Sunday, February 07, 2016


Video The Daily Vertical: Putin's Choice -- Truckers Or Oligarchs

Putin's Choice: Truckers Or Oligarchsi
X
December 02, 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.
Putin's Choice: Truckers Or Oligarchs

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.


Russia's (Not So) Splendid Isolation

Alone and unloved

Brian Whitmore

Activists in Moscow burn Turkish flags and pelt the embassy with eggs and rocks. In Crimea, they burn Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in effigy.

Russian authorities detain dozens of Turkish citizens for allegedly violating visa regulations. And, of course, the Kremlin has suspended visa-free travel for Turks and suspended charter flights to Turkey.

And to think it wasn't so long ago that Turkey was considered one of Russia's closest...friends? Just a year ago, Vladimir Putin praised Erdogan as "a man of strong character" who ignored Western pressure.

The downing of an Su-24 warplane -- which came after Ankara says it repeatedly warned Moscow about violating its airspace -- may be the proximate cause of the current Russian-Turkish standoff.

But the underlying cause goes deeper -- and has broader implications than Moscow's relations with Ankara.

Once upon a time, the story of Fortress Russia facing a hostile world was a convenient fairy tale the Kremlin used to mobilize the public.

Today, the fairy tale is quickly becoming a reality. As a result of the Kremlin's actions in Ukraine and Syria, this well-worn narrative of an isolated Russia staring down the world has come to life.

"Putin's Russia is not exactly weak, it's just alone and unloved after alienating even potential friends," political commentator Leonid Bershidsky wrote for Bloomberg. 

Likewise, Kremlin-watcher Tatyana Stanovaya noted in Politcom.ru that "Russia finds itself alone, humiliated on a worldwide scale."

As a result of the Crimea annexation, the Donbas intervention, and the downing of MH17, Moscow has no true allies west of Smolensk.

It has lost any vestiges of goodwill in Europe. Germany has been transformed from a close partner into a harsh critic. Traditionally neutral Sweden and Finland are considering joining NATO.

Russia has turned Ukraine from an erstwhile friend into a bitter foe, perhaps for generations.

And even autocratic Belarus is looking at Putin's regime with increasing trepidation.

Meanwhile, Moscow's intervention in Syria's civil war, its attempts to prop up the regime of Bashar al-Assad, and its air strikes against Assad's opposition under the guise of fighting Islamic State have alienated powerful players to the south -- like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states.

Moreover, the Kremlin has appeared to abandon its much-vaunted pivot to the east once it became apparent that this would turn a declining Russia into the junior partner of a rising China.

"Russia has no powerful strategic partners; all of its alliances are temporary and can turn into enmity at any moment," Nezavisimaya Gazeta wrote in a recent editorial. 

Moscow's descent into isolation has its roots in the domestic political dilemma Putin faced following his return to the Kremlin in 2012.

Until that point, the regime's legitimacy was based on rising living standards and a loyal middle class. That social contract was destroyed by the protests of 2011-12 and collapsing oil prices.

As a result, Putin had to forge a "a new type of legitimacy -- which can be found in a military chieftain type of leadership and permanent state of emergency," Kadri Liik, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, wrote recently. "In order to preserve the image of vigorous leadership and deter the feelings of stagnation, bold action is helpful, if not irreplaceable."

A key element of this "military chieftain" leadership was liberating Russia from the constraints of international rules and norms. According to Putin's "New Deal," Putin would return the country to superpower status by sheer force of will.

It would annex Crimea and intervene in Donbas because it could. It would violate NATO airspace because it felt like it. It would kidnap foreign citizens like Nadia Savchenko, Oleh Sentsov, and Eston Kohver, hold them hostage, and dare the world to do something about it.

In a recent article in Vedomosti, Moscow-based foreign affairs analyst Vladimir Frolov called it "the diplomacy of liberation," which abandons the goals and partnerships Moscow had forged for the previous two decades. 

"Russia's new course means it is free from any and all influences and restrictions," Frolov wrote. "This freedom means that Russia does not need to abide by international law...and that Russia's claims to a leading role in the world cannot be contained."

The cost of this diplomacy of liberation, of course, is increasing international isolation and ostracism.

For the time being, as Frolov notes, Moscow has been able to "divorce foreign policy from economic interests and capabilities." But in the long run, the current course is not sustainable.

Nevertheless, isolated and resentful powers -- particularly isolated and resentful powers with nuclear weapons, large militaries, and vast natural resources -- can cause a lot of damage.

