Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The Morning Vertical, June 17, 2017

Brian Whitmore


The foundations of Vladimir Putin's authoritarian regime were established by what appeared at the time to be a triumph of democracy. This week marks the 20th anniversary of Russia's first post-Soviet presidential election, the first round of which took place on June 16, 1996. When Boris Yeltsin ultimately defeated Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov in the July 3 runoff, many Russians and much of the world breathed a sigh of relief. But rather than a victory for Russian democracy, that election established the precedent for many of the hallmarks of the Putin regime: the marriage of money and power, oligarchic rule, and a media that (during the election campaign) slavishly followed the Kremlin line. As a result, when Yeltsin handed Putin the keys to the Kremlin in 1999, he had the tools to establish an autocratic state.


The International Association of Athletics Federations is scheduled to rule today on whether to uphold its suspension of Russian track-and-field athletes from international competitions. Upholding the suspension would effectively ban Russia's track-and-field athletes from the 2016 Summer Olympics.

Vladimir Putin has signed a decree setting September 18 as the date for State Duma elections.

Putin is also scheduled to address the outgoing State Duma on June 22.

Four Russian security officers have been killed during a special operations in Daghestan.

The United States has accused Russia of carrying out air strikes in southern Syria against rebels, including forces backed by the United States, that are battling the Islamic State group.

Police in Cologne, Germany, say they have detained six Russian soccer fans for allegedly beating up three Spanish tourists outside Cologne's landmark cathedral on June 16.

Ukrainian lawmakers have approved an appeal to the worldwide head of the Orthodox Church asking him to recognize the Ukrainian Orthodox Church's independence from Moscow.


Today's Must-Read: A Russian 'Illegal' In Spain

Politico has a fascinating piece, The Spanish Story Of A Russian Illegal, about a Moscow spy who worked for two decades under cover in Europe by building a fake biography.

"As relations between Moscow and the West have gone from guarded cooperation to hostile defiance under Russian President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB head, the scope of intelligence activities, and the number of Russian spies operating in Europe, has 'roughly doubled,' according to the former head of a major European power’s intelligence service, who added that in such matters, estimates are by definition difficult,'" the author, Pierre Briancon, writes. 

A Call To Intensify Sanctions

Former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt has written a piece for Project Syndicate, Don't Appease Putin, that argues for sanctions to be intensified.

"Those who are calling for a softer approach to Russia need to remove their blinders and recognize the scale of the Kremlin's efforts to bring about the EU’s disintegration," Verhofstadt writes.

NATO's Cyber-Vulnerabilities

The New York Times' David Sanger has a piece reported out of NATO's cyberdefense center in Tallinn, Estonia, that claims the alliance is struggling to find a strategy to counter Russia's state-sponsored hackers. 

"While there are frequent conferences and papers, there are no serious military plans, apart from locking down the alliance’s own networks. Russia, China, and Iran have increasingly sophisticated offensive cyberforces; NATO has none, and no established mechanism to draw on United States Cyber Command or its British equivalent," Sanger writes.

"That stands in sharp contrast to NATO’s strategy for dealing with more familiar threats."

 Why Putin Needs American Commerce

Bloomberg has a story arguing that Russia's has become increasingly reliant on trade with the United States.

"President Vladimir Putin loves to reel off statistics, but here’s one he may not trumpet at his annual investment forum in St. Petersburg this week: Russia’s reliance on American commerce has never been greater," the authors, Jake Rudnitsky and Ilya Arkhipov, write.

Pork-barrel Politics, Russian Style

Intersection magazine has a piece (in Russian and English) by Perm-based political analyst Pavel Luzin looking at the competition among Russia's regions for resources in advance of September's State Duma elections.

"The main source of suspense over the next two years will be the way regions fight for access to the resources in the hands of the Kremlin and the way the Kremlin manages this access in order to maintain the existing power system," Luzin writes. 

"The goal of regional elites is to maintain their well-being and to increase their chances of political survival. The methods used to achieve this goal are aggravation of intra-elite competition, and reliance on their clientele. The Kremlin's goal is to maintain the existing system of distribution of power and of economic resources. The methods for attaining this goal are trading subsidies for loyalty. The paradox is that, when it comes to bargaining, both parties are increasingly tempted to increase citizens’ tax revenues and thereby face the risk of clashing with them."

The United Russia Platform

Vedomosti has a piece looking at the platform of the ruling United Russia party.

More on the Orthodox Schisms

Politcom.ru has a piece looking at this week's summit of Orthodox Christian churches and deepening splits in the Orthodox world.

The Economist, meanwhile, has a piece examining efforts in Ukraine to establish a unified Orthodox Church that is independent from the Moscow Patriarchate.

The Soviet Origins of the RuNet

The latest SRB Podcast, hosted by Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies, takes a look at "the stillbirth of the Soviet Internet." Sean's guest is Ben Peters, a professor at the University of Tulsa and author of the book How Not To Network A Nation: The Uneasy History Of The Soviet Internet. 

The Morning Vertical, June 16, 2016

Brian Whitmore


OK, I've still got this soft power thing on the brain. So at the risk of being repetitive, I'm going to offer some more thoughts on Russia's surprise appearance in this year's Soft Power 30 rankings by the London-based consultancy Portland Communications.

As I noted yesterday, the report cited Russia's global media empire, the attraction of its cultural heritage, and its diplomatic efforts in Syria as the key variables increasing Moscow's soft power. I will, of course, grant the cultural heritage point. This is probably Russia's main claim to soft power. But the other two? Let's take them one at a time.

