Tuesday, June 30, 2015


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.


Video The Daily Vertical: Absurdity, Intolerance, Bravado

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June 29, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.
Brian Whitmore

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


Audio Briefing: Russia Reacts To U.S. LGBT Ruling

LGBT activists hold rainbow flag in Moscow in May.

Brian Whitmore

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling resonates in Russia. And Moscow tries a soft approach with Armenia.

On this week's Power Vertical Briefing, we look at how last week's ruling extending same-sex marriage to all 50 U.S. states is resonating in Russia -- and surprisingly, the official reaction has not been uniformly negative.

Also on the Briefing, we look at recent moves by Moscow to appease protesters in Armenia and what this may portend.

Joining me is Pavel Butorin, senior producer for RFE/RL's Russian language television program Current Time.

Enjoy...

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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.

 


Electric Yerevan Exposes Kremlin's Mind-Set

Civil society? What's that?

Brian Whitmore

So imagine you're the Armenian president and are you're faced with massive street protests over electricity price hikes. The demonstrations have already paralyzed the capital. And they're growing and spreading to other cities.

So what do you do?

Well, if you are Russian State Duma Deputy Valery Rashkin, the answer is obvious: you kick out the American ambassador, of course!

"There are the only two countries in the post-Soviet space that are true friends of Russia: Belarus and Armenia," Rashkin told the pro-Kremlin daily Izvestia. "And this is why the Americans are trying with a vengeance to stage a colored putsch right under our noses."

You can learn a lot about a country from how it reacts to a popular uprising in its neighborhood. And this is especially true if the country is Russia and the uprising is in one of its former Soviet vassals.

Rashkin's remarks were part of a drumbeat of comments pouring out of official and semiofficial Moscow claiming that the protests in Armenia are a Western-backed coup attempt.

Konstantin Kosachyov, head of the Federation Council's International Relations Committee, said the crisis was following the script of "colored revolutions" in Georgia and Ukraine. Lawmaker Igor Morozov, a member of that same committee, said Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian needed to learn the lessons of Ukraine's Maidan and get tough -- or face an armed coup.

And political analyst and Kremlin surrogate Sergei Markov wrote on Facebook that the protests were "being directed from an external headquarters." 

So everybody appears to have their predictable talking points lined up. And what does this all show us about Russia? A few things, actually.

The Kremlin Just Doesn't Get Civil Society

Russia's characterization of the protests as a Western plot is not only wildly off the mark -- it's deeply insulting to Armenians.

It denies the thousands of people who have taken to the streets and are braving police reprisals any agency of their own. In Moscow's eyes, they are nothing but pawns in the games of great powers.

And this points to the fact that the Kremlin is completely and utterly incapable of understanding that an independent civil society can exist. They can't wrap their heads around the simple notion that ordinary citizens can form voluntary associations to pressure their government in order to achieve political goals.

And it is this -- not a Western-backed coup -- that is happening in Yerevan. People in an economically struggling country are angry about electricity price hikes that are going to cut deeply into their disposable incomes. And they are taking to the streets. It's really that simple.

But for Moscow, there has to be a hidden hand. There has to be a plot.

And this insult has not been lost on Armenians. The opposition Zhamanak noted that "there is growing anti-Russian sentiment at the demonstrations" that is often directed at the state media. The paper noted that some protesters carried signs telling the state-run Rossia-24 television station to "get lost."

And the independent Aravot wrote that the "Russian propaganda tricks" were "laughable" and "nonsense." 

Putin Regime Sees World In 19th-Century Terms

So if the Putin regime doesn't see -- or is unwilling to see -- something called civil society, what does it see?

For Russia's rulers, politics consists exclusively of states competing with each other -- or more precisely, great powers competing with each other.

Small countries and societies are there only to be manipulated in the struggle for advantage in this great game.

It's all very 19th-century. But with the Putin crew, given their background in the KGB, there's a bit of a twist.

In a recent commentary on Kasparov.ru, political analyst Igor Eidman noted that such "narrow specialists" as Putin and his siloviki entourage "often think exclusively within the framework of their own profession." 

As a result, they sincerely believe that "the security services of rival countries" were behind popular uprisings in Georgia, Ukraine, and now Armenia.

"This corporate narrow-mindedness defined, a significant degree, Putin’s attitude toward the Kyiv Maidan," Eidman wrote. "Putin's ruling KGB seriously believed that their American colleagues were behind it all. This fed their vulnerable professional vanity and they decided to fight back at all cost and tilt at windmills, which led to a real war with real victims."

