Saturday, December 20, 2014


Podcast: Putin's Choice

What will he do? And what are the consequences?

After months of fierce fighting, frantic diplomacy, and bitter acrimony, Russia's nonlinear proxy war in eastern Ukraine crisis appears to be careening toward an endgame. And Vladimir Putin appears to be losing the initiative and running out of options.

Throughout Putin's 15 years in power, he has seemed to have an almost supernatural ability to, one way or the other, consistently come out on top. Has his luck finally run out? Or can he pull yet another rabbit out of the hat?

In the latest "Power Vertical Podcast," we discuss Putin's options and their consequences as the Ukraine crisis moves into a decisive juncture.

Joining me are Andreas Umland, a longtime Kremlin watcher, an expert on Russian nationalism, and a professor at Kyiv Mohyla Academy, and Peter Pomerantsev, author of the forthcoming book "Nothing Is True And Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia."

Enjoy...

Power Vertical Podcast -- August 15, 2014
Power Vertical Podcast -- August 15, 2014i
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Tags:Vladimir Putin, Power Vertical podcast, Ukraine Crisis


Podcast: Vladimir The Ideologue Vs. Putin The Pragmatist

So what do you think, Volodya?

Vladimir Putin has long shown himself to be ruthless and cynical. But also appeared pragmatic and rational.

But in his third term in the Kremlin, and particularly in the Ukraine crisis, Putin appears to have taken a decisive ideological turn.

And as the pressure mounts from Western sanctions and Russia becomes more isolated, speculation has intensified about whether Putin will seek an exit strategy from the Ukraine crisis, or whether he will escalate it yet again.

The answer largely depends on which Putin -- the pragmatist or the ideologue -- the West is dealing with.

On the latest "Power Vertical Podcast" I discuss this issue with co-host Mark Galeotti, a professor at NYU, an expert on Russia's security services, and author of the blog "In Moscow's Shadows"; and Kremlin-watcher Ben Judah, author of the book "Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell Out Of Love With Vladimir Putin."

Also on the podcast, Mark, Ben, and I discuss how attitudes in Europe about Russia are changing -- and changing dramatically

Enjoy...

Power Vertical Podcast -- August 1, 2014
Power Vertical Podcast -- August 1, 2014i
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Tags:Vladimir Putin, Power Vertical podcast, Ukraine Crisis


The Kremlin Floats An Exit Strategy

A piece of the wreckage is seen at a crash site of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in the village of Petropavlivka in eastern Ukraine

Sometimes it's a good idea to pay attention to what Andrei Kolesnikov writes.

The "Kommersant" columnist is one of the Kremlin's anointed court scribes and is often described as President Vladimir Putin's favorite journalist.

Ben Judah, author of "Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell Out Of Love With Vladimir Putin," recently wrote that the Russian president "pays particular attention" to Kolesnikov's columns, which he enjoys "greatly and always reads right to the end." 

Kolesnikov regularly travels with Putin and is often a conduit for messages from the regime's inner sanctum to the broader elite. It was in an interview with Kolesnikov in the summer of 2010, on an epic road trip across the Russian Far East in a bright yellow Lada, that Putin strongly hinted that he intended to return to the presidency in 2012 and that pro-democracy protesters should be beaten. 

Both of these things, of course, happened.

So it didn't go unnoticed when Kolesnikov wrote on July 29 that Putin was prepared to wash his hands of the separatists in eastern Ukraine if they were indeed proven to be responsible for the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. 

"If at some point it becomes evident that the insurgents had some connection to this, that would radically change [Putin's] attitude toward them -- even if it was a fatal mistake," Kolesnikov wrote. "Children who died for nothing, as well as adults and elderly people, this is a red line he will not cross. He will not cover up for those who did this if he knows they did it. He will not have this sin on his soul."

Kolesnikov's argument should by no means be taken at face value. Who really believes that Putin is suddenly shocked that the separatists he has been sponsoring could have shot down a civilian airliner? And does anybody really believe civilian deaths are a red line he will never cross?

But Kolesnikov doesn't write anything by accident. And it's safe to assume he doesn't write anything that is not Kremlin-approved. So with his July 29 column, he is clearly either floating a trial balloon or delivering a message from Putin to the elite that a change of policy is imminent.

There are other signals that a change in the Kremlin line may be coming. In an interview with CNN on July 22, Russia's UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin suggested reports that the rebels in eastern Ukraine thought they had shot down a military aircraft around the same time that MH17 crashed suggested they weren't really culpable.

"According to them, the people from the east were saying that they shot down a military jet, so if it was [that they thought they] shot down a military jet, there was confusion," Churkin said. "If there was confusion, it was not an act of terrorism."

Kolesnikov's column has also provoked a bit of hand wringing in the nationalist press. "Common people who read 'King Lear' think that court jesters exist to tell the monarch the truth with a smile on their face," Yegor Kholmogorov wrote in "Vzglyad."  "The truth is that they are used to tell lies in the monarch's name. Andrei Kolesnikov is one such person who is close to Putin who set off a storm among journalists who are accustomed to seeing signals every time he sneezes."

It's too early to tell whether this was a trial balloon, a signal of a policy shift, or a court jester telling noble lies for the king.

