Saturday, July 04, 2015


Audio Podcast: Putin's History Channel

Welcome to my parallel universe.

Brian Whitmore

It's an alternative reality.

It's a world where Hitler was a good guy until 1941; where the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was a defensive move by a pacifist Kremlin; where the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia protected that country from fascists and a NATO invasion; where Ukraine isn't really a country.

It's a parallel universe where the U.S.S.R. never really broke up at all.

Welcome to Vladimir Putin's History Channel, where the past is a weapon to control the present and master the future.

In this week's Power Vertical Podcast, we look at the Kremlin's legislation, regulation, and manipulation of history -- and what this is doing to Russian society. 

Joining me are Kirill Kobrin, editor of the Moscow-based history and sociology magazine Neprikosnovenny Zapas; 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.

Enjoy... 

Power Vertical Podcast: Putin's History Channel
Power Vertical Podcast: Putin's History Channeli
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Listen to or download the podcast above or subscribe to The Power Vertical Podcast on iTunes.​


Paranoia As Policy

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Brian Whitmore

Russia, it appears, is quickly becoming a nation of conspiracy theorists.

According to a recent poll, 45 percent of Russians now believe in the existence of a secret global government "that controls the authorities of many countries." Just 32 percent said such an organization did not exist, while 23 percent said it was hard to answer. 

Russians have long been prone to this kind of thing. But suddenly they are seeing conspiracies everywhere.

The United States and Switzerland investigate corruption in FIFA, world soccer's governing body, something long and widely recognized as a problem. An obvious plot, hatched in Washington, to prevent Russia from hosting the 2018 World Cup.

Ordinary citizens in Macedonia become outraged over corruption and abuse of power and take to the streets in antigovernment protests. A clear case of the U.S. State Department fomenting another colored revolution.

And the authorities are actively stoking these attitudes.

"In line with this worldview, Russia's role in the world is to resist the 'global government's' conspiracy," political analyst Leonid Bershidsky wrote in a recent column for Bloomberg.

And to a degree, they believe their own hype. And this is because Vladimir Putin's regime itself operates in a conspiratorial way. For them, governance is just one big "spetsoperatsia," or covert op.

Take the FIFA corruption scandal, for example. Vladimir Putin's remarks hinting that it was a sneaky anti-Russian plot illustrate that he is incapable of understanding that a criminal case could be launched because prosecutors detected criminal activity. In his mind, there just has to be an ulterior political motive.

This is how he operates; this is how the Russian justice system operates, so he therefore thinks this is how everybody operates. Just ask Aleksei Navalny.

Likewise, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's claim that the Macedonian uprising was a Western-sponsored coup reflects the Kremlin's complete negation of civil society. It is unlikely, if not impossible, in their minds, for citizens to independently form voluntary associations to achieve a political goal. There must be a hidden hand.

Since Russia is the land of fake political parties, government-organized NGOs, stage-managed elections, and rent-a-crowd pro-regime demonstrations, then, in the Putin regime's collective mind, everyplace else must therefore operate this way as well.

Much of the regime's recent paranoia can be traced to Georgia's 2003 Rose Revolution, and, especially, to Ukraine's Orange Revolution the following year.

"Ukraine’s Orange revolution of 2004-2005 deeply traumatised Russia’s elite, intensifying its sense of insecurity and leading the party of power to interpret world events through its fear of remote-controlled colour revolutions," Ivan Krastev, head of the Sofia-based Center for Liberal Strategies, wrote recently in the Financial Times.

Krastev called the belief that street protests are organized by Russia's enemies "patently delusional" but "far from harmless." In a world where civic activism is on the rise, "this is a formula for endless conflict."

But the conspiratorial mind-set has since been extrapolated. According to Yale University historian Timothy Snyder, author of the acclaimed book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, it is visible in the way the Kremlin is legislating, regulating, and controlling the dissemination of history.

"The way that history is legislated now in Russia is that there is Russian history and there is a plot of everyone else against Russia," Snyder told RFE/RL's Russian Service in a recent interview

"If you learn that history is just everyone in the world working against you all the time without cease for 1,000 years; if that is the history that you learn, it is pretty hard for you to cooperate with the rest of the world."

