Saturday, April 25, 2015


The Untouchables And The Expendables

Untouchable no more. Vladimir Barsukov in court in March 2012.

Sixteen years ago, Vladimir Barsukov was untouchable.

He lorded over a massive criminal and commercial empire. He had top politicians in his pocket. He had top politicians whacked. And he was widely considered to be one of the most powerful men in Russia's second-largest city.

Today he is expendable.

That's how it goes with Russian gangsters and criminal justice. And it's why contract killings take so long to solve. You always have to wait for the politics to change -- for the untouchables to become the expendables.

It's something to bear in mind while following the twists, turns, contradictions, and obfuscations of the investigation into Boris Nemtsov's assassination.

According to Russian media reports, Barsukov is about to be fingered as the contractor of one of the most shocking assassinations of the 1990s: the November 20, 1998, slaying of State Duma Deputy and human rights campaigner Galina Starovoitova. 

LIke the Nemtsov hit, Starovoitova's assassination gripped the nation, shook the elite, and was supposed to change everything.

And never mind that it took these investigative geniuses 16 years and four months to figure out what every serious journalist in St. Petersburg intuitively suspected from the very start. Hey, better late than never.

In fairness, it would have been nearly impossible to take Barsukov down in the late 1990s. He was much too powerful.

Known as Vladimir Kumarin before he changed his name, Barsukov led St. Petersburg's most feared, ruthless, and politically connected crime syndicate -- the Tambovskaya Gruppirovka, or Tambov Gang. 

But he was much more than just a gangster and Tambov was much more than just a gang. Barsukov was known as the "Night Governor" and the Tambovskaya Gruppirovka was something of a shadow government.

Every serious politician in Russia's second city -- including one Vladimir Putin -- had to deal with him one way or another.

Barsukov was vice president of the St. Petersburg Fuel Company. The Tambov Gang held stakes in much of the St. Petersburg's petroleum, real estate, and banking sectors. They also controlled much of the commercial traffic from Russia's ports in St. Petersburg, Kaliningrad, Arkhangelsk, and Murmansk.

And Barsukov had his people strategically placed throughout the St. Petersburg political elite.

He had much of the city's police brass in his pocket. He was close to Viktor Cherkesov, then head of the St. Petersburg branch of the FSB. And the governor at the time of Starovoitova's assassination, Vladimir Yakovlev, was widely believed to be Barsukov's man.

Starovoitova was assassinated in the stairwell of her St. Petersburg apartment building at a time when she was locked in a bitter political battle with Yakovlev -- one that threatened Barsukov's interests.

For nearly a decade, the investigation went nowhere. In 2005, a court in St. Petersburg convicted eight suspects for taking part in the assassination, but the mastermind and the contractor were never identified.

Until last week.

According to reports in Russian media, Mikhail Glushchenko, a former lawmaker who is serving a prison sentence for extortion, signed a plea bargain on March 26 in which he agreed to admit organizing the assassination and to finger Barsukov as the person who ordered the hit.

Unlike in 1998, taking down Barsukov now is easy.

He's no longer a player. He's no longer powerful. He long ago ceased to be useful to the authorities. In fact, he's no longer even a free man. In 2009 he was sentenced to 14 years in prison on a variety of charges.

He's expendable.

And he became expendable because he's a remnant of a bygone era -- one in which the state was Balkanized and was just one mafia competing with various others. Today, Russia is still a mafia state -- but the state is the only mafia that matters. The functions Barsukov and the Tambov Gang fulfilled in the 1990s have been reclaimed by the authorities.

Likewise, perhaps sometime down the road -- it may take 16 years; it may take less; it may take more -- the truth about who ordered Nemtsov's assassination will finally come out. It will come out if and when the politics change and the contractor, be it Ramzan Kadyrov or somebody else, becomes expendable.

By then, of course, the Nemtsov assassination will have largely faded from memory-- like the Starovoitova assassination has today. Its shock and significance will be largely forgotten.

And of course, there will be new shocking contract killings ordered by the new untouchables. And they too will get away with murder -- until they become expendable too. And on and on it will go.

-- Brian Whitmore

Tags:Galina Starovoitova, Nemtsov assassination, Russian organized crime


Video The Daily Vertical: The Great Disconnect

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April 01, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.

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


Video The Daily Vertical: A Godfather Fingered

The Daily Vertical: A Godfather Fingeredi
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March 31, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.

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


Video The Daily Vertical: The Kolomoyskiy Point

The Daily Vertical: The Kolomoyskiy Pointi
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March 30, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.

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


Audio Podcast: Can Ukraine's Oligarchs Be Housebroken?

