Wednesday, September 17, 2014


Podcast: Russia's Looming Ukraine Hangover

Too many shots of Strelkov?

The nationalists are feeling betrayed and they're getting restless. The public is getting nervous about the costs of absorbing Crimea. The elite is getting jittery about the effect of sanctions. And the infighting among the siloviki over the spoils of war is intensifying.

After every party, comes a hangover. And as we all know, hangovers are no fun.

In the latest "Power Vertical Podcast," we discuss Russia's new normal in the wake of the Ukraine crisis.

Joining me are Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University, an expert on Russia's security services, and author of the blog "In Moscow's Shadows"; Kirill Kobrin, editor of the Moscow-based history and sociology magazine"Neprikosnovenny zapas"; and Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies and author of "Sean's Russia Blog."

Enjoy...

Power Vertical Podcast -- July 11, 2014
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Tags:Power Vertical podcast


Podcast: Russia's Thought Police

He's keeping an eye on the Internet.

Retweeting a Twitter tweet or liking a Facebook post that the Kremlin doesn't like can now land Russians in prison.

And salty language in theater performances, films, and the media can now lead to stiff fines.

The stated goal of the former is to combat extremism. The purported objective of the latter is to promote traditional values and preserve the "purity of the Russian language."

But few doubt that the real point of both is to tighten the Kremlin's control over discourse -- and therefore, over politics.

Will it lead to an Orwellian nightmare? Or a Kafkaesque theater of the absurd?

On this week's "Power Vertical Podcast," we discuss these trends. Joining me are co-host Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University, an expert on Russia's security services, and author of the blog "In Moscow's Shadows"; and Merhat Sharipzhan, an analyst with RFE/RL's Central Newsroom.

Also on the podcast, we discuss a recent report about a Russian hacker group targeting Western energy firms.

Enjoy...

Power Vertical Podcast -- July 3, 2014
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Audio Podcast: Hybrid Warfare And Russia's New 'Great Game'

Armed pro-Russian separatists of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic pledge an oath during a ceremony in Donetsk on June 21.

An invasion that's not quite an invasion. Operatives who aren't quite troops. Aggression no doubt, albeit aggression with plausible deniability.

We've been in this place before, although it didn't always make international headlines. We were here in the conflicts in Georgia's breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the early 1990s.

We were here in the conflict in Moldova's separatist Transdniester province. We were here dramatically in the run-up to Russia's August 2008 war with Georgia.

And here we are again today, in Ukraine.

It's been called hybrid warfare, asymmetrical warfare, and ambiguous warfare. But warfare it is, and Russia appears to have perfected using it to achieve its geopolitical aims.

The Little Green Men are probably here to stay. Is there any way to counter them?

In the latest Power Vertical Podcast, we discuss this phenomenon and its implications. Joining me are co-host Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University, an expert on Russia's security services, and author of the blog "In Moscow's Shadows" and Merhat Sharipzhan, a senior correspondent and analyst with RFE/RL's Central Newsroom.

Enjoy...

Power Vertical Podcast -- June 27, 2014
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Tags:Power Vertical podcast, Russia, Ukraine, Hybrid Warfare


Audio Podcast: Russia's New Utopianism

Eurasianism, old and new: Aleksandr Dugin, Giorgy Florovsky and Aleksandr Prokhanov.

It's been compared to a consensual hallucination and even likened to a collective hit of cocaine. 

It may have been a masterstroke that reset Russia's political agenda and saved Vladimir Putin's regime. Or it may turn out to be a fleeting phenomenon that results in a big national hangover.

It is the return of the Russian messianic idea.

One thing is abundantly clear about the wave of patriotic fervor that has gripped Russia since the annexation of Crimea: After decades in the shadows, those age-old utopian and imperial instincts are back with a vengeance.

In this week's "Power Vertical Podcast," we discuss Eurasianism, Russia's latest messianic ideology. Is it a passing fad? Or a long-term project?

Joining me are Merhat Sharipzhan, a senior correspondent and analyst with RFE/RL's Central Newsroom, and Andreas Umland,a professor at Kyiv Mohyla Academy and a leading expert on Russian nationalism.