For them, policy is just one big covert op. Call it government by spetsoperatsia with a retro 19th-century mind-set -- John Le Carre meets Paul Kennedy.

Russia Can't Fight Corruption

The root cause of the Armenian protests is corruption. It is corruption that originates in Russia. And it is corruption that the Kremlin is utterly incapable -- and completely unwilling -- to deal with.

Armenia's utility regulator uncovered massive graft in the country's energy monopoly, Electric Networks of Armenia (ENA), which is fully owned by Russian energy giant Inter RAO UES. The regulatory commission established that ENA had been routinely overpaying suppliers and contractors -- activity that suggested kickback schemes

And when ENA sought a 40.8 percent hike in tariffs to offset a $250 million debt, the Armenian authorities initially balked. But they eventually agreed to an increase of 16.7 percent effective in August, sparking the protests.

And the corruption that led to this crisis is an essential feature of Vladimir Putin's operating system. It's a tool he uses to establish control over Russia's elites.

It is also a key instrument in the Kremlin's foreign policy, where it is used to capture and manipulate elites abroad. Corrupt business schemes, whether involving murky gas deals in Ukraine or shady electricity schemes in Armenia, are central to Russia's efforts to secure control over the former Soviet space.

But there is a paradox. This very corruption that captures elites in the former Soviet space also serves to infuriate the public. This was the case in Ukraine and now it's the case in Armenia.

The Kremlin could resolve the Armenian crisis by reining in corruption at Inter RAO UES -- whose board is chaired by Putin crony Igor Sechin -- and by extension at ENA.

But as political commentator Leonid Bershidsky notes in Bloomberg View, it won't. Russia "would have done better to deal with corruption inside the companies it uses to exert influence in its former empire," Bershidsky writes

"Moscow is unable to do that, however, because corruption is one of its main exports. It can only fight the symptoms, which often include popular discontent, as though they were part of a global conspiracy."


Audio Podcast: Et Tu, Angela?

Partners no more.

Brian Whitmore

The defense minister says it is best to speak to Moscow from a position of strength. The foreign minister says Russia is acting with Cold War instincts. And the chancellor is clearly fed up with the Kremlin's antics.

Of all the things Russia has lost as a result of its intervention in Ukraine, one of the most consequential might be the goodwill of Germany. In the space of one year, Berlin has gone from being Moscow's biggest advocate in Europe to being one of its harshest critics.

On the latest Power Vertical Podcast we look at how this happened and examine the consequences.

Joining me are co-host Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University, an expert on Russia's security services, and author of the blog In Moscow's Shadows; and Andreas Umland, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation and a professor of Russian and Ukrainian history at Kyiv Mohyla Academy. 

Enjoy...

Power Vertical Podcast: Et Tu Angela?
Power Vertical Podcast: Et Tu Angela?i
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Listen to or download the podcast above or subscribe to The Power Vertical Podcast on iTunes.​


Video The Daily Vertical: Here Comes The Hangover

The Daily Vertical: Here Comes The Hangoveri
X
June 26, 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: Moscow Colors In Yerevan

The Daily Vertical: Moscow Colors In Yerevani
X
June 25, 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.


Putin Wants To Party Like It's 1815

Vladimir Putin is a holy alliance of one.

Brian Whitmore

You just knew it was going to happen. There was no way it couldn't.

It was just a matter of time before a senior Russian official openly accused the United States of orchestrating a coup in Armenia, where thousands of demonstrators are protesting electricity price hikes.

And as if on cue, lawmaker Igor Morozov, a member of the Federation Council's International Relations Committee, delivered the goods

"The U.S. Embassy in Armenia is actively involved in the current events in Yerevan," Morozov told RIA Novosti on June 24. 

"Armenia is on the brink of an armed putsch. This will happen if President Serzh Sarkisian has not learned the lessons from the Ukrainian Maidan and drawn the correct conclusions."

Morozov didn't offer any evidence. But, then again, he didn't have to.

Senior Russian officials just know that any uprising anywhere against a Moscow ally in the former Soviet space -- or even beyond -- is orchestrated in Washington. It doesn't matter if it's Georgia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, Macedonia, or Armenia.

Call it "fear of orange" or call it "the taming of the rose." But by whatever name, the Kremlin's colored-revolution phobia may be paranoid, but it is very real -- and has been dialed up to 11.

