Friday, March 27, 2015


Audio Podcast: Anatomy Of An Assassination

We've had a week to digest the shocking assassination of opposition figure Boris Nemtsov, and opinions are hardening about who was behind it and why.

And the way various Kremlin-watchers have interpreted it says a lot about how each views Russia.

Those who see an emerging dictatorship led by a ruthless tyrant tend to see this as a hit ordered by Vladimir Putin's regime. And those who see a fragile, tottering, and fragmented autocracy tend to suspect rogue elements in the security services or nationalists.

But few doubt that such a brazen hit on such a high-profile opposition figure clearly represents a major turning point in Russian politics.

On the latest Power Vertical Podcast, we try to unpack all this.

Joining me is 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 Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies, author of Sean's Russia blog, and host of the newly launched SRB Podcast.

Enjoy...

Power Vertical Podcast: Anatomy Of An Assassination
Power Vertical Podcast: Anatomy Of An Assassinationi
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Listen to or download the podcast above or subscribe to "The Power Vertical Podcast" on iTunes.​

Tags:Russia, Boris Nemtsov, Nemtsov assassination, Vladimir Putin


Video The Daily Vertical: Challenging Assumptions

The Daily Vertical: Challenging Assumptionsi
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March 06, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that will appear Monday through Friday. Viewers can submit suggested topics to address on Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.

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

 


Video The Daily Vertical: Navalny After Nemtsov

The Daily Vertical: Navalny After Nemtsovi
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March 05, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that will appear Monday through Friday. Viewers can submit suggested topics to address on Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.

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

 


Video The Daily Vertical: Chaos Or Terror

The Daily Vertical: Chaos Or Terrori
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March 04, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that will appear Monday through Friday. Viewers can submit suggested topics to address on Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.

The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that will appear Monday through Friday. Viewers can submit suggested topics to address on Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.


Video The Daily Vertical: Rest In Peace, Boris Yefimovich

The Daily Vertical: Rest In Peace, Boris Yefimovichi
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March 03, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that will appear Monday through Friday. Viewers can submit suggested topics to address on Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.

The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that will appear Monday through Friday. Viewers can submit suggested topics to address on Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.


Video The Daily Vertical: Nemtsov Killing -- Same Movie, Same Plot

The Daily Vertical: Nemtsov Killing -- Same Movie, Same Ploti
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March 02, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that will appear Monday through Friday. Viewers can submit suggested topics to address on Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.

The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that will appear Monday through Friday. Viewers can submit suggested topics to address on Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.


Putin's 'Hybrid' Great Terror

The body of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, covered with plastic, lies on Moskvoretsky Bridge near St. Basil Cathedral in central Moscow early on February 28.

When reporters asked former world chess champion and Kremlin critic Garry Kasparov who was behind the assassination of opposition figure Boris Nemtsov, he dismissed the question as irrelevant.

Whoever did the dirty work, he implied, would have done so only with President Vladimir Putin's blessing.

"Who gave the order to kill Nemtsov? Who knows,” Kasparov said. ”But this was done not far from the Kremlin and it would have been done by Putin's cronies. Who ordered it? I don't care. Putin must be held responsible for the murder of Boris."

Kasparov’s remark gets to the heart of the larger significance of Nemtsov’s killing. We don't yet know who ordered and carried out the hit or why. But the specifics don't matter as much as the signal it sends -- and what it portends.

"The message is this," Kasparov said. "We have no allergy to blood and anyone can be killed."

Exactly one year after Putin launched a hybrid war in Ukraine with the appearance of the storied "little green men" in Crimea, the killing of Nemtsov -- by men shooting from a little white car -- appears to mark an escalation of what can be described as a hybrid campaign of terror against Russia’s beleaguered and largely ineffectual opposition.

The War At Home

Like the hybrid war against Ukraine, Putin’s war at home, his Hybrid Great Terror campaign against his domestic critics, uses multiple methods: a well-honed disinformation campaign, legal machinations, stage-managed public demonstrations, and indiscriminate violence. 

