Russia Update: Kommersant Editor-in-Chief Forced to Step Down After Controversial Rosneft Article

November 12, 2014
Igor Sechin, head of Rosneft with President Vladimir Putin. Photo by Aleksandr Miridonov.

Welcome to our new column, Russia Update, where we will be closely following day-to-day developments in Russia, including the Russian government’s foreign and domestic policies.

Russian legislators finally received an answer to their queries from military authorities about soldiers killed in combat in Ukraine — which is that they can’t say, it’s a “state secret.” And there is still no answer as to the origin of the gas leak spread across Moscow.


Russia Sends Warships Toward Australia Ahead Of G20

The G20 is meeting in Brisbane, Australia, this weekend, and it seems Russia is marking the occasion by sending warships to Australia’s coast. The Sydney Morning Herald reports that Australia’s Defense Force is saying that a Russian fleet is moving within international waters, but that it is being closely watched by Australia’s military. The fleet is so far from home that it even includes an open-water tug boat, just in case one of the ships were to break down:

Russia’s TASS news agency reported late last month that the battle group, led by a Slava-class cruiser that is capable of carrying nuclear-tipped cruise missiles, left from Vladivostok on October 23.

The fleet is made up of the “Varyag” cruiser, a destroyer named “Marshal Shaposhnikov”, a salvage and rescue tug and a replenishment oiler.

The Sydney Morning Herald also notes that this is not the first time Russia has deployed warships ahead of international meetings:

“Russian naval vessels have previously been deployed in conjunction with major international summits, such as the APEC meeting in Singapore in 2009. A warship from Russia’s Pacific Fleet also accompanied former Russian President Medvedev’s visit to San Francisco in 2010,” [the Australian Defense Force] statement said.

James Miller

Editor-in-Chief of Kommersant Steps Down Amid Rumors of Government Pressure

Mikhail Mikhailin, editor-in-chief of the Russian business newspaper Kommersant, has been forced to step down, reported. RBTH, a publication of the state-owned Rossiyskaya Gazeta, did not speculate about the reasons for the resignation.

Pavel Filenkov, general director of the publishing house Kommersant, made a statement to Interfax on Monday, November 10:

“Mikhail Mikhailin is leaving the post of editor-in-chief of Kommersant. It’s our joint decision,” Filenkov said.

He said the post has now been offered to Sergei Yakovlev, who is editor-in-chief of the related publication  Kommersant Money.

TASS went a little further in saying the resignation was believed to be related to a lawsuit from Rosneft, the state oil company headed by Igor Sechin. Sechin is a close associate of President Vladimir Putin who is currently on Western sanctions list over Russia’s war on Ukraine.

Two weeks ago, Kommersant reported in an article by Yelena Kiselyeva and Kirill Melnikov that Rosneft was allegedly preparing a set of new retaliatory measures to restore Russia’s faltering economy amid Western sanctions. Presidential administration spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied the report saying it was untrue. Filinkov claimed there was no relationship between the resignation and the lawsuit.

is owned by Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov, who has declined to comment. Like other Russian media in recent years, Kommersant has increasingly pulled its punches and turned more pro-government in some of its coverage. It was once owned by the late exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky from 1997-2006. Usmanov took over in 2006.

Mikhailin joined Kommersant in the 1990s, then became editor-in-chief of, then took up the Kommersant post in 2010.

The independent newspaper Moscow News was more explicit in reporting that Mikhailin’s dismissal likely came under pressure,

On Monday, Dozhd TV published a report suggesting that the paper had come under pressure from the Kremlin elite.

Citing an unidentified source, Dozhd reported that in an attempt to avoid going to court with Sechin over the Rosneft story, the publishing house’s management had first offered to fire one of the article’s authors, Kirill Melnikov, before going for Mikhailin instead.

But Mikhail himself denied there was pressure:

“My resignation is not connected to any article about Sechin. When that article was published, I was on a business trip in China. There’s no need for conspiracy theories, I have taken creative leave, and it was my decision together with the shareholders,” Mikhailin was cited as saying by RBC Daily.

Moscow News also cited outspoken State Duma deputy Dmitry Gudkov who posted a comment

The article is still in place despite the lawsuit, likely because no notice has come yet from Roskomnadzor.

The piece cites several unnamed federal officials who detailed Sechin’s purported memo of many pages listing emergency plans to save the economy, ranging from limiting the burial of nuclear waste to virtually expropriating foreign equipment. The Interpreter has translated some excerpts:

Some of the measures look like an open attack not even so much against the West as against Gazprom, whose position on the gas market Rosneft is trying to challenge. On the whole, Rosneft is demanding unprecedented privileges for the industry and itself. Kommersant’s sources consider its desires understandable, but hard to realize.

Among the actions to take against Europe would be 100% pre-payment for gas deliveries to the EU. “This demand would lead to the improvement of Gazprom’s economy and worsening of the position of European gas purchases since it demands the attraction of large volumes of circulating assets,” says the document, according to a source.

Another point in the memo was a call to freeze the South Stream project. The EU has been trying to stall it due to sanctions against Russia’s top officials, but Rosneft believes this will cause more problems for Europe than Russia.

In fact, Austria’s OMV has continued to negotiate with Russia on South Stream in defiance of the consensus of other Europeans on sanctions against Russia. Sechin was said to believe that the EU would remain interested in the project for the sake of access to energy. Said another source familiar with Rosneft’s positions:

Despite the apparent contradiction, the EU is extremely interested in the realization of this project since the problem of energy security for Europe is being resolved at the expense of the RF. In its current form, the project is extremely risky because of the EU’s plans to use 50% of the capacities built by Gazprom to pump gas that is of non-Russian origin.

As an alternative, Rosneft wants to focus on the Asian-Pacific Region and stimulate export to those countries by introducing favorable tariffs on gas at 10% (which is now 30%) and also provide access to independent gas producers from Eastern Siberia and the Far East. He believed a $1 billion a year could be added to state coffers by delivering 30 billion cubic meters of gas a year to the Asia-Pacific Region.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick