Tuesday, April 21, 2015


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

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

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


The Daily Vertical: Don't Talk About Crimea

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

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


Audio Podcast: Beyond Minsk II

A chance for Ukraine? Or an agreement on Russia's terms?

The cease-fire agreement announced in Minsk on February 12 may or may not end the fighting in the Donbas.

But what it does not do is resolve the issues at the heart of the yearlong conflict in Ukraine. Nor does it prevent Russia from continuing to meddle in Kyiv's affairs.

In fact, if anything, the long hand of Moscow may have just gotten longer -- and stronger.

On the latest Power Vertical Podcast, we unpack the Minsk II accord and what it means for the Russia-Ukraine conflict. 

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; Andreas Umland, a professor of Russian and Ukrainian history at Kyiv Mohyla Academy and a senior research fellow at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kyiv; and Natalia Churikova, senior editor in RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service and host of the program European Connect.

Enjoy...

The Power Vertical Podcast: Beyond Minsk II
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Video The Daily Vertical: War By Other Means

The Daily Vertical: War By Other Meansi
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February 13, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that will appear Monday through Friday. Viewers can submit suggested topics to address on Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.

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


A Flawed Deal In Minsk

High stakes in Minsk

Three presidents and a chancellor pulled an all-nighter in Minsk.

And after marathon talks they produced a cease-fire agreement that -- if implemented -- might stop the fighting between government forces and pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine's Donbas region.

But even if it does that, the agreement does little to address the real issue at the heart of the conflict between Kyiv and Moscow: Ukraine's future political direction.

In fact, the agreement fudges that in a way political commentator Leonid Bershidsky described in Bloombeg as "a time bomb...that Russia could detonate at any moment."

For the Kremlin, the conflict in the Donbas was never really about the Donbas. It was about exerting pressure on Ukraine's leaders to abandon their aspirations about integrating with the West. And the agreement reached in the Belarusian capital will allow them to continue -- and possibly even increase -- that pressure.

But first the good news.

The clearest part of the agreement, by far, involves the actual cease-fire, which is slated to come into force on February 15.

By the second day after the cease-fire, both sides are required to pull back heavy weapons from the front line to create a 50-kilometer-wide demilitarized zone that will be monitored by the OSCE. Long-range rocket launchers must be pulled back farther, creating a security zone of 70 to 140 kilometers.

The wider buffer zone is a clear improvement over the cease-fire agreement reached in Minsk in September, which established just a 30-kilometer demilitarized area.

The wider zone will be easier for the OSCE to monitor and it will put major population centers like rebel-held Donetsk and government-controlled Kramatorsk beyond the range of heavy weapons.

But even here, there are sticking points. Chief among these is the ultimate status of Debaltseve, a government-held town and strategic railway depot that is currently surrounded by separatist forces. After much haggling, the sides could not come to an agreement on Debaltseve, and its status was not mentioned in the final agreement.

"Putin’s plan to invade first & negotiate later paid off. Haggled over Debaltseve, not Crimea. Aggression rewarded again, encourages more," Russian opposition figure Garry Kasparov tweeted

Ok, now for the bad news. The rest of the agreement is fraught with peril and pitfalls.

Most importantly, it requires the Ukrainian authorities to grant the separatist-held regions special status, including the right to form their own police forces and a say in appointing prosecutors and judges. Moreover, Kyiv would be barred from stripping officials in the rebel regions of their powers.

Moreover, Ukraine would be required to complete constitutional reform and a decentralization of power that recognizes the "special status" of the separatist regions by the end of this year.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has indicated that he views this as Ukraine agreeing to what it calls "federalization" -- one of the Kremlin's key goals.

Russia is hoping that devolving power to Ukraine's regions would allow its proxies in the east to wield a veto over any attempt to bring the country closer to NATO or the European Union.

In remarks after the talks, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko tried to put a brave face on this, insisting that he "did not accept any proposals of federalization or alike -- there will be neither federations nor autonomies."

Poroshenko added that "a special status" would be worked out for the Donetsk and Luhansk regions "in the framework of constitutional changes on decentralization which will be applied for the whole of Ukraine."