Enjoy...
 

Power Vertical Podcast -- June 20, 2014
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Podcast: The Khrushchev Legacy

Nikita Khrushchev as Soviet leader (left) and in retirement with great-granddaughter Nina and granddaughter Julia.

It began with an offhanded -- and insensitive -- comment an old man made to a teenage girl at an elite Soviet retirement complex on a warm spring day back in 1981.

And it ended more than three decades later with an exploration into a famous family's hidden history -- and an examination of a nation's tortured soul.

The old man was Vyacheslav Molotov, Josef Stalin's ruthless and powerful foreign minister. And the teenaged girl was Nina Khruscheva, great-granddaughter of the former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev -- Stalin's successor and Molotov's bitter rival.

The book that conversation ultimately inspired, "The Lost Khrushchev: A Journey Into The Gulag of the Russian Mind," was recently published in the United States. And on the latest Power Vertical Podcast, we discuss it -- and the Khrushchev legacy's relevance to today's Russia -- with the author.

Joining me are Nina Khrushcheva, a professor at the New School, and Merhat Sharipzhan, a senior correspondent and analyst for RFE/RL's Central Newsroom.

Enjoy...
 
Power Vertical Podcast -- June 13, 2014
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Tags:Nikita Khrushchev


Audio Podcast: The Gangs Of Crimea And Donbas

Gangsters, fascists and separatists: Sergei Aksyonov (first image) and Pavel Gubarev (first from left in front row, second image) with his Russian National Unity comrades.

Russia may be threatening to cut off Ukraine's gas supply. But it is busy exporting other things to Ukraine.

With Crimea about to turn into the most lucrative business opportunity for organized crime groups since the Sochi Olympics, major Russian mafia groups are gearing up to get their cut -- setting the stage for a potential gang war.

And meanwhile, the conflict in Donbas is attracting Russian ultranationalsts, paramilitary groups, and neo-Nazis of various stripes.

In the latest Power Vertical Podcast, we discuss these phenomena and their implications.

Joining me, Brian Whitmore, are co-host Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University, an expert on post-Soviet organized crime and Russia's security services, and author of the blog "In Moscow's Shadows;" and guest Merhat Sharipzhan, a senior correspondent and analyst for RFE/RL's Central Newsroom.

Enjoy...
Power Vertical Podcast -- June 6, 2014
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Tags:Power Vertical podcast, Russia, Ukraine, crimea, Russian organized crime, Russian nationalists


Gangsters And Fascists And Separatists -- Oh My!

The self-proclaimed governor of the Donetsk region, Pavel Gubarev (first row, third from left), as a Russian nationalist.

A multibillion-dollar project is announced to construct a bridge across the Kerch Strait. Police raid a meeting of Georgian gangsters at a swanky downtown Moscow restaurant. And an emissary from the powerful Solntsevo crime syndicate is reportedly dispatched to Simferopol.

What do all these things have in common? They're all elements of a shadowy struggle among organized crime groups to get their claws into Crimea.

Vladimir Putin's annexation of Ukraine's Black Sea peninsula has turned the international order on its ear. And as longtime Kremlin-watcher and security expert Mark Galeotti wrote this week, it also promises to upend the delicate balance in the post-Soviet underworld -- with possibly violent results.

"The underworld status quo is relatively brittle, full of hungry upstarts and deep feuds, as well as unbalanced by new money flowing into some gangs' coffers, thanks to the growing and massive trade in Afghan heroin," Galeotti, a professor at New York University and a co-host of the Power Vertical Podcast, wrote this week in "The Moscow Times."

"Further competition in Crimea could shatter the already fragile underworld peace."

And it's not like Crimea was exactly gangster-free even before the Russian annexation. A combination of official neglect from Kyiv, hostility between local law enforcement and the central Ukrainian government, and the Black Sea Fleet's role in various smuggling operations combined to make the peninsula a magnet for post-Soviet organized crime.

