Thursday, May 26, 2016

Ukraine's New Hope

How high can she fly now?

Brian Whitmore

So after holding her in captivity for 708 days, the Kremlin has finally released its most famous hostage.

And as a result, Ukraine might have gained something it has long lacked -- and badly needs: a political figure with clear and unambiguous moral authority; someone unsullied by the past and uncompromised by the corruption of the current elite; someone who took herself to the brink of death for the sake of Ukraine and who flipped the bird at Vladimir Putin's kangaroo court.

Nadia Sacvhenko could -- and I stress could -- just turn out to be Ukraine's Vaclav Havel; or its Lech Walesa; or its Nelson Mandela.

She returns home a hero at a time when Ukrainians are deeply disillusioned with their post-Euromaidan leaders, frustrated by the slow pace of reform, and angry about the persistent stalling in the battle against corruption.

Ukraine's vibrant civil society has long been light years ahead of its political class -- even its pro-Western political class -- something that has become increasingly visible over the past two years. 

As somebody who has suffered and persevered for the sake of their goals, Savchenko could now become a powerful lodestone for Ukraine's frustrated reformers.

She will also pose a moral challenge to the political elite -- from President Petro Poroshenko on down -- to live up to the promise of the Euromaidan revolution.

And she has a platform.

While in Russian captivity, Savchenko was elected to the Ukrainian parliament and is also a member of the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly. 

Russian officials are clearly aware of -- and nervous about -- Savchenko's potential. 

Federation Council speaker Valentina Matviyenko accused the Ukrainian authorities of conducting "a campaign to present Savchenko as a national hero."

But at the same time, speculation is rampant that Moscow also hopes to benefit from releasing her.

Savchenko's release comes just days after Vladimir Putin held a conference call with Poroshenko, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and French President Francois Hollande -- and just weeks before European leaders decide whether to extend sanctions against Russia.

Savchenko was just the most high-profile example of Moscow's recent habit of hostage taking, of snatching foreign citizens from their homelands and forcing them to endure ridiculous show trials in Russia. 

That list includes Estonian law enforcement officer Eston Kohver, who has been released, as well as Ukrainian film director Oleh Sentsov and activist Oleksandr Kolchenko, who have not. 

It also includes dozens of Ukrainians Kyiv says are being illegally imprisoned in Russia -- many of them residents of the forcefully annexed Crimean Peninsula who have remained loyal to Kyiv.

For those released, the pattern is similar: the abduction, the transparently absurd charges and cover story, the show trial, and finally the exchange for Russians who have committed actual crimes.

Kohver was charged with espionage after being kidnapped on Estonian territory while investigating a smuggling ring run by Russian organized-crime groups. He was exchanged for Aleksei Dressen, who was imprisoned in Estonia in 2012 after being convicted on charges of spying for Moscow.

Savchenko, of course, was abducted by pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine and charged with complicity in the deaths of two journalists who had been killed while she was already in captivity. 

She was exchanged for Aleksandr Aleksandrov and Yevgeny Yerofeyev, two Russian intelligence officers convicted of attacking Ukrainian forces and fomenting armed rebellion in the Donbas. And possibly -- we'll see in the coming weeks -- for an end to EU sanctions.

It's a pattern that is bound to repeat itself as long as the Kremlin keeps getting away with it.

The Morning Vertical, May 25, 2016

Brian Whitmore


So the Kremlin has finally released its most famous hostage. As I write this, kidnapped Ukrainian military pilot Nadia Savchenko is on a flight from Russia to Ukraine. Not much time to process all this, but here are my initial thoughts:

This saga, which has dragged on for nearly two years, has given Ukraine something it has long lacked: a leader with clear and unambiguous moral authority; someone unsullied by the past and uncompromised by the current corrupt elite; someone who took herself to the brink of death for the sake of Ukraine and who flipped the bird at Vladimir Putin's kangaroo court. Ukraine has its Vaclav Havel. Savchenko won't even need to formally enter politics to claim this mantle. Her mere presence on Ukrainian soil should do the trick.

Can the current Ukrainian elite live up to her example? We'll see.

And as for Russia, Savchenko was just the most high-profile example of Moscow's recent habit of hostage-taking: of snatching foreign citizens from their homelands and forcing them to endure ridiculous show trials in Russia. That list runs from Estonian law-enforcement officer Eston Kohver, who has been released, to Ukrainian film director Oleh Sentsov, who has not. For those released, the pattern is similar: the abduction, the transparently absurd charges and cover story, the show trial, and finally the exchange for Russians who have committed actual crimes.

