Friday, June 24, 2016

Audio Podcast: Georgia's Fading NATO Dream

NATO went down to Georgia -- but not to stay.

Brian Whitmore

Just 120 kilometers separated NATO and Russian forces this week, as Georgia hosted U.S. and British troops for live-fire exercises.

The military maneuvers were designed to increase the ability of Georgia's armed forces to work as part of NATO's rapid-response force.

But the high-profile exercises also illustrated something else. Even as Georgia's armed forces become increasingly interoperable with the Western alliance, the door to NATO membership -- while theoretically open -- remains effectively closed.

And to the north, Moscow is biding its time as it seeks to reassert its dominance over Tbilisi -- one way or another.

On this week's Power Vertical Podcast, we discuss Georgia's quest for security against a resurgent and revanchist Russia.

Joining me are James Nixey, head of the Russia and Eurasia Program at Chatham House and an expert on Moscow's relations with former Soviet states, and Tbilisi-based political analyst Ghia Nodia, a professor at Ilia State University.


Podcast: Georgia's Fading NATO Dream
Podcast: Georgia's Fading NATO Dreami
|| 0:00:00

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

CLARIFICATION: During the discussion on this podcast, I incorrectly referred to "Association Partnerships" that NATO was reportedly considering offering to Georgia and Ukraine at the alliance's upcoming Warsaw summit. In fact, NATO is not considering Association Partnerships for these two countries. In recent remarks in Kyiv, NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow referred to a possible "Comprehensive Assistance Package," that would consolidate the alliance's support for Ukraine. This would be similar to the Substantial Assistance Package that Georgia received at the 2014 NATO summit in Wales.



Tags:Power Vertical podcast, Georgia, NATO, Russia

Video The Daily Vertical: What Doping Says About The Putin Regime

The Daily Vertical: What Doping Says About The Putin Regimei
May 13, 2016
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: What Doping Says About The Putin Regime
Brian Whitmore

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

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

The Morning Vertical, May 13, 2016

Morning vertical 308x173

Brian Whitmore


Russia's Labor Ministry's proposal to introduce a tax on "parasitism" -- that is, able-bodied people who are unemployed -- is indicative of how Vladimir Putin's regime is approaching its current budget crunch.

The stated reason is that such a law -- similar to one recently enacted in Belarus -- would fill the budget gap created by off-the-books employment that goes untaxed.

Fair enough, except for one thing. As the Kremlin cracks down on ordinary Russians who are using under-the-table earnings to survive hard times, it is doing little to tax the fortunes the elite is stashing away in offshore havens. It is doing little to prevent billions of dollars disappearing from the state's coffers. 

The message to ordinary people is the same as ever: corruption is for us, but not for you.


The New York Times has an exposé on how Russia's state-run doping program worked at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

Meanwhile, FIFA, world soccer's governing body, has made a surprise doping test of a Russian team.

According to a report in Vedomosti, Russia's Communications Ministry is seeking to isolate the Russian Internet by 2020.

In Chechnya, a man who complained to Vladimir Putin about Ramzan Kadyrov had his house burned down.

Russia's Labor Ministry is considering taxing the unemployed by introducing a tax on "parasitism."

The United States will break ground on another component of its missile-defense shield today.

A Russian opposition activist in Voronezh has been released from a psychiatric clinic, where he was forcibly admitted.

U.S. President Barack Obama is hosting Nordic leaders to discuss the Russian threat.


The Baltics In The Spotlight 

In an absolutely must-read piece on the War on the Rocks blog, Michael Kofman goes outside the box in looking at how NATO should plan to defend the Baltics from Russia.

In another War on the Rocks piece, Mark Seip also looks at Baltic defense and focuses on the upcoming U.S.-Nordic Summit.

And on his Window on Eurasia blog, veteran Kremlin-watcher Paul Goble looks at the debate over whether the Kremlin really has designs on the Baltics.

Georgia And NATO

Tedo Japaridze, chairman of the Georgian Parliament's Foreign Relations Committee has a piece on the European Leadership Network's website on Tbilisi's endless quest to join NATO.

"Eight years have passed since Georgia was promised in Bucharest that it would one day become a member of NATO," Japaridze writes.

"During that time NATO Summits have taken place in Strasbourg-Kehl, Lisbon, Chicago and Newport and we are now approaching the 2016 Summit in Warsaw. Although NATO’s door remains open for some, with Montenegro expecting to become the 29th member of the Alliance this year, for Georgia, NATO's open door policy looks increasingly selective. This is not because Georgia is failing to meet expectations."

Cold War Myths And Their Consequences

Sir Andrew Wood of Chatham House's Russia and Eurasia program has a commentary on Moscow's "damaging obsession with Cold War myths."

Here's the money graf: "Putin and his colleagues have made the assertions that the United States is bent on world hegemony, and the humiliation if not destruction of Russia the long established purpose of American policy. These absurd though deeply felt claims distort Russia’s whole approach to international affairs. Neither aim is either achievable for Washington or, as the evidence demonstrates, desired by the United States. The same Russians on occasion claim at the same time that the United States (and the EU) are doomed to decline before too long. They comfort themselves with the idea that other groupings such as BRICS, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization or the Eurasian Union can be turned into new centres of power for Moscow.
But the overall effect is to make Russian foreign policy into a search for coherence, not the implementation of a rational strategy to achieve Russia’s true national interest."