Poroshenko (center) and the oligarchs: Rinat Akhmetiv (top left), Dmytro Firtash (top right), Viktor Pinchuk (bottom left), Ihor Kolomoyskiy (bottom right)

They got obscenely rich in the post-Soviet chaos. They leveraged their political contacts into wealth. And they leveraged their wealth into more political power.

The most powerful among them are Russian-speakers. But when the Russia-Ukraine conflict erupted, many sided with Kyiv. And they expected to be rewarded.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko's decision this week to sack Ihor Kolomoyskiy as governor of Dnipropetrovsk marks a new chapter in the Ukrainian authorities' relationship with the country's oligarchs.

It also heralds the start of a tricky, dangerous, and perilous stage in Ukraine's post-Euromaidan efforts to build a law-based state.

On this week's Power Vertical Podcast, we look at Ukraine's struggle to rein in its oligarchs against the backdrop of its conflict with Russia.

Joining me are Rostyslav Khotyn of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service and Taras Kuzio, a senior research associate for the Canadian Institute for Ukrainian Studies at the University of Alberta.

Enjoy...

The Power Vertical Podcast: Can Ukraine's Oligarchs Be Housebroken?
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Listen to or download the podcast above or subscribe to "The Power Vertical Podcast" on iTunes.​

Tags:Power Vertical podcast, Ukraine, oligarchs, Ihor Kolomoyskiy, Petro Poroshenko, Russia-Ukraine conflict


Video The Daily Vertical: Putin's Cyberwar At Home

The Daily Vertical: Putin's Cyberwar At Homei
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March 27, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.

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


Video The Daily Vertical: Silly Season

The Daily Vertical: Silly Seasoni
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March 26, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.

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


Video The Daily Vertical: Bulldogs Under The Carpet

The Daily Vertical: Bulldogs Under The Carpeti
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March 25, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.

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


Was Surkov Behind The LifeNews Raid?

Vladislav Surkov

It's not everyday that LifeNews gets raided. And when it does, it is usually a signal that something pretty significant is going on.

LifeNews, of course, is a pro-Kremlin "news" organization with close ties to the Federal Security Service (FSB). In fact, it's practically an adjunct of the FSB. It's used for all sorts of purposes, such as smearing Kremlin opponents, planting disinformation, and floating trial balloons.

To raid LifeNews you need to have some serious juice behind you.

So what's going on? It's early yet, but there are a few data points out there to connect.

According to initial press reports and a statement on the LifeNews website, the raid was triggered by a complaint that one of its reports on crimes against minors revealed personal information about the victims. Russian law prohibits news organizations from revealing any identifying information about underage crime victims.

But of course, nothing in Russia is ever that simple. Pro-Kremlin outfits rarely, if ever, get targeted in cases like this. And when they do, it is invariably the result of some kind of palace intrigue.

The complaint against LifeNews's report came from the rights organization Soprotivlenie, or Resistance. The group is run by Olga Kostina, the wife of political fixer Konstantin Kostin.

Currently, Kostin runs a think tank called the Civil Society Development Foundation. But he has a long Kremlin resume. He worked on Boris Yeltsin's 1996 reelection, on Vladimir Putin's 2000 and 2004 presidential campaigns, and on Dmitry Medvedev's in 2008.

He also served in the Kremlin's political department from 2008-12. And significantly -- and this is where it gets really interesting -- he is widely considered to be one of Vladislav Surkov's chief lieutenants. In fact, Kremlin-watchers have long considered him Surkov's right-hand-man. 

So is this the hand of Surkov? The evidence is highly circumstantial -- but worth considering.

Once the Kremlin's chief spin doctor and ideologist, Surkov has seen his influence wane considerably since Vladimir Putin's return to the Kremlin in 2012. He lost his position as deputy Kremlin chief of staff and chief political operative to Vyacheslav Volodin, a bitter rival.

But Putin is known to value Surkov and kept him close as a Kremlin adviser. He has played a major role in the Ukraine crisis and is widely believed to covet his old job and status.

And, oh by the way, Surkov is a close ally of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov. And since the February 27 assassination of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, Kadyrov has been locked in a bitter struggle with whom? The FSB.

Again, it is very early and all this is very circumstantial. But my initial reaction to the raid on LifeNews is that it seems to be one of those data points that suggests some serious -- and potentially consequential -- Kremlin infighting.

-- Brian Whitmore​


Video The Daily Vertical: Hybrid War Is So 2014

The Daily Vertical: Hybrid War Is So 2014i
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March 24, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter@PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.

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


Video The Daily Vertical: Putin's 'Fascist International'

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March 23, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.

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


Audio Podcast: Three Weeks That Shook The Kremlin

An opposition leader is slain. A president goes AWOL. And his underlings go for each other's throats.