True, RT has become a global media empire broadcasting in multiple languages and gaining viewers worldwide. But RT's programming is designed less to build up Russia's image than to tear down the image of the West. And in that sense, it is a perverse inversion of what soft power is supposed to be.

And the diplomacy in Syria? That came after a military intervention designed to undermine the West's efforts to end the Syrian civil war. It was an exercise in spoiling and geopolitical extortion. These things may advance Russia's interests and increase its influence, but they do not resemble soft power at all. At least as I understand the term.


NATO has announced a Comprehensive Assistance Package for Ukraine.

The United States will give Ukraine $220 million in new aid this year to support Kyiv's economic, political, and energy reform efforts.

Vladimir Putin will meet with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker at the St. Petersburg economic forum on June 16.

Russia's Defense Ministry has announced that a 48-hour cease-fire will start on June 16 in the Syrian city of Aleppo.

In a new report, the World Anti-Doping Agency says hundreds of attempts to carry out drug tests on Russian athletes this year have been thwarted.

St. Petersburg has formally named a bridge after the slain former Chechen leader Akhmat Kadyrov, the father of current Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov.

The State Duma has passed the so-called "Google tax" law requiring IT companies to pay value-added tax on the sale of online content.


Today's Must-Read Piece

If you read nothing else today, be sure to check out Marius Laurinavicius's excellent piece, The Many Faces Of Putinism, in The American Interest. Laurinavicius uses the career of filmmaker Andrei Nekrasov to illustrate that Putinism is not about just one man but rather is a systemic phenomenon. 

"The faces of Putinism are legion, and at first glance, one might be tempted to draw sharp distinctions between them when in fact more unites them than divides them," Laurinavicius writes. 

"In order to understand whom we are really dealing with when we deal with the Russian regime, we need to learn to recognize and publicly name them. And we must avoid the lulling illusion that we might be able to count on some of them as driving forces for regime change."

Perception And Misperception

Writing on his blog, Maxim Trudolyubov, a senior fellow at the Kennan Institute, looks at how Russia and the West have continuously misinterpreted each other in recent years.

"The irony of the moment is the fact that Moscow is running out of capacity exactly when others have started to respond to Russia’s assertive behavior by spending more on their military," Trudolyubov writes. 

"The Russian security community has been reading too much into what the West was doing during the previous decade."

Scare Tactics

In a piece in The National Interest, Andreas Umland, a senior research fellow at the Kyiv-based Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation, argues that Russia is baiting the West by appearing to be scarier than it actually is.

"NATO and its member states are overreacting rhetorically, militarily, and politically to Russia’s new aggressiveness. Without realizing, they are barking up the wrong tree and playing Moscow’s game," Umland writes.

The War Fetish

In a piece on Moscow Carnegie Center's website, political analyst Andrei Kolesnikov takes a granular look at how the Kremlin is using war -- and Russians' perceptions of it -- to legitimize the regime.

"The Kremlin’s permanent war footing has become the primary means for Russian elites to keep themselves in power. And this discourse -- of providing wars that are fair, defensive, victorious, and preventive -- constructs the foundation for a heavily personalized regime," Kolesnikov writes.

War Hooligans

Mikhail Khodorkovsky's portal The Open Wall has a piece titled The Battle Of Marseilles that playfully looks at the fight between Russian and English fans at the European football championship in the context of Russia's fetishization of war.

Here's a teaser: "It was a crushing victory, one for the chronicles. The Russians were heavily outnumbered. Facing them were the massed ranks of the English. On the sidelines sat the French, waiting to see which way the battle would go. But our brave Russians were armed to the teeth, disciplined and well trained, battle-hardened from the civil wars they had fought in St. Petersburg and Moscow, scarred veterans returning from Ukraine and Syria. The battle was joined, and the English soon put to flight, fleeing through the back streets of the old city, cowering under the onslaught of our bare-chested and bloodied warriors."

Syrian Tipping Point?

In a piece in Intersection magazine, Stephen Blank argues that Putin's Syria campaign has reached a critical moment.

Orthodox Schisms

Writing in Georgia Today, Nicholas Waller notes the rifts in the Orthodox Christian world in advance of a scheduled summit on the Greek island of Crete next month.

Espionage Then And Now

NPR has a story looking at how the espionage game between Moscow and Washington has changed -- and stayed the same.

Fighting Bigotry With A Song

And finally, LGBT activists in St. Petersburg have turning the homophobic statements of local lawmaker Vitaly MIlonov, the initiator of Russia's infamous "gay propaganda" law, into a song.

Video The Daily Vertical: Dope, Lies, And Guns

The Daily Vertical: Dope, Lies, And Gunsi
June 16, 2016
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday.
Brian Whitmore

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

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

Video The Daily Vertical: The Baltics Remember, Russia Forgets

The Daily Vertical: The Baltics Remember, Russia Forgetsi
June 15, 2016
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday.
Brian Whitmore

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

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

The Morning Vertical, June 15, 2016

Brian Whitmore


Russian soft power? Really? Quite frankly, I'm having a hard time wrapping my head around Russia's surprise appearance in this year's Soft Power 30 rankings by the London-based consultancy Portland Communications.

Soft power means a country's capability to project influence abroad without resorting to military force or economic pressure.

The report cites Russia's global media empire, the attraction of its cultural heritage, and its diplomatic efforts in Syria as the key factors propelling it into the top 30.

It also notes that corruption and doping scandals, discriminatory laws against sexual minorities, and the intervention in Ukraine as factors dragging down its ranking.

Russia's counterintuitive appearance in the Soft Power 30 has made headlines.

