Monday, August 31, 2015


Video The Daily Vertical: A Slow, Messy Divorce

The Daily Vertical: A Slow, Messy Divorcei
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July 15, 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 Russia And Iran Are Trading Places

"OK, now you go rogue..."

Brian Whitmore

After decades as an isolated rogue state, Iran appears to be finally coming in from the cold. And after decades of pretending to be a partner to the West, Russia has gone rogue.

Tehran and Moscow are essentially swapping places.

The symmetry is hard to miss. And so are the geopolitical implications of the agreement reached in Vienna to curb Iran's nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of crippling international sanctions.

Vladimir Putin said Moscow "welcomes" the agreement, adding that "the world can breathe a sigh of relief."

The Kremlin, however, may soon be heaving a sigh of despair. Despite being a party to the marathon talks that produced the deal, Moscow has a lot to lose from it.

I'm A Rogue, You're A Rogue

The first casualty will be Russia's special relationship with Iran.Moscow has maintained close ties with Tehran, playing up their mutual resentment of the Western-dominated world order. But this will be much harder to do with an Iran that is eager to re-engage with the West.

In a recent commentary for Reuters, Agnia Grigas, author of Beyond Crimea: The New Russian Empire, and Amir Handjani, a Middle East expert, argued that the West now has an opportunity to "decouple the unnatural Iranian-Russian alliance to rein in Moscow’s hegemonic ambitions, as well as bring Iran back into the global economic fold."

It was indeed Iran's isolation from the West that drove Tehran into Moscow's arms. When Russia was in good standing as a member of the G8 group of industrialized nations and had constructive relations with the West, it was able to act as Iran's principal interlocutor and defender in the international community.

But with Iran about to emerge from its isolation, and Russia quickly becoming an international pariah due to its intervention in Ukraine, the foundation of their relationship looks increasingly shaky.

"The recent Russo-Iranian alliance has been more a marriage of convenience than a genuine partnership," Grigas and Handjani wrote, noting that Moscow and Tehran have historically had complicated and contentious relations.

"An Iran that is engaged with the West in areas such as energy, trade, and peaceful nuclear power generation would no longer see Russia as protector of its interests."

The Gas Game

And then, of course, there's the oil and gas. If Iran and Russia's changing roles in the international community remove the basis for their partnership, the energy markets will provide plenty of room for rivalry.

"Iran is going to be competing in Europe head-on with Russia," said Ed Morse, head of commodities research at Citigroup told Bloomberg News

WATCH: The Daily Vertical – Why The Iran Bad Is Bad For Moscow

The Daily Vertical: A Bad Deal For Moscowi
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July 14, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.

Russia has benefited mightily from Iran's exclusion from the world energy market.

Iran is the world's third leading natural gas producer, but -- largely due to sanctions -- only the 25th leading exporter. And once sanctions are lifted and all that Iranian gas comes online, it will cut dramatically into Russia's dominance of the European market.

European energy companies are reportedly champing at the bit to sign deals with Iran. Soon they will get their chance.

And Brussels' new get-tough policy with Gazprom, which has long flouted the EU's antitrust legislation, will get a boost with the alternative of Iranian gas on the market.

Oil, Atoms, And Weapons

Russia also stands to lose on the oil markets. Since the European Union banned oil imports from Iran in 2012, and U.S. sanctions made it difficult to purchase Iranian oil in dollars, Russia moved quickly to gobble up Tehran's market share in both Europe and Asia.

That trend will likely be reversed.

Moreover, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, world oil prices could fall by as much as $15 a barrel next year, dealing another blow to Russia's energy-dependent economy -- which is already in recession. 

Russia will, no doubt, reap some benefits from the Iran deal, such as agreements to develop Iran's civilian nuclear energy program. But even there, it will need to compete with top Western firms.

And Moscow's last minute insistence that a 2007 UN arms embargo on Iran be removed as part the agreement reflected the Kremlin's desire to resume its lucrative weapons trade with Tehran. The arms embargo, however, will remain in place for five years.

Iran and Russia are moving in opposite directions in their relations with the West. And the fallout from this trend will be profound and far-reaching.

 


Video The Daily Vertical: A Bad Deal For Moscow

The Daily Vertical: A Bad Deal For Moscowi
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July 14, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.

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


Audio The Daily Vertical: Russia's Weak Hand Exposed

The Daily Vertical: Russia's Weak Hand Exposedi
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July 13, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.

