Tuesday, August 04, 2015


Audio Briefing: Power Plays In Ukraine, Georgia

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko addresses lawmakers on July 16 before a vote on decentralizing power to the regions.

Brian Whitmore

Ukraine gives some ground on granting special status to rebel-held areas of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. And Georgians protest their government's accommodationist policies toward Russia.

On this week's Power Vertical Briefing, we look ahead at legislation pending in the Ukrainian parliament decentralizing political power in the country -- and what it may mean in the war-torn east. Also on the Briefing, we take a look at the fallout from Russia's recent land grab along the de facto border with breakaway South Ossetia.

Joining me is Pavel Butorin, senior producer for RFE/RL's Russian-language television program Current Time.

The Briefing: Power Plays In Ukraine, Georgia
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EDITOR'S 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.


Video The Daily Vertical: Give Moscow Your Hand, It'll Take Your Whole Arm

The Daily Vertical: Give Moscow Your Hand And It'll Take Your Armi
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July 20, 2015
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.

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.


Audio Podcast: When Putin's Ukraine War Went Global

One year after MH17, the pressure on Putin mounts.

Brian Whitmore

One year after the downing of Flight MH17 killed 298 people from 10 countries on four continents, the evidence continues to mount that pro-Moscow seperatists in Ukraine -- and perhaps Russia itself -- were responsible.

And as the evidence piles up, pressure is building for an international tribunal to prosecute the guilty parties -- pressure Russia is strenuously trying to resist.

On the latest Power Vertical Podcast, we discuss MH17 one year later. Joining me are James Miller, managing editor of The Interpreter magazine, who authored a new report on MH17; and Andreas Umland, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation and editor of the academic book series Soviet And Post-Soviet Politics And Society.

Also making an appearance on the podcast is Han ten Broeke, a member of the Dutch parliament who chairs its Defense Committee and the Netherlands' delegation to the NATO Assembly.

Enjoy ...

Podcast: When Putin's Ukraine War Went Global
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Listen to or download the podcast above or subscribe to The Power Vertical Podcast on iTunes.​


Video The Daily Vertical: Disrespect Is Putin's Stock In Trade

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July 17, 2015
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.

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.


The Day Putin Became A Pariah

Rescue workers at the MH17 crash site carry away a victim.

Brian Whitmore

It was the day Moscow's dreams of empire cost European lives. It was the day the Kremlin lost its last vestiges of credibility. It was the day when it became impossible to continue even pretending that Vladimir Putin's regime was anything close to respectable.

It was the day the mask came off. July 17, 2014 was the day Russia became a rogue state.

It wasn't just that the downing of Flight MH17 killed 298 people from 10 countries and four continents. It wasn't just that 80 of the victims were children. It wasn't just that the Netherlands alone lost 193 people, the largest Dutch loss of life since World War II.

And it wasn't even that Russia made this all possible by, according to all credible accounts, providing pro-Moscow separatists with a sophisticated BUK surface-to-air missile system capable of shooting down a civilian airliner flying at an altitude of 10,000 meters.

That was all bad enough. But it was what came after that really sealed it.

There was the disrespect the pro-Moscow rebels showed to the victims' remains -- the images of separatist fighters, smiling with cigarettes dangling from their lips, rifling through and looting the belongings of the dead.

And as the evidence poured in -- audio recordings, satellite images, and forensic data -- showing that the aircraft was almost certainly shot down by a surface-to-air missile fired from rebel-held territory, there was the obfuscation.

There was the Kremlin's formidable disinformation machine adding insult to injury by cranking out a dizzying barrage of crackpot theories about who really shot down the plane. And with this there was the realization that not only was Moscow responsible for a terrible tragedy, it was mocking the world -- and the victims -- in its aftermath.

MH17, of course, did not change everything. Russia's war on Ukraine continues. Crimea remains annexed. Pro-Moscow separatists and Russian troops are still in Donbas. And nobody has been held accountable for killing nearly 300 people.

But MH17 did change a lot. European leaders, most notably German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who had been inclined to work with Putin and give him the benefit of the doubt, turned into harsh critics. 

Russia was transformed from a troublesome -- and often tiresome -- partner you could do do business with into a potentially lethal problem that needed to be addressed.

According to the Pew Research Center, attitudes toward Russia in the European Union -- which were positive in 2013 -- tanked in 2014 and 2015

Russia is now not viewed favorably by more than one-third of the population in any single NATO country, according to Pew. 