But the column's timing, on the day when the European Union and the United States announced tough new sanctions against Russia's financial and energy sectors, was certainly interesting.

It also comes at a time when Russia's erstwhile defenders in Europe appear to be distancing themselves from the Putin regime -- putting additional pressure on the Kremlin.

In a cover story last week titled "Stop Putin Now!" the Hamburg-based weekly "Der Spiegel" reported that "52 percent of Germans said they would favor tougher sanctions, even if they would lead to the loss of many jobs in Germany." 

According to the article, Germany's business community, which has close ties to Russia, "has also gotten the message. Although the initial sanctions had few direct consequences for them, many business leaders had warned against sanctions -- drawing the ire of the chancellor and other politicians. Now they are changing their position."

In a July 22 article, Yevgenia Albats, editor of the opposition magazine "Novoye vremya," or "The New Times," issued an emotional call to the Russian elite to persuade Putin to change course in Ukraine or be left "without a country."  

"Never before in its post-Soviet history has Russia been in such a horrific position as it is now. All possibilities -- from a major war to a junta in the Kremlin -- are possible," Albats wrote, adding that Putin's "Chekist entourage...has led him not just into a dead end," but also "into a nightmare in which he will go down in history as someone who has the blood of innocent children on his hands."

Maybe somebody in high places actually heard her call.

-- Brian Whitmore 


Audio Podcast: Russia After MH17

Podcast -- Putin + Flight MH17

So what happens now?

From Vladimir Putin's odd midnight video statement to the Defense Ministry's Dr. Strangelove-like briefing, the week after the shootdown of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 has been littered with mixed and confusing signals in Russia -- at least on the surface. 

Meanwhile, Russia's oligarchs and much of the country's financial eite are getting increasingly nervous about sanctions and a prominent former finance minister warns that the country faces isolation.

On the latest "Power Vertical Podcast," we discuss the domestic impact of the downing of Flight 17. Joining me are Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Easern European Studies and author of "Sean's Russia Blog," and Merhat Sharipzhan, an analyst with RFE/RL's Central Newsroom.

Enjoy... 

Power Vertical Podcast -- July 25, 2014
Power Vertical Podcast -- July 25, 2014i
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Tags:Vladimir Putin, Russian politics, Power Vertical podcast, Ukraine Crisis, Flight MH17


Putin Crosses The 'Lockerbie Line'

A protester holds up a photo of Vladimir Putin and Muammar Qaddafi in front of the White House on March 31, 2011.

After getting pounded in the information war in the immediate aftermath of the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, Russia struck back this week -- albeit in a pretty unconvincing way.

The Kremlin released an odd video statement early on July 21 in which a visibly haggard Vladimir Putin blamed Kyiv for the disaster, called for negotiations to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine, and warned that "nobody has the right to use this tragedy to achieve selfish political ends." 

Later in the day, the Russian Defense Ministry dialed it up a bit. At a briefing in a slick high-tech conference room, generals spoke before flashing radar images on giant screens in a scene reminiscent of "Dr. Strangelove."

They claimed that an Su-25 Ukrainian fighter jet had tracked the Boeing 777 passenger jetliner prior to its crash and denied that Russia had provided separatists with antiaircraft systems -- or any other weapons. 

The generals overlooked the fact that an Su-25 can fly at a maximum altitude of 7,000 meters without a payload of weapons and at 5,000 meters when fully armed. MH17 was flying at an altitude of 10,000 meters.

Nevertheless, the allegation managed to muddy the waters for a bit. But hijacking a news cycle here and there won't be enough to change the predominant narrative that is quickly hardening as the evidence accumulates that MH17 was downed by a Buk surface-to-air missile fired by pro-Russia separatists.

"Although the Crimean and Ukrainian operations have shown how effective even seemingly crude information warfare can be in distracting, bamboozling, and blunting Western concern, it is hard to see how Moscow can spin this one away," Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russia's security services at New York University and co-host of the Power Vertical Podcast, wrote in "Foreign Policy."

On last week's podcast, a recurring theme was that Putin had crossed something that Kirill Kobrin, co-editor of the Moscow-based history magazine "Neprikosnovenny zapas," called "the Lockerbie line," in reference to the terrorist attack that downed Pan American Flight 103 in 1988.

That is, that, like Muammar Qaddafi then, the Russian president may have crossed the psychological point where it becomes very difficult -- if not impossible -- to even pretend that he is a respectable leader anymore.

"It is going to be very difficult not to regard Putin's Russia as essentially an aggressive, subversive, and destabilizing nation after this. This one plane becomes symbolic of so much more," Galeotti said on the podcast

"I do think that Russia's position in the world will have changed irrevocably. I do think people will be thinking of Putin and the Putin regime as a problem. And the inclination is going to be: What do we do about this problem?"

Others, like "Washington Post" columnist and author Anne Applebaum, have picked up on the Lockerbie metaphor.

"When the Libyan government brought down Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, the West closed ranks and isolated the Libyan regime," Applebaum wrote in a recent column.

Even before the downing of Flight MH17, Kremlin watchers like Alexander Motyl of Rutgers University were arguing that Russia's proxy war in eastern Ukraine amounted to "state-sponsored terrorism" (by U.S. law's definition of the term) and should be treated as such. 

