Sunday, February 01, 2015

Podcast: What Happens Next?

A revolution, an annexation, a war, and a looming financial crisis.

From the Euromiadan to the seizure of Crimea to the conflict in the Donbas, 2014 has been a momentous -- and highly consequential -- year.

And with the conflict in eastern Ukraine unresolved, Russia headed for a recession, and the air thick with political uncertainty, 2015 promises to be just as eventful.

In the last Power Vertical Podcast of 2014, we look back at the year that was -- and ahead to the one approaching.

Joining me are co-hosts 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 Kirill Kobrin, editor of the Moscow-based history and sociology magazine "Neprikosnovenny zapas."


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Podcast: The State Of The Empire

Cartoon Of Putin's State-Of-The-Nation Speechi
December 04, 2014
As Putin talks, the ruble sinks (cartoon by Sergei Elkin)

He accused the West of trying to destroy and dismember Russia. He trumpeted the annexation of Crimea, which he called hallowed ground for Russians. And he said speculators were behind the dramatic decline in the ruble's value -- speculators he pledged to punish.

And over the 75 minutes that Vladimir Putin spoke, the ruble lost more than 1.2 percent of its value.

With the Russia currency tanking, oil prices falling, and the Russian economy reeling, Putin offered no apologies, no retreat, and no plan in his annual state-of-the-nation address -- a speech that can be summarized by three Ds: Defiance, Denial, and Delusion.

But despite the bluster, Putin's luck may be running out as the economic costs of his Ukraine adventure begin to hit home.

In the latest "Power Vertical Podcast," we look at Putin's big speech in the context of Russia's looming recession.


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Tags:Vladimir Putin, Russian politics, Power Vertical podcast

Putin's Luck Runs Out

2014 was good. 2015, not so much.

Vladimir Putin has been on quite a roll for about a year now. But December 1, 2014, just might turn out to be the day the tide finally turned against him.

Ever since Russia's annexation of Crimea in March sparked the worst East-West showdown since the Cold War, Moscow has enjoyed a clear asymmetrical advantage: it was prepared to use force to achieve its ends in Ukraine -- and perhaps elsewhere -- while the West was not.

But this week marked something of an inflection point where whatever short-term asymmetrical advantages Moscow enjoyed are now being eclipsed by its long-term structural weaknesses.

And the signs they were aplenty.

First, there was the ruble. The Russian currency -- reeling from the combined effect of sanctions and falling energy prices -- experienced its sharpest one-day drop since the August 1998 financial crisis on December 1, falling below the psychologically important level of 50 to the dollar for the first time.

And then there was oil. The price of this backbone of the Russian economy has fallen 25 percent since the summer. On December 1, following OPEC's decision not to cut production, the price of Brent Crude, the world benchmark, dipped below $70 a barrel, a five-year low. And the slide is expected to continue.

"What do the ruble, oil, and Vladimir Putin have in common?" goes a joke making the rounds in Moscow. "They will all hit 63 this year." 

The twin phenomena also prompted Twitter-user Robert Dambergs to quip, "I hear the ruble will soon be sold by the barrel!" 

And, of course, there was South Stream. After talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara on December 1, Putin announced that Russia will drop the South Stream natural-gas pipeline -- a project the Kremlin once hoped would cement Moscow's dominance over Europe's energy market. The move followed Brussels insistence that Gazprom abide by the EU's antimonopoly laws -- which it had been flouting for years

The New York Times' Andrew Roth called the scrapping of South Stream "a rare diplomatic defeat" for Putin and "a rare victory for the European Union and the Obama administration, which have appeared largely impotent this year as Mr. Putin annexed Crimea and stirred rebellion in eastern Ukraine." 

All true. But such a turnaround was also pretty predictable. And we should expect to see more setbacks for the Kremlin in the coming months.

Because a key source of Russia's strength has long been its ability to reap the benefits of being integrated into the global economy and be treated as a respected member of the international community -- while at the same time flouting their rules.

Prior to the Ukraine crisis, Putin's Russia had indeed found something of a sweet spot.

It was a respectable G8 member that was able to spread its influence by corrupting Western elites, stealthily buy up European energy infrastructure through shady shell companies, and flagrantly violate the EU's antimonopoly legislation.

It could even behave like a rogue occasionally, as in the August 2008 invasion of Georgia, and get off with barely a slap on the wrist.

But in Ukraine, Putin basically jumped the shark. By annexing Crimea he initiated the first forceful change of borders in Europe since World War II. And by manufacturing a pro-Moscow insurgency in Donbas, he effectively invaded Ukraine.

Once this happened -- and particularly after pro-Moscow separatists downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 -- it was no longer possible for Western leaders to continue to pretend that Russia is a respectable member of the international community. It became untenable to carry on with the charade that Moscow was a partner with which they could work. Instead, Russia became a problem they needed to confront.

Russia became a rogue state. And once it did, a crucial source of its strength began to melt away.

Western sanctions and the steady isolation of Russia from the world economy might not have been enough to contain Moscow in the short term. But, with an assist from falling energy prices, they are more than enough to cripple it in the long run.