The regime’s opponents have been derided as traitors in the state media, harassed by Kremlin-sponsored youth groups, hit with absurd criminal charges, put under house arrest, and sent to prison camps. They’ve been marginalized, vilified, and ridiculed to the point of irrelevance.

And like in Ukraine, the whole thing is designed to give Putin plausible deniability.

Just as Russia’s invasion of its southern neighbor is framed as a "civil war" in which Moscow is just an interested observer, the campaign against the opposition is presented as just journalists doing their job, just concerned citizens speaking out against sedition, just the justice system carrying out its work.

But the Nemtsov assassination takes Putin's hybrid war at home to a whole new level. The penalty for opposition now, is not just imprisonment -- it is death.

Yes, other Putin critics have met violent, mysterious, and unexplained ends -- State Duma deputies like Sergei Yushenkov and Yuri Shchekochikhin, who were investigating the 1999 apartment bombings that helped bring Putin to power; investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya; and emigre security officer Aleksandr Litvinenko just to name a few. But none had profiles as high as Nemtsov.

ALSO READ: Russia's Milestones Are Gravestones

 

Taking out an internationally known former deputy prime minister whom Boris Yeltsin once touted as his potential successor as president suggests that -- just as in Stalin’s Great Terror of the 1930s -- nobody is immune.

A Nod And A Wink

It is hard to imagine assassins pulling off such a clearly professional hit on a figure of Nemtsov's stature and getting away clean -- in the heart of Moscow, just blocks from the Kremlin, in one of the most heavily policed parts of the capital -- without official sanction.

"Boris Nemtsov took not a step nor a breath that wasn't under the intense surveillance of the FSB. Just like all opposition leaders in Russia. Nothing Boris Nemtsov did was not bugged, tailed, filmed or monitored by the secret police,” journalist and Kremlin-watcher Ben Judah, author of Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In And Out Of Love With Vladimir Putin, wrote.

"It is quite simply impossible that this man could have been shot dead without the Kremlin knowing there was a plot afoot to kill him. This means the murder of Boris Nemtsov was either ordered or allowed to happen: which come to exactly the same thing."

Indeed, whether the permission to assassinate Nemtsov was in the form of an explicit order, came with a nod and a wink, or was the result of the general political climate in which opposition figures are vilified as traitors and enemies of the state, is largely irrelevant.

"In Putin's atmosphere of hatred and violence, abroad and in Russia, bloodshed is the prerequisite to show loyalty that you are on the team," Kasparov wrote on Twitter.


 
"If Putin gave [the] order to murder Boris Nemtsov is not the point. It is Putin's dictatorship. His 24/7 propaganda about enemies of the state."

For his part, Putin has condemned Nemtsov's killing, took personal control of the investigation, and said it could have been a "provocation" aimed at destabilizing Russia. 

"But who was the provoker?" Bloomberg political commentator Leonid Bershidsky, a prominent Russian journalist who emigrated last year, asked in a column.
 
"In recent months, Putin's propaganda machine has been vigorously inciting Russians against the 'fifth column' -- those who protested against the annexation of Crimea and the Kremlin-instigated war in eastern Ukraine. Nemtsov was on every list of traitors published on the Internet and aired on state TV."

If you thought it couldn’t get much worse, if you thought Putin’s Kremlin couldn’t get more brutal or brazen, think again. 

"Vladimir Putin has ruled Russia with three things: money, propaganda and terror," Judah wrote. 

"Now the money is running out, the equation has shifted. Today, Russia is ruled mostly through propaganda and terror."

-- Brian Whitmore


Audio Podcast: The Kremlin's War Plan

The Kremlin, it appears, had a plan from the start.

Weeks before the bloodiest days in Kyiv, weeks before Viktor Yanukovych fell from power and fled to Russia, weeks before the Euromaidan revolution reached its climax, the Kremlin had a blueprint for war.