Which means we could be moving into a very frightening place, indeed.

"Putin and his people are now far outside the realm of the conventional," Bershidsky wrote

"They see themselves as warriors of light in a world suffocated by a Western conspiracy. To them, there is far more at stake than just the regime's survival. That's what makes them dangerous."


The Daily Vertical: Russia's Assets Become Liabilities

The Daily Vertical: Russia's Assets Become Liabilitiesi
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June 19, 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: Why Do They Bother?

The Daily Vertical: Why Do They Bother?i
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June 18, 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.
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.


Putin Relitigates His Midlife Crisis

Hey, it's cooler than a tattoo or a sports car!

Brian Whitmore

For Vladimir Putin, 1989-91 must have really sucked.

He had to face down a crowd of angry anticommunist demonstrators outside KGB headquarters in Dresden after the Berlin Wall fell. He had to frantically burn intelligence files. And then he had to drive back to the Soviet Union and watch it implode as well.

And on top of it all, he was pushing 40.

It must have been the mother of all midlife crises. And now, Putin and his allies apparently want to use their control over Russia's political and law enforcement institutions to try and relitigate it all.

A series of moves by legislators, prosecutors, and top officials aim to reimagine and reinterpret the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union -- and in some cases act as if these things never really happened at all.

All of these moves are pretty bizarre. Most are just plain silly. And some are pretty menacing.

The Draft Dodgers Of Lithuania

Russia's attempts to prosecute Lithuanians who avoided serving in the Soviet military is all three at once.

After Lithuania declared independence from the Soviet Union in March 1990, but before the U.S.S.R. formally dissolved in December 1991, the republic's leaders called on draft-age men not to serve in the Red Army. Some 1,500 heeded the call and went into hiding. Dozens were jailed or forcefully drafted.

After the Soviet collapse, Moscow dropped the criminal charges against the men. But late last year, Russian prosecutors reopened them -- and, remarkably, asked Lithuanian law enforcement for assistance. The request, of course, was denied.

Bizarre? Yes. Silly? Check. But for these men, this is no joke.

A 45-year-old Lithuanian chauffeur was so spooked by it all that he only agreed to be interviewed by The Economist under the pseudonym Tomas.He told the British weekly that Lithuania's Defense Ministry called to warn him about Moscow's intentions -- and advised that he not travel outside of EU or NATO countries, lest he be extradited. 

Smash The State Council

Another item from the bizarre, silly, and menacing department: Two lawmakers from the ruling United Russia party have asked the Prosecutor-General's Office to assess the legality of the U.S.S.R. State Council and its actions. 

Wait. Assess the legality of what? And why?

Ok. Here's the thing. The U.S.S.R. State Council was established by Mikhail Gorbachev on September 5, 1991, following the failed hard-line coup against him the previous month. It existed for less than four months as the country's main governing authority, and basically midwifed the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December of that year.

One of the council's most significant decisions, made just two days after it was established, was recognizing the independence of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

And according to State Duma Deputies Yevgeny Federov and Anton Romanov, this led to the Soviet Union losing "strategically important territory and sea ports" as well as"causing enormous damage to the sovereignty, territorial integrity, national security, and defense of the country and caused the dismemberment of a unified state."

Given Russia's menacing moves toward the Baltics, this is ominous.

For the past year, we have witnessed bellicose rhetoric, provocative military exercises, menacing overflights, violations of sea- and airspace, border incursions, and at least one abduction.

And now we have a challenge to the very legality -- in Moscow's eyes at least -- of the Baltic states' independence.

The 'Annexation' Of East Germany

It is hard to consider speaker Sergei Naryshkin's call for the State Duma's Foreign Affairs Committee to condemn West Germany's "annexation" of East Germany in 1990 as menacing.

In fact, since it has no practical repercussions, it's hard to consider it anything other than just bizarre and silly.The idea originated with a proposal by Communist Party lawmaker Nikolai Ivanov, and in saner times it would have ended there as well.

But not only did Naryshkin take it seriously, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov actually amplified it -- in Germany! -- at this year's Munich Security Conference. Lavrov told the conference that unlike Crimea, "Germany was united without a referendum" -- drawing derisive laughter from the assembled dignitaries.

