Wednesday, August 24, 2016


Audio Podcast: Putin's Strongman Club

The Autocrat International

Brian Whitmore

Are the autocrats of the world trying to unite?

Vladimir Putin's summits this week with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian President Hassan Rohani were the latest illustrations of how the Kremlin leader is working overtime to build alliances with the illiberal regimes of the world.

On this week's Power Vertical Podcast, we look at Putin's efforts to build an Authoritarian International.

Is it a true challenge to the West? Or an act of desperation?

Joining me are veteran Kremlin watcher James Sherr, an associate fellow with Chatham House's Russia and Eurasia program, and Daniel Drezner, a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a columnist for The Washington Post, and the author of the books Theories Of International Politics And Zombies and the recent The System Worked: How The World Stopped Another Great Depression.

Also on the podcast, James, Daniel, and I will discuss the tensions this week in Crimea and what they may portend.

Enjoy...

The Power Vertical Podcast: Putin's Strongman Club
The Power Vertical Podcast: Putin's Strongman Clubi
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Listen to or download the podcast above or subscribe to The Power Vertical Podcast on iTunes.


Video The Daily Vertical: Putin's Post-Fact World

The Daily Vertical: Putin's Post-Fact Worldi
X
August 12, 2016
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday.
The Daily Vertical: Putin's Post-Fact World
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, August 12, 2016

Brian Whitmore

ON MY MIND

Vladimir Putin's summits this week with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian President Hassan Rohani were the latest illustrations of how the Kremlin leader is working overtime to build alliances with the illiberal regimes of the world.

This week's Power Vertical Podcast will look at Putin's efforts to build an Authoritarian International. Is it a true challenge to the West? Or an act of desperation?

Joining me will be veteran Kremlin-watcher James Sherr, an associate fellow with Chatham House's Russia and Eurasia program and Daniel Drezner, a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a columnist for The Washington Post.

Also on the podcast, James, Daniel, and I will discuss the tensions this week in Crimea and what they may portend.

So be sure to tune in.

IN THE NEWS

Russian media are reporting that Vladimir Putin has dismissed Sergei Ivanov as Kremlin chief-of-staff and appointed Anton Vaino in his place.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko says he has instructed all military units near Russian-occupied Crimea and in the easterly Donbas region to be at the highest level of combat readiness, following Russian allegations of a Ukrainian incursion into Crimea.

Ukraine says it has opened a criminal investigation into the kidnapping of Yevhen Panov, a Ukrainian citizen from Zaporizhzhya whom Russia says it apprehended trying to infiltrate Crimea.

Ukraine's military intelligence chief says an armed skirmish near the boundary separating Russian-occupied Crimea and the Ukrainian mainland involved only Russian forces

Vedomosti is reporting that amendments are being prepared that would ban electoral campaigning on the Internet.
 
Russian officials said long-range bombers hit Islamic State targets in the group's de facto capital of Raqqa, as fierce fighting continued in the besieged city of Aleppo.

A court in Russia-annexed Crimea has ruled that a noted Crimean Tatar activist, Ilmi Umerov, must be placed in a psychiatric clinic for examination.

Ukrainian authorities say they have blocked "several channels" being used by militants traveling to fight with Islamic State.

Russia’s antimonopoly watchdog has fined Google 438 million rubles ($6.8 million) for violating antitrust rules on tablets and mobile phones.

A court in Russia has refused to grant early release on parole to Darya Polyudova, a Russian activist in Krasnodar who was jailed on charges of propagating extremism after criticizing Moscow's intervention in eastern Ukraine.

LATEST POWER VERTICAL BLOG

In case you missed it, the latest Power Vertical blog post -- The Kremlin's Game Of Thrones -- puts last month's massive shake-up of federal and regional elites into the context of a broader trend in which Vladimir Putin is moving toward personalized rule.

As Vladimir Putin changes his governing model, more purges of Russia's ruling class are likely. And longtime cronies of the Kremlin leader are not immune. And with the sacking of Sergei Ivanov as Kremlin chief-of-staff today, it just got a little more timely.

WHAT I'M READING

More On The Crimea Incident

The analysis and speculation continues to come in on this week's Crimea incident, which has escalated tensions between Ukraine and Russia and threatened the Minsk peace process.

Adrian Karatnycky, a Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council and co-director of its Ukraine in Europe program, has a piece in Politico suggesting that the incident was a Russian provocation and speculating about what Moscow's motives might be. 

Luke Harding writes in The Guardian that Putin may well believe that the time is ripe for another invasion.

On Kasparov.ru, Valery Solovei, a professor at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, argues that the Crimea incident is actually all about Russian domestic politics.

Meduza has a piece comparing the Russian and Ukrainian versions of what happened in Ukraine and scenarios about what might happen next.

In his column for Bloomberg, political commentator Leonid Bershidsky weighs in with a piece arguing that "this is a perfect moment for the crisis in Ukraine to heat up."

And in a piece for RFE/RL's Krim Reali website, political analyst Ksenia Kirillova lays out evidence that the alleged shootout on the boundary between Russian-occupied Crimea and mainland Ukraine only involved Russian troops.

More Hacker Attacks

Bloomberg's Michael Riley has a story reporting that the Russian hackers who broke into the Democratic National Committee's e-mail servers also managed to hack NATO and billionaire philanthropist George Soros.

"Weeks before the Democratic convention was upended by 20,000 leaked e-mails released through WikiLeaks, another little-known website began posting the secrets of a top NATO general, billionaire George Soros' philanthropy and a Chicago-based Clinton campaign volunteer," Riley writes. 

"Security experts now say that site, DCLeaks.com, with its spiffy capitol-dome logo, shows the marks of the same Russian intelligence outfit that targeted the Democratic political organizations."

The Stakes In Ukraine
 
Andrew Michta, a professor of International Studies at Rhodes College and an adjunct fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, has a piece in The American Interest on why the outcome of the Ukraine conflict matters to the West.

"The consequence of an easy Russian victory in the east will be either an immediate or a creeping partition of Ukraine. It will not matter much what we call it, be it 'federalization,' a 'frozen conflict,' or an 'interim agreement pending a referendum,'" Michta writes. 

"The fact that Putin will have achieved a major revision of the borders in Europe, at little to no cost to his own military forces, will confirm every assumption he has made about the West’s inability to think outside the box of its postmodern concepts of security. This will only serve to encourage Putin to move again, this time targeting his real arch-enemy: NATO."