But when you look under the hood, it appears to be less than advertised.Russia debuted in the rankings at 27th place, just ahead of China, just below Greece -- and far below the world leaders: the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Canada, and France.

And the report notes global polling shows that Russia continues to have a negative image abroad. 


The Federation Council has formally approved another five-year term for Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika.

The defendants in the Boris Nemtsov assassination case are asking for a jury trial.

A bill has been introduced into the State Duma eliminating the statute of limitations for treason and espionage.

Russia is considering selling nearly one-fifth of the state oil company Rosneft to "strategic investors" in a private transaction rather than trying to raise the money through a public offering.

Vladimir Putin will meet UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura in St. Petersburg on June 16.

Russian tennis star Maria Sharapova appealed her doping ban to the highest court in sports, which agreed to expedite a ruling before the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in August.


Russian Soft Power

For the first time, Russia has made it into the ranks of the world's strongest countries in terms of "soft power." According to annual rankings compiled by the London-based PR firm Portland Communications, Russia ranked 27th in soft power. (The United States ranked first.) Meduza has a pretty good explainer on what this all means.

NATO Exercises On Eve Of Summit

Edward Lucas has a brief write-up on NATO's Anaconda 16 exercises, the alliance's largest since the end of the Cold War.

The Eastern Pivot That Wasn't

Writing in Vedomosti, political analyst Aleksandr Gabuyev explains why competition between Moscow and Beijing for influence in Central Asia is hampering Russia's much-vaunted pivot to the east.

Hybrid Hooligans

Writing in Grani.ru, political commentator Ilya Milshtein argues that the attack by Russian football hooligans on English fans in Marseilles was part of Vladimir Putin's hybrid war against the West.

LGBT Russia After Orlando

Kevin Rothrock has a piece in Global Voices on "What It's Like To Be A Lesbian In Russia, The Day After The Orlando Massacre."

"People around the world are sharing their reactions to the deadly massacre that occurred in Orlando this past weekend, where nearly 50 people were gunned down at a gay night club. For many supporters of LGBT rights in Russia, the bloodshed has been a reminder of their own vulnerability in the face of what they say is a resurgence of antigay violence in Russia," Rothrock writes.

Unearthing Kievan Rus

Styler RBK-Ukraine has an interesting piece on the archaeological ruins of Kievan Rus that are buried beneath modern Kyiv.

The Latest Russian Hack

Politico has a comprehensive write-up on the Russian hackers' theft of opposition research on Donald Trump from the computer system of the Democratic National Committee.

Goodbye Lenin -- Or Maybe Not

In an op-ed in The New York Times, author Masha Gessen asks: why do so many Lenin statues remain in Russia? 

Ukraine's New Media

Writing on The Atlantic Council's website, Roman Shutov, program director of the Kyiv-based NGO Detector Media, notes that while oligarchs own much of Ukraine's media, the country's new public broadcasters are shaking things up.

Audio Podcast: Russia 2030

War is in his eyes. (illustration by ©Shutterstock)

Brian Whitmore

What will Russia and its neighborhood look like in 2030? How will Moscow's relations with the West play out over the next 14 years? What do current trends tell us about future developments? And are these trends reversible? 

These were some of the questions raised in a widely discussed new report by Andrew Wilson and Fredrik Wesslau for the European Council on Foreign Relations titled Russia 2030: A Story Of Great Power Dreams And Small Victorious Wars.

On this week's Power Vertical Podcast, one of the report's co-authors, Andrew Wilson, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, joins me and co-host Mark Galeotti to discuss the new normal described in the report.

Also on the podcast, Andrew, Mark, and I look at the motivations behind Moscow's efforts to sow disunity in the European Union.


Podcast: Russia 2030
Podcast: Russia 2030i
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PROGRAMMING NOTE: The Power Vertical Podcast, and all Power Vertical Products, will take a short break from June 6-10. The regular schedule for all products will resume on Monday, June 13, and the next podcast will air on Friday, June 17.

The Morning Vertical, June 3, 2016

Brian Whitmore


For all of Russia's bluster about the United States and NATO, Moscow's real problem is actually with Europe and the European Union. It is the EU that presents a model of governance close to Russia's borders that directly challenges the kleptocracy in the Kremlin. It is the EU that creates a magnetic pull on Moscow's former Soviet vassals. As Yale University professor Timothy Snyder recently put it, "Europe is fundamentally a domestic problem for Russia" and "as long as Putin is in power, they are not going to stop trying to undo the European Union." This is something for EU leaders to consider as they debate extending sanctions later this month. Russia's conflict with Europe will be the subject of today's Power Vertical Podcast, which will feature Mark Galeotti of New York University and Andrew Wilson or the European Council on Foreign Relations.


A senior adviser to German Chancellor Angela Merkel says it is too early to discuss easing sanctions on Russia.

The Ukrainian parliament has adopted a series of judicial reforms backed by the West.

After days of leaks and vaguely sourced reports, Vladivostok Mayor Igor Pushkaryov has finally been formally charged with corruption and abuse of office.

But the Vladivostok branch of United Russia has failed to strip Pushkaryov of his party membership.

The situation in eastern Ukraine after two years of conflict "remains volatile and continues to have a severe impact on human rights," according to a new United Nations report.

The European Parliament has decided to reestablish contacts with Russia’s lower house of parliament, the State Duma.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has said the military alliance is not seeking confrontation with Russia by bolstering its battalions in Eastern Europe.


The Failed Revolution

Why did Russia's popular uprising of 2011-12 fail? This is a question Marc Bennett addresses in his book I'm Going To Ruin Their Lives: Inside Putin’s War On Russia's Opposition.