Meanwhile, Reuters reported, quoting Western diplomats and officials, that the Red Cross has made a confidential legal assessment that Ukraine is officially in a war and shared that assessment bilaterally. The move opens up the possibility for future war crimes prosecutions, including potentially for the downing of Flight MH17.

"Clearly it's an international conflict, and therefore this is most probably a war crime," an unidentified Western diplomat told Reuters.

And even if it never comes to that, Putin is already losing a degree of the soft power he had been accumulating -- particularly in Europe.

"If it turns out -- as appears to be the case -- that Russia supplied air defense systems to the separatists and sent crews to man them (since operating those systems requires extensive training), Russia could be held responsible for shooting down the plane," George Friedman wrote in Stratfor.com.  

"And this means Moscow's ability to divide the Europeans from the Americans would decline. Putin then moves from being an effective, sophisticated ruler who ruthlessly uses power to being a dangerous incompetent supporting a hopeless insurrection with wholly inappropriate weapons."

Speaking on July 22, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite criticized European leaders for sacrificing their values and their security for the sake of doing business with Putin, who she said operates according to the principle of "buy and rule."

"We see the Mistralization of European policy," Grybauskaite said, in reference to France's $1.6 billion deal to supply Russia with two Mistral warships.

Hours later, French President French President Francois Hollande said he was prepared to back out of part of that deal.

Hollande said he was ready to cancel the sale of the second Mistral -- which is not yet paid for and is due to be delivered in 2016 -- if the European Union decides to expand its sanctions against Moscow, Bloomberg reported.

"I don't think there is any way that Putin can phoenix-like emerge from these flames as some kind of reinvented and reborn friend of the West and ally," Galeotti said on last week's Power Vertical Podcast.

"No politician is going to be saying they peered into his eyes and looked into his soul and thought he was a wonderful chap."

But if Putin has truly become that toxic, what effect will that have on Kremlin policy? Russian political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky is not optimistic.

"If he feels the pressure increase on him, he may boost help for the separatists, stoke up the confrontation with the West, thereby raising the stakes of the game," Belkovsky wrote in "Snob."

-- Brian Whitmore

Tags:Ukraine, Vladimir Putin, Russia, Ukraine Crisis, Muammar Qaddafi, Flight MH17


Podcast: A Tragedy And A Turning Point

Armed pro-Russian militants in eastern Ukraine walk past next to the wreckage of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17.

It was the day the Russia-Ukraine crisis went global, claiming the lives of nearly 300 people from at least 12 nations spanning across five continents.

Details are still emerging about the downing of a Malaysian Airlines passenger jetliner in eastern Ukraine on July 17, apparently by a surface-to-air missile.

But the circumstantial evidence is mounting -- and appears to point to separatist culpability.

And what had been a localized conflict has suddenly, and dramatically, become a major threat to international security.

Will the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 be a game changer in the months-long conflict between Russia and Ukraine? And if so, how?

On the latest Power Vertical Podcast, I discuss this issue with Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University, an expert on Russia's security services, and author of the blog "In Moscow's Shadows;" and Kirill Kobrin, editor of the Moscow-based history and sociology magazine "Neprikosnovenny zapas."

Enjoy...

Power Vertical Podcast -- July 18, 2014
Power Vertical Podcast -- July 18, 2014i
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Tags:Power Vertical podcast, Flight 17


Slobodan's Ghost

Similar tactics. Similar myths. Similar futures?

There's a specter haunting Vladimir Putin -- the specter of Slobodan Milosevic.

As the Ukraine crisis has unfolded, it has become fashionable -- and even a bit of a fetish -- to compare the Kremlin leader to the late Serbian dictator.

Writing recently in "The New Republic," Vera Mironova and Maria Snegovaya noted how Milosevic and Putin "fueled intense nationalism...against Croats and Ukrainians through mass media propaganda" and how each "empowered the uprising of ethnic minorities."

Both also used the pretext of protecting minorities to "engage the military" and "established self-proclaimed, semi-independent republics in both Croatia and Ukraine" that were under the de facto control of Belgrade and Moscow respectively.

"But the resemblance between Putin and Milosevic’s cases is more than just a similarity in tactics -- it embraces the fundamental myths and historical clashes between Serbs and Croats, and Russians and Ukrainians," they wrote.

And it isn't just Putin's critics who are dredging up the Milosevic comparisons. So are his erstwhile allies -- as a cautionary tale.

Angry about the Kremlin's apparent decision not to use overt military force in eastern Ukraine to support pro-Moscow militants, separatist leader Igor Girkin, aka Strelkov, recently warned Putin against "an irreversible step down 'Milosevic's path.'"

Writing on his VKontakte page, Girkin went on to explain that Putin's apparent abandonment of armed groups seeking to form "Novorossia," or "New Russia," in Ukraine, resembled Milosevic's "surrendering" of paramilitaries fighting for a "Greater Serbia" in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia in the 1990s.

Milosevic, Girkin wrote, "was later finished off in Kosovo, and finally 'expired' naturally, and tellingly, in The Hague."

The subtext, of course, was that if nationalists turned against Putin over his "betrayal" in Donbas, he would be dangerously vulnerable at home.

