Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Video The Daily Vertical: A Creative Approach To Rights

The Daily Vertical: A Creative Approach To Rightsi
April 25, 2016
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.
Brian Whitmore

The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page. 

A transcript of today's Daily Vertical can be found here.

Audio Podcast: Putin's Shaky Status Quo

(Cartoon by Sergey Elkin, RFE/RL)

Brian Whitmore

A national ideology. Political indoctrination. Ramped up repression. Broader censorship. And more surveillance.

That's one vision for Russia's future we saw earlier this week in a controversial and widely discussed article in Kommersant Vlast by Investigative Committee head Aleksandr Bastrykin.

It's been called everything from a clear call for a restoration of the Soviet system to a manifesto for the North Koreanization of Russia. 

Later in the week, we got another vision from former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, who accepted an offer to head the Kremlin's top economics think tank.

Kudrin called for a fundamental modernization and restructuring of Russia's economy, but added that such a restructuring would be contingent on establishing a more pluralistic and accountable political system.

It's not unusual for the Kremlin to send mixed signals. But what this week's contradictory messaging seems to suggest is that Vladimir Putin's regime has concluded that the status quo is unsustainable. 

And if that is so, then what comes next?

On this week's Power Vertical Podcast, we discuss the Putin system's shaky status quo. 

Joining me are Donald Jensen, a former U.S. State Department official and currently a fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations in the Nitze School of International Studies at Johns Hopkins University; and Sean Guillory, of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies, author of Sean's Russia Blog, and host of the SRB Podcast.


Power Vertical Podcast: Putin's Shaky Status Quo
Power Vertical Podcast: Putin's Shaky Status Quoi
|| 0:00:00


The Morning Vertical, April 22, 2016

Brian Whitmore


How bad does Russia want a Cold War? Pretty bad, apparently. Up until now, the Kremlin had presented its conflict with the West as a great power struggle. But in an article in the Kremlin mouthpiece Izvestia today, foreign affairs analyst Sergei Karaganov argues that the root of the conflict is actually ideological. It's the West's laissez faire capitalism and permissive social norms versus Russia's authoritarian state capitalism and defense of traditional values.

Now, Moscow has certainly tried to use these issues to gain advantage, like with its financing of xenophobic far-right parties in Europe, for example. But to suggest that Russia's conflict with the West is ideological, a la the Cold War, is nonsense. There is a normative aspect, but it essentially pits the West's relatively transparent system against Russia's opaque authoritarian kleptocracy.

If Russia has an ideology, it is corruption. 


The State Duma has confirmed retired police officer Tatyana Moskalkova as the Kremlin's new human rights ombudswoman.

The Duma is also due to vote on a bill that would punish lawmakers who miss more than 30 days of parliamentary sessions.

The United States has called on Russia to reverse its ban on the Crimean Tatar Mejlis. 

The incoming NATO commander, U.S. General Curtis Scaparrotti, is calling for a permanent U.S. combat brigade in Europe.

Talks reportedly continue on exchanging Ukrainian military pilot Nadia Savchenko for two Russian soldiers.


The Economists Vs. The Siloviki

On his blog on The Wilson Center's website, Maxim Trudolyubov, editor at large of Vedoosti, argues that the debate about how Russia should deal with its current crisis boils down to "Hard Work Vs. Magic."

Here's the money graf: "Technocrats see reasons for domestic failures originating in domestic issues and seek to find internal cures for the economy’s ailments. They live in the world of global economic processes and would like to see a competitive and developed Russia. Heavyweights stress the importance of external factors and seem to believe that once the designs of foreign evildoers are revealed and rebuffed, the economy will fix itself. They operate under a war mentality and would like to stay in power at all costs.
Whereas economic technocrats speak of the investment climate and taxes, the Kremlin policymakers speak of international deals that would push oil prices back to their former highs. Whereas technocrats are trying to promote business-friendly policies and international integration, heavyweights see every economic problem as a manifestation of the United States’ 'hybrid war' against Russia and seek retaliation." 

Talkin' 'Bout A Revolution

In a piece in Intersection magazine looking at the formation of a new National Guard and Putin's reorganization of the security services, Tatiana Stanovaya asks: "Are the Russian authorities ready for revolution?"

"The Kremlin is devising a new tool kit based on the fact that revolutionary attempts in Russia are not only possible, but probable. The line between the systemic and nonsystemic fields becomes much more pronounced and the attitude of the authorities to these two political sectors, highly polarized. One can manage the former, but only fight the latter," Stanovaya writes.

The Countdown To Warsaw

NATO's summit in Warsaw is more than two months away, but a picture is already emerging about what will be decided at what is shaping up to be a historic event.

Veteran Kremlin-watcher Edward Lucas, senior vice president of the Center for European Policy Analysis, writes that the notion of "persistent rotation is all but agreed upon," which means "quite large numbers of U.S. and other foreign troops regularly moving in and out of the front-line states.

