Monday, October 20, 2014


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
|| 0:00:00
...
 
🔇
X

Listen to or download the podcast above or subscribe to "The Power Vertical Podcast" on iTunes.

Tags:Power Vertical podcast, Ukraine Crisis, Vladimir Putin


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
|| 0:00:00
...
 
🔇
X

Listen to or download the podcast above or subscribe to "The Power Vertical Podcast" on iTunes.

Tags:Power Vertical podcast, Russian politics, Flight MH17, Ukraine Crisis, Vladimir Putin


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


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
|| 0:00:00
...
 
🔇
X

Listen to or download the podcast above or subscribe to "The Power Vertical Podcast" on iTunes.

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:Power Vertical blog, Vladimir Putin, 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
|| 0:00:00
...
 
🔇
X

Listen to or download the podcast above or subscribe to "The Power Vertical Podcast" on iTunes.

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
|| 0:00:00
...
 
🔇
X

Listen to or download the podcast above or subscribe to "The Power Vertical Podcast" on iTunes.


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
|| 0:00:00
...
 
🔇
X

Listen to or download the podcast above or subscribe to "The Power Vertical Podcast" on iTunes.

Tags:Power Vertical podcast, Russia, Ukraine, 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
|| 0:00:00
...
 
🔇
X

Listen to or download the podcast above or subscribe to "The Power Vertical Podcast" on iTunes.


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
|| 0:00:00
...
 
🔇
X

Listen to or download the podcast above or subscribe to "The Power Vertical Podcast" on iTunes.

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
|| 0:00:00
...
 
🔇
X

Listen to or download the podcast above or subscribe to "The Power Vertical Podcast" on iTunes.

Tags:Power Vertical podcast, Russia, Ukraine, crimea, Russian organized crime, Russian nationalists

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

16:08 October 17, 2014

NEW POWER VERTICAL BLOG

I just posted a new piece on the Power Vertical blog: Putin's Class of 2014.

The iPhone-toting hipsters hanging out in their trendy downtown Moscow office are just the high-profile part of the Kremlin's new youth strategy.

Founded in November 2013, the youth group Set -- which means "Network" in Russian -- has organized patriotic fashion shows and film festivals, created an alphabet for schoolchildren that highlights the regime's accomplishments, and painted murals in seven cities on October 7 to mark Russian President Vladimir Putin's 62nd birthday....

But the rise of Set is just one side of the story. The other aspect of the Kremlin's youth strategy is stealthier -- and much more consequential.

Over the past 18 months, Putin has been quietly bringing a new cadre of officials to Moscow, reshaping the rank-and-file bureaucracy in his own image.

You can read it all here.

AND A NEW POWER VERTICAL PODCAST COMING SOON

We're in post-production for the new Power Vertical Podcast: Ukraine's Loyal Russians

A country divided between a Ukrainian-speaking west and a Russian-speaking east. An irreconcilable schism forged in history and set in stone. Lviv vs. Luhansk; Orange vs. Blue.

It's long been a truism that Ukraine was hopelessly split. It's a truism repeated endlessly by the Kremlin's propaganda machine -- and one used by Vladimir Putin to justify his Novorossiya project.

But it's a truism that the majority of Ukraine's ethnic Russians -- in cities like Odesa and Mariupol in the south to Dnipropetrovsk and Zaporizhia in the east to Kharkiv in the north  -- are proving false. Most of Ukraine's ethnic Russians, it turns out, are loyal Ukrainian citizens.

Joining me are Andreas Umland, a professor of Russian and Ukrainian history at Kyiv Mohyla University and Natalya Churikova, Senior Editor of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service. It's in post-production now and will be up soon.

 

13:25 October 17, 2014

AFTERNOON NEWS ROUNDUP

Some items from RFE/RL's News Desk:

RUSSIA-WEST RIFT PERSIST AFTER DIFFICULT UKRAINE CRISIS TALKS

By RFE/RL

Italy's prime minister said he was "really positive" about the prospects for a solution to the Ukraine conflict after a meeting attended by Russian President Vladimir Putin, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and European leaders, but the Kremlin suggested deep rifts remained after the "difficult" talks and accused Western officials of inflexibility.

"In general, I am really positive after this meeting," Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said after the talks over breakfast during a Europe-Asia summit that was overshadowed by the crisis in Ukraine, where deadly fighting persists in the east despite a cease-fire between government forces and pro-Russian separatists.