The North Stream Problem

Sijbren de Jong of The Hague Center for Strategic Studies has a piece on the Atlantic Council's website arguing that Russia's Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline project is a problem for more than just Eastern Europe.

A Turkey-Russia Alliance? Not So Fast!

Bloomberg also has a story arguing that Turkey simply cannot afford an "abrupt pivot" away from the West and "into Putin's embrace."

Russian Propaganda In The Czech Republic

Stop Fake has a new research report out exploring how Russia is portrayed on Czech websites and the "manipulation techniques" deployed.

SRB Podcast Unpacks Eurasianism

The most recent installment of the SRB Podcast, hosted by Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies, looks at the Eurasianism of the late Russian historian and ethnographer Lev Gumilev. Sean's guest is Mark Bassin is a professor in the School of Historical and Contemporary Studies at Sodertorn University in Stockholm and author of the book The Gumilev Mystique: Biopolitics, Eurasiansism, And The Construction Of Community In Modern Russia.

Ukraine Calling

And be sure to check out the latest installment of Ukraine Calling, a Hromadske Radio podcast hosted by Marta Dyczok, a professor of history at the University of Western Ontario. This week's podcast will be up later today, so follow this link.


The Kremlin's Game Of Thrones (UPDATED)

Cartoon by Sergey Elkin

Last updated (GMT/UTC): 12.08.2016 12:44

Brian Whitmore

You can call it another day of the long knives. You can call it Kremlin musical chairs. Or you can call it Vladimir Putin's own personal game of thrones.

But by whatever name, Vladimir Putin's dismissal of his powerful chief of staff and longtime confidant Sergei Ivanov did not happen in isolation.

Combined with last month's mass shake-up of regional and federal elites -- which saw four regional governors, four federal district chiefs, and a disgraced customs boss replaced -- it illustrates that these are far from normal times for Russia's ruling elite.

Governors and prominent law-enforcement officials are being arrested. Former Putin cronies who were once untouchable are being thrown under the bus. Suddenly, nobody feels safe. Suddenly, everybody appears vulnerable.

For Russia's gilded ruling class, the rules are clearly a-changin'.

"Putin, who is known for his loyalty to longtime associates, has left some of his friends vulnerable to attack. This is a new stage of Putin's rule," political commentator Leonid Bershidsky wrote in Bloomberg.

For most of Putin's long rule, he was essentially the front man for an oligarchic elite -- the so-called "collective Putin" -- that effectively ruled Russia.

Like the Soviet general secretaries, Putin was first among equals, to be sure. He was the key figure and the decider. But he had to find consensus and balance among the Kremlin's competing clans and among the dozen or so figures in his "politburo."

But we don't hear much about the "collective Putin" or "Putin's Politburo" anymore.

And that is because, in recent years, the Kremlin leader has moved away from a collective leadership model to one centered on the leader himself.

"If until recently, the system acted in the interests of the bureaucracy, now, it does so ever more in the interests of the leader," Moscow-based political analyst Nikolai Petrov wrote in Vedomosti.

According to Petrov, Putin is effectively abandoning an elite personnel policy resembling Leonid Brezhnev's "stability of cadres" approach and toward one reminiscent of Josef Stalin's -- minus, of course, the mass executions of ousted officials.

The Class Of 2014

An early clue that changes were afoot in Putin's governing model came back in 2014, at the height of the nationalistic fervor accompanying the conflict in Ukraine.

Reports surfaced that Putin had been quietly bringing a new cadre of officials to Moscow -- recruited by the security services and vetted for loyalty to Putin -- reshaping the rank-and-file bureaucracy in his own image.

Historian and political analyst Vladimir Pastukhov wrote in Polit.ru at the time that the fledgling new nomenklatura were between 25 and 35 years old, hailed mostly from the regions, and came from relatively poor backgrounds.

They were selected based on their loyalty to the regime and for being "psychologically closer to Putin" than their predecessors. And they were "people without deep roots" who were "ready for anything" that facilitated 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."

Putin's new "Class of 2014" filling the lower and middle ranks of the bureaucracy was a generational shift that drew obvious comparisons to Stalin's "Class of 1938" -- the cohort of officials who were 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.

The Fall Of The Untouchables

If the mass recruitment of a new generation of midlevel functionaries shook up the rank and file, an earthquake hit the ruling elite's upper echelon a year ago when Putin sacked his longtime crony Vladimir Yakunin as head of Russian Railways.

When somebody as powerful, influential, and close to the Kremlin leader as Yakunin was kicked off the island, it was a surefire sign that all was not well with Team Putin.

It showed that Putin's loyalty to longtime associates only went so far. And it showed that Putin's longtime pact with the ruling class -- loyalty in exchange for a license to use the state budget as their personal ATM machine -- was changing.

"Putin may be realizing that tough economic times require better managers than his buddies, and that to remain in power he needs to distance himself from the oligarchy he has created," Bershidsky wrote in Bloomberg at the time.

Yakunin's fall -- which came almost exactly one year before Ivanov was dismissed -- was indeed a harbinger.

In the past year, three regional governors have been arrested on corruption charges and last month the FSB raided the Moscow branch of the Investigative Committee, arresting three top officials on charges of taking bribes from a notorious organized crime kingpin.

And then another Putin crony took a fall when Andrei Belyaninov, the head of the Federal Customs Service who, like Ivanov, served with Putin in the KGB, was accused of corruption.

He was also humiliated when a televised raid on his home showed priceless antiques and bundles of cash in shoe boxes.

And then came the days of the long knives: the mass reshuffling last month and the subsequent removal of Ivanov.

And according to reports in the Russian media, another purge is likely in the autumn following the State Duma elections in September.

There has also been speculation that more close Putin allies -- including Igor Sechin, the CEO of the state-run oil giant Rosneft -- could be vulnerable.

One thing, however, is not changing: Putin's reliance on trusted veterans of the security services -- and, increasingly, veterans of his personal security detail.

So why did Putin change his governing model?

Partially because his priorities changed with the conflict in Ukraine, the showdown with the West, and the rise of a nationalistic ideology in the Kremlin. And partially because there is a lot less money around to feed a kleptocratic elite that had grown accustomed to seeking rents with impunity.

"The annexation of Crimea has ensured Putin's place in history and gave rise to new geopolitical thinking and thus a new pyramid of priorities," political commentator Tatyana Stanovaya wrote in a commentary for the Moscow Carnegie Center.

"As a result, the priorities of many of the president's allies have become severely misaligned with his own."