And a blueprint for annexing not just Crimea but large swaths of eastern Ukraine, as well.

Some of the plan was realized; some of it not. But what does it tell us about the Kremlin's thinking and where the conflict may go from here?

On this week's Power Vertical Podcast, we discuss the Kremlin strategy document on Ukraine published by the oppositon newspaper Novaya Gazeta this week. 

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 Anton Shekhovtsov, a researcher at University College London who has done extensive studies of Russian and Ukrainian nationalism.

Enjoy...

Podcast: The Kremlin's War Plan
Podcast: The Kremlin's War Plani
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Listen to or download the podcast above or subscribe to "The Power Vertical Podcast" on iTunes.​

Tags:Power Vertical podcast, Russia-Ukraine conflict


The Daily Vertical: Moscow's Ace In The Hole

The Daily Vertical: Moscow's Ace In The Holei
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February 27, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that will appear Monday through Friday. Viewers can submit suggested topics to address on Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.

The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that will appear Monday through Friday. Viewers can submit suggested topics to address on Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.


Video The Daily Vertical: Baltic Jitters

The Daily Vertical: Baltic Jittersi
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February 26, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that will appear Monday through Friday. Viewers can submit suggested topics to address on Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.

The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that will appear Monday through Friday. Viewers can submit suggested topics to address on Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.


Video The Daily Vertical: What Is The West's 'Or Else'?

The Daily Vertical: What Is The West's 'Or Else'?i
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February 25, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that will appear Monday through Friday. Viewers can submit suggested topics to address on Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.

The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that will appear Monday through Friday. Viewers can submit suggested topics to address on Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.


Separated At Birth: Ukraine's And Russia's Divergent Paths

Common past. Different futures?

Tanks shell a parliament. Voters flock to the polls. One leader is strengthened. Another is ousted. A powerful executive is established under the aegis of martial law. A defeated president peacefully transfers power to his successor.

Two days in two countries more than two decades ago. Two days, nine months apart, that set Russia and Ukraine on the radically different trajectories that culminated in the conflict we are witnessing today.

As the Russia-Ukraine conflict drags on, as we watch with trepidation as the Minsk-2 cease-fire crumbles, as Mariupol and maybe Kharkiv brace for separatist assaults, it's worth recalling how and why these two countries arrived at the place they are today.

The immediate cause of the current crisis, of course, is Russia's determination to prevent Ukraine from integrating with the West. But the underlying cause can be found in the divergent paths they took after 1991.

And those different courses are encapsulated in two fateful days in the early formative years after the Soviet breakup.

Russia's Original Sin

The first day is October 4, 1993. That's when Russian President Boris Yeltsin resolved his longstanding conflict with parliament by sending tanks and shelling it into submission.

At the time, it looked like a victory for Yeltsin's team of reformers over a retrograde and reactionary legislature. Supporters of Yeltsin called it one of those times when it is necessary to use illiberal means to achieve liberal ends. But in reality, it was post-Soviet Russia's original sin.

The shelling of the Russian parliament established the dangerous precedent that political disputes could be resolved by force. And in its wake, the Russian presidency turned into an unaccountable behemoth -- one that Vladimir Putin would ultimately use to the fullest.

The executive-heavy power vertical, the unaccountable superpresidency, and the decorative pocket parliament otherwise known as the State Duma were the direct result of the way the 1993 crisis was resolved. So is the fact that the rule of law in Russia is an illusion at best, consistently trumped by a much older principle: Might makes right.

"For the last 20 years, we've continued to use the same methods," Sergei Filatov, Yeltsin's chief of staff at the time of the crisis, told RFE/RL's Russian Service in October 2013, on the 20th anniversary of the shelling.

"We survived that time and we should have learned something from it, but unfortunately we didn't learn anything. We all had that Soviet, imperial mentality, where strength will always better solve the problem, as opposed to negotiations and compromise. If we're ever going to become a democratic society, we need to change our methods of managing the country and the methods of interaction among the authorities."