Putin, in the spotlight and under pressure from the West to do more to bring peace to Ukraine, said the meeting -- attended by Putin and Poroshenko as well as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande, British Prime Minister David Cameron, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, and outgoing EU leaders Herman Van Rompuy and Jose Manuel Barroso -- was "good, positive".

But his spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, gave a grimmer account.

"The talks are indeed difficult, full of misunderstandings, disagreements, but they are nevertheless ongoing, an exchange of opinion is in progress," Peskov told reporters.

He said some participants displayed "a complete lack of desire to take an objective approach" to the Ukraine crisis, which Russia blames on the European Union, the United States, and the pro-Western government that gained power in Ukraine after the ouster of a president sympathetic to Russia, Viktor Yanukovych, In February.

Kyiv, NATO, and Western governments say Russia has supported the rebels with troops, weaponry, and propaganda after illegally annexing the Black Sea peninsula from Ukraine in March.

The conflict in eastern Ukraine has killed more than 3,660 combatants and civilians since April and driven Moscow's ties with the West to post-Cold War lows, prompting punitive sanctions against Moscow and a Russian ban on many foods from the EU, its biggest trading partner for years.

The breakfast-table talks came hours after lengthy Putin-Merkel meeting that stretched past midnight and failed to resolve what the Kremlin said were "serious differences of opinion about the genesis of the internal Ukrainian conflict as well as about the causes of what is happening there now."

Western leaders have rejected Russia's denials of involvement and said Moscow must see to it that a cease-fire and steps toward peace agreed on September 5 in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, are implemented.

"It is obviously above all Russia's task to make clear that the Minsk plan is adhered to," Merkel told reporters on October 16. "Unfortunately, there are still a lot of shortcomings but it will be important to look for a dialogue here."

British Prime Minister David Cameron said Putin assured the other leaders at the breakfast that Russia does not want a divided Ukraine or a frozen crisis.

Kremlin critics say Russia has supported the cease-fire and plans for peace because the September 5 agreement followed rebel gains that left the separatists in control over large portions of Ukraine's Donetsk and Luhansk regions, giving Moscow a lever to influence its France-sized neighbor and keep it destabilized - and out of NATO - for years to come.

Putin and Poroshenko were to meet with Merkel and Hollande later on October 17.

Putin, who basked in attention at a military parade in mostly Slavic, Orthodox Christian Serbia on October 16, set the stage for tense talks in Milan by warning in Belgrade that a dispute with Kyiv over natural gas could jeopardize Russian supplies to Europe via transit nation Ukraine this winter.

He said Europe faces "major transit risks" to gas supplies from Russia.

Blaming Kyiv in advance for any possible cuts in supplies to Europe, Putin said that if Ukraine siphons gas from transit pipelines to the European Union, Russia will reduce supplies in the amount of the "stolen" gas.

Russia raised the price it charges Kyiv for natural gas after Yanukovych was ousted by street protests he had touched off last November by scrapping plans for a deal tightening ties with the EU and turning toward Russia instead.

In June, Russia halted gas supplies meant for domestic consumption in Ukraine when Kyiv failed to pay the higher price.

Russia is the EU's biggest external gas supplier, providing about one-third of the gas consumed there, and previous price disputes between Moscow and Kyiv have led to supply cuts that have chilled Europeans in wintertime.

Some government officials said the Western leaders would ask Putin to explain the threat of gas supply cuts.

Merkel and Poroshenko held talks earlier on October 16, and Poroshenko said he received "a great demonstration of support for Ukraine" from the German leader.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin also met with former Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi, whom he referred to as Putin's "old friend."

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said he spoke briefly to Putin and asked him for "maximum cooperation" over the downing of a Malaysian Airlines passenger jet in the conflict zone in eastern Ukraine in July.

More than half of the 298 people killed were Dutch citizens, and many in the West suspect the plane was shot down by the separatists with a missile system provided by Russia.

Hundreds of people have been killed since the cease-fire, with fierce fighting focusing on the devastated Donetsk international airport and shelling reported in the city of Donetsk and elsewhere almost daily.

Ukrainian military officials said three soldiers were killed and nine wounded on October 16.

NATO said it has not yet detected "significant" movements of Russian troops in a region near the border with Ukraine back to their home bases, as the Kremlin said Putin ordered last week.