UPDATED: This post, which was written before Kremlin chief of staff Sergei Ivanov was dismissed, has been updated to reflect that development.


The Morning Vertical, August 11, 2016

Brian Whitmore

ON MY MIND

Russia's allegations that Ukraine sent agent-saboteurs to Crimea to carry out "terrorist" attacks and were thwarted by the FSB is a sign of the times. It's a story without verifiable facts. Instead, there are just the allegations of Russian officials and the posts of some pro-Kremlin bloggers. 

And without facts, all we have are competing narratives.

This is emblematic of the post-fact world the Kremlin prefers to operate in -- one where what matters isn't what actually happened, but the story you can spin about what happened. It's a world where the truth is negotiable. One where a popular uprising in Ukraine is magically transformed into a fascist coup. One where the clear shooting down of a civilian airliner by pro-Moscow separatists becomes a mystery we will never get to the bottom of. One where a Russian effort to prop up a dictator in Syria becomes an antiterrorist operation. The Kremlin wants a post-fact and post-truth world because in such a world, anything goes and only might makes right.

IN THE NEWS

Russian President Vladimir Putin has lashed out at Ukraine, accusing the government of "terror" after the Federal Security Service (FSB) claimed that Kyiv tried to send saboteurs into Crimea and that a soldier and an FSB officer were killed thwarting the alleged armed raids.

Putin held a meeting with his Security Council to discuss additional security measures for Crimea as Moscow accuses Kyiv of trying to destabilize the Russian-occupied peninsula with saboteurs.

The U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, said the U.S. "has seen nothing so far that corroborates Russian allegations of a Crimea incursion."

Russia says its forces will halt fire around Aleppo for three hours daily to allow humanitarian aid into the ravaged Syrian city.

The leader of the Russian opposition PARNAS party, Mikhail Kasyanov, has been reportedly attacked by unknown individuals in the southern city of Stavropol.

A judge has been gunned down in Russia's volatile North Caucasus region of Daghestan.

WHAT I'M READING

What Happened -- Or Didn't Happen -- In Crimea

The Kremlin's claims yesterday that it foiled a plot by Ukrainian agents to carry out terrorist attacks in Russian-occupied Crimea is lacking one important element -- supporting facts. So far, all we have are the accusations of Russian officials and the denials of Ukrainian officials.

Journalists and bloggers, meanwhile have stepped into the void and tried to fill in the blanks. 

One of the most helpful efforts so far comes from The Atlantic Council's Digital Forensics Lab, which weighed in with a piece on what the open-source evidence available online tells us.

Meanwhile, over at Global Voices, Kevin Rothrock weighs in with a piece about how pro-Kremlin bloggers had been making the same allegations for days as the Kremlin made yesterday.

Slon.ru also weighed in with a piece -- Terror, Provocation, or Practice - What happened in Crimea? -- that looks at the allegations, verifiable facts, rumors, gossip, and theories about the alleged incident.

Meduza has one of its classic "what we know so far" pieces.

And at The American Interest, Damir Marusic parses Vladimir Putin's statement on the alleged incident to get a window on what the Kremlin leader is trying to gain.

Best Frienemies 

Writing in the Financial Times, political analyst Lilia Shevtsova argues that Russia is the main beneficiary of the failed coup against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. 

"The Kremlin sees upsides whichever way it goes. If the West decides it cannot do anything about Mr. Erdogan’s push for absolute power, this will justify Moscow's mantra about Western hypocrisy and suggests the West will stomach any authoritarian crackdown. A soft line on Mr. Erdogan could also strengthen the hand of those who propose accommodating Russia -- who include, to judge by their rhetoric, Germany's Social Democrats, the junior partner in Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition," Shevtsova writes.

"If, on the other hand, Turkey’s relationship with the West deteriorates, the Kremlin will be even happier. It could then play each side against the other, embracing Mr. Erdogan against the West or vice versa. Most likely, it will try to do both."

And in his column for Bloomberg, political commentator Leonid Bershidsky writes that despite the outwardly warm summit between Putin and Erdogan in St. Petersburg, the Kremlin leader is still not getting what he wants from the Turkish president.

"Putin's apparent reservations about the reconciliation are more than the natural residual mistrust of a man who demands complete loyalty. The Russian leader wants specific results from his friendships, and Erdogan appears to have given him no promises," Bershidsky writes.

The Tandem -- Again 

Political analyst Tatyana Stanovaya has a piece in Slon.ru looking at the evolution of the relationship between Putin and Dmitry Medvedev in context of the recent public initiatives to force the prime minister to resign.


Video The Daily Vertical: How We Talk About Crimea

The Daily Vertical: How We Talk About Crimeai
X
August 11, 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, August 10, 2016

Brian Whitmore

ON MY MIND

You don't hear much about the "collective Putin" anymore. Ditto for the "Putin Politburo."


For most of Vladimir Putin's long rule, the assumption among most Kremlin watchers was that he was essentially the front man for a oligarchic elite that ruled Russia collectively. Like the Soviet general secretaries, Putin was first among equals, to be sure. He was the key figure and the decider. But he had to find consensus and balance among the Kremlin's competing clans.

Now that appears to be changing. As political analyst Nikolai Petrov noted in a piece in Vedomosti (featured in yesterday's Morning Vertical), Putin is moving away from the collective leadership model to one centered on the leader himself. As Petrov dramatically put it, Putin is moving away from the governing model of Leonid Brezhnev and toward that of Josef Stalin (minus the mass repression, of course).

The first clue that this was the case came in late 2014 when reports surfaced that Putin had been quietly bringing a new cadre of officials to Moscow -- recruited by the security services and vetted for loyalty to Putin -- reshaping the rank-and-file bureaucracy in his own image. The next clue came a year ago, when Putin dismissed his longtime crony Vladimir Yakunin -- a perennial and allegedly untouchable member of the "collective Putin" -- as head of Russian Railways. And the next came last month, when another old Putin crony, Andrei Belyaninov, was targeted and publicly humiliated in a corruption probe.

And then came last month's massive shake-up of regional and federal elites -- and reports in the media that more are on the way. Moreover, there are persistent reports in the media that more "untouchable" old Putin cronies, like Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin, are out of favor -- and possibly in danger.

How far this will go, and how much pushback there will be, is still an open question. But these are far from normal times for the Russian ruling class.

IN THE NEWS

Russian President Vladimir Putin and British Prime Minister Theresa May have agreed to meet "in the near future" to try to improve poor relations between Moscow and London, the Kremlin said.

