Monday, July 25, 2016


The Morning Vertical, July 1, 2016

Brian Whitmore

ON MY MIND

Vladimir Luzgin, a 37-year-old man from the Siberian city of Perm, was prosecuted, convicted, and fined 200,000 rubles ($3,100) for posting an article on social media containing the well-known historical fact that the Soviet Union in collaboration with Nazi Germany invaded and partitioned Poland in 1939.

On one hand, it's just another example of the Kremlin's determination to control discourse on social media. A report this week by the Moscow-based Sova Center (featured in The Morning Vertical on June 29) showed that both the number of convictions and the severity of the punishment for social-media posts the Kremlin doesn't like have increased exponentially over the past several years.

But Luzgin's prosecution is about more than the Kremlin's desire to control social media. It's about the regime's desire to control history. Putin and his cronies understand full well that as soon as Soviet citizens began to seek the truth in their own history during perestroika -- be it about the Stalin terror or the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact -- cracks in the regime's edifice began to appear. And they're determined not to let this happen again.

And as a result, telling the truth about history in Putin's Russia is becoming very dangerous.

IN THE NEWS

Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that dozens of military officers in the Baltic region have been sacked.

U.S. officials say Washington is considering a plan to coordinate air strikes with Russia on Al-Nusra Front and Islamic State militants in Syria if Moscow uses its influence to get Syria's government to stop bombing moderate rebels.

A Turkish official has said three suspected Islamic State suicide bombers who attacked Istanbul's Ataturk International Airport this week were from Russia, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, meanwhile, that he had no information that a Russian national was among the Istanbul airport bombers.

Russia's men's quadruple sculls crew has been banned from the Rio Olympics after one of its members failed a doping test in May, the world governing body FISA said.

Track-and-field's governing body has approved Russian whistle-blower Yulia Stepanova's bid to compete as a neutral athlete in the upcoming European championships and the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Pavel Astakhov, the Kremlin’s top children’s rights official, has reportedly resigned one week after he triggered widespread outrage by asking a survivor of a mass drowning that killed 14 teenagers: “So, how was the swim?”

Vladimir Putin has vowed to respond to NATO's buildup in Eastern Europe without getting into a costly arms race.

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov will recruit a new aide through an Apprentice-style reality television show, state channel Rossiya-1 announced on June 30.

Putin said the "traumatic effect" from Britain's vote to leave the European Union will be felt for a long time, although global market turbulence has subsided.

WHAT I'M READING

Class Warfare?

A recent poll by the independent Levada Center shows that class conflict in Russia is becoming sharper than ethnic or religious conflict. According to the poll, 76 percent say there are strong tensions between the rich and poor and 82 percent say that this could result in conflict. In contrast, 52 and 48 percent say ethnic and religious tensions, respectively, could spark conflict.

The poll results have attracted the attention of Russian media with Nezavisimaya Gazeta and the pro-Kremlin daily Izvestia weighing in with stories.

The Cult Of World War II

Historian Ksenia Polouektova-Krimer has a piece in Opendemocracy, Unearthing Russia’s War Dead, Over And Over Again, that looks at the cult of World War II in the Russian psyche and how the Kremlin exploits it.

"Seventy years after the war, many of Russia’s dead still lie scattered in fields and bogs across the eastern front. The Russian state has no problem instrumentalizing their memories to shut down discussion," Polouektova-Krimer writes.

The Russia Trap

Also in Opendemocracy, historian Tom Junes looks at the "trap of countering Russia" in the post-Soviet space.

"The ultimate trap, however, would be to persist in engaging a supposed Russian threat in the EU’s Eastern European periphery by continuing to support corrupt and authoritarian governments (and their oligarch backers), thereby stifling legitimate grassroots demands and democracy."

The Danger Of Telling The Truth

Vladimir Luzgin, a 37-year-old man from the Siberian city of Perm, was prosecuted, convicted, and fined 200,000 rubles (about $3,100) for posting an article on his VKontakte page claiming that the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany colluded in invading and partitioning Poland in 1939.

We're Great Because You're Bad

Writing in Gazeta.ru, Vladislav Inozemtsev looks at the Kremlin's habit of boosting itself by denigrating others.

PROGRAMMING NOTE: The Morning Vertical will not appear for two weeks, as I will be traveling to the NATO summit in Warsaw and a postsummit conference in Tartu, Estonia. We will be back on schedule on July 18.


Video The Daily Vertical: A Reality Show With Real Consequences

The Daily Vertical: A Reality Show With Real Consequencesi
X
July 01, 2016
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday.
Brian Whitmore

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

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

NOTE: The Daily Vertical will not appear for two weeks as I will be traveling to the NATO summit in Warsaw and a postsummit conference in Estonia. But we'll be back in action on July 18.​


Video The Daily Vertical: Duma Of The Absurd

The Daily Vertical: Duma Of The Absurdi
X
June 30, 2016
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday.
Brian Whitmore

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

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


The Morning Vertical, June 30, 2016

Brian Whitmore

ON MY MIND

Nikita Belykh is the third Russian regional governor arrested this year. So we have a trend. In an insightful and highly recommended piece featured below, political analyst Tatyana Stanovaya looks at five contradictions the Belykh case highlights.

The one that caught my attention most was whether regime liberals like Belykh are now seen as "a fifth column or partners of the regime." Belykh was appointed governor of the Kirov region in 2009, during the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev, at a time when the Kremlin was trying to appear moderate and court liberals and the urban middle class. That effort, of course, ended when Putin returned to the Kremlin in 2012.

Belykh, who once led the opposition Union of Right Forces, is seen as close to regime liberals like Aleksei Kudrin and Anatoly Chubais, and his arrest is raising questions about whether a campaign against the elite's technocratic wing may be coming.

Belykh's arrest, and those of other governors, is also sending a message that regional leaders are far from safe, regardless of their politics -- and is sparking fears in the broader elite that a general purge may be under way. 

IN THE NEWS

President Vladimir Putin has called for the lifting of a ban on tourists traveling to Turkey after a phone call with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in which both leaders pledging to restore damaged relations.

And Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has instructed the government to begin dismantling economic sanctions against Ankara.

Nikita Belykh, a Kirov regional governor and Kremlin critic who was detained on bribery charges this week, has started a hunger strike, his lawyer announced on June 29.

Mobile operators are warning of price hikes due to Russia's "antiterrorist" legislation passed by Russia's parliament this week.