These trends did not start on July 17, 2014, they commenced in earnest months earlier when Russia annexed Crimea. But they accelerated as a result of that day and its aftermath.

After MH17, it became a lot harder to be a Putin apologist. And a lot easier to be a critic.

And one year after that ill-fated flight crashed into the sunflower fields of Donetsk Oblast, Russia is coming under renewed pressure over the tragedy.

An investigation by Dutch authorities that has been distributed for review by agencies in numerous countries will pin the blame for the tragedy squarely on pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine, CNN reported, citing officials who have seen the text. 

And Malaysia, which lost 43 citizens on MH17, has drafted and circulated a UN Security Council resolution that calls for an international tribunal.

This puts Russia in a difficult spot.

Vetoing the resolution, as Russia has vowed to do, would be tantamount to an admission of guilt. Putin's protestations in a telephone call with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte that a tribunal would be "premature and counterproductive" don't really have a lot of traction.

And in the unlikely event that Moscow pulls an about-face, supports the resolution, and allows the tribunal to proceed?

Well that opens the door to some very uncomfortable questions being asked in open court. Not just about the pro-Moscow separatists, but about who in the Kremlin leadership approved giving them a surface-to-air missile system.

MH17 is already a watershed. And it could well turn out to be Vladimir Putin's Lockerbie moment.

NOTE: Be sure to tune in to the Power Vertical Podcast on July 17 when I will discuss the issues raised in this blog with Han ten Broeke, member of the Dutch parliament and spokesman for its Foreign Affairs Committee; James Miller, managing editor of The Interpreter magazine; and Andreas Umland, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation and a professor of Russian and Ukrainian history at Kyiv Mohyla Academy.


Video The Daily Vertical: A Question Of Accountability

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July 16, 2015
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.

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.


Video The Daily Vertical: A Slow, Messy Divorce

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July 15, 2015
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.

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.


Video Russia And Iran Are Trading Places

"OK, now you go rogue..."

Brian Whitmore

After decades as an isolated rogue state, Iran appears to be finally coming in from the cold. And after decades of pretending to be a partner to the West, Russia has gone rogue.

Tehran and Moscow are essentially swapping places.

The symmetry is hard to miss. And so are the geopolitical implications of the agreement reached in Vienna to curb Iran's nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of crippling international sanctions.

Vladimir Putin said Moscow "welcomes" the agreement, adding that "the world can breathe a sigh of relief."

The Kremlin, however, may soon be heaving a sigh of despair. Despite being a party to the marathon talks that produced the deal, Moscow has a lot to lose from it.

I'm A Rogue, You're A Rogue

The first casualty will be Russia's special relationship with Iran.Moscow has maintained close ties with Tehran, playing up their mutual resentment of the Western-dominated world order. But this will be much harder to do with an Iran that is eager to re-engage with the West.

In a recent commentary for Reuters, Agnia Grigas, author of Beyond Crimea: The New Russian Empire, and Amir Handjani, a Middle East expert, argued that the West now has an opportunity to "decouple the unnatural Iranian-Russian alliance to rein in Moscow’s hegemonic ambitions, as well as bring Iran back into the global economic fold."

It was indeed Iran's isolation from the West that drove Tehran into Moscow's arms. When Russia was in good standing as a member of the G8 group of industrialized nations and had constructive relations with the West, it was able to act as Iran's principal interlocutor and defender in the international community.

But with Iran about to emerge from its isolation, and Russia quickly becoming an international pariah due to its intervention in Ukraine, the foundation of their relationship looks increasingly shaky.

"The recent Russo-Iranian alliance has been more a marriage of convenience than a genuine partnership," Grigas and Handjani wrote, noting that Moscow and Tehran have historically had complicated and contentious relations.

"An Iran that is engaged with the West in areas such as energy, trade, and peaceful nuclear power generation would no longer see Russia as protector of its interests."

The Gas Game

And then, of course, there's the oil and gas. If Iran and Russia's changing roles in the international community remove the basis for their partnership, the energy markets will provide plenty of room for rivalry.

"Iran is going to be competing in Europe head-on with Russia," said Ed Morse, head of commodities research at Citigroup told Bloomberg News

WATCH: The Daily Vertical – Why The Iran Bad Is Bad For Moscow

The Daily Vertical: A Bad Deal For Moscowi
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July 14, 2015
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.

Russia has benefited mightily from Iran's exclusion from the world energy market.