And the long run begins now.

The Russian government on December 2 acknowledged what has long been obvious, that the economy would slide into recession in 2015.

Official projections say it will contract by 0.8 percent while other estimates say it could shrink as much a 2 percent. Disposable incomes are expected to drop by 2.8 percent. Inflation this year is at 9 percent, and is projected to continue rising. And capital flight is forecast to reach $128 billion.

And on top of all that, Russian firms owe $700 billion to foreign banks and, due to sanctions, are largely blocked from any additional Western financing.

The looming economic crunch "is a completely new reality" for Putin, economist Sergei Guriyev, who fled Russia last year, told "The New York Times." 

"He has always been lucky, and this time, he is not lucky," Guriyev added.

As 2013 drew to a close, Putin appeared to be running circles around his Western counterparts.

He managed to thwart U.S. air strikes against his ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. He strong-armed Armenia -- and temporarily, Ukraine -- into abandoning plans for a free-trade pact with the European Union in favor of the Moscow-led Eurasian Union.

Putin has indeed had a strong year. But 2015 promises to be a lot rougher.

-- Brian Whitmore

Tags:Vladimir Putin, Russian politics, Russian economy, Power Vertical blog, Ukraine Crisis

Podcast: A Year Of Living Dangerously

It began -- appropriately for our times -- with a post on a young man's Facebook page. It grew into a revolution that overthrew a president. And it was followed by an undeclared war that rages to this day.

One year ago, the Euromaidan began. And neither Ukraine nor Russia will ever be the same again.

On the latest "Power Vertical Podcast," we look at how this landmark event has changed Ukraine and Russia -- and where each may be headed.

Joining me are Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies and author of Sean's Russia Blog, and Alexander Motyl, a professor at Rutgers University-Newark and author of numerous books and articles on post-Soviet affairs.


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Tags:Ukraine, Russia, Power Vertical podcast, Euromaidan, Ukraine Crisis

Podcast: The Kremlin's Mind Bombs

Is it real? Is it an illusion? Does it matter?

If it walks like a duck, looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and denies it's a duck -- it's probably Vladimir Putin's duck.

For the past eight months, the world has been subjected to a blitzkrieg of disinformation, distortions, and outright lies from Kremlin officials and the Russian media.

It's been a wild ride. It's been a baffling reinvention of reality. And its been a mass hallucination. No sooner is one Kremlin myth, lie, or distortion debunked than a dozen more pop up in its place.

But there's a method to this madness. And it happens to be one of the strongest weapons in the Russian arsenal.

On the latest Power Vertical Podcast, we discuss Russia's weaponization of information and its implications.

Joining me are co-host Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University, an expert on Russia's security services, and author of the blog "In Moscow's Shadows." Mark and I are joined by two authors of a recent report on Russia's information warfare: Peter Pomarantsev, author of the book "Nothing Is True And Everything Is Possible," and Michael Weiss, editor in chief of the online magazine "The Interpreter."


Power Vertical Podcast: The Kremlin's Mind Bombs
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Tags:Power Vertical podcast, russian propaganda, Information war

Don't Mention The Cold War

Mikhail Gorbachev says we're "on the brink" of one. Henry Kissinger thinks he knows how to avoid one. And Vladimir Putin seems to be trying to provoke one. 

Cold War talk is in the air and Cold War fears are on the rise. Over the past eight months, according to a report by the London-based European Leadership Network, close military encounters between Russia and the West have spiked to their highest levels in decades.

These include "violations of national air space, emergency scrambles, narrowly avoided mid-air collisions, close encounters at sea, simulated attack runs...harassment of reconnaissance planes, close overflights over warships, and Russian ‘mock bombing raid’ missions."

But despite the rhetoric and the posturing, the escalating conflict between Russia and the West is not a new Cold War.

For this to be a Cold War, Russia would need to be a superpower. It is not. Moscow would need to lead a bloc of nations that enjoys rough parity with the West. It doesn't. And it would need to be offering an alternative model to Western liberal democratic capitalism. It isn't.

"Russia is a mid-sized power that lacks the capacity to shape the international environment single-handedly. It is not in the top league with the U.S. and China," political analyst Vladimir Frolov wrote recently in "The Moscow Times." 

"Moscow suffers from superpower phantom pains, but its ambitions are not backed by economic power or technological prowess. Its sole claim to superpowerdom is its nuclear weapons, brandished too cavalierly."

Despite Moscow's best efforts, there is no Russian-led bloc of countries opposing the West. The much-touted BRICS is essentially a group of mid-level powers clinging to a rising China.

And for all its flaws -- and they were legion -- Soviet communism presented an alternative political and economic system to Western democratic capitalism and an alternative development model that enjoyed some traction, particularly in the Third World. What is Russia offering today? Homophobia and gay bashing masquerading as"traditional values"? A kleptocracy fueled by petrodollars? Fantasies of a revived Russian empire?

"Neither Russia nor even China (whose leaders long ago abandoned the communist vanguard for the pursuit of profit) offer universalist ideologies capable of competing with free market capitalism," Stewart M. Patrick, director of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations International Institutions and Global Governance Program, wrote recently on his blog

At best, Moscow is offering a scattershot critique aimed at appealing to all the foes of globalization, be they on the left or the right.

