Russian media roundup: Putin’s annual press conference, the UN resolution on Syria, Ukraine’s debt moratorium, and the prolongation of sanctions against Russia all made headlines this week.

France's Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, left, and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon pose for photos before their meeting at the United Nations on Dec. 18. Photo: AP

Last week, Russians paid particular attention to President Vladimir Putin's year-end press conference for potential clues about what to expect in 2016 for both domestic and foreign policy. The media paid close attention to events that could influence the fate of Ukraine, the current situation in Syria and the future of Western sanctions against Russia.

Vladimir Putin’s press conference

On Dec. 17, the Russian president held his traditional year-end press conference, in which he spent several hours answering questions from journalists from across the country. Each year, Putin’s communication with the media attracts the attention of not only ordinary citizens, but also political experts – from the head of state, they expect a summary of the passing year and signals of what to expect in the coming year.

Kirill Martynov, political columnist at the opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, believes that at this time, the press conference was devoted to the construction of a new personal image of Vladimir Putin – the image of being the only man who can save Russia from the crisis the country finds itself in today.

For the first time in a long time, stresses Martynov, the really important questions for the Russian people have dominated this conference – the economy, the price of food and housing, corruption, Donbass, and relations with Turkey.

Observers believe this was generally a good thing, because to maintain his image of an anti-crisis manager, Putin will be forced to pay more attention to domestic politics, leaving aside foreign adventurism.

The analytical portal Aktualnye Kommentarii in its editorial section pointed to the absence, during the press conference, of any political promises for the upcoming 2016 elections. The president and his entourage are playing a dangerous game in the de-politicization of society, which will eventually lead only to the fact that political participation forms will become mostly radical (if not revolutionary). In this sense, this press conference, being called upon to reassure the population, has not fulfilled its task.

A special correspondent of the business newspaper Kommersant, and a journalist of the Kremlin press pool, Andrey Kolesnikov believes that this was the most sincere press conference that Putin has ever given. In it, he not only said what he thought, but also appealed to the broadest possible segment of the population – in a language that was clear and well known to all people. Kolesnikov notes that not all questions are obviously of interest to the President – the internal policies upset the president, while the Turkish and Ukrainian problems livened up the Russian leader.

The portal of the Echo of Moscow radio station gave the word to opposition leader Alexey Navalny, who was surprised by Putin’s reaction to questions from journalists about the corrupt activities of Prosecutor General Yury Chaika and his family. Navalny had assumed that Putin would be repeating the version already voiced by the President’s press service – that “the Kremlin was not interested in this issue.”

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However, at this moment, Putin showed hesitation and became lost in thought, which Navalny perceives as the leader’s fatigue from having to “take the rap” from the public, for more and more of his supporters.

UN resolution on Syria

On Dec. 18, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution on the Syrian conflict. This is the first document of its kind since the start of the Syrian civil war. Until now, Russia had consistently blocked all previous resolutions in the Security Council, pointing to their inconsistencies. The main provisions of the resolution were related to negotiations between the Assad regime and opposition forces, as well as the conduct of elections and changes to the Constitution of Syria.

The business publication RBC discussed the possible obstacles in the implementation of the resolution: in particular, the negotiations themselves are very unlikely to happen, until a list of opposition groups, which may take part in them, is defined, Namely it is here where lie the many differences between the major powers involved in this conflict.

In addition, the publication stresses, the resolution does not determine the fate of Syrian President Bashar Assad, who has become a major stumbling block in the settlement of the Syrian crisis. Perhaps, suggests RBC, Moscow is ready to abandon its support for Assad, but is not yet ready to say this publicly.

The online newspaper, with references to experts, also believes that Moscow and Washington have finally managed to agree on the fate of the Assad regime, which has made it possible to unanimously adopt the resolution. Middle East experts, interviewed by, have suggested that a transitional figure could become the former Prime Minister of Syria Riyad Farid Hijab, the best compromise figure in Syrian politics (for a long time he supported the Assad regime, but then switched to the opposition).

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The pro-government Rossiyskaya Gazeta reported numerous difficulties in negotiating this resolution, particularly on the question of the future fate of Assad. The publication stressed that in this regard, the negotiations reached an impasse, as none of the parties was ready to drop their vision of his future. Rossiyskaya Gazeta believes that the issue of Assad has been left on the sidelines, in order to get the historical document, required for joint action against terrorists in Syria, to be passed.