Which means that, in the short term, we are in for what Ben Judah, author of the book Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In And Out Of Love With Vladimir Putin, calls "our violent new normal."

"The unthinkable happens, is quickly accepted, and fades obscure into a darkening background," Judah wrote recently in Prospect. "Grey wars, is what we have now: creeping skirmishes, proxy clashes, hybrid assaults and dogfights with Russia."


Video The Daily Vertical: Putin's Fairy Tale Comes True

The Daily Vertical: Putin's Fairy Tale Comes Truei
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December 01, 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 The Briefing: A Conflict, A Protest, And A Speech

Russians burn a Turkish flag during a rally in front of Turkish Embassy in Moscow on November 25.

Brian Whitmore

The conflict between Moscow and Ankara escalates in the wake of the downing of a Russian fighter jet. Truckers protesting a new road tax descend on Moscow. And Vladimir Putin prepares for his annual state-of-the-nation speech.

On this week's Power Vertical Briefing, we take a look ahead at the stories we expect to make news this week.

Joining me is Senior RFE/RL Editor Steve Gutterman.

Enjoy... 

The Briefing: A Conflict, A Protest, And A Speech
The Briefing: A Conflict, A Protest, And A Speechi
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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: Putin Vs. The World

The Daily Vertical: Putin Vs. The Worldi
X
November 30, 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.


Audio Podcast: Out Of Isolation?

Ostracized no more.

Brian Whitmore

It's probably a pretty good bet that Vladimir Putin felt more welcome at this year's summit for the Group of 20 (G20) major economies than at last year's.

Which raises the question: To what extent did the attacks in Paris last week change the dynamic between Russia and the West? 

Is Vladimir Putin about to get what he's long wanted: a grand alliance to fight terrorism -- one that will push Ukraine off the agenda and get sanctions lifted?

On this week's Power Vertical Podcast, we unpack Russia's limited rapprochement with the West, and what it means going forward.

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 Steven Pifer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the former United States Ambassador to Ukraine.

Enjoy...

Podcast: Out Of Isolation?
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Listen to or download the podcast above or subscribe to The Power Vertical Podcast on iTunes.​

PROGRAMMING NOTE: The Power Vertical Podcast -- and all other Power Vertical products -- will not appear next week as I will be travelling in Ukraine. The Daily Vertical, Briefing, and blog will return on November 30 and the Podcast will be back on December 4. 

 


Video The Daily Vertical: The Limits Of Detente

The Daily Vertical: The Limits Of Detentei
X
November 20, 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: Does Anybody Remember Ukraine?

The Daily Vertical: Does Anybody Remember Ukraine?i
X
November 19, 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.


Can Putin Come In From The Cold?

The spy who came in from the cold?

Brian Whitmore

He wasn't ostracized. He wasn't isolated. And certainly nobody threatened to shirtfront him. 

In the space of a year, Vladimir Putin has gone from being the pariah of Brisbane to being the star of Antalya. The contrast between last year's G20 summit in Australia and this year's in Turkey couldn't have been sharper.

Then, Putin was browbeaten by Western leaders for annexing Crimea and supporting separatists in Donbas. Now, everybody wants to talk to him about teaming up to fight Islamic State militants. 

Then, Putin's humiliating early exit from the summit made international headlines. Now, everybody is talking about that photo of him huddling with U.S. President Barack Obama.

At the Brisbane summit, which took place months after the downing of Flight MH17, the vibe was all about tension between Russia and the West. At the Antalya summit, which came just days after IS's terror attacks in Paris, it was all about unity.

"Putin has changed the G20 agenda from being dominated by Ukraine to having been taken over by Syria," Anders Aslund, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, wrote recently. 

"A number of Western powers now want to fight with Russia against ISIS, ignoring everything else about Russia's policies. That Russia has escalated its military aggression in Ukraine in the last weeks apparently does not matter much to the West."

So is Putin about to get what he has always wanted? Is he now a step closer to forging that "broad international coalition against terrorism" he called for in his speech to the UN General Assembly in September?

Revive 1945, Bury 1991

In his UN speech, Putin invoked the spirit of World War II, calling for an alliance "similar to the anti-Hitler coalition" that united "a broad range of parties willing to stand firm against those who, just like the Nazis, sow evil and hatred of humankind." 

He also invoked the Yalta conference, which laid "a solid foundation for the postwar world order." And he lamented that the end of the Cold War left the world "with one center of dominance."