In a review in OpenDemocracy this week, Moscow-based journalist James Kovpak argues that Bennett pulls off the task.

"I'm Going To Ruin Their Lives serves as an excellent primer for anyone trying to get a handle on Russian politics not just from the Putin era, but from the very beginning in 1991," Kovpak writes.

"How else can you hope to explain all the contradictions and Phillip K. Dick-level twists and turns of Russian politics so someone with no background in Russian politics can accept the idea that 'liberals' who are at the same time xenophobic nationalists are indeed a real thing?"

Explaining The War In Ukraine

Also in OpenDemocracy, Mary Kaldor, a professor at the London School of Economics, reviews two books that offer starkly different assessments of the underlying causes of the Russian intervention in Ukraine: Richard Sakwa’s Frontline Ukraine: Crisis In The Borderlands and Andrew Wilson’s Ukraine Crisis: What It Means For The West

"But they put forward two starkly opposed narratives. Richard Sakwa’s book is the geopolitical reading favoured by Putin that Russia was reacting to the westwards expansion of NATO. The other, from Andrew Wilson, is what I call the 'political marketplace' reading that Russia could not accept a democratic revolution in Ukraine, which would expose the dealings of both Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs," Kaldor writes.

For the record, I'm with Wilson on this one. 

Looking Ahead To The NATO Summit

The European Leadership Network has just released three commentaries looking ahead to the NATO summit in Warsaw on July 8-9.

Klaus Naumann, the former chief of staff of the German armed forces, looks at three crucial decisions that will be made at the summit.

Former French Defense Minister Paul Quiles argues that while a major policy shift will not be solidified until a new U.S. president is in office, the alliance must make some important changes in Warsaw.

And former deputy NATO commander John McColl argues that a key challenge for the alliance will be prioritizing the multiple threats it faces.

Gorbachev In Winter

Neil MacFarquhar of The New York Times spoke to former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev about his legacy and Vladimir Putin's Russia.

"In his twilight years, Mr. Gorbachev has become an isolated figure. Most of his contemporaries are dead. He is just critical enough about the lack of democracy under Mr. Putin that state-run television channels avoid him. His death has been announced more than once," MacFarquhar writes.

Russia's Islamic State

In a piece in The Wall Street Journal, Yaroslav Trofimov shows how Chechnya became "Russia's Islamic State."

"In theory, Chechnya -- though overwhelmingly Muslim -- is an integral part of the secular Russian Federation, governed by the same laws as Moscow. In practice, however, this North Caucasus republic of 1.4 million people, ravaged by two wars of secession, lives under very different rules," Trofimov writes.

The Paradoxes Of Lviv

On the latest installment of the SRB Podcast, Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies looks at the tumultuous history of the Ukrainian city of Lviv. Sean's guest is Tarik Cyril Amar, an associate professor of history at Columbia University 

PROGRAMMING NOTE: The Morning Vertical, and all Power Vertical Products, will take a short break from June 6-10. The regular schedule for all products will resume on Monday, June 13.

Video The Daily Vertical: Does Crime Pay?

The Daily Vertical: Does Crime Pay?i
June 03, 2016
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday.
Brian Whitmore

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

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

PROGRAMMING NOTE: The Daily Vertical, and all Power Vertical Products, will take a short break from June 6-10. The regular schedule for all products will resume on Monday, June 13.

The Morning Vertical, June 2, 2016

Brian Whitmore


It is impossible to read the pieces featured below by William Courtney and Donald Jensen, Anton Barbashin, Maxim Trudolyubov, and Ilya Klishin, and not come to an inescapable conclusion: Vladimir Putin's Russia is repeating the mistake of Leonid Brezhnev's Soviet Union.

The Kremlin is again failing to understand that great power status and a strong, dynamic, and resilient economy are inseparable.

Foreign adventures, intimidating your neighbors, and playing spoiler to the West may provide a quick patriotic rush and catch your opponents flat-footed. But in the long run, the high is unsustainable.

Sooner or later, the illusion fades, the bubble bursts, and the reality of a third-rate economy dependent on commodities sets in -- usually too late.

Putin's glib dismissal of former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin's advice to dial down the conflict with the West and get on with reforming the economy was revealing. Putin said he would not "bargain with Russia's sovereignty."

He just doesn't get it. And probably never will.


In my latest post on The Power Vertical blog, Putin's Little Hackers, I look at this week's arrest of a group of cybercriminals and ask: Was it a victory for law-enforcement? Or a recruitment exercise?


Russia has detained 50 hackers suspected of stealing $45 million.

The mayor of Vladivostok, who was detained as part of a corruption investigation, has reportedly been flown to Moscow.

Mikhail Prokhorov has suspended negotiations to sell RBK.

Four Crimean Tatars suspected of terrorism have pleaded not guilty at their trial in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don.

Three alleged members of the banned Islamic organization Hizb ut-Tahrir have been detained in the Chelyabinsk region in Russia's Ural Mountains.

The Kremlin says it is still waiting for Turkey to apologize for shooting down a Russian warplane near the Syrian border last year and to pay compensation for the incident.


Friends, Allies, And Enemies

The Levada Center has a new poll out on Russians' attitudes toward the outside world. Belarus, Kazakhstan, China, and India top the friends list. The United States, Ukraine, Turkey, and Poland are the leading enemies.

A Crisis Of Scholarship

Vladislav Inozemtsev has a piece in Slon.ru titled: Nonsense and Lies: How Russian Scholars Are Losing Touch With Reality.

"From all sides, Russians are being bombarded not so much with disinformation as with pseudoscientific fabrications which then become the basis for public policy," Inozemtsev writes.