And a key Ukrainian demand, control of its porous border with Russia in the rebel-held areas, will not come into force until the constitutional reform and decentralization plan becomes law.

And then there is all the ambiguity and language that is open to interpretation.

What, for example, is an "international armed unit"?

The agreement says they must be withdrawn from Ukrainian territory along with "military equipment and mercenary forces."

To the Ukrainian side, this clearly means the thousands of Russian troops and weapons they say are present in Donbas. But Moscow insists -- in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary -- that it has no forces or weapons in Ukraine.So what's to withdraw?

And what, exactly, is meant by the terms "hostage" and "detainee"? According to the text, "all hostages and detainees are to be released in prisoner exchanges based on the 'all for all' principle."

Does that include Nadia Savchenko, the Ukrainian military pilot currently in the ninth week of a hunger strike in a Russian prison? Savchenko, who disappeared in eastern Ukraine in June and emerged under arrest in Russia in July, said she was abducted by separatists and spirited across the border.

Poroshenko has explicitly said Savchenko's release is part of the agreement. Moscow, which claims Savchenko was involved in the deaths of two Russian journalists and was arrested illegally crossing the Russian border, has been silent.

The agreement reached today in Minsk might stop the fighting in Donbas. But it does little to resolve the battle for Ukraine.

-- Brian Whitmore

Tags:Ukraine Crisis, Minsk agreement


Video The Daily Vertical: What Now?

The Daily Vertical: What Now?i
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February 12, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that will appear Monday through Friday. Viewers can submit suggested topics to address on Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.

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


Video The Daily Vertical: Will Ukraine Be Bosniafied?

The Daily Vertical: Will Ukraine Be Bosniafied?i
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February 11, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that will appear Monday through Friday. Viewers can submit suggested topics to address on Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.

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


Video The Daily Vertical: A Critical Week

The Daily Vertical: A Critical Weeki
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February 10, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that will appear Monday through Friday. Viewers can submit suggested topics to address on Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.

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


Video The Daily Vertical: The Long Game In Ukraine

The Daily Vertical: The Long Game In Ukrainei
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February 09, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that will appear Monday through Friday. Viewers can submit suggested topics to address on Twitter @PowerVertical or on The Power Vertical Facebook page.

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


Audio Podcast: Head Games

Sometimes, disinformation is more than just disinformation. Sometimes, propaganda is more than just propaganda. Sometimes lies are more than just lies.

Sometimes -- when the disinformation, propaganda, and lies are accompanied by fast-moving montages, disturbing images, and an ominous soundtrack -- something more nefarious is going on.

A recent report by BBC Monitoring suggested that "Russian state TV's coverage of the conflict in Ukraine does not simply contain one-sided and often misleading propaganda. It also appears to employ techniques of psychological conditioning designed to excite extreme emotions of aggression and hatred in the viewer."

And it appears to be working.

On the latest Power Vertical Podcast, we examine whether Russia is moving beyond run-of-the-mill propaganda into something more sinister. Joining me are Peter Pomerantsev, author or the recently published book Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia, and journalist and Kremlin-watcher Ben Judah, author of Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In and Out of Love with Vladimir Putin.

Also on the podcast, Peter, Ben, and I discuss the recent Franco-German push for a cease-fire in Ukraine.

Enjoy...

Podcast: Head Games
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The Daily Vertical: Asymmetrical Information Wars

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

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


Video The Daily Vertical: Truth In Trouble

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

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


Video The Daily Vertical: Putin's Yalta Dream

The Daily Vertical: Putin's Yalta Dreami
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February 04, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that will appear Monday through Friday. Viewers can submit suggested topics to address on Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.

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


Video The Daily Vertical: High Stakes In Ukraine

The Daily Vertical: High Stakes In Ukrainei
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February 03, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that will appear Monday through Friday. Viewers can submit suggested topics to address on Twitter @PowerVertical or on The Power Vertical Facebook page.