LIkewise, the nationalist Mikhail Kalashnikov recently argued that “the Kremlin has lost control over the process” in eastern Ukraine and that as a result, “the uprising in the Donbas could turn into an uprising in Russia."

The meme of the potential for an angry backlash against the Kremlin from jilted nationalists has also been picked up by the mainstream Russian media.

"The Russian authorities have learned how to suppress liberal protests but they are far worse at coping with nationalist and left-wing protests when they are confronted by resolute, desperate people who are prepared for a strong-arm confrontation," the daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" wrote in a July 11 editorial. 

"The state has not resolved the migration question and this means that Kondopoga, Manezh Square, or Biryulevo could be repeated at any moment.... The Kremlin has absolutely no interest in a left-wing or nationalist protest in Russia being headed by experienced militants."

So how relevant is the Milosevic experience to Putin's fate?

A couple things here. First, the line between Milosevic's abandonment of the "Greater Serbia" project and his fall from power was not a direct one.

Nearly four years passed from the signing of the Dayton Accords, which ended hostilities in Bosnia in December 1995, until Milosevic's fall in October 1999 -- a period in which he weathered the loss of nationalist support, a series of noisy street protests in Belgrade, another war, in Kosovo, and a NATO bombing campaign.

And second, when Milosevic finally went down it was by no means preordained.

Pro-Western liberals and student activists were the most visible participants in the massive demonstrations that followed the flawed 1999 presidential election, and those demonstrations certainly played a role in the Serbian strongman's downfall.

But the death blow was actually dealt behind the scenes and away from the crowds, in the back seat of a Mercedes SUV cruising Belgrade's backstreets.

It was there, according to media reports, where Milorad Lukovic, one of Milosevic's most brutal henchmen, cut a deal with opposition leader Zoran Djindjic, the German-educated darling of the liberals who would later go on to serve as prime minister until his assassination in 2003.

Milosevic had ordered the paramilitary police unit Lukovic commanded, the Red Berets, to open fire on the demonstrators swarming Belgrade's streets and squares. Djindjic reportedly convinced him not to do so, persuading him that Milosevic was finished.

"The hidden power structures in Serbia understood that they could not go any further with Milosevic, so they gave him up, but they wanted certain payoffs," Bratislav Grubacic, a Belgrade-based political analyst, told me back in 2003.

So in the end, it was a combination of a liberal uprising, nationalist disillusionment, and security-service disloyalty that ended the Milosevic era.

Putin could go the same way sometime in the future. But it is just as easy to imagine him hanging on to power -- provided the elite and the security services remain loyal.

And provided he's willing to spill blood.

A 260-page report issued earlier this month  -- edited by Kirill Rogov and titled "The Crisis and Transformation of Russian Electoral Authoritarianism" -- argues that the Ukraine crisis was "beyond doubt" a turning point in Russian history. (A big h/t to Paul Goble for flagging it.)

The report's authors argue that “the level of political repressions will only grow,” become more intense, and increasingly become “an inseparable part” of “the political culture” of the Putin regime.

The true Milosevic scenario for Putin could, in fact, turn out to be one in which he managed to hang on to power -- and became even more brutal.

-- Brian Whitmore

Tags:Vladimir Putin, Power Vertical blog, Slobodan Milosevic


Podcast: Russia's Looming Ukraine Hangover

Too many shots of Strelkov?

The nationalists are feeling betrayed and they're getting restless. The public is getting nervous about the costs of absorbing Crimea. The elite is getting jittery about the effect of sanctions. And the infighting among the siloviki over the spoils of war is intensifying.

After every party, comes a hangover. And as we all know, hangovers are no fun.

In the latest "Power Vertical Podcast," we discuss Russia's new normal in the wake of the Ukraine crisis.

Joining me are Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University, an expert on Russia's security services, and author of the blog "In Moscow's Shadows"; 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 and author of "Sean's Russia Blog."

Enjoy...

Power Vertical Podcast -- July 11, 2014
Power Vertical Podcast -- July 11, 2014i
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Tags:Power Vertical podcast


Podcast: Russia's Thought Police

He's keeping an eye on the Internet.

Retweeting a Twitter tweet or liking a Facebook post that the Kremlin doesn't like can now land Russians in prison.

And salty language in theater performances, films, and the media can now lead to stiff fines.

The stated goal of the former is to combat extremism. The purported objective of the latter is to promote traditional values and preserve the "purity of the Russian language."

But few doubt that the real point of both is to tighten the Kremlin's control over discourse -- and therefore, over politics.

Will it lead to an Orwellian nightmare? Or a Kafkaesque theater of the absurd?

On this week's "Power Vertical Podcast," we discuss these trends. 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 Merhat Sharipzhan, an analyst with RFE/RL's Central Newsroom.

Also on the podcast, we discuss a recent report about a Russian hacker group targeting Western energy firms.

Enjoy...

Power Vertical Podcast -- July 3, 2014
Power Vertical Podcast -- July 3, 2014i
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Audio Podcast: Hybrid Warfare And Russia's New 'Great Game'

Armed pro-Russian separatists of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic pledge an oath during a ceremony in Donetsk on June 21.

An invasion that's not quite an invasion. Operatives who aren't quite troops. Aggression no doubt, albeit aggression with plausible deniability.