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


Audio Briefing: Does Russia Really Want An Iran Deal?

So, you really want to do this?

Brian Whitmore

The clock is ticking down on an agreement to curb Iran's nuclear program and lift sanctions, which many observers think could come this week. Russia is a party to those talks. But does Moscow really want a deal?

On this week's Power Vertical briefing, we discuss why an Iran deal is probably not in Moscow's interests. Joining me is RFE/RL Senior Editor Steve Gutterman.

Also on The Briefing, Steve and I look at how U.S. officials are increasingly calling Russia an "existential threat" -- and what this heightened rhetoric might mean.

Enjoy...

Briefing: Does Russia Want An Iran Deal?
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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.


Audio Podcast: Putin's Big Fat Greek Chinese Wedding

Putin's new best buddies

As Greece negotiates with the European Union and its creditors to avoid an exit from the eurozone, and as the talks go down to the wire, Russia seems to be waiting in the wings with a big smile.

On the latest Power Vertical Podcast, we discuss whether Moscow is willing and able to make a play for Greece.

Joining me are co-host Mark Galeotti, a professor at NYU, an expert on Russia's security services, and author of the recently published book Spetsnaz: Russia's Special Forces; and Daniel Drezner, a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and author of the books Theories Of International Politics And Zombies and The System Worked: How The World Stopped Another Great Depression.

Also on the podcast, Mark, Daniel, and I discuss Russia's fledgling alliance with China, which was on display at the BRICS summit in Ufa this week.

Enjoy...

Podcast: Putin's Big Fat Greek Chinese Wedding
Podcast: Putin's Big Fat Greek Chinese Weddingi
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Listen to or download the podcast above or subscribe to The Power Vertical Podcast on iTunes.​


Putin's China Syndrome

Putin's new best friend?

Brian Whitmore

Vladimir Putin looked so eager to show off his new best friend.

Greeting Xi Jinping earlier this week, the beaming Kremlin leader said he was "especially happy to see" the Chinese president and suggested that together Moscow and Beijing were prepared to take on the world.

Putin has been basking in the glow that comes with hosting back-to-back international summits.

And he was clearly hoping to use gatherings of the BRICS group and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) this week to demonstrate that attempts to isolate Russia are doomed to fail; and that, despite sanctions and a faltering economy, Moscow is busy building a Eurasia-centric international order as an alternative to Western institutions.

The fledgling Sino-Russian partnership is, of course, the key to this effort. And BRICS, a loose grouping of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, and the SCO, which includes Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, form the institutional glue of the Moscow-Beijing alliance.

"The only problem," wrote Aleksandr Gabuev of the Moscow Carnegie Center, "is that Russia’s growing fascination with BRICS and the SCO coincides with diminishing Chinese interest in both projects."

And this illustrates the fundamental asymmetry in the Sino-Russian relationship.

China views BRICS and the SCO as two of many vehicles to elevate its status as a rising world power. Russia is clinging to them to slow down its decline.

Beijing is pursuing a multivectored foreign policy, keeping its doors open to the West while building up its power in Asia. Having burned its bridges with the West, Moscow only has one place to turn.

The Chinese are playing a long game and thinking strategically. A confident and rising power, they feel no need to confront the West head on at this point. The Russians are reacting to short-term needs and thinking tactically.

It Ain't Bretton Woods

The last time BRICS and SCO summits took place back-to-back in Russia, in 2009 in Yekaterinburg, came in the wake of Russia's war with Georgia and in the aftermath of the global financial crisis.

Moscow used that gathering to call for an overhaul of the Bretton Woods system of Western-dominated global financial institutions, claiming they were no longer adequate to address the world's economic problems.

At this week's BRICS gathering, Moscow is hyping the unveiling of the New Development Bank, which will finance infrastructure and other projects, and a $100 billion currency reserve fund to protect member countries from global liquidity risks.

Listening to Kremlin officials, one would think these fledgling institutions are already ready-to-use alternatives to the IMF and the World Bank.

There were even suggestions that the New Development Bank could step in and bail out Greece, should talks with the IMF and European Union fail.

Beijing, however, sees things differently. It is less interested in the New Development Bank than it is in promoting its own pet project, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

"In private conversations, Chinese experts and officials speak quite frankly about what they see as the limited capacity of BRICS," Gabuev wrote. "In China's global strategy, BRICS plays an important but clearly defined role." 