That the Kremlin is not presenting an alternative to the West is even evident in the nature of its propaganda, as Peter Pomerantsev noted in a recent piece in "The Atlantic." 

Putin's Russia, according to Pomerantsev, "reinvents reality, creating mass hallucinations that then translate into political action."

Unlike the propaganda promoting Soviet communism, which was based on a universalist and more-or-less internally consistent and logically coherent ideology, facts and proof are irrelevant.

"For the Soviets, the idea of truth was important -- even when they were lying. Soviet propaganda went to great lengths to 'prove' that the Kremlin’s theories or bits of disinformation were fact," he wrote.

"The point of this new propaganda is not to persuade anyone, but to keep the viewer hooked and distracted -- to disrupt Western narratives rather than provide a counternarrative."

No, this isn't a Cold War. But guess what? It's even scarier and more dangerous.

During the Cold War the Kremlin had a stake in -- and was interested in maintaining -- the existing international system. Despite its ideology and rhetoric, the Soviet Union after Stalin wasn't revolutionary at all. It was a classic status-quo power.

But in the past 25 years, a new international order has taken shape to replace the bipolar superpower rivalry -- and Moscow doesn't like it. It wants the old 20th-century bipolar world back, or a 19th-century concert of great powers, each free to act in their own spheres of influence.

And if it doesn't get it, it is going to do its best to disrupt the existing order.

"Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, however disingenuously denied and creatively concealed, constitutes a frontal assault on the liberal international order that the United States and its Western allies have done so much to promote and build," Patrick of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote. 

Russia's behavior, he added, represents "the resurgence of a more primitive form of power politics" in which established norms like "the principle of sovereignty, the sanctity of borders, the illegitimacy of spheres of influence, and the supremacy of citizenship over ethnicity" are under assault.

The Cold War was a stable and predictable arrangement. The world we are now entering is anything but.

Russia is playing the role of a spoiler. And spoilers bent on challenging the international order -- especially nuclear-armed ones -- are dangerous.

And we've seen this movie before. Napoleonic France tried to disrupt the British-dominated European order in the early 19th century, as did Germany -- twice -- in the early 20th century.

"We are not in a 'revolutionary' period of world politics, in Kissinger’s terms, in which a radical power -- think revolutionary France, Leninist Russia, or Maoist China -- pursues (at least for a while) dreams of world revolution," Patrick wrote.

Not yet. But we could be soon.

-- Brian Whitmore

Tags:Ukraine Crisis, Cold War

Podcast: The World According To Putin

Putin says the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact wasn't such a bad thing after all.

He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past. It's a lesson Vladimir Putin understands well. And one he is putting into practice as we speak.

This week, Putin met in the Kremlin with leading Russian historians to offer some friendly guidance on how Russia's past should be represented.

Putin has taken quite an interest in history of late. And this interest has ominous overtones for Russia's present -- and its future.

On the latest "Power Vertical Podcast," we look at Putin's revision of history and its implications.

Joining me are Rim Gilfanov, a historian who is also director of RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service; Nina Khrushcheva, a professor at the New School and author of the book "The Lost Khrushchev: A Journey into the Gulag of the Russian Mind"; and Ola Cichowlas, a journalist covering Russia whose work has appeared in "The New Republic," "Foreign Policy," and "Politico."


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Tags:Vladimir Putin, Russian politics, Power Vertical podcast, Russian history

Putin Forever

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Patriarch Kirill visit an exhibition on the Rurik Dynasty in Moscow on November 4.

As one of his activities marking the Unity Day holiday, Vladimir Putin joined Patriarch Kirill to view an exhibition commemorating the Rurik Dynasty, which established tsarism in Russia and ruled for seven centuries.

What kind of message was he trying to send? If you look hard enough, and even if you don't, it is pretty easy to find signs that Putin intends to stick around for a long, long time.

There was, of course, Vyacheslav Volodin's oft-cited remark that "as long as there is Putin, there is Russia. Without Putin, there is no Russia."  

There was also Putin's "Class of 2014," the large cadre of people in their 20s and 30s who are being recruited from poor families in Russia's far-flung provinces, vetted for loyalty to Putin, and brought to Moscow to fill low- to midlevel posts in the bureaucracy. 

And there was the most recent report by Kremlin-watcher Yevgeny Minchenko, who tracks the balance of power within the elite. Minchenko concluded that due to the "sharp rise of Putin's rating after the reunification with the Crimea, the subject of succession within the president's circle has been removed." 

We've long passed the point where it's feasible to expect Putin to leave the Kremlin and enjoy a peaceful retirement.

That could have happened back in 2008. Remember those rumors that he was going to head up the International Olympic Committee? It could have happened in 2011-12. Had Putin chosen to allow Dmitry Medvedev to serve a second term, he could have continued to rule from the sidelines like China's Deng Xiaoping -- enjoying de facto power without responsibility or accountability.

But at this point, there isn't a safe exit route from the Kremlin.