We've been in this place before, although it didn't always make international headlines. We were here in the conflicts in Georgia's breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the early 1990s.

We were here in the conflict in Moldova's separatist Transdniester province. We were here dramatically in the run-up to Russia's August 2008 war with Georgia.

And here we are again today, in Ukraine.

It's been called hybrid warfare, asymmetrical warfare, and ambiguous warfare. But warfare it is, and Russia appears to have perfected using it to achieve its geopolitical aims.

The Little Green Men are probably here to stay. Is there any way to counter them?

In the latest Power Vertical Podcast, we discuss this phenomenon and its implications. Joining me are co-host Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University, an expert on Russia's security services, and author of the blog "In Moscow's Shadows" and Merhat Sharipzhan, a senior correspondent and analyst with RFE/RL's Central Newsroom.

Enjoy...

Power Vertical Podcast -- June 27, 2014
Power Vertical Podcast -- June 27, 2014i
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Tags:Ukraine, Russia, Power Vertical podcast, Hybrid Warfare


Audio Podcast: Russia's New Utopianism

Eurasianism, old and new: Aleksandr Dugin, Giorgy Florovsky and Aleksandr Prokhanov.

It's been compared to a consensual hallucination and even likened to a collective hit of cocaine. 

It may have been a masterstroke that reset Russia's political agenda and saved Vladimir Putin's regime. Or it may turn out to be a fleeting phenomenon that results in a big national hangover.

It is the return of the Russian messianic idea.

One thing is abundantly clear about the wave of patriotic fervor that has gripped Russia since the annexation of Crimea: After decades in the shadows, those age-old utopian and imperial instincts are back with a vengeance.

In this week's "Power Vertical Podcast," we discuss Eurasianism, Russia's latest messianic ideology. Is it a passing fad? Or a long-term project?

Joining me are Merhat Sharipzhan, a senior correspondent and analyst with RFE/RL's Central Newsroom, and Andreas Umland,a professor at Kyiv Mohyla Academy and a leading expert on Russian nationalism.

Enjoy...
 

Power Vertical Podcast -- June 20, 2014
Power Vertical Podcast -- June 20, 2014i
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Podcast: The Khrushchev Legacy

Nikita Khrushchev as Soviet leader (left) and in retirement with great-granddaughter Nina and granddaughter Julia.

It began with an offhanded -- and insensitive -- comment an old man made to a teenage girl at an elite Soviet retirement complex on a warm spring day back in 1981.

And it ended more than three decades later with an exploration into a famous family's hidden history -- and an examination of a nation's tortured soul.

The old man was Vyacheslav Molotov, Josef Stalin's ruthless and powerful foreign minister. And the teenaged girl was Nina Khruscheva, great-granddaughter of the former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev -- Stalin's successor and Molotov's bitter rival.

The book that conversation ultimately inspired, "The Lost Khrushchev: A Journey Into The Gulag of the Russian Mind," was recently published in the United States. And on the latest Power Vertical Podcast, we discuss it -- and the Khrushchev legacy's relevance to today's Russia -- with the author.

Joining me are Nina Khrushcheva, a professor at the New School, and Merhat Sharipzhan, a senior correspondent and analyst for RFE/RL's Central Newsroom.

Enjoy...
 
Power Vertical Podcast -- June 13, 2014
Power Vertical Podcast -- June 13, 2014i
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Tags:Nikita Khrushchev


Audio Podcast: The Gangs Of Crimea And Donbas

Gangsters, fascists and separatists: Sergei Aksyonov (first image) and Pavel Gubarev (first from left in front row, second image) with his Russian National Unity comrades.

Russia may be threatening to cut off Ukraine's gas supply. But it is busy exporting other things to Ukraine.

With Crimea about to turn into the most lucrative business opportunity for organized crime groups since the Sochi Olympics, major Russian mafia groups are gearing up to get their cut -- setting the stage for a potential gang war.

And meanwhile, the conflict in Donbas is attracting Russian ultranationalsts, paramilitary groups, and neo-Nazis of various stripes.

In the latest Power Vertical Podcast, we discuss these phenomena and their implications.

Joining me, Brian Whitmore, are co-host Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University, an expert on post-Soviet organized crime and Russia's security services, and author of the blog "In Moscow's Shadows;" and guest Merhat Sharipzhan, a senior correspondent and analyst for RFE/RL's Central Newsroom.

Enjoy...
Power Vertical Podcast -- June 6, 2014
Power Vertical Podcast -- June 6, 2014i
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Tags:Ukraine, crimea, Russia, Power Vertical podcast, Russian organized crime, Russian nationalists


Gangsters And Fascists And Separatists -- Oh My!

The self-proclaimed governor of the Donetsk region, Pavel Gubarev (first row, third from left), as a Russian nationalist.

A multibillion-dollar project is announced to construct a bridge across the Kerch Strait. Police raid a meeting of Georgian gangsters at a swanky downtown Moscow restaurant. And an emissary from the powerful Solntsevo crime syndicate is reportedly dispatched to Simferopol.

What do all these things have in common? They're all elements of a shadowy struggle among organized crime groups to get their claws into Crimea.