Putin's Mafias

The Moscow Times has a piece by Peter Hobson that looks at Russian organized crime's penetration of Europe -- and Europe's efforts to push it back.

Land For Peace?

In a piece in, Oleg Kashin explores whether Russia might be pursuing a land-for-peace-and-investment (plus sanctions-busting) deal with Japan over the Kurile Islands?

Putin's Syndicate And The Law

With the behavior of Vladimir Putin's Russia often resembling that of an international crime syndicate, the Kremlin's strident response to Western countries enforcing their laws is hardly surprising. (file photo)

Brian Whitmore

If you've nationalized and weaponized your mafia, it's only natural to view an investigation into organized crime as aggression. 

It you use corruption as a tool of statecraft, you'll probably see efforts to foster greater transparency as hostile.

If assassinations, embezzlement, money laundering, and arms trafficking are part of your foreign policy tool kit, it is not surprising that you think prosecuting such things is an act of war.

Aleksandr Bastrykin certainly thinks it is.

In a widely discussed article in Kommersant Vlast last month, the Russian Investigative Committee chief said "international law and the justice based on it, have increasingly become tools of war" against Moscow.

And for once I actually agree with Bastrykin -- with just a small tweak. I would replace the word "war" with "counterinsurgency."

Because, with the Kremlin actively using corruption, organized crime, money laundering, and cyberattacks to undermine and weaken Western institutions, the best weapon against this insidious and stealthy insurgency is the direct and open application of the rule of law.

"An effective Western response to Russia's multi-dimensional challenge requires a whole of government approach," veteran Kremlin-watcher James Sherr of Chatham House wrote recently.

"Unless non-defense arms of government (judicial, financial, regulatory) understand the defense and security implications of their responsibilities, they will not be fit for purpose."

In other words, corruption and transnational crime are national security issues of the highest magnitude, and Western governments are starting to treat them as such.

"In an 'asymmetric' struggle with the United States, Putin and Russia have to be innovative, catch the West off guard, and fight dirty," Fiona Hill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-author of the book Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin, wrote recently.

Part of fighting dirty means the Kremlin's is using corrupt business deals and organized crime to compromise officials and business elites, weaken resolve, and establish Trojan Horses in Western countries.

And Western governments are becoming increasing vigilant about countering the geopolitical threat stemming from Putin's weaponization of globalization.

The European Union has become more assertive in enforcing its Third Energy Package and preventing Gazprom from flouting antimonopoly laws.

Hot Russian money in Europe's banks and property markets is drawing more scrutiny.

Outrage over the revelations in the Panama Papers are forcing governments to crack down on offshore havens. 

And Western law enforcement has moved to pull the mask off Moscow's more brazen state-sponsored criminal activity.

The conclusion of a British investigation back in February that Kremlin agents assassinated Russian defector Aleksandr Litvinenko with a rare radioactive isotope in the heart of London in 2006 -- and that Vladimir Putin probably gave the green light -- is one example.

Spanish Judge Jose de la Mata issuing international arrest warrants for a dozen Russians -- including current and former officials -- for links to organized crime earlier this month is another.

Also this month, Portuguese police broke up a Russian organized crime network that had reportedly bought control of soccer clubs and used them to launder black cash.

With the behavior of Vladimir Putin's Russia often resembling that of an international crime syndicate, it only stands to reason that the Kremlin would get absolutely hysterical whenever Western countries exercise their sovereign right to enforce their own laws against Russian perpetrators.

"This elite regarded globalization as a buffet -- that they can enjoy all the opportunities of being Europeans while at the same time maintaining their capacity to steal with impunity back within Russia," New York University's Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian organized crime, told The Moscow Times.

"Now they are finding that this is becoming harder and harder."

The Morning Vertical, May 12, 2016

Brian Whitmore


Russia's Justice Ministry has gone all Kafka on us. Or more accurately, it has gone more Kafka.

The Justice Ministry proposed this week to amend Russia's notorious law requiring NGOs that receive foreign funding and engage in political activity to register as "foreign agents."

Now the Justice Ministry wants to include criticism of the law itself to be considered "political activity." So, as Vedomosti cleverly put it in a headline, criticizing the law on foreign agents proves you are one.

You really can't make this stuff up.

Meanwhile Russia's registry of foreign agents grew to 81 organizations in 2015, a threefold increase over 2014.


Russian prosecutors are targeting opposition leader and anticorruption crusader Aleksei Navalny with a new criminal investigation.

Russian prosecutors have opened a criminal case into Mikhail Prokhorov's RBC media group.

The United States' European missile defense shield goes live today.

Pro-Russian authorities in Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula have blocked access to RFE/RL's Crimea news website, Krym.Realii.

Lawyers say a proposed prisoner swap to release kidnapped Ukrainian military pilot Nadia Savchenko may not happen.

Russia's Justice Ministry says criticizing a law requiring foreign-funded NGOs to register as "foreign agents" makes one --- a foreign agent.


