Wednesday, September 02, 2015


Video The Daily Vertical: False Flag Alert!

The Daily Vertical: False Flag Alert!i
|| 0:00:00
...  
🔇
X
August 18, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.

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


Moscow's Donbas Psyop

Moscow's Donbas Psyopi
|| 0:00:00
...  
🔇
X
August 17, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.
Moscow's Donbas Psyop
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.


Audio Briefing: Russia's Summer Offensive

Ukrainian servicemen near the village of Starohnativka.

Brian Whitmore

Fears are mounting that that the war in Donbas may escalate with Moscow-backed separatists increasing their Grad attacks on Ukrainian positions -- and on residential areas.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, is preparing to visit the annexed Crimean peninsula. German Foreign Minister Frank Walter Steinmeier called the situation "explosive."

On this week's Power Vertical Briefing, I discuss the uptick in fighting with RFE/RL Senior Editor Steve Gutterman. Is a fresh Russian offensive coming? Or is this just Moscow's latest psyop?

Enjoy...

Power Vertical Briefing: Russia's Summer Offensive
Power Vertical Briefing: Russia's Summer Offensivei
|| 0:00:00
...    
🔇
X

 

EDITOR'S 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 every Monday.


Photogallery Viktor Tsoi And The Russia That Never Was

  • Viktor Tsoi was born in Leningrad in June 1962. His family heritage was Korean. He was kicked out of a Soviet art academy at the age of 15. Two years later, in 1979, he began writing songs.
  • Tsoi's brand of post-punk, new wave rock was not accepted in the Soviet Union. He joined Leningrad's underground musical scene. Once he attended an underground concert by Boris Grebenshchikov, after which he managed to play two of his original songs for the Aquarium front man. Impressed, Grebenshchikov helped Tsoi form his own band.
  • Tsoi, shown here performing with his band Kino in Moscow in 1988, made his stage debut in Leningrad as a soloist in 1982. His profound lyrics and starkly original music made him an immediate sensation.
  • Also in 1982, Tsoi formed the band Kino and the group recorded its first album, 45. The song Elektrichka, about a man stuck on a commuter train going in the wrong direction, was taken as a metaphor for life in the Soviet Union and was promptly banned by the authorities.
  • Tsoi and Kino quickly became a sensation. In 1983, they debuted their song I Declare My Home (A Nuclear-Free Zone). In 1986, the band released (We Want) Changes! -- an anthem calling on the young generation to become more active and demand political change. The song made Kino's reputation across the Soviet Union.
  • Tsoi married Marianna Rodovanskaya in 1985. Later that year, their son, Aleksandr, was born. Marianna, who died of cancer in 2005, was Tsoi's heir and controlled the rights to his music after his death.
  • In 1988, Tsoi starred in the movie The Needle by director Rashid Nugmanov (right). In the center is Tsoi's co-star, Nina Ilyina. In the film, Tsoi plays a man desperately trying to break his girlfriend's morphine habit and fight the narcotics mafia. Tsoi and Kino provided the film's soundtrack.

     
  • After his tragic death in August 1990 in a car crash, Tsoi's friends and fans held a tribute concert in Moscow. Earlier that year, Kino had played its largest concert ever -- bringing 62,000 fans to Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium.
  • The Viktor Tsoi wall on Moscow's Arbat Street. When Tsoi died, the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda wrote: "Tsoi means more to the youth of our nation than any politician, celebrity, or writer. This is because Tsoi never lied and never sold out."
  • The photo shows a portrait of Tsoi in downtown St. Petersburg. In 2014, United Russia lawmaker Yevgeny Fyodorov caused a sensation by claiming that the CIA wrote Tsoi's songs as part of its effort to destroy the Soviet Union. Tsoi's son has sued Fyodorov for defaming his father.
Brian Whitmore

Viktor Tsoi embodied late-Soviet cool before it was overtaken by post-Soviet kitsch and defined late-Soviet hip before it was overrun by post-Soviet glitz.

He epitomized late-Soviet sincerity before it gave way to post-Soviet cynicism and channeled late-Soviet angst before it morphed into post-Soviet nihilism.

Tsoi -- who died in an automobile accident a quarter of a century ago, on August 15, 1990, at the tragically young age of 28 -- would be in his 50s today.