The head of Vladimir Putin's Human Rights Council, Mikhail Fedotov, has sent a letter to the Kremlin leader asking him not to sign the so-called antiterrorism legislation.

Russia and NATO plan to hold a meeting after the alliance's summit in Warsaw on July 8-9.

Russia has extended its ban on Western food imports until the end of 2017.

WHAT I'M READING

We Have Always Been Friends (Or Enemies) With Turkey!

In a piece in Slon.ru, journalist Andrei Arkhangelsky looks at how quickly -- and seamlessly -- Turkey went from being a friend to an enemy to a friend of Russia.

"It's like a remnant of the old Soviet dual morality: the need to stigmatize 'decaying capitalism' on the party committee and then buy American jeans from speculators," Arkhangelsky writes.

The Unexpected Revolution

In a piece in the Russian edition of Forbes, political analyst Mikhail Komin argues that the Kremlin is focusing on the wrong revolutionary threat.

"The main problem of the stability of the Russian regime is not so much in the growing social groups that may become new sources of protests," Komin writes. 

"It is the fact that the current political institutions are degrading and from year to year are becoming less able to resolve social contradictions peacefully." 

A Puppet Master Or A Puppet

In Slon.ru, opposition journalist Oleg Kashin looks at the unlikely candidacy of Deputy Kremlin Chief of Staff Vyacheslav Volodin for a seat in the State Duma. Is it intrigue designed to undermine the Kremlin's chief political strategist or is Volodin playing his own game?

The Belykh Case

Also in Slon.ru, political analyst Tatyana Stanovaya looks at five dilemmas for the Kremlin amplified by the corruption case against Kirov Oblast Governor Nikita Belykh.

Politics As Football

Sergei Orlov has a piece on Mikhail Khodorkovsky's Open Wall portal contrasting the behavior of Russia's football coach following the team's inglorious exit from Euro 2016 to that of Russian politicians.

"Announcing his resignation, coach Leonid Slutsky publicly shouldered the blame for Russia’s failure to progress from the group stage; several players, meanwhile, apologized to fans for the team’s disastrous showing," Orlov writes. 

"In so doing, coach and players effectively broke with the age-old Russian tradition, which dictates that public figures (whether footballers or politicians) are not obliged to answer to anyone (whether their fans or the electorate)."

Brexit: Russia's Double-Edged Sword

Writing on his blog, Maxim Trudolyubov, a senior fellow at the Kennan Institute, unpacks Russia's response to Brexit.

"Brexit, being a welcome surprise for Russia’s political leadership, also reminds the Kremlin of a hidden challenge," Trudolyubov writes. 

"If national politics trump supranational agendas everywhere, Russia is in trouble. For the past decade, the Kremlin has been making sure the Russian population subsists on news about Russia’s engagement with its international enemies, the likes of Britain and the U.S. Just like Britain, Russia has a national health-care system and numerous depressed small towns. In fact, there are more of them in Russia than in Great Britain. If the Russian public wakes up and decides to prioritize the national agenda over the international one, the consequences for the Kremlin would be much tougher than the consequences of Brexit are for Whitehall."

Mr. Putin Goes To China

Sijbren de Jong of The Hague Center for Strategic Studies takes a detailed look at the Sino-Russian relationship in a new piece for EUObserver. 

Promise Or No Promise 

On the latest SRB Podcast, Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies looks at one of the most contentious issues about the end of the Cold War: NATO's alleged "pledge" not to expand eastward. Sean's guest is Josh Shifrinson, an assistant professor at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University and author of the article Deal Or No Deal? The End Of The Cold War And The U.S. Offer To Limit NATO Expansion, published in the Spring 2016 issue of International Security.


Video The Daily Vertical: Swindlers, Thieves, And Wise Guys

The Daily Vertical: Swindlers, Thieves, And Wise Guysi
X
June 29, 2016
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday.

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

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


The Morning Vertical, June 29, 2016

Brian Whitmore

ON MY MIND

Don't look now, but Vladimir Putin has just created the basis for a morality police. Putin has signed a bill into law that allows the Interior Ministry to monitor and collect data on "antisocial behavior" -- which is so broadly defined (violating "the generally accepted norms of conduct and morality") that it could mean literally anything. It could mean public intoxication. It could mean wearing a tattoo or having pink hair.

The provision, part of a law on "basic crime prevention," had largely slipped under the radar until recently. But rights activists, bloggers, and opposition journalists are raising the alarm that, like legislation prohibiting "extremism," it opens the door to the harassment of broad categories of citizens the authorities find distasteful. 

IN THE NEWS

Following months of tension between Moscow and Ankara, the Kremlin has announced that Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke by telephone. According to media reports, the conversation lasted 40 minutes.

The Federation Council has passed legislation establishing Russia's National Guard.

Russian Foreign Ministers Sergei Lavrov will hold talks with his French counterpart, Jean-Marc Ayrault, in Paris today, with Ukraine, Syria, and Russia-EU relations on the agenda. 

Russia has complained that a U.S. naval ship passed too close to one of its ships in the Mediterranean Sea. But Pentagon officials blamed the incident on the Russian warship, which they said carried out "unsafe and unprofessional" operations near two U.S. Navy ships.

The Federation Council is scheduled to vote today on controversial "antiterrorism" legislation.

Tatarstan's legislature, meanwhile, has come out in opposition to the legislation.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has said that Putin is aware of the objections to the law and will make his own decision about whether to sign it.

Putin, meanwhile, has signed a law allowing the police to monitor and collect data on "antisocial behavior," which is undefined in the legislation.

A new poll by the Kremlin-connected VTsIOM shows that 42 percent of Russians saying their financial situation has deteriorated and 38 percent say they are struggling to cover basic expenses like utility bills. 

Former RBK editor Roman Bodanin has been named editor in chief of Dozhd-TV.

WHAT I'M READING

Today's Must-Read Piece: Agnia Grigas On Frozen Conflicts

If you read nothing else today, be sure to check out an excellent new report titled: Frozen Conflicts: A Tool Kit For U.S. Policymakers by Agnia Grigas, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and author of the book Beyond Crimea: The New Russian Empire.

"Since the 1990s, a number of separatist movements and conflicts have challenged the borders of the states of the former Soviet Union and created quasi-independent territories under Russian influence and control," Grigas writes.

"An examination of the development of frozen conflicts and Russia’s continued creation of separatist territories suggests that the past policy responses of the U.S. government to these conflicts have been largely insufficient to deter further aggression."

