vedomosti explains that Kiriyenko was not the most obvious candidate for this position, but his appointment fits in with the Kremlin’s new strategy betting on technocrat managers, who are not connected to any major political “clans.” Kiriyenko has a good reputation: while he was previously engaged in various large-scale projects, he was never involved in any corruption schemes.

Quoting Russian political scientists, the newspaper also noted that such personnel decisions are demonstrating that the Kremlin is making preparations to implement large-scale political initiatives (including those related to the presidential elections in 2018), as well as possibly carrying out major reforms.

The opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta published a very flattering article about the new head of the domestic policy department. The publication describes him as a decent man with his “own identity” who is an experienced politician and manager, ready to take responsibility for his actions. Of course, it may be too much to expect liberalization to occur with his arrival. A long period of turbulence in domestic policy lies ahead for Russia, and the appointment of the competent and intelligent Kiriyenko is a very timely measure.

The independent media outlet Slon published an article by political scientist Alexander Morozov, who believes that Kiriyenko’s reputation as a liberal was earned in the 1990s, but now he is already deeply embedded in the political system, and so we can hardly expect any liberalization of domestic policy. His appointment, of course, is a positive signal, showing that the Kremlin understands that domestic and foreign policies are entering a difficult era. For Morozov, the only question is why Kiriyenko agreed to take this position, knowing the problems that he will be facing.

Freezing of plutonium agreement between Russia and the US

Recommended: "Why Russia's withdrawal from the plutonium deal is worrying"

Against the backdrop of this suspended nuclear agreement, the Russian media started talking about the radical deterioration of relations between Moscow and Washington, which had recently been showing signs of starting to normalize.

Tatiana Stanovaya, writing for Slon, believes that although in reality this agreement actually did not work, it still created a specific regime of nuclear non-proliferation and reduction, and the current exit of Russia significantly increases the nuclear threat in the world.

The withdraw from this agreement does not give anything to Moscow, but Russia, using this issue, has deliberately raised the stakes to the maximum, making it clear that from now on, the logic of “all or nothing” will dominate Russian-American dialogue. The U.S. position is no less problematic, with Washington also not wanting to put out the fire. Both countries are now showing the world how countries both of which are making claims to global leadership and the formation of new security systems should not behave.

Yulia Latynina, from the opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, believes the opposite, saying that this “plutonium deal” was not directly related to international security. Nuclear disarmament is based on other instruments, including, for example, the START treaty, which bans military use of plutonium intended for destruction. Latynina feels confident that this exit is not even connected with the Syrian conflict, but rather simply due to a banal “insult” of the Kremlin by the U.S. Administration.

During the spring, the U.S. administration made changes to the plutonium disposition mechanism. In Moscow, they considered this to be almost an insult, hinting that in the United States, no one cares about Russian views on disarmament, and that Washington does not fear Russia’s nuclear potential.

The business newspaper Vedomosti suggests that Russian leadership could be linking the “nuclear demarche” to the published interim results of the investigation into the downed Malaysian Boeing. The Kremlin is increasingly “on edge” and is exacerbating the confrontation to the maximum, not realizing that this policy is unlikely to be successful and perhaps even dangerous.

New UN Secretary General

Also read: "How does Russia view the next UN Secretary General?"

On Oct. 6, the UN Security Council recommended that the UN General Assembly appoint former Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Guterres as the UN’s ninth Secretary General. He will be replacing Ban Ki-moon in this post as of January 2017. The candidacy of Guterres was actively discussed in the Russian media.

The tabloid Moskovsky Komsomolets noted that Guterres is probably the first figure in a long time, on which the members of the UN Security Council showed unity and the ability to compromise. For the majority of those who followed the progress of negotiations on the appointment of the new Secretary General, this was a surprise. Guterres is a charismatic politician, who knows how to “maneuver,” which should give new impetus to the UN during a time of crisis. Guterres is facing a very difficult job, in which he will need to “put out fires” in all areas of the UN’s work and this all on the background of a growing confrontation between the U.S. and Russia.

The online publication expressed surprise at the fact that the post had not gone either to a woman or a representative of Eastern Europe, as had been repeatedly mentioned in the UN recently. People interviewed by the publication emphasized that, although Russia initially was supporting Irina Bokova, and then Kristalina Georgieva (both of Bulgaria), the Portuguese politician was also an acceptable figure to Russia.

In Moscow, Guterres is known as a man of action, and as a politician who is not afraid to take responsibility. Moreover, the publication’s experts urge not to overestimate the significance of the new appointment the powers of the Secretary General are very limited, and the leading role in the United Nations will continue to be played by the Security Council and the General Assembly.

Syria and possible tough new measures against Russia

Moskovsky Komsomolets asked military expert Igor Korotchenko for his comments on Syria. Korotchenko feels that the “window of opportunity” for dialogue on Syria has been slammed shut completely, and this was the fault of Washington and its allies, who sabotaged the implementation of the basic provisions of the agreements signed on Sept. 9. Russia should accept the fact that the United States can no longer be regarded as a partner, in any direction, and in this new reality, it is necessary for Moscow to act without regard to what the White House thinks, no matter who occupies it after the upcoming presidential elections.

The business newspaper Kommersant noted that although the European Union had unexpectedly stepped in as a mediator between Russia and the United States, the chances are very limited for a resumption of dialogue and joint efforts to resolve the Syrian conflict.

The situation is heating up also in terms of potential sanctions. At Kommersant, they discussed rumors about a possible new wave of sanctions against Russia from both the EU and the U.S. In particular, this concerned talk about possible tough sanctions coming from Germany, which allegedly is preparing to impose additional restrictive measures.

Expert commentary of the week

Oleg Ignatov, Senior Analyst, Center for Current Policy

On the appointment of the new chief of domestic policy Sergei Kiriyenko:

Kiriyenko’s position does not imply any political ambitions. Therefore, we should not expect a change of policy. The first deputy chief of staff of the Presidential Administration does not determine the direction and content of domestic policy; he takes orders from the president in this area, and creates favorable conditions for their implementation.

At the same time, this does not mean that the style will not change, in which the decisions will be implemented. Kiriyenko is an experienced technocrat and pragmatist, not a public politician. Unlike his predecessor, Vyacheslav Volodin, Kiriyenko has more extensive contacts in the Russian elite. He can act as an effective negotiator. More players will be ready to perceive him as an independent and disinterested arbitrator in conflicts between them. This is more than Volodin could boast, who often used his position of power to settle scores with personal enemies.

Therefore, with the coming of Kiriyenko, we can expect to see more teamwork in the Kremlin, and mitigation of internal conflicts, which often spilled out into the public sphere. Considering that preparations for the presidential elections are underway, against the backdrop of worsening conditions for Russian foreign policy, the consolidation of the bureaucracy and the elite is what President Putin needs. Kiriyenko can deliver this.