The Ukrainian Alternative

Fast-forward to the following summer -- July 10, 1994 -- in Ukraine.

On that sweltering summer day, in the second round of Ukraine's first post-Soviet election, voters rejected incumbent President Leonid Kravchuk and elected his challenger, Leonid Kuchma.

And Kravchuk did something remarkable for the former Soviet Union. He stepped down without incident and allowed Kuchma to take power.

The election of 1994 came in the wake of a political crisis in Ukraine that was similar to the one Yeltsin had faced in Russia.

The country was in the midst of an economic collapse and a debilitating series of coal-miners' strikes. Kravchuk was locked in a bitter dispute with the Ukrainian parliament, the Verkhovna Rada. But in contrast to Russia, the crisis in Ukraine was resolved peacefully with an agreement to hold early presidential and parliamentary elections.

Initially the conventional wisdom about the 1994 election was that it was a victory for Moscow because Kuchma, who hailed from eastern Ukraine, was friendlier to Russia than Kravchuk.

But the precedent that was set by a peaceful transfer of power proved to be more important and more enduring.

It's worth noting that in the five presidential elections Ukraine has held since independence, the incumbent or the incumbent's handpicked successor has lost three times. Only one incumbent, Kuchma in 1999, won reelection.

By contrast, in Russia, the incumbent or the incumbent's chosen successor has won each of the five presidential elections since the Soviet Union broke up. Machinations to subvert and manipulate the democratic process -- like Yeltsin handing the Kremlin to Putin with his New Year's Eve resignation in 1999 or the "casting" move Putin and Dmitry Medvedev pulled off in 2011-12 -- have been the norm.

A Study In Contrasts

Not only have Ukraine's elections always been more competitive than Russia's; its political and economic elite has always been more pluralistic.

On the most recent Power Vertical Podcast, Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies, noted that "the taming of the elite in Russia as opposed to Ukraine" was a key factor in determining the different paths the two countries followed since independence.

In Russia, "the state stepped in and obliterated the political power of the oligarchs in the early 2000s and set Putin up as the center of the state system. All of them agreed to have a strongman in charge," Guillory said. "We didn't have this in Ukraine. Nobody came out on top in Ukrainian elite politics. It was always a contest among various oligarchs based in various parts of the country."

It was the shelling of the Russian parliament in 1993 and its political aftermath that set the stage for Putin's authoritarian rule. "The creation of a very strong presidency is what allowed all this to happen," Guillory said.

And perhaps most importantly, from the 1994 election and onward, Ukraine's civil society has always been stronger and more independent than its Russian counterpart.

In Ukraine, independent civic groups and NGOs thrived, flourished, and multiplied and ultimately became a force to be reckoned with in the country's politics.

In Russia, they were alternatively marginalized, co-opted, and manipulated by the authorities, or harassed out of existence. They have been called a fifth column and branded as foreign agents.

Ultimately, Ukraine's civil society became the Third Force as Kyiv's and Moscow's political paths diverged and the Kremlin schemed and battled to keep its neighbor in its political orbit.

Irreconcilable Differences

So it is fair to say that since the Soviet collapse, Ukraine has progressively become more democratic. Russia, less so.

But Ukraine's development since 1991 has been far from perfect. Corruption was rampant and oligarchs ruled. But by the summer of 2013, Ukraine's increasingly confident civil society wanted something better. And the first step toward something better was Ukraine signing an association agreement with the European Union.

"If you are a student or a small business owner in Ukraine, you understand Europe in the following way: Europe is part of our history, and Europe today means the European Union. And the European Union means bureaucratic predictability and the rule of law," Yale University historian Timothy Snyder said in a recent lecture.

Snyder added that the Euromaidan uprising was "a middle-class revolution" to move the country "from oligarchic pluralism to real pluralism."