Putin isn't going to leave willingly. He certainly isn't going to be removed through the sham events Russia calls "elections." A popular revolution is unlikely to say the least -- a Russian ruler hasn't been overthrown in one of those since 1917. Which leaves a palace coup, which was always the most plausible scenario -- but one that looks increasingly remote.

But as remote as it is, Putin is clearly not taking any chances.

And this, I believe, is the context in which we need to view the rumors that surfaced last week that Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev was about to be sacked and replaced by longtime Putin loyalist Viktor Zolotov. 

Writing on his blog "In Moscow's Shadows," New York University professor and Russian security expert Mark Galeotti described Kolokoltsev as "a proper professional copper, rather than a yes-man transplant from the security agencies" like his predecessors, Boris Gryzlov and Rashid Nurgaliev. He also has support among the rank and file. 

"None of that necessarily counts, though, and it is perhaps more important that Kolokoltsev is a professional, not a courtier, with no traction in Putin’s inner circle," Galeotti wrote.

"In other words, he is just a 'manager' there to do his job, and can be discarded freely -- as far as the Kremlin is concerned -- when he becomes inconvenient or simply someone more convenient comes along."

What is also important at this point is that Kolokoltsev is the only official in the so-called "power bloc" who is not a Putin uberloyalist. FSB chief Aleksandr Bortnikov, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, and Security Council Secretary Sergei Ivanov are all considered politically reliable.

So, probably, is Kolokoltsev. But certainly less so than Zolotov, who is currently Kolokoltsev's first deputy and commander of the Interior Ministry's 170,000-strong paramilitary forces.

Dozhd TV's Anton Zhelov cited unidentified defense ministry sources as saying the "probable reason" for Kolokoltsev's vulnerability is that "he is not part of the president's inner circle, and that in the current environment, this is particularly important. Zolotov is the ideal candidate."

Zolotov and Putin go back. They met in the 1990s when both worked for St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak -- Putin as deputy mayor and Zolotov as chief of security. Zolotov followed Putin to Moscow and his career has been on an upward trajectory ever since.

"A former head of Putin’s personal security (and indeed, one of the president’s judo sparring partners), Zolotov has a reputation as a tough loyalist, a 'maximalist' in the words of one Russian cop, whose interests are in protecting his patron rather than necessarily upholding the law," Galeotti wrote.

Indeed, according to Sergei Tretyakov, a Russian security official who defected to the United States in 2000 and died under mysterious circumstances in 2010, Zolotov once made "a list of politicians and other influential Muscovites whom they would need to assassinate to give Putin unchecked power."

Tretyakov's account has never been corroborated

Dozhd TV reports that if Kolokoltsev is removed and replaced by Zolotov, it would likely only be after the November 10 Police Day holiday.  

"If this does happen, it’ll be a clear sign that the Kremlin is manning the barricades and preparing for trouble ahead," Galeotti wrote.

Which brings us back to the Rurik dynasty. Its long reign ended in 1598 with the political chaos, civil uprisings, usurpers, foreign occupation, and famine of the Time of Troubles.

Putin has long suggested that, should he leave the scene, this would be the result. But by monopolizing power, eliminating all alternatives, destroying Russia's institutions, and suppressing its civil society, he is making the ground fertile for political upheaval when he does finally go.

And like all mortals, he will eventually go -- and that will be his legacy.

-- Brian Whitmore

Tags:Vladimir Putin, Power Vertical blog, Vladimir Kolokoltsev, Viktor Zolotov

Audio Podcast: Putin And The Nationalists

Will they be marching for Putin -- or against him?

It's always been a strained and troubled bond. It's always been more of an alliance of convenience than one of conviction.

Putin's Kremlin and Russia's nationalists have long used each other. And they've long eyed each other with suspicion and apprehension.

The Ukraine crisis appeared to unite Putin and Russia's nationalists as never before. But on the eve of the seminal event on the nationalist calander, the annual Russian March, the old cracks in this dysfunctional partnership are again becoming manifest -- with unpredictable consequences.

On this week's "Power Vertical Podcast," I discuss Putin's complex relations with Russia's nationalist movements.

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 guests Kevin Rothrock, editor of RuNet Echo at Global Voices and Alina Polyakova, a senior research fellow at the University of Bern and expert on the far right in Europe.


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Podcast: The New Putinism

A new and darker Putinism

Fears of sackings, arrests, and purges abound. Talk of fifth columns is pervasive on state media. Rumors swirl that the Soviet-era institution of exit visas may make a comeback. And wary of surveillance, officials are ditching their smartphones for older, less fashionable -- and less traceable -- models.

Meet the new Putinism. It's different from the old Putinism.

We don't really know if Vladimir Putin's imperial adventure in Ukraine was driven by domestic politics, geopolitical concerns, fears about what example a democratic revolution in Ukraine might set in Russia -- or by a perfect storm encompassing all of the above.

We don't know if the Ukraine campaign was planned long ago or was launched ad hoc when the opportunity presented itself. And we don't know what Putin's true intentions are in Ukraine -- or beyond.