It's a pattern that is bound to repeat itself as long as the Kremlin keeps getting away with it. 

Ukrainian military pilot Nadia Savchenko has been released after being exchanged for two Russian military intelligence officers.

Russia has acknowledged that 14 of its athletes are suspected of doping at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko says Russia will pass legislation making doping a criminal offense.

A Russian national and Portuguese citizen have been arrested in Rome on suspicion of espionage


A War With No Winners

Moscow-based foreign affairs analyst Vladimir Frolov has a thoughtful and in-depth piece in, A War Without Victors: Why Russia and the U.S. Are Powerless In Syria. Frolov writes that the inability of Moscow and Washington to control their proxies in Syria is making a political solution to the conflict unlikely.

Iran Can Surge In Syria, Too

Aron Lund of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has a piece that looks at the Iranian ground operation that has buttressed Russia's air campaign in Syria.

"What happened in autumn 2015 was not just that Russia began operating in Syrian airspace. The reason the Russian intervention was so successful was that it was also accompanied by Iranian intervention on the ground," Lund writes.

Wiretap Sting

Election monitor Golos says it has conducted a sting operation to expose that the pro-Kremlin television station NTV has been wiretapping their telephones, most likely with the assistance of the police. Golos employees arranged a fictitious meeting with officials from the Canadian Embassy in Moscow over the telephone, and at the appointed time a camera crew from NTV arrived at their office, Golos chairman Grigory Melkonyants told Novaya Gazeta.

Talking To Putin

Pavel Baev has a piece on The Jamestown Foundation's website on "the futility of dialogue with Vladimir Putin."

"The fundamental political belief in the inherent benefit of maintaining open dialogue with an opponent may be seriously misplaced in Putin’s case," Baev writes. 

"He cannot be dissuaded from using war as an instrument of policy, because only war provides justification for his regime. Nor can he be persuaded to choose what is best for Russia, because his regime is corrupt and the loyal security services (siloviki) are wrangling over the shrinking loot. Even the most no-nonsense talks cannot reduce the unpredictability of Russia’s behavior, because the country is going through spasms of angst and anger. A sincere Western commitment to dialogue could become a means of fooling itself -- and Putin is certainly a great help in that."

Russia's Mythological Army

Also on The Jamestown Foundation's website, military analyst Roger McDermott argues that Russia's new-look army isn't all it's cracked up to be.

"The representation of Russia’s army as a new all-powerful tool at the Kremlin’s disposal is hyperbole," McDermott writes.

"The many weaknesses in defense planning, reform setbacks, and the systemic challenges facing the domestic defense industry have been submerged in overly glowing public relations assertions, as well as masked by the Crimea operation and the air campaign in Syria"

Getting Russia Wrong

Timothy Frye, director of the Harriman Institute at Columbia University, has a piece in Foreign Affairs on why political theory consistently gets Russia wrong.

"Why has divining Russia’s political future been so hard?" Frye writes. "It is a challenge not because of the supposedly inscrutable Putin, the opacity of the political system, or the vagaries of the 'Russian soul,' but because our two most prominent arguments about political change make precisely opposite predictions about Russia."

Optimistic Ukrainians

Diane Francis, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center, has a piece on why, despite everything, Ukraine's reformers are still optimistic. The piece focuses on three members of Ukraine's parliament -- Sergii Leshchenko, Hanna Hopko, and Mustafa Nayyem -- who were propelled into politics by the Euromaidan revolution. 

Video The Daily Vertical: Cheering On Europe's Xenophobes

The Daily Vertical: Cheering On Europe's Xenophobesi
May 25, 2016
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday.
Brian Whitmore

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

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

Video The Daily Vertical: Going To Extremes

The Daily Vertical: Going To Extremesi
May 24, 2016
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday.
Brian Whitmore

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

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

The Morning Vertical, May 24, 2016

Brian Whitmore


One has to wonder how much longer the charade of the so-called Normandy Format can continue. Vladimir Putin, Petro Poroshenko, Angela Merkel, and Francois Hollande spoke yet by telephone again this week about ways to resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine. And as far as I can see, all the call did was provide the Kremlin with yet another opportunity to pretend it is a peacemaker in a conflict in which it is the instigator and the aggressor. Meanwhile, fighting spiked in the Donbas yesterday with Kyiv reporting 31 attacks by Russia-backed separatists.