We never got to see Tsoi in middle age. Like all iconic figures who die before their time, the trail-blazing Soviet rocker remains frozen in our minds: iconoclastic and irreverent, clad in black jeans and a T-shirt, a wild mane of black hair flopping in the breeze.

A guitar in his hand and a cigarette dangling from his mouth. Always a cigarette dangling from his mouth.

Tsoi is a reminder of a more hopeful time -- one that probably seems even more hopeful in retrospect. A time of introspection and anxiety, but also a time of promise. A time when anything and everything seemed possible.

Tsoi played the last concert of his life on June 24, 1990, at Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium before a capacity crowd of 62,000. He closed the concert with his iconic protest anthem "Peremen" (Change).

Less than two months later he was dead.

No, we never got to see Tsoi in middle age. But we have seen the generation he inspired. And for most of them, the hopes and ideals of their youth died not long after Tsoi did.

Some of them are among those running Russia today. Some are among those cheering them on. And some are still holding out hope for that promise of change that was never truly fulfilled.

And Tsoi remains frozen in time, a symbol of the post-Soviet Russia that never was.


Audio Podcast: Hearts, Minds, And Confusion

Brian Whitmore

A half a billion dollars a year spent to get the Kremlin's message out. An army of trolls on a mission to influence foreign news coverage. The most widespread disinformation campaign since the end of the Cold War.

And the result? According to a new poll on global attitudes, Russia's brand is in the toilet.

The numbers are devastating. Globally, just 30 percent view Russia favorably. In Europe, just 26 percent do. By large margins, Russia is viewed negatively in every region of the world.

And the only thing doing worse than Brand Russia is Brand Putin. Worldwide, just 24 percent trust the Kremlin leader. In Europe, just 15 percent do.

On the latest Power Vertical Podcast we examine whether Vladimir Putin's vaunted information war is actually an abject failure. Joining me are Leonid Bershidsky, a political columnist for Bloomberg View, and Michael Weiss, a senior editor at The Daily Beast and the co-author of a widely circulated report on Russia's information policy.

Enjoy...

Podcast: Hearts, Minds, And Confusion
Podcast: Hearts, Minds, And Confusioni
|| 0:00:00
...    
🔇
X

 

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


The Daily Vertical: From Info Wars To Psyops

The Daily Vertical: From Info Wars To Psyopsi
X
August 14, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.

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


Panic In The Kremlin

Past his sell-by date?

Brian Whitmore

You know things are getting really bad when Sergei Lavrov blows his cool.

The Russian foreign minister is usually smooth as silk in public, shamelessly and effortlessly twisting, spinning, distorting, and lying on behalf of Vladimir Putin's regime.

But this week, Lavrov was caught on camera -- and on mic -- sputtering a string of expletives during a joint press conference with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir. 

It's unclear what sparked Lavrov's odd outburst -- and it doesn't really matter. The fact that it happened is a sign of the times. 

The past couple weeks have witnessed a series of incidents that suggest that all is not well in the Kremlin elite. 

Russian customs and health officials have staged quasi-ritualistic burnings of European cheese and other foodstuffs, as well as of Dutch flowers. 

Its parliamentary speaker, Sergei Naryshkin, has penned an article in the official government daily Rossiiskaya Gazeta accusing the United States of "zombifying" its European allies and plotting a major provocation against Moscow.

Naryshkin has also called for an international tribunal on the United States' use of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. 

And Russia has submitted a formal claim to the North Pole at the United Nations.

Did I miss anything? Perhaps. The weird and wacky has been so fast and furious lately that it would be easy to do so.

"There is panic at the top of the Kremlin," political analyst Andrei Piontkovsky wrote in a recent article in Apostrof. "This is evident in Naryshkin’s article, in the burning of foodstuffs at the border, and in Lavrov’s behavior at the press conference with Saudi officials."

In recent years, it's been fashionable and tempting to view Vladimir Putin as the man with a plan, the master of the universe, the spinner of vast conspiracies.

While that may have once been the case, an increasing number of Kremlin watchers are coming to the conclusion that the wheels are coming off the Putin machine. 

Moscow-based commentator Igor Yakovenko wrote recently that the system is "running amok." 

And in an op-ed in The New York Times, political analyst Ivan Krastev noted, citing former Kremlin insider Gleb Pavlovsky, that Putin has been increasingly disengaged from day-to-day decision making. Krastev added that the policymaking process resembles "the music of a jazz group; its continuing improvisation is an attempt to survive the latest crisis." 