"Western politicians imagine the Kremlin’s anxiety about color revolutions is rhetorical, not real. But Mr. Putin and his colleagues believe what they say: that street protests are stage-managed by Russia’s bitterest enemies," political analyst Ivan Krastev, head of the Sofia-based Center for Liberal Studies, wrote recently in the Financial Times

Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has even commissioned "a study on the phenomenon of color revolutions and the military’s role in their prevention."  The general staff began working on the research this week.

General MIkhail Smyslov, head of army personnel, called the colored-revolution threat "real and long-term," adding that the military needed to "understand how to counter it." 

Think of it as Moscow's policy of containment -- of democracy.

In a recent commentary, Christopher Walker, executive director of the National Endowment for Democracy’s International Forum for Democratic Studies, wrote that Putin's Russia has turned George Kennan's ideas about containing communism on their head by "seeking to contain the spread of democracy rather than the growth of totalitarianism."

"Having come to the conclusion that their regime security is under perpetual threat in the era of globalization, they have decided to go after democracy before it comes after them," Walker wrote.

And this has historical precedent. You just need to go back to the early 19th century to find it.

The Kremlin's antirevolutionary fervor is reminiscent of the Holy Alliance, the partnership among the monarchies of Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Prussia in the aftermath of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. 

And why not? Vladimir Putin has long expressed admiration for Tsar Alexander I, who founded the alliance, and Nicholas I, who continued it.

And now the Kremlin leader wants to party like it's 1815. 

Then, as now, Russia was concerned with containing popular revolutions and republicanism. The alliance helped suppress antimonarchist uprisings in Naples and Piedmont in 1821 and in Spain in 1822. It also managed to roll back the revolutions of 1848 across Europe.

Then, as now, Moscow was seeking to uphold "traditional values" amid a rising tide of secularism. The Holy Alliance's stated purpose was to protect the divine right of kings and instill Christian values in Europe.

But then -- in stark contrast to today -- Russia's aims were largely shared by other European rulers and it had the backing of two of the continent's strongest powers in its antirevolutionary crusade.

Today the Kremlin is moving sharply against Europe's mainstream and has to settle for support from fringe politicians like France's Marine Le Pen and rogue leaders like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

By the mid-to-late 19th century, the Holy Alliance was clearly a lost cause. But it's a cause Moscow is still clinging to more than a century later.


Video The Daily Vertical: Russia's War On Nazi Washing Machines

The Daily Vertical: Russia's War On Nazi Washing Machinesi
X
June 24, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.
Brian Whitmore

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


Video The Daily Vertical: Putin's Nuclear Antics

The Daily Vertical: Putin's Nuclear Anticsi
X
June 23, 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 Ministry Of Mind Reading

Then-U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright with then-Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov in Moscow in January 2000

Brian Whitmore

It's the urban legend that just won't die.

It is usually raised by Russian officials when they want to back up claims that the United States is bent on destroying Russia. Everybody states it as fact. But I was never able to find any evidence of it ever actually happening.

So what is it? It is comments that former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright allegedly made that Siberia's vast natural resources were too important to the world for Russia to unfairly control on its own.

The claim came up in Vladimir Putin's annual call-in program back in 2007 when an engineer from Novosibirsk asked about it -- giving the Kremlin leader the opportunity to deliver this line: "Such ideas are a sort of political erotica. Perhaps they give somebody pleasure, but they are unlikely to lead to anything positive." 

It came up in an interview Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev gave to Kommersant just this week. The United States "really would like it if Russia did not exist as a state at all," Patrushev said.

"This is because we have a lot of resources and the Americans think we don’t deserve them or have rights to them; they think we don’t use them as we should.Remember the statement made by Madeleine Albright who claimed that neither the Far East nor Siberia belonged to Russia."

And it came up countless times in between.

So, where did it come from?

Well, back in December 2006, in an interview with Rossiiskaya Gazeta, retired KGB General Boris Ratnikov claimed he was involved with a top-secret occult project and had -- yep, you guessed it -- read Albright's mind. 

"In Madame Albright's mind, we found a pathological hatred of Slavs," Ratnikov said. "She resented the fact that Russia had the world's largest mineral reserves. She believed that Russia should not control its reserves but that they should be shared by all of humanity under the supervision, of course, of the United States. And the war in Kosovo this was considered only a first step to establish control over Russia."