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


The Daily Vertical: Putin Goes For Broke

The Daily Vertical: Putin Goes For Brokei
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February 02, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that will appear Monday through Friday. Viewers can submit suggested topics to address on Twitter @PowerVertical or on The Power Vertical Facebook page.
The Daily Vertical: Putin Goes For Broke

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


Audio Podcast: The Shrinking 'Collective Putin'

Vladimir Putin is getting smaller.

Not the man, of course. He's still the same size, give or take a few kilos. But the "collective Putin" -- that deep inner sanctum of decision making that once comprised dozens of people representing various elite interests -- has clearly been downsized to a handful of close and like minded associates.

The fat-cat oligarchs, the bean-counting financial experts, and the pragmatic technocrats are out. The hardline siloviki and the ideologues are in -- with no check on their ambitions.

This marks a sharp departure from the way Russia has been governed for the past decade, which has been based on broad elite consensus.

And the implications of this are much more wide reaching than the current conflict in Ukraine.

On this week's Power Vertical Podcast, co-host Mark Galeotti and I discuss the withering of Russia's "deep state" and the emergence of what looks like a small ruling cabal. Also on the podcast, Mark and I take a look at the surprising changes in Russia's relations with Belarus.

Enjoy...

Podcast: The Shrinking 'Collective Putin'
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Tags:Vladimir Putin, Russian politics, Power Vertical podcast, Collective Putin


The Daily Vertical: Who's Delusional About Whom?

The Daily Vertical: Who's Delusional About Whom?i
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January 30, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that will appear Monday through Friday. Viewers can submit suggested topics to address on Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.

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


Video The Daily Vertical: Lukashenka's Gambit

The Daily Vertical: Lukashenka's Gambiti
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January 29, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that will appear Monday through Friday. Viewers can submit suggested topics to address on Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.

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


The Daily Vertical: Navalny's Second Act

The Daily Vertical: Navalny's Second Acti
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January 28, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that will appear Monday through Friday. Viewers can submit suggested topics to address on Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.
The Daily Vertical: Navalny's Second Act

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


Video Putin's Fantasy Island

Can he distinguish between fantasy and reality?

You can learn a lot about someone from their delusions.

Consider Vladimir Putin's comments on January 26. Speaking to students at St. Petersburg, the Kremlin leader said the Ukrainian Army is not really the Ukrainian Army at all. Those soldiers fighting pro-Moscow separatists in Donbas? They're actually NATO's foreign legion. 

"We often say: Ukrainian army this, the Ukrainian army that. In actual fact though, who is fighting there? These are indeed official subunits of the armed forces. But to a large extent these are so-called volunteer nationalist battalions," Putin said.

"In effect, it is no longer an army but a foreign legion -- in this case NATO's foreign legion -- which does not of course pursue Ukraine's national interests. They have a completely different agenda that is connected with achieving the geopolitical objective of containing Russia."

Yep. He actually said that. 

Putin is doing a number of things here. On one level he is playing that old Kremlin game of drawing equivalencies. 

The West has long accused Moscow of manufacturing the separatist conflict in the Donbas, arming and supplying the militants, and sending in Russian troops to direct and reinforce them.

So Moscow naturally -- indeed almost instinctively -- says the West is doing the same with the Ukrainians: Look! NATO has little green men too!

But there is more here than the Kremlin's standard run-of-the-mill -- and entirely false -- whataboutism. It is more insidious than that.

There Is No Ukraine

Putin famously said that Ukraine "isn't even really a country." And here he is again peddling his longstanding meme that the Ukrainians themselves have no agency of their own. They are nothing but the playthings of great powers. Their army isn't even their army. And right now, they're just NATO pawns.

And this belief is actually pretty widespread in the Russian elite. In a recent article, political analyst Aleksandr Sytnik provided an eye-opening inside look at how decisions were made in the run-up to the Ukraine crisis. 

Sytnik recently left his post as a senior fellow at the Russian Institute for Strategic Research, a Kremlin-run think tank that provides expert analysis for foreign policy decision making. 