Head-scratch inducing to be sure. But it sort of makes sense when one considers the trauma Putin claims he experienced as East Germany overthrew its Moscow-backed communist rulers.

Maybe he should have just gotten himself a sports car.


Video The Daily Vertical: Russia's Threat From The East

The Daily Vertical: Russia's Threat From The Easti
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June 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.


Fighting The Long War

Settling in for a protracted conflict.

Brian Whitmore

The U.S. chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff says Washington may consider putting intermediate-range nuclear weapons in Europe, and Britain's top diplomat says the United Kingdom would consider hosting them. 

A Russian military plane buzzes NATO warships in the Baltic Sea; a Russian fighter jet comes within 3 meters of a U.S. spy plane over the Black Sea; and U.S. and Russian naval officers meet to to discuss how to avoid an accidental clash at sea or in the air.

The Pentagon announces plans to station heavy weapons in the Baltic states; and Moscow pledges to retaliate by speeding up the deployment of Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad and beefing up Russian forces in Belarus.

Welcome to the new normal. After more than a year of conflict in Ukraine, the standoff between Russia and the West has become routine -- and it is becoming institutionalized.

No, this isn't a new Cold War, at least not yet.

Russia isn't a superpower with global reach and it doesn't lead a bloc of nations that enjoys rough parity with the West. But it is deploying the power it does have very effectively and is capitalizing on its asymmetrical advantages.

The Kremlin also isn't offering a viable alternative model to Western liberal democratic capitalism. But Vladimir Putin's challenge to the West has an ideological component that taps into a potent backlash against globalization and the universalization of liberal Western values.

So while we may not be in a Cold War, which, after all, was the product of a specific period in history, we are in the early stages of something that is shaping up to be a Long War.

Russia may not be a global superpower. But neither is it some rogue state that can be easily isolated and neutralized. And the recent Western measures show an understanding that Moscow has to be dealt with in a systematic and sustained way.

The West's conflict with Russia, says Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Moscow, "is not going to be resolved in weeks or months; this challenge will take years, even decades." 

And at stake is nothing less than the fate of the post-Cold War international order.

The Security Challenge

Boris Yeltsin did it. Vladimir Putin did it. And Dmitry Medvedev did it.

Every occupant of the Kremlin since 1991 attempted to persuade the West to negotiate a European security architecture that would diminish NATO's primacy and give Moscow an exclusive sphere of influence in the former Soviet space.

Each was rebuffed. And Russia's reaction to this is at the heart of Moscow's current challenge to the West.

The post-Cold War European order, political analysts Ivan Krastev and Mark Leonard wrote recently in Foreign Affairs, was based on the assumption that "economic interdependence, international legal institutions, and mutual interference in one another’s domestic politics" was the "primary source of security." 

And the belief was that this model would extend outward through NATO and European Union enlargement coupled with the rise of global institutions like the International Criminal Court and World Trade Organization.

"Until recently, most Europeans believed that their post-Cold War security order held universal appeal and could be a model for the rest of the world," Krastev and Leonard wrote. "Russia shattered that assumption last year when it invaded Crimea."

The Kremlin has long feared that the European security order was a potential threat to Russia's sovereignty. And it was this fear -- more than any Slavic affinity for Serbia -- that was at the heart of Moscow's opposition to NATO's intervention in the Kosovo conflict.

But Russia's concerns about its own sovereignty also had a flip side -- a disregard for the sovereignty of others. Specifically, Moscow was also afraid that the post-Cold War order would prevent it from intervening in the affairs of its neighbors.

This was at the heart of the Kremlin's opposition to NATO -- and later EU -- enlargement.

"For 20 years, the Russian Federation has officially -- not privately, informally, or covertly, but officially -- equated its own security with the limited sovereignty of its neighbors," veteran Kremlin-watcher James Sherr said in a lecture at the Latvian Defense Academy's Center for Security and Strategic Research in March. 

On last week's Power Vertical Podcast, Sherr noted that prior to the annexation of Crimea, Russia bided its time and more or less played by the West's rules. Although it did test the waters, with moves like cyberattacks against Estonia in 2007 and the five-day war against Georgia in 2008. 