On the War On The Rocks blog, David A. Shlapak and Michael W. Johnson of the RAND Corporation argue that NATO is "outnumbered, outranged, and outgunned" in Europe.

Kudrin's Perestroika Dreams has published a transcript of former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin's speech this week at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, where he called for a new perestroika.

Political analyst Kirill Rogov explains why Kudrin's new job as chair of the Kremlin's top economics think tank, the Center for Strategic Reform, is nothing but window dressing.

Optimism Vs. Pessimism On Ukraine

Should we be optimistic or pessimistic about the new Ukrainian government led by Prime Minister Volodymyr Hroysman? The Atlantic Council's website has another one of its point-counterpoint packages that is worth reading.

John Herbst, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and the current director of the Atlantic Council's Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center, explains why he is upbeat.

And Sergii Leshchenko, a member of the Ukrainian parliament and former deputy editor of the newspaper Ukrayinska Pravda, makes the case for pessimism.

The Ideological War

Writing in the Kremlin mouthpiece Izvestia, Sergei Karaganov argues -- not very convincingly -- that Russia and the West are engaged primarily in an ideological battle.

U.S.-Russia Relations After Obama

The Brookings Institution's Michael O'Hanlon looks at U.S.-Russia relations after Barack Obama leaves office in January 2017.

More On The Dutch Yukos Ruling

Foreign Policy's energy correspondent Keith Johnson has a piece on the aftermath of the Dutch ruling in the Yukos shareholders' case

Russia's IT Deficit

Writing in the official government newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin says Russia must develop its own IT sector. 

"It's time for Russia programmers to move away from the humble imitation of foreign counterparts to creating original software that is the best in the world," Rogozin wrote.

E-stonia As The Anti-Russia

The Guardian's Andrew Keen has a piece on how Estonia is using technology to rebrand itself as the anti-Russia.

A Kinder and Gentler Bastrykin?

Apparently, Investigative Committee chief Aleksandr Bastrykin isn't only about repression. According to this report from Novaya Gazeta, he met with musician Boris Grebenshikov to discuss charity.

Russia's Military Staying Power

According to this piece in Foreign Policy, the Pentagon estimates that Russia can continue fighting in Ukraine and Syria for two more years.

And Finally, I Promote Some Of My Friends' Work...

If you like The Morning Vertical, you'd also probably like a new newsletter from my good friend Sean Guillory, author of Sean's Russia Blog and host of the SRB Podcast. Subscribe here!

Meanwhile, the Hudson Institute’s Kleptocracy Initiative will host the English-language premiere of the film Who Is Mr. Putin? on April 27 in Washington, D.C. 

Video The Daily Vertical: Putin's Personal Army

The Daily Vertical: Putin's Personal Armyi
April 22, 2016
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.
Brian Whitmore

The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page. 

A transcript of today's Daily Vertical can be found here.

Video The Daily Vertical: Bastrykin Versus Kudrin

The Daily Vertical: Bastrykin Versus Kudrini
April 21, 2016
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.
Brian Whitmore

The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page. 

A transcript of today's Daily Vertical can be found here.

The Morning Vertical, April 21, 2016

Brian Whitmore


You have to wonder what drives people like Aleksei Kudrin and Ella Pamfilova. Both were in the news this week. Kudrin accepted an offer to chair the Kremlin's top economics think tank, the Center for Strategic Reform, and called for a fundamental restructuring of Russia's economy and political system. And Pamfilova, who was recently appointed head of the Election Commission, raised eyebrows by canceling elections in the Moscow suburb of Barvikha after four opposition candidates complained of fraud. Pamfilova says she will resign if there is fraud in September's elections to the State Duma. Call me cynical (although I don't think I am), but I just don't think the kind of economic reforms Kudrin is proposing are possible under the current regime. At best, he'll be allowed to tinker on the margins. And call me cynical again (and again, I don't think I am), but I don't expect September's election to be clean. Regime liberals like Kudrin and Pamfilova remain convinced that the Putin regime can be reformed and changed from within. It can't. Because reforming this regime would mean undermining its corrupt foundations, which would lead to its fall. And this is not what Putin has in mind.


Former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin has agreed to head the Kremlin-affiliated Center for Strategic Reform.

Russia has announced anti-doping reforms in bid to avoid Rio Olympics ban

Vladimir Putin meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Moscow today.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visits Armenia today amid tensions over Nagorno-Karabakh.

The Central Election Commission has ordered the cancelation of an April 24 local election in a Moscow suburb election after four candidates affiliated with opposition leader Aleksei Navalny filed protests about vote fraud.

Election Commission head Ella Pamfilova has proposed returning video cameras to voting booths and has vowed to resign in the event of vote fraud in September's parliamentary elections.