The Promise That Wasn't

Stephen Blank of the American Foreign Policy Council has a piece on The Atlantic Council's website arguing that the West needs to once and for all expose Russia's false NATO narrative.

"A staple of Russian, pro-Russian, and so-called realist narratives is that NATO not only reneged on its promises to not enlarge after German reunification, it also rebuffed all Russian efforts to integrate with the organization. To paraphrase Ernest Hemingway, it is pretty to think so -- but that is not the truth," Blank writes.

"The integrity of the historical record is under attack, and defending it will help strengthen the foundations of European security. The false narrative peddled by Moscow and its supporters is not only factually wrong, it is morally and strategically corrosive. It is high time we defend that record and expose this deceitful narrative for the fraud it is."

Blank was, in part, reacting to a piece in the Los Angeles Times by Joshua R. Itzkowitz Shifrinson, an international security fellow at Dartmouth College, that argued "Russia's Got A point: The U.S. Broke A NATO Promise." 

NATO's Test

In a piece in The New York Times, Steven Erlanger reports that NATO is struggling to"find a country to lead the last of four military units to be deployed in Poland and the three Baltic nations."

"Despite the growing threats, many European countries still resist strong measures to strengthen NATO," Erlanger writes. "Many remain reluctant to increase military spending, despite past pledges. Some, like Italy, are cutting back. France is reverting to its traditional skepticism toward the alliance, which it sees as an instrument of American policy and an infringement on its sovereignty."

The Great Power Complex

Former U.S. State Department officials William Courtney and Donald Jensen have a piece in U.S. News and World Report titled Russia's Great Power Choice arguing that Russia's actions in Ukraine are undermining its efforts to become a world power.

Likewise, Anton Barbashin's piece in Intersection magazine, Russia's Expensive Great Power Dreams, evaluates the Council of Foreign and Defense Policy's recent policy paper. 

"For Russian foreign policy strategists, the economy is neither so important, nor comprehensible," Barbashin writes.

And on his blog for the Kennan Institute, Maxim Trudolyubov, editor-at-large for Vedomosti, has a post titled Everybody Wants To Be Great Again, which places Russia's great power ambitions in a global context.

"Everybody wants to be great again these days (perhaps for the admirable exception of Canada)," Trudolyubov writes. 

"But few are ready to come up with openly irredentist claims on neighboring countries' territories and few announce their utter dissatisfaction with global and regional security arrangements, as Russia does. Few think that addressing economic problems is for losers, as the Kremlin appears to think. Russia has learned that using force pays."

What Is Putinomics?

Mikhail Khodorkovsky's Open Wall portal has a post up by Ilya Klishin that looks at the peculiar phenomenon of "Putinomics."

"Putinomics is the name given to a new type of economic theory -- where nothing adds up," Klishin writes.

The Pessimism Paradox

In a piece in BNEIntellinews, New York University professor Mark Galeotti examines "Russia's Pessimism Paradox."

"Objectively, Russia’s current economic problems are nothing like the crisis of 2008. But politically, what matters are not the facts but the feelings, and subjectively Russians are feeling distinctly pessimistic," Galeotti writes.

What's Going On At MK?

Moskovsky Komsomolets hardly has a reputation for voicing dissent. But it has sure been getting surly this week.

Just days after Moskovsky Komsomolets editor in chief Pavel Gusev published a column slamming the Kremlin's favorite television propagandist Dmitry Kiselyov,  the newspaper ran a piece by political analyst Aleksandr Minkin taking on Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov.

Video The Daily Vertical: Ridiculous Things That Can Get You Arrested

The Daily Vertical: Ridiculous Things That Can Get You Arrestedi
June 02, 2016
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday.
Brian Whitmore

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

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

Putin's Little Hackers

And now you work for us. (©Shutterstock)

Brian Whitmore

Was it a crackdown on cybercrime? Or was it a recruiting exercise?

In Russia's biggest-ever roundup of hackers, police have arrested 50 members of an alleged cybergang that used malware to heist more than $45 million from banks.

Ruslan Stoyanov, head of computer-incidents investigation at Kaspersky Lab, which assisted the authorities in the case, told Bloomberg that "Russia is tightening its grip on financial hacking."

Well, maybe. I guess that depends on what your definition of "grip" is. 

According to a recent report by the FBI and U.S. intelligence agencies, Russia is home to the most skilled community of cybercriminals on the planet, and the Kremlin already has a pretty tight grip on many of them.

Dmitri Alperovitch, co-founder of the security firm CrowdStrike, has noted that the Russian security services have been increasingly aggressive in recruiting an army of hackers -- often using criminal cases to do so.

"When someone is identified as being technically proficient in the Russian underground," a pending criminal case against them "suddenly disappears and those people are never heard from again," Alperovitch said in an interview late last year with The Hill, adding that the hacker in question is then working for the Russian security services.

"We know that’s going on," Alperovitch added.

Likewise, Oleg Gordievsky, a KGB colonel who defected to Great Britain in 1985, noted back in 2008 that hackers were often "offered" the option of working for the state as an alternative to prison.

In other words, it would probably be a good idea to see what happens with those 50 hackers Russian law enforcement just nabbed. 

Because, as Tom Kellermann, chief cybersecurity officer at security-research firm Trend Micro, told The Hill, Russian cybercriminals "that used to hunt banks eight hours a day" are often turned by the authorities.

And before you know it, they are "turning their guns on NATO and government targets" and "willingly operating as cybermilitias" for the Kremlin.

Due to the concentration of highly skilled hackers in Russia, Moscow clearly sees cyberwarfare as an asymmetrical tool it can deploy in its ongoing conflict with the West. 