Vladimir Putin's annexation of Ukraine's Black Sea peninsula has turned the international order on its ear. And as longtime Kremlin-watcher and security expert Mark Galeotti wrote this week, it also promises to upend the delicate balance in the post-Soviet underworld -- with possibly violent results.

"The underworld status quo is relatively brittle, full of hungry upstarts and deep feuds, as well as unbalanced by new money flowing into some gangs' coffers, thanks to the growing and massive trade in Afghan heroin," Galeotti, a professor at New York University and a co-host of the Power Vertical Podcast, wrote this week in "The Moscow Times."

"Further competition in Crimea could shatter the already fragile underworld peace."

And it's not like Crimea was exactly gangster-free even before the Russian annexation. A combination of official neglect from Kyiv, hostility between local law enforcement and the central Ukrainian government, and the Black Sea Fleet's role in various smuggling operations combined to make the peninsula a magnet for post-Soviet organized crime.

"Crimea's political and economic structures were infamously interconnected with its underworld. Simferopol's Salem and Bashmaki crime gangs of the 1990s ran protection rackets, smuggled drugs, and assassinated each other, Galeotti wrote.

Indeed, Crimea's Moscow-installed de facto Prime Minister Sergei Aksyonov is widely reported to be a mid-level gangster -- known as "the Goblin" -- with the Salem gang.

And now, major projects like the $5.5 billion Kerch Strait bridge project connecting Crimea to Russia's Krasnodar Krai and plans to build a new casino and resort complex promise to present the most lucrative opportunity for the criminal underworld since, well, since the Sochi Olympics.

And the Russian authorities seem determined to make sure "their" anointed gangsters -- like Moscow's powerful Solntsevo group -- get the largest piece of the action.

In a recent post on his blog, Galeotti noted how on May 24 police broke up a meeting of Georgian gangsters at a swanky restaurant in downtown Moscow -- an apparent attempt to warn them to stay out of Crimea. "It’s futile to try and keep the Georgians out of Crimea, but I imagine that a pernicious alliance of ethnic Russian mobsters and the government will try to minimize their role there," he wrote.

Given the fragile peace in the underworld in the wake of the Moscow assassination of the legendary crime boss Aslan Usoyan in January 2013, it looks like Crimea's new status provides all the conditions for a mob war.

And if Crimea looks like a playground for gangsters, in eastern Ukraine it's springtime for Russian ultranationalists and neo-Nazis. 

Pavel Gubarev, the self-styled "people's governor" of Donetsk, was a member of the ultranationalist group Russian National Unity, whose symbol bears a disturbing resemblance to a swastika.  

The far-right paramilitary organization was founded in 1990 by nationalist leader Aleksandr Barkashov, and its members have been implicated in violent crimes against ethnic minorities and in the 2009 killings of human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov and journalist Anastasia Baburova. 

Aleksandr Borodai, a Russian citizen who is the "prime minister" of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, was an editor and remains a contributor to the far-right -- and often anti-Semitic -- newspaper "Zavtra," founded by ultranationalist Aleksandr Prokhanov in the 1990s. The newspaper's website now serves as a recruiting platform for mercenaries fighting in eastern Ukraine. 

Prokhanov, a fringe figure in the 1990s, has enjoyed a resurgence with the Ukrainian crisis, with his articles appearing regularly in the mass-circulation pro-Kremlin daily "Izvestia.' 

The Donetsk People's Republic's self-styled "defense minister," Igor Girkin, aka "Strelkov," is also a contributor to "Zavtra"  Girkin, who Ukrainian authorities claim is an agent with the Russian Defense Ministry's Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), also reportedly served as a mercenary in conflicts in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Transdniester, and Chechnya.

And Gubarev, Borodai, and Girkin are just the tip of the iceberg. Moscow-based political analyst Vladimir Pribylovsky told RFE/RL's Russian Service this week that the conflict in eastern Ukraine is serving as a magnet for Russian nationalists of various stripes.

Russia may be threatening to cut off Ukraine's gas supply. But it is busy exporting its mafia and neo-Nazis to its southern neighbor.

-- Brian Whitmore

NOTE TO READERS: Be sure to tune in to the Power Vertical Podcast on June 6 when I will discuss the themes raised in this post with co-host Mark Galeotti and guest Merkhat Sharipzhan.

Tags:crimea, Russian organized crime, Power Vertical blog, Russian nationalists, eastern Ukraine


Podcast: The Restoration

Then and now.

Ninety-one years and five months ago, five men gathered in Moscow and approved a treaty forming a new union. Sixty-nine years later, that union -- the Soviet Union -- dissolved leaving in its wake 15 independent states. And they've stayed independent for more than two decades.

This week, three men gathered in Astana to form another union -- the Eurasian Union of Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan.

Russian President Vladimir Putin says the new grouping is designed to foster the free flow of people, goods, capital, and services. But coming in the wake of Moscow's annexation of Crimea, and against the backdrop of Russia's intervention in eastern Ukraine, suspicions abound that it is but another step in the restoration of the old empire.

In the latest Power Vertical Podcast, I discuss these issues with Merkhat Sharipzhan, a senior correspondent and analyst with RFE/RL's Central Newsroom; and Natalya Churikova, senior editor of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service and host of the program "European Connect."