The United States and Russia sparred at yesterday's NATO-Russia Council meeting over an encounter between a U.S. Navy vessel and Russian warplanes in the Baltic Sea.

The European Commission has formally proposed visa-free travel for Ukrainians.


The Fall of the House of Putin?

NIkolai Petrov has a new report for the European Council on Foreign Relations, Putin's Downfall: The Coming Crisis Of The Russian Regime.

"Russia's current regime will not last long. The tumultuous events in Ukraine in 2014 reduced the country's possible trajectories to a single one -- a path that will quickly lead to the collapse of the Putin government if there is no radical change in its course," Petrov writes

The Battle of the Narratives

The European Leadership Network has a new report, Competing Western And Russian Narratives On The European Order: Is There Common Ground?

Kudrinism vs. Putinism

In an editorial, the Russian daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta argues that the reforms former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin is proposing are the antithesis of Putinism.

The Perils of a Multipolar World

In a compelling piece in, Dangerous Equality: Why Multipolar Worlds Lead to World Wars, economist and political commentator Vladislav Inozemtsev argues that Russia's desire for a divided Europe and a multipolar world are misguided.

The Moscow-Belgrade Axis

Serbia's pro-Moscow far right is resurgent in advance of Sunday's election.

The Yukos Saga Continues

Time Magazine's veteran Russia hand, Simon Shuster, explains why a Dutch court's ruling has made Putin very happy.

Tough Love For Ukraine

Writing in Foreign Policy, former U.S. State Department official Josh Cohen argues that it is time to give Ukraine a dose of "tough love."

Ukraine's Privatization Paradox

Writing on his blog, Eric Hontz of the Center for International Private Enterprise notes that "Ukraine needs to privatize its state-owned companies -- but rushing it would repeat the mistakes of the past."

A Bridge Too Far?

In his column for Bloomberg View, political commentator Leonid Bershidsky looks at Russia's efforts to build a bridge over the Kerch Strait, linking the annexed Crimean Peninsula to the Russian mainland.

Russia's Hip-Hop Generation

Meduza takes a look at the viral websites popular with Russia's youth.

And in a sign the Kremlin is going after the hip-hop generation, Gazprom Media has acquired the popular music channel A-One

Video The Daily Vertical: The Kremlin's Spin, NATO's Reality

The Daily Vertical: The Kremlin's Spin, NATO's Realityi
April 20, 2016
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.
Brian Whitmore

The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page. 

A transcript of today's Daily Vertical can be found here.

The Morning Vertical, April 20, 2016

Brian Whitmore


If you believe Investigative Committee chief Aleksandr Bastrykin, Russia must be a really, really weak country. How else can you explain a country that is so fragile that the mere presence of foreign media on the Internet can cause it to collapse?

If you believe Bastrykin, Russia's security services and law enforcement must be really really incompetent. How else could you explain the country being so infiltrated with enemies, fifth columnists, and foreign agents bent on its destruction?

If Russia is as vulnerable as Bastrykin suggested in his controversial manifesto published by Kommersant Vlast this week -- an article in which he calls for a wave of new repressive measures -- then the 16-year reign of Vladimir Putin's regime has been a complete and utter failure. 


The NATO-Russia Council meets today for the first time in nearly two years amid rising tensions.

A Dutch court has quashed a $50 billion award for Yukos shareholders.

The Dutch parliament has voted to uphold the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement and free-trade pact.
According to a new poll by the Levada Center, 40 percent of Russians say the state is not fulfilling its obligations to citizens.

Legislation to tighten controls on online news aggregators has been introduced into the Russian State Duma.


Ukraine's Oligarchs

These are few better commentators on Ukraine than Andrew Wilson of the European Council on Foreign Relations. In his latest piece, Survival Of The Richest, Andrew looks at how oligarchs are blocking real reform in Ukraine.

"Ukraine suffers from many types of corruption, but the inter-penetration of the corrupt political class and super-rich oligarchy is the main obstacle to reform," Wilson writes. "The oligarchy’s power comes first of all from the sheer concentration of wealth in its hands. Just before the Euromaidan protests began, in November 2013, it was calculated that the assets of Ukraine’s 50 richest individuals made up over 45 percent of GDP, compared to less than 20 percent in Russia and less than 10 percent in the U.S."

Moscow-based foreign affairs analyst Vladimir Frolov, meanwhile, takes a look the state of play in Ukraine -- and between Ukraine and Russia -- in the wake of its government shake-up.

More Reactions To Bastrykin

The commentary on Aleksandr Bastrykin's controversial article in Kommersant Vlast calling for a national ideology, political indoctrination, and tougher censorship continues to generate comments. In his column for Bloomberg, political commentator Leonid Bershidsky writes that Bastrykin makes Putin look tame. Maybe that's the point.