What made this decisive was that top oligarchs like Rinat Akhmetov and Ihor Kolomoysky calculated that they had a better chance of protecting their wealth in a European-style system than in a Ukraine that was essentially a colony of Russia.

And once that happened, the divergent paths that Ukraine and Russia had taken since 1991 became irreconcilable differences.

Writing in the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs, Princeton University historian Stephen Kotkin notes that Ukraine is "a nation that is too big and independent for Russia to swallow up," while Russia "is a damaged yet still formidable great power whose rulers cannot be intimidated into allowing Ukraine to enter the Western orbit. Hence the standoff."

-- Brian Whitmore

Tags:Russia, Ukraine, Russia-Ukraine conflict


Video The Daily Vertical: Blueprint For War

The Daily Vertical: Blueprint For Wari
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February 24, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that will appear Monday through Friday. Viewers can submit suggested topics to address on Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.

The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that will appear Monday through Friday. Viewers can submit suggested topics to address on Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.


Video The Daily Vertical: South Caucasus Sideshow

The Daily Vertical: South Caucasus Sideshowi
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February 23, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that will appear Monday through Friday. Viewers can submit suggested topics to address on Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.

The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that will appear Monday through Friday. Viewers can submit suggested topics to address on Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.


Audio Podcast: A Year That Changed Two Countries

A tale of two countries.

One year ago, Ukrainians drove their president out of power -- and out of the country.

It looked at the time like a triumph of people power. But with Russia's annexation of Crimea and intervention in the Donbas, it quickly turned into Ukraine's greatest existential crisis since independence.

To say that the dramatic fall of Viktor Yanukovych changed Ukraine would be a gross understatement. Even under the shadow of war, the country's leadership has become even more determined to integrate with the West and its civil society has become stronger, more robust, and bolder.

But the past year has changed Russia as well. It has become more authoritarian, more expansionist, and more aggressive.

One year ago, Ukraine's president abandoned his office and fled to Russia. And neither Ukraine nor Russia will ever be the same.

On the latest Power Vertical Podcast, my guests and I discuss how the past year has transformed both countries -- and what this portends.

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 Christopher Miller, a senior correspondent for Mashable.

Enjoy...

The Power Vertical Podcast: A Year That Changed Two Countries
The Power Vertical Podcast: A Year That Changed Two Countriesi
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Tags:Russia, Ukraine, Ukraine Crisis, Russia-Ukraine conflict, Vladimir Putin, Viktor Yanukovych


The Daily Vertical: Ukraine's Third Force

The Daily Vertical: Ukraine's Third Forcei
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February 20, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that will appear Monday through Friday. Viewers can submit suggested topics to address on Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.

The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that will appear Monday through Friday. Viewers can submit suggested topics to address on Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.


Video The Daily Vertical: Irreconcilable Differences

The Daily Vertical: Irreconcilable Differencesi
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February 19, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that will appear Monday through Friday. Viewers can submit suggested topics to address on Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.

The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that will appear Monday through Friday. Viewers can submit suggested topics to address on Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.


Video The Daily Vertical: Can Minsk-2 Hold?

The Daily Vertical: Can Minsk-2 Hold?i
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February 18, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that will appear Monday through Friday. Viewers can submit suggested topics to address on Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.

The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that will appear Monday through Friday. Viewers can submit suggested topics to address on Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.


Video The Daily Vertical: Putin's Hybrid War -- In Europe

The Daily Vertical: Putin's Hybrid War -- In Europei
X
February 17, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that will appear Monday through Friday. Viewers can submit suggested topics to address on Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.

The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that will appear Monday through Friday. Viewers can submit suggested topics to address on Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.


The Daily Vertical: Don't Talk About Crimea

The Daily Vertical: Don't Talk About Crimeai
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February 16, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that will appear Monday through Friday. Viewers can submit suggested topics to address on Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.

The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that will appear Monday through Friday. Viewers can submit suggested topics to address on Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.

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About This Blog

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