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ON MY MIND

The European Union's move today to unblock visa-free travel for Georgians and Ukrainians, which had been held up due to an internal EU dispute, is a welcome move. Pro-Western officials in Tbilisi and Kyiv have long been citing visa-free travel as one of the benefits of enacting painful -- and often unpopular -- reforms.

Visa-free travel is also a powerful symbol. It is a signal that while Ukraine and Georgia are not EU members -- and probably won't be for the foreseeable future -- they are nevertheless seen as part of the broader European family. This is important.

By delaying visa-free travel, Brussels risked alienating two countries where pro-Western sentiments are high. It also risked being seen as a tacit rejection of two countries that have long been trying desperately and against the odds to escape from Moscow's orbit.

Continuing to hold up visa-free travel would have been a major victory for Vladimir Putin. And finally unblocking it gives a glimmer of hope to 50 million Georgians and Ukrainians in what has otherwise been a deeply discouraging year.

IN THE NEWS

European Union member states and the European Parliament have struck a deal to end a dispute that had been holding up a decision to allow Ukrainians and Georgians to visit the bloc without needing a visa.

The Kremlin says Russia has finalized an agreement to privatize 19.5 percent of state-owned oil company Rosneft in a deal worth around $11 billion with a consortium of Swiss commodities giant Glencore and the Qatari sovereign wealth fund.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has demanded that Russia help to defuse tensions in Europe ahead of a gathering of representatives from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Hamburg.

State Duma Deputy Vitaly Milonov had urged Russia's prosecutor-general to investigate the Riga-based Russian news website Meduza on charges of "promoting extremism and terrorism."

Russia said on December 7 it would restrict the ability of U.S. diplomats based in Moscow to travel if a pending U.S. bill that would do the same to Russian diplomats in the United States entered into force.

A court in Ireland has released assets belonging to exiled Kremlin critic and former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky that are worth around $100 million.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has called for continued diplomatic pressure and sanctions on Russia until Moscow respects a February 2015 agreement aimed at ending the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Mikhail Gorbachev has blamed the late Russian President Boris Yeltsin and other politicians for the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, saying that their hunger for power destroyed the country.

Russian human rights campaigners draped a huge banner from a St. Petersburg bridge calling for the release of jailed activist Ildar Dadin, who says he has been tortured in prison.

WHAT I'M READING

Putin's Gulag

In a piece in Politico, Marc Bennets, author of the book I’m Going To Ruin Their Lives: Inside Putin’s War On Russia’s Opposition, argues that "torture and solitary confinement are regular features of Russia’s prison system, and it’s set to get worse."

Fortress Kaliningrad

Alexander Clarkson has a piece on his blog looking at Russia's military buildup in Kaliningrad

The Balkan Front

Belgrade-based journalist Harriet Salem has a piece on the Atlantic Council's website on why we should "beware the Russian bear in the Balkans."

UNIAN, meanwhile, reports that Montenegro has put two Russian citizens suspected of plotting a coup in Montenegro on an international wanted list.

The Looking Glass War

In The New York Review Of Books, Robert Cottrell, editor of The Browser and former Moscow bureau chief for The Economist and the Financial Times, looks at several new books about the intelligence war between Russia and the West.

Putin's Nationalities Policy

Paul Goble argues in a piece for the Jamestown Foundation that Putin's new nationalities policy "is set to fail spectacularly."

California Hаш!

Leonid Ragozin has a piece in BloombergBusiness profiling the leader of Calexit, the California independence movement, and his Russian connections.

The Oilman Diplomat?

The Wall Street Journal has a piece examining Exxon Mobil CEO and Secretary of State candidate Rex Tillerson's ties to Putin.

Russia Flexes Its Missiles

In a piece in The National Interest, Nikolas Gvosdev, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College, notes that in Russia's new national-security doctrine, the possibility of using nuclear weapons has been changed from "unthinkable" to "unlikely."

The Baltic Minutemen

In Politico, Jonathan Brown looks at the paramilitary groups emerging in the Baltic states to take on the threat from the east.

The Former Ambassador Speaks

Meduza has published an interview with former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul.

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or

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