And in an op-ed for Vedomosti, The Apocalypse From Bastrykin, political analyst Fyodor Krashennikov lampoons the Investigative Committee head's characterization of Russia as "a permanent victim and helpless puppet in U.S. hands."
The Siloviki Shuffle

Moscow-based political analyst NIkolai Petrov takes a look at how Putin has changed the balance of power among the security services with the creation of a National Guard.

Spooks, Crooks, And Money interviews New York University professor and Power Vertical Podcast co-host Mark Galeotti on his favorite topics: spooks and crooks.

Putin's War On Europe

German journalist Boris Reitschuster is making waves with a new book, Putin's Hidden War, in which he argues that Russia is using a network of martial arts clubs in Europe to form a network of pro-Moscow paramilitaries. Deutsche Welle interviewed Reitschuster about his allegations about Putin's secret sleepers.

Bloomberg, meanwhile has a story outlining Russia's various efforts to destabilize Europe.

Europe, Meet Geopolitics...

Andrew Michta of the U.S. Naval War College and the Center for Strategic and International Studies has a piece in The American Interest about how geopolitics has returned to Europe.

"With the next NATO summit in Warsaw just three months away, an increasingly militarized fault line dividing Russia from the West is in place, running along the eastern frontier of the Baltic states, Poland’s border along the Bug River boundary, and farther south along the frontier of the Black Sea NATO allies. And there are reasons to believe that the process of a further geostrategic readjustment in Europe has barely begun," Michta writes.

Sanctions Fallout

Russia is abandoning plans to issue Eurobonds this year in the face of Western sanctions and pressure on top banks not to participate, according to this report by Bloomberg.

In Vedomosti, meanwhile, political commentator Vladislav Inozemtsev evaluates the effectiveness of Western sanctions.

Navalny Walks The Walk

Practicing what he preaches, opposition leader Aleksei Navanly has published his Anti-Corruption Foundation's financial accounts on his blog.

The Morning Vertical, April 19, 2016

Brian Whitmore


In a landmark ruling today, the Constitutional Court decided for the first time that Russia can ignore parts of decisions by the European Court of Human Rights in contradiction of Moscow's treaty obligations. Speaking at a conference of parliamentary chairs in Moscow today, State Duma speaker Sergei Naryshkin called for Eurasianism to become an alternative to what he called the Western-dominated international order. And in a widely discussed article yesterday, Investigative Committee head Aleksandr Bastrykin suggested cutting the Russian Internet off from the rest of the world with Chinese-style censorship and tightening controls on financial flows across Russia's borders. It appears that Russia is in the process of declaring its independence from the world. Vladimir Putin's regime wants the benefits of globalization, without its costs -- and without its rules. Let's see how that works out.


Vladimir Putin and Petro Poroshenko have spoken by telephone about the case of Ukrainian military pilot Nadia Savchenko. The call came after a Ukrainian court sentenced two Russian soldiers to 14 years in prison, and has heightened speculation that a prisoner exchange might be in the works.

The Russian Constitutional Court has decided for the first time that Russia can choose not to implement parts of rulings by the European Court of Human Rights.

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev is scheduled to address the State Duma today on the work of the Russian government.

A poll by the independent Levada Center shows that 56 percent of Russians would like the restoration of the Soviet Union

Russia is planning to double its list of "undesirable" organizations.

The Moscow subway will have a new face-scanning system in place by the end of the year.

The construction worker who was arrested on the eve of Vladimir Putin's live call-in program -- and who last year asked him a question about unpaid wages -- has gone on a hunger strike


Corruption and National Security

I've been arguing that corruption is a national security issue for years. So it's nice to see the idea gaining some traction, like in this Foreign Affairs piece, The Geopolitics Of Corruption.

In a new piece for the Carnegie Center, Thomas de Waal argues that Ukraine's problem isn't so much corruption in the classical sense, but "state capture."

"'Corruption' is an inadequate word to describe the condition of Ukraine," de Waal writes. "Since the country achieved independence in 1991, the problem is not that a well-functioning state has been corrupted by certain illegal practices; rather, those corrupt practices have constituted the rules by which the state has been run."

Dispatches from the Information Wars

Stefan Meister has a new report for The Transatlantic Academy, Isolation And Propaganda: The Roots And Instruments Of Russia’s Disinformation Campaign.

"The possibilities for directly influencing developments in Russia from outside are limited. Europeans, on the other hand, are vulnerable to Russian influence with their open societies, and Russian efforts can help fuel self-doubt in increasingly fragile and fragmented Western societies. The EU can protect itself by reinforcing its own soft power and improving governance within Europe, standing firm on sanctions, improving its knowledge base on Russia and the other post-Soviet states, and taking steps to improve pluralism in the Russian-language media space. It should also come up with a serious offer for its eastern neighbors including an EU membership prospect."

The Center for European Policy Initiatives, meanwhile, has launched a spiffy new portal tracking Russian information warfare in the Baltic states and Poland.