Several hundred people have protested in a wooded park in northeastern Moscow against new antiterrorism legislation that critics have denounced as a massive state encroachment on privacy and civil liberties.

Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed to open a new period of close relations as they rebuild ties between their countries after Ankara's shooting down of a Russian warplane last year.

A raft of countries from Russia to Kyrgyzstan won medals on the fourth day of the Rio Olympics on August 9, but doping offenses continued to shadow the games.

The International Olympic Committee stripped Ukrainian javelin thrower Oleksandr Pyatnytsya of his silver medal from the 2012 Olympics after a retest showed he tested positive for drugs.

RBK is citing a Kremlin official as saying that the media is conducting an organized campaign against Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.

A poll by the Levada Center has found that Russians are finding Putin less likable and less trustworthy.

WHAT I'M READING

Vladimir And Nicholas

In a piece for the European Council on Foreign Relations, Mark Galeotti, a senior research fellow at the Czech Institute of International Relations in Prague, argues that Vladimir Putin's rule increasingly resembles that of Tsar Nicholas I.

"Putin is a keen student of history and has repeatedly paralleled himself to tough-minded reformers, from modernizing Tsar Peter the Great to Prime Minister Peter Stolypin, perhaps the last hope of imperial Russia," Galeotti writes.

"Instead, though, Putin now seems to be metamorphosing into Tsar Nicholas I, the unyielding autocrat who viewed his people with disdain and suspicion, and earned the title 'Gendarme of Europe' for his attempts to prevent the spread of liberal and democratic ideals."

Paralympic Hypocrisy

In his column for Bloomberg, political commentator Leonid Bershidsky points out the hypocrisy of Moscow officials' outrage over the ban of Russia's Paralympic team from the 2016 games in Rio.

"The decision to bar Russia's entire team from the Paralympic Games in Rio has stirred passionate reactions in Moscow, suggesting President Vladimir Putin's brand of patriotism cares more about Potemkin-style medal-winning than how the country treats its disabled nonathletes," Bershidsky writes.

Reassurance And Deterrence 

Michael Kofman, a global fellow at the Kennan Institute, has a post on the Russia Files blog evaluating NATO's efforts at deterrence in the Baltics.

"Since 2015, NATO has steadily become consumed with the issue of deterrence, a seemingly ancient word that dominated Cold War discourse, which, along with other classical military terms of art, was recently reawakened in light of the Russian threat," Kofman writes. 

"After the 2014 Wales Summit, the Alliance sought to reassure nervous Baltic allies, increase the visibility of its presence, and jump-start a regiment of training and exercises. However, the further defense researchers and other analysts dug into the Baltic security issue, the more obvious it became that NATO indeed had a serious problem. The military reforms Russia launched in late 2008 and the expensive modernization program running since 2011 have restored its armed forces as a useful instrument of national power. While there are a host of limitations and caveats to this accomplishment, the reality for NATO is that the size and presence of the Russian military makes defense of the Baltics a dubious proposition at best."

Deconstructing The F-Word

Numerous commentators have referred to the Putin regime as fascist, among them Rutgers University-Newark Professor Alexander Motyl. Now Motyl has taken a scholarly look at its application to the Russian regime in a piece in the academic journal Communist And Post-Communist Studies titled Putin's Russia As A Fascist System.

"There is a broad consensus among students of contemporary Russia that the political system constructed by Vladimir Putin is authoritarian and that he plays a dominant role in it. By building and expanding on these two features and by engaging in a deconstruction and reconstruction of the concept of fascism, I suggest that the Putin system may plausibly be termed fascist," Motyl writes.

Putin's Syria Trap

Sarah Lain, a research fellow at Royal United Services Institute, argues in The Telegraph that Putin is losing control of the narrative in Syria.

"In contrast to in Ukraine...where it was able to steer events towards its ultimate goal -- the destabilization of eastern Ukraine and a sustained conflict for Kyiv to fix -- in Syria, Russia finds itself more limited," Lain writes.

"By wishing to check the U.S.’s 'rule-setting' ability, Russia has become embroiled in the exact type of intervention it has criticized the West for throwing itself into so thoughtlessly. Russia has legitimized its involvement as coming at the invitation of the Syrian government, but it now shares the Western problem of becoming stuck in a never-ending, in some ways unresolvable, conflict." 

Looking East

Vedomosti has an editorial looking at Putin's busy week of diplomacy, which included meetings with Iranian President Hassan Rohani, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Fund-Raising, Putin Style

Slon.ru looks at how Vladimir Putin finances his pet projects with "donations" from Kremlin-connected oligarchs.


Video The Daily Vertical: Another Olympic Offensive?

The Daily Vertical: Another Olympic Offensive?i
X
August 10, 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, August 9, 2016

Brian Whitmore

ON MY MIND

When the world was focused on the Summer Olympics in Beijing back in 2008, Vladimir Putin launched a war in Georgia. And when all eyes were on the Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014, Putin was planning the forceful annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula -- which happened just weeks later. And given the clear escalation in the Donbas (see the exhaustive report in Novaya Gazeta featured below), and the disturbing movement of Russian troops and heavy weapons to the north of occupied Crimea near mainland Ukraine, commentators are wondering whether another "Olympic offensive" is on the way. It's hard to say, of course, whether or not this is the case. But in one sense, today's situation bears an eerie resemblance to the summer of 2008 -- when pro-Russian forces in South Ossetia relentlessly provoked Georgia until Mikheil Saakashvili finally took the bait, giving Moscow the pretext for an outright invasion. So as we all watch the Olympic action in Rio, it would be a good idea also keep an eye on Ukraine.

IN THE NEWS

Tensions are reportedly high among residents of northern Crimea as long convoys of heavy Russian weaponry continue to be sighted not far from the occupied peninsula's border with the Ukrainian mainland.

British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon has urged the public to resist pro-Russian propaganda following concerns about a branch of a Kremlin-backed news agency opening in Scotland.

American Lilly King beat Russian swimming star Yulia Yefimova to win a gold medal in the 100-meter breaststroke in a race overshadowed by sniping over Russia's doping scandal.

The head of the Russian Paralympic Committee says a decision to bar Russian athletes from taking part in next month's Rio Paralympics over doping allegations is a grave human rights abuse.

Russia won five medals on the third day of the Summer Olympics, bringing their total to 10.

Russian antitrust authorities charged U.S. tech giant Apple with fixing the retail prices for iPhones in the country.