China, he argues, seeks to use the BRICS institutions to leverage the West into giving it more influence in the IMF and World Bank, and to Chinese officials experience managing international financial institutions.

And Beijing is also souring on the SCO.

Beijing "initially saw the project as a way to extend Chinese influence in Central Asia while accommodating Moscow's interests," Gabuev wrote"But the Kremlin’s fears that China would push too far into Russia’s backyard using tools like the SCO Development Bank meant that economic cooperation among SCO countries never took off." 

China, he added, was frustrated by Russia lobbying to invite India into the SCO. Beijing conceded that, but insisted on Pakistan joining, as well.

"More than a year after the two countries initiated most of their bilateral projects, there has been no significant progress, and some projects have been abandoned altogether," Björn Düben, author of a forthcoming report Banking On Beijing: What The Ukraine Crisis Means For The Future Of China-Russia Relations, wrote in a column for Reuters. "Even in the energy sector, the two countries have struggled to carry out their plans."

An Expensive Friend

Despite all this, the Kremlin appears serious about its embrace of China.

"It would be wrong to discount Russia's swing toward China as just a PR campaign to convince Russians their country can do without the West," political analyst Leonid Bershidsky wrote in Bloomberg View. "Russia is a big ship and turning it around is not a quick exercise, but the trend toward closer economic ties with China is real."

And this comes with a large cost. Bershidsky notes that "the Russian government has become willing to contemplate deals with China that would have been unthinkable before the sanctions."

For example, Russia's Transbaikal Krai is negotiating a deal with a Chinese company to rent 300,000 acres of land -- an area roughly the size of the city of Los Angeles -- for 49 years. It is one of 10 such areas in Siberia and the Russian Far East. 

Moreover, China clearly got the better end of the $400 billion energy deal it signed with Russia, amidst much fanfare, in May 2014.

And in case anybody is still wondering who will have the upper hand in this relationship, here's one final data point to consider.

"Beijing has refused to provide diplomatic support to Moscow where it matters most," Duben wrote. "The Chinese leadership has not formally recognized the annexation of Crimea. It did not vote with Russia on Ukraine-related resolutions in the UN Security Council and General Assembly, and it was quick to develop good relations with the new authorities in Ukraine."

Not exactly how you would expect to be treated by your new best friend.


Video The Daily Vertical: Putin's Lockerbie Moment

The Daily Vertical: Putin's Lockerbie Momenti
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July 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.

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: Russia's China Illusion

The Daily Vertical: Russia's China Illusioni
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July 09, 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.


Psyops, Mind Games, And Madmen

Does he want us to think he is crazy?

His proposal was slapped down by the Kremlin, dismissed by the Foreign Ministry, and ridiculed by prosecutors. But Yevgeny Fyodorov persisted nevertheless.

Just hours after the Prosecutor-General's Office said that Fyodorov's appeal for an investigation into the legality of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania's independence "had no legal prospects" and was "devoid of common sense," he was on television insisting he was right.

Fyodorov, a State Duma deputy from the ruling United Russia party, told Rossiya-24 television on July 1 that the Baltic states were "illegitimate" and "sooner or later" their independence will be challenged.

"Everyone understands that a state crime took place 25 years ago," he said. "There is a principle of inevitability of punishment. Otherwise, crimes will continue forever."

So Fyodorov is just a loose cannon, right?

Wrong. He's right on message and he's playing his role perfectly. You don't put loose cannons on state television, after all, unless they're tightly scripted.

And the whole little drama about Baltic independence looks increasingly like a carefully choreographed head game.

"It's Yevgeny Fyodorov's job to do this crazy stuff. This is a psyop," Peter Pomerantsev, author of the book Nothing Is True And Everything Is Possible: Inside The Surreal Heart Of The New Russia, said on last week's Power Vertical Podcast

"They do this all the time in the Baltics. The Russians say things like 'we'll reinvade' and 'we can take Tallinn in five seconds,' people in the Western media start repeating it, and markets start to slide in Estonia and Latvia. This is a way to bully the Baltics so people think they are unstable."

Ok, so it was a psyop; a big mind game played out over a couple weeks.

Back in mid-June, United Russia lawmakers Fyodorov and Anton Romanov sent a request to prosecutors calling for an investigation into the Soviet Union's decision to recognize the Baltics' independence -- which they claimed "caused enormous damage to the sovereignty, territorial integrity, national security and defense of the country." 