But what we do know is that the Ukraine crisis has fundamentally -- and probably decisively -- changed the way Russia is ruled. And in the brave new world Russia is entering, the soft authoritarianism of the old Putinism looks positively quaint -- and almost benignly liberal -- by comparison.

On the latest "Power Vertical Podcast," I discuss the new Putinism and what it portends.

Joining me are co-host Mark Galeotti, a professor at NYU, an expert on Russia's security services, and author of the blog "In Moscow's Shadows"; Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies and author of "Sean's Russia Blog"; and journalist and Kremlin-watcher Ben Judah, author of the book "Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In and Out of Love With Vladimir Putin."


Podcast: The New Putinism
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Tags:Vladimir Putin, Russian politics, Power Vertical podcast, Putinism

Audio Podcast: Ukraine's Loyalist Russians

An ethnic Russian or Ukrainian?

A country divided between a Ukrainian-speaking west and a Russian-speaking east. An irreconcilable schism forged in history and set in stone. Lviv vs. Luhansk; Orange vs. Blue.

It's long been a truism that Ukraine was hopelessly split. It's a truism repeated endlessly by the Kremlin's propaganda machine -- and one used by Russian President Vladimir Putin to justify his Novorossiya project.

But it's a truism that the majority of Ukraine's ethnic Russians -- in cities like Odesa and Mariupol in the south to Dnipropetrovsk and Zaporizhia in the east to Kharkiv in the north -- are proving false. Most of Ukraine's ethnic Russians, it turns out, are loyal Ukrainian citizens.

On the latest "Power Vertical Podcast," we take a closer look at Ukraine's loyalist ethnic Russians. Joining me are Andreas Umland, a professor of Ukrainian and Russian history at Kyiv Mohyla University, and Natalya Churikova, senior editor of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service and host of the program "European Connect." 


Podcast: Ukraine's Loyalist Russians
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Tags:Ukraine, Russia, Power Vertical podcast, Ukraine Crisis

Putin's Class Of 2014

Activists sit near graffiti depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin at the summer camp of the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi at Lake Seliger this past summer.

The iPhone-toting hipsters hanging out in their trendy downtown Moscow office are just the high-profile part of the Kremlin's new youth strategy.

Founded in November 2013, the youth group Set -- which means "Network" in Russian -- has organized patriotic fashion shows and film festivals, created an alphabet for schoolchildren that highlights the regime's accomplishments, and painted murals in seven cities on October 7 to mark Russian President Vladimir Putin's 62nd birthday.

It has focused on attracting urbane and educated young adults -- the exact demographic that made up the backbone of the antigovernment street protests that roiled the Kremlin in late 2011 and early 2012.

Grigory Tumanov, a journalist covering Kremlin youth policy for the daily "Kommersant," recently told "Foreign Policy" that Russia's twentysomethings don't "know about politics" and "just want to dress nicely and draw graffiti."

"Here, they've made it fashionable to work with the government," he said.

But the rise of Set is just one side of the story. The other aspect of the Kremlin's youth strategy is stealthier -- and much more consequential.

Over the past 18 months, Putin has been quietly bringing a new cadre of officials to Moscow, reshaping the rank-and-file bureaucracy in his own image.

"The most interesting and exciting process unfolding today is in the lower and middle levels of the power vertical," historian and Kremlin-watcher Vladimir Pastukhov wrote in a recent article in  "There is a massive and rapid rejuvenation of personnel." 

According to Pastukhov, this fledgling new nomenklatura is between 25 and 35 years old, hails mostly from the regions, and comes from relatively poor backgrounds. Their recruitment, he adds, has been connected "either directly or indirectly" to the security services.

"Not that they are all chekists," he wrote. "But the security services had a hand in their recruitment."

They were recruited and selected based on their loyalty to the regime and for being "psychologically closer to Putin" than their predecessors. They are also "people without deep roots" who are "ready for anything" that facilitates their advancement.

"So far, their political consciousness is a tabula rasa on which you can draw anything," Pastukhov wrote. "In these brains, you can download any ideological software. The main thing is that it does not interfere with a successful career."

Veteran Kremlin-watcher Paul Goble, who flagged the Pastukhov article on his "Window on Eurasia" blog, wrote that the "new generation of officials...are more like the Soviet-era nomenklatura than like the people they are replacing."

The shift, Goble wrote, "one largely taking place without fanfare, will have far-reaching consequences for how Russia is ruled well into the future, even if few at the present time are talking about it."

The dual-pronged youth strategy seeks to address two problems that have been plaguing the regime since Putin returned to the Kremlin in 2012: an urban-hipster creative class that was in revolt and an underclass in the provinces among whom discontent could easily spread.

The Kremlin gave the former shiny new toys to play with and the latter the possibility of upward mobility.

Without overplaying the analogy, this stealthy, managed generational shift in the nomenklatura is somewhat reminiscent of Josef Stalin's vaunted "Class of 1938," the cadre of officials who were also brought to Moscow from the provinces in the wake of the purges -- and ruled the Soviet Union from the death of Stalin to the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev.