Russia's central bank has forecast meager growth for 2016, as the country's economy continues to be hobbled by low oil prices and Western sanctions.

A court in Kyiv has formally charged a former Ukrainian member of parliament with providing support to Russia-backed separatists in the east of the country.

WHAT I'M READING

The Mobbed-Up Banker

Spanish investigators allege that Russia's deputy central-bank chief, Aleksandr Torshin, directed dirty-cash flows for mafia. Bloomberg has the details.

Russia, Turkey, and the West

Writing in Slon.ru, Moscow-based political analyst Vladimir Frolov looks at what Moscow and Ankara hope to achieve in today's summit between Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in St. Petersburg.

"In the talks with Erdogan Moscow sees geopolitical opportunities in at least three areas -- in relations with the West, in 'the Syrian front,' and in Eurasia. The summit could establish the framework for strategic partnership in which Russia sees itself as the senior partner," Frolov writes. 

"Ankara also intends to play the Russian card in its relations with the European Union and the United States to reduce the criticism it received over human rights violations in suppressing the coup."

On the same topic, the Center on Global Interests asks a group of experts whether the West should fear a Russia-Turkey convergence.

Escalation in the Donbas

Novaya Gazeta has a very disturbing piece that takes an exhaustive look at recent developments in eastern Ukraine and concludes that they resemble an escalation toward a major offensive.

Writing on his Window on Eurasia blog, veteran Russia-watcher Paul Goble summarizes the media speculation that Russia is aiming to restart the war.

Liars and their Enablers

Open Russia has published the text of a recent talk by political analyst Yekaterina Schulmann on why politicians lie and why people believe them:

Crushing Dissent

BBC's One World has a new documentary, Russia -- Crushing Dissent, that looks back at the 2011-12 anti-Kremlin protests and the suppression of them by Vladimir Putin's regime.

Origins of the Five-Day War

EuroMaidan Press has a piece looking back at the origins of the August 2008 Russo-Georgian war.

Russia, the West, and Doping

MIkhail Khodorkovsky's Open Wall web portal has a post up on how the doping scandal exposes the growing divide between Russia and the West.

And For Today's Dose Of Whataboutism...

Russian state television is claiming that the use of the traditional Chinese medicinal practice of cupping by U.S. Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps is similar to doping.


Video The Daily Vertical: Lavrov's Straight-Faced Charade

The Daily Vertical: Lavrov's Straight-Faced Charadei
X
August 09, 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.


Audio The Briefing: Putin's New Pals

Friends and competitors -- Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rohani.

Brian Whitmore

A big week of diplomacy is on tap with Vladimir Putin scheduled to meet the Iranian and Turkish presidents.

On this week's Power Vertical Briefing, we look ahead to Putin's summits with Iranian leader Iranian President Hassan Rohani in Baku on August 8 and with Turkish President President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in St. Petersburg on August 9.

Joining me is RFE/RL Senior Editor Steve Gutterman.

Enjoy...

The Briefing: Putin's New Pals
The Briefing: Putin's New Palsi
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NOTE: The Power Vertical Briefing is a short look ahead to the stories expected to make news in Russia in the coming week. It is hosted by Brian Whitmore, author of The Power Vertical blog and appears on Mondays. 


Video The Daily Vertical: An Anniversary Of A Warning

The Daily Vertical: An Anniversary Of A Warningi
X
August 08, 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, August 8, 2016

Brian Whitmore

ON MY MIND

With the Olympics underway in Moscow, it appears that Russia -- to a larger degree than seemed possible just a few weeks ago -- pretty much got away with doping.

The Moscow Times has a good rundown (featured below) of how this came about.

They dodged a blanket ban. Most of their teams are present, with only the track-and-field and weightlifting teams banned.

And with 271 of their 387 Olympic athletes competing, Russia will have one of the largest teams in Rio. And while they won't top the medals table, they have a good chance for a pretty respectable haul.

Moreover, as Steve Gutterman noted on today's Power Vertical Briefing, the door is now open for the Kremlin to spin a great narrative for their domestic audience claiming to be the victim, and -- provided the medal haul is respectable -- the victor.

LATEST POWER VERTICAL PODCAST

In case you missed it, on the latest Power Vertical Podcast I discussed the Kremlin's use of "active measures" and their effectiveness with co-host Mark Galeotti,a senior policy fellow at the Czech Institute of International Relations in Prague, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, and veteran Kremlin-watcher Donald Jensen,a former U.S. State Department official and currently a fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations in the Nitze School of International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

TODAY'S POWER VERTICAL BRIEFING

On today's Power Vertical Briefing, I discuss Vladimir Putin's upcoming meetings with Iranian President Hassan Rohani and Turkish President President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. 

IN THE NEWS

Vladimir Putin is scheduled to meet Iranian President Hassan Rohani in Baku today (August 8). 

Putin is also due to meet Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in St. Petersburg tomorrow (August 9).

The global governing body for Paralympians has suspended the entire Russian team from competing in the upcoming Paralympic Games in Brazil, due to doping concerns.

Russian opposition politician and activist Maksim Reznik has been denied registration to run for reelection to St. Petersburg’s Legislative Assembly. 

Crimean Tatar activists have reported armed checkpoints being erected at scattered sites around the Russian-occupied peninsula, and unusually large concentrations of Russian hardware in northern regions.

Igor Plotnitsky, the leader of Russia-backed separatists in Ukraine's eastern region of Luhansk, is reportedly in stable condition following an August 6 assassination attempt.


WHAT I'M READING

Poland Vs. Nord Stream

Foreign Policy's energy correspondent Keith Johnson has a piece looking at Poland's moves to undermine Russia's Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline.

Cyber Deniability

Andrew Roth has a piece in The Washington Post on how the Kremlin manages to preserve plausible deniability when carrying out cyberattacks.

"It has become something of a ritual over the past decade. Revelations of a cyberattack against a geopolitical foe of Russia, accusations from Western leaders, and then the inevitable Kremlin response: 'Prove it,'" Roth writes.

Sports And Money

Writing in Intersection Magazine, Vladislav Inozemtsev looks at the economics of Russian sports.

"In Putin’s Russia, sport has become big business for some, and a huge burden for the state. 832 million rubles was allocated from the federal budget in 2000 whereas, in 2015, as much as 36.9 billion was earmarked for the same purpose," Inozemtsev writes.

The Minister Of Doping

Reid Standish has a piece in Foreign Policy looking at the plight of Russia's embattled Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko, and what it tells us about Russia.