Nobody paid much attention until two weeks later, on June 31, Interfax cited an unidentified official in the Prosecutor-General's Office as saying that an investigation would indeed be opened. 

Cue alarming headlines.

The Baltics get jittery. The Kremlin plays dumb. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov acts dismayed. And the next day, the Prosecutor-General's Office announces the whole thing is a non-starter. And everybody is left scratching their heads, albeit relieved that World War III isn't iminent. 

So mission accomplished.

Active Measures In The Baltics

But here's the thing. Russian psyops are rarely one-off affairs. Each tends to fit into a larger mosaic geared to a specific goal.

And this one we just witnessed was part of a dizzying montage of what the Russian security services call "active measures" aimed at the Baltics.

Russia, for example, has launched criminal cases against Lithuanian citizens who avoided serving in the Red Army -- and even asked the authorities in Vilnius to assist in locating them. 

Two pro-Kremlin groups in Riga -- the Association Against Nazism and Eurasian Union -- appear to be trying to stir up trouble between Latvia and Lithuania.

The groups launched a petition demanding that Lithuania return the territory of Palanga to Latvia and for the two countries to renegotiate their border. It also calls on the Latvian authorities to take the matter to the European Union. 

There are also widespread suspicions that Russia is trying to instigate tensions between Lithuania and its ethnic-Polish minority -- and by extension between Vilnius and Warsaw. Earlier this year, a Facebook page for the People's Republic of Vilnius appeared, and called for Polish "little green men" to liberate the Lithuanian capital.

And in Estonia, pro-Moscow activist Dmitry Klensky has appealed to that country's Russian minority to rise up in support of allegedly oppressed Russians in Latvia.

Klensky noted that Russian civic organizations in Estonia have been silent on the issue and suggests they have either been bought off or repressed.

There are also small projects like the Facebook page for Respublika Baltiiskaya Rus, or the The Baltic Republic of Rus, which it claims encompases much of eastern Estonia. 

And all these little psyops and active measures come amid a series of menacing overflights, border provocations, and, of course, the abduction of Estonian law-enforcement officer Eston Kohver.

Writing on his blog, veteran Kremlin-watcher Paul Goble noted that this all suggests that the Kremlin is "laying the groundwork for a more aggressive stance against the Baltic states." 

Operation Madman

But threatening, intimidating, and destabilizing the Baltic states are just one step in what the Kremlin is trying to accomplish.

If nothing else, the past year has illuminated the degree to which Vladimir Putin is determined to revisit and re-litigate the breakup of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. 

This isn't just posturing. It isn't just a talking point. He's serious.

"You have a general pattern where in virtual terms Russia is trying to replay what happened from 1989-91. Russia is arguing that there was no post Cold War settlement, no negotiated end to the USSR," Andrew Wilson, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and author of the book Virtual Politics: Faking Democracy In The Post-Soviet World, said on last week's Power Vertical Podcast

And as the Kremlin rolls this out in the form of psyops, active measures, and threatening gestures, many in the West are left wondering whether the Russian leadership has lost its collective mind. And that's precisely the point.

"They want us to think they are dangerous, that they are prepared to contemplate a nuclear strike," Wilson said.

"They want to be the villain who is thought to be dangerous and who gets his way because we don't want to escalate or provoke him."

In his interview with Rossiya-24, Yevgeny Fyodorov asked whether the West would really be willing to risk nuclear war over Tallinn, Riga, and Vilnius.

"Listen, you and I understand perfectly well that the Americans will not put their cities - Washington, New York and the rest - in danger because of some Baltic problems," he said. "We are a nuclear power. This is nonsense and everyone understands this. But it is necessary to expose this nonsense."

No, Fyodorov is not going rogue. He's not a loose cannon. And he's not off message. He's playing his role perfectly.


The Daily Vertical: Russia's Play For Greece

The Daily Vertical: Russia's Play For Greecei
X
July 08, 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: Baltic Head Games

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

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


The Kremlin's Cold War Dreams

An anti-U.S. demonstration in Moscow

Brian Whitmore

Activists in St. Petersburg harass and film guests arriving at an Independence Day reception at the U.S. Consulate in St. Petersburg, peppering them with questions about sanctions and same-sex marriage. 

Teenagers in the town of Bratsk in the Irkutsk region mark Youth Day by kicking a cardboard cutout of U.S. President Barack Obama. Those who managed to kick him in the face got five points; those who could only reach his midsection got four.