This conflict will only end when Putin wants it to end. It will only end when the costs of continuing it are unacceptable for him. And continuing to treat the aggressor like a mediator with more "Normandy Format" phone calls does little to raise those costs.


The Supreme Court has approved criminal penalties for insulting Russia's national anthem.

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has told pensioners in Crimea that there "simply isn't enough money" to index pensions.

Russia's banning of Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev from his homeland appears to be headed for the European Court of Human Rights.

France has granted an entry visa to a Russian official banned by the EU.

The leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France, and Germany have spoken by telephone about ways to settle the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Russia says it summoned a U.S. defense attache after claiming that an American military aircraft flew into civilian airspace during a reconnaissance mission near Russia's border in the Far East.


The End Of The Petrostate?

Russian billionaire Petr Aven teamed up with economists Vladimir Nazarov and Samvel Lazaryan to pen a provocative article in The National Interest, Twilight Of The Petrostate, arguing that "the age of oil rents is over" and "a political and geopolitical revolution is on the way."

"As trade, investment, and migrant flows between oil-producing countries and the rest of the world decline, the body of globalism will certainly grow leaner. Its spirit, however, will revive," the authors write.

"The full enjoyment of Western comforts and technologies will no longer be compatible with a negation of its values and institutes. Only those countries that embrace modernization and carry it further than they did in the previous oil downcycle can hope not be relegated to a historical footnote."

In his column for Bloomberg View, political commentator Leonid Bershidsky argues that Putin should heed the warning.

"The rules of debate in Russia have changed significantly in recent years, but the debate itself hasn't quite ceased. Influential modernizers -- or, rather, Westernizers -- can still get their voices heard. Russia's future course depends on whether Putin is willing to listen, even just a little bit," Bershidsky writes.

Prokhorov's Deal With The Devil

Writing in Intersection, political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya argues that Mikhail Prokhorov's deal to fire RBC's editors in exchange for cessation of pressure won't work.

Victims Of Russian Aggression Unite!

In an interview with, Andreas Umland of the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kyiv argues that it is time for the victims of Russian aggression to unite to form a defensive bloc.

"Ukraine's accession to NATO is unrealistic. It is also questionable to say that the Association Agreement with the EU gives Ukraine security guarantees," Umland says. "Therefore, I see no other way out than to try to create some kind of a coalition of countries that are experiencing the same problems." 

A Canadian Magnitsky Act?

Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul has criticized Canada for its failure to adopt its own Magnitsky Act.

Russian Trolls In Finland

Journalist Jessikka Aro has a report in European View about the activities of Russian trolls on social media in Finland.

Aro herself has been targeted in a coordinated campaign of harassment and character assassination by Russian trolls.

And My Shameless Promotion Of A Friend's Accomplishment

And finally, congratulations to my good friend Peter Pomerantsev for winning the RSL Ondaatje Prize, which honors the best writing "evoking the spirit of a place" for his excellent book Nothing Is True And Everything Is Possible: Inside The Surreal Heart Of The New Russia.

Audio The Daily Vertical: Ghosts Of MH17

The Daily Vertical: Ghosts Of MH17i
May 23, 2016
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday.
Brian Whitmore

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

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

The Morning Vertical, May 23, 2016

Morning vertical 308x173

Brian Whitmore


There are lies. There are damn lies. And then there is Russia television.

Le Petit Journal, a satirical French current affairs program hosted by Yann Barthes, has picked apart a May 15 report on Russian state television about the fears Paris residents allegedly have of migrants.

Le Petit Journal re-interviewed each person that Russian television spoke to and showed that their comments had been either fabricated or taken completely out of context. A subtitled version is now burning up Russian social media.

But here's the thing. What Le Petit Journal just did could probably be done every single day.

Kremlin propagandist Dmitry Kiselyov just got caught using a fake Nazi ID on a recent broadcast accusing pro-European activists in Ukraine of being Nazi sympathizers.

The Russian Embassy in the United Kingdom tweeted a photo they claimed showed Syrian rebels receiving chemical weapons. It turned out the photo was from a video game called Command and Conquer.

And I could go on and on.

Problem is, no matter how much debunking gets done, the Kremlin keeps throwing out lies -- and many of them stick.


MH17 victims have filed a lawsuit against Russia and Vladimir Putin and are seeking $7.2 million (10 million Australian dollars) for each of the victims.

A French television station has exposed the fabrications in a recent broadcast by Kremlin propagandist Dmitry Kiselyov.

Russian warplanes have bombed the road leading to rebel-held areas of Aleppo.