More Brexit Views

Writing in Vox, Mark Galeotti, a senior research fellow at the Czech Institute of International Relations, explains why Russia may soon regret cheering on Brexit.

"Putin may still have reasons to regret what he wished for," Galeotti writes. 

"His ideal is an EU that is distracted, divided, and weakened, but not mortally so. He may, however, find that he has traded a cozy and polite neighbor for an uncertain, volatile, and sometimes aggressive one."

Aleksandr Baunov of the Moscow Carnegie Center has a piece explaining why Russia really likes Brexit.

"For a long time, ever since the era of 'Color Revolutions' in Georgia and Ukraine, the successes of the West have been seen in Russia to be Russia’s failures and vice versa," Baunov writes. 

"Now the EU has apparently done Russia a favor by punishing itself. There may be in part a psychological reaction here: When our Soviet Union broke up, you celebrated; now your own union is breaking up, and we will not be sorry."

Does Russia Own Syria?

Beirut-based military analyst San Heller has a lengthy post in the War On The Rocks blog claiming that Russia has taken control of both the battlefield and the negotiating table in the Syria conflict.

"The Kremlin has successfully made itself the most powerful party to this war. The best the White House can do now is to make them own it," Heller writes.

"Russia has used its intervention in Syria to reshape the military and political contest for control of Syria and to deliberately constrict the space for countervailing American action. The idea that America can menace Russia’s regime partner in Syria unilaterally and without consequences is an unreal one. And unless America is willing to risk a dangerous and unpredictable confrontation with Russia, the course of Syria’s war hinges on what Russia does next."

Friends Forever?

Stephen Sestanovich, a professor at Columbia University and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, has a piece in The Wall Street Journal, Friends Without Benefits, that looks at the asymmetrical Sino-Russian relationship.

"Russian President Vladimir Putin has just concluded a visit to Beijing, where, after announcing a few big-sounding energy deals, he said that Russia and China were 'friends forever.' These days everyone wants a good relationship with China, but Mr. Putin does so from a disadvantageous position. Russia is one of the few countries in the world with few friends besides China," Sestanovich writes.

"With the ruble having lost more than half its value, China can buy what it wants for less! But no need to rub that in. If, with no other buyers on the horizon, Russia is now ready to sell off parts of its oil and gas sector, then China is ready to pick up a few bargains. That was the real news of this summit. It’s what being 'friends forever' actually means."

Online Crackdown

A new report by the Sova Center shows the degree to which penalties for expressing anti-Kremlin views online have increased, as well as the likelihood of prosecution.

The Turkish 'Apology'

Meduza has a piece parsing what we know -- and don't know -- about Turkey's "apology" for shooting down a Russian S-24 warplane in November.


The Morning Vertical, June 28, 2016

Brian Whitmore

ON MY MIND

In the run-up to the 2011 State Duma elections, opposition leader Aleksei Navalny effectively branded the ruling United Russia as "the party of swindlers and thieves." This week, police and prosecutors in Spain have shown that the label is probably even more appropriate than anybody suspected.

Six Russian citizens have been detained in the Spanish port city of Tarragona on suspicion of laundering money for Russia's infamous Tambovskaya Gruppirovka, or the Tambov organized crime group. And according to Spanish media reports, the detained are believed to have ties to United Russia. Just another in a long series of data points linking Russia's rulers to the mob.

Not that it will affect United Russia's electoral prospects or anything.

IN THE NEWS

Six Russian citizens have been detained in Spain on suspicion of laundering money for the Tambov organized crime group. Those detained also have ties to Russia's ruling United Russia party.

Miners in Rostov Oblast are threatening to block roads over unpaid wages.

Mobile-phone operators are calling on the Federation Council to reject new "antiterrorist" legislation recently passed by the State Duma.

Russian human rights activist Valentina Cherevatenkois faces criminal charges for allegedly failing to comply with a controversial “foreign agents” law.

Russian harassment and spying on U.S. diplomats in Moscow has increased significantly, an issue that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry raised recently with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Lithuania, concerned about losing a strong defender of Russia sanctions in the European Union, has called for a gradual British exit from the EU that preserves ties with London.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he hopes for a "quick" normalization of ties with Russia after he expressed" condolences" to the family of a Russian pilot who died after Turkish forces downed his plane.

But Turkey's prime minister says Ankara will not be paying compensation to Russia.

WHAT I'M READING

Restoring NATO

Nicholas Burns, the former U.S. ambassador to NATO, and James Jones, a former NATO commander, have released a new report for the Atlantic Council: Restoring The Power And Purpose Of The NATO Alliance.

"As NATO leaders prepare to meet in Warsaw this July, the alliance faces the greatest threat to peace and security in Europe since the end of the Cold War," Burns and Jones write. 

"Transatlantic leaders must confront a jarring reality: The peace, security, and democratic stability of Europe can no longer be taken for granted." 

Burying The Hatchet

In his column for Bloomberg View, political commentator Leonid Bershidsky looks at why Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan has decided to bury the hatchet with Vladimir Putin.

"The spat was unnatural for the two dictators, and what's a mere apology between two men who can do a lot to prop each other up?" Bershidsky writes. 

"Erdogan is willing to let Kremlin propaganda outlets celebrate victory if that's necessary to start making deals with Russia again -- and to show the West that he has no shortage of alternative partners who don't try to impose their values on him."

Writing in Slon.ru, Moscow-based foreign affairs analyst Vladimir Frolov also unpacks the Erdogan-Putin rapprochement.

"Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan need each other in Syria," Frolov writes. "Both are stuck in a war which they cannot win and from which a political exit cannot be found."

China's Deals With Putin's Pals

Writing in Foreign Policy, Alexander Gabuev of the Moscow Carnegie Center takes a look at China's deals with Putin's pals.

"The Moscow-Beijing partnership is stalling," Gabuev writes. "But Xi is winning over the Russian president’s inner circle with favorable loans and sweetheart energy deals."

Eastern Angst 

Giorgi Lomsadze has a piece in Eurasianet on the worries Brexit is causing in the European Union's eastern neighborhood.

"The bloc had been skeptical about its Eurasian partners even before Brexit, put off by Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine's weak economies and/or ongoing rows with Russia," Lomsadze writes.

"In the wake of Brexit, the bloc is expected to become more introverted, focusing on reform and shelving expansion."

Likewise, Andreas Umland of the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kyiv has a piece on The Atlantic Council's website examining what Brexit means for Ukraine.