"They pushed and played with the rules, but they stayed inside sufficiently so that it was convenient for key actors in the West to ignore the changing mood in Russia, the growth of its bitterness and at the same time its confidence," Sherr said. "And now what has happened is that the Russians have mounted a fundamental assault on the legal basis of the post-Cold War security order."

And given the determination of Moscow's challenge, the West is now forced to defend the post-Cold War security order or cede a sphere of influence to Russia in the former Soviet space.

"The West has made an enormous political, economic, and moral investment in this post-Cold War security system. You have to be very shortsighted and very ignorant to be indifferent to all this," Sherr said.

The Ideological Challenge

It is Moscow's duty to represent, protect, and defend ethnic Russians everywhere. The Russian world is a distinctive civilization where the West's rules, norms, and values do not apply. Western civilization is decadent and in decline.

Unlike the Soviet Union, Russia is not offering an alternative model to Western liberalism. Instead, the ideological component of Moscow's challenge to the West is instead a negation.

Speaking on last week's Power Vertical Podcast, New York University professor and Russia-watcher Mark Galeotti called it "a backlash against the globalization of values."

Moscow is presenting a potent cocktail that unites cultural resentment, antiglobalization, Euroskepticism, cultural conservatism, and anti-Americanism.

"The whole ideology of Putinism is based upon civilization," Sherr said on the podcast. "It is based upon identity. It is based upon opposing liberal postmodernism, which is caricatured as opposing gay rights."

Putin's civilizational challenge has garnered sympathy among the members of the BRICS group uniting Russia with rising powers Brazil, China, India, and South Africa.

And with its adherents on Europe's far left, such as Greece's ruling Syriza party, and on its far right, such as France's National Front, it is creating something of a wedge within the West itself.

It even has supporters among leaders in Europe and on its periphery, including Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

This may not be a unified ideology or a truly viable alternative to Western liberalism. But for the time being, it is a powerful spoiler with some traction.

And it appears to fulfil a prophecy the late political scientist Samuel Huntington made in his seminal 1993 essay The Clash Of Civilizations that the future fault line of world politics was likely to pit the West against the rest.

So it's time to settle in for a Long War. It promises to be a protracted conflict of variable intensity that will be fought on multiple fronts.

It will involve brinksmanship on NATO's eastern frontier. It will be a clash over the futures of former Soviet republics like Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova and for influence in former Yugoslav ones like Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Macedonia.

It will be a battle for hearts and minds fought on the airwaves and in cyberspace.

And it's going to last for some time.


Video The Daily Vertical: Wait. What? Why?!

The Daily Vertical: Wait. What? Why?!i
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June 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: Be Careful What You Wish For, Mr. Putin

The Daily Vertical: Be Careful What You Wish For, Mr. Putini
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June 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.
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.


Audio Briefing: Tanks, Summits, And Money

Estonian President Hendrik Ilves greeting U.S. troops in Estonia.

Brian Whitmore

The United States announces plans to station heavy weapons in the Baltic states. The Finnish president is due to visit Moscow as Helsinki mulls NATO membership. And the St. Petersburg International Business Forum is due to open.

This week's Power Vertical Briefing looks at three issues in the news this week: Moscow's's reaction to U.S. plans to store battle tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, and other heavy weapons in eastern Europe; the planned visit of Finnish President Sauli Niinisto to Moscow amid rising tensions; and what to expect at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum.

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

Enjoy...

Briefing: Tanks, Summits, And Money
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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: The Long War

This is going to take a while.

Brian Whitmore

It's going to be a protracted conflict and Ukraine is just the first major battle.

It's going to be fought in different ways and on multiple fronts: on NATO's eastern frontier; over the countries of the former Soviet Union, in the energy market, over the airwaves, and in cyberspace.

We should have no illusions. The West's conflict with Russia is not going away anytime soon, regardless of how the current standoff in Ukraine is resolved.

And what is at stake is nothing short of the future of the international order.

This ain't no Cold War. Russia isn't strong enough for that.

But according to The Russia Challenge, a widely read and highly influential report issued by Chatham House last week, it is shaping up to be a Long War. A protracted looking-glass conflict with a weakening, but still very dangerous, Russia.