"Crimea's political and economic structures were infamously interconnected with its underworld. Simferopol's Salem and Bashmaki crime gangs of the 1990s ran protection rackets, smuggled drugs, and assassinated each other, Galeotti wrote.

Indeed, Crimea's Moscow-installed de facto Prime Minister Sergei Aksyonov is widely reported to be a mid-level gangster -- known as "the Goblin" -- with the Salem gang.

And now, major projects like the $5.5 billion Kerch Strait bridge project connecting Crimea to Russia's Krasnodar Krai and plans to build a new casino and resort complex promise to present the most lucrative opportunity for the criminal underworld since, well, since the Sochi Olympics.

And the Russian authorities seem determined to make sure "their" anointed gangsters -- like Moscow's powerful Solntsevo group -- get the largest piece of the action.

In a recent post on his blog, Galeotti noted how on May 24 police broke up a meeting of Georgian gangsters at a swanky restaurant in downtown Moscow -- an apparent attempt to warn them to stay out of Crimea. "It’s futile to try and keep the Georgians out of Crimea, but I imagine that a pernicious alliance of ethnic Russian mobsters and the government will try to minimize their role there," he wrote.

Given the fragile peace in the underworld in the wake of the Moscow assassination of the legendary crime boss Aslan Usoyan in January 2013, it looks like Crimea's new status provides all the conditions for a mob war.

And if Crimea looks like a playground for gangsters, in eastern Ukraine it's springtime for Russian ultranationalists and neo-Nazis. 

Pavel Gubarev, the self-styled "people's governor" of Donetsk, was a member of the ultranationalist group Russian National Unity, whose symbol bears a disturbing resemblance to a swastika.  

The far-right paramilitary organization was founded in 1990 by nationalist leader Aleksandr Barkashov, and its members have been implicated in violent crimes against ethnic minorities and in the 2009 killings of human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov and journalist Anastasia Baburova. 

Aleksandr Borodai, a Russian citizen who is the "prime minister" of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, was an editor and remains a contributor to the far-right -- and often anti-Semitic -- newspaper "Zavtra," founded by ultranationalist Aleksandr Prokhanov in the 1990s. The newspaper's website now serves as a recruiting platform for mercenaries fighting in eastern Ukraine. 

Prokhanov, a fringe figure in the 1990s, has enjoyed a resurgence with the Ukrainian crisis, with his articles appearing regularly in the mass-circulation pro-Kremlin daily "Izvestia.' 

The Donetsk People's Republic's self-styled "defense minister," Igor Girkin, aka "Strelkov," is also a contributor to "Zavtra"  Girkin, who Ukrainian authorities claim is an agent with the Russian Defense Ministry's Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), also reportedly served as a mercenary in conflicts in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Transdniester, and Chechnya.

And Gubarev, Borodai, and Girkin are just the tip of the iceberg. Moscow-based political analyst Vladimir Pribylovsky told RFE/RL's Russian Service this week that the conflict in eastern Ukraine is serving as a magnet for Russian nationalists of various stripes.

Russia may be threatening to cut off Ukraine's gas supply. But it is busy exporting its mafia and neo-Nazis to its southern neighbor.

-- Brian Whitmore

NOTE TO READERS: Be sure to tune in to the Power Vertical Podcast on June 6 when I will discuss the themes raised in this post with co-host Mark Galeotti and guest Merkhat Sharipzhan.

Tags:Power Vertical blog, Russian organized crime, Russian nationalists, eastern Ukraine, crimea


Podcast: The Restoration

Then and now.

Ninety-one years and five months ago, five men gathered in Moscow and approved a treaty forming a new union. Sixty-nine years later, that union -- the Soviet Union -- dissolved leaving in its wake 15 independent states. And they've stayed independent for more than two decades.

This week, three men gathered in Astana to form another union -- the Eurasian Union of Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan.

Russian President Vladimir Putin says the new grouping is designed to foster the free flow of people, goods, capital, and services. But coming in the wake of Moscow's annexation of Crimea, and against the backdrop of Russia's intervention in eastern Ukraine, suspicions abound that it is but another step in the restoration of the old empire.