Decoding Russian Diplomacy

Anybody who wants to understand Russian foreign policy and the factors and motivations driving it should read Vladimir Frolov regularly. Here's the latest from the Moscow-based foreign affairs analyst, "An Unclear Message: Why Russia Is Afraid To Reach An Agreement With The West," in

Putin's Hydra

New York University's Mark Galeotti has penned a new report for the European Council on Foreign Relations, "Putin’s Hydra: Inside Russia’s intelligence."

"Putin has the intelligence and security community he wanted: a powerful, feral, multi-headed, and obedient hydra," Galeotti writes. "But it is Putin himself, and his dreams of Russia as a great power, that is the real victim of this badly managed beast. The agencies reinforce his assumptions and play to his fantasies rather than informing and challenging his worldview."

Transatlanticism In An Age Of Russian Aggression

The Transatlantic Academy's annual report argues that unity is essential for the West in order to counter an increasingly aggressive Russia.

“The Western response to Russian aggression has in fact been robust and effective, and Western unity has been critical to limiting the damage created by this incursion,” Transatlantic Academy Executive Director Stephen Szabo writes in the report’s introduction. But the true test will be whether this unity can be maintained. 

The Operative-Autocrat

Fiona Hill, a senior fellow at of the Brookings Institution and co-author of the book Mr. Putin: Operative In The Kremlin, has a report for The Bulletin Of Atomic Scientists titled: Putin: The One-Man Show The West Doesn’t Understand.

"Vladimir Putin, the operative-as-autocrat, is without precedent either in Russian history, or at the top of a modern state anywhere else in the world," Hill writes.

Putin's Nuclear Brinksmanship

Writing in The National Interest, the Brookings Institution's Steven Pifer, a former United States ambassador to Ukraine, argues that it is time to push back on Russia's nuclear threats.

Putin's Lack Of 'Helicopter Money'

According to a piece on Open Wall, the blog of Mikhail Khodorkovsky's Open Russia organization, "somehow, somewhere, the Kremlin needs to find money to throw at the population, before the Duma elections in September." The problem is, there isn't enough money.

"Elections are won with helicopter money -- throw money at the people below (and stuff the ballot boxes), and victory is almost assured. The problem for the president is that he also needs to keep his retainers happy. Until recently, there has been plenty for everyone to feed at the trough, but as the recession deepens, the number of feeding places is diminishing; and as every keeper knows, sooner or later, animals bite the hand that feeds them."

Kyiv-based journalist Ian Bateson has a piece in Open Democracy arguing that the decline in Western media coverage of Ukraine has negative consequences for the country's democratic development. 

"This slipping coverage matters for Ukraine because media scrutiny is necessary for accountability," Bateson writes. "Media as a check on government abuse of power is a cornerstone of any democracy. But foreign media is especially important in Ukraine both because it is what Ukraine’s western bankrollers read and watch, and because Ukrainian media doesn’t play that role."

Worst Places In Europe To Be Gay

Azerbaijan, Russia, and Armenia are respectively the least LGBT-friendly countries in greater Europe, according to a ILGA's Rainbow Europe list.

Peter Piper Picked A Peck Of Panama Papers

And the best headline alliteration award of the week goes to...The American Interest for -- Putin's Panama Papers Problem. 

Video The Daily Vertical: Insults, Mockery, And Lies

The Daily Vertical: Insults, Mockery, And Liesi
May 12, 2016
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. 

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

The Morning Vertical, May 11, 2016

Brian Whitmore


One of the questions I've been grappling with recently is whether or not Vladimir Putin is truly an ideologue. Does he really believe in his "great Russia" project? Or is this smoke and mirrors to mask the cynical machinations of a kleptocratic regime?

In a recent lecture at Brown University's Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs (featured below), historian Timothy Snyder makes a convincing case that the early 20th century Slavophile philosopher Ivan Ilyin has had a profound influence on Putin's worldview. But the regime Putin has created, while serving to enrich Putin's inner circle, has proven to be a major stumbling block to achieving the great Slavic state that Ilyin advocated.

The tension between the two Putins: Putin the ideologue and Putin the kleptocrat will be one of the more interesting and consequential dynamics to watch going forward.


Russian sports ministry official is "concerned" by Sochi doping allegations.

A Russian activist detained for supporting Nadia Savchenko is seeking political asylum in Ukraine.

A Russian attempt to add two Syrian rebel groups to a United Nations terror blacklist was rejected by Britain, France, the United States, and Ukraine.

Moldova's government has protested the participation of Russian troops in a Victory Day parade in breakaway Transdniester.

According to a new report, Russia has deported half a million foreigners over the past four years.


Timothy Snyder: Ukraine And Russia In a Fracturing Europe

Or in this case, what I'm watching: Yale University historian Timothy Snyder gave a lecture at Brown University's Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs on "Ukraine And Russia In A Fracturing Europe." In the lecture, Snyder, the author of the highly acclaimed books Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler And Stalin and Black Earth: The Holocaust As History And Warning, looked at the influence of the Russian philosopher Ivan Ilyin on Vladimir Putin's thinking. 

You can watch the lecture in its entirety here

And for background on Ilyin, check out this piece in Foreign Affairs by Anton Barbashin and Hannah Thoburn that was published back in September.