A NATO spokesperson said "there is still a large and capable force sitting on the border of Ukraine, and heavy equipment still has to be pulled back [from the border]."

(With reporting by Reuters, AP, TASS, Interfax, and AFP)

GEORGIAN PM SAYS NO PROGRESS NORMALIZING RELATIONS WITH MOSCOW

Georgian Prime Minister Irakly Garibashvili says attempts by Tbilisi to normalize political relations with Russia have thus far been unsuccessful.

Garibashvili said in Tbilisi on October 16 that the Georgian government had done "all it could" to improve bilateral relations with Moscow has only achieved progress in the economic sector.

The premier's Georgian Dream party took power two years ago pledging to engage with Moscow.

Garibashvili made his comments one day after Russia announced it would sign an "alliance and integration" treaty with the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia.

The treaty would create a "common defense infrastructure" between Abkhazia and Russia while forming joint law-enforcement structures and a more integrated economic space.

Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili issued an "emergency statement" on the treaty on October 15.

Moscow recognized Abkhazia as an independent state after a brief war between Russia and Georgia in 2008.

(Based on reporting by Interfax, AFP, and TASS)

RUSSIA DETAINS TWO JOURNALISTS OVER WORKSHOP

Russian officials temporarily detained and then banned two American journalists from conducting an investigative-journalism workshop in St. Petersburg.

The men were found by a court on October 16 of violating Russian visa regulations and released after several hours.

Randy Covington, a professor at the University of South Carolina, and Joe Bergantino of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting were detained by immigration authorities while conducting the first of a two-day workshop for 14 Russian journalists.

St. Petersburg's branch of the Federal Migration Service said the men's activities "did not correspond" to the purpose of their trip to Russia.

Officials said they could no longer teach the workshop but were free to leave Russia as scheduled.

The New England Center for Investigative Journalism said the men had tourist visas and had already held a workshop in Moscow.

(Based on reporting by AP and "The Boston Globe")

18:00 October 16, 2014

EVENING NEWS ROUNDUP

Some items from RFE/RL's Newes Desk:

PUTIN WARNS EUROPE OF GAS CRISIS THIS WINTER

President Vladimir Putin has warned that Europe faces "major transit risks" to natural gas supplies from Russia this winter.

Putin told reporters in Belgrade on October 16 that if Ukraine siphons off natural gas without permission from transit pipelines to the European Union, Russia “will consecutively reduce the stolen volume at the cost of supplies."

Putin made the remarks ahead of talks in Milan on October 16 and 17 with EU leaders and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.

Russia raised the price it charges Kyiv for natural gas after Ukraine's pro-Russia Preident Viktor Yanukovych was ousted in February, then halted gas supplies to Ukraine in June when Kyiv failed to pay the higher price.

The price standoff is the third between Moscow and Kyiv since 2006.

Russia is the EU's biggest gas supplier, providing about a third of the gas consumed there.

(Based on reporting by Reuters, AP, and AFP)

U.S. HELSINKI COMMITTEE DECRIES RUSSIAN ATTEMPT TO CLOSE MEMORIAL RIGHTS GROUP

By RFE/RL

The U.S. Helsinki Commission says Russia’s attempt to liquidate Memorial, the country's oldest and best-known human rights organization, is “an obvious attempt to silence the voice of its own conscience.”

“It is very troubling that an organization founded by [Soviet dissident] Andrei Sakharov to address the crimes of the Stalinist era now has become the target of a new wave of repression,” the commission’s chairman, U.S. Senator Ben Cardin, said in an October 16 statement.

Russia's Justice Ministry on October 10 appealed to the country’s Supreme Court to close Memorial, which comprises more than 50 bodies nationwide. The reasons for the request were not made public.

Created in the 1980s by Soviet-era dissidents, Memorial has served as a tireless rights watchdog and important source of Soviet-era records for a quarter century.

PUTIN VOWS TO SUPPORT SERBS ON KOSOVO

Russian President Vladimir Putin pledged continued support for Serbia on the divisive issue of Kosovo during a state visit that mixed meetings with officials with attendance at a military parade.

Putin is the guest of honor at Serbia's first military parade in some 30 years as Belgrade marks the anniversary of its liberation from the Nazis by partisans and Soviet Army troops in 1944, a celebration Serbia moved forward four days to accommodate Putin's schedule.