The Unbearable Heaviness Of Being

Vladislav Inozemtsev has a piece in Intersection magazine (in Russian and English) that looks at the increasing pressure on Russia's struggling middle class.

"For years, 'Putin’s consensus' -- famous throughout Russia -- has not only been propped up by relatively decent living standards ensured by the existing authorities, but also by the quality of life characterized by respect for the 'private space' of the majority of Russians, among others," Inozemtsev writes. 

"Obviously, those who dream of a 'Russia without Putin' do not enjoy such privilege. However, economic and personal freedoms have been the most important basis of life for those who prefer to keep their distance from politics. The situation has changed dramatically in several ways over the last few years. The authorities increasingly encroach on the 'terrain of freedom' with new nonpolitical constraints." 

The Arithmetic Of Grief In The Lake Syamozero Tragedy

Ilya Klishin has a post on Mikhail Khodorkovsky's Open Wall portal that looks at the "the arithmetic of grief" surrounding the 14 children who recently drowned in Lake Syamozero in Karelia.

"In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s final and greatest novel, The Brothers Karamazov, two characters, the brothers Ivan and Alyosha Karamazov, argue over the worth of a single tear shed by a child. It is a debate that remains unresolved to this day," Klishin writes. 

"But now it looks as if the answer has finally been found in Russia -- albeit not the Russia of Dostoevsky, but of Putin. A few days ago, it became abundantly clear that the Kremlin at least knows what a child’s tear is NOT worth: a day of national mourning."

Did The Duma Just Kill The Internet?

Meduza has an editorial looking at how Russia's new "antiterrorism" law will adversely affect Internet companies and web users.

"This legislation isn't just impractical, but will also harm ordinary Internet users and Internet companies alike," Meduza opines. 


Video The Daily Vertical: Using Democracy As A Weapon

The Daily Vertical: Using Democracy As A Weaponi
X
June 28, 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: A Nation Of Suspects And Informants

State Duma deputy Irina Yarovaya, the author of Russia's new antiterrorism legislation

Brian Whitmore

On its last day of work, the outgoing State Duma passed one of its most draconian pieces of legislation to date: a controversial antiterrorism bill that effectively turns Russia into a nation of suspected criminals.

On this week's Power Vertical Briefing, I discuss the bill with Pavel Butorin, managing editor of RFE/RL's Russian-language television program Current Time.

Enjoy...

The Briefing: A Nation Of Suspects And Informants.
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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. 

The Briefing will not appear on July 4 and 11. It will return on July 18.


Video The Daily Vertical: One Step Closer To The Goal

The Daily Vertical: One Step Closer To The Goali
X
June 27, 2016
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday.
Brian Whitmore

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

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


The Morning Vertical, June 27, 2016

Brian Whitmore

ON MY MIND

It's ironic that the Kremlin is celebrating the results of the Brexit referendum when no similar vote could ever take place in Russia. And even if one did, and if Russians voted -- as the British just did -- for something the elite opposed, the results would be falsified beyond recognition.

So while it it ironic to see the likes of Dmitry Kiselyov, Aleksei Pushkov, and Vladimir Zhirinovsky singing the praises of British voters exercising their democratic right, it is not surprising. The Kremlin has become very skilled at using the West's own democratic institutions -- free and fair elections, a free press, freedom of speech and assembly, independent courts, the sanctity of contracts -- to undermine the West. 

TODAY'S POWER VERTICAL BRIEFING

On The Power Vertical Briefing, I discuss the controversial "antiterrorism" legislation passed by the State Duma with Pavel Butorin, managing editor of RFE/RL's Russian-language television program Current Time.

LATEST PODCAST

In case you missed it, here's the latest Power Vertical Podcast, in which I discuss Russia's upcoming political season with Maxim Trudolyubov, a senior fellow at the Kennan Institute, and Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies and host of the SRB Podcast.

LATEST BLOG

And in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, my latest blog post, Putin's War on Europe, takes on a more ominous meaning.

IN THE NEWS

Kirov Oblast Governor Nikita Belykh has been arrested and charged with taking a bribe. Belykh's lawyers, meanwhile, have filed a motion contesting his arrest, citing procedural irregularities.

Vladimir Putin is scheduled to address a congress of his ruling United Russia party today.

Russia and China signed more than 30 cooperation deals during Putin's visit to Beijing.

Putin also said during his visit to Beijing that state-controlled Russian TV will soon begin broadcasts to audiences in China.

WHAT I'M READING

McFaul On Brexit And Putin

Michael McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, has an op-ed in The Washington Post on how Brexit is a win for Putin.

"In parallel to European fissures, Putin is consolidating strength. He has restored autocratic rule at home, crushing all serious dissent and mobilizing popular support through foreign war," McFaul writes. 

"He stopped NATO’s expansion by invading Georgia in 2008 and slowed EU expansion by invading Ukraine in 2014. He has increased Russia’s economic hegemony in large parts of the former Soviet Union by building the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). As a result of his military intervention in Syria, Putin is expanding Russia’s presence in the Middle East, as Europe and the United States pull back. Most amazingly, his model of government and style of leadership now inspire European admirers, both in a handful of governments and in some societies."

1937 Redux?

Opposition journalist Oleg Kashin calls the arrest of Kirov Oblast Governor Nikita Belykh and the Kremlin's broader campaign against some regional leaders "the new 1937," in reference to the peak of the Stalin-era terror.

"To speak seriously about a new 1937 in contemporary Russia has long been seen as indecent and immoral. But the repression of the governors does reproduce the logic of 1937. We don't have closer historical analogies. The victims are not the opposition and saboteurs, but quite normal heads of regions," Belykh writes.

A Nation Of Suspects

Meduza has an editorial looking at the recently passed "antiterrorism" legislation, arguing that it has effectively turned Russia into "a nation of criminal suspects."

"Yes, today Russia's lawlessness has finally become law. Yes, tomorrow we'll wake up in a different country. These phrases are used too often to describe what is happening in Russia. But, for once, it's the truth," the editorial concludes.

Farage Hearts Putin

U.K. Independence Party leader Nigel Farage says Putin is the leader he most admires.

Inevitable Conflict?

Writing in The National Interest, Dimitri Simes, president of The Center for the National Interest, asks whether the United States and Russia are "destined for conflict."

"Russia today is increasingly an angry, nationalist, elective monarchy, and while it is still open for business with America and its allies, its leaders often assume the worst about Western intentions and view the United States as the 'main enemy,'” Simes writes.