But the analogy may be apt to a degree if Putin faces a revolt among the technocratic wing of the elite, which is becoming increasingly jittery about the economic impact of Russia's confrontation with -- and increased isolation from -- the West.

If the current elite balks at Russia's moves toward greater autarky, Putin may have "no choice but to wage an authoritarian and populist revolution from above," veteran journalist Ivan Sukhov wrote recently in "The Moscow Times."

In such a case, he added, "following Stalin's example looks increasingly attractive if Putin wants to stay in the game."

And in the event of such an elite purge, Putin's "Class of 2014," now filling the lower and middle ranks of the bureaucracy, will be poised to fill the void -- just as Stalin's "Class of 1938" did more than seven decades ago.

-- Brian Whitmore

Tags:Vladimir Putin, Russian politics, Power Vertical blog

Podcast: The Tatars Feel The Heat

Amid a Kremlin crackdown, Crimea's Tatars protest and bury their dead.

Petty harassment, raids on mosques, questionable prosecutions, extrajudicial abductions, torture -- and even killings.

Six months after Russia's forceful annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, the peninsula's 250,000 Tatars are feeling the heat.

Moscow initially tried to woo and co-opt Crimea's Tatar community. But when that effort fell flat, the Kremlin pivoted to its default setting -- the tried and true application of force and fear.

Does the campaign against the Crimean Tatars risk galvanizing -- and potentially radicalizing -- Russia's 5-million-strong Tatar community and turning the country's largest ethnic minority into opponents of the regime? 

On the latest "Power Vertical Podcast," we take a look at the Kremlin's campaign against the Crimean Tatars and what it portends. Joining me are Rim Gilfanov, director of RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service; Merkhat Sharipzhan, a senior correspondent and analyst for RFE/RL's Central Newsroom; and Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University, an expert on Russia's security services, and author of the blog "In Moscow's Shadows."

Also on the podcast, we discuss the Vladimir Putin personality cult, which was on full display for the Kremlin leader's 62nd birthday.


Podcast: The Tatars Feel The Heat
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Tags:Vladimir Putin, Russia, Crimean Tatars, Power Vertical podcast, Ukraine Crisis

Audio Podcast: The Kremlin's Strangest Policy Balloon

"Vengeance of Serfs," an 1845 engraving by Charles Michel Geoffroy

Serfdom is freedom. Liberation is slavery. These days, the signs of the times aren't exactly subtle.

Constitutional Court Chairman Valery Zorkin's recent article praising the institution of serfdom and critiquing its abolition in 1861 raised more than a few eyebrows.

Russia, of course, isn't going back to serfdom. And Zorkin, despite the claims of some critics, wasn't calling for this.

But in Russia, history is never just history. And articles like this don't appear in the government's official newspaper by accident. They are usually meant to send some kind of message to the elite. 

Moreover, in recent years, Zorkin has sometimes acted as a pamphleteer for the Kremlin who telegraphs an emerging policy line.

But if this was a policy balloon, it sure was a doozy.

So what was the real message of this strange and controversial article and what does it portend? On this week's "Power Vertical Podcast," we try to unpack Zorkin's message and take a closer look at Russia's increasingly conservative ideology and political climate.

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 Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies, author of "Sean's Russia Blog." 


The Kremlin's Strangest Policy Balloon
The Kremlin's Strangest Policy Ballooni
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Listen to or download the podcast above or subscribe to "The Power Vertical Podcast" on iTunes.

Tags:Russian politics, Power Vertical podcast, Valery Zorkin, Serfdom

Podcast: Fear And Foreboding In The Kremlin Court

Fear and loathing in Moscow

Two dramatic arrests, 11 years apart. Two mighty oligarchs fall out with the Kremlin -- and take a steep fall. Two signals that an existing political era is coming to an end.

When Vladimir Yevtushenkov, the politically connected CEO of the Sistema conglomerate, was detained and charged with money laundering last week, it sent shock waves through the country's business community.

It also drew inevitable comparisons to the arrest in October 2003 of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, then Russia's richest man.

But if Khodorkovsky's fall more than a decade ago heralded the consolidation of the Russian political elite under President Vladimir Putin -- and ushered in the heady era of high Putinism -- Yevtushenkov's arrest on September 16 appears to indicate something else entirely.

On the latest "Power Vertical Podcast," we discuss how the Yevtushenkov case has spread fear and apprehension among the Russian elite. 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 Ben Judah, author of the book "Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In and Out of Love With Vladimir Putin."


Fear And Foreboding In The Kremlin Court
Fear And Foreboding In The Kremlin Courti
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Listen to or download the podcast above or subscribe to "The Power Vertical Podcast" on iTunes.


Tags:Vladimir Putin, Russian politics, Power Vertical podcast, Vladimir Yevtushenkov

Audio Podcast: The New NATO

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen speaks during a news conference at the Alliance headquarters in Brussels on August 29.

For decades, the West pretended Russia was a partner -- not an adversary -- and sought ways to accommodate Moscow. 

But, as NATO heads of state and government prepare to hold what promises to be a landmark summit in Wales, the mask has come off.