Enjoy...
Power Vertical Podcast -- May 30, 2014
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Listen to or download the podcast above or subscribe to "The Power Vertical Podcast" on iTunes.

Podcast: The Ideologue

Cunning, calculating, ruthless -- and an ideologue to boot.

We've seen that he could be ruthless. We've always suspected he was cynical and calculating. And we've always known him to be cunning. But recent years have taught us something new about Vladimir Putin. He appears to be much more ideological than we had suspected.

This has been evident in the Kremlin leader's persistent gay bashing; in his full-throated defense of Russia's "traditional values" and derision of the West's "genderless and infertile" liberalism in his state-of-the-nation speech last year; and in his recent redrafting of history in public comments following the annexation of Crimea.

The new face of Putinism is coming into sharp focus. Is it just a cosmetic makeover to meet the needs of the moment? Or is it the shape of things to come?

On the latest "Power Vertical Podcast," we discuss the newly ideologial Putin. Joining me are Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University, an expert on Russia's security services, and author of the blog "In Moscow's Shadows," and Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies and author of "Sean's Russia Blog."

Also on the podcast, Mark, Sean, and I talk about how recent developments have led us to rethink our assumptions about Russia.

Enjoy...
Power Vertical Podcast -- May 23, 2014
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Podcast: That '70s (Spy) Show

Vladimir Putin and the fictional Soviet Spy Stierlitz.

The Ukrainian crisis has given Russia's vaunted siloviki, the security service veterans in Vladimir Putin's inner circle, a big political boost.

Simultaneously, there has been a wave of nostalgia for the 1970s and the era of Leonid Brezhnev is increasingly looked at like a Russian Victorian Age.

In the latest Power Vertical Podcast we take a look at these two phemomena.

Joining me are co-hosts Kirill Kobrin, editor of the Moscow-based history and sociology magazine "Neprikosnovenny zapas," and security expert Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University and author of the blog "In Moscow's Shadows," and special guest Merkhat Sharipzhan, a senior correspondent and analyst for RFE/RL.

Enjoy...
 
Power Vertical Podcast -- May 16, 2014
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Russia's Patriotic Fix

Restoring the consensual hallucination?

We haven't heard much about the "party of swindlers and thieves" for some time now. There aren't so many exposes of officials' luxury villas in the south of France. And, by the way, when was the last time you read a snarky blog post about Vladimir Putin's Botox habit?

But we sure are hearing a lot about "national traitors" and "fascists" bent on undermining Russia's restored greatness. And the early 20th-century Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera -- or at least a grotesque caricature of him -- has made a comeback as a national boogeyman.

In the space of a few months, Putin has managed to change the conversation.

The Kremlin no longer looks like it is out of ideas and running out of time. Putin's approval rating is at 83 percent. Even the ruling United Russia party -- you know, the one made up of all those swindlers and thieves -- is polling at 60 percent.

And the Kremlin's critics have been effectively silenced.

With the world's eyes on the Ukraine crisis, an ongoing crackdown on NGOs in Russia intensified this week with prosecutors conducting raids on organizations in Kazan, St. Petersburg, and Nizhny Novgorod.

Independent media is being muzzled, bloggers are being stifled, and officials are dreaming up measures to squash dissent that make the crackdown of 2012-13 look almost quaint.

"The Ukrainian revolution is becoming the prelude to a Russian counterrevolution," political commentator and onetime Kremlin spinmeister Gleb Pavlovsky wrote recently. 

And if you believe the polls, the public -- including that vaunted "creative class" that not long ago was clamoring for more pluralism and for a "Russia Without Putin" -- appears to be on board.

Writing this week in "The Moscow Times," opposition figure Vladimir Ryzhkov argues that Putin is in the process of forging a new "social contract" with the Russian people.

"His first social contract in the early and mid-2000s was based on the principle that most Russians would accept the government's restrictions on personal freedoms and democracy as long as they received higher standards of living," Ryzhkov wrote.

"Now, judging by the results of a recent Levada Center poll, most Russians have shifted their focus to another value: returning Russia to its great-power status. It seems that the ruling regime has found its political 'second wind' and if this wind continues to blow for the next couple of years, Putin's reelection in the 2018 presidential race is all but a given."

That is, assuming there is even an election in 2018.

Anybody remember Aleksei Navalny?  Not long ago, the anticorruption blogger, opposition leader, and all-around gadfly seemed to be setting the agenda and riding a cresting wave of discontent with the regime. Now he's virtually invisible. 

The man who coined, branded, and marketed the "swindlers and thieves" label is languishing under house arrest. And to add insult to injury, it is now forbidden for third parties to repost his blogs. 

"It is absolutely clear to me that it is just one more attempt to drive me into a corner," Navalny told reporters in April after a Moscow court found him guilty of slander.

Yes it is. And it appears to be working.

Navalny's blog remains active as ever -- but it isn't driving the conversation like it once did. Not even close.

And hand-in-hand with the euphoria of the Kremlin's counterrevolution come the delusions of grandeur.

Writing in "The New Yorker" magazine, Joshua Yaffa recently quoted an unidentified United Russia lawmaker as saying that German Chancellor Angela Merkel was right to describe Putin as living "in another world."  Putin, the deputy said, is "in a different league, he is in a dialogue with history."