"Indeed, a new poll finds that 72 percent of Russians consider the United States the country most hostile to Russia. Worse, Moscow has been prepared to put its money where its mouth is in proceeding with a massive military modernization. The Russian government is simultaneously tightening domestic political and police controls and seeking new alliances to balance pressures from the United States and its allies and partners."


Podcast: Russia's Legitimization Ritual

Let the campaign begin! (cartoon by Sergei Elkin)

Brian Whitmore

Another political season gets under way in Russia.

Vladimir Putin kicked off Russia's parliamentary election campaign this week, setting a date for the vote and bidding the outgoing State Duma farewell.

Like all Russian elections under Putin, the outcome, of course, is not in doubt.

But the September 18 election, and the campaign leading up to it, is important nonetheless -- as a legitimization ritual for the regime.

And as Putin learned the hard way five years ago, such legitimization rituals can go horribly wrong.

On this week's Power Vertical Podcast, we discuss the upcoming political season and what it portends. 

Joining me are Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies and host of the SRB Podcast; and Maxim Trudolyubov, a senior fellow at the Kennan Institute in Washington and editor at large of the Russian business daily Vedomosti.

Enjoy...

Power Vertical Podcast: Russia's Legitimization Ritual
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Listen to or download the podcast above or subscribe to The Power Vertical Podcast on iTunes.


The Morning Vertical, June 24, 2016

Brian Whitmore

ON MY MIND

It didn't take long for some Russian officials to start gloating as the results of the Brexit referendum came in. Almost immediately, Kremlin aide Boris Titov wrote the following on Facebook: "It looks like it's happened -- the U.K. is out!!! The most important long-term effect of all this will be Europe's escape from the Anglo-Saxons, and that means from the United States. This isn't the independence of Britain from Europe, but of Europe from the United States. Now we'll have a united Eurasia in 10 years' time." Bombastic lawmaker Vladimir Zhirinovsky, meanwhile, mockingly sent a message of congratulations to British Prime Minister David Cameron, who, of course, supported remaining in the EU. Russian state television, meanwhile, gleefully reported that Britain's exit from the EU could cause the country to split apart. The official Kremlin response will probably be more guarded, but there is no doubt that yesterday's Brexit result is causing Vladimir Putin to sport a broad grin. 

PODCAST TODAY!

Just a reminder that later today, the Power Vertical Podcast will look at Russia's upcoming political season with the State Duma election campaign getting under way. The Brexit results, of course, add a whole new dimension to this discussion and are sure to come up. My guests include Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies and host of the SRB Podcast and Maxim Trudolyubov, a senior fellow at the Kennan Institute. So be sure to tune in!

IN THE NEWS

The Russian Central Bank and Finance Minister Anton Siluanov say the economic effect of Brexit on the Russian economy will be minimal.

Former Russian Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin has said he regrets the British vote to leave the European Union, but says it will have little effect on the Russian economy.

The deputy head of state development bank Vnesheconombank says Brexit could attract investors to Russia.

Nationalist State Duma Deputy Vladimir Zhirinovsky has sent a message to British Prime Minister Cameron congratulating him on Brexit and praising the British people for their "accomplishment."
 
Russia's Foreign Ministry has warned Washington against imposing new rules on the movements of Russian diplomats in the United States, threatening that Moscow might institute similar restrictions.

The brother of the jailed mayor of Vladivostok has been arrested for corruption.
 
The head of Russia's soccer fan association is claiming that Russian fans were the victims of "politicized" treatment by French authorities at the Euro 2016 tournament.

Russia's troubled state development bank, Vnesheconombank, says it will restructure more than 200 billion rubles ($3.1 billion) in loans tied to the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

WHAT I'M READING

Russia and Turkey

Asli Aydintasbas, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, has a new report on Russian-Turkish relations: With Friends Like These: Turkey, Russia, And The End Of An Unlikely Alliance.

"The growing friendship between Russia and Turkey in recent years was a problem for Europe. But their recent bust-up -- after Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet over Syria in November 2015 -- is an even bigger one," Aydintasbas writes.

On a related topic, Yaroslav Trofimov has a piece in The Wall Street Journal on how the rift with Turkey is fraying Moscow's ties with Russia's Turkic peoples. 

The Kremlin's White Elephants

Writing on his blog, Maxim Trudolyubov, a senior fellow at the Kennan Institute, looks at Russia's fondness for massive "white elephant" construction projects like the Sochi Olympics and the Kerch Bridge.

"The only explanation I have for this stark disregard of common sense is the Kremlin’s irrational belief that this is the only way for Russia to develop," Trudolyubov writes. 

"In Russia, white elephants have special purpose and meaning. They are the tools with which the Kremlin can make things happen while keeping the top-level contractors, i.e. oligarchs and governors, in check. In all likelihood, this is the approach the Kremlin will continue to use in future, despite all talk of reform."

The Night Wolves Go To The Balkans

Vladimir Putin's favorite nationalist biker gang, the Night Wolves, plans to go on a Balkan tour across 12 countries.

Bandera Mythologies

Andrii Portnov, director of the Berlin-Brandenburg Ukrainian Initiative and a visiting professor at Berlin's Humboldt University, has a piece in Open Democracy that unpacks the truth and the mythology of Stepan Bandera.

"I believe that Ukrainian society needs to know about the antidemocratic potential of the Bandera cult and the dangers of idealized and uncritical depiction of the nationalist underground’s attitudes toward Poles and Jews, as well as Ukrainians whom they considered to be 'enemies,'" Portnov writes.

When Parody Is Not Far From The Truth

And on the lighter side, the spoof site Russia In Your Face has the following parody of Russia's reaction to Brexit: "Kremlin celebrates Brexit bonanza as sterling joins ruble in hell."

Here's a teaser: "Upon results of the British referendum on leaving the EU, Russian President Vladimir Putin has sent an official letter congratulating Britain 'for getting up off its knees and crawling into a dark pit of paranoid despair.' The Central Bank of Russia has also issued a press release thanking British voters for tanking the sterling." 


Video The Daily Vertical: Brexit Makes Putin Smile

The Daily Vertical: Brexit Makes Putin Smilei
X
June 24, 2016
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday.
Brian Whitmore

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

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


Putin's War On Europe

"Insert investments here" (cartoon by Sergey Elkin)

Brian Whitmore

The times, they seem to be a-changin'

The vibe at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum was distinctively different this year, with European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, and former French President Nicolas Sarkozy making high-profile appearances.