Hybrid Government

Writing in Intersection magazine, Stephen Blank of the American Foreign Policy Council, picks apart one of the most overused phrases of our time: hybrid warfare.

"What we have come to call Russian hybrid war is not a military strategy," Blank writes."Rather, to use a Western term, it is a whole of government strategy that includes the armed forces as one major component of the Russian state’s overall national security strategy."

Russia's Oil-Deal Disaster

The Open Wall on why the failure of the Doha oil talks is "nothing short of a disaster" for Russia.

"Russia needed a deal in Doha as much as anybody there, because, after 16 years in power, the Putin government is not only still dependent on the price of a barrel of oil for its survival, but is facing elections to the State Duma in September. With an economy in recession, a tight budget, and now no hope of rescue from a rebound in oil prices, for the first time, the Kremlin has very little scope for its usual pre-election maneuvers – repairing the roads, doling out money left, right and center."

Bastrykin Fallout

Investigative Committee head Aleksandr Bastrykin's article yesterday calling for more repressive measures to combat what he calls "extremism" and the West's "hybrid war against Russia" is making a lot of waves.

An editorial in critiques Bastrykin's proposals, claiming they would effectively place the entire country under investigation.

Writing in, meanwhile, political scientist Yekaterina Shulman calls Bastrykin's article "a sign of weakness."

A Security Architecture for Eastern Europe

It's pretty much a given that Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova won't be joining NATO anytime soon. So how to provide for their security? Writing on the European Council on Foreign Relations website, Andreas Umland of the Kyiv-based Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation floats the novel idea of reviving the interwar concept of the "Intermarium."

"A modern day Intermarium...could take the form of a limited and single-purpose defense treaty signed by a group of countries that agree to assist each other in combating hybrid warfare activities conducted by foreign powers against them," Umland writes. "It would be a mutual aid pact among those Council of Europe member countries who are ready to commit to some degree of military and other cooperation in confronting Moscow."

Foreign Affairs 'Putin's Russia'

The latest issue of Foreign Affairs has a package titled Putin's Russia: Down But Not Out.

It features a forum of experts responding to the question: Will Putin still be in power in five years?

It also includes articles by Stephen Kotkinon Russia's Perpetual Geopolitics; Gleb Pavlovsky on Russian Politics Under Putin; Sergei Guriev Russia's Constrained Economy; Dmitry Trenin on The Revival Of Russia's Military; Fyodor Lukyanov on Putin's Foreign Policy; Masha LIpman on How Putin Silences Dissent; and Daniel Treisman on Why Putin Took Crimea.

Germany's Putinophiles

Ivan Samolovov has a piece in Intersection magazine "explaining the German left's love for Putin."

Poland's Putin

In a piece in Vedomosti, political analyst Ivan Preobrazhensky compares Poland's Jaroslaw Kaczynski to Vladimir Putin.

The Future of Russian Foreign Policy

The latest installment of Sean Guillory's SRB Podcast features Andrei Tsygankov of San Francisco State University talking about Russia's Foreign Policy Trajectories.

Video The Daily Vertical: Bastrykin's Repression Manifesto

The Daily Vertical: Bastrykin's Repression Manifestoi
April 19, 2016
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.
Brian Whitmore

The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page. 

A transcript of today's Daily Vertical can be found here.

Audio The Briefing: Savchenko On The Brink

A banner with a portrait of Ukrainian military pilot Nadia Savchenko is reflected in a restaurant window in Tbilisi, Georgia.

Brian Whitmore

Ukrainian military pilot Nadia Savchenko reportedly slips into critical condition. And Ukraine prepares to sentence two Russian soldiers to long prison terms.

Is a long-awaited prisoner exchange finally on the horizon?

On this week's Power Vertical Briefing, I discuss the issue with Pavel Butorin, managing editor of RFE/RL's Russian-language television program Current Time.

Also on The Briefing, Pavel and I discuss new proposals from Investigative Committee head Aleksandr Bastrykin on combating extremism and what he calls the West's "hybrid war" against Russia.


The Briefing: Savchenko On The Brink
The Briefing: Savchenko On The Brinki
|| 0:00:00


NOTE: The Power Vertical Briefing is a short look ahead to the stories expected to make news in Russia in the coming week. It is hosted by Brian Whitmore, author of The Power Vertical blog, and appears every Monday.

The Morning Vertical, April 18, 2016

Brian Whitmore


At first glance, the things Investigative Committee head Aleksandr Bastrykin calls for in an article in today's issue of Kommersant Vlast look a bit crazy. He wants Chinese-style Internet censorship. He's calling for political education for the youth. He's calling for intrusive inspections of religious organizations. And he wants it to be a crime to call into question Crimea's 2014 referendum on joining Russia.