Conditional Neutrality

Journalist Elisabeth Braw has a piece in Politico looking at the politics of traditionally neutral Sweden's recent moves toward NATO.

"For months, pressure has mounted on Sweden’s government to think about NATO membership," Braw writes. "After many years of cutbacks, pushed particularly hard by the center-right coalition that governed between 2006 and 2014 and oversaw the end of conscription, Sweden is now increasing military spending."

Is Unpredictability An Asset Or Liability?

On his blog for The Wilson Center, Maxim Trudolyubov also looks at Finland and Sweden's flirtations with NATO and argues that "Russian policymakers turned unpredictability into a strategic virtue."But this just masks Moscow's inherent weakness. 

"Moscow should not be surprised to find that it has created a lot of anxiety among its neighbors," Trudolyubov writes. 

"If Russia wants to be seen as strategically unpredictable and politically agile, everyone around it, including Finland and Sweden, should be excused for seeking to increase their sense of security."

Confessions Of A Prosecutor

The website Mediazone, which focuses on legal issues in Russia, has a lengthy "confession" of an employee in the St. Petersburg Prosecutor's Office about how law-enforcement and the courts really work in Russia.

It's a long piece and it contains nothing anybody familiar with Russian law enforcement will find particularly surprising -- prosecutors dictate sentences to judges, police do prosecutors' bidding, prosecutors take orders from Moscow, and everybody is watching their own back -- but it is pretty jarring to have it all spelled out.

The Fog Of Falsehood

The Finnish Institute of International Affairs has a new report, Fog Of Falsehood: Russian Strategy Of Deception And the Conflict In Ukraine."

Russia-NATO Council Post-Mortem

Foreign Affairs analyst Maksim Starchak has a post-mortem in Intersection magazine on last month's NATO-Russia Council meeting.

"Russia is not interested in cooperation with NATO, and the convening of the Council did not serve to increase its proneness to negotiate. Russia is interested in strengthening its power and influence whereas potential cooperation with the Alliance is considered solely from the standpoint of resolving "its own security issues," which again gives it a sense of "superiority." 

Video The Daily Vertical: Northern Exposure

The Daily Vertical: Northern Exposurei
May 11, 2016
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. 

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

Video The Daily Vertical: Paranoia -- The Highest Stage Of Putinism

The Daily Vertical: Paranoia -- The Highest Stage Of Putinismi
May 10, 2016
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. 

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

The Morning Vertical, May 10, 2016

Brian Whitmore


The license to steal has long been a prerogative of the Russian elite. The license to plunder an economy where the rule of law is a fiction and might makes right -- and then stash the loot in the West where it is protected by a law-based system -- has been an innovation of Putinism and a benefit of globalization. But as Mark Galeotti notes in a piece highlighted below, now Vladimir Putin's contract with the elite is being squeezed on both ends. Due to sanctions, low oil prices, and a flailing economy, there is less money to plunder at home. And due to heightened geopolitical tensions and increased vigilance by Western law enforcement, the plundered loot isn't so safe anymore. And given this, sooner or later, a critical mass of the Russian elite will begin to view Putin as a liability rather than an asset. And as I note in today's Daily Vertical, Putin may end up needing that spiffy new National Guard he just formed sooner than we think.


The World Anti-Doping Agency will investigate new charges against Russia.

The recently posted Panama Papers archive contains more information about the offshore activities of Vladimir Putin's cronies.

Authorities in Moscow have removed an improvised memorial to slain opposition leader Boris Nemtsov.

Russia and the United States have pledged to intensify efforts to find a political solution to the Syria conflict.


Defined By The War

There have been a some notable pieces in the Russian media about the consequences of the Kremlin's use of World War II mythology to mobilize the nation and sanctify the state. 

RBK columnist Olga Malinova, a professor at the Higher School of Economics, has a piece exploring "how the great victory became everything for us, and what that threatens."

Likewise, Dmitry Glukhovsky has a column in arguing that "Russia is stuck in the trenches of this war and remains in the 20th century, while the rest of the world has moved on to the 21st."


According to a piece in Politico, Russia is calling the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Pact an "economic NATO."

"Russia’s concerns about TTIP don’t get much attention in Washington and Brussels. But Moscow has been actively pushing its neighbors in the EU to strengthen ties with them, and not the United States," the author, Benjamin Oreskes, writes. 

"Moreover, Russian officials -- and the country’s state-owned and state-affiliated media machine -- are quick to highlight the disputes that continue to bedevil the U.S.-EU talks."

The Untouchable Governors

According to a report in Vedomosti, the governors of 15 Russian regions are completely immune to criticism from the local media.

The Praetorian Guard's Coming Out Party

Vladimir Putin's new National Guard was on display at yesterday's Victory Day parade in Moscow.

What Are They Thinking? 

Writing in BNEIntellinews, Mark Galeotti looks at the logic of regime liberals like Aleksei Kudrin and Ella Pamfilova.

"There will be no general cleansing of the Russian economy, no massive decrease in the arms budget. Kudrin will not be able to break the power of the hydrocarbons barons, or end a culture of institutionalized embezzlement and clientelism. The Duma elections will be rigged, not least to manufacture the level of turnout the Kremlin needs as part of its legitimating ritual, as it packs another tame legislature with United Russia and other hand-picked hacks," Galeotti writes.

