Russia Direct presents a roundup of Russian media, with the focus on Russia’s airstrikes against ISIS in Syria and the Normandy Four meeting in Paris.


Russian servicemen attach a Kh-25 high-precision missile to a Su-24 aircraft at the Khmeimim airbase in Syria. Photo: RIA Novosti

Last week, the Russian media actively discussed the nation’s military operation in Syria, frequently citing the various risks associated with Russia’s anti-terror campaign. Russia’s entry into the war against ISIS in Syria is also related to the second most discussed topic of the week: How might the terrorists respond to Russia’s involvement?

The first Russian air strikes on ISIS positions in Syria 

On Sept. 30 the Federation Council, the upper house of the Russian parliament, unanimously granted President Vladimir Putin permission to deploy troops abroad. That coincided with an official request from Syria for Russian military assistance.

The first air strikes on ISIS positions in Syria followed swiftly (the Federation Council approved only the use of the Russian Air Force, ruling out a ground-based operation). 

Also read debates: "Is there a way to reconcile interests of the US, Russia in Syria?"

Business daily Vedomosti believes the operation in Syria is not a noble cause, but an element of propaganda to distract the Russian public. Russia’s leaders, says the newspaper, are trying to wage a “warless war,” thereby diverting attention away from the country’s pressing economic problems and the conflict in Ukraine to a “short triumphant war” designed to improve the Kremlin’s ratings.

Independent Slon points out that the Kremlin’s declaration of war against ISIS has an ulterior motive. The first air strikes were in fact inflicted against Islamist groups fighting against Assad’s army. The publication suggests that Russia’s real purpose is to preserve the Assad regime and avoid a “Libyan scenario” in Syria and the humiliation of losing a major ally in the region. In this sense, the counter-terrorism operation is secondary.

Opposition paper Novaya Gazeta describes the operation in Syria as “alarming,” noting the negative reaction from Russia’s European and American partners. Western countries are in no hurry to recognize Russia’s good intentions, believing that Moscow’s primary concern is to save its “protégé Assad,” and secure a role as a key player in the Middle East. According to the paper, it will not improve relations between Russia and the West, but, on the contrary, threaten an escalation.

Meanwhile, pro-government Rossiyskaya Gazeta states that air strikes by Russian fighters have “undermined the morale of the terrorists.” The publication interviewed a Russian Defense Ministry spokesperson, who told in detail exactly which terrorist-controlled facilities were destroyed, which planes were deployed, and which bombs and missiles were used.

The head of the Main Operations Directorate of the General Staff Colonel-General, Andrei Kartapolov, announced that the Russian Air Force had carried out more than 60 sorties to destroy more than 50 infrastructure facilities in terrorist hands. He also said that panic and desertion were now widespread among the militants, and that about 600 mercenaries had left their positions and were trying to get to Europe.

Is Russia threatened by terrorist retaliatory measures?

Novaya Gazeta believes that ISIS terrorists could threaten Russia, and not only the Russian military in Syria, but also people inside Russia itself. The publication suggests that such a well-organized and armed terrorist organization like ISIS could attack Russia not only with explosives, but also chemical and biological weapons.

For Russia, it is a frightening prospect. The country has only recently stopped trembling from domestic terror attacks. That point was made by renowned Middle East expert Georgy Mirsky on Echo of Moscow. He believes that although ISIS is unlikely to be able to threaten Russia directly (its geographical range is not sufficient at present), it could energize its allies in the region to strike Russia.

Above all, says Mirsky, there will be more attempts to recruit and entice young people in Russia’s Islamic regions to join radical groups. That will be followed by inevitable terror attacks.

Vedomosti looks at the issue more broadly. Besides possible terrorist activities inside Russia, the operation in Syria carries a more global threat, with the conflict potentially spilling over far beyond the Middle East. In this sense, Russia finds itself in a very awkward situation: it has “shaken the Syrian beehive” and incurred the wrath of the terrorists, not to mention the possibility of getting bogged down in Syria, just like the Soviet Union did in Afghanistan.

The Normandy Four meeting 

On Oct. 2 in Paris, Francois Hollande, Angela Merkel, Vladimir Putin and Petro Poroshenko met to discuss Ukraine and the implementation of the Minsk agreements. Russian media opinion on the results was divided.