Iran is the world's third leading natural gas producer, but -- largely due to sanctions -- only the 25th leading exporter. And once sanctions are lifted and all that Iranian gas comes online, it will cut dramatically into Russia's dominance of the European market.

European energy companies are reportedly champing at the bit to sign deals with Iran. Soon they will get their chance.

And Brussels' new get-tough policy with Gazprom, which has long flouted the EU's antitrust legislation, will get a boost with the alternative of Iranian gas on the market.

Oil, Atoms, And Weapons

Russia also stands to lose on the oil markets. Since the European Union banned oil imports from Iran in 2012, and U.S. sanctions made it difficult to purchase Iranian oil in dollars, Russia moved quickly to gobble up Tehran's market share in both Europe and Asia.

That trend will likely be reversed.

Moreover, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, world oil prices could fall by as much as $15 a barrel next year, dealing another blow to Russia's energy-dependent economy -- which is already in recession. 

Russia will, no doubt, reap some benefits from the Iran deal, such as agreements to develop Iran's civilian nuclear energy program. But even there, it will need to compete with top Western firms.

And Moscow's last minute insistence that a 2007 UN arms embargo on Iran be removed as part the agreement reflected the Kremlin's desire to resume its lucrative weapons trade with Tehran. The arms embargo, however, will remain in place for five years.

Iran and Russia are moving in opposite directions in their relations with the West. And the fallout from this trend will be profound and far-reaching.

 


Video The Daily Vertical: A Bad Deal For Moscow

The Daily Vertical: A Bad Deal For Moscowi
X
July 14, 2015
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.

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.


Audio The Daily Vertical: Russia's Weak Hand Exposed

The Daily Vertical: Russia's Weak Hand Exposedi
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July 13, 2015
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.

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.


Audio Briefing: Does Russia Really Want An Iran Deal?

So, you really want to do this?

Brian Whitmore

The clock is ticking down on an agreement to curb Iran's nuclear program and lift sanctions, which many observers think could come this week. Russia is a party to those talks. But does Moscow really want a deal?

On this week's Power Vertical briefing, we discuss why an Iran deal is probably not in Moscow's interests. Joining me is RFE/RL Senior Editor Steve Gutterman.

Also on The Briefing, Steve and I look at how U.S. officials are increasingly calling Russia an "existential threat" -- and what this heightened rhetoric might mean.

Enjoy...

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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.


Audio Podcast: Putin's Big Fat Greek Chinese Wedding

Putin's new best buddies

As Greece negotiates with the European Union and its creditors to avoid an exit from the eurozone, and as the talks go down to the wire, Russia seems to be waiting in the wings with a big smile.

On the latest Power Vertical Podcast, we discuss whether Moscow is willing and able to make a play for Greece.

Joining me are co-host Mark Galeotti, a professor at NYU, an expert on Russia's security services, and author of the recently published book Spetsnaz: Russia's Special Forces; and Daniel Drezner, a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and author of the books Theories Of International Politics And Zombies and The System Worked: How The World Stopped Another Great Depression.

Also on the podcast, Mark, Daniel, and I discuss Russia's fledgling alliance with China, which was on display at the BRICS summit in Ufa this week.

Enjoy...

Podcast: Putin's Big Fat Greek Chinese Wedding
Podcast: Putin's Big Fat Greek Chinese Weddingi
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Listen to or download the podcast above or subscribe to The Power Vertical Podcast on iTunes.​


Putin's China Syndrome

Putin's new best friend?

Brian Whitmore

Vladimir Putin looked so eager to show off his new best friend.

Greeting Xi Jinping earlier this week, the beaming Kremlin leader said he was "especially happy to see" the Chinese president and suggested that together Moscow and Beijing were prepared to take on the world.

Putin has been basking in the glow that comes with hosting back-to-back international summits.

And he was clearly hoping to use gatherings of the BRICS group and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) this week to demonstrate that attempts to isolate Russia are doomed to fail; and that, despite sanctions and a faltering economy, Moscow is busy building a Eurasia-centric international order as an alternative to Western institutions.

The fledgling Sino-Russian partnership is, of course, the key to this effort. And BRICS, a loose grouping of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, and the SCO, which includes Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, form the institutional glue of the Moscow-Beijing alliance.

"The only problem," wrote Aleksandr Gabuev of the Moscow Carnegie Center, "is that Russia’s growing fascination with BRICS and the SCO coincides with diminishing Chinese interest in both projects."

And this illustrates the fundamental asymmetry in the Sino-Russian relationship.

China views BRICS and the SCO as two of many vehicles to elevate its status as a rising world power. Russia is clinging to them to slow down its decline.