"But this does not mean that Kudrin and Pamfilova are doomed to complete uselessness, or else that they have decided simply to sell themselves for office."

Putinism In The Dock

And writing in Open Democracy, Galeotti argues that "Putinism won't end with a bang, but with a warrant." 

"More and more Russians are finding their opportunities for foreign travel constrained, their overseas assets frozen, their companies flagged as potential investment risks. And why are Western governments more willing to provide their magistrates and investigators the resources for such major operations and back them with political muscle? Because of the new geopolitical confrontation, the responsibility for which can be laid squarely at Putin’s feet," he writes.

"An elite that was co-opted and contented by the freedom to steal and the scope to use that wealth abroad is, thanks to Putin, finding itself less able to steal and increasingly barred from the West."

The End of the American World?

In a piece in, foreign-affairs analyst Fyodor Lukyanov argues that the U.S. elections illustrate that the U.S.-dominated model of globalization is nearing its end. Wishful thinking? Perhaps. But the article provides a useful window into the thinking of the Russian elite.

Why Sanctions Matter

In a piece on the Atlantic Council's website, Christopher A. Hartwell, president of the Center for Social and Economic Research in Warsaw, and Andreas Umland, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kyiv, argue that the EU's sanctions against Russia are overrated -- but necessary.

Old Ukraine vs. New Ukraine

In a piece in Intersection magazine, Gustav Gressel of the European Council on Foreign Affairs and Francisco de Borja Lasheras of the European Council on Foreign Relations, argue that "old Ukraine" is threatening "new Ukraine" -- and Europe ignores this at its own peril.

"Turning a blind eye to reform shortfalls is the greatest gift the Kremlin can get," the authors write.

Losing Georgia

According to a piece in Politico, as Georgians feel increasingly spurned by the EU and NATO, Russia is moving in to capitalize on the disillusionment.

"For most Georgians, Europe is little more than a fantasy that comes to life on the streets of Tbilisi’s fancy tourist quarter," the author, Felix Kartte, writes. 

"Just around the corner from swanky bars and chic boutiques, hardship persists: children scrounge for cigarettes. Half-finished high-rise buildings, in which whole families live in poverty and without basic services, are dotted with satellite dishes that mostly broadcast Russian programs. They deliver a powerful message to Georgian homes: You belong to us.

Video The Daily Vertical: Remembering 1941-45, Forgetting 1939-41

The Daily Vertical: Remembering 1941-45, Forgetting 1939-41i
May 09, 2016
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. 

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

Audio The Briefing: Don't Mention Everything About The War

A protest in Prague greets the Russian nationalist biker gang The Night Wolves.

Brian Whitmore

In Moscow, Russia marks the 71st anniversary of the end of World War II.

And in Europe, Russia attempts to use the war as an instrument of the Kremlin's soft power.

On this week's Power Vertical Briefing, we look at how the Kremlin is using the memory of World War II as a legitimizing myth at home and as soft power abroad.

Joining me is Pavel Butorin, managing editor of RFE/RL's Russian language television program Current Time.


The Briefing: Don't Mention Everything About The War
The Briefing: Don't Mention Everything About The Wari
|| 0:00:00

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.

The Morning Vertical, May 9, 2016

Brian Whitmore


Russia is marking the 71st anniversary of the end of World War II with a Victory Day parade on Red Square.

The personal file of Marshal Georgy Zhukov has been declassified.

A Russian opposition activist in Voronezh has been forcibly sent to a psychiatric clinic

A whistle-blower has alleged additional doping by Russian athletes at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.


The Kremlin's Strategy In Ukraine

Lilia Shevtsova explains why Putin is so desperate to hold onto Ukraine, and what the Kremlin is planning next.

"In the Kremlin's understanding, Ukraine is a factor for the Russian state. Russia without Ukraine cannot be a superpower; Russia without Ukraine would be a crippled state. The loss of Ukraine may provoke the further disintegration of Russia's galaxy," Shevtsova says.

"Moscow will, therefore, continue to try to keep Kiev in its sphere of influence. But the Kremlin is looking for a more flexible formula. The Russian elite understands that the approach of using force has failed. The strategy of containment of Ukraine through a compromise with the West, which is reflected in the Minsk Agreement, also proved to be a failure. It seems now the Kremlin will use the tactic of waiting, hoping that the failure of Ukrainian reforms will lead to the West losing interest and leaving Ukraine in a gray box."

The Economist has a piece on how Russia's actions are forcing the EU and NATO to deepen their cooperation.

"Their headquarters are separated only by a three-kilometre taxi ride across Brussels, and over the years they have declared their shared interests and common values any number of times. But despite having 22 members in common, NATO and the EU have always found it easier to talk about co-operating to than to do so. That may be about to change," the weekly writes.

The Information War In The 'Near Abroad'

Writing in The Harvard International Review, Neli Esipova and Julie Ray of Gallup look at how Russia successfully sold it's Ukraine narrative in the former Soviet republics.