In a special edition of the Power Vertical Podcast, we discuss the upcoming NATO Summit and the emerging conflict between Russia and the West.

Joining me is co-host Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University, an expert on military and security issues, and author of the blog "In Moscow's Shadows."


Power Vertical Podcast -- September 2, 2014
The New Natoi
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Tags:NATO, Russia, Power Vertical podcast, Ukraine Crisis

Audio Podcast: What Does Putin Want?

What does he really want?

It's alluring to assume that Vladimir Putin always has some diabolical master plan up his sleeve -- and often he does 

But there is also ample evidence as the crisis in Ukraine escalates that Kremlin policy is becoming incoherent, erratic, and chaotic.

So what does Putin really want in Ukraine? How cohesive is the Russian elite over the issue? And what happens next?

ALSO READ: Putin's Plan? Or Kremlin Chaos?

On the latest Power Vertical Podcast, we discuss these issues. Joining me are Sean Guillory, social media coordinator at the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies and author of Sean's Russia Blog; and Alexander Motyl, a professor at Rutgers University-Newary and author of numerous books on post-Soviet affairs.

Also on the podcast, we discuss how the war in Ukraine is coming home for Russians as casualties mount in the Donbas.


Power Vertical Podcast -- August 29, 2014
Power Vertical Podcast -- August 29, 2014i
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Listen to or download the podcast above or subscribe to "The Power Vertical Podcast" on iTunes.

Tags:Vladimir Putin, Russian politics, Power Vertical podcast, Ukraine Crisis

Putin's Plan? Or Kremlin Chaos?

Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures as he speaks to the media after talks with Ukrainian President in Minsk on August 27.

It's tempting to assume that Vladimir Putin always has a master plan.

And why not? He's cunning and shrewd. He's steely and ruthless. He's cold and calculating. And his political life has been so charmed that many Russians, as well as many Kremlin-watchers, think he has an almost supernatural -- or at least preternatural -- ability to come out on top.

It's also long been conventional wisdom that important decisions in Russia are made by a so-called "collective Putin," a cabal of oligarchs and security-service veterans close to the Kremlin leader who make up the inner sanctum of Russia's deep state. It reached decisions by consensus with Putin acting as the ultimate decider and arbiter.

But recently, Kremlin policy appears erratic, inconsistent, and sometimes downright incoherent.

Over the past couple weeks it appeared that Putin was looking for a face-saving way to wind down the conflict in eastern Ukraine. 

But even as the Kremlin leader was meeting with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on August 26, he was escalating the conflict and sending in Russian troops.

Is that all just part of the plan? Or is Putin himself becoming erratic? And is the collective Putin coming unglued?

There have certainly been signs that this might be the case. There have been whispers in Moscow, for example, that Putin has become increasingly withdrawn and isolated. He's appearing live on television less frequently, and when he does it only adds to the speculation that something isn't quite right.

For example, Putin was scheduled to make a major address to the nation on August 7, only to have the speech cancelled without explanation.

Then, on August 14, the Russian president addressed a group of officials and lawmakers in Yalta, an event the Kremlin had been hyping for weeks. ITAR-TASS said that it would be a "major" speech and the meeting with lawmakers would be "profound and comprehensive." The state-run Rossia-1 television channel said it would be "the political event of the week."

But at the last minute, the Kremlin pulled the plug on a planned live broadcast of the event.

Writing on Facebook, opposition journalist Sergei Parkhomenko called it "Putin's second false start," adding, "I wonder what it is he cannot bring himself to do?"

Journalist and political analyst Yevgenia Albats suggested on Ekho Moskvy that the confusion illustrated a deep split in Putin's inner circle. "I have the impression that there is a struggle" between "very dark forces" seeking to "intimidate" the West and "more pragmatic comrades who realize that, after all, their money is there," she said on August 18.

If such a battle was going on -- and I suspect it was -- the hard-liners appear to have won a round with Russia's escalation in Donbas over the past week.

But when Putin appeared live on television in the early morning hours on August 27, as that escalation was getting under way in earnest, something was clearly amiss.

Throughout his remarks in Minsk after his two-hour meeting with Poroshenko -- remarks that were fairly unremarkable -- Putin swayed to-and-fro and made odd gestures. His facial expressions were off. It definitely wasn't the cocksure Putin we've come to expect.

"Something appears to be wrong with him. He twitches and grimaces at random," Yelena Rykovtseva of RFE/RL's Russian Service wrote on Facebook. "Maybe this is why they didn't show him in Crimea." 

And Putin's latest remarks on the conflict on August 29, in which he lauded pro-Russian separatists for "undermining Kiev's military operation" were not televised. Instead, they came were released on the Kremlin website in the early morning hours.

-- Brian Whitmore

NOTE TO READERS: Be sure to tune in to the Power Vertical Podcast on August 29 when I will discuss the issues raised in this post with Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies and Alexander Motyl, a professor at Rutgers University-Newark.


Tags:Vladimir Putin, Power Vertical blog, Ukraine Crisis

Freezing The Donbas

Smoke rises during fighting in Makiyivka, about 20 kilometers from the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk.

We've been here before. Most of the world just wasn't paying attention.