The sea-change in the zeitgeist has indeed been dizzying. And it raises a crucial question. In resetting the national conversation, has Putin managed to alter the underlying dynamics of Russian politics?

Since late 2011, the tectonic plates beneath the political order seemed to be shifting decisively against the regime.

An emerging urban middle class that had grown wealthy, confident, and increasingly politically sophisticated was demanding change.

The elite was deeply divided between technocrats advocating political reform and economic modernization and hard-liners seeking to maintain the status quo.

And Putin himself seemed to be losing his aura of invincibility rapidly. His vital role as "The Decider" -- a trusted broker among elite factions -- appeared in jeopardy. There was even talk of a succession battle emerging among his most trusted lieutenants. 

Russia's economy, dangerously dependent on energy exports, appeared headed for a deep recession -- or worse.

It certainly looked like a perfect storm.

Now, with the patriotic fervor unleashed by the Crimea annexation and the Ukraine crisis, Putin seems to have his mojo back. He's The Decider again.

The elite remains divided, but those opposed to Putin's course have been largely cowed into silence.

And what longtime Kremlin-watcher (and "Power Vertical Podcast" co-host) Mark Galeotti calls the "consensual hallucination" that has sustained Putin's undisputed rule appears to be restored.

But, as Walter Russell Mead argued in a recent piece in "The American Interest," the patriotic wave Putin is riding is similar to a drug dependency. "He needs triumphs abroad to vindicate and justify his rule and his repression at home, and foreign-policy victories are like cocaine when it comes to their impact on public opinion: the buzz of each hit soon wears off, leaving only the craving for another and larger dose," Mead wrote.

And cocaine is expensive.

Russia's economy is already taking a significant hit from the Ukraine crisis.

Capital flight in the first quarter of 2014 reached $63.7 billion, more than all of last year. The ruble has lost 6 percent against the dollar since January. GDP growth has been near zero throughout the year. Inflation is expected to rise to 7.6 percent in the second quarter. And the stock market remains vulnerable.

"If this process further develops, we can expect power struggles within the Russian elite that will be exacerbated once the scale and scope of the financial damage Putin has precipitated becomes clear," Avi Tiomkin, a hedge-fund adviser, wrote recently in "Forbes." 

"At that point, the ruling elite will conclude that Putin is not only no longer an asset, but has become a major liability. At the same time, Russian opposition parties and groups will be emboldened by the West's stance and expect support. This is when we may see a 'Russian Spring.'"

-- Brian Whitmore

Tags:Vladimir Putin, Russian opposition, counterrevolution, patriotism


Podcast: Putin's Other War

Pavel Durov, Vladimir Putin, and Aleksei Navalny

New restrictions for online journalists. Stricter regulations for foreign Internet companies.

The demise of Russia's premier independent social network. And a rough week in court for Russia's most famous blogger.

All eyes may be focused on the unrest in Ukraine and the possibility of a Russian intervention there, but at home the Kremlin has been making life miserable for Russia's NetRoots. Is Vladimir Putin' Power Vertical striking a death blow against Russia's fledgling Power Horizontal?

In the latest Power Vertical Podcast, we discuss Putin's war against the Internet in Russia.

Joining me are Kirill Kobrin, editor of the Moscow-based history and sociology magazine "Neprikosnovenny zapas," Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies and author of "Sean's Russia Blog," and Kevin Rothrock, project editor for RuNet Echo at Global Voices, author of the blog "A Good Treaty."

Enjoy...
Power Vertical Podcast -- April 25, 2014
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Tags:Vladimir Putin, Aleksei Navalny, Power Vertical podcast, VKontakte, Pavel Durov


Podcast: The Putin Show Goes Global

This year's Putin Show had global -- and ominous -- overtones.

Relaxed, confident, and full of pithy one-liners, Vladimir Putin was in his element in this week's call-in show with carefully screened ordinary citizens.

The event has been an annual ritual of his presidency. But this year, coming in the wake of Russia's annexation of Crimea and amid Moscow-backed turmoil in eastern Ukraine, it had more ominous -- and global -- overtones as Kremlin-watchers tuned in for clues to Putin's intentions.

So what did we learn? In the latest Power Vertical Podcast, we discuss the Putin show and what it shows about the Kremlin leader's thinking. 

Joining me are co-host Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University, an expert on Russia's security services, and author of the blog "In Moscow's Shadows," and Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies and author of "Sean's Russia blog."

Enjoy...
Power Vertical Podcast -- April 18, 2014
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Tags:Ukraine, Vladimir Putin, Power Vertical podcast

The Power Vertical Feed

In this space, I will regularly comment on events in Russia, repost content and tweets I find interesting and informative, and shamelessly promote myself (and others whose work I like). The traditional Power Vertical Blog remains for larger and more developed items. The Podcast, of course, will continue to appear every Friday. I hope you find the new Power Vertical Feed to be a useful resource and welcome your feedback. More

16:01 December 18, 2014

14:13 December 18, 2014

Putin says it's important that Crimean Tatars feel a part of Russian Federation...

But Crimean Tatars only constitute a part of the people who live in Crimea. "Squatting" is not a good practice. 

 

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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