"If the West hopes to at least stay in contention in the next information skirmish, it will clearly need to make some changes to its communication strategy. Some of this will need to be content, and some of it will need to be tone," they write. "The post-Soviet region still has strong ties to Russia, and the Russian media and local media in these countries know their audiences well. At the same time, residents of several post-Soviet states—even those who use Western media—feel the distance in the Western media’s coverage."

I Know You Are But What Am I? 

In case you were wondering whether the Panama Papers revelations and the Spanish investigation into Kremlin officials' organized crime ties has the Putin regime rattled, the check out this Russian "documentary" claiming that the United States. is a corrupt mafia state.

The Sanctification Of Victory Day

Writing in Intersection magazine, journalist Pavel Kazarin looks at how the Kremlin's use of Victory Day as a pillar of state ideology has prevented Russians from having an honest discussion about the war. 

"At some point, Russian society will be faced with the fact that the events which occurred between 1939 and 1941 are no longer to be hidden from the public and silenced," Kazarin writes. "Events such as the partition of Poland and the occupation of the Baltic States will become subjects of research, initially in articles, then in TV series and later on, perhaps in films."

Putin’s Way Of War

Chatham House's Andrew Monaghan has a new paper out looking at the "war" in Russia's hybrid warfare. 

The article looks at"the increasingly prominent role of conventional force, including the use of high intensity firepower, in Russian war fighting capabilities, and advocates the need for a shift in our conceptualization of Russian actions from hybrid warfare to state mobilization."

Changing The Game

Writing in Politico, Dennis Ross explains how Russia's intervention in Syria is changing the dynamics of the Middle East.

New U.S. Envoy In Kyiv

Marie Yovanovitch, who previously served as Ambassador in Armenia and Kyrgyzstan, will be the new U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine. 

Who's The Biggest Crony Capitalism Of All?

Russia tops The Economist's Crony Capitalism index.

The Morning Vertical, May 6, 2016

Brian Whitmore


Given the news that convictions for extremism have increased threefold over the past five years, you can only reach two conclusions: Either Russians have become a nation of rabid extremists or the Kremlin is becoming more zealous in prosecuting citizens under its notoriously flexible anti-extremism laws. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say it's the latter.

Exhibit A: A man in Tver was sentenced to two years and three months in prison for re-posting an article critical of Russia's annexation of Crimea on social media. Exhibit B: A journalist in Saratov is under investigation for extremism for posting a picture on Facebook of the Virgin Mary wearing a mask and holding a Molotov cocktail. And that is just in the past couple days.

But while the Kremlin is eager to prosecute such fictional "extremism," they gladly ignore the real thing -- as long as it adheres to the party line. Violent hate crimes against homosexuals, for example, are hardly ever even investigated, let alone prosecuted.


Japanese Prime Minister visits Russia -- and breaks Putin's G7 isolation.

Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev says unemployed Ukrainian refugees in southern Russia pose a threat to Russia.

The FSB has detained a group of Central Asian nationals accused of planning terrorist attacks on Victory Day.

A man in Tver has been jailed for "extremism" for re-posting an article critical of Russia's annexation of Crimea.

The "extremism" trial of opposition nationalist Dmitry Dyomushkin begins today.

Poland has charged a Warsaw lawyer with spying for Russia.

A Russian orchestra played a concert in Syria, in Palmyra's ancient amphitheater.

And The New York Times noted that Russia "plays Bach where ISIS executed 25" people.

A second Russian journalist has been found killed in his apartment.


An Opposition Without Leaders

In an op-ed in Vedomosti, sociologist and economist Anton Oleinik argues that Russia's opposition might be better off without leaders.

"Many argue that the scandals involving the leaders of Russia's political opposition in the run-up to this September's parliamentary elections play right into the hands of the ruling elite. Using any means available to discredit the leaders of the democratic opposition, it's said that the people now in power are ensuring desired outcomes in the State Duma elections this fall, and in the presidential election in 2018," Oleinik writes. 

"But if we look at the situation from another point of view, it could be that today's disappointment in the opposition's leaders and the collapse of the democratic coalition, ironically, may contribute to qualitative changes in Russia's protest potential, perhaps ultimately strengthening it. Critically minded citizens, after all, must learn to live without thinking only of their leaders -- and this includes the opposition's leaders." 

Meduza has an English-language translation by Kevin Rothrock here.

Be Careful What You Wish For

In a piece in The National Interest, Kazushige Kobayashi argues that the West may not be ready for a democratic Russia.

"Think about it: If we can barely prevent democratic Poland and Hungary (which are deeply embedded in NATO and the EU) from 'going rogue,' what makes us think that we would be able to handle a democratized Russia?" Kobayashi writes.

"As the Central European cases have taught us, democracy can become a powerful tool for the ascendance of illiberals, and we know little about how to remedy this problem without compromising core democratic values (that is, without simply criminalizing illiberal political organizations)."

Exploiting Victory Day

Writing in Novy Region, Russian journalist Ksenia Kirillova takes a look at how the Kremlin exploits Victory Day celebrations.

"It’s hard to imagine a greater travesty to the fallen as well as to the survivors than the sight of thugs and rapists, wearing St. George ribbons and accusing Ukrainians of fascism, in the very country savagely attacking Ukraine in an undeclared war," she writes.