And a man in the village of Brekhovskaya in Yaroslavl Oblast kills his friend after becoming convinced that he is an American spy. Afterward, he called the police himself and told them that he had neutralized a dangerous foreign agent.

Anti-Americanism in Russia is, of course, nothing new. A poll by the independent Levada Center earlier this year showed that more than 80 percent of Russians have a negative view of the United States -- a post-Soviet high. 

But it all appears to have become more hysterical, more absurd, and more lethal of late.

And it is not only being fed by the predictable rabble rousers like the bombastic State Duma deputy Yevgeny Fyodorov, who recently said "the United States wants to kill me and hang my child." 

It is also being encouraged by top Kremlin officials like Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, who said in an interview last month with Kommersant that the United States "really would like it if Russia did not exist as a state at all."

Patrushev's remarks did seem to cross a line. In an editorial, the daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta called them "unprecedented" for a senior Russian official, adding that they indicated that the cresting wave of anti-Americanism is not just tactical -- and certainly not just rhetorical.

If this is not just "a maneuver, but a strategic choice," the paper wrote, it means Russia's conflict with the West is approaching "the point of no return." 

Part of all this is just performance art and Kremlin dramaturgia. The key plot line in the movie that Vladimir Putin's regime is showing the masses to legitimize their rule is that of a Russia encircled by a treacherous West bent on destroying the motherland. And the main villain in the film, of course, is the United States.

And some of it is explained by sincere anti-American sentiments (which are always latent among part of both the elite and the masses) that have become manifest -- and more intense.

But the driving force behind it is an insatiable need by those in Putin's Kremlin to reclaim what they believe they are entitled to: their lost status as a global superpower.

Russia can't have a real Cold War with the West. It isn't strong enough -- not militarily and certainly not economically. And it lacks a viable alternative to democratic liberal capitalism.

But what it can do is create the illusion of a Cold War -- a blockbuster movie about a superpower showdown -- if only for themselves.


Audio Podcast: Is the Kremlin Drinking Its Own Kool-Aid?

The war movie that became real

In place of politics, there is performance art. Instead of debate, there is spectacle. In lieu of issues, there is dramaturgia. And in place of reality, there is fantasy.

Russia's politics have long been virtual. But this alternative reality has become more intense -- and more toxic -- of late.

And as the dose of virtual reality gets higher and higher to satisfy the addiction, more and more people have begun to believe the fantasy is actually real.

On the new Power Vertical Podcast, I discuss this phenomenon with two leading experts on the issue: Peter Pomerantsev, author of the book Nothing Is True And Everything Is Possible: Inside The Heart Of The New Russia, and Andrew Wilson, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and author of the book Virtual Politics: Faking Democracy In The Post-Soviet World.

Enjoy...

Podcast: Is the Kremlin Drinking Its Own Kool-Aid?
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Listen to or download the podcast above or subscribe to The Power Vertical Podcast on iTunes.​

PROGRAMMING NOTE: Due to the public holiday, all Power Vertical products will take a hiatus on July 6. We'll be back full-force on July 7.

 


Video The Daily Vertical: Ukraine Calls Moscow's Bluff

Ukraine Calls Moscow's Bluffi
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July 03, 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 Russia's G-Word Hang-Up

The Daily Vertical: Russia's G-Word Problemi
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July 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.

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 Deadly Fantasy Politics

Is it real or is it fantasy? Many Russian officials are having trouble telling the difference.

For about 24 hours, it looked like Russia was about to do something truly insane.

Yeah, I know. What else is new? But I mean something even crazier than everything we've been witnessing the past couple of years.

Russian news agencies reported on June 30 that the Prosecutor-General's Office had opened an investigation into the constitutionality of the Soviet Union's September 1991 recognition of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania's independence. 

It was, of course, patently absurd. Prosecutors were going to investigate whether the actions of a state that hasn't existed for nearly two decades were constitutional according to a constitution that has been defunct for almost 24 years? Really?

And the issue at stake was whether it was legal for a Soviet Union on its deathbed to grant independence to three countries that it illegally annexed -- under the secret protocols of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact with Nazi Germany -- in the first place.

But beyond being the latest example of Vladimir Putin's Russia descending into la-la land, it was also menacing and deeply disturbing. Given Moscow's recent saber rattling vis-a-vis the Baltics -- and given that the Baltics are all NATO members -- it looked like a harbinger that something truly frightening could be on the horizon.