"Vitaly Mutko may be responsible for one of the worst scandals in Olympic history. Here’s why he still has his job -- for now," Standish writes.

Dodging A Bullet

The Moscow Times, meanwhile, has a good rundown of how -- at the end of the day -- Russia made it to the Rio Olympics with most of its team intact.

Open Russia's Election Primer

Mikhail Khodorkovsky's Open Wall web portal looks at the candidates from the opposition Open Russia who are running in next month's legislative elections.

The Politics Of Corruption Crackdowns

Writing in The Moscow Times, Ilya Shumanov of Transparency International explains why Russia's latest "crackdown" on corruption is doomed to fail.

"It is fair to assume that the end of this anti-corruption campaign will coincide with that of the upcoming Duma elections. Yet we might venture to suggest that halting this steamroller of anti-corruption arrests may turn out to be much trickier than setting it in motion," Shumanov writes.

"If the Russian authorities’ aim at this stage is to clear the way for new appointments, get rid of members of the elite who have fallen out of favor, and win political capital before the elections, then they have done well to choose these tried-and-tested methods."

Cadres Decide Everything!

Moscow-based political analyst Nikolai Petrov has an interesting piece in Vedomosti looking at the Kremlin's personnel policy and how it is moving away from the Brezhnev-style "stability of cadres" approach Putin had favored to one more prone to periodic purges.

The Scent Of Victory?

Bloomberg is reporting that Putin smells victory in Syria

"Vladimir Putin may be on the cusp of a pivotal victory in Syria’s civil war that would make it much harder for the U.S. to achieve its stated goal of ousting Bashar al-Assad without a major military escalation," according to the report.

Ready For War?

Nolan Peterson, a former special operations pilot, has a piece in Newsweek on "How Europe is quietly preparing to confront Russia."


Audio Podcast: Spies, Lies, And Head Games

Old school hacker.

Brian Whitmore

Fabricated news stories. Fake NGOs. Cut outs. Front groups. Useful idiots. Staged demonstrations. And manufactured scandals.

Welcome to the wonderful world of активные мероприятия, or "active measures."

The use of subterfuge, deception, diversion, and deceit to divide and confuse Western societies has long been part of the Kremlin's international playbook.

In recent years, Vladimir Putin's Kremlin has revived and escalated this tactic -- and updated it for the digital age. The infamous Lisa case in Germany and the recent hack of the Democratic National Committee's servers in the United States are just the most recent examples.

On this week's Power Vertical Podcast, we look closely at Russia's active measures and their effectiveness -- or ineffectiveness.

Joining me are co-host Mark Galeotti, a senior policy fellow at the Czech Institute of International Relations in Prague, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, and author of the blog In Moscow's Shadows; and veteran Kremlin-watcher Donald Jensen, a former U.S. State Department official and currently a fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations in the Nitze School of International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

Enjoy... 

Power Vertical Podcast: Lies, Spies, Head Games
Power Vertical Podcast: Spies, Lies, And Head Gamesi
|| 0:00:00
...    
 
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Listen to or download the podcast above or subscribe to The Power Vertical Podcast on iTunes.


The Morning Vertical, August 5, 2016

Brian Whitmore

ON MY MIND

So-called "active measures" -- the use of deception, diversion, and deceit to divide and confuse Western societies -- have long been part of the Kremlin's international playbook. 

During the Cold War, for example, the Soviet Union regularly used front groups to stage anti-American demonstrations in Western Europe. Moscow also planted stories suggesting -- among other things -- that the United States used chemical weapons in the Korean War, that the moon landing was a hoax, that AIDS was an invention of the CIA, that the Jonestown massacre was carried out by U.S. intelligence, and the United States tried to kill Pope John Paul II.

In recent years, Vladimir Putin's Kremlin has revived and escalated this tactic -- and updated it for the digital age. The infamous Lisa case in Germany and the recent hack of the Democratic National Committee's servers in the United States are the most recent examples. 

On this week's Power Vertical Podcast, which will be online later in the day, we'll look closely at Russia's active measures and their effectiveness -- or ineffectiveness. Joining me are co-host Mark Galeotti, a senior policy fellow at the Czech Institute of International Relations in Prague and a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, and veteran Kremlin-watcher Donald Jensen, a former U.S. State Department official and currently a fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations in the Nitze School of International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

Be sure to tune in.

IN THE NEWS

An international sports court has opened the door to Russian athletes seeking to overcome doping bans at the Rio Olympics by ruling that an International Olympic Committee ban on athletes for past doping offenses is unenforceable.

All 11 Russian boxers who qualified for the Rio Olympics have been given the all clear to compete at the games.

Police in Rio de Janeiro say a Russian diplomat who was the victim of an attempted robbery near the Olympic Park shot the assailant dead, but the Russian Embassy has denied its employees were involved.

Russia's Interior Ministry is proposing that the newly formed National Guard to help collect debts and seize assets from debtors.

Four men who are said to be members of the Islamic organization Hizb ut-Tahrir have been sentenced to eight years in prison in the Urals city of Chelyabinsk.

A Russian Orthodox parish in Vienna has reportedly sued the makers of Pokemon Go.

LATEST POWER VERTICAL BLOG

In case you missed it, the latest Power Vertical blog post -- A Troll With A Cause -- looks at the recent uptick in the Kremlin's "active measures" campaign against the West, and what is driving it.

WHAT I'M READING

Managing the Unmanageable

Political analysts Tatyana Stanovaya has a piece in Slon.ru looking at Vladimir Putin's difficulties in managing Russia's ruling elite.

"Putin has managed to build a political regime based on a loyal parliament, parties, and obedient governors. The foundation of the system seems solid and indestructible. But as soon as the question arises of managing and balancing power within the elite, the failures begin," Stanovaya wrote.

The Security State

In his column for Bloomberg, political commentator Leonid Bershidsky takes a look at Putin's changing relationship with his inner circle.

"In recent weeks, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is known for his loyalty to longtime associates, has left some of his friends vulnerable to attack. This is a new stage of Putin's rule: He now can only trust his security apparatus -- and not even all of it," Bershidsky writes.

"Putin has always liked to appoint security professionals to every kind of government job: He trusts people with a background similar to his own. The new crop of appointments, however, is not about his Soviet-era friendships and alliances: It's strictly about service in a system that perceives itself as a besieged fortress. It's a security state increasingly run by state security." 