But here's the thing. Bastrykin has a strong track record of proposing things that seem outlandish -- but which later happen. Like, for example, when he proposed that the Investigative Committee be removed from the jurisdiction of the Prosecutor-General's Office. Bastrykin got that, and now the Investigative Committee is arguably Russia's most powerful law-enforcement body. It is Vladimir Putin's personal politics police.

Which means the things Bastrykin is proposing now could be a blueprint for the future.


Ukraine is due to sentence two Russian soldiers captured in the Donbas. Prosecutors are asking for 15-year sentences.

Ukrainian military pilot Nadia Savchenko's dry hunger strike is entering its 12th day. Savchenko has reportedly slipped into critical condition

The United States is reporting another close call with a Russian warplane over the Baltic Sea.

Oil prices tumble, ruble falls, as oil talks fail.


Rhetoric And Policy

Did the toned-down rhetoric of Vladimir Putin's call-in program reflect a change in foreign policy? The always insightful Vladimir Frolov offers his take in a piece for

Ukraine's New Government

In his column for Bloomberg, political commentator Leonid Bershidsky takes a skeptical look at Ukraine's new cabinet.

Putin's Plans For Belarus

Writing in Newsweek, Chatham House scholar Kier Giles looks at relations between Moscow and Minsk.

All Power To The Investigative Committee!

Censorship and ideology and political education -- oh my! Writing in Kommersant, Investigative Committee Chairman Aleksandr Bastrykin lays out his proposals to fight "extremism and what he calls the West's "information war" against Russia.

Writing in BNE Intelinews, security analyst Mark Galeotti unpacks what he calls "Bastrykin’s manifesto for the 'North Koreanization' of Russia."

"Put together, this represents one of the sharpest recent expressions of a perspective that would lead Russia to deliberately withdraw itself from its connections with the outside world, in political, social, cultural and economic terms," Galeotti writes. "Yes, this is nothing like a real 'North Koreanization,' with its slave labor and starvation. But if one puts all the aspects of Bastrykin’s manifesto together -- demonizing opposition as acting as agents of the West, blocking information not scripted by the state, developing and enforcing a 'national ideology,' controlling financial flows -- then this would be a dramatic and unwelcome reversal of the integrative processes since 1991."

More On Russian Brinkmanship

Chatham House's Kier Giles has a piece on Russian brinkmanship on the high seas.

The Kremlin And Europe's Far Left

Russia's outreach to Europe's xenophobic far right has been well documented. A new paper by Peter Kreko, the director of the Budapest Political Capital Research and Consulting Institute, and Lorant Gyori, a social sciences graduate student at Hungary's Eotvos Lorand University, takes a close look at the Kremlin's efforts to court Europe's far left.

War Profiteering

Hackers in Ukraine have uncovered how Russia is pillaging coal from the separatist-controlled parts of the Donbas.

Video The Daily Vertical: Watch What He Does, Not What He Says

The Daily Vertical: Watch What He Does, Not What He Saysi
April 18, 2016
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.
Brian Whitmore

The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page. 

A transcript of today's Daily Vertical can be found here.

Audio Podcast: All Circuses, No Bread

Putin has a direct line to the people. (Cartoon by Sergey Elkin, RFE/RL)

Brian Whitmore

It happens every spring.

In Russia's longest-running reality show, Vladimir Putin plays Vladimir Putin on television -- and pretends to care about the concerns of ordinary Russians.

It's a show that has been running for 14 seasons. But this year's effort was -- to say the least -- more than a bit flat.

On this week's Power Vertical Podcast, we unpack the Putin Show.

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 journalist and playwright Natalia Antonova, former editor of Moscow News and one of the more colorful figures on Russian social media.

Also on the podcast, we look at another Kremlin-sponsored spectacle, the incredibly botched attempt by Russian state television to "expose" opposition leader Aleksei Navalny as an agent of U.S. and British intelligence.


Power Vertical Podcast: All Circuses, No Bread
Power Vertical Podcast: All Circuses, No Breadi
|| 0:00:00


Listen to or download the podcast above or subscribe to The Power Vertical Podcast on iTunes.

The Morning Vertical, April 15, 2016

Brian Whitmore


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.


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.

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.

Video The Daily Vertical: What I Learned On Russian Television

The Daily Vertical: What I Learned On Russian Televisioni
April 15, 2016
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.
Brian Whitmore

The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page. 

A transcript of today's Daily Vertical can be found here.

Video The Daily Vertical: The Virtual Putin

The Daily Vertical: The Virtual Putini
April 14, 2016
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.
Brian Whitmore

The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page. 

A transcript of today's Daily Vertical can be found here.