And all this was no accident. 

Putin wants to relive 1945 and exorcise 1991. He wants to resurrect the glory of the Soviet victory in World War II; and he wants to bury the humiliation of the Soviet defeat in the Cold War.

He wants a temporary alliance of convenience with the West in Syria, one that will end Moscow's international isolation and get sanctions lifted. 

Then he wants a modern version of the Yalta conference, in which Russia and other great powers will divide up the world into spheres of influence.

And of course he wants a free hand in the former Soviet space.

"Russia’s war with the West will not end as long as these new principles are not introduced by 'internationally binding commitment,'" Slawomir Debski, editor in chief of Intersection, wrote in a recent column.

A Window Of Opportunity

Putin clearly thinks that the November 13 Paris attacks give him a window of opportunity to advance these goals.

As political commentator Leonid Bershidsky noted in a recent column, a month ago French President Francois Hollande said Putin "is not our ally" in Syria; but now he is calling for Moscow and the West "to unite our forces."

It is probably no accident that just days after the Paris attacks, and shortly after Hollande's call for unity, Moscow finally acknowledged what it had been denying for weeks: that the October 31 Metrojet crash in Egypt was an act of terrorism.

Putin pledged to pursue those responsible "everywhere, no matter where they are hiding," adding that Russia was "counting on all of our friends during this work, including in searching for and punishing the criminals."

And right on cue, speaking at the APEC summit in Manila, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said: "The terror attacks that Russia and France have just faced affected the whole world. The terrorism expansion is indeed a global challenge. And it requires a united response."

The Moscow punditocracy is also on message. Political analyst Aleksei Arbatov told the daily Kommersant that the Paris attacks will alter relations with the West "in the direction of greater mutual sympathy." 

All of this has opponents of the Putin regime duly alarmed. 

A Russo-Western alliance in Syria would be "morally repugnant, strategically disastrous, and entirely unnecessary," self-exiled Russian opposition leader and former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, author ofthe book Winter Is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin And The Enemies Of The Free World Must Be Stopped, wrote in The Wall Street Journal.

"President Obama and other Western leaders desperate to resolve the conflict in Syria should keep in mind that the enemy of your enemy can also be your enemy," Kasparov wrote.

A Limited Detente
 
So far, Moscow's rapprochement with the West has been been confined to Syria -- and mostly confined to optics and rhetoric. 

French and Russian warplanes have conducted air strikes in the IS stronghold of Raqqa and Putin has ordered the commander of the battleship Moskva to treat France as an ally. 

But huge differences remain over the future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and other Western powers have not exactly been rushing into Moscow's arms.

And despite fears in Kyiv that Ukraine might would get thrown under the bus, there is no evidence of the West softening its stand against Russia's annexation of Crimea and intervention in Donbas.

There have been no moves to lift -- or even ease -- sanctions. And there has certainly been no indication that anybody is prepared to give Russia a free hand in the former Soviet Union. 

"A Western alliance with Putin against Islamic State, if it ever comes to pass, won't be much more than a situational military alliance. There will be no political detente," Bershidsky wrote

"In that sense, the recent terror attacks haven't changed much: The West still has to decide whether to ally itself with a lesser evil to defeat a bigger one."


Video The Daily Vertical: Putin's Window Of Opportunity

The Daily Vertical: Putin's Window Of Opportunityi
X
November 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.
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: Russia's New Normal

The Daily Vertical: Russia's New Normali
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November 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.
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 The Briefing: Terror And Rapprochement

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) meets with U.S. President Barack Obama on the sidelines of the G20 summit.

Brian Whitmore

Will the terrorist attacks in Paris lead to a rapprochement between Moscow and the West? Will they result in a common policy in Syria? 

On this week's Power Vertical Briefing I discuss this issue with RFE/RL senior editor Steve Gutterman.

Enjoy... 

The Briefing: Terror And Rapprochement
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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: Russia Blames The Victim

The Daily Vertical: Russia Blames The Victimi
X
November 16, 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: The Nobility And The Masses

Watch out. Russia's new generation is coming into its own.

Brian Whitmore

Generation-P, the children of those in Vladimir Putin's inner circle, is coming of age and coming into its own.

They're executives at banks, energy companies, and pension funds. They're worth billions. And they increasingly resemble the heirs of a new aristocracy.

Will they inherit their parents' power? Or will they share the fates of previous generations of Russian nobility?