More than one hundred miners were trapped in a mine in the Krasnoyarsk region after a wall collapsed.


On this week's Power Vertical Briefing, I discuss the MH17 lawsuit and a French television station's take-down of chief Kremlin propagandist Dmitry Kiselyov with Pavel Butorin, managing editor of RFE/RL's Russian-language television program Current Time. 


In case you missed the latest Power Vertical Podcast, Spooks and Crooks, a discussion about Russia's security services with Mark Galeotti and Edward Lucas, it's not too late to give it a listen.


Mobilizing The Masses

Andrew Monaghan has a new report out for Chatham House, Russian State Mobilization: Moving The Country Onto A War Footing.

"The term mobilizatsiya – 'mobilization' – features increasingly prominently in the Russian policy discussion. It describes a coordinated attempt on the part of the state to address an array of evolving security threats – in both narrow and broad senses – to Russia. In part, this reflects a widespread debate about the looming possibility, perhaps even inevitability, of war," Monaghan writes.

State-Sponsored Vigilantism

Novaya Gazeta's political editor Kirill Martinov writes that due to the rise in state-sanctioned vigilantism, Russia is losing one of the key attributes of statehood - a monopoly on force.

"We are moving toward a system of vassal dependencies," Martinov writes. 
"You can only hope for physical security only if you are loyal to an influential lord. Otherwise, you can be declared an enemy and the force used against you will be considered completely acceptable.”

Veteran Kremlin-watcher Paul Goble has reviewed Martinov's article on his blog.

Extremism Is In The Eye Of The Beholder

Vestnik Civitas notes that actual incidents of extremism are decreasing in Russia, but prosecutions for "extremism" are on the rise.

Oysters And RBC

Mikhail Khodorkovsky's Open Wall looks at the story about oysters that many believe brought RBC down.

"Who would have thought that a story about oysters would have brought down a billionaire, his independent media group, and ignited a flurry of outrage in the Western papers about yet another attack by the Putin regime on a free press. Mikhail Prokhorov’s RBC media empire is certainly being emasculated, but what about the oysters that caused the upset?" Open Wall writes.

Prokhorov's Quest

Ilya Zhegulev has a meaty feature for Meduza on Mikhail Prokhorov's failed efforts to remake Russian media and politics.

"It has been exactly eight years since Prokhorov last experienced a drastic change in his professional life, when he divided his assets with Vladimir Potanin, a former business partner, and plunged into politics and news reporting," Zhegulev writes.

"By 2016, all Prokhorov's political projects have ended. As for his news enterprises, their destiny remains unclear."

Diaspora Putinists

Euromaidan Press takes a look at Putinists among Russia's diaspora in the West.

The Crisis Of The West

Writing in The American Interest, Damir Marusic looks at the crisis the West's politics are enduring, and Russia's role in it.

"We’ve made no secret here at The American Interest that we believe Russia to be serious threat to the U.S.-led world order," Marusic writes. 

"We have pointed out time and again when we've thought weak or short-sighted leadership, coming from both Brussels and Washington, has played into Putin's opportunistic hands.

"And we’re not about to dismiss the effects that Russian money and messaging is having on the margins of European politics.

"Marine Le Pen’s Front National did indeed receive generous financing for its campaigns in 2014, and there are indications that various other parties across the continent are getting similar (if much smaller) bundles of aid. But at the same time, it’s would be a big mistake to overstate the case." 

Audio The Briefing: Lawsuits, Lies, And Videotape

(Time Magazine cover from August 4, 2014)

Brian Whitmore

A law firm in Australia sues Russia and Vladimir Putin over the downing of Flight MH17 in a case in which damages could approach $3 billion .

And a television station in France exposes the fabrications of Russia's top propagandist Dmitry Kiselyov, and the video is going viral.

On this week's Power Vertical Briefing, I discuss these two stories with Pavel Butorin, the managing editor of RFE/RL's Russian-language television program Current Time.


The Briefing: Lawsuits, Lies, And Videotape
The Briefing: Lawsuits, Lies, And Videotapei
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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: Spooks And Crooks

Working in the shadows.

Brian Whitmore

They do espionage. They do subversion. They do active measures. They do repression. They do a lot of business, most of it shady. And often, they're at each other's throats.

Russia's security services are Vladimir Putin's sword and shield.

They've been called the new nobility, the new Oprichniki, and the power behind the throne.

But what is the real state of Russia's siloviki?