Could Moscow truly be contemplating an attack on the Baltics?

Fast forward one day.

On July 1, Russian officials scrambled to walk it all back.

Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the Kremlin was unaware of the case and couldn't make any sense of the idea. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov noted that Russia and the Baltics have mutual diplomatic relations and their relations are bound by a series of international treaties. 

And Marina Gridnyova, a spokeswoman for the Prosecutor-General's Office, said the inquiry into Baltic independence had no legal merit. Gridnyova said prosecutors had indeed opened a case but only because they were legally obliged to do so because two State Duma deputies had formally requested the probe. 

She added that the request, which came from lawmakers Yevgeny Fyodorov and Anton Romanov of the ruling United Russia party, was "entirely ludicrous."

So this wasn't the opening act of World War III.

But it nevertheless does point to an unsettling and potentially dangerous trend: an inability on the part of many Russians -- including top officials -- to distinguish between the hyperpatriotic fantasies the regime has been constructing and reality.

An Alternative Universe

On June 19 in a village in Yaroslavl Oblast, a 45-year old engineer beat a close friend to death because he was convinced the man was an American spy. He believed this, according to a report in Komsomolskaya Pravda, because the victim frequently traveled abroad. 

This little tabloid news item is a tragic example of the corrosive effects of the fantasyland the Kremlin has constructed -- a world where fascists have taken over Ukraine, Russia is encircled by enemies, and American agents are lurking around every corner plotting to destroy the motherland.

The creation of an alternative universe, a meta-narrative to feed to the public, has long been a cornerstone of Putin's rule.

During his first two terms, under the stewardship of Kremlin spinmeister Vladislav Surkov, the regime spun a convincing story of Russia rising from its knees. Putin was bringing order to chaos and establishing a "dictatorship of law."

The narrative was powerful because it had the virtue of coinciding with a dramatic rise in living standards due to rising oil prices.

Together with this, Surkov masterminded a virtual political system.

There were fake opposition political parties that created the illusion of pluralism and stage-managed elections that reinforced the legitimacy of the regime.

There were set-piece dramas with recognizable villains -- like the arrest and trial of MIkhail Khodorkovsky -- to entertain and divert public attention from what the regime was really doing. (In this case, eliminating a political threat and expropriating his oil company.)

Tightly managed pro-Kremlin youth groups harassed, and state television ridiculed, regime opponents like Garry Kasparov.

The aim of it all was to soothe the masses, foster passive acquiescence among the intelligentsia, and instill hopeless resignation among the diehard opposition.

It was, as Andrew Wilson, author of the 2005 book Virtual Politics: Faking Democracy in the Post-Soviet World, "the society of the spectacle."

But since Putin returned to the Kremlin in 2012, and especially since the conflict in Ukraine, the nature of the spectacle changed -- and acquired a sharper edge.

Now the requirements of a less secure regime demand almost constant agitation and mobilization. With those fascists running around Kyiv and the West plotting Russia's destruction, the very survival of the nation is at stake after all!

And as a result, Wilson wrote in a recent essay, "Russian politics is even more virtual than it was before." 

"And like all addictions, it has needed higher and higher doses to have the same effect," he added. "It has become more toxic as the impact of its more prosaic methods has grown blunt."

A Deadly Cocktail

All this has led to a spiralling dumbing down of Russian public discourse.

Vladislav Inozemtsev, director of the Moscow-based Center for Post-Industrial Studies, wrote recently that "Russian propaganda is incredibly inane and officials’ lie shamelessly and flagrantly" because the ruling elite has laid the groundwork to "first secure the same level of stupidity among the population."

It's all a potentially deadly cocktail. The longer you live in a fantasy, the easier it is to believe that fantasy is real.

That goes for a villager in Yaroslavl Oblast, who becomes convinced his friend is an American spy -- and kills him.

And it goes for two State Duma deputies from Russia's ruling party who thought it would a good idea to set in motion a process that could have led to a devastating international conflict.

Yevgeny Fyodorov and Anton Romanov's crazy idea may have been dismissed by the authorities as the rantings of two lawmakers who were "dizzy with success." Or it may have been part of yet another Kremlin spectacle designed to keep the West off balance and the public entertained.

In either case, it could be just a matter of time until somebody with real decision-making power gets caught up in the fantasy loop and does something truly insane.