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

Enjoy...

Podcast: The Nobility And The Masses
Podcast: The Nobility And The Massesi
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Listen to or download the podcast above or subscribe to The Power Vertical Podcast on iTunes.​


Video The Daily Vertical: Putin's Submarine Psyop

The Daily Vertical: Putin's Submarine Psyopi
X
November 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.
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.


The Heirs Of Putinism

They grow up so fast!

Brian Whitmore

They run banks, pension funds, and electric companies. They're oil and gas executives. They're worth billions. And most of them are under 40. 

Meet the children of Vladimir Putin's cronies.

A new nobility is being born in Russia as Generation P -- the offspring of those in Putin's inner sanctum -- come of age, come into their own, and seek to inherit their parent's power.

But if the past century of Russian history is any guide, this effort to establish a hereditary aristocracy is most likely doomed.

An investigative report by Reuters this week looked closely at the emerging second generation of the Putin aristocracy. Much of it focused on Katerina Tikhonova, widely believed to be the Kremlin leader's daughter, and her husband, Kirill Shamalov. 

Tikhonova runs publicly funded projects at Moscow State University and Shamalov, the son of longtime Putin crony Nikolai Shamalov, is a top shareholder at Bank Rossia.

According to Reuters, the couple is worth about $2 billion, thanks mainly to a stake in a major gas and petrochemical company that Kirill acquired from Gennady Timchenko, another Putin associate. Kirill's brother Yury, meanwhile, is deputy chairman of Gazprombank and president of Gazfond, Russia's largest pension fund.

But Tikhonova and Shamalov are just the tip of the aristocratic iceberg. 

Also among the leading heirs of the new nobility are Sergei Ivanov, son of the Kremlin chief of staff of the same name, who is director of Gazprombank; and Dmitry Patrushev, son of National Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, who heads the Russian Agricultural Bank.
 
Igor and Roman Rotenberg, the sons of Putin's former judo partner, Arkady Rotenberg, are respectively the majority shareholder of Gazprom Drilling and the vice president of Gazprombank. 
 
And Boris Kovalchuk, the son of Putin's longtime friend Yury Kovalchuk, is CEO of the electricity holding InerRAO. 

And the list goes on and on.

"Today in Russia, it is absolutely normal that the boards of directors at state banks are headed by children of security service officials, who aren’t even 30 years old when they are appointed," anticorruption blogger and opposition leader Aleksei Navalny told Reuters. 

"It is more than just a dynastic succession. Children don’t just inherit their parents' posts, but also the right to choose any other post they fancy.The danger is that very soon all key resources will end up in the hands of five to seven families."

Is Navalny right? Will the nepotism of Russia's current rulers succeed in establishing a new nobility that can take the reins of power? Probably not, says opposition lawmaker Dmitry Gudkov.

"In the past century, there wasn't a single generation of Russian elites that left power voluntarily, that wasn't killed, supplanted, exiled, or -- at best -- marginalized with contempt," Gudkov wrote recently in the business daily Vedomosti. 

"The elite basically resets to zero every 20-25 years, starting over with a clean slate. Before long, either red ink or blood is spilled all over that list."

Not only have past elites been unable to pass power down to their offspring. They have often had trouble surviving themselves.

Gudkov recalls how Count Vladimir Frederiks, Tsar Nicholas II's imperial household minister, died in exile -- and obscurity.

Ivan Shcheglovitov and Aleksandr Protopopov, who served as chairman of the State Council and interior minister under the last tsar, were executed by the Bolsheviks in 1918.

The old Bolsheviks who came to power in 1917 were wiped out in Stalin's Great Terror. 

And the children?

"The elites can't even manage the simple process of securing their own children's future in Russia. Just look at the fate of the heirs of the 'Soviet nobility' and you'll understand," Gudkov wrote, noting that Josef Stalin's granddaughter, Nikita Khrushchev's son, and Leonid Brezhnev's niece all live abroad. So does the daughter of Brezhnev-era ideologist Mikhail Suslov.

"And these are the stories that turned out happiest."

Ironically, Gudkov argues, it is in democratic systems that political dynasties are more stable and enduring -- and leaders can retire in peace and leave the reins of power to a new generation.

Authoritarian systems tend to have a problem with succession. Such regimes appear rock-solid right up until the moment they fall. And sadly, they are often replaced by something exactly the same, just with new faces.

There are exceptions, of course, most notably China, which limits its leaders to two five-year terms.

