Vladimir Putin's Decision to Scrap State News Agency Rooted in Fear of Ukrainian-Style Unrest

Vladimir Putin

However, the head of the new Russian state media body 'Russia Today' claims the move promotes a positive image of "a country with good intentions."

MOSCOW -- Russian president Vladimir Putin's sudden decision to abolish state news agency RIA Novosti and establish a new, more tightly controlled national multimedia outlet named Rossiya Segodnya (Russia Today) may have been prompted by fears that neighboring Ukrainian's current political unrest could spill over the border.

A prominent writer for opposition journal Novaya Gazeta speculated on Tuesday that unrest in Ukrainian capital Kiev was a key trigger in sweeping reforms to state-run media agencies announced Monday.

Andrei Kolesnikov, who once himself worked for RIA Novosti, suggested the mass streets protests in Kiev -- where tens of thousands of protestors have occupied government buildings demanding the ouster of Ukraine's Russophile president Viktor Yanukovych following his decision to abandon plans for closer integration with the West through the European Union -- had spooked the Kremlin. Putin had met Yanukovych in Moscow Friday for confidential talks.

"It seems [that Putin believes] Russia must not go down that Western route, nor let its neighbors," Kolesnikov wrote. "In this context, yes, cleaning up the news is a symbolic and iconographic measure."

He has also speculated that RIA Novosti's reputation for fair and balance reporting of Russian opposition figures and its sponsorship of Moscow's ArtDokFest, where a controversial documentary film about the Sochi Winter Olympics that the Kremlin had sought to suppress was screened over the weekend, were additional factors in the move that took employees at the news agency, founded under Stalin in 1941, completely by surprise.

Dmitry Kiselev, the pro-Kremlin television presenter appointed to head Rossiya Segodnya, further clarified the mission of the new agency which, besides taking over the functions of RIA Novosti, will also incorporate international radio station Voice of Russia and international English language TV service RT.

He says the aim of the new service was to restore "a fair attitude towards Russia as an important country in the world and one with good intentions." 

Kiselev is known for making provocative and acerbic remarks on domestic and international affairs. Last summer, he denied being homophobic after saying on air that the organs of homosexuals should not be used in transplants and that gays should be banned from donating blood or sperm. 

Kiselev has promised to use the expertise and many of the staff of RIA Novosti for the new company, which will occupy premises in central Moscow that house the news agency.

The swift demise of the agency -- which Putin decreed should be effective immediately, giving officials just a month to set up the new structure -- puts a question mark over how it will cover the Sochi Olympics, due to open early February.

RIA Novosti is the national host news agency and photo pool for the games. It is not clear what impact its closure will have on domestic and international coverage of the event.