In the latest Power Vertical Podcast, I discuss these issues with Merkhat Sharipzhan, a senior correspondent and analyst with RFE/RL's Central Newsroom; and Natalya Churikova, senior editor of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service and host of the program "European Connect."

Enjoy...
Power Vertical Podcast -- May 30, 2014
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Podcast: The Ideologue

Cunning, calculating, ruthless -- and an ideologue to boot.

We've seen that he could be ruthless. We've always suspected he was cynical and calculating. And we've always known him to be cunning. But recent years have taught us something new about Vladimir Putin. He appears to be much more ideological than we had suspected.

This has been evident in the Kremlin leader's persistent gay bashing; in his full-throated defense of Russia's "traditional values" and derision of the West's "genderless and infertile" liberalism in his state-of-the-nation speech last year; and in his recent redrafting of history in public comments following the annexation of Crimea.

The new face of Putinism is coming into sharp focus. Is it just a cosmetic makeover to meet the needs of the moment? Or is it the shape of things to come?

On the latest "Power Vertical Podcast," we discuss the newly ideologial Putin. Joining me are Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University, an expert on Russia's security services, and author of the blog "In Moscow's Shadows," and Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies and author of "Sean's Russia Blog."

Also on the podcast, Mark, Sean, and I talk about how recent developments have led us to rethink our assumptions about Russia.

Enjoy...
Power Vertical Podcast -- May 23, 2014
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Podcast: That '70s (Spy) Show

Vladimir Putin and the fictional Soviet Spy Stierlitz.

The Ukrainian crisis has given Russia's vaunted siloviki, the security service veterans in Vladimir Putin's inner circle, a big political boost.

Simultaneously, there has been a wave of nostalgia for the 1970s and the era of Leonid Brezhnev is increasingly looked at like a Russian Victorian Age.

In the latest Power Vertical Podcast we take a look at these two phemomena.

Joining me are co-hosts Kirill Kobrin, editor of the Moscow-based history and sociology magazine "Neprikosnovenny zapas," and security expert Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University and author of the blog "In Moscow's Shadows," and special guest Merkhat Sharipzhan, a senior correspondent and analyst for RFE/RL.

Enjoy...
 
Power Vertical Podcast -- May 16, 2014
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Russia's Patriotic Fix

Restoring the consensual hallucination?

We haven't heard much about the "party of swindlers and thieves" for some time now. There aren't so many exposes of officials' luxury villas in the south of France. And, by the way, when was the last time you read a snarky blog post about Vladimir Putin's Botox habit?

But we sure are hearing a lot about "national traitors" and "fascists" bent on undermining Russia's restored greatness. And the early 20th-century Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera -- or at least a grotesque caricature of him -- has made a comeback as a national boogeyman.

In the space of a few months, Putin has managed to change the conversation.

The Kremlin no longer looks like it is out of ideas and running out of time. Putin's approval rating is at 83 percent. Even the ruling United Russia party -- you know, the one made up of all those swindlers and thieves -- is polling at 60 percent.

And the Kremlin's critics have been effectively silenced.

With the world's eyes on the Ukraine crisis, an ongoing crackdown on NGOs in Russia intensified this week with prosecutors conducting raids on organizations in Kazan, St. Petersburg, and Nizhny Novgorod.

Independent media is being muzzled, bloggers are being stifled, and officials are dreaming up measures to squash dissent that make the crackdown of 2012-13 look almost quaint.

"The Ukrainian revolution is becoming the prelude to a Russian counterrevolution," political commentator and onetime Kremlin spinmeister Gleb Pavlovsky wrote recently. 

And if you believe the polls, the public -- including that vaunted "creative class" that not long ago was clamoring for more pluralism and for a "Russia Without Putin" -- appears to be on board.

Writing this week in "The Moscow Times," opposition figure Vladimir Ryzhkov argues that Putin is in the process of forging a new "social contract" with the Russian people.