So there you have it. One nutty claim made nearly nine years ago, and it is repeated ad nauseum as fact so often that everybody believes it is true. Call it the propaganda data point that just keeps giving.

Beyond the Albright mind-reading claim, the Ratnikov interview is so surreal, so weird, so wacky, and so nuts that you need to read it over several times before you get the full scope of its utter craziness.

Ratnikov claimed he was involved with a top-secret occult project that originated in the Soviet KGB. In the Soviet Union, he said, "almost all the people with supernatural powers were controlled by the KGB" and were used by the Soviet authorities.

"You can't even imagine the war of brains that unfolded in the first half of the last century," he added. "I'm hardly exaggerating when I say that sometimes there were astral battles. And all this was kept secret and camouflaged, probably not less than the nuclear project."

Ratnikov added that in the mid-1980s, there were concerns that the Soviet Union's enemies could use "psycho-generators" to remotely read and manipulate people's minds -- and Moscow spent hundreds of millions of rubles to counter it.

After the Soviet Union broke up, Ratnikov worked in the Federal Protection Service, where he claims he used his occult skills to prevent anybody from reading and manipulating President Boris Yeltsin's mind.

In this way, Ratnikov claims he stopped Yeltsin from turning the Kurile Islands over to Japan and prevented a war with China.

He also claimed that in the early 1990s he read the mind of U.S. Ambassador Robert Strauss and concluded that the U.S. Embassy had "equipment for psychotronic influence on Muscovites."

The fact that the claims about Albright's designs on Russia's natural resources came from this surreal interview has been exposed in the English-language media, initially in an investigation by Moscow Times reporter Anna Smolchenko in 2007. 

But nevertheless, it is the talking point that just won't go away.


Video The Daily Vertical: The Kudrin Conundrum

The Daily Vertical: The Kudrin Conundrumi
X
June 22, 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: A Long Standoff Looming

NATO soldiers conduct exercises in Zagan, Poland, on June 18.

Brian Whitmore

NATO defense chiefs gather. And Russia reacts to asset freezes in Europe. This week's Power Vertical Briefing looks at two issues in the news this week.

NATO defense ministers are due to meet in Brussels on June 24-25 as the alliance settles in for a protracted standoff with Russia; and Moscow is threatening tit-for-tat relaliations after some European countries freeze Russian assets in connection with a lawsuit by Yukos shareholders.

Joining me to discuss these stories is RFE/RL Senior Editor Steve Gutterman.

Enjoy...

Briefing: A Long Standoff Looming
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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 History Channel

Welcome to my parallel universe.

Brian Whitmore

It's an alternative reality.

It's a world where Hitler was a good guy until 1941; where the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was a defensive move by a pacifist Kremlin; where the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia protected that country from fascists and a NATO invasion; where Ukraine isn't really a country.

It's a parallel universe where the U.S.S.R. never really broke up at all.

Welcome to Vladimir Putin's History Channel, where the past is a weapon to control the present and master the future.

In this week's Power Vertical Podcast, we look at the Kremlin's legislation, regulation, and manipulation of history -- and what this is doing to Russian society. 

Joining me are Kirill Kobrin, editor of the Moscow-based history and sociology magazine Neprikosnovenny Zapas; and Andreas Umland, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation and a professor of Russian and Ukrainian history at Kyiv Mohyla Academy.

Enjoy... 

Power Vertical Podcast: Putin's History Channel
Power Vertical Podcast: Putin's History Channeli
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Listen to or download the podcast above or subscribe to The Power Vertical Podcast on iTunes.​


Paranoia As Policy

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Brian Whitmore

Russia, it appears, is quickly becoming a nation of conspiracy theorists.

According to a recent poll, 45 percent of Russians now believe in the existence of a secret global government "that controls the authorities of many countries." Just 32 percent said such an organization did not exist, while 23 percent said it was hard to answer. 

Russians have long been prone to this kind of thing. But suddenly they are seeing conspiracies everywhere.

The United States and Switzerland investigate corruption in FIFA, world soccer's governing body, something long and widely recognized as a problem. An obvious plot, hatched in Washington, to prevent Russia from hosting the 2018 World Cup.

Ordinary citizens in Macedonia become outraged over corruption and abuse of power and take to the streets in antigovernment protests. A clear case of the U.S. State Department fomenting another colored revolution.

And the authorities are actively stoking these attitudes.