Recent targets of hacking attacks that some Western intelligence services believe originated in Russia include a French television network, a German steelmaker, the Warsaw Stock Exchange, the White House, the U.S. House of Representatives, the U.S. State Department, and The New York Times.

And in a report citing unidentified Western intelligence officials, Bloomberg reported that Russian hackers have stepped up surveillance of essential infrastructure, including power grids and energy supply networks in the United States, Europe, and Canada.

So if this case, which the Interior Ministry announced with great fanfare on its website, fades into the bureaucratic ether, then it probably isn't too far-fetched to assume that these high-profile busts were just another talent search by the Kremlin's headhunters.

The Morning Vertical, June 1, 2016

Brian Whitmore


Russian trolls can be destructive in many ways. They undermine reasonable discourse. They pollute social media with lies, propaganda, and hate speech. They harass talented and honest journalists like Finland's Jessikka Aro -- who endured a campaign of character assassination for her reporting. And, if my suspicions are correct, an orchestrated campaign by them can get feeds like the popular and hilarious parody DarthPutinKGB suspended by Twitter. And in dealing with them, you're damned if you do and damned if you don't. Engage them and you play their game. Ignore them, and you risk allowing them to dominate the conversation and set the agenda. The fact that Vladimir Putin's regime has unleashed this poisonous phenomenon on journalists, academics, and others dealing with Russia speaks volumes about the nature of his regime. 


Russian media, citing unidentified law-enforcement sources, say the mayor of Vladivostok has been detained and his office searched. The reports have not been confirmed.

Ukraine has proposed that Kyiv and the United States jointly develop and produce a rocket engine to replace Russian rocket engines currently used to launch U.S. military satellites.

Russia says it won't attend a meeting of the OPEC oil cartel this week and no longer is seeking a freeze in global output.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg says the alliance's defense spending will rise for the first time in a decade.


On the latest Power Vertical blog post, I offer a eulogy and a tribute to the popular Twitter feed DarthPutinKGB, which was suspended yesterday.


Economists and Terrorists

LifeNews, a media outfit with well-known ties to the Russian security services, has published a story accusing former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin and other Moscow liberals of consorting with Islamic extremists.

The article appeared just a day after Kudrin called on Vladimir Putin to dial down geopolitical tensions with the West in order to revive the economy.

The Kremlin's Anti-Terrorist Fail

Writing in Foreign Policy, journalist Oliver Carroll looks at how Moscow's efforts to crack down on Islamists in Daghestan might be making the situation worse.

Attacks On Regime Critics

Opposition State Duma deputy Dmitry Gudkov has claimed that people voicing dissenting views are being harassed and attacked in St. Petersburg. Gudkov made his allegation on Facebook.

The Death of Humor

Twitter's suspension of the popular parody site DarthPutinKGB is getting more media attention. Politico and BuzzFeed weigh in.

Sanctions Countdown

In his column for Bloomberg View, Leonid Bershidsky argues that Western resolve to maintain sanctions appears to be weakening.

"Both the Kremlin and influential European figures are looking for ways to start defusing the stand-off without losing face," Bershidsky writes. "While the sanctions will almost certainly be extended -- no country wants to rebel on this matter while other more serious matters, such as the refugee crisis and Britain's EU referendum, are on the agenda for the bloc -- a weakening of the restrictions appears set to begin in the coming months." 

Putin's Friends

What are the six countries that have recognized Russia's forceful annexation of Crimea?

"Since Russia's illegal seizure and annexation of Crimea from Ukraine on March 18, 2014, six countries have come out in support of Moscow. And in any other circumstance, the support Russia has received would be enough to make politicians blush."

Be Careful What You Like

AP has a rundown on the Russians imprisoned for social media likes and reposts.

Hard Times 

Russian economist Sergei Guriev, who served as an adviser to former President Dmitry Medvedev and is currently living in exile in Paris, has written an op-ed claiming that Russia's hard economic times are far from over.

Video The Daily Vertical: Russia's 'Terrorist' Economist

The Daily Vertical: Russia's 'Terrorist' Economisti
June 01, 2016
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday.
Brian Whitmore

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

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

RIP DarthPutinKGB

Is it real? Or is it a parody?

Brian Whitmore

Thanks Twitter. My mornings will never be the same.

You allow despotic regimes to spread lies and propaganda. You allow trolls to disrupt our discourse. You allow bigots to spread hate and division.

But you have suspended one of the funniest, most original, and most creative parody accounts ever to grace Twitter -- one with more than 50,000 followers, one that has been making me laugh out loud several times a day for years, one that is spot on in its humor.

DarthPutinKGB pulled off an impossible task -- parodying and lampooning Vladimir Putin on a daily basis without being trite and without being abusive. His tweets were timely, relevant, insightful, and very very funny.

Suspicions are rampant that DarthPutinKGB was probably blocked due to a complaints campaign by Russian trolls.

Other parody accounts, including SovietSergei, which lampooned Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have also recently been suspended.

I wanted to collect some of DarthPutinKGB's best tweets for posterity, but since Twitter has blocked the account, I can't.

I was, however, able to find a few in my e-mail notifications.