At the heart of the crisis gripping the elite is a paradox: They can't live with Putin. And they can't live without him. 

Increasing numbers of Russia's ruling class -- or at least its smarter members -- understand that the Putin system has reached the end of its usefulness. It's hit the point of diminishing returns. 

Putin has boxed himself into a corner in Ukraine. He has run the economy into the ground. And he has isolated Russia from the world. And there don't appear to be any more rabbits he can pull out of his hat.

If the status quo continues, Piontkovsky wrote, the elite "understands perfectly well that this will lead to their loss of billions of dollars" and could eventually cause "the fall of the regime." 

And this appears to be paralyzing Putin himself.

The Kremlin leader has been behaving oddly for awhile. Recall his strange -- and still unexplained -- disappearance from public view back in March following the assassination of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov; and his peculiar gestures and facial expressions during a press conference in Minsk last summer. 

A withdrawn Putin is a big problem because the system has no direction -- and tends to go haywire -- without his hand guiding it.

"Putin has successfully made any political alternative unthinkable, and his entire country is now trapped by his success," Krastev wrote. 

"In other words, Mr. Putin’s enormous popular support is a weakness, not a strength -- and Russia’s leaders know it."

Which, he added, leads to a sense of eschatology among his inner circle as they worry how they will live with Putin -- and if they can live without him.

"The Kremlin is populated not by mere survivors of the post-Soviet transition but by survivalists, people who think in terms of worst-case scenarios, who believe that the next disaster is just around the corner, who thrive on crises, who are addicted to extraordinary situations and no-rules politics," Krastev wrote.

"That complex and unpredictable context, rather than the vagaries of Mr. Putin’s mind alone, is the key to understanding contemporary Russian politics."

And this all makes the coming months a dangerous period indeed.


The Daily Vertical: Mr. Cool Loses His

The Daily Vertical: Mr. Cool Loses Hisi
X
August 13, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.

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


Video The Daily Vertical: Remembering Viktor Tsoi

The Daily Vertical: Remembering Viktor Tsoii
X
August 12, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.
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.


Video The Daily Vertical: The August Syndrome

The Daily Vertical: The August Syndromei
X
August 11, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.
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.


Why Putin Is Losing

The face of a losing war -- on several fronts (Art: Vladimir Putin made of bullet cartridges by Ukrainian artist Daria Marchenko)

Brian Whitmore

Are little green men about to appear on the North Pole?

Russia's claim last week, using an extremely creative interpretation of international law, to exclusive economic rights to nearly half a million square miles of the Arctic Sea was certainly a head-scratcher. 

Sure, the territory is valuable due to its untapped reserves of fossil fuels and for the shipping lanes that will open as Arctic ice melts. But the claim is likely to ultimately be rejected by the United Nations.

But sparking a manufactured international crisis over the Arctic, one that pits Russia against the United States and Canada, might be just what the doctor ordered.

Why? Because Vladimir Putin needs to make a new action movie to distract his people.

The Kremlin leader is boxed in on so many fronts right now that he badly needs to change the subject.

The Donbas Quagmire

For starters, Putin has no good options in eastern Ukraine.

The old fantasies about seizing so-called Novorossia, the strip of land from Kharkiv to Odesa, and establishing a land bridge to Crimea are dead. And the more modest goal of expanding the territory Russia and its proxies currently hold, perhaps with a push to Mariupol, is probably out of the question too.

Either campaign would be costly in terms of blood and treasure, it would certainly spark a fresh round of sanctions, and it would involve occupying hostile territory. The recent uptick in fighting this week reeks more of desperation than of a serious move to acquire more territory. 

Russia could, of course, just annex the territories controlled by Moscow's proxies; or it could freeze the conflict and establish a Russian protectorate there.

But in this case, Moscow would be shouldered with the burden of financing an economically unproductive enclave whose infrastructure has been destroyed. And do so while Russia's economy is sinking into an ever deeper recession.

Moreover, Russia would lose any leverage over the remainder of Ukraine, which would quickly move West. Sanctions would be continued, and possibly escalated.

The Kremlin's preferred option, given these limitations, is to force the territories back into Ukraine on Moscow's terms -- with broad autonomy and the ability to veto decisions by the Kyiv government. But Ukraine and the West appear unwilling to let this happen.

Putin has boxed himself into a corner in Ukraine, and it is difficult to see how he is going to get out of the quagmire he has created.