On the latest Power Vertical Podcast, we discuss the new Chatham House report and its recommendations.

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 one of the report's authors, James Sherr, an associate fellow with Chatham House's Russia and Eurasia program.

Enjoy...

Power Vertical Podcast: The Long War
Power Vertical Podcast: The Long Wari
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Listen to or download the podcast above or subscribe to The Power Vertical Podcast on iTunes.​


The Daily Vertical: Tangled Web

The Daily Vertical: Tangled Webi
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June 12, 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.


Putin's Deadly Zugzwang

Unpredictable, desperate, and dangerous.

Brian Whitmore

A statement appeared this week on the website of Lithuania's armed forces claiming that NATO's Sabre Strike exercises in the Baltics and Poland were preparations for an annexation of Kaliningrad. It, of course, was the work of hackers and was quickly removed.

On the same day, pro-Kremlin activists were detained at a military base in Latvia participating in Sabre Strike. They had climbed the fence, torn down a U.S. flag, and replaced it with the orange-and-black colors of the St. George ribbon. 

Childish pranks and petty vandalism to be sure, but also signs of our dangerous times. And we're certain to see more of this kind of thing for a while -- as well as more menacing gestures.

Just days after meeting Vladimir Putin in Sochi, Raul Khajimba, the de facto president of Georgia's breakaway Abkhazia region, appointed a Russian general as chief of staff of its armed forces. 

And some 1,500 Russian soldiers began drone training exercises this week in Georgia's other pro-Moscow separatist region, South Ossetia. 

From the abduction of Estonian law-enforcement officer Eston Kohver by Russian agents to Moscow launching criminal cases against Lithuanian citizens who avoided the Soviet draft to provocations in frozen-conflict zones, the signs are everywhere that Putin's showdown with the West is going to be a long and tense standoff. 

And this is going to be the case regardless of how the Ukraine conflict is resolved.

As veteran Kremlin-watcher James Sherr wrote in a recent report for Chatham House, if Russia gets its way in Ukraine -- a "federalized" and "neutral" state that Moscow can manipulate at will -- it will only be emboldened to act elsewhere. And the result would be the death of the post-Cold War world order -- as well as the West's credibility.

"Betraying Ukraine -- what else would it be? -- and, soon enough, Moldova and Georgia will add to the stock of Vichyite states in Europe with no love for what remains of the West, and even less respect," Sherr wrote.

"It will then be entirely rational for Latvians or Poles to ask why, if the West is unwilling to uphold the Paris Charter by means short of war, it should be willing to uphold the Washington Treaty by means of war when ‘hybrid’ threats arise."

And if -- as appears increasingly likely -- the Ukraine conflict settles into a stalemated frozen conflict in which Moscow has to settle for less than Ukraine becoming its vassal?

Since Putin has staked his political legitimacy -- and indeed survival -- on a twilight showdown with the West, a stalemate is unacceptable. In this case, he will need to turn up the heat, either in Ukraine or elsewhere.

"In chess terms, Putin is not in a stalemate, he's in a zugzwang: He is forced to make further moves even if they worsen his position, precisely because he must keep selling his 'war of civilizations' concept to Russians," Leonid Bershidsky, the self-exiled Russian political analyst wrote in Bloomberg recently.

"He cannot afford a prolonged lull in events, because he must keep his audience focused."

Putin is determined to blow up the post-Cold War order in Europe and turn the former Soviet republics into Moscow's vassals. The only way to stop him is to defeat him by means short of war with a nuclear-armed rogue state.

The Chatham House report recommends a series of steps to contain Putin, some of which are already in progress: turn Ukraine into a strong sovereign European state; get serious about backing Georgia and Moldova's European aspirations; rearm and refocus NATO and boost the alliance's credibility; systematically counter the Kremlin's disinformation machine; and strip Russia of political leverage in energy markets.

As Bershidsky suggests, this may not be enough given Putin's desperation and unpredictability. But it may be the best that can be done.

There won't be any quick victory. But given the structural weaknesses of the Russian economy -- and barring the Kremlin leader doing something really crazy -- it just might work.

"Whether the West plays its cards well or badly, it faces a protracted struggle with Russia," Sherr wrote.