"Today, just as a year ago, the blood, pain, and suffering of some are being used by others to justify militaristic hysteria, hatred, aggression, and lies to rob, murder, and slander in a boundless orgy of barbaric baseness."

Euromaidan Press has an English-language translation here.


The Economist writes that Russia's crackdown on Salafis in Daghestan may be driving Muslims to Islamic State.

Full Speed Ahead On Missile Defense

The New York Times is reporting that NATO is moving forward with missile defense despite Russian criticism.

Opting Out

According to a piece in, Kazakhstan and Belarus will not hold Victory Day parades this year.

Politicized Russians

According to a poll by the Kremlin-connected Public Opinion Foundation, Russians are more interested in politics than at any time since 2001.

Audio Podcast: All Mobbed Up

Head of state? Or head of a crime syndicate?

Brian Whitmore

Another another shoe drops.

Another mask is removed.

Another set of skeletons walks out of Vladimir Putin's closet.

Another international investigation exposes the dark heart of the Kremlin regime.

A Spanish judge this week issued international arrest warrants for a dozen Russians -- including current and former officials -- in connection with a decade-long organized crime investigation.

The Spanish probe into the Tambov and Malyshev gangs has shone a bright spotlight on Putin's mob ties dating back to his tenure as deputy mayor of the gangster's paradise of St. Petersburg in the 1990s.

On this week's Power Vertical Podcast, I discuss the Spanish revelations and indictments with co-host Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University, an expert on Russian organized crime, and author of the blog In Moscow's Shadows; and Karen Dawisha, director of the Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies at Miami University of Ohio and the author of the highly acclaimed book Putin's Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia?


Podcast: All Mobbed Up
Podcast: All Mobbed Upi
|| 0:00:00


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

Video The Daily Vertical: Toying With Savchenko

The Daily Vertical: Toying With Savchenkoi
May 06, 2016
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. 

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

Video The Daily Vertical: Putin Vs. The Law

The Daily Vertical: Putin Vs. The Lawi
May 05, 2016
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. 

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

The Morning Vertical, May 5, 2016

Brian Whitmore


Vladimir Putin's Kremlin continues to play head games with its hostage. After reportedly indicating that a deal had been reached to release kidnapped Ukrainian military pilot Nadia Savchenko and that she could be home within weeks, the Russian authorities are now indicating that the process can take up to a year. Russia's Federal Penitentiary Service, meanwhile, said yesterday that Savchenko can only be returned to Ukraine if Kyiv pledges to make her serve her 22-year sentence there. For her part, Savchenko has threatened to resume her dry hunger strike. Virtually everything Russia has said about Savchenko from Day 1 has been a lie. The case against her is a pure fabrication. And everybody knows this. She was kidnapped and is a hostage, pure and simple. It isn't clear whether Moscow is trying to save face, is stalling in hopes of getting a better deal in exchange for its hostage, or doesn't plan to release her at all and is simply playing cruel mind games. Whatever the case, its behavior is criminal.


Russia says it will only release Ukrainian military pilot Nadia Savchenko if Kyiv promises to imprison her.

Savchenko, meanwhile, says she may resume her dry hunger strike.

European police say the Russian mafia is infiltrating sports clubs.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says Bashar al-Assad is not Russia's ally.

NATO's new commander, U.S. Army General Curtis Scaparrotti, says he will press Washington to deploy a third brigade to Eastern Europe to deter Russia.

Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu says Russia will create three new divisions to counter NATO buildup in Eastern Europe.

Armenia's government has sent a bill to parliament on formally recognizing the independence of Azerbaijan's breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh.


Legal Extremism

Either Russians are becoming more extremist, or the Kremlin is becoming more willing to use Russia's very flexible laws on extremism. Call me crazy, but I suspect the latter. Whatever the case, according to a piece in, the number of Russians sentenced under antiextremism legislation has tripled in the last five years.

Meanwhile, a journalist in Saratov is under investigation for extremism after he posted a picture the Virgin Mary wearing a mask and holding a Molotov cocktail on Facebook.

Policing the Internet

In a piece on The World Post, investigative journalist Andrei Soldatov, author of The Red Web, explains how Vladimir Putin is bringing a Chinese-style Internet firewall to Russia.

Khodorkovsky Speaks

Exiled former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky gave a speech at the Oxford Union last week. A video and transcript are available. 

The Times Magazine also has profile of Khodorkovsky.

Hybrid War and Gangsters

Writing in Vox, New York University professor Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian security services and organized crime, argues that "the West needs to stop panicking about Russia's 'hybrid' warfare."

The ever-prolific Galeotti also has a piece for the European Council on Foreign Relations that looks at the Spanish investigation into Russian organized crime.

A How-To Guide to Propaganda

Euromaidan Press has just published its Guide To Russian Propaganda.

Transdniester Redirects Its Trade -- to Europe

Eurasianet has a piece on how Moldova's pro-Moscow separatist Transniester region is -- to a degree -- reorienting its trade from Russia to European Union

Video The Daily Vertical: Spain Pulls Off Putin's Mask

The Daily Vertical: Spain Pulls Off Putin's Maski
May 04, 2016
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. 