The noises coming out of European capitals are also taking on a different tone, with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier calling for a phasing out of sanctions and decrying what he called NATO "warmongering"; Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz suggesting a rapprochement with Moscow; and Italy insisting on a formal review of the European Union's policy toward Russia before agreeing to extend sanctions.

Additionally, on the 75th anniversary of Adolf Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, more than 100 German intellectuals penned an open letter to Chancellor Angela Merkel, calling on her to "learn the lesson from this most terrible war" and "pursue a policy of mutual understanding with Russia."

And a recent poll by the Pew Research Center showed that a plurality of 48 percent of Europeans believe "having a strong economic relationship with Russia" is more important that "being tough" with Moscow in foreign-policy disputes.

Spooked by Brexit and the migrant crisis, many European politicians are increasingly concluding that a conflict on their eastern flank is the last thing they need. And lured by Kremlin cash, entrepreneurs and industrialists are chomping at the bit to get back to business as usual with Russia.

But here's the thing. Seeking to undermine European unity is business as usual for the Kremlin. It predated the Ukraine crisis and Moscow's current standoff with the West -- and it is not going to stop no matter what Brussels does now.

"The struggle against the European Union cannot end," Yale University historian Timothy Snyder, author of the books Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler And Stalin and Black Earth: The Holocaust As History And Warning, said in a recent talk.

"If sanctions are ended tomorrow," Snyder added, Russia will not stop supporting and encouraging far-right leaders like France's Marine Le Pen and Britain's Nigel Farage.

"They won't stop inviting the Nazis of Europe to St. Petersburg for annual conferences. If sanctions stop tomorrow, all that stuff continues because the problem with Europe is fundamentally a domestic problem for Russia. The existence of Europe is a domestic problem for Russia." 

Put another way, Vladimir Putin regime's problem isn't with what Europe is doing -- but with what Europe is.

Europe presents a transparent and democratic model of governance close to Russia's borders that directly challenges the authoritarian kleptocracy in the Kremlin. 

The European Union provides a model of integration based on consensus that is far more appealing than Moscow's, which is based on coercion. 

And the EU has a magnetic pull on Russia's neighbors, undermining Putin's dream of a sphere of influence in the former Soviet space.

And as long as that remains the case, as long as Europe remains Europe, Putin's war on Europe will continue.

Indeed, in a recent column for Bloomberg, political commentator Leonid Breshidsky noted that despite Putin's efforts to charm the Europeans at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum, "the Russian regime is not thawing, and there's no retreat from its geopolitical assertiveness or its dogged economic statism."

Nor is there any retreat from the active measures designed to sow division and discord in Europe. 

These include efforts to manipulate the Brexit campaign in the United Kingdom, providing covert -- and sometimes overt -- support to the far right and extreme left, and financing "alternative" online media outlets across the continent that aim to undermine faith in European institutions. 

"As long as Putin is in power, they are not going to stop trying to undo the European Union," Snyder said. 


The Morning Vertical, June 23, 2016

Brian Whitmore

ON MY MIND

Vladimir Putin this week set September 18 as the date for Russia's parliamentary elections and addressed the outgoing State Duma. And thus begins a new political season. The outcome of this autumn's vote is not in doubt. The Kremlin is pretty skilled at using administrative methods to get the result it wants. But that doesn't mean the election isn't important.

Even more so than presidential elections, State Duma elections have proven to be watershed moments in Vladimir Putin's Russia. The 1999 election marked the end of the Boris Yeltsin era and the true start of the Age of Putin. The 2003 elections marked the turn to a more tightly controlled system of "managed democracy." The 2007 elections were a transition to the brief era of the tandem. And the 2011 votes pointed to the breakdown of the old Putin system and led to the establishment of the current one. 

If this pattern holds, this year's elections -- which are being played out amid a deep economic crisis and a costly conflict with the West -- should prove to be a watershed, as well.

I'll be discussing the upcoming political season and what it portends on this week's Power Vertical Podcast with guests Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies and Maxim Trudolyubov, a senior fellow at the Kennan Institute. Be sure to tune in on June 24.

IN THE NEWS

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev will lead the electoral list of the ruling United Russia party in elections to the State Duma in September.

The State Duma has removed provisions to strip the citizenship of Russians convicted of terrorism from a controversial antiterrorism bill.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland is scheduled to meet senior Kremlin aide Vladislav Surkov in Moscow today.

The International Weightlifting Federation said Russia, Kazakhstan, and Belarus face being banned from the Rio Olympics in August due to positive drug tests on samples from previous Olympics.

The World Anti-Doping Agency has come out against the International Olympic Committee's decision this week to allow Russian athletes who are drug-free to compete under their own flag in Rio.

The commander of the U.S. Army Europe says NATO would currently be unable to protect the Baltics against a Russian attack.

Russian authorities have detained Yevgeny Dod, the chairman of power company Quadra, and opened a criminal case against him.

WHAT I'M READING

The Ghosts Of 1996

Andrei Kolesnikov looks back at Russia's 1996 election and how it set the stage for Vladimir Putin's authoritarian regime.

"Those efforts to get Yeltsin elected look positively amateur compared to the electoral manipulations we see today. But we can see a direct line between the price paid back then for victory and subsequent developments. Modern Russia’s dishonest elections grew out of the experimentation of the 1990s," Kolesnikov writes.

"Another way in which Yeltsin’s victory of 1996 ultimately became a Pyrrhic one was that it legitimized the idea that there could be a controlled handover of power in Russia. This was later implemented when Yeltsin passed the 'scepter of the nation' to Putin. When you decide that it’s possible to control elections, then you can also impose a leader on the people. In this case, Vladimir Putin, the new young leader, was cynically constructed as the opposite image of his predecessor." 

Requiem For Human Rights

Meduza has a nice rundown of what is in Russia's controversial "antiterrorism" bill that the State Duma is scheduled to vote on this week.

"The legislation would amend nearly a dozen different laws, broadly expanding the state's powers, tightening the controls placed on citizens and limiting the civil rights guaranteed by the Russian Constitution. If the legislation is approved (which is almost certain), Russia's authorities will gain the power to strip Russians of their citizenship, revoke the foreign travel rights of people convicted of reposting certain 'wrong' content online, and access every single telephone conversation and e-mail that crosses Russia's telecommunications lines."