On this week's Power Vertical Podcast, we tackle this issue with co-host Mark Galeotti, author of a widely discussed new report for the European Council on Foreign Relations titled: Putin's Hydra: Inside Russia's Security Services.

Joining Mark and I to discuss the report is veteran Kremlin-watcher Edward Lucas, author of the books The New Cold War and Deception: The Untold Story Of East-West Espionage Today.

Also on the podcast, we look at a recent shoot-out at Moscow's largest cemetery that was reminiscent of the gangland wars of the 1990s -- and may be a harbinger.


Power Vertical Podcast: Spooks And Crooks
Power Vertical Podcast: Spooks And Crooksi
|| 0:00:00

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

The Morning Vertical, May 20, 2016

Brian Whitmore


Are the Kremlin's repressive policies and aggressive international posture just the latest expression of traditional Russian autocracy, imperialism, and expansionism? Or are they, as Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes suggest in a provocative and thought-provoking essay featured below, a new form of "aggressive isolationism" that is part of a worldwide struggle against globalization -- a revolt of the losers in the post-Cold War order?

It is certainly a relevant question and Krastev and Holmes' important essay is well worth a read. My initial reaction (and I plan to do a bit more thinking about this) is that these things aren't necessarily mutually exclusive. Vladimir Putin's regime is seeking to insulate Russia from the forces of globalization, to be sure. But it is doing so because the Kremlin believes they are a threat to their autocratic rule at home and their ability to expand abroad.


The European Union's foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, says sanctions against Russia are likely to be extended when EU leaders meet later this month.

Likewise, Reuters cites unidentified EU sources as saying the same thing.

The World Anti-Doping Agency has named the head of its investigation into the Sochi Olympics.

Russia's Constitutional Court chief has compared Barack Obama to Adolf Hitler.

A survey by the consulting firm GlobeScan has ranked Russia the least welcoming country for refugees.

According to a top official from the Health Ministry, Russians' alcohol consumption has fallen by one-third over the past five years.


Remembering Putin's Rise

Writing in The American Interest, David Satter, author of Darkness At Dawn: The Rise Of Russia's Criminal State, recalls the lethal apartment bombings of 1999 that brought Vladimir Putin to power.

"The strange events that made possible Putin’s rise to power were not an anomaly. In fact, the bombings were the logical culmination of the history of the previous eight years," Satter writes. "Russia’s transition from communism to capitalism in the 1990s led to an upheaval that destroyed the moral orientation of the population. Under communism, Russia was organized on the basis of false values, but a moral code of sorts did exist. In the post-Soviet era, the idea that there was such a thing as right and wrong was all but jettisoned, and a new hierarchy emerged in which the gangster was king."

The Aggressive Isolationist

Also in The American Interest, Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes have a piece, Russia's Aggressive Isolationism, arguing that "Putin is leveraging foreign policy for domestic purposes, a flip made possible by a globalized world."

Here's the money graf: "Putin’s policies have almost nothing to do with Russia’s traditional imperialism or expansionism, nor is cultural conservatism such a decisive factor as some commentators allege. Putin does not dream of conquering Warsaw or re-occupying Riga. On the contrary, his policies are an expression of aggressive isolationism. They embody his defensive reaction to the threat to Russia posed not so much by NATO as by global economic interdependency. In this sense, Kremlin policy reflects a general trend that can be observed in the self-insulating behavior of several other global actors in the wake of global financial crises as they have unfolded since the 1980s. Superficially, it’s true that Putin’s actions resemble 19th-century Russian imperial politics, but they are actually part of a worldwide 21st-century resistance to unfettered, open-for-business but under-governed globalization."

Putin's War On The Media

Political analyst Masha Lipman has a piece in The New Yorker, The Demise Of RBC And Investigative Reporting In Russia, on Putin's destruction of the media

"The Kremlin is increasingly intolerant toward independent players, whether in politics, civic activism, or media, and a media organization like RBC was doomed from the start," Lipman writes. "Putin’s government has largely refrained from pressuring or persecuting individual journalists. Instead, it has drawn on a range of tools -- such as restrictive legislation and pressure on advertisers, cable providers, or owners --to clamp down on those media outlets that have grown too audacious."

Poland's Crackdown On Pro-Moscow Activists

Writing on his blog, Anton Shchekhovtsov, a visiting fellow at the Vienna-based Institute for Human Sciences, looks at Poland's crackdown on a pro-Russia party and the detention of pro-Moscow activist Mateusz Piskorski.