"In line with this worldview, Russia's role in the world is to resist the 'global government's' conspiracy," political analyst Leonid Bershidsky wrote in a recent column for Bloomberg.

And to a degree, they believe their own hype. And this is because Vladimir Putin's regime itself operates in a conspiratorial way. For them, governance is just one big "spetsoperatsia," or covert op.

Take the FIFA corruption scandal, for example. Vladimir Putin's remarks hinting that it was a sneaky anti-Russian plot illustrate that he is incapable of understanding that a criminal case could be launched because prosecutors detected criminal activity. In his mind, there just has to be an ulterior political motive.

This is how he operates; this is how the Russian justice system operates, so he therefore thinks this is how everybody operates. Just ask Aleksei Navalny.

Likewise, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's claim that the Macedonian uprising was a Western-sponsored coup reflects the Kremlin's complete negation of civil society. It is unlikely, if not impossible, in their minds, for citizens to independently form voluntary associations to achieve a political goal. There must be a hidden hand.

Since Russia is the land of fake political parties, government-organized NGOs, stage-managed elections, and rent-a-crowd pro-regime demonstrations, then, in the Putin regime's collective mind, everyplace else must therefore operate this way as well.

Much of the regime's recent paranoia can be traced to Georgia's 2003 Rose Revolution, and, especially, to Ukraine's Orange Revolution the following year.

"Ukraine’s Orange revolution of 2004-2005 deeply traumatised Russia’s elite, intensifying its sense of insecurity and leading the party of power to interpret world events through its fear of remote-controlled colour revolutions," Ivan Krastev, head of the Sofia-based Center for Liberal Strategies, wrote recently in the Financial Times.

Krastev called the belief that street protests are organized by Russia's enemies "patently delusional" but "far from harmless." In a world where civic activism is on the rise, "this is a formula for endless conflict."

But the conspiratorial mind-set has since been extrapolated. According to Yale University historian Timothy Snyder, author of the acclaimed book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, it is visible in the way the Kremlin is legislating, regulating, and controlling the dissemination of history.

"The way that history is legislated now in Russia is that there is Russian history and there is a plot of everyone else against Russia," Snyder told RFE/RL's Russian Service in a recent interview

"If you learn that history is just everyone in the world working against you all the time without cease for 1,000 years; if that is the history that you learn, it is pretty hard for you to cooperate with the rest of the world."

Which means we could be moving into a very frightening place, indeed.

"Putin and his people are now far outside the realm of the conventional," Bershidsky wrote

"They see themselves as warriors of light in a world suffocated by a Western conspiracy. To them, there is far more at stake than just the regime's survival. That's what makes them dangerous."


The Daily Vertical: Russia's Assets Become Liabilities

The Daily Vertical: Russia's Assets Become Liabilitiesi
X
June 19, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.

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: Why Do They Bother?

The Daily Vertical: Why Do They Bother?i
X
June 18, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.
Brian Whitmore

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


Putin Relitigates His Midlife Crisis

Hey, it's cooler than a tattoo or a sports car!

Brian Whitmore

For Vladimir Putin, 1989-91 must have really sucked.

He had to face down a crowd of angry anticommunist demonstrators outside KGB headquarters in Dresden after the Berlin Wall fell. He had to frantically burn intelligence files. And then he had to drive back to the Soviet Union and watch it implode as well.

And on top of it all, he was pushing 40.

It must have been the mother of all midlife crises. And now, Putin and his allies apparently want to use their control over Russia's political and law enforcement institutions to try and relitigate it all.

A series of moves by legislators, prosecutors, and top officials aim to reimagine and reinterpret the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union -- and in some cases act as if these things never really happened at all.

All of these moves are pretty bizarre. Most are just plain silly. And some are pretty menacing.

The Draft Dodgers Of Lithuania

Russia's attempts to prosecute Lithuanians who avoided serving in the Soviet military is all three at once.

After Lithuania declared independence from the Soviet Union in March 1990, but before the U.S.S.R. formally dissolved in December 1991, the republic's leaders called on draft-age men not to serve in the Red Army. Some 1,500 heeded the call and went into hiding. Dozens were jailed or forcefully drafted.

After the Soviet collapse, Moscow dropped the criminal charges against the men. But late last year, Russian prosecutors reopened them -- and, remarkably, asked Lithuanian law enforcement for assistance. The request, of course, was denied.

Bizarre? Yes. Silly? Check. But for these men, this is no joke.