"His first social contract in the early and mid-2000s was based on the principle that most Russians would accept the government's restrictions on personal freedoms and democracy as long as they received higher standards of living," Ryzhkov wrote.

"Now, judging by the results of a recent Levada Center poll, most Russians have shifted their focus to another value: returning Russia to its great-power status. It seems that the ruling regime has found its political 'second wind' and if this wind continues to blow for the next couple of years, Putin's reelection in the 2018 presidential race is all but a given."

That is, assuming there is even an election in 2018.

Anybody remember Aleksei Navalny?  Not long ago, the anticorruption blogger, opposition leader, and all-around gadfly seemed to be setting the agenda and riding a cresting wave of discontent with the regime. Now he's virtually invisible. 

The man who coined, branded, and marketed the "swindlers and thieves" label is languishing under house arrest. And to add insult to injury, it is now forbidden for third parties to repost his blogs. 

"It is absolutely clear to me that it is just one more attempt to drive me into a corner," Navalny told reporters in April after a Moscow court found him guilty of slander.

Yes it is. And it appears to be working.

Navalny's blog remains active as ever -- but it isn't driving the conversation like it once did. Not even close.

And hand-in-hand with the euphoria of the Kremlin's counterrevolution come the delusions of grandeur.

Writing in "The New Yorker" magazine, Joshua Yaffa recently quoted an unidentified United Russia lawmaker as saying that German Chancellor Angela Merkel was right to describe Putin as living "in another world."  Putin, the deputy said, is "in a different league, he is in a dialogue with history."

The sea-change in the zeitgeist has indeed been dizzying. And it raises a crucial question. In resetting the national conversation, has Putin managed to alter the underlying dynamics of Russian politics?

Since late 2011, the tectonic plates beneath the political order seemed to be shifting decisively against the regime.

An emerging urban middle class that had grown wealthy, confident, and increasingly politically sophisticated was demanding change.

The elite was deeply divided between technocrats advocating political reform and economic modernization and hard-liners seeking to maintain the status quo.

And Putin himself seemed to be losing his aura of invincibility rapidly. His vital role as "The Decider" -- a trusted broker among elite factions -- appeared in jeopardy. There was even talk of a succession battle emerging among his most trusted lieutenants. 

Russia's economy, dangerously dependent on energy exports, appeared headed for a deep recession -- or worse.

It certainly looked like a perfect storm.

Now, with the patriotic fervor unleashed by the Crimea annexation and the Ukraine crisis, Putin seems to have his mojo back. He's The Decider again.

The elite remains divided, but those opposed to Putin's course have been largely cowed into silence.

And what longtime Kremlin-watcher (and "Power Vertical Podcast" co-host) Mark Galeotti calls the "consensual hallucination" that has sustained Putin's undisputed rule appears to be restored.

But, as Walter Russell Mead argued in a recent piece in "The American Interest," the patriotic wave Putin is riding is similar to a drug dependency. "He needs triumphs abroad to vindicate and justify his rule and his repression at home, and foreign-policy victories are like cocaine when it comes to their impact on public opinion: the buzz of each hit soon wears off, leaving only the craving for another and larger dose," Mead wrote.

And cocaine is expensive.

Russia's economy is already taking a significant hit from the Ukraine crisis.

Capital flight in the first quarter of 2014 reached $63.7 billion, more than all of last year. The ruble has lost 6 percent against the dollar since January. GDP growth has been near zero throughout the year. Inflation is expected to rise to 7.6 percent in the second quarter. And the stock market remains vulnerable.

"If this process further develops, we can expect power struggles within the Russian elite that will be exacerbated once the scale and scope of the financial damage Putin has precipitated becomes clear," Avi Tiomkin, a hedge-fund adviser, wrote recently in "Forbes." 

"At that point, the ruling elite will conclude that Putin is not only no longer an asset, but has become a major liability. At the same time, Russian opposition parties and groups will be emboldened by the West's stance and expect support. This is when we may see a 'Russian Spring.'"

-- Brian Whitmore

Tags:counterrevolution, patriotism, Russian opposition, Vladimir Putin

About This Blog

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It covers 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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