Trapped At Home

It's also difficult to imagine how Putin is going to extract himself from the quagmire he has created at home.

The Kremlin leader is caught in a trap of his own making, between economic and political imperatives.

With the economy sinking deeper into recession, inflation spiking, oil prices dipping below $50 a barrel, and the ruble approaching the lows it reached earlier in the year, Putin badly needs sanctions eased to give the economy breathing space.

But for that to happen, he would need to climb down in Ukraine, a move that would undermine the whole rationale for his rule and infuriate the nationalist supporters who make up his base.

"Putin's return to the presidential seat heralded a rather sudden pivot towards a deep-seated domestic nationalism," Moscow-based journalist Anna Arutunyan wrote recently.

"Yet nationalism as a state policy and identity, initially implemented to shore up Kremlin power, now has the Kremlin itself trapped and threatened by forces that it initially nurtured, but can no longer fully control."

A recent report in Novaya Gazeta, for example, claimed that the war in eastern Ukraine risks "metastasizing" as volunteer fighters have been returning to Russia with large quantities of heavy weapons. 

During his first two terms in the Kremlin, Putin's team -- and most notably his chief political operator, Vladislav Surkov -- very skilfully co-opted and manipulated both liberal and nationalist groups.

That strategy caught up with him in 2011-12, when liberal disappointment resulted in the largest anti-Kremlin street protests Russia has seen since the breakup of the Soviet Union -- leaving him no place else to turn but toward the nationalists.

"Given the higher prevalence of nationalist views -- especially among members of the security services -- a sense of betrayal could have much bigger consequences for the Kremlin than simply mass protests," Arutunyan wrote.

Losing The Energy Card

And on top of it all, Putin has an energy problem. It's not just that oil prices are low, and will remain so for some time -- although that certainly is a problem.

But the real essence of Putin's energy woes are structural, not cyclical. The global energy game is changing -- and it is not changing in Moscow's favor.

Shale, liquified natural gas (LNG), and renewables -- three areas where Russia is extremely weak -- are ascendant and are dramatically altering the market.

The potential for ending sanctions on Iran puts a powerful new player and competitor -- the world's third largest natural-gas producer -- in the game.

And the Ukraine conflict and Moscow's aggressive posture toward the West have led Europe -- Russia's most important market -- to change its energy policies and seek alternative suppliers.

Moreover, rather than looking the other way as Gazprom repeatedly flouted the European Union's antitrust laws, Brussels is now cracking down.

If one looks at Gazprom as a barometer of Russia's fortunes, one statistic says it all: in 2008, the company had a market value of $360 billion; today it is worth just $55 billion. 

Energy has always been Putin's trump card. He has been able to use it to bully former neighbors into submission and bribe and blackmail the Europeans.

Now it's become a trump card he is losing fast.

Propaganda Can't Buy You Love

But at least Putin is still winning the battle for hearts and minds, right?

For more than a year, we've been hearing about how Russia's slick propaganda machine is crushing the West in the information war.

Moscow has no doubt been very effective mounting guerrilla marketing campaigns aim at sowing doubt and confusion in the West. And they have been skilfull in manipulating and surreptitiously influencing media narratives on issues like the Ukraine war and the downing of Flight MH17.

But guess what? After spending nearly half a billion dollars to get its message out to the world, after unleashing armies of trolls to disrupt Western news sites, after launching the most widespread disinformation campaign since the end of the Cold War, after all this, Russia's global image is in the toilet.

According to the Pew Research Center's new report, only three countries in the world have a net positive opinion of Russia: China, Vietnam, and Ghana. Worldwide, a median of just 30 percent view Russia favorably. 

Writing in Bloomberg View, political commentator Leonid Bershidsky quipped that "the money might be spent just as wisely buying more $600,000 watches for Putin's press secretary, Dmitry Peskov." 

And the numbers are dismal across the board. In Europe, just 26 percent view Russia favorably, in the Middle East, only 25 percent do. In Latin America, it's only 29 percent. In the regions most favorably inclined toward Russia -- Asia and Africa -- it's just 37 percent.

And if Russia's global image is bad, Putin's is dismal. Worldwide, just 24 percent trust him. In Europe, just 15 percent do.

To be sure, Russia's propaganda machine is working wonders at home, where Putin's popularity is stratospheric despite a flailing economy. But one has to wonder how much longer that can last.