"The dramaturgia has developed a logic of its own, one that long ago lost touch with reality or real-world consequences," Wilson wrote.

"Russia is not sleep-walking into disaster; it is marching at high speed while drugged up to the eyeballs."


The Daily Vertical: Into La-La-Land

The Daily Vertical: Deep Into La-La-Landi
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July 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.

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.

NOTE: The Russian Prosecutor General's Office announced on July 1 (after this video was recorded) that an investigation into the constitutionality of the Soviet Union's recognition of the Baltic states' independence has no legal merit.

 


Video The Daily Vertical: The Aces Up Putin's Sleeve

The Daily Vertical: The Aces Up Putin's Sleevei
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June 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.
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.


Putin's Godfather

Primakov and Putin in May 2000

Brian Whitmore

It was more than a eulogy. It was a man bidding farewell to his political godfather.

Speaking at the funeral of veteran politician Yevgeny Primakov, President Vladimir Putin called him "a great citizen of our country" who exemplified "true patriotism and selfless devotion to the fatherland."

And Putin had good reason to praise Primakov, one of the elder statesmen of Russian politics, who died on June 26 at the age of 85.

Without Primakov, there probably never would have been a Putin.

"Both chronologically and ideologically, Primakov is the godfather of Putinism in Russia," Moscow-based commentator Kyamran Agayev wrote in Kasparov.ru. "He put in place the beginning of the twilight of the so-called romantic period of Russian democracy.” 

A veteran of the Soviet security services, Primakov blazed the trail for siloviki rule in post-Soviet Russia. And many of the hallmarks of Putin's rule -- an anti-Western foreign policy, a state-heavy economy, Soviet-style controls on society -- were spearheaded by Primakov, who served as foreign minister from 1996-98 and prime minister from 1998-99.

"Primakov’s positions," veteran Kremlin-watcher Paul Goble wrote on his blog, "were in fact a more sophisticated version of those Putin has adopted." 

Primakov's decision in March 1999 to turn his airplane around over the Atlantic Ocean when he was en route to the United States after he learned that NATO's bombing campaign against Serbia had begun is widely seen as the start of the anti-Western turn in Moscow's foreign policy.

But opposition figure and former energy minister Vladimir Milov noted that the trend actually began earlier, when Primakov was named foreign minister, replacing the staunchly pro-Western Andrei Kozyrev, in January 1996.

“Already in 1996, when Primakov headed the foreign ministry, he laid the groundwork for an anti-American shift in Russian foreign policy,” Milov told the Ukrainian news agency Novy Region-2, noting that he lobbied heavily for the Kremlin to support Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic and Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. "Foreign Ministry documents written in an anti-American tone began to circulate."

Moreover, Putin's rise to power was intimately tied to Primakov. Or more accurately, to a fear of Primakov, who as prime minister famously threatened to build additional prisons so the Russian business elite could be incarcerated should he come to power.

By the late 1990s, especially following the 1998 financial crisis, Primakov was in sync with the public mood and had become the most popular politician in the country.

In 1999, he forged a powerful alliance with Yury Luzhkov, then Moscow's mayor, and other regional leaders and appeared to be the odds-on favorite to succeed the ailing Boris Yeltsin as president.

Yeltsin's inner circle, informally dubbed "The Family," desperately wanted to prevent this. And to fend it off, they decided they needed their very own silovik -- somebody who could defeat Primakov, succeed Yeltsin, and protect their interests.

They settled on Putin, and the rest is history.

The irony, of course, is that in drafting Putin to neutralize the Primakov threat, The Family ended up with a younger, coarser -- albeit more telegenic -- version of...Primakov.

It was a miscalculation that key Family members, most notably oligarch Boris Berezovsky, would soon regret.

There are, of course, important differences between the two men, and a Primakov presidency would probably not have mirrored Putin's.

It is hard to imagine, for example, the kind of loose nuclear rhetoric that has become common in Putin's Kremlin coming from Primakov -- who hails from the generation of Soviet officials who had a deep respect for and understanding of Moscow's responsibilities as a nuclear power.

In eulogizing Primakov, Putin noted that Russian officials "consulted him," sought his advice, and listened to him.

"I can say this is also entirely true about me," Putin said.

Well, not entirely.

In one his his last public acts, Primakov in January urged Putin to wind down the Ukraine conflict and ease tensions with the West.

It was advice that Putin, obviously, did not heed.

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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