But Putin and his cohorts appear to "think they're to Russia what the Kims are to North Korea," Gudkov writes.

"I'm sure every generation of self-appointed gods thinks, this time, things will last forever."

NOTE TO READERS: Be sure to tune in to The Power Vertical Podcast on November 13, when my guests and I will discuss the issues raised in this post. 


Video The Daily Vertical: Pavlensky May Be On To Something

The Daily Vertical: Pavlensky May Be On To Somethingi
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November 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.

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: This Is Russia On Drugs

The Daily Vertical: This Is Russia On Drugsi
X
November 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.


Video The Daily Vertical: The Cost Of Putinism

The Daily Vertical: The Cost Of Putinismi
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November 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.


When In Doubt, Blame The West

Russia's chief propagandist Dmitry Kiselev blamed the West for the downing of Metrojet Flight 9268.

Brian Whitmore

So Russia went there after all.

The crash of Metrojet Flight 9268 in Egypt on October 31, which killed all 224 people on board, was more than the worst aviation disaster in the country's history.

Once it became clear that the cause of the crash was probably terrorism, it also became a messaging nightmare for the Kremlin's propaganda machine.

Since Russia's Syria campaign began, Kremlin officials and the state media have been framing it as a painless war that was boosting Moscow's international prestige. All patriotic citizens needed to do was sit back and enjoy the grainy footage of terrorists being obliterated by Russia's shiny new military machine.

The deaths of hundreds of Russian civilians threatened to change that, especially after Islamic State claimed responsibility and the evidence that a bomb -- and not technical failure -- destroyed the aircraft mounted.

Suddenly the Syria campaign wasn't cost-free anymore.

So Russian state media did what came naturally: they blamed the West.

Sputnik got the ball rolling with a piece on November 6 claiming that "British officials have made an unseemly leap to speculate on a terrorist plot in the Russian airliner crash over Sinai last weekend." 

The story concluded: "The confidence by which these assessments of terror methodology are being made raises an even more troubling, darker question: was it really terrorists, or was it British MI6 agents palming the deed off as terrorists?"

On the same day, the conspiracy website WhatDoesItMean.com published an article claiming that Russia had captured two "CIA assets who are believed to have masterminded the downing of Flight 9268." 

And then came Dmitry Kiselyov.

On his flagship news show Vesti Nedeli on Russian state television, the bombastic pundit suggested on November 8 that it was suspicious that after two years of U.S. air strikes against Islamic State, no American passenger planes have been targeted. And yet a Russian civilian aircraft was downed after just 40 days into Russia's military campaign in Syria.

Kiselyov went on to suggest that the United States and its allies cut a deal with Islamic State "not to touch the civilian aircraft of the Western Coalition." He added that "dividing terrorists into good ones and bad ones is standard practice for the West. If the terrorist is targeting Russia, he's a good terrorist and even a supporter of democracy." 

Writing on his blog, Anton Shekhovtvov, a senior fellow at the Legatum Institute and a research associate at the Kyiv-based Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation noted that "this version may seem absurd to everyone who is not prone to conspiracy theories, but it is also extremely dangerous. It means that, indeed, the consolidation of Putin's criminal regime at home is far more important for the Kremlin than the international cooperation, and that Moscow is ready to escalate its war on the West."

The Kremlin could have used the downing of Flight 9268 to repair its relations with the West, Shekhovtvov noted. They could have made the argument that: "the Russians are fighting the war on international terrorism, and Russia and the West are in this together, hence Russia is no longer a pariah state, so do lift the sanctions and accept us to the club of the global powers."

But, of course, they chose another route.

"The Kremlin keeps on instilling anti-Western hatred into the Russian society by feeding it with conspiracy theories, and this hatred may lead to psychological acceptance of even more aggressive approach towards the West," Shekhovtvov wrote.

"As Voltaire wrote, 'those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.'"

Blaming the tragedy of Metrojet Flight 9268 on the West might work at home. But that will do little to change the dynamic that Moscow has set in motion with its Syria campaign.

"The Kremlin’s propaganda channels feted the air strikes against Syrian rebels as a sign that the country was once again a geopolitical force to be reckoned with," veteran Kremlin-watcher Edward Lucas, author of "The New Cold War," wrote in The Telegraph.

"But the reckoning may be a bloody one. Russia is now firmly [and probably irrevocably] positioned as an enemy of conservative and radical Sunni Muslims."

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About This Blog

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