The visit highlights Serbia's delicate balance between the European Union, which it is seeking to join, and relations with Russia that are rooted in history and religion but encompass economic and geopolitical interests.

Russia angrily criticized the NATO bombing of the rump Yugoslavia in 1999 and has backed Belgrade's opposition to independence for mostly ethnic Albanian Kosovo, defying the United States and preventing Kosovo from getting a seat at the United Nations.

Putin promised Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic that Russia would stand firm over Kosovo, saying the Kremlin's stance was "a position of principle that is not to be subjected to any adjustments."

"We supported Serbia in the past and we intend to continue supporting it in the future. In Russia friendship is not an object of trade-offs," Putin said.

Nikolic said Serbia "sees in Russia a great ally and a partner and Serbia won't compromise its morals with any kind of bad behavior towards Russia."

Despite Serbia's desire to become a member of the European Union, ties between Belgrade and Moscow have become stronger since the EU started imposing sanctions on Russia for the Kremlin's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Criticizing sanctions the United States and European Union have imposed on Moscow over its actions in Ukraine in an interview on the eve of his visit, Putin told the Serbian daily "Politika" that isolating Russia was an "absurd, illusory goal" and attempts to do so would hurt Europe's economy.

In a pointed reminder of Russia's nuclear might, Putin said: "We hope our partners will realize the futility of attempts to blackmail Russia and remember what consequences discord between major nuclear powers could bring for strategic stability."

Putin used the visit to promote South Stream, a Russian gas pipeline project that that the EU has suspended in member states.

Serbia has recently indicated it will not start building South Stream. Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said last week "it makes no sense" to start without an agreement on the pipeline's legality between the EU and Moscow.

"It is necessary to unblock the situation with South Stream," Putin said. "I am convinced that this project will make a palpable contribution to Europe's overall energy security. Everyone wins from this: Both Russia and European consumers, including Serbia."

The European Commission released a report on candidate countries earlier this month that warned Belgrade's plans to build a portion of the pipeline and its refusal to follow the EU's lead on sanctions against Russia could jeopardize Serbia's bid for EU membership.

Serbia has recently indicated it will not start building South Stream. Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said last week "it makes no sense" to start without an agreement on the pipeline's legality between the EU and Moscow.Serbia has recently indicated it will not start building South Stream.

Putin told "Politika" the pipeline project would bring Serbia more than 2 million euros in new investment and "substantially strengthen the country's energy security."

Putin's warm Serbian welcome may contrast with greeting he faces hours later at an October 16-17 Europe-Asia summit in Milan, where he will meet Western leaders angry over Russia's role in the Ukraine crisis.

NATO says Russian has sent troops and weapons to help pro-Russian separatists fighting government forces in a conflict that has killed more than 3,660 people in eastern Ukraine since April, including 298 passengers and crew abroad a Malaysian jet shot down there in July.

Putin said the importance of the liberation anniversary events could not be overestimated.

"Seventy years ago, our peoples together crushed the criminal ideology of misanthropy that threatened civilization," he said in the interview.

In a veiled swipe at the United States, he said "it is important today that people in various countries, on various continents remember what terrible consequences certainty in one's own exceptionalism can bring."

Putin said he hopes for peace in Ukraine but suggested Ukrainians whose protests toppled a president sympathetic to Moscow in February presented a Nazi-like threat.

"Unfortunately the vaccine against the Nazi virus ... is losing its potency in some European states.," he told "Politika," adding: "particular concern on this score is prompted by the situation in Ukraine, where there was an anticonstitutional coup d'etat in February whose driving forces were nationalists and other radical groups."

In comments to RFE/RL's Balkan Service, Vucic pointed to the complications his country is facing as it balances its foreign policy between the EU and Russia.

"We are not part of the EU and nobody asked us about sanctions against Russia so why should we have to accept them now?" Vucic asked.

Vucic said Serbia respects what EU stands for and what EU membership offers but rejects Brussels' recent habit of telling Belgrade about changes it must make to be admitted.

However, he told reporters last week that Serbia's "strategic goal is not in question – Serbia is on the EU path."

That may not always be evident to the naked eye.

In anticipation of Putin's visit, shops around Belgrade have been selling T-shirts with Putin's face printed on them.

"Nothing better could happen to us," Belgrade resident Vukan Baricanin, a retired economist, said of Putin's visit. "Putin is a famous personality. He turned a country that was on the verge of bankruptcy into a world power."