The Tatars' Plight

In an op-ed in The New York Times, Christina Paschyn, director of the documentary film A Struggle For Home: The Crimean Tatars, argues that "Russia is trying to wipe out Crimea’s Tatars."

The Kremlin And Anti-Semitism

Journalist and political analyst Olga Irisova has a piece in Intersection magazine on how the Kremlin "manages" -- and uses -- anti-Semitism.

Video The Daily Vertical: That Sure Is Some Cease-Fire!

The Daily Vertical: That Sure Is Some Cease-Fire!i
May 20, 2016
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday.
Brian Whitmore

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

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

The Morning Vertical, May 19, 2016

Morning vertical 308x173

Brian Whitmore


The foreign ministers of Germany, France, Ukraine, and Russia made little progress on resolving the Donbas conflict when they met in Berlin last week.

Nor did the trilateral contact group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Ukraine, and Russia when they met in MInsk yesterday.

There was no progress on holding local elections in Russian-controlled Donbas.

There was no progress on bringing in armed police in to accompany OSCE observers.

And meanwhile, over a 24-hour period this week, Ukraine recorded no less than 24 attacks on its forces by Moscow-backed separatists. That's some ceasefire!

Isn't is time to admit the obvious?

The Minsk ceasefire is dead. It was a flawed deal that succeeded in one thing: preventing an all-out Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine in the beginning of 2014. But it has now outlived its usefulness.

There has persistently been no progress on implementing Minsk because the parties to the agreement see it entirely differently. Ukraine and the West viewed Minsk as a way to stop the war. Russia viewed it as a tool to continue its assault on Ukraine by other means.


The Russian State Duma has passed the first reading of a bill formally establishing Vladimir Putin's National Guard.

An armed man who took hostages at a Moscow bank today was shot dead.

The International Olympic Committee head says Russia could be banned from the 2016 Summer Games in Rio over doping.

NATO foreign ministers are meeting in Brussels to discuss security threats in advance of the alliance's summit next month.

Montenegro is scheduled to sign its NATO accession agreement today.


The Kremlin's Media Crackdown

On his blog for the Kennan Institute, Vedomosti's editor-at-large, Maxim Trudolyubov looks at how the Kremlin is using "salami tactics" in its media crackdown.

"By now the Kremlin has achieved many of its real goals (not stated ones): it consolidated companies responsible for all natural resources and their exports; collected major industrial assets in large state-run holdings; put banking under state control; got rid of independent media; undermined all independent action by civil society; turned all domestic politics into a manageable theater; made the Orthodox Church a mighty supporter," Trudolyubov writes.

And in its piece Twelve Newsrooms In Five Years, Meduza takes a granular look at how the Kremlin has "decimated a news industry."
The War On The Magnitsky Act

In The Daily Beast, Michael Weiss looks at Russia's efforts to get the U.S. Magnitsky Act repealed.

On The Path To War?

In a new book, former Deputy NATO commander Alexander Richard Shirreff says Russia and the West are on the path to war.

Sweden And NATO

In a piece on The Atlantic Council's website, Aaron Korewa of the McCain Institute for International Leadership looks at why Sweden hasn't joined NATO.

Spooks And Crooks

Open Russia has published a summary and analysis of a 2007 Swiss intelligence report on cooperation between Russian organized crime and the FSB. The report was published this week on the Hudson Institute's Kleptocracy Archive.

Explaining Russia's Eurovision Fixation

Mikhail Khodorkovsky's Open Wall looks at why Russians care so much about the Eurovision song festival.

The Minsk Fiction

On The Atlantic Council's website, Maksym Khylko, chairman of the board at the East European Security Research Initiative Foundation, warns Ukraine and the West: "Beware of Unrealistic Peace Plans. The Kremlin Will Outplay You Every Time."

Video The Daily Vertical: History As Heresy

The Daily Vertical: History As Heresyi
May 19, 2016
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday.
Brian Whitmore

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

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

The Monster Under The Kremlin

(cartoon of the day by Sergey Elkin, RFE/RL)

Brian Whitmore

At first glance, the massive shoot-out at Moscow's Khovanskoye Cemetery this past weekend seemed pretty retro. 

What, after all, reminds us more of the 1990s than rival Russian gangs staging a deadly brawl in a turf war over control of the lucrative burial business? What is more reminiscent of the gratuitous violence and lawlessness of the first post-Soviet decade than a shooting gallery amid the tombstones?

"The wild Russian '90s, replete with murders, racketeering, and criminal-fueled chaos, are back," the magazine The American Interest opined on its Mafia State Watch blog, adding that Russian leader Vladimir "Putin has long boasted that he alone was able to help Russia get over this tumultuous period, and that he alone could guarantee stability for an unlimited amount of time."