The Kremlin's Taint

Political commentator Leonid Bershidsky has a strong and heartfelt column for Bloomberg on how the doping scandal and the Kremlin's general behavior is tainting all Russians.

"In a whole range of pursuits -- from business to culture -- Western partners want proof from Russians that they are not part of the Putin regime," Bershidsky writes.

"The IOC has formalized that feeling: Russians have been told to prove they're clean. It's assumed -- on the basis of plentiful data -- that the regime has corrupted those who live under it. As a Russian citizen, this stigma is hard for me to accept, but here are my choices: I can assume, as many Russians do, that the West hates my country and all its people, or I'm forced to prove that the Putin taint isn't on me. I understand why some see the latter option as humiliating, but I can't honestly support the former because I believe the regime to be rotten and worthy of condemnation. That doesn't mean the flag doesn't belong to me too."

Inconvenient Truths

Historian Nikitia Sokolov, executive director of the Yeltsin Foundation, has a piece in Intersection magazine (in Russian and English), about the "forgotten truths" about the start of World War II.

"Contemporary Russian officious propaganda has only slightly modified the Soviet stereotype taking into account its opportunistic needs. As a result, the traumatic experience of World War II in Russia as opposed to in Germany, for example, has not been lived through and reflected upon," Sokolov writes.

Kadyrov Country

In a piece in Yezhednevny Zhurnal, journalist and political commentator Igor Yakovenko writes that Russians are now living under the "yoke" of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov.

Don't Forget Ukraine!

Melinda Haring, editor of the UkraineAlert at the Atlantic Council, has a piece on Europe's Short Memory And Ukraine's Long Crisis.

Fear And Terror

On the latest SRB Podcast, Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies explores the origins of Josef Stalin's Great Terror. Sean's guest is James Harris, a senior lecturer in modern European history at Leeds University and author of The Great Fear: Stalin’s Terror In The 1930s.


Video The Daily Vertical: As Long As Europe Remains Europe

The Daily Vertical: As Long As Europe Remains Europei
X
June 23, 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: Always The Victim

The Daily Vertical: Always The Victimi
X
June 22, 2016
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday.

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

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


The Morning Vertical, June 22, 2016

Brian Whitmore

ON MY MIND

Russian state media will no doubt make a big deal out of Vladimir Putin's visit to China later this week. But in reality, Moscow's pivot to Beijing as an alternative to the West, a move announced amid much fanfare in 2014, has turned out to be much less than advertised.

Last year, the two countries failed to achieve their goal of $100 billion in annual trade -- which actually fell by 27.8 percent in 2015. Russia and China continue to be competitors for influence in Central Asia. And the terms of a $400 billion gas deal between Gazprom and China's CNPC were clearly advantageous to Beijing. Putin's trip is an effort to revive this disappointing partnership and showcase his personal rapport with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Moscow hopes to sell arms to China, attract investment in its energy sector, and is reportedly even considering selling a 19.5 percent stake in Rosneft to Chinese and Indian companies. And speaking at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum last week, Putin announced that he would like to form a new trade bloc including Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Iran, and other former Soviet states.

But this relationship is probably doomed to remain stuck in neutral due to fundamentals: China is a rising power and it knows it and Russia is a declining power in denial.

IN THE NEWS

The Clinton Foundation has reportedly been breached by Russian hackers.

France deported Russian soccer fan leader Aleksandr Shprygin for the second time in less than a week over violence that marred the start of the Euro 2016 tournament.

Moscow has signed an agreement with a Los Angeles company to explore building a futuristic, high-speed transportation system known as a Hyperloop in the Russian capital.

Pole-vault champion Yelena Isinbayeva said she'll lead what could become a wave of Russian athletes appealing the ban on Russian participation in the Rio Olympics.

Today marks the 75th anniversary of Nazi Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union.

The State Duma is scheduled to vote on a controversial "antiterrorism" bill today.

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov is lobbying to have the republic's largest mosque depicted on the 200-ruble note.

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has signed a decree making the state-controlled oil giant Rosneft the sole supplier of fuel to Russia's police.

WHAT I'M READING

Deutsche Welle Documentary: The Return Of Old Enemies

Or in this case, what I'm watching. A new documentary by Deutsche Welle looks at the origins of the current showdown between Moscow and the West.

Words And Deeds

Mikhail Alexeev, a professor at San Diego State University, has a piece in PONARS Eurasia, The Tale Of Three Legitimacies: The Shifting Tone And Enduring Substance Of Moscow's Ukraine Policy, that looks at Russia's rhetoric and actions in the Ukraine conflict. The conclusion: A softer tone does not mean a softer policy.

"A systematic analysis of official Russian statements and military conflict data over the last two years reveals that Moscow has no plans to accept Ukraine’s sovereignty over the Donbas," Alexeev writes. 

"The Kremlin’s enduring Ukraine policy is to stall genuine conflict resolution unless the Donbas is provided political autonomy on Moscow’s terms, essentially turning the region into Russia’s client statelet."

Early Presidential Elections?

Political analyst Nikolai Petrov argues in Nezavisimaya Gazeta that Vladimir Putin is caught in a "legitimacy trap" and may opt to hold early presidential elections to get out of it.

The Plight Of Ukraine's IDPs

On The Atlantic Council's website, Kateryna Moroz takes a look at the painful journeys of Ukraine's internally displaced people.

Hybrid Hooligans -- Or Not?

Writing in Intersection magazine, Steffen Halling, a researcher at the University of Bremen's Center for East European Studies and a fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, takes on the notion that the violence at Euro 2016 in France was orchestrated by the Kremlin. 

"In calling the Marseille events an operation orchestrated by Putin we commit a grave error in reasoning about Russia: We grossly overestimate Russian regime efficiency and governance capacity. In the end, we help portray Putin as an omnipotent leader, and quite paradoxically, contribute to perpetuate his public image of a farsighted strongman," Halling writes. 

"But analysts should actually deconstruct this very myth. Even more so as the thesis that the Kremlin planned and organized the Marseille events does not fit the overall picture on how sports is usually politically instrumentalized in Russia."

What Brexit Means For Russia

The European Leadership Network has three pieces looking at what the Brexit referendum means for Russia.

ELN research fellow Joseph Dobbs argues that while a Brexit serves Putin's geopolitical interests, it does not serve Russia's economic interests.

Andrei Sushentsov of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations looks at the adverse effects a British exit from the European Union would have on the Russian economy.