When Russian-backed separatists seized control of Georgia's Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions in the early 1990s, it didn't make international headlines. Likewise, when separatist fighters in Moldova's Transdniester region took control of that strip of territory with Moscow's implicit blessing, it was largely met with a collective yawn in the international community.

The script and the playbook have been the same as has the result: exploiting a local ethnic conflict, the Kremlin has repeatedly used local proxies, and then its own troops to seize de facto control of a breakaway region in a former Soviet state. And all the while Moscow has maintained a semblance of plausible deniability that it was the conflicts' principal instigator. 

The result was a series of "frozen conflicts" that Moscow has been able to use to influence and pressure its neighbors. 

And with Russian troops now clearly moving into Ukraine -- opening a new front, assisting separatists in seizing control of the strategic town of Novoazovsk, and halting gains by the Ukrainian Army in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts -- an increasing number of analysts say Vladimir Putin's endgame is to seize as much territory as possible and then freeze the conflict in the Donbas.

"Putin would appear to win, securing Crimea, a frozen conflict in Donbas, which he will assume will cripple the Ukrainian economy and the prospects of a Maidan administration ever succeeding," Timothy Ash, a senior analyst of emerging markets for Standard Bank in London, wrote in the "Kyiv Post." 

Likewise, Arkady Moshes of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs wrote recently in "The Moscow Times" that such an outcome in eastern Ukraine would "become a source of destabilization for Ukraine's adjacent regions" and open "the way for a real Bosnianization of Ukraine." 

And in a report from Transdniester's de facto capital, Tiraspol, the Russian journalist Sergei Podosenov noted that "to a certain extent, Transdniester could represent the favorable scenario for self-proclaimed Novorossia in the event of its secession from Ukraine." 

Tiraspol, he added, "does not look like the capital of a tiny state recognized by no one and located in unfriendly surroundings, but like an everyday, quiet, southern Russian city with little houses covered in ivy."

So are we about to add Donbas to the list of Kremlin-orchestrated frozen conflicts? Perhaps, with some important caveats.

The wars in South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Transdniester that led to those territories becoming de facto Russian protectorates all took place in the early 1990s, in the chaos following the break-up of the Soviet Union. 

"The majority of the current unrecognized states in the former Soviet space emerged atop the wave of the 'parade of sovereignties,' when this was a sort of political trend," journalist Vladimir Dergachev wrote on recently. 

And as a result, the uprisings there appeared to much of the world at the time to be genuine local rebellions, and therefore not so different from the former Soviet republics' independence struggles. In this environment, Russia was able to plausibly claim to be a mediator -- and ultimately to play the role of "peacekeeper" -- in conflicts that it had itself stoked.

And they were able to do so with the West's implicit blessing, or at least tacit consent.

This time, the mask would be off and Moscow wouldn't be able to pursue its goals by stealth. Setting up a frozen conflict in Donbas would intensify Russia's conflict with the West, lead to even more crippling sanctions, and Moscow's deeper isolation. 

"Moscow retained for itself the status of a relatively neutral intermediary in Abkhazia and South Ossetia until 2008, and in Transdniester and Nagorno-Karabakh to this day. In this instance it will no longer be possible," Dergachev wrote.

And knowing the threat that a frozen Donbas conflict would be for Ukraine's statehood, Kyiv would likely prefer to keep the conflict hot. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has said he would not allow a Transdniester scenario in eastern Ukraine.

Moreover, until Russia and its proxies can carve out clearly defined continuous territory, it will be difficult to freeze the conflict. "Strictly speaking, to this day no republics -- even self-proclaimed ones -- exist in the political sense. What we have is an uprising or insurgency," Dergachev wrote.

A more apt analogy than Transdniester, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia, he added, would be Srpska Krajina, the Serbian-backed enclave in Croatia that existed from 1991 until it was retaken by Zagreb.

-- Brian Whitmore

Tags:Power Vertical blog, Donbas, Ukraine Crisis, Frozen Conflicts

Podcast: Russia's Elusive New Normal

Since the annexation of Crimea in March, and throughout the conflict in the Donbas region, much of the Russian elite and public have been living in something of a collective hallucination. Fantasies about imperial glory and "Novorossia" were in the air. St. George ribbons were ubiquitous. And Putin's popularity surged past 80 percent.

It was a dizzying mirage that reset Russia's domestic politics.

But eventually reality intrudes on every hallucination -- and that reality is often accompanied by a nasty hangover.

So if the Ukraine crisis is really winding down, if the hallucination is really over, what will the new normal look like?

On the latest Power Vertical Podcast, we discuss this issue. Joining me are Peter Pomerantsev, author or the forthcoming book "Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia," and Ben Judah, author of the book "Fragile Empire: How Russians Fell Out Of Love With Vladimir Putin."


Power Vertical Podcast -- August 22, 2014
Power Vertical Podcast -- August 22, 2014i
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Listen to or download the podcast above or subscribe to "The Power Vertical Podcast" on iTunes.

Tags:Vladimir Putin, Russian politics, Power Vertical podcast, Ukraine Crisis

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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