ON MY MIND
We've all spent a lot of time over the past day pouring over and interpreting Vladimir Putin's words. The usual inflammatory anti-Western rhetoric was absent from his annual call-in program! He said Barack Obama was "a decent man"! He referred to the United States as a "partner"! He even indicated that he would save Petro Poroshenko and Recep Tayyip Erdogan if they were drowning! Fair enough. But perhaps we should spend as much time paying attention to what Russia is doing than to what Putin is saying. Just days before Putin's subdued performance in his annual reality show, Russian fighter jets conducted a simulated attack on a U.S. Naval vessel in the Baltic Sea -- flying 25 meters away from the American ship and at such a low altitude that they created a "wake in the water." Pro-Moscow separatists in Georgia's South Ossetia region, which is already under de facto Kremlin control, said they will hold a referendum on joining Russia. And as Putin spoke, the Ukrainian military reported no less than 80 attacks by Moscow-backed separatists. So Putin's rhetoric may have changed a bit. But Russia's behavior has not.
IN THE NEWS
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is in Tokyo for a meeting with his Japanese counterpart Fumio Kishida.
The Federal Security Service has searched the offices of oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov's Onexim Group.
The Investigative Committee has opened a criminal case against Ivan Zhdanov, an ally of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny. Zhdanov is a lawyer for Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation.
Two high-ranking officials at the state corporation Rosnano are suspected of embezzlement.
Russia has dismissed a U.S. State Department human rights report as "bossy."
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called an incident in the Baltic Sea in which Russian fighter jets buzzed an American destroyer as "dangerous" and "reckless."
The Russian Defense Ministry, meanwhile, has defended the action as within safety rules.
WHAT I'M READING
Agents Of The Russian World
New Report from Chatham House: Agents of the Russian World: Proxy Groups in the Contested Neighborhood.
"Russia employs a vocabulary of 'soft power' to disguise its 'soft coercion' efforts aimed at retaining regional supremacy," the authors write. "Russian pseudo-NGOs undermine the social cohesion of neighbouring states through the consolidation of pro-Russian forces and ethno-geopolitics; the denigration of national identities; and the promotion of anti-US, conservative Orthodox and Eurasianist values. They can also establish alternative discourses to confuse decision-making where it is required, and act as destabilizing forces by uniting paramilitary groups and spreading aggressive propaganda."
Alexander Clarkson of King's College London takes a look at Russia is up to in the South China Sea.
"With the need to distract from the ambiguous outcomes of the conflict in Ukraine, now that Vladimir Putin has decided to limit direct Russian military involvement in Syria, there is a strong likelihood that his inner circle is looking to another geopolitical flash point in which to assert his claim that Russia truly is a global power," Clarkson writes.
The Power Of Paranoia
A strong essay by Yevgenia Albats and Ivan Davydov in The New Times on the paranoia of the Kremlin elite.
"The patient needs to push the fear in his mind to the point of psychosis," they write.
Horror Stories From Russia's Personal Debt Crisis
Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies and host of the SRB Podcast has a gripping piece in Open Democracy on how Russia's personal debt crisis is getting out of control.
"As Russia’s personal debt crisis spirals out of control, collectors are turning to violence to ensure people pay on time. These stories aren’t for the fainthearted," Guillory writes.
Also check out Sean's podcast this week on the "uses and abuses of Nagorno-Karabakh."
Studying The Russian Threat
The Pentagon is conducting a study to determine how the U.S. military should respond to Russia's enhanced capabilities.
Ghosts Of 1917
In a commentary in Reuters, John Lloyd asks "when will Russia break?"
Will it be "a rock bottom oil price, Western sanctions, inflation, a demographic crisis… when is the Second Russian Revolution? Next year, on the centenary of the first? 1917-2017?"
Russia's Top Banker
The Economist has a profile of Russian Central Bank head Elvira Nabiullina.
Putin Dials It Down
Bloomberg columnist Leonid Bershidsky opines on Putin's low-key performance in his annual call-in show.
And Russian security expert Mark Galeotti, co-host of The Power Vertical Podcast, reveals his main takeaways from Putin's big show.