NOTE TO READERS: Be sure to tune in to this week's Power Vertical Podcast, when the issues raised in this post will be discussed. The guests will be James Sherr and Mark Galeotti.


Video The Daily Vertical: Unequal Partners

The Daily Vertical: Unequal Partnersi
X
June 11, 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.
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.


Video The Daily Vertical: When Vladimir Met Francis

The Daily Vertical: When Vladimir Met Francisi
X
June 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 Putin Syndicate

The Godfather

When Russia annexed Crimea, the Kremlin installed a reputed gangster known as "the Goblin" to run the peninsula. When Moscow's agents abducted Estonian law enforcement officer Eston Kohver, they used a mafia-run smuggling ring to set him up. 

And of course, organized crime groups have played a prominent role in the Moscow-instigated conflicts in Transdniester, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Donbas.

It has become something of a cliche to call Vladimir Putin's Russia a "mafia state." But cliche or not, the term actually fits. Not just because the Kremlin and organized crime groups are closely linked. And not just because Moscow uses gangsters as instruments of policy.

The term is most apt because the Putin regime actually operates like a crime syndicate. It uses threats, intimidation, and extrajudicial violence to achieve its goals. It has teams of enforcers to harass, harm, and -- if necessary -- kill its enemies.

It is even structured like a crime syndicate. It is run by a tight cabal of "made men" who oversee their own crews of capos and underbosses.The made men are led by a godfather-like figure whose main function is to settle disputes among them.

The Putin Syndicate has its code and its rituals. It has a team of respectable consiglieres, who, like good little mafia lawyers and accountants, give it a facade of respectability. In this sense, Tom Hagen has nothing on Sergei Lavrov. 

And its goal is simple. Self-perpetuation and self-enrichment.

But just as La Cosa Nostra adorned itself in age-old Sicilian traditions and the venerable rites of Roman Catholicism (recall the chilling baptism scene from The Godfather), the Putin Syndicate cloaks itself in Russian nationalism and Orthodox Christianity.

But all the pomp and ceremony masks a much more banal reality.

Be Corrupt, Be Very Corrupt

Vladimir Yakunin is doing pretty well for himself. According to an investigation by anticorruption blogger Aleksei Navalny, the longtime Putin crony and boss of Russian Railways controls a business empire of offshore companies around the world worth billions of dollars.

"It is an underworld family of the purest kind, and it exists due to its mafia boss, Vladimir Putin, who gives license to steal everything they can get their hands on," Navalny wrote.

Yakunin's case is typical for the syndicate's made men, all of whom have their own little empires: Igor Sechin at the oil giant Rosneft; Yury Kovalchuk at Bank Rossia; Gennady Timchenko at the gas producer Novatek; and construction magnates Arkady and Boris Rotenberg.

Corruption is the Putin Syndicate's lifeblood. It starts at the top and it flows down by design. It isn't a bug in the system, it's a feature -- an essential feature.

"For the Kremlin, corruption has been a reliable means of keeping control over all meaningful elites -- economic, political, municipal, media, even intellectual," Kadri Liik of the European Council on Foreign Relations wrote recently. 

"It is the basis of much upward mobility in Russia. In the clientelist system, loyalty rather than merit is rewarded, and access to illicit wealth is the reward as well as guarantee of continuing loyalty."

And the more widespread the corruption, the better. The more people and companies who are corrupt, the more who are dependent on -- and beholden to -- the syndicate.

Indeed, the syndicate's code demands that its members steal, seek rents, and take bribes and kickbacks -- although not in excess of their rank. It also demands total loyalty.

And those "that do not engage in corruption are clearly alien elements to the system," Liik wrote. "What happens to them depends on the circumstances. If they are dangerous, they will be marginalized or isolated, even destroyed."

And this same principle applies to Russia's neighbors.

Making The World Safe For Graft

Putin's syndicate is more than a small-time local mafia. It's an international conglomerate that seeks to spread corruption -- and by extension its reach -- beyond its borders.

In a 2012 report for Chatham House, James Greene noted how Putin sought to gain control over Ukraine and Belarus's energy infrastructure by using murky companies "such as EuralTransGas and RosUkrEnergo as carrots for elites, and energy cut-offs as sticks." 