Beijing is pursuing a multivectored foreign policy, keeping its doors open to the West while building up its power in Asia. Having burned its bridges with the West, Moscow only has one place to turn.

The Chinese are playing a long game and thinking strategically. A confident and rising power, they feel no need to confront the West head on at this point. The Russians are reacting to short-term needs and thinking tactically.

It Ain't Bretton Woods

The last time BRICS and SCO summits took place back-to-back in Russia, in 2009 in Yekaterinburg, came in the wake of Russia's war with Georgia and in the aftermath of the global financial crisis.

Moscow used that gathering to call for an overhaul of the Bretton Woods system of Western-dominated global financial institutions, claiming they were no longer adequate to address the world's economic problems.

At this week's BRICS gathering, Moscow is hyping the unveiling of the New Development Bank, which will finance infrastructure and other projects, and a $100 billion currency reserve fund to protect member countries from global liquidity risks.

Listening to Kremlin officials, one would think these fledgling institutions are already ready-to-use alternatives to the IMF and the World Bank.

There were even suggestions that the New Development Bank could step in and bail out Greece, should talks with the IMF and European Union fail.

Beijing, however, sees things differently. It is less interested in the New Development Bank than it is in promoting its own pet project, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

"In private conversations, Chinese experts and officials speak quite frankly about what they see as the limited capacity of BRICS," Gabuev wrote. "In China's global strategy, BRICS plays an important but clearly defined role." 

China, he argues, seeks to use the BRICS institutions to leverage the West into giving it more influence in the IMF and World Bank, and to Chinese officials experience managing international financial institutions.

And Beijing is also souring on the SCO.

Beijing "initially saw the project as a way to extend Chinese influence in Central Asia while accommodating Moscow's interests," Gabuev wrote"But the Kremlin’s fears that China would push too far into Russia’s backyard using tools like the SCO Development Bank meant that economic cooperation among SCO countries never took off." 

China, he added, was frustrated by Russia lobbying to invite India into the SCO. Beijing conceded that, but insisted on Pakistan joining, as well.

"More than a year after the two countries initiated most of their bilateral projects, there has been no significant progress, and some projects have been abandoned altogether," Björn Düben, author of a forthcoming report Banking On Beijing: What The Ukraine Crisis Means For The Future Of China-Russia Relations, wrote in a column for Reuters. "Even in the energy sector, the two countries have struggled to carry out their plans."

An Expensive Friend

Despite all this, the Kremlin appears serious about its embrace of China.

"It would be wrong to discount Russia's swing toward China as just a PR campaign to convince Russians their country can do without the West," political analyst Leonid Bershidsky wrote in Bloomberg View. "Russia is a big ship and turning it around is not a quick exercise, but the trend toward closer economic ties with China is real."

And this comes with a large cost. Bershidsky notes that "the Russian government has become willing to contemplate deals with China that would have been unthinkable before the sanctions."

For example, Russia's Transbaikal Krai is negotiating a deal with a Chinese company to rent 300,000 acres of land -- an area roughly the size of the city of Los Angeles -- for 49 years. It is one of 10 such areas in Siberia and the Russian Far East. 

Moreover, China clearly got the better end of the $400 billion energy deal it signed with Russia, amidst much fanfare, in May 2014.

And in case anybody is still wondering who will have the upper hand in this relationship, here's one final data point to consider.

"Beijing has refused to provide diplomatic support to Moscow where it matters most," Duben wrote. "The Chinese leadership has not formally recognized the annexation of Crimea. It did not vote with Russia on Ukraine-related resolutions in the UN Security Council and General Assembly, and it was quick to develop good relations with the new authorities in Ukraine."

Not exactly how you would expect to be treated by your new best friend.


Video The Daily Vertical: Putin's Lockerbie Moment

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July 10, 2015
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.

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.


The Daily Vertical: Russia's China Illusion

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July 09, 2015
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.

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.


Psyops, Mind Games, And Madmen

Does he want us to think he is crazy?

His proposal was slapped down by the Kremlin, dismissed by the Foreign Ministry, and ridiculed by prosecutors. But Yevgeny Fyodorov persisted nevertheless.

Just hours after the Prosecutor-General's Office said that Fyodorov's appeal for an investigation into the legality of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania's independence "had no legal prospects" and was "devoid of common sense," he was on television insisting he was right.