The Morning Vertical, April 14, 2016

Brian Whitmore


Well, spring must finally be here! Vladimir Putin will answer the spontaneous questions of carefully vetted ordinary Russian citizens on live television today. In addition to being a traditional rite of spring, Putin's marathon call-in program is -- along with his state-of-the-nation speech and his end-of-year press conference -- one of the Kremlin's three big annual set pieces. Most of it is scripted. It's an event in which Vladimir Putin plays Vladimir Putin on TV. But it is also an opportunity to get a window into the Kremlin leader's thinking and into the signals he is trying to send to the Russian people, the Russian elite, and to foreign leaders. I'll be live tweeting the event on The Power Vertical's Twitter feed (@PowerVertical), contributing running commentary to RFE/RL's live blog, and doing a "postgame show" live on RFE/RL's Facebook page.


Vladimir Putin will take questions from Russians today in his annual call-in program.

Putin was reportedly preparing for the big show at a guesthouse in Moscow.

Turkey has arrested two alleged Russian agents.

Russian fighter jets buzzed a U.S. destroyer, the USS Donald Cook, in the Baltic Sea on April 12.

Days earlier, on April 9, Russian fighter jets buzzed another U.S. destroyer, the USS Ross, in the Black Sea on April 9.

A Ukrainian court has issued an arrest warrant for Sergei Aksyonov, the de facto leader of Russian-annexed Crimea. 

A mass grave has been discovered in eastern Ukraine.

Separatist authorities in Crimea have closed the Mejlis, a council that represents the region’s Tatar ethnic minority.

The United Nations is calling for the release of a staff member being held in Donetsk.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky has returned to Forbes' list of the richest Russians for the first time since 2005. Putin's son-in-law, Kirill Shamalov, is also on the list, for the first time.


Panama On The Moskva

Writing in BNE Intellinews, Russian security expert Mark Galeotti explains "Russia's Panamaization of Politics."

In The Daily Beast Michael Weiss reports that "a Swiss law firm implicated in the Panama Papers also has links to an alleged Russian mafia."

The Case For Georgia

Writing in Foreign Affairs, Tornike Zurabashvili makes the case for Georgia being admitted to NATO.

Navalny Takes The Initiative

The best defense is a good offense. Aleksei Navalny has called Russia's Federal Security Service to investigate allegations on Russian state television that he is a paid agent of U.S. and British intelligence. Here's Navalny's letter to the FSB, which he posted on his blog.

The National Guard And Kadyrov

Maria Snegovaya has a piece on why the creation of the National Guard is a blow to Ramzan Kadyrov -- and why the appointment of Viktor Zolotov as head of the guard may have been a sweetener.

Russia 2025

What will Russia look like in 2025? The European Union's Institute for Security Studies has a new report out looking at domestic politics, the economy, the energy sector, and relations with the United States, China, the Middle East, the former Soviet Union, and the EU.

The Politics of Coercive Diplomacy

Lilia Shevtsova has a disturbing piece on how Moscow's "coercive diplomacy injects adrenaline into Russia's decaying regime."

"True, there are two traps into which Russia and the West could fall while following this strategy," she writes. "The first is that the requirements of maintaining “Fortress Russia” may prevent the Kremlin from achieving a grand bargain with the West. The second trap is, from the West’s point of view, a catch twenty-two: any bargain that would allow the Kremlin to interpret the global rules of the game as it chooses would undermine the coherence and unity of Western principles. But rejecting the bargain could incite the Kremlin bull to wreck the Western china shop. The liberal democracies of the West are hardly ready to clash with a nuclear foe."

Beggar Thy Neighbor

The Open Wall says "the Russian government has shifted the burden of the economic crisis onto the shoulders of the population," and asks: "but for how long will they put up with it?"

From Dignity to Shame

Writing on the Carnegie Europe website, Mikhail Minakov, a professor at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, claims Ukraine has gone "from a revolution of dignity to a government of shame."

"In the two years since Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity, or Euromaidan, Ukrainian politics has revealed its worst side: former corruption fighters have established their own financial-political clans; former democrats have created a superpresidential system, hunted the media, and deprived the opposition from having a say; and former reformers have sought to leave the drowning government as soon as possible," Minakov writes. 

Zero Growth

The Financial Times is reporting that "Russia's potential economic growth rate may have fallen close to zero as a result of its shrinking labour force."


The Morning Vertical, April 13, 2016

Brian Whitmore


What do nukes and drugs have in common? They both illustrate Russia's efforts to play the role of the international community's persistent spoiler. 
When the nuclear security summit convened in Washington in March, bringing together 52 heads of state, Russia opted out. Not only is Moscow not interested in nuclear disarmament, it is actually upgrading its nuclear capacity.
And now, as the United Nations prepares to convene a special session on drug policy, Moscow is out of step with much of the world on the issue. One delegate told The Huffington Post that "While some countries had special interests, Russia opposed each” idea that was put forward...Everybody was quite frustrated." Among the things Moscow opposed are: the use of painkillers for palliative care, needle exchanges, education programs about opioids, and the use of the overdose reversal drug, Naloxone. The Kremlin doesn't like the rules-based international order that emerged after the Cold War. They're not strong enough to overturn it. But they are strong enough to sabotage it, to throw sand in the gears whenever the opportunity presents itself. And that's exactly what they're doing.