But the approach is about more than just energy policy. It's about control.

Greene wrote that by utilizing "the corrupt transnational schemes that flowed seamlessly from Russia to the rest of the former Soviet space -- and oozed beyond it -- Putin could extend his shadow influence beyond Russia's borders and develop a natural 'captured' constituency for maintaining a common Eurasian business space."

And in this sense, the European Union, with all its transparency and accountability, is a mortal threat. Which goes a long way toward explaining Moscow's approach to EU aspirants like Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine.

"Ukraine’s former President Viktor Yanukovych was clearly 'Russia’s person' in Moscow’s eyes -- if not by convictions, then certainly by virtue of his corrupt relationships and the ties that these created," the European Council on Foreign Relations' Liik wrote.

"Yanukovych's talks with the EU were therefore viewed by Moscow not even as a rebellion by Yanukovych, but as a hostile takeover attempt by the West."

And when Putin's syndicate was unable to stop this by buying off Yanukovych, it resorted to more extreme measures.

"Russia’s destabilization of Ukraine...should be seen for what it is: a Kremlin containment effort to prevent Ukrainians from achieving a democratically accountable government that would threaten Russia’s corrupt authoritarian system," Christopher Walker, executive director of the National Endowment for Democracy’s International Forum for Democratic Studies, wrote last year in The Washington Post.

In a recent article expanding on this theme, Walker noted that the Kremlin "aims to erode the rules-based institutions that have established global democratic norms and cemented the post-Cold War liberal order." It is also seeking "to check the reform ambitions of aspiring democracies and subvert the vitality of young democratic countries."

The Kremlin frames this in the language of national security and restoring Russia's international role. But at it's core, it is about protecting the interests of a corrupt syndicate.

-- Brian Whitmore


Video The Daily Vertical: Sell Me A Gun So I Can Shoot You!

The Daily Vertical: Sell Me A Gun So I Can Shoot You!i
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June 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.


Video The Daily Vertical: Just Call It A Rogue

The Daily Vertical: Just Call It A Roguei
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June 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.


Audio Briefing: Sports, Summits, And Show Trials

A FIFA official says Russia could lose the 2018 World Cup; a G7 summit wraps up in Germany while a BRICS meeting kicks off in Moscow; and the trial of an Estonian law-enforcement officer begins in Pskov oblast.

The latest Power Vertical Briefing looks at three issues in the news this week: the reaction to remarks by Domenico Scala, chairman of FIFA's audit and compliance committee, that Russia could lose its right to host the 2018 World Cup if bribery allegations are proven; Moscow's efforts to portray BRICS as an alternative to the G7; and the controversial trial of Estonian law-enforcement officer Eston Kohver.

Joining me is RFE/RL senior editor Steve Gutterman.

Enjoy...

Briefing: Sports, Summits, And Show Trials
Briefing: Sports, Summits, And Show Trialsi
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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: The Baltic Front

It's not so quiet on the Baltic front.

Bellicose rhetoric. Menacing overflights. Violations of sea and airspace. Cyberattacks. Border incursions. And abductions.

For the past year, Russia has been turning up the heat on the Baltic states with alarming military provocations on their frontiers and persistent attempts to agitate their Russian minorities.

For more than four decades, Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians lived under Soviet occupation. And when they all joined NATO 11 years ago, it appeared they were finally, once and for all, free from the hand of Moscow.

But are they?

On this week's Power Vertical Podcast, we look at the Baltic front of Russia's hybrid war with the West.

Joining me are veteran Kremlin-watcher Edward Lucas, author of the books The New Cold War and Deception: Spies, Lies, And How Russia Dupes The West; political analyst Agnia Grigas, author of the forthcoming book Rebuilding The Russian Empire and of The Politics of Energy and Memory Between the Baltic States and Russia; and Vello Pettai, director of the Institute of Government and Politics at the University of Tartu and co-author of the book Transitional And Retrospective Justice In The Baltic States. 

Enjoy...

Podcast: The Baltic Front
Power Vertical Podcast: The Baltic Fronti
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Listen to or download the podcast above or subscribe to The Power Vertical Podcast on iTunes.​

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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