A 45-year-old Lithuanian chauffeur was so spooked by it all that he only agreed to be interviewed by The Economist under the pseudonym Tomas.He told the British weekly that Lithuania's Defense Ministry called to warn him about Moscow's intentions -- and advised that he not travel outside of EU or NATO countries, lest he be extradited. 

Smash The State Council

Another item from the bizarre, silly, and menacing department: Two lawmakers from the ruling United Russia party have asked the Prosecutor-General's Office to assess the legality of the U.S.S.R. State Council and its actions. 

Wait. Assess the legality of what? And why?

Ok. Here's the thing. The U.S.S.R. State Council was established by Mikhail Gorbachev on September 5, 1991, following the failed hard-line coup against him the previous month. It existed for less than four months as the country's main governing authority, and basically midwifed the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December of that year.

One of the council's most significant decisions, made just two days after it was established, was recognizing the independence of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

And according to State Duma Deputies Yevgeny Federov and Anton Romanov, this led to the Soviet Union losing "strategically important territory and sea ports" as well as"causing enormous damage to the sovereignty, territorial integrity, national security, and defense of the country and caused the dismemberment of a unified state."

Given Russia's menacing moves toward the Baltics, this is ominous.

For the past year, we have witnessed bellicose rhetoric, provocative military exercises, menacing overflights, violations of sea- and airspace, border incursions, and at least one abduction.

And now we have a challenge to the very legality -- in Moscow's eyes at least -- of the Baltic states' independence.

The 'Annexation' Of East Germany

It is hard to consider speaker Sergei Naryshkin's call for the State Duma's Foreign Affairs Committee to condemn West Germany's "annexation" of East Germany in 1990 as menacing.

In fact, since it has no practical repercussions, it's hard to consider it anything other than just bizarre and silly.The idea originated with a proposal by Communist Party lawmaker Nikolai Ivanov, and in saner times it would have ended there as well.

But not only did Naryshkin take it seriously, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov actually amplified it -- in Germany! -- at this year's Munich Security Conference. Lavrov told the conference that unlike Crimea, "Germany was united without a referendum" -- drawing derisive laughter from the assembled dignitaries.

Head-scratch inducing to be sure. But it sort of makes sense when one considers the trauma Putin claims he experienced as East Germany overthrew its Moscow-backed communist rulers.

Maybe he should have just gotten himself a sports car.


Video The Daily Vertical: Russia's Threat From The East

The Daily Vertical: Russia's Threat From The Easti
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June 17, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.

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.


Fighting The Long War

Settling in for a protracted conflict.

Brian Whitmore

The U.S. chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff says Washington may consider putting intermediate-range nuclear weapons in Europe, and Britain's top diplomat says the United Kingdom would consider hosting them. 

A Russian military plane buzzes NATO warships in the Baltic Sea; a Russian fighter jet comes within 3 meters of a U.S. spy plane over the Black Sea; and U.S. and Russian naval officers meet to to discuss how to avoid an accidental clash at sea or in the air.

The Pentagon announces plans to station heavy weapons in the Baltic states; and Moscow pledges to retaliate by speeding up the deployment of Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad and beefing up Russian forces in Belarus.

Welcome to the new normal. After more than a year of conflict in Ukraine, the standoff between Russia and the West has become routine -- and it is becoming institutionalized.

No, this isn't a new Cold War, at least not yet.

Russia isn't a superpower with global reach and it doesn't lead a bloc of nations that enjoys rough parity with the West. But it is deploying the power it does have very effectively and is capitalizing on its asymmetrical advantages.

The Kremlin also isn't offering a viable alternative model to Western liberal democratic capitalism. But Vladimir Putin's challenge to the West has an ideological component that taps into a potent backlash against globalization and the universalization of liberal Western values.

So while we may not be in a Cold War, which, after all, was the product of a specific period in history, we are in the early stages of something that is shaping up to be a Long War.

Russia may not be a global superpower. But neither is it some rogue state that can be easily isolated and neutralized. And the recent Western measures show an understanding that Moscow has to be dealt with in a systematic and sustained way.

The West's conflict with Russia, says Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Moscow, "is not going to be resolved in weeks or months; this challenge will take years, even decades." 

And at stake is nothing less than the fate of the post-Cold War international order.

The Security Challenge

Boris Yeltsin did it. Vladimir Putin did it. And Dmitry Medvedev did it.