Access Denied

Euromaidan Press has a piece on how pro-Moscow separatists are attempting to influence media coverage in the Donbas conflict. 

"An e-mail dump of a 'DNR Ministry of Information employee reveals how the self-proclaimed Russian-backed statelet in eastern Ukraine denied accreditation to disloyal journalists and influenced materials of loyal ones," Euromaidan Press writes.

Life During Wartime

Photojournalist Nigina Beroyeva went to the separatist-controlled areas in Ukraine's Donetsk Oblast and produced a lengthy piece on the life of ordinary residents for Meduza.

Disinformation, Then and Now

The Sydney Morning Herald has an analysis arguing that Russia is much better at fighting the information war than the Soviet Union was.

The Strongman Club

In a column for Project Syndicate, Nina Khruscheva looks at the similar tactics used, and dangers faced, by Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The Wash Cycle In Moldova

Forbes has an extensive report on "how Russia turned Moldova into a hotbed of money laundering."

A Bit of Self-Promotion

I will be appearing on this week's edition of Hromadske Radio's Ukraine Calling podcast, joining host Marta Dyczok and Kyiv Mohyla University professor Oleksiy Haran to discuss the conflict in the Donbas. It will be online later today. Just follow this link.

And In The Odd News Department…

Police in a Moscow suburb arrested a woman for using a public toilet for too long.


The Daily Vertical: Less Carrot, More Stick

The Daily Vertical: Less Carrot, More Sticki
X
August 05, 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: War Without End

The Daily Vertical: War Without Endi
X
August 04, 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, August 4, 2016

Brian Whitmore

ON MY MIND

Before being hauled off to jail after being sentenced to 12 1/2 years in prison, former Yaroslavl Mayor Yevgeny Urlashov was defiant. "This is a political set-up," he shouted, according to The Moscow Times (see story featured below). "All revolutionaries were sent to jail, it always has been like this." An anticorruption crusader, Urlashov rose to prominence during the protests of late 2011 and early 2012. He won a landslide election for mayor in 2012, defeating the United Russia candidate. And he remained popular. And he was planning to run for governor. From the Kremlin's point of view, he had to be stopped. So in the summer of 2013, he was charged with corruption in a case widely seen as fabricated.

Urlashov's story is as tragic as it is typical.He is among dozens of mayors so charged since Vladimir Putin returned to the Kremlin in 2012. But sadly, it probably won't be those unjustly charged and jailed on corruption charges that will prove to be this regime's undoing.

No, in all likelihood, if Russia has a revolution, it will be a revolution of the corrupt. It will be a palace coup of the kleptocrats. It will be a revolt of the elites who, in the current or in some future shake-up, lose their access to the feeding trough and turn on their former patrons.

IN THE NEWS

Russians have defiantly hoisted their flag at the Olympic village in Rio de Janeiro amid signs of softening in the bans imposed by Olympic sport federations on Russia athletes suspected of doping.

FIFA has opened an investigation into 11 Russian soccer players suspected of doping.

A court in Moscow has approved the arrest of Denis Nikandrov, the first deputy head of the Moscow branch of the Investigative Committee. Nikandrov was arrested in July on charges of taking a bribe from an organized crime kingpin.

The Russian military has charged that Syrian militants used a toxic agent against civilians in Aleppo, killing seven and sickening another 23 people. The Russian claim came a day after the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported 24 people suffered breathing difficulties in rebel-held Saraqeb, a town south of Aleppo, after a barrel-bomb attack. Residents said chlorine gas had been used in the attack.

According to the independent election monitor Golos, one-third of the companies donating to the ruling United Russia party received state contracts.

WHAT I'M READING

Revisiting the 'Lisa case'

NATO Review has a report unpacking the infamous "Lisa case," one of Russia's most extensive -- and ineffective -- disinformation campaigns in Germany.

"The media storm surrounding a fake story about a Russian-German girl, who had reportedly been raped by Arab migrants, was a wake-up call for German political elites earlier this year. For the first time, they clearly saw the links between Russian domestic and foreign media campaigns against Germany and Russian politics at the highest level," the report says.

"The 'Lisa case' also shows not only the failure of Germany's partnership for modernization with Russia but also the dysfunctionality of Russia's attempts to use personal ties and informal networks to influence German decision-making and policy when it comes to the current crisis and, in particular, the person of Chancellor Merkel. While the German government remains strongly committed to keeping channels for dialogue open, we see a complete loss of trust in relations, which will be very hard to rebuild in the foreseeable future." 

Turkey Between Russia and the West

Carnegie Europe's Marc Pierini has a piece asking whether Russia could play Turkey off against the West.

"Will Russia’s long game of undermining the EU’s cohesion, the U.S. status as the major superpower, or the role of NATO find fertile ground in post-coup Turkey?" Pierini asks. 

"One hypothesis is that Russia may go for a long-term game-changing move and lure Turkey away from the West as part of a broader geopolitical reconfiguration."

Unwitting Kremlin Enablers

Peter Dickinson, publisher of Business Ukraine and Lviv Today, and editor-at-large at The Odessa Review, has a piece in Stop Fake on how the international media enables Russian aggression in Ukraine.
 
"If anyone had attempted to report on 'German-backed forces' in Nazi-occupied France or 'pro-Soviet forces' during the Prague Spring, they would have been dismissed as either hopelessly misinformed or deeply disingenuous," Dickinson writes. 

"While local collaborators and convenient euphemisms were plentiful in both instances, there was never any doubt as to who was really in control. This common-sense approach seems to have been lost in Ukraine, where the international media has played a key role in creating the ambiguity that has allowed Russia's hybrid war to succeed."

Assessing Shock Therapy 25 Years Later

The Cato Institute has a report out looking at the results of 25 years of economic reform in the former communist world.

"The transition from socialism to the market economy produced a divide between those who advocated rapid, or 'big-bang' reforms, and those who advocated a gradual approach," the report claims. 

"More than 25 years have passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, providing ample empirical data to test those approaches. Evidence shows that early and rapid reformers by far outperformed gradual reformers, both on economic measures such as GDP per capita and on social indicators such as the United Nations Human Development Index."

The F-Word

Political analyst Vladislav Inozemtsev, a professor of economics at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics and director of the Center for Post-Industrial Studies, looks at Putin's Flirtation With Fascism in a piece for Project Syndicate.