It doesn't nearly do him justice, but here goes:

"If this report about my corruption in under the hashtag #panamapapers, I might annex Panama"

"Savchenko has been sentenced to one presidential term"

"My nightmare: Returning Ukraine's eastern border to the control of a President Savchenko"

"A 'sphere of influence' is just a polite term for a mafia clan's territory"

"As it's International Women's Day, ladies that don't reject me won't be sent to the gulag"

"Russia has cut defense spending. Attack spending remains unchanged"

"A soviet Russian counterterrorism operation kills 146% of the suspects"

"Social problems in Russia become foreign policy ones for our neighbors

"Leonardo DiCaprio isn't good looking enough to play me"

"Don't believe anything the Kremlin doesn't first deny"

"Never believe anything is true until the Kremlin denies it"

"Oh, sure. When a KGB agent poses with a weapon, its sinister"

"Russia doesn't have an iron-clad system for whistleblowers. It has a full metal jacket' system."

"Ha! I forgot to wish my Georgian subjects a happy final independence day​"

RIP DarthPutinKGB. Let's hope this is just a temporary suspension. I'll sure miss you. For now at least, social media won't be the same.

UPDATE: DarthPutinKGB's Twitter feed was reinstated on June 1.

Video The Daily Vertical: Cracks In The Media Facade

The Daily Vertical: Cracks In The Media Facadei
May 31, 2016
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday.
Brian Whitmore

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

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

The Morning Vertical, May 31, 2016

Brian Whitmore


A warning from Vadim Troyan, the first deputy head of Ukraine's National Police, that the Kremlin has deployed a team of mobsters to destabilize Ukraine merits checking out. But it's certainly plausible. Russia has used its nationalized mafias to carry out many of the unsavory tasks it wants taken care of without Kremlin fingerprints: arms smuggling to the Donbas, assassinations, raising off-the-books cash for black ops. So why not use them to destabilize Ukraine? With the Minsk peace process stuck in neutral and the war in the Donbas becoming a frozen conflict, Moscow will have fewer and fewer options to pressure Kyiv's pro-Western rulers. But one place they do have influence is in the criminal world -- so why wouldn't they open a gangster front in the hybrid war? 


Nadia Savchenko has been sworn in as a member of the Verkhovna Rada, the Ukrainian parliament.

Police have opened a criminal case for "hooliganism" in connection with a deadly shoot-out at Moscow's largest cemetery.

Sevastopol, the capital of Russian-annexed Crimea, has made Vladimir Putin an honorary "citizen."

The death toll is rising from suspected Russian air strikes in the rebel-held Syrian city of Idlib.

Tatar journalist Lilia Budzhurova says she was warned by Crimean prosecutors over "extremist" views for writing about the plight of Tatar children whose parents were arrested.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg says NATO will increase its military presence on the alliance's eastern flank.

Russia's envoy to NATO has warned that the Black Sea will never become "NATO's lake."

Russia says it will spend more than $16 billion on arms.


The Criminal Front In The Hybrid War

In a piece published on zn.ua, Vadim Troyan, the first deputy head of Ukraine’s National Police, accuses Moscow of opening "a criminal front" in Ukraine by deploying gangsters to destabilize the country. Troyan's warning came after the Ukrainian parliament failed to pass a law making it easier to prosecute top organized-crime figures.

The Sanctions Debate

In his column in Slon.ru, foreign-affairs analyst Vladimir Frolov tries to separate the signals from the noise in the run-up to the EU's sanctions decision.

Der Spiegel is reporting that the German government has developed a plan behind the scenes to reduce sanctions on Russia step-by-step.

Russia's Media Wars

Writing in Global Voices, Kevin Rothrock looks at how a Russian newspaper is warning its readers not to watch television.

In a column this week, Moskovsky Komsomolets Editor in Chief Pavel Gusev unloads on the Kremlin's favorite television propagandist Dmitry Kisselyov.

Jessikka Aro Vs. The Trolls

The New York Times has picked up on the story of Jessikka Aro, the Finnish journalist who has been the target of a coordinated campaign of harassment and character assassination by Russian trolls.

Russia-Europe 2030

Fredrik Wesslau and Andrew Wilson of the European Council on Foreign Relations have a new report out, Russia 2030: A Story Of Great Power Dreams And Small Victorious Wars, that projects what Russia's relations with Europe will look like in 14 years.

Here's their opener: "Russia will colonize the Moon in 2030. Cosmonauts will build a lunar base with a solar power station and a science lab, using long-range research rovers to explore the Moon’s surface, and a satellite will orbit above, according to the Russian space agency.1 Back on Earth, it’s anyone’s guess what Russia will be up to in 2030. President Vladimir Putin, who turns 78 that year, may be long gone; or he may be starting his fourth consecutive term as president, having amended the constitution to do away with term limits. There will be five million fewer Russians than today. The economy will be larger, though not much. But what will Russia’s position be on the international stage?"

Read the rest here.

Inertia Vs. Inertia

Vedomosti sums up the conflict between Russia and the West in an editorial titled The Inertia Of Containment Vs. The Inertia Of Confrontation.

"Russia's foreign policy is a thing unto in itself. In principle, we're for peace, but we're also ready to criticize any peace proposal. And we promise an asymmetrical response to any action that seems hostile."

Perestroika In Reverse

In a piece in Intersection magazine, Perestroika Undone, journalist Vadim Shtepa unpacks Mikhail Gorbachev's support for Vladimir Putin's forceful annexation of Crimea.

"In his day, Gorbachev tried to create a “contractual state” and establish equal, agreement-based relations with other countries," Shtepa writes. "The current paradox is that by defending the stance of the Kremlin, the initiator of perestroika is himself in favor of the violation of international agreements. However, it is not only his own inner conflict, but a dilemma for all of Russian society."

Mobsters Online

Sergei Mikhailov, the reputed founder of the Solntsevo organized-crime group, has taken advantage of Russia's "right to be forgotten" law.

Customs Crusader

Reuters has a feature on Yulia Marushevska, the 26-year-old Ukrainian activist who has taken on the impossible task of reforming Odesa's notoriously corrupt customs service.