Fyodorov, a State Duma deputy from the ruling United Russia party, told Rossiya-24 television on July 1 that the Baltic states were "illegitimate" and "sooner or later" their independence will be challenged.

"Everyone understands that a state crime took place 25 years ago," he said. "There is a principle of inevitability of punishment. Otherwise, crimes will continue forever."

So Fyodorov is just a loose cannon, right?

Wrong. He's right on message and he's playing his role perfectly. You don't put loose cannons on state television, after all, unless they're tightly scripted.

And the whole little drama about Baltic independence looks increasingly like a carefully choreographed head game.

"It's Yevgeny Fyodorov's job to do this crazy stuff. This is a psyop," Peter Pomerantsev, author of the book Nothing Is True And Everything Is Possible: Inside The Surreal Heart Of The New Russia, said on last week's Power Vertical Podcast

"They do this all the time in the Baltics. The Russians say things like 'we'll reinvade' and 'we can take Tallinn in five seconds,' people in the Western media start repeating it, and markets start to slide in Estonia and Latvia. This is a way to bully the Baltics so people think they are unstable."

Ok, so it was a psyop; a big mind game played out over a couple weeks.

Back in mid-June, United Russia lawmakers Fyodorov and Anton Romanov sent a request to prosecutors calling for an investigation into the Soviet Union's decision to recognize the Baltics' independence -- which they claimed "caused enormous damage to the sovereignty, territorial integrity, national security and defense of the country." 

Nobody paid much attention until two weeks later, on June 31, Interfax cited an unidentified official in the Prosecutor-General's Office as saying that an investigation would indeed be opened. 

Cue alarming headlines.

The Baltics get jittery. The Kremlin plays dumb. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov acts dismayed. And the next day, the Prosecutor-General's Office announces the whole thing is a non-starter. And everybody is left scratching their heads, albeit relieved that World War III isn't iminent. 

So mission accomplished.

Active Measures In The Baltics

But here's the thing. Russian psyops are rarely one-off affairs. Each tends to fit into a larger mosaic geared to a specific goal.

And this one we just witnessed was part of a dizzying montage of what the Russian security services call "active measures" aimed at the Baltics.

Russia, for example, has launched criminal cases against Lithuanian citizens who avoided serving in the Red Army -- and even asked the authorities in Vilnius to assist in locating them. 

Two pro-Kremlin groups in Riga -- the Association Against Nazism and Eurasian Union -- appear to be trying to stir up trouble between Latvia and Lithuania.

The groups launched a petition demanding that Lithuania return the territory of Palanga to Latvia and for the two countries to renegotiate their border. It also calls on the Latvian authorities to take the matter to the European Union. 

There are also widespread suspicions that Russia is trying to instigate tensions between Lithuania and its ethnic-Polish minority -- and by extension between Vilnius and Warsaw. Earlier this year, a Facebook page for the People's Republic of Vilnius appeared, and called for Polish "little green men" to liberate the Lithuanian capital.

And in Estonia, pro-Moscow activist Dmitry Klensky has appealed to that country's Russian minority to rise up in support of allegedly oppressed Russians in Latvia.

Klensky noted that Russian civic organizations in Estonia have been silent on the issue and suggests they have either been bought off or repressed.

There are also small projects like the Facebook page for Respublika Baltiiskaya Rus, or the The Baltic Republic of Rus, which it claims encompases much of eastern Estonia. 

And all these little psyops and active measures come amid a series of menacing overflights, border provocations, and, of course, the abduction of Estonian law-enforcement officer Eston Kohver.

Writing on his blog, veteran Kremlin-watcher Paul Goble noted that this all suggests that the Kremlin is "laying the groundwork for a more aggressive stance against the Baltic states." 

Operation Madman

But threatening, intimidating, and destabilizing the Baltic states are just one step in what the Kremlin is trying to accomplish.

If nothing else, the past year has illuminated the degree to which Vladimir Putin is determined to revisit and re-litigate the breakup of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. 

This isn't just posturing. It isn't just a talking point. He's serious.

"You have a general pattern where in virtual terms Russia is trying to replay what happened from 1989-91. Russia is arguing that there was no post Cold War settlement, no negotiated end to the USSR," Andrew Wilson, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and author of the book Virtual Politics: Faking Democracy In The Post-Soviet World, said on last week's Power Vertical Podcast

And as the Kremlin rolls this out in the form of psyops, active measures, and threatening gestures, many in the West are left wondering whether the Russian leadership has lost its collective mind. And that's precisely the point.

"They want us to think they are dangerous, that they are prepared to contemplate a nuclear strike," Wilson said.