But Dragan Sutanovac, Serbia’s defense minister between 2007 and 2012, denounced “a desire for idolatry in regard to Putin.”

(With reporting by TASS, Reuters, AFP, AP, and Interfax)

RUSSIAN AMBASSADOR AGAINST 'PUTIN PUB' IN BISHKEK

By RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service

Russian Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, Andrei Krutko, has protested the new "Putin Pub" restaurant in Bishkek.

Krutko said late October 15 that naming "a dubious drinking site" after "our president" is "unethical" and therefore he asked Bishkek authorities to remove the commercial banners and billboards advertising the pub.

Krutko added that he would do everything possible "either to shut down the place or to make it change its name."

Last month, Bishkek authorities removed all billboards and banners in the city that advertised the "Putin Pub."  

The billboards carried a black screen with white and black silhouetted portrait of the Russian President Vladimir Putin in a circle with the name of the restaurant -- "Putin Pub," below.  

(With reporting by "Vecherny Bishkek")

17:35 October 16, 2014

UKRAINE CALLS ON ITS CITIZENS TO DITCH VKONTAKTE

VIa slon.ru:

Ukraine's Security Service has urged Ukrainians not to use Russian social networks.

Markiian Lubkovsky, an adviser to the Interior Minister told the television channel "112 Ukraine" that the site "VKontakte" is an "element of pressure and influence." 

"We urge all Ukrainians, all of our citizens to be careful not to use these networks, because they are now part of the information war against Ukraine," he said.

Read it all here. And a big h/t to Kevin Rothrock for flagging.

 

17:25 October 16, 2014

TARGET: VEDOMOSTI

According to a report in Bloomberg, Kremlin-connected oligarchs are plotting to take over "Vedomosti," one of Russia's few remaining independent newspapers -- one that has been a pathbreaker in the field of economic journalism and data-driven investigative reporting.

Businessmen close to President Vladimir Putin are preparing to acquire Vedomosti, the largest Russian newspaper outside the Kremlin’s control, three people familiar with the matter said.

Putin signed a law yesterday capping foreign holdings in media at 20 percent, meaning the owners of the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times, co-founders of the newspaper, must cut or sell their 33 percent stakes by the end of 2016. The third owner, Sanoma Oyj (SAA1V), is in talks to sell its Russian assets.

Under a plan backed by the presidential administration, an intermediary may be used to acquire all three stakes to make the deal more palatable politically before a group loyal to Putin buys the whole newspaper, the people said, asking not to be identified because the information is private. The eventual owner will probably be either Gazprom-Media, an affiliate of the state-run gas exporter, or companies linked to longtime Putin ally Yury Kovalchuk, they said.

“The Kremlin sees Vedomosti’s shareholders as foreign governments,” the newspaper’s editor-in-chief, Tatiana Lysova, said in an interview. “The WSJ equals the U.S. and the FT the U.K. They want a Russian owner so they have someone to call.”

Read the whole piece here.

 

11:17 October 16, 2014

CRIMEA'S LGBT COMMUNITY FLEES IN FEAR

Simon Shuster has a dispatch in Time Magazine about the plight of the gay and lesbian community in Crimea after the Russian annexation.

For the gay community in Crimea, the most worrying piece of legislation was the Russian ban on “homosexual propaganda,” which Putin signed in 2012. Although the law is billed as an effort to protect Russian children from learning about “non-traditional sexual relationships,” its critics say the law encourages homophobia, signaling to Russians that gays are somehow inferior and should not be allowed to insist on their equality in public.

Since March, the new leaders of Crimea have embraced these principles with gusto. 

Read it all here.

11:12 October 16, 2014

MORNING NEWS ROUNDUP

Some items from RFE/RL's News Desk:

CRIMEA'S MOSCOW-BACKED LEADER ADMITS SOME TATARS MISSING

Crimea’s Moscow-backed leader Sergei Aksyonov has admitted that four Crimean Tatars are missing on the annexed peninsula.

Aksyonov said on October 16 that the missing Crimean Tatars had not been abducted, adding that some of them "had fought in Syria."

Aksyonov's statement comes amid media reports saying that several Crimean Tatars disappeared in recent days, some of them allegedly kidnapped by unknown men in military uniform.

At least three Crimean Tatar men have been found dead since Moscow's annexation of the peninsula from Ukraine in March.

Pressure on Crimean Tatars, the Turkic-speaking Muslim minority group that largely opposed the annexation, has increased in recent weeks.