It's been three weeks that shook the Kremlin. And at the center of it all were two pillars of Vladimir Putin's autocratic regime: his beloved FSB and his handpicked Chechen leader, Ramzan Kadyrov.

Veteran Russia-watcher Edward Lucas told Britain's itv news this week that "we're seeing rivets popping inside the Kremlin in a way we haven't seen before."

We are indeed. And they're some very big rivets.

The latest Power Vertical Podcast tries to unpack the ongoing political turmoil gripping the Russian elite since the February 27 assassination of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov.

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

Also on the podcast, Mark and I examine an old cliche about Russian politics -- that it operates like a mafia state -- and ask whether it is actually appropriate.

Enjoy...

Power Vertical Podcast: Three Weeks That Shook The Kremlin
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Tags:Power Vertical podcast, Nemtsov assassination, Vladimir Putin, Ramzan Kadyrov, Russian politics, Russian organized crime


The Daily Vertical: The Crimea Question

The Daily Vertical: The Crimea Questioni
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March 20, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter@PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.

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


Video The Daily Vertical: Wolf At The Door

The Daily Vertical: Wolf At The Doori
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March 19, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter@PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.

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


The Warlord Checkmates The Tsar

"I will always be grateful to Vladimir Vladimirovich for everything he has done for me and for my people," Ramzan Kadyrov (right) wrote recently.

Has Ramzan Kadyrov successfully blackmailed the Kremlin?

In all the hoopla over Vladimir Putin resurfacing, a pretty important news item managed to slip below the radar.

On March 16, the same day the Kremlin leader appeared, Interfax quoted an unidentified law- enforcement official as saying that the assassination of Boris Nemtsov has been reclassified from a "contract killing" to a "hate crime."

The report is still unconfirmed. But if the official line becomes that this was not a contract killing, then there is no need to investigate who put out the contract.

There is no need to look beyond Zaur Dadayev and the others rounded up in connection with the hit. 

There is no need to ask any uncomfortable -- and destabilizing -- questions.

By targeting Dadayev --the former deputy commander of a paramilitary unit founded by Kadyrov -- the Federal Security Service (FSB) seemed to be ultimately targeting Kadyrov.

And now, it appears, that Kadyrov has successfully beaten back the FSB's assault.

It was amid this turmoil that Putin vanished from public view on March 5, just six days after Nemtsov was assassinated and three days before Dadayev was charged.

"Putin appeared, live and legitimate, at exactly the same moment when Interfax reported that the Nemtsov assassination wasn't a contract hit," political analyst Leonid Volkov wrote on Facebook

"Putin had to make a choice. Either feed Kadyrov to the FSB-men, or give up the FSB to Kadyrov. It's a difficult and unpleasant choice.... And he chose the one and only thing he could choose: Kadyrov."

A Tribute -- And A Threat

Over the 10 days, 21 hours, four minutes, and 20 seconds that Putin was holed up in an undisclosed location -- before turning up in St. Petersburg on March 16 for a meeting with Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev -- a lot of weird stuff happened.

Kadyrov publicly praised Dadayev, went to a shooting range to pop a few rounds, and posted the video on Instagram. The Chechen leader also posted a letter on Instagram expressing his enduring loyalty to Putin.

"I will always be grateful to Vladimir Vladimirovich for everything he has done for me and for my people," Kadyrov wrote.

"I will always be his faithful companion, regardless of whether he is president or not. To give one's life for such a person is an easy task."

But within the profession of loyalty, there was also a veiled threat -- one that was punctuated by the shooting range outing. I am loyal, Kadyrov seemed to be saying. But others may not be. And taking me down carries risks.

And somebody was apparently listening.

It's worth noting that over a nine-day period, Kadyrov has been given no fewer than three state awards.

On March 9, shortly after Dadayev was arrested and charged, he was given the Order of Merit, the state's highest honor. On March 16, the day Putin reappeared in public, he received a medal For Devotion and Duty from authorities in Russia-annexed Crimea. And on March 18, he was honored by the Federal Penitentiary Service. 

"Kadyrov is now the pillar, basis, and essence of Russian statehood. Even more so than all of the FSB combined," Volkov wrote on Facebook.

Connecting The Dots

Unpacking the Nemtsov assassination, the ensuing investigation, Kadyrov's emergence at the center of it, and the Chechen leader's battle with the FSB involves interpreting and connecting a lot of disparate data points.

"We're seeing rivets popping inside the Kremlin in a way we haven't seen before," longtime Kremlin-watcher Edward Lucas, author of The New Cold War, told Britain's itv.

Kadyrov is widely known to covet a high post in Moscow. And he is also believed to want his cousin and close associate, Adam Delimkhanov, to replace him in Chechnya.