Sytnik writes that the institute's director, Leonid Reshetnikov, is a staunch Orthodox Christian who romanticized the tsarist Russian Empire. And the director of its Ukraine department, Tamara Guzenkova, was deeply hostile to the very notion of Ukrainian statehood.

The pair, Sytnik wrote, was fond of repeating phrases like: "there is no Ukraine, only Little Russia;" "Ukrainian statehood is a bluff and Ukraine is a failed state;" and "the Ukrainian language was artificially created by the Austrians and the Poles to break up Russian unity." They were backed up by dependent and subordinate researchers. 

Throughout the Ukraine crisis, the institute consistently gave the Kremlin bad advice based on faulty premises. It helped organize insurgency movements in eastern Ukraine and lobbied for the establishment of so-called Novorossia -- a strip of eastern and southeastern Ukraine stretching from Kharkiv to Odesa.

It isn't entirely clear whether the institute was the architect of Russia's Ukraine policy over the past year, or whether they simply reinforced the prevailing prejudices in Putin's inner circle.

What is clear, however, is that their analysis -- as represented by Sytnik -- overlaps completely with the policies that the Kremlin enacted. It also illustrates the prevailing groupthink about Ukraine in the inner sanctum of Russian decision making. 

We're Fighting NATO!

But Putin's widely shared delusions about Ukraine are not even the most disturbing thing about his comments.

What he is really getting at here is nicely captured in a tweet by journalist Natalia Antonova.

This really gets to the heart of things. Putin wants to view the Ukraine conflict as a twilight showdown between Russia and the West. But his endgame in this fantasy isn't Ukraine -- it's the West itself.

In a recent interview with the Kyiv Post, military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer recalled a conversation he had with a European ambassador present at high level meetings with Russian officials. 

"Russians all the time want to put a map on the table and carve up Europe, Yalta-style, or Molotov-Ribbentrop style," Felgenhauer said. 

"Russia is waiting for the West to begin talking on substance -- where Vilnius goes, where Lviv goes. In the Russian view, there should be a map and a line on the map. They can’t say so publicly. They would want a secret appendix."

Now that's never going to happen of course. But it nicely illustrates the level of delusion among Russian officials these days. And if that is indeed Russia's endgame it's still pretty damn chilling.

Mini Me: The Shrinking 'Collective Putin'

Part of the reason such groupthink is prevailing among Russian decision makers is because the group calling the shots is getting smaller and smaller.

According to media reports, the so-called "collective Putin" -- that inner sanctum of decisionmaking -- has shrunk to just a handful of trusted advisers -- all of them hardliners associated with the security services.

The economic elite both inside and outside government, which has been urging an exit from the Ukraine crisis, has been marginalized. Bloomberg reported recently that officials dealing with economic issues complain of needing to wait months just to present their policy proposals to the president. 

Political analyst Gleb Pavlovsky, who advised Putin during his first two terms, told Bloomberg that there was “a very high level of concern among a fairly wide circle of people” in the Russian elite.

"There is a group of people in the upper echelons trying to protect themselves from losses," Pavlovsky said. “They are critical of Putin but they can’t challenge him because he can easily crush them. That makes them even more unhappy."

Not only is Putin not talking to his economics team -- he apparently isn't even thinking about the economy.

WATCH: The Daily Vertical: A Dangerous Delusion​

The Daily Vertical: A Dangerous Delusioni
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January 27, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that will appear Monday through Friday. Viewers can submit suggested topics to address on Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.

Since the Ukraine crisis erupted, the Kremlin disinformation machine has been in constant overdrive. And we've learned a lot about the role of propaganda and subterfuge in hybrid war. 

Nutty statements from Russian officials are so commonplace that we almost don't even notice them all anymore. 

But we seem to be crossing a threshold and getting close to a very dangerous point. When you build up a make-believe world and surround yourself with only people who reinforce it -- there comes a point where you cannot distinguish reality and fantasy.

And if Putin really believes his own hype, then we're in a very frightening place, indeed.

-- Brian Whitmore

Tags:Vladimir Putin, Russian politics, Power Vertical blog, Ukraine Crisis

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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