In mid-September, Russian authorities seized the Crimean Tatar assembly, the Mejlis, and searched homes of leading members of the Tatar community.

(Based on reporting by TASS and Interfax)

IN PERM, RUSSIA TRIES MEMBER OF BANNED ISLAMIC GROUP

Six suspected members of a banned Islamic movement went on trial in the Russian city of Perm on October 16.

Local authorities say the defendants are members of an organization called Nurcular. The seventh member of the group has received a suspended one-year term in June.

In May last year several alleged members of Nurcular were arrested in Perm, near the Ural mountains east of Moscow; St. Petersburg; and the southern city of Rostov-on-Don.

Nurcular was founded by Turkish Islamic cleric Said Nursi, who died in 1960.

It has been banned in Russia since 2008.

Authorities say it propagates the idea of creating an Islamic state on lands where indigenous peoples speak Turkic languages.

(Based on reporting by rapsinews.ru and Interfax)

RUSSIA TO SPEND RECORD AMOUNT ON DEFENSE IN 2015

Russia will allot some 3.3 trillion rubles (about $80 billion) from the state budget for defense spending in 2015, according to the chairman of the defense committee in the State Duma, the lower house of parliament.

Vladimir Komoyedov told Russian news agency Interfax on October 16 defense spending for next year would be some $20 billion more than this year, but he added that his committee foresees slight reductions in spending for 2016 and 2017.

Komoyedov said the amount to be spent on defense in 2015 was some 4.2% of Russia's GDP.

Finance Minister Anton Siluanov said on October 7 that Russia's defense spending plans needed to be "more realistic" in light of international sanctions imposed on Russia over its actions in Ukraine.

A three-year draft budget reportedly calls for a 5.3 percent cut in defence spending in 2016, the first reduction since 1998.

(Based on reporting by Interfax and FT)

PUTIN PRAISES SERBIA, LAMBASTES WEST AHEAD OF BELGRADE VISIT

By RFE/RL

Russian President Vladimir Putin has praised Moscow's "Serbian friends" and lashed out at the West in remarks published ahead of a state visit to Belgrade on October 16.

Criticizing sanctions the United States and European Union have imposed on Moscow over its actions in Ukraine, Putin told the Serbian daily "Politika" that isolating Russia was an "absurd, illusory goal" and that attempts to do so could severely damage Europe's economy.

In a pointed reminder of Russia's nuclear might, Putin said: "We hope our partners will realize the futility of attempts to blackmail Russia and remember what consequences discord between major nuclear powers could bring for strategic stability."

Putin is to attend Serbia's first military parade in some 30 years as Belgrade marks the anniversary of its liberation from the Nazis in 1944, a celebration Serbia moved forward four days to accommodate Putin's schedule.

"Seventy years ago, our peoples together crushed the criminal ideology of misanthropy that threatened civilization," said Putin.

In a veiled swipe at the United States, he said "it is important today that people in various countries, on various continents remember what terrible consequences certainty in one's own exceptionalism can bring."

Putin did not mention the United States, but a speech in May in which President Barack Obama said he believes in "American exceptionalism" raised hackles in Russia.

The Belgrade visit is likely to shower Putin with positive attention before he faces Western leaders angry over Russia's role in the Ukraine crisis at an October 16-17 Europe-Asia summit in Milan.

Soviet Army troops helped Yugoslav partisans liberate Belgrade and Serbian officials have welcomed Putin's decision to attend the parade.

More recently, Russia gave Serbia moral support by angrily criticizing the NATO bombing of the rump Yugoslavia in 1999 and backed Belgrade's  opposition to independence for mostly ethnic Albanian Kosovo, which has been recognized by the United States but not by Moscow and has been unable to get a seat at the United Nations.

The two mostly Slavic nations are linked by the Orthodox Christian faith and Russia has championed the rights of Serbs in ethnically mixed Bosnia.

"We have joint roots, language, faith, customs and culture," Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic told Russian television before the visit. "In all wars we were always on the same side."

Despite Serbia's desire to become a member of the European Union, ties between Belgrade and Moscow have become stronger since the EU started imposing sanctions on Russia for the Kremlin's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Putin is due to meet with Nikolic and Prime Minister Aleksandr Vucic for talks on military cooperation and economic ties, including Serbia's participation in Russia's South Stream gas pipeline project, which the EU has suspended in member states.