The idea makes many in Russia's elite nervous -- not least of all, the FSB brass. Moreover, enmity between Kadyrov and the FSB goes way back.

In May 2007, shortly after Kadyrov was named Chechnya's leader, the local FSB refused to allow a group of his armed men into their headquarters. Kadyrov responded by having all the building's entrances and exits welded shut.The standoff was only resolved when Nikolai Patrushev, then the FSB director, intervened personally. 

And there are strong indications that the FSB is trying to take both Kadyrov and Delimkhanov down.

Like in the Nemtsov assassination, the FSB also took the lead role in investigating the attempted assassination of Saigidpasha Umakhanov, a foe of Kadyrov's and the mayor of Khasavyurt, Daghestan's third-largest city.

In February, just weeks before Nemtsov was gunned down, a court in Daghestan sentenced two Chechens to long prison sentences for plotting Umakhanov's killing. In a recent report Novaya Gazeta quoted FSB officials as saying the assassination plot was ordered and masterminded by none other than Delimkhanov. 

Another report by Novaya Gazeta quoted unidentified law enforcement officials as saying the real organizer of the Nemtsov assassination was a Chechen security officer, also with close ties to Kadyrov, identified only as "Major Ruslan." 

Subsequent press reports have claimed that the mysterious Major Ruslan was Ruslan Geremeyev -- who is Delimkhanov's nephew.

Late Putinism

Will the assault on Kadyrov now ebb? And if it does, will he continue to become more powerful and more brazen?

Or will the FSB regroup and renew its assault? One hint that this might be the case came in a report in RBK on March 17.

Citing unidentified law enforcement officials, it claimed that Dadayev and Geremeyev planned Nemtsov's assassination in a Moscow cafe. According to the report, Geremeyev paid Dadayev 5 million rubles ($83,000) and provided him weapons. 

So we still seem to be in a battle of leaks, each with conflicting accounts of whether this was a hate crime that stops with Dadayev or whether it is a contract killing that leads from Dadayev to Geremeyev to Delimkhanov -- and ultimately to Kadyrov.

Neither narrative is great for the regime.

"If Kadyrov were indeed freelancing into political assassinations in Moscow and were allowed to walk away unpunished, he would be taking Putin and the entire Russian leadership hostage, which might be precisely his plan," political analyst Vladimir Frolov wrote in The Moscow Times. Frolov adds that a "full investigation and arrests of co-conspirators risk destabilization in Chechnya escalating into war." 

Either way, an increasing number of Kremlin-watchers are coming to the conclusion that the period beginning on February 27 with Nemtsov's assassination and continuing through Putin's odd vanishing act marks the dawn of late Putinism -- the twilight of the regime in its current form.

"Has the Russian regime's agony begun," asks a recent article by the prominent Russian political analyst Lilia Shevtsova in The American Interest. 

Shevtsova notes that Putin's "steely-eyed resolve" is gone, he "is losing control," and "can’t give his entourage clear orders." Nemtsov's assassination, she adds, has "shattered the mirrored window concealing the Kremlin; now everyone can see the mess within."

-- Brian Whitmore

Tags:Vladimir Putin, Ramzan Kadyrov, Nemtsov assassination


The Daily Vertical: Between Kadyrov And The FSB

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March 18, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter@PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.

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


Video The Daily Vertical: Alive But Not Well

The Daily Vertical: Alive But Not Welli
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March 17, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter@PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.

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


Video The Daily Vertical: Late Putinism

The Daily Vertical: Late Putinismi
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March 16, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.

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


Audio The Warlord And The Tsar

Ramzan Kadyrov and Vladimir Putin were at center stage this week for different reasons.

Kadyrov due to suspicions he was behind the February 27 assassination of opposition figure Boris Nemstov, which placed him at the epicenter of an apparent Kremlin clan war.

And Puin was in the spotlight by disappearing, sparking widespread rumors about his health as his underlings edged toward open conflict.

On this week's Power Vertical Podcast, we take a closer look at Kadyrov's emergence at the center of the Nemtsov assassination, the clan battles in the Kremlin, and Putin's mysterious disappearance from public view.

Joining me are Aslan Doukayev, director of RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service; Kirill Kobrin, editor of the Moscow-based history and sociology magazine Neprikosnovenny Zapas; and Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies, author of Sean's Russia Blog, and host of the newly launched SRB Podcast.

Enjoy...

Power Vertical Podcast: The Warlord And The Tsar
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Tags:Power Vertical podcast, Ramzan Kadyrov, Nemtsov assassination


Video The Daily Vertical: With Or Without Putin

The Daily Vertical: With Or Without Putini
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March 13, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.

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

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About This Blog

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It covers emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or