And Moscow State University professor Pavel Kanevskiy argues that, despite appearances, Brexit is not in Russia's geopolitical interests

Why Is Putin Going To China?

Newsweek has a piece looking at what Vladimir Putin hopes to accomplish during his visit to China this week.

War Mobilization?

Writing in openDemocracy, New York University professor Mark Galeotti argues that Russia is not, in fact, mobilizing for all-out war.

"Putin appears to have internalized a Manichean, zero-sum sense of his relationship with the West, and this drives so much other policy, from countersanctions to political repression. Many in the West likewise embrace -- with near-relief -- a return to the comfortingly simplistic dualism of the us-and-them mind-set of the Cold War," Galeotti writes.

Cold War Redux

The U.S. Senate's Intelligence Committee is considering imposing Cold War-era restrictions on Russian diplomats.

Shekhovtsov On Dugin

Anton Shekhovtsov, a leading scholar and critic of the Russian far right, reviews two books by Aleksandr Dugin: Eurasian Mission and The Fourth Political Theory.


The Morning Vertical, June 21, 2016

Brian Whitmore

ON MY MIND

In a resolution passed today, the State Duma compared the ban of Russia's track-and-field athletes from the Summer Olympics to "the Spanish Inquisition." Over the top? Sure. But it's also par for the course for Vladimir Putin's regime.

Back in early 2000, shortly after Putin came to power, a Foreign Ministry official in Moscow told me with a straight face that the Baltic state's treatment of ethnic Russians constituted "apartheid." During Russia's war with Georgia in 2008, Russian state media persistently accused Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili of committing "genocide." And of course, when a popular uprising in Ukraine overthrew the corrupt pro-Moscow regime of Viktor Yanukovych, the Kremlin described it as a "putsch" by a "fascist junta."

By using the most odious terms available to describe its adversaries, the Putin regime is speaking volumes about itself.

IN THE NEWS

European Union ambassadors have agreed to a six-month extension of sanctions against Russia.

The Kremlin has rejected an offer from Germany to hold a meeting on the Ukraine crisis before the NATO summit.

Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko says he doesn't rule out a ban on the whole Russian Olympic team for the 2016 Summer Games.

The Russian Defense Ministry says it has successfully tested components of a missile-defense system.

Russian President Vladimir Putin will visit China at the invitation of Chinese President Xi Jinping on June 25.

NATO’s top civilian leader brushed aside comments from Germany’s foreign minister that accused the alliance of “warmongering,” saying the 28-nation bloc needed both a military response and a political dialogue in dealing with Russia.

The Russian State Duma has passed the second reading of a bill imposing tougher penalties for "extremism."

Russia’s state-run RT network has broadcast footage appearing to show Russian jets in Syria armed with cluster bombs.

WHAT I'M READING

Hipster Communists

Lenin with a laptop. Marx in a leather jacket. Stalin puffing an e-cigarette. Russia's Communist Party's advertising campaign for September's State Duma elections has a hipster vibe.

When Navalny Wrote Putin

Writing on his blog in Slon.ru, Oleg Kashin explores why opposition leader Aleksei Navalny wrote a letter asking Vladimir Putin for his party to be allowed to compete in the Duma elections.

"Given the existing relationship between Putin and Navalny, the request seems a bit strange: 'You are a tyrant, a thief, and a killer. Now please allow me to participate in your elections,'" Kashin writes. "But we should be accustomed to the fact that 'strange' is not a category in Russian politics, because everything is strange."

Election Preview

Vedomosti, meanwhile, has an overview of what to expect in the Duma elections.

The Strelkov Factor

Journalist and author Anna Arutunyan has a commentary on the European Council on Foreign Relations that looks at efforts by Igor Girkin, aka Strelkov, to form a nationalist movement to challenge the Kremlin.

"This is an extremely important development to watch," Arutunyan writes. 

"As I wrote last year, the real threat to the regime, if it is going to emerge, will come from nationalists co-opted, groomed, and then set loose by the Kremlin, and not from the liberals. To that extent, Strelkov’s increasingly aggressive posturing as a critic of Vladimir Putin raised real questions about whether he, indeed, could become that formidable opponent.

The FSB Shuffle

In a piece for Meduza, Andrei Soldatov -- editor in chief of Agentura.ru and co-author of the books The New Nobility: The Restoration Of Russia's Security State And The Enduring Legacy Of The KGB and The Red Web: The Struggle Between Russia's Digital Dictators And The New Online Revolutionaries -- looks at the recent personnel changes in the FSB.

Life During Stagnation

On his blog for RosBalt, political analyst Dmitry Gubin offers Russians five rules for surviving the coming Putin stagnation.

Little Green Fans?

Writing on his blog, Kremlin-watcher and security expert Mark Galeotti looks at Russia's "Little Green Fan" problem at Euro 2016.

"The open enthusiasm of some Russian politicians about the thuggish behavior of their football fans in France speaks volumes about the boorish nationalism and crude us-versus-the-world mentality that has been liberated by Putin in recent years," Galeotti writes.

"And yet for all that, there is also a dangerous Western narrative that the Kremlin is the malign grandmaster behind everything that goes wrong, from Brexit to migration. The hooligan crisis has likewise been inserted into this unfolding narrative."

Russia's Spunky Regional Press 

A post on Mikhail Khodorkovsky's Open Wall portal looks at Russia's surprisingly feisty regional newspapers.

Here's a teaser: "In the capital, people have been going on forever about it being time for 'regime change,' and doing very little to make it happen; whereas, in the rest of Russia something has been quietly gathering pace. And this something is a provincial intelligentsia. The description might seem archaic, but what else can you call a newspaper publisher in the regional center of Siberia’s back-of-beyond. The provinces dragged Russia out of medieval barbarism once before, under the Romanovs, when the district councils, or zemstva, built national schools and hospitals. They laid the foundation for the political system that emerged with the first State Duma in 1906."

Ukraine's Unlikely Reformers

John Herbst, director of the Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council and the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, has a piece explaining why the West was wrong about Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Groisman’s government.

"It is too early to draw firm conclusions, but Prime Minister Volodymyr Groisman’s and Prosecutor-General Yuriy Lutsenko’s early moves indicate that Ukraine is still on the reform path," Herbst writes.

Putin's German Enablers

Also on The Atlantic Council's website, Rutgers University-Newark professor Alexander Motyl looks at how Germany's Social Democratic Party is enabling Vladimir Putin, and the cost of this for Ukraine.

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About This Blog

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