Oil prices rise after report of Russia-Saudi deal to freeze production.

The nationalist Russian March has been registered as a brand.

The Investigative Committee says there were irregularities in the privatization of the Yukos oil company.

Human Rights Watch says a journalist who was stabbed to death in St. Petersburg on March 31 was targeted because he was homosexual.

Lithuania has imposed a travel ban on 46 Russians in connection with the prosecutions of Ukrainian military pilot Nadia Savchenko and Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov.

Russia has allocated 13 million rubles for the preservation of Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin's body in 2016.

Talks continue on Ukraine's new government.

EU Commission to push ahead with Ukraine visa liberalization.


The Power Vertical On The Kremlin's Black Cash

Or in this case, what I'm writing. Check out my latest blog post, Corruption Is The New Communism.

"In many ways, Russian corruption is the new Soviet Communism. The Kremlin's black cash is the new Red Menace. In the East, an alliance of satellite states with Soviet-style socialist command economies and authoritarian political systems has been replaced with a loose grouping of kleptocracies with Russian-style crony-capitalist economies and dysfunctional governance. And the Soviet Union's attempts to subvert the West with the power of an idea has given way to Vladimir Putin's Russia seeking to corrupt it with the lure of easy money."

Why Russians Shrug Off Corruption

Writing in The Guardian, Shaun Walker notes that the "Panama leaks have passed with little fanfare."

"In Russia," Walker writes, "corruption is considered in much the same way as the climate: something that makes life harder and causes constant grumbling, but is an unchangeable part of the fabric of life."

This Is The Kremlin On Drugs

With the United Nations preparing to hold a special session on drug policy, Russia is out of step with other world powers, The Huffington Post reports.

"The Russian Federation pushed back against the medical use of painkillers for palliative care, against needle exchange, against educating doctors or the public about opioids, against the use of Naloxone — an overdose reversal drug — in any setting outside a medical facility, against the entire concept of 'harm reduction,' against substitute opioid treatment and, in the end, against the idea of a global approach to drug policy," the authors write.

Still More On Russia's Non-Drawdown in Syria

Pullout? What pullout? The Russian military is as busy as ever in Syria according to this report in The Washington Post.

Belkovsky On The Panama Papers

Political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky raised eyebrows back in 2007 when he said that Vladimir Putin has a $40 billion fortune stashed away. The figure has been repeatedly cited ever since. Valentin Baryshnikov of RFE/RL's Russian Service interviewed Belkovsky about the Panama Papers, how they are resonating in the Russian elite, and what they tell us about Putin's money.

Europe's Little Putins

Nina Khrushcheva has a column in Project Syndicate about the "Lili-Puitins of the EU."

"One of the saddest ironies of this year’s commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union is that Hungary and Poland, always the most restless of the Soviet empire’s captured nations, are now led by men mimicking Russian President Vladimir Putin’s governing style," Khrushcheva writes.

Stealth Protests

Wondering about all those strange billboards appearing in Moscow with oblique messages targeting the Kremlin? The latest one, an advertising billboard at a bus stop read: Panama? What Panama? Novaya Gazeta takes a look at how subversive posters are replacing demonstrations as a form of protest.

Coincidence? A Cyberattack On Lithuania

Lithuania’s parliamentary website came under cyberattack on April 11 just as a special session of the World Congress of Crimean Tartars was meeting to discuss mass violations of human Rights in Russian-occupied Crimea.

The congress, nonetheless, went ahead as planned. Here's the final resolution.

The Ukraine Crisis

In his column in Bloomberg, political commentator Leonid Bershidsky sums up the causes and consequences of Ukraine's government crisis -- New Leadership, Same Old Ukraine.

"As a result of the political crisis, Ukraine is not getting a better prime minister -- it's getting a more politically beholden one," Bershidsky writes. "A president who would be unable to repeat his 2014 landslide victory -- and who is yet to answer convincingly why he set up a tax-free offshore structure to prepare his business for sale -- is consolidating power."

In the Kyiv Post, meanwhile, Paul Niland tackles the false equivalencies making the rounds regarding the conflict in the Donbas.

Also in The Kyiv Post, Timothy Ash asks: "who is Oleksandr Danylyuk and what will he do as Ukraine finance minister?"

The Karabakh Conflict

Matthew Bryza, a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council and former U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan, argues in The Washington Post that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is too important to ignore. 

Video The Daily Vertical: Zhirinovsky's Russia

The Daily Vertical: Zhirinovsky's Russiai
April 13, 2016
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.
Brian Whitmore

The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page. 

A transcript of today's Daily Vertical can be found here.

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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