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

NOTE: To correctly reflect how Russian officials were implicated in the Spanish investigation, the following line in today's Daily Vertical should be corrected to read as follows:

"What does it say about a state when its former prime minister, its former defense minister, its current deputy prime minister, and the current chair of its legislature's finance committee are tied to the mob?"

Russia's former prime minister (Viktor Zubkov), former defense minister (Anatoly Serdyukov), and current deputy prime minister (Dmitry Kozak) were named in the Spanish investigation, but are not subject to international arrest warrants.

The Morning Vertical, May 4, 2016

Brian Whitmore


Drip. Drip. Drip.

Three months ago, something we always suspected was confirmed when an official British investigation concluded that former KGB bodyguard Andrei Lugovoi and his accomplice, Dmitry Kovtun, most probably killed former Russian security agent Aleksandr Litvinenko, likely with Vladimir Putin's approval. One month ago, something else we always suspected was confirmed when the Panama Papers revealed that Putin's close associates were siphoning billions of dollars out of Russia through shady shell companies. And now, another long-held suspicion was given an official imprimatur when Spanish Judge Jose de la Mata issued arrest warrants for top Russian officials and close Putin cronies in a decade-old investigation into organized crime.

No matter how much hedging, nuance, rationalization, and whataboutism you throw into the mix, it is getting increasingly difficult to ignore the obvious: The Putin regime is basically a crime syndicate masquerading as a state.


A Spanish judge has issued international arrest warrants for top Russian officials for alleged ties to organized crime.

Sweden's prime minister says he is not interested in Moscow's opinion on his country joining NATO.

Oleg Yezhov, the former deputy governor of Primorsky Krai, has been detained on corruption charges.

Interfax is reporting that Aleksei Navalny and the liberal Yabloko party are in negotiations about cooperating in the September 2017 State Duma elections.

Estonia's defense minister is accusing Russian jets of behaving "incredibly recklessly" in Baltic airspace.

U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter has called on Russia to stop "saber-rattling."

Three Russian naval ships have arrived in Brunei to participate in exercises in the Pacific. The ADMM-Plus exercises run from May 2-12 and include 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, as well as Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, South Korea, and the United States.


My latest Power Vertical blog post, Putinfellas, looks at Vladimir Putin's long-standing links to organized crime groups and how a Spanish investigation has exposed these ties.

"Putin's Kremlin has used organized crime to carry out the tasks it wants to keep its fingerprints off, be it arms smuggling, assassinations, raising funds for black ops, or stirring up trouble in the former Soviet space…

"But now, thanks to Spanish Judge Jose de la Mata, the mask is coming off Putin's mafia statecraft in a big way."


Victory Day On A Budget

According to a report in RBK, Russia will spend four times less on this year's Victory Day celebrations than last year's lavish 70th anniversary festivities.

Cyber Attacks And Article 5

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg says a cyberattack on an alliance member could potentially trigger its Article 5 collective defense clause.

"Stoltenberg told a key alliance planning summit on Wednesday morning that 'cyber is now a central part of virtually all crises and conflicts. NATO has made clear that cyberattacks can potentially trigger an Article 5 response."

Sweden, Finland, And NATO

Veteran Kremlin-watcher and foreign affairs analyst Edward Lucas explains why NATO needs Sweden and Finland.

"I have been urging both countries to join NATO for years," Lucas writes. "My argument was, 'Do it now while you don’t need to, because the circumstances that will make it necessary will also make it harder."

Lucas was reacting to a recent report commissioned by Finland's Foreign Ministry on the effects of joining the alliance.

New Bellingcat Report On MH17

Bellingcat has issued a report that provides new details about the identity of the Buk missile that shot down Flight MH17 over Ukraine in July 2014.

Victims Of Success

The U.S. Air Force has become a victim of its own success, retired U.S. General David W. Barno and Nora Bensahel of the School of International Service at American University write in the War On The Rocks blog.

"The stunning success of the Air Force in dominating its domain since the 1991 Gulf War has created two looming problems for the service leadership: The Air Force no longer has any substantive experience in how to fight and win in a highly contested environment, and its current airmen have never experienced serious losses of people and machines in air combat…

"Yet today, the threat to American air dominance is growing. Growing antiaccess and area denial (A2/AD) tactics and capabilities by potential adversaries such as China, Russia, and Iran are of increasing concern for U.S. military leaders." 

Russia's Trade Unions

Ever wonder where Russia's trade unions get their money? Check out RBK's new investigation to find out.

Russia And The Hajj

On the latest Sean's Russia Blog podcast, Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies looks at the underexplored topic of how Russia manages the hajj. Sean's guest is Eileen Kane, a professor at Connecticut College and author of the book Russian Hajj: Empire And The Pilgrimage To Mecca.

Homophobia Inc.

Meduza has an important and deeply disturbing story about "how a gang of thugs in St. Petersburg has made an industry of baiting and extorting homosexuals."

Ukraine's Energy Reforms

Writing on The Atlantic Council's website, Basil A. Kalymon of the University of Western Ontario looks at Ukraine's recent successes in reforming its gas market.

The Next UN Secretary-General

Foreign Policy asks: Will the next UN secretary-general be from Eastern Europe?

Latest Podcasts

About This Blog

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