Every occupant of the Kremlin since 1991 attempted to persuade the West to negotiate a European security architecture that would diminish NATO's primacy and give Moscow an exclusive sphere of influence in the former Soviet space.

Each was rebuffed. And Russia's reaction to this is at the heart of Moscow's current challenge to the West.

The post-Cold War European order, political analysts Ivan Krastev and Mark Leonard wrote recently in Foreign Affairs, was based on the assumption that "economic interdependence, international legal institutions, and mutual interference in one another’s domestic politics" was the "primary source of security." 

And the belief was that this model would extend outward through NATO and European Union enlargement coupled with the rise of global institutions like the International Criminal Court and World Trade Organization.

"Until recently, most Europeans believed that their post-Cold War security order held universal appeal and could be a model for the rest of the world," Krastev and Leonard wrote. "Russia shattered that assumption last year when it invaded Crimea."

The Kremlin has long feared that the European security order was a potential threat to Russia's sovereignty. And it was this fear -- more than any Slavic affinity for Serbia -- that was at the heart of Moscow's opposition to NATO's intervention in the Kosovo conflict.

But Russia's concerns about its own sovereignty also had a flip side -- a disregard for the sovereignty of others. Specifically, Moscow was also afraid that the post-Cold War order would prevent it from intervening in the affairs of its neighbors.

This was at the heart of the Kremlin's opposition to NATO -- and later EU -- enlargement.

"For 20 years, the Russian Federation has officially -- not privately, informally, or covertly, but officially -- equated its own security with the limited sovereignty of its neighbors," veteran Kremlin-watcher James Sherr said in a lecture at the Latvian Defense Academy's Center for Security and Strategic Research in March. 

On last week's Power Vertical Podcast, Sherr noted that prior to the annexation of Crimea, Russia bided its time and more or less played by the West's rules. Although it did test the waters, with moves like cyberattacks against Estonia in 2007 and the five-day war against Georgia in 2008. 

"They pushed and played with the rules, but they stayed inside sufficiently so that it was convenient for key actors in the West to ignore the changing mood in Russia, the growth of its bitterness and at the same time its confidence," Sherr said. "And now what has happened is that the Russians have mounted a fundamental assault on the legal basis of the post-Cold War security order."

And given the determination of Moscow's challenge, the West is now forced to defend the post-Cold War security order or cede a sphere of influence to Russia in the former Soviet space.

"The West has made an enormous political, economic, and moral investment in this post-Cold War security system. You have to be very shortsighted and very ignorant to be indifferent to all this," Sherr said.

The Ideological Challenge

It is Moscow's duty to represent, protect, and defend ethnic Russians everywhere. The Russian world is a distinctive civilization where the West's rules, norms, and values do not apply. Western civilization is decadent and in decline.

Unlike the Soviet Union, Russia is not offering an alternative model to Western liberalism. Instead, the ideological component of Moscow's challenge to the West is instead a negation.

Speaking on last week's Power Vertical Podcast, New York University professor and Russia-watcher Mark Galeotti called it "a backlash against the globalization of values."

Moscow is presenting a potent cocktail that unites cultural resentment, antiglobalization, Euroskepticism, cultural conservatism, and anti-Americanism.

"The whole ideology of Putinism is based upon civilization," Sherr said on the podcast. "It is based upon identity. It is based upon opposing liberal postmodernism, which is caricatured as opposing gay rights."

Putin's civilizational challenge has garnered sympathy among the members of the BRICS group uniting Russia with rising powers Brazil, China, India, and South Africa.

And with its adherents on Europe's far left, such as Greece's ruling Syriza party, and on its far right, such as France's National Front, it is creating something of a wedge within the West itself.

It even has supporters among leaders in Europe and on its periphery, including Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

This may not be a unified ideology or a truly viable alternative to Western liberalism. But for the time being, it is a powerful spoiler with some traction.

And it appears to fulfil a prophecy the late political scientist Samuel Huntington made in his seminal 1993 essay The Clash Of Civilizations that the future fault line of world politics was likely to pit the West against the rest.

So it's time to settle in for a Long War. It promises to be a protracted conflict of variable intensity that will be fought on multiple fronts.

It will involve brinksmanship on NATO's eastern frontier. It will be a clash over the futures of former Soviet republics like Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova and for influence in former Yugoslav ones like Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Macedonia.

It will be a battle for hearts and minds fought on the airwaves and in cyberspace.

And it's going to last for some time.

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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