But in addition to giving us a blast from the past, the showdown at Moscow's largest cemetery also gave us -- perhaps -- a glimpse of the future. 

Because Putin never ended the gangsterism of the 1990s, he just nationalized it.

And now the Kremlin's grip may be slipping.

If Boris Yeltsin's Russia often resembled a mafia masquerading as a country, it was a mafia run by a weak, feeble, and frequently inebriated godfather. This, of course, was a recipe for chaos, as it gave Yeltsin's capos and underbosses a lot of leeway, which they used with impunity.

Putin, in contrast, sent a clear and early message to the underworld: the state is the biggest gang in town and all others are subordinate to it. 

Putin's deal with the criminal underworld was simple: do your gangster stuff, but don't do it in the open; don't embarrass the Kremlin with the noisy public shoot-outs that were the hallmark of the 1990s. 

And oh, by the way, if the Kremlin needs a favor someday, you had best be ready to oblige.

The shoot-out in Khovanskoye Cemetery violated Putin's first commandment to the underworld.

It also exposed the soft underbelly of the regime; it revealed the rot that forms the foundation of Putin's Power Vertical. 

Organized crime groups are colluding with the authorities and with law enforcement at every level. Police are often more concerned with taxing the illegal narcotics trade than fighting it. And even things like cemeteries are bound up in Russia's sprawling political- bureaucratic-criminal web.

Russian media quoted law enforcement officials as saying that this weekend's shoot-out -- which involved enforcers from the North Caucasus attacking Central Asian migrants working at the cemetery -- was related to turf wars over who would control burial plots and maintenance work at the cemetery. 

One of those arrested was a police officer. Also under investigation is the cemetery's director. And one of the main subjects of the investigation is Ritual, a state-run funeral agency.

"The language of the banditized '90s no longer describes today's power structures," journalist and political analyst Oleg Kashin wrote in "The integration between criminals and the authorities is on a whole new level, as are the stakes."

And the monster under the Kremlin has been rearing its head with increasing frequency.

A warning shot came back in November 2010 in the Krasnodar region with the horrific Kushchevskaya massacre, in which 12 people, including four children, were killed by a gang led by a local mob boss with close ties to local politicians and law enforcement.

Then there was the high-profile assassination of the legendary gangster Aslan Usoyan, an old-school "vor v zakone" who was known by the moniker "Ded Khasan," in downtown Moscow in January 2013.

And last month in the village of Ivashovka in Samara Oblast, there was the slaying of Andrei Gosht, a former senior police officer, and five of his relatives -- a case Russian media reports suggested was tied to organized crime.

When the economic pie was expanding, it was easy for the Kremlin to manipulate the criminal underworld and keep it tame and well fed.

But those days are over. The pie is shrinking and only the best connected crime groups are thriving -- and the rest are getting restless, and more willing to break the rules. 

The shoot-out at the Khovanskoye Cemetery might just be a harbinger. 

"It's neither the opposition nor the bureaucracy, but those who are willing to die to achieve their specific goals who are showing us what a potential civil war in Russia could look like," Kashin wrote in his column in

The Morning Vertical, May 18, 2016

Brian Whitmore


Today marks the 72nd anniversary of the deportation of the Crimean Tatars from their homeland in 1944. And it's worth noting that, like with other shameful events in Soviet history, the Kremlin and its surrogates are treating it's memory with stunning callousness.

The state-run Rossia-1 television station's commentary during the Ukrainian singer Jamala's performance of 1944, which honors the deportees -- and which eventually won this year's Eurovision Song Contest -- is a perfect example.

The channel's commentators called the song "a prayer of those leaving their homes searching for a better life far beyond" -- suggesting their forceful deportation of some 240,000 people on the Kremlin's orders was an act of free will.

At least one Russian was outraged. Lawyer Dmitry Sotnikov called the comment "blasphemy and an undisguised insult against the Crimean Tatars' national memory" and has launched a petition calling on the station to apologize.

Don't hold your breath. Sadly, people like Sotnikov remain a tiny minority in Vladimir Putin's Russia.


U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland is in Moscow for talks with Russian officials.

The Russian Justice Ministry says a prisoner exchange that would release kidnapped Ukrainian military pilot Nadia Savchenko will probably not happen.

Today marks the 72nd anniversary of Josef Stalin's deportation of the Crimean Tatars in 1944.