Ukrainian moratorium on the repayment of Russia’s loan

On Dec. 18, the Ukrainian government, headed by Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, declared a moratorium on the payment of the “Russian” Eurobonds worth $3 billion, and maturing on Dec. 20, 2015. The Russian Ministry of Finance, in response, is threatening to go to the courts for recovery of the debt, and also reminded people that the IMF has recognized that this was considered as the sovereign debt of Ukraine, and not commercial debt.

The pro-government TV network Channel One is outraged by the actions taken by the government of the neighboring country: Russia had offered Ukraine rather favorable terms on the debt, via installment payments, but the Ukrainian side has ignored them and refused even to negotiate on this issue.

Channel One underlines that the fate of Ukraine will now be dealt with in the international courts, where Russia has a better chance to defend its interests and get the debt repaid. Experts interviewed by Channel One believe that Ukraine’s decision on the moratorium is misleading, because it only worsens the climate in its relations with Russia, and the country will be forced to spend money on litigation, without any clear prospects for winning the case. 

The business newspaper Vedomosti also reminded its readers that Russia had offered Ukraine a chance to restructure its debt with a guarantee from its foreign partners of “independence,” but this proposal was rejected. The moratorium, stresses the newspaper, plays into the hands of Russia, because it increases the chances of recovering this debt through international courts.

Moskovsky Komsomolets published the opinions of several Russian entrepreneurs, who believe that the situation with the repayment of debts by Ukraine increasingly is starting to resemble the not-so-funny anecdote of the “theater of the absurd.”

Obviously, Russian entrepreneurs say, Ukraine is not able to pay its debts now, but that does not mean that Russia should abandon its claims. On the contrary, we must be prepared for a long confrontation on this issue, according to the publication.

Extending sanctions against Russia

On Dec. 18, the European Union decided to extend sanctions against Russia for another six months. Such a decision was expected one week before, but the representative from Italy voted against the automatic renewal of sanctions, and demanded discussions to be held, which, however, did not affect the results of the final vote.

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The business newspaper Kommersant noted that no one in Russia had any illusions about the possible lifting of sanctions. The newspaper’s sources in the European Commission stressed that the EU is now faced with many other problems, in addition to Russia and Ukraine, and so this extension of sanctions – was more of a technical and formal nature, rather than political.

With reference to Russian and foreign experts, the newspaper predicts there will be a lack of unity in the ranks of the EU when the next discussions on anti-Russian sanctions are held in July 2016. The Europeans are gradually becoming tired of the Ukrainian agenda, and for them it is becoming increasingly clear that the blame, for the delays in implementing the Minsk Process, lies not with Moscow, but with Kiev.

The pro-government Rossiyskaya Gazeta, with reference to the Russian Ministry of Finance, is confident that for Russia, the extension of sanctions really means nothing. The economy “needs to adapt to changes,” they underlined at the Ministry of Finance. Moreover, the authorities believe that these sanctions are even having a healthy effect on the financial and economic sectors of the country.

Quotes of the Week:

Vladimir Putin, responding to a question about the downed Russian Su-24: “You asked – Maybe there was some third party behind this? – and I understand what you are hinting at. We do not know. However, If someone in the Turkish leadership has decided to lick the Americans in a certain place, I do not know, was this the right way to do it, do the Americans need this or not.”

Putin on U.S. presidential elections race and Donald Trump: “He is the absolute leader in the presidential race. He is a very outstanding person, talented, without any doubt.”

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The opposition leader Alexey Navalny on Putin’s response concerning the investigation into activities of Prosecutor General Chaika: “Maybe this is wishful thinking, but I have the feeling that the Kremlin would be very happy to gather up all these “Chaikas” and drop then from aircraft on ISIS positions, as payment for those unexpected problems that they have brought.”

Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov on Ukraine’s debt“The announcement of a moratorium does not affect the obligations of Ukraine to repay its debts. The obligations remain in force, and Russia expects that they will be fulfilled in their entirety.”

Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk declaring a debt moratorium: “We are ready for court proceedings with Russia”.

Konstantin Kosachev, head of the Federation Council Committee on International Affairs, on the extension of the EU sanctions: “If you in Brussels share an illusion that these sanctions have any practical effect here (in Russia) or produce some psychological impression, then you are absolutely far from the truth, and from any understanding of the real situation.”