Audio Briefing: Oil Diplomacy And Food Fights

Take that, EU!

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov meets his Saudi Arabian counterpart, Adel al-Jubeir, this week as Moscow continues its overtures to Riyadh over oil prices and Syria.

Russia continues destroying banned food on the border as Communist lawmakers submit legislation calling for it to be given to the poor.

On this week's Power Vertical Briefing, I discuss these stories with Pavel Butorin, senior producer for RFE/RL's Russian-language television program Current Time.

Also on The Briefing, Pavel and I take a look at why August tends to be such an eventful month in Russia.

Enjoy... 

The Power Vertical Briefing: Oil Diplomacy And Food Fights
The Power Vertical Briefing: Oil Diplomacy And Food Fightsi
|| 0:00:00
...    
🔇
X

 

EDITOR'S 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 every Monday.


Video The Daily Vertical: Making Corruption Pay

The Daily Vertical: Making Corruption Payi
X
August 10, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.
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.


Audio Podcast: Russia's Fragile Federation

Is he creating a self-fulfilling prophecy?

It's the Kremlin's worst nightmare. That the Russian Federation shares the fate of the Soviet Union and disintegrates.

Far-fetched? Yeah, probably. But the fear appears to be honestly felt.

And as calls for regional autonomy get louder and bolder -- from Kaliningrad to Siberia, from Karelia to Tatarstan -- Vladimir Putin's regime has moved to further tighten the screws. And this is only serving to spark more resentment in the regions.

Are the Kremlin's fears of federalism making its biggest fear more likely?

On the latest Power Vertical Podcast, we discuss Russia's fragile federation. 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 longtime Russia-watcher Paul Goble, author of the blog Window on Eurasia.

Enjoy...

Podcast: Russia's Fragile Federation
Podcast: Russia's Fragile Federationi
|| 0:00:00
...    
🔇
X

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


Video The Daily Vertical: A Georgian Dress Rehearsal

The Daily Vertical: A Georgian Dress Rehearsali
X
August 07, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.

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


Video The Daily Vertical: Russia's Propaganda Fail

The Daily Vertical: Russia's Propaganda Faili
X
August 06, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.

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


Video The Daily Vertical: RIP, Robert Conquest

The Daily Vertical: RIP, Robert Conquesti
|| 0:00:00
...  
🔇
X
August 05, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.

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


Is Minsk Dead?

Russia's Vladimir Putin, Germany's Angela Merkel, France's Francois Hollande, and Ukraine's Petro Poroshenko at peace talks in Minsk on February 11.

Brian Whitmore

Mykola Azarov's call for early elections and "total regime change" in Kyiv was a bit of a head scratcher.

The ousted Ukrainian prime minister, after all, is deeply unpopular in his homeland and -- with the exception of Ukrainian prosecutors who want to put him on trial -- largely forgotten.

But in a high-profile press conference in Moscow on August 3 that was carried live on Russian state television, Azarov announced the creation of a Ukraine Salvation Committee that aims to oust the pro-Western government of President Petro Poroshenko. 

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow has nothing to do with the initiative. But that has about as much credibility as Peskov's claim that the $620,000 watch he was photographed wearing at his wedding was a gift. 

In fact, Azarov's announcement fits into a pattern that suggests that the Kremlin is giving up on the Minsk accords as a means to achieve its objectives in Ukraine and is shifting to other methods of pressuring Kyiv.

These include calls to offer Russian citizenship to residents of the separatist-held areas of the Donbas, suggestions that it may turn the territories into a Russian protectorate or annex them outright, and bellicose moves suggesting a fresh military offensive.

At the heart of Moscow's problem is that it doesn't want these territories. It doesn't want to govern them. It doesn't want to shoulder the cost of rebuilding them. It wants to use them to undermine and paralyze Kyiv.

"It's a mechanism to distract and destabilize the government in Kyiv," Steven Pifer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, said on The Power Vertical Podcast. "They can ratchet pressure up or ratchet it down in eastern Ukraine to cause problems for the government in Kyiv."

But ultimately, Russia wants to get the separatist territories reintegrated into a hyper-federalized Ukraine as a fifth column, with the ability to veto any attempts by the government in Kyiv to integrate with the West.

And these efforts are failing -- and the Kremlin is flailing as it searches for an alternative.