"They want to be the villain who is thought to be dangerous and who gets his way because we don't want to escalate or provoke him."

In his interview with Rossiya-24, Yevgeny Fyodorov asked whether the West would really be willing to risk nuclear war over Tallinn, Riga, and Vilnius.

"Listen, you and I understand perfectly well that the Americans will not put their cities - Washington, New York and the rest - in danger because of some Baltic problems," he said. "We are a nuclear power. This is nonsense and everyone understands this. But it is necessary to expose this nonsense."

No, Fyodorov is not going rogue. He's not a loose cannon. And he's not off message. He's playing his role perfectly.


The Daily Vertical: Russia's Play For Greece

The Daily Vertical: Russia's Play For Greecei
X
July 08, 2015
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.

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.


Video The Daily Vertical: Baltic Head Games

The Daily Vertical: Baltic Head Gamesi
X
July 07, 2015
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.

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.


The Kremlin's Cold War Dreams

An anti-U.S. demonstration in Moscow

Brian Whitmore

Activists in St. Petersburg harass and film guests arriving at an Independence Day reception at the U.S. Consulate in St. Petersburg, peppering them with questions about sanctions and same-sex marriage. 

Teenagers in the town of Bratsk in the Irkutsk region mark Youth Day by kicking a cardboard cutout of U.S. President Barack Obama. Those who managed to kick him in the face got five points; those who could only reach his midsection got four.

And a man in the village of Brekhovskaya in Yaroslavl Oblast kills his friend after becoming convinced that he is an American spy. Afterward, he called the police himself and told them that he had neutralized a dangerous foreign agent.

Anti-Americanism in Russia is, of course, nothing new. A poll by the independent Levada Center earlier this year showed that more than 80 percent of Russians have a negative view of the United States -- a post-Soviet high. 

But it all appears to have become more hysterical, more absurd, and more lethal of late.

And it is not only being fed by the predictable rabble rousers like the bombastic State Duma deputy Yevgeny Fyodorov, who recently said "the United States wants to kill me and hang my child." 

It is also being encouraged by top Kremlin officials like Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, who said in an interview last month with Kommersant that the United States "really would like it if Russia did not exist as a state at all."

Patrushev's remarks did seem to cross a line. In an editorial, the daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta called them "unprecedented" for a senior Russian official, adding that they indicated that the cresting wave of anti-Americanism is not just tactical -- and certainly not just rhetorical.

If this is not just "a maneuver, but a strategic choice," the paper wrote, it means Russia's conflict with the West is approaching "the point of no return." 

Part of all this is just performance art and Kremlin dramaturgia. The key plot line in the movie that Vladimir Putin's regime is showing the masses to legitimize their rule is that of a Russia encircled by a treacherous West bent on destroying the motherland. And the main villain in the film, of course, is the United States.

And some of it is explained by sincere anti-American sentiments (which are always latent among part of both the elite and the masses) that have become manifest -- and more intense.

But the driving force behind it is an insatiable need by those in Putin's Kremlin to reclaim what they believe they are entitled to: their lost status as a global superpower.

Russia can't have a real Cold War with the West. It isn't strong enough -- not militarily and certainly not economically. And it lacks a viable alternative to democratic liberal capitalism.

But what it can do is create the illusion of a Cold War -- a blockbuster movie about a superpower showdown -- if only for themselves.


Audio Podcast: Is the Kremlin Drinking Its Own Kool-Aid?

The war movie that became real

In place of politics, there is performance art. Instead of debate, there is spectacle. In lieu of issues, there is dramaturgia. And in place of reality, there is fantasy.

Russia's politics have long been virtual. But this alternative reality has become more intense -- and more toxic -- of late.

And as the dose of virtual reality gets higher and higher to satisfy the addiction, more and more people have begun to believe the fantasy is actually real.

On the new Power Vertical Podcast, I discuss this phenomenon with two leading experts on the issue: Peter Pomerantsev, author of the book Nothing Is True And Everything Is Possible: Inside The Heart Of The New Russia, and Andrew Wilson, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and author of the book Virtual Politics: Faking Democracy In The Post-Soviet World.

Enjoy...

Podcast: Is the Kremlin Drinking Its Own Kool-Aid?
Podcast: Is the Kremlin Drinking Its Own Kool-Aid?i
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PROGRAMMING NOTE: Due to the public holiday, all Power Vertical products will take a hiatus on July 6. We'll be back full-force on July 7.

 

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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