"If anything, the Russian system should be characterized as proto-fascist -- tamer than European fascist states during the 1920s and 1930s, but still featuring key elements of those regimes. These include the structure of Russia’s political economy; the idealization of the state as a source of moral authority; and Russia’s particular brand of international relations," Inozemtsev writes. 

Requiem for a Reformer

In the Moscow Times, Mikhail Fishman looks at the rise and fall of former Yaroslavl Mayor Yevgeny Urlashov, who was given a 12 1/2 year sentence this week on corruption charges widely seen as political.

Russia's Beautiful Launderette

Gangsters Inc., a website focusing on global organized crime, has a post on how Russian oligarchs turned Latvia into a "money-laundering machine."

The Case of Valentin Vyhivsky

The Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group has a piece looking at the case of Valentin Vyhivsky, a Ukrainian national who was abducted in Russian-annexed Crimea in September 2014, "held incommunicado, tortured and twice subjected to mock executions."

Will the Purge Continue?

According to a report in Znak by Yekaterina Vinokurova, last month's shake-up of regional and federal elites wasn't the last. Another one is coming in September.

Pokemon Go -- Enemy of the State

Historian and journalist Sergei Medvedev has a piece in Slon.ru playing off the Russian authorities' campaign against the game Pokemon Go and asking, "Why are the authorities afraid of virtual reality?"


A Troll With A Cause

A troll invasion, on multiple fronts.

Brian Whitmore

One story made global headlines. One only made it onto the radar of the most obsessive Kremlin-watchers.

The solidifying consensus that Kremlin-backed Russian hackers broke into the Democratic National Committee's server -- and the subsequent data dump of embarrassing e-mails last week -- led to an avalanche of speculation that Vladimir Putin's regime was attempting to influence, or sabotage, the U.S. presidential election. 

Meanwhile, the recent announcement that Moscow was planning to host a Kremlin-sponsored conference of separatists, and separatist wannabes, from Europe and the United States largely met with snickers and derision -- by those who even noticed it.

One story was Huge with a big capital H and sparked an FBI investigation. Slate magazine's Franklin Foer went so far as to compare the DNC hack and leak to Watergate.

The other was a footnote. Not many people were all that worried about some Texas and California separatists getting an all-expenses-paid trip to Moscow.

But despite the differences in magnitude, both are examples of the how the Putin regime is trolling the West in ways big and small. 

The Kremlin has long been using what it calls "active measures" in Europe and the United States to undermine faith in Western values and democratic institutions. It has long had a strategy of sowing chaos, division, and confusion in the West. And it has long sought to propagate nihilism.

Putin is a "wily opportunist who knows how to seize and exploit openings when they present themselves," said Jason Willick in The American Interest

"He does what he can to move democratic opinion in Western countries whenever possible towards the forces that are most divisive, in a bid to divide Western allies and weaken Western institutions."

But this is not just trolling for trolling's sake. It's trolling with a cause.

I Know You Are But What Am I?

At one level, the Putin regime is doing what it believes the West is doing.

Russian officials say -- and appear to truly believe -- that the the West has been meddling in its internal affairs, sponsoring and provoking anti-Kremlin street protests, and backing separatism.

Putin has said -- and appears to truly believe -- that the massive street protests that erupted in late 2011 and early 2012 were the result of a "signal" from Hillary Clinton, then the U.S. Secretary of State.

The mainstream view among Kremlin officials is that the Panama Papers revelations and the Olympic doping scandal were parts of a Western plot to weaken and discredit Russia.

Several Russian officials, including most recently Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, have repeated a bizarre and erroneous claim that former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said Russia should not be allowed to have control over Siberia's natural resources.

And of course, it is an article of faith in Moscow that Ukraine's Euromaidan revolution was a Western-backed coup.

It's easy to dismiss all this as cynical propaganda. But it appears to be more than that. Putin's Kremlin appears to believe its own hype.

"In the eyes of Russian elites, Western aggression must be met with a response," Eugene Rumer, director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Russia and Eurasia Program and a former national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at the U.S. National Intelligence Council wrote in Foreign Affairs.

"Hacking into DNC computers and releasing information on the Democrats’ fundraising practices is simply payback for Western media reports about elite corruption in Russia. It helps boost the Russian narrative that money and politics go hand in hand everywhere and that Russia is no different from the United States or other Western countries whose governments are critical of Russia."

The same could be said for Moscow's tacit support for Brexit, its backing of Marine Le Pen's National Front in France, and its courtship of separatists and extremists in the United States and Europe.

But there is more at work here than just payback.

A Cyber Psy-Op?

One of the things that really jumps out about the DNC hacking case was that the perpetrators apparently wanted to be identified.

According to a report by Reuters, U.S. intelligence officials suspect that Russian hackers deliberately left behind obvious digital fingerprints, including Cyrillic characters.

"Either these guys were incredibly sloppy, in which case it’s not clear that they could have gotten as far as they did without being detected, or they wanted us to know they were Russian," an unidentified U.S. intelligence official told Reuters. 

Another described the hack as 'the cyber equivalent of buzzing NATO ships and planes using fighters with Russian flags on their tails." 

In this sense, Russia's most brazen cyberattack was something of a cyber psy-op.

And at least one of Moscow's goals is apparently to force the United States to treat it as an equal superpower.

"The Russians are messing with the United States," Olga Oliker wrote recently in The National Interest.

 "Russia’s actions are meant to center U.S. policy on itself, to recreate a bipolar global structure reminiscent of that during the Cold War."

And, if it was a big psy-op, it appears to have worked. 

Suddenly, for the first time since the Cold War, Russia occupies center stage in a U.S. election.

Suddenly, there are global headlines about the threat of Russian hackers. 

Suddenly, there are alarmist reports in the media claiming that the Kremlin could hack voting machines and alter the results of elections in Western countries.

But even if the Kremlin's trolling is one part head game, it is also a security threat that is impossible to ignore. 

"Russia’s activities...are elements of an openly stated doctrine -- a resurrection of Soviet-style political warfare, in which intelligence agencies seek to amplify divisions among their enemies, weakening the Western front by sowing discord and dissent whenever the opportunity presents itself," Eerik-Niiles Kross, a member of Estonia's parliament and a former intelligence chief, wrote in Poliitco.

"The political warfare of the Cold War is back -- in updated form, with meaner, more modern tools, including a vast state media empire in Western languages, hackers, spies, agents, useful idiots, compatriot groups, and hordes of internet trolls."


Video The Daily Vertical: Hacker Head Games

The Daily Vertical: Hacker Head Gamesi
X
August 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.

Latest Podcasts

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