"The bottom line is that Russia has no good options in the Donbas, and that really is the key. It is the owner of the region and whoever owns the territory is the loser," Alexander Motyl, a professor at Rutgers University-Newark and commentator on Ukrainian affairs, also said on The Power Vertical Podcast.

Pretending To Negotiate In Minsk

Ukrainian officials and pro-Moscow separatists went through the motions in Minsk again this week, just as they have been doing for months since the cease-fire was signed in the Belarusian capital in February.

They pretended to negotiate about the future status of the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk people's republics and how they would be reintegrated into Ukraine. And they didn't reach a solution, but they did agree to continue the farce via Skype.

They didn't find a solution because there isn't a solution. The problem is irreconcilable.

Kyiv wants the region reintegrated only after separatist fighters disarm, after Russia withdraws its troops and weapons, after the border is returned to Ukraine's control, and after free, fair, and internationally supervised elections are held.

Moscow and its Donbas proxies want the territories reintegrated into Ukraine with autonomy so broad it would make the region a de facto Russian protectorate. They want the current separatist leaders legitimized as the region's rulers and the separatist fighters instituted as its police force.

There is no compromise here that could satisfy both sides. It's a deadlock -- and a deadlock essentially favors Ukraine.

"Freezing the conflict is one of the better solutions for Ukraine and is actually bad for the Russians," Motyl said on the podcast.

"The reason is that the Donbas enclave that is occupied by Russian and separatist troops is an economic mess...It is in Ukraine's advantage to keep that out of its control for as long as possible and for as much as possible and it is to Russia's disadvantage to be responsible for it."

So if a deadlock favors Ukraine, then Russia understands that it has to break the deadlock.

Passports As Weapons

If Russia decided to issue passports to residents of the rebel-held territories in eastern Ukraine, it would change the nature of the conflict overnight.

And last week, Ihor Plotnitskiy, leader of the self-styled Luhansk People's Republic, said separatist leaders were in talks with Moscow to do just that. And the announcement got a fair amount of traction in the Russian press, suggesting that it was being taken seriously.

In a lengthy article in Lenta.ru, Gevorg Mirzayan of the Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies noted that the move would mark a significant shift in Kremlin policy.

"This would amount to Russia's abandonment of the Minsk agreement and the reintegration of the Donetsk and Luhansk people's republics back into Ukraine. It would mark a transition to Plan B, a frozen conflict and the establishment of a space of the Novorossia project," Mirzayan wrote.

In addition to effectively burying the Minsk agreement, issuing passports to residents of the separatist-held territories would also mark a significant escalation of the conflict. Suddenly, it would not just be ethnic Russians that Moscow was claiming to defend in the Donbas, but Russian citizens -- which would make it easier for Moscow to intervene openly and directly.

The announcement also dovetails with other proposals making the rounds in the Russian media.

In an article in the influential military journal Voyennoye Obozreniya, analyst Valery Afanasyev argues that Moscow should aim to turn the separatist-held territories in eastern Ukraine into a second Belarus -- an independent autocratic state completely dependent on Moscow.

And in the staunchly pro-Kremlin daily Izvestia, political commentator Aleksandr Chalenko called on Moscow to annex them outright. 

These moves would, of course, be extremely costly for Russia. They would almost certainly spark another round of sanctions and Moscow would be saddled with the cost of rebuilding a war-torn and economically devastated region, losing any leverage it has over Kyiv.

And Ukraine would probably move quickly to integrate with the West.

Likewise, it is highly unlikely that the deeply unpopular Azarov will be able to spearhead regime change in Kyiv.

Instead, both initiatives smack of desperation. They also appear to be messages from Moscow to Kyiv that if Russia doesn't get what it wants from the Minsk peace process, it may be prepared to take some drastic steps.


Video The Daily Vertical: Russia's Bribery Index

The Daily Vertical: Russia's Bribery Indexi
|| 0:00:00
...  
🔇
X
August 04, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.

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


Briefing: The Ruble Slides Again

How low can it go?

Brian Whitmore

The ruble sinks to its lowest level since March as oil prices continue their slide spelling more trouble for the Russian economy.

On the latest Power Vertical Briefing, I discuss the Russian currency's woes, its causes, and effects with RFE/RL Senior Editor Steve Gutterman.

Enjoy...

Briefing: The Ruble Slides Again
Briefing: The Ruble Slides Againi
|| 0:00:00
...    
🔇
X

 

EDITOR'S 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 every Monday.

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