Russian tabloid Moskovsky Komsomolets was skeptical about the outcome of the “quartet” negotiations, pointing to Putin’s unwillingness to participate in the press conference and the lack of any significant statements by Hollande and Merkel.

Also read: "Why Germany and France are taking on new roles in the Ukraine crisis"

According to the paper, the talks are deadlocked over the issue of local elections in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) scheduled for Oct. 18, which run counter to the Minsk agreements and Ukrainian law.

Novaya Gazeta is not so pessimistic and considers the most important achievement of the meeting to be the arrangement to continue the demilitarization of the conflict and maintain the ceasefire. The publication also believes that some agreement was reached on the elections in the Donbas, but that domestically it will be a thorn in Poroshenko’s side for a long time to come, since a significant portion of the Ukrainian elite views the matter differently (in particular, the issue of amnesty for DPR and LPR leaders).In any event, says Novaya Gazeta, the Paris meeting represents a big step towards resolving the conflict in the Donbas.

Rossiyskaya Gazeta positively assesses the outcome of the talks. The publication says that the meeting not only made progress in the implementation of the Minsk agreements, but also confirmed the lack of an alternative to the “Minsk process,” which provides an opportunity to settle the conflict during the lull in fighting.

Transaero bankruptcy

In the first days of October, news broke of the impending bankruptcy of one of Russia’s largest Russian airlines, Transaero. The news took many analysts by surprise, since as recently as early September it was reported that the company’s debt problems would be solved through an asset purchase by Russia’s main airline Aeroflot.

It was even reported that the deal had been closed with Aeroflot paying the symbolic sum of one ruble. But on Oct. 1 Aeroflot rejected the deal, and a convened government commission decided not to rescue Transaero, stating that bankruptcy was the only option for the private company.

Slon interviewed economist Sergei Aleksashenko, who stressed that bankruptcy was the only option. The economist is adamant that the government should put an end to the unsound practice of saving private companies and banks, especially in the case of Transaero, whose unprofitability and inefficiency are legendary (total company debt as of June amounted to 260 billion rubles, or about $3.9 billion).

Rossiyskaya Gazeta urges Transaero passengers not to panic, since Aeroflot, Sibir and UTair could step in to fulfill the company’s obligations to ticket holders. The publication notes that the government will not allow passengers with tickets to be inconvenienced.

Novaya Gazeta believes that a loss-making company on the scale of Transaero could exist for such a long time (and as Russia’s second largest airline at that) only through administrative leverage. The publication mentions the ties between the company’s management and top politicians.

Novaya Gazeta argues that the main victim of the Transaero saga will in fact be its main competitor Aeroflot, which will be forced to spend considerable resources on fulfilling Transaero’s obligations to passengers (since Aeroflot’s majority shareholder is the state, for which reason the company must act on “orders from above”).

Feedback on the Obama-Putin meeting in New York

On Sept. 28 the 70th anniversary session of the UN General Assembly saw the long-awaited meeting between Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin. The leaders had not talked face-to-face since 2013, and the meeting promised to deliver a lot. However, Russian reporters were mostly disappointed.

Recommended: "Obama vs. Putin: Mutual finger-pointing deepens ideological clash"

Vedomosti talks about the dubious practical outcome of the meeting, since the positions of the two countries were clearly no closer afterwards. The only tangible result was the meeting itself, which improved the Russian leader’s “handshakability,” which is of no small importance to the Kremlin.

Novaya Gazeta writes that no one expected the talks to achieve a breakthrough, and that the full-fledged meeting itself was a success for big diplomacy. The author stresses how important it was for the parties not only to swap views on current affairs, but also to state their interpretation of events to the opposing side, which is precisely what happened in New York.

Moskovsky Komsomolets believes that the interchange of opinions was successful, and cites Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who stated that on Ukraine, “The American side had no arguments to challenge the reasoning of our president.”

Quotes of the week:

Dmitry Medvedev on the air strikes on ISIS in Syria: “It is better to fight terrorism abroad than at home.”

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov on the Putin-Obama talks on Ukraine: “The biggest talking point is that... the American side had no arguments to challenge the reasoning of our president.”

Iyad Shamse, leader of an FSA Syrian rebel group, the Asala and Tanmieh Front: “There is no Islamic State in this area. The Russians are applying great pressure on the revolution. This will strengthen terrorism, everyone will head towards extremism. Any support for Assad in this way is strengthening terrorism.”