Video The Daily Vertical: The Cost Of War

The Daily Vertical: The Cost Of Wari
May 30, 2016
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday.
The Daily Vertical: The Cost Of War
Brian Whitmore

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

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

The Morning Vertical, May 30, 2016

Brian Whitmore


With the EU about to decide whether or not to renew sanctions on Russia, Moscow's approach to Europe has been one part charm offensive and one part saber rattling.

Vladimir Putin visited Greece last week, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Hungary, and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has accepted an invitation to visit St. Petersburg to attend an economic forum.

Meanwhile, Moscow just can't resist threatening some European countries. In Athens last week, during a joint press conference with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, Putin said Poland and Romania were in Moscow's "crosshairs" for hosting components of a U.S. missile-defense shield. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, meanwhile, says Russia's countersanctions against the West will be extended through 2017.

It may be just schizophrenia. Or it may be a coordinated strategy. And next month, when the EU votes on sanctions, we'll see if it worked.


On this week's Power Vertical Briefing, I discuss Russia's schizophrenic policy toward Europe on the eve of the EU's decision on extending sanctions with Pavel Butorin, managing editor of RFE/RL's Russian-language television program Current Time.


And in case you missed it, on the latest Power Vertical Podcast, I discuss Nadia Savchenko's political future with co-host Mark Galeotti and Natalia Churikova, managing editor of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service.


Vladimir Putin says Romania and Poland are now in Russia's "crosshairs" for hosting components of a U.S. missile-defense system.

Ukraine is using a "you invaded us" defense as Russia sues to recover a $3 billion credit.

Kommersant is reporting that Russia is considering issuing its own cryptocurrency.

Relatives of the Armenian family killed by a Russian soldier are reportedly suing Russia for 450,000 euros.

Turkey's deputy prime minister predicts that relations with Moscow will improve shortly.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has reportedly accepted an invitation to attend an economic forum in St. Petersburg.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry have discussed possible cooperation between Moscow and Washington in Syria.

Ukraine says pro-Moscow separatists have shelled Ukrainian positions 25 times in the last 24 hours.

Viktor Trepak, the former deputy head of the Ukrainian Security Service, says ousted President Viktor Yanukovych's Party of Regions paid about $2 billion in cash to bribe both former and incumbent top officials. Trepak says he has submitted documents confirming the payments to the National Anti-Corruption Bureau.


Juncker's Controversial Russia Visit

According to a report in Politico, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker faces growing resistance from the United States, some European countries -- and even among his own staff -- to a trip to Russia next month.

"According to diplomatic sources, several countries -- including the U.K. and the U.S. as well as some Baltic and Central European nations -- have privately expressed unease that Juncker’s participation in an event clearly designed to burnish Putin’s credentials as a statesman could only bolster the Russian position at a delicate moment in the sanctions debate. It remains unclear whether Juncker would meet one-on-one with Putin."

Let The Ballot Stuffing Begin!

Russia's parliamentary elections are more than three months away, but the ballot stuffing appears to have already begun -- in United Russia's primaries, according to a post on Mikhail Khodorkovsky's Open Wall portal.

"This might all sound like some bad joke -- if you turn a blind eye to the bruises and contusions, that is. The 'party of power,' as United Russia styles itself, staged internal elections -- resulting in the same “carousels” and stuffing of ballots that it has always been accused of orchestrating. And in the end, the wonderful impulse on the part of the presidential administration and party leaders to present United Russia as a more modern -- yes, and even democratic -- political force came to absolutely naught.
So why did this charade happen? How come United Russia simply could not resist falsifying its own primaries?"

Gorbachev On Putin

In The Financial Times, John Lloyd reviews Mikhail Gorbachev's memoir, The New Russia, in which the last Soviet president offers a critical assessment of the Putin regime.

Be Careful What You Post!

Meduza has a video of a St. Petersburg man being arrested and handcuffed in his apartment for posting a comment on social media deemed "extremist" by the Russian authorities.

A Lifestyle Code For Health-Care Workers

According to a report in Izvestia, a draft code of conduct for health-care workers will require them to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

Audio The Briefing: Saber Rattling And A Charm Offensive

Putin has a long to-do list to get sanctions lifted.

Brian Whitmore

Vladimir Putin says Poland and Romania are in Moscow's crosshairs for hosting components of a U.S. missile shield. Meanwhile, in an effort to get sanctions lifted, Russia appeals to Greece and Hungary.

On this week's Power Vertical Briefing, we look at Moscow's approach to Europe -- one part charm offensive and one part saber rattling -- on the eve of an EU decision on renewing sanctions.

Joining me is Pavel Butorin, managing editor of RFE/RL's Russian-language television program Current Time.


The Briefing: Saber Rattling And A Charm Offensive
The Briefing: Saber Rattling And A Charm Offensivei
|| 0:00:00


NOTE: The Power Vertical Briefing will not appear on Monday, June 6. 

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 on Mondays.

Audio Podcast: Now That She's Free

A new force enters Ukraine's political arena.

Brian Whitmore

For nearly two years, Nadia Savchenko was a potent symbol of Ukrainian resolve and resistance.

And now she is entering the rough, raucous, and often dirty world of Ukraine's politics.

How will she fare? And what impact will she have?

On this week's Power Vertical Podcast, we discuss Savchenko's political future and what it means for Ukraine. 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 Natalia Churikova, managing editor of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service and host of the program European Connect.


Podcast: Now That She's Free
Podcast: Now That She's Freei
|| 0:00:00


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 offers Brian's personal take on 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