The European Commission released a report on candidate countries earlier this month that warned Belgrade's plans to build a portion of the South Stream pipeline and its refusal to follow the EU's lead on sanctions against Russia could jeopardize Serbia's bid for EU membership.

In the "Politika" interview, Putin promoted the South Stream project, saying its implementation would bring Serbia more than 2 million euros in new investment and "substantially strengthen the country's energy security."

"It is necessary to unblock the situation with South Stream," Putin said. "I am convinced that this project will make a palpable contribution to Europe's overall energy security. Everyone wins from this: Both Russia and European consumers, including Serbia."

Putin said the volume of trade between Russia and Serbia had risen by 15 percent last year, to nearly $2 billion, and that he expects it to reach that mark this year.

In comments to RFE/RL's Balkan Service, Vucic pointed to the complications his country is facing as it balances its foreign policy between the EU and Russia.

"We are not part of the EU and nobody asked us about sanctions against Russia so why should we have to accept them now?" Vucic asked.

Vucic said Serbia respects what EU stands for and what EU membership offers but rejects Brussels' recent habit of telling Belgrade about changes it must make to be admitted.

Vucic pointed out that within the EU there are five countries that have not recognized the independence of Serbia's former republic of Kosovo.

However, he told reporters last week that "Putin will hear that Serbia is on the European path. We have other relations we are developing with the Russian Federation, but the strategic goal is not in question – Serbia is on the EU path."

That may not always be evident to the naked eye.

In anticipation of the Russian leader's visit, shops around Belgrade have been selling T-shirts with Putin's face printed on them.

People around the city pointed to the long friendship between Serbs and Russians as reason to welcome Russia's leader.

Belgrade resident Vukan Baricanin, a retired economist, welcomed Putin's visit.

"Nothing better could happen to us. Putin is a famous personality. He turned a country that was on the verge of bankruptcy into a world power."

But Dragan Sutanovac, who was Serbia’s defense minister between 2007 and 2012, denounced “a desire for idolatry in regard to Putin.”

Construction engineer Predrag Markovic saw it as natural that Putin would attend a celebration marking the liberation of Belgrade.

"We wouldn't mind if other leaders came too, but I think that Russia and the former Soviet Union were the most important in the liberation of Belgrade."

Slobodan Knezevic said Putin's attendance at the anniversary was appropriate.

"It is really a good that they invited the Russians and Putin. Serbia should thank them for many things. They were always helping us, but it doesn’t mean that we have to stand only by their side. But it is great that they invited them."

(With reporting by TASS, Reuters, AFP, and AP)

NATO COMMANDER SEES NO 'MAJOR' RUSSIAN WITHDRAWAL NEAR UKRAINE

NATO's top military commander says the alliance has not seen "major movement" so far of Russian troops from a region bordering eastern Ukraine.

On October 11, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered about 17,600 Russian troops to return to their bases after what Moscow described as training drills in the southern Rostov region.

U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, the Supreme Allied Commander Europe, told AP news agency on October 15, “Now we will watch to see if there is delivery on the promise."

NATO has refuted previous Russian claims of troop withdrawals from the regions bordering eastern Ukraine, where separatists have been battling government troops since April.

Moscow has consistently denied Ukrainian and Western allegations that it has deployed Russian troops and heavy military equipment in eastern Ukraine to support pro-Russian separatists there.

(Based on reporting by AP and Reuters)

NAVALNY ASSOCIATE'S HOUSE ARREST EXTENDED

By RFE/RL's Russian Service

The house arrest of an associate of outspoken Kremlin critic Aleksei Navalny has been extended.

A court in Moscow ruled on October 15 that Konstantin Yankauskas's house arrest must be prolonged until December 10.

Yankauskas was placed under house arrest on June 11.  The previous term was to expire on October 17.

Yankauskas and two other Navalny associates, Nikolai Lyaskin and Vladimir Ashurkov, are accused of election-law violations and fraud related to  funding of Navalny's campaign for Moscow mayor last year.

Yankauskas calls the case politically motivated.

Navalny and his brother Oleg have been accused of stealing and laundering $756,500 from the French cosmetics company Yves Rocher.

Navalny, a leader of anti-government protests in 2011-2012, is also serving a five-year suspended sentence on a $500,000 theft conviction.

He calls all the cases against him politically motivated.

Latest Podcasts

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