And the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner said the persecution of Tatars has grown since Russia's annexation of Crimea.

The United States Justice Department has opened an investigation into Russian doping.

Four Russian weightlifters, including a world record holder, have been banned for doping.

The Russian government is holding up a bill that would classify the property records of officials.

Russian nationalist ideologue Aleksandr Dugin has been denied entry into Greece.

The Communist Party plans to use Josef Stalin's image in its advertising for September's State Duma elections.

Opposition leader Aleksei Navalny and his supporters were attacked by Cossacks at an airport in Krasnodarsky Krai.

According to amendments passed by the State Duma, some Russian NGOs will be exempt from the infamous "foreign agents" law.

Ukraine and Turkey have signed a military cooperation pact through 2020.


NATO's Baltic Gap

The Tallinn-based International Center for Defense and Security has a new report, Closing NATO's Baltic Gap, authored by three former NATO commander Wesley Clark, former Deputy NATO commander Richard Shirreff, retired German General Egon Ramms, and former Estonian Foreign and Defense Minister Juri Luik.

"NATO’s current posture, which is reliant on the reinforcement of the Baltic states, lacks credibility. The Alliance would be unable to deny Russia a military fait accompli in the region and, given Russia’s 'anti-access/area denial' (A2/AD) capabilities, to rapidly deploy additional forces there," the authors write. 

Pavlensky Profiled

It's a couple weeks old, but Noah Sneider's profile of Pyotr Pavlensky in The Economist's 1843 magazine is worth reading.

"Pavlensky practises actionism, an art form with a rich history in Russia," Sneider writes. "He calls his particular brand of actionism "political art” (not to be confused with art about politics). He paints with the mechanisms of power and uses his own body as a canvas. He believes in the emancipatory potential of his works. As a means of revolution, it is almost certainly a futile endeavour; but as art, there is no clearer image of Russia in 2016.

Attacking Navalny

On Global Voices, Kevin Rothrock unpacks the attack on opposition leader and anticorruption blogger Aleksei Navalny and his allies at Anapa Airport.

The War On Eurovision

Writing in The New Yorker, journalist and author Masha Gessen looks at how Russia is declaring war on Eurovision.

Kleptocracy Database

And, just in case the Panama Papers weren't enough for you, the Hudson Institute's Kleptocracy Initiative has launched its searchable Kleptocracy Archive online.

Dying For Donbas

Alexander Motyl of Rutgers University Newark has a provocative piece titled Dying For Donbas on his blog on The World Affairs Journal website.

Here's the lede: "Just about every day, soldiers die. Sometimes, it’s as many as three or four. Sometimes, it’s two or three. Usually, it’s only one.
Only one young life snuffed out -- for what?
For the Russian-occupied Donbas enclave. That is to say, for nothing.
I can understand, intellectually, at least, dying for your family or friends, for your country or city or community, for democracy or peace or your nation.
But dying for a piece of crummy land populated by 3 million inhabitants, the vast majority of whom hate Ukraine and everything it stands for? That makes no sense.."

Read the rest here.

Video The Daily Vertical: Savchenkophobia

The Daily Vertical: Savchenkophobiai
May 18, 2016
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.
Brian Whitmore

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

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

The Morning Vertical, May 17, 2016

Brian Whitmore


It was back to the 1990s this past weekend as a massive brawl and shoot-out erupted at Moscow's Khovanskoye Cemetery.

The motivations for the fight, which left three dead, are not entirely clear yet. Police say it was partially motivated by different groups fighting over control of the lucrative burial business. Some have also pointed to an ethnic component, noting that the cemetery staff were Tajiks and Uzbeks, while the attackers were from Chechnya and Daghestan.

What is clear, however, is that this kind of thing is not supposed to happen under Vladimir Putin's unwritten contract with Russia's organized crime groups.

Putin's deal with Russia's various mafias was simple: do your gangster stuff, but don't do it in the open; don't embarrass the Kremlin with the noisy public shootouts that were the hallmark of the Boris Yeltsin period. And if the Kremlin needs a favor from you someday, be ready to oblige.

The shoot-out on May 14 broke the first commandment of Putin's deal with the criminal underworld. And it may be an indication that he is losing control.


The Kremlin is denying a report that it plans to raise taxes in 2018.

Kremlin propagandist Dmitry Kiselyov has admitted that he used a fake Nazi ID card in a report on Russia's state-run Channel One comparing Ukrainian pro-European activists to a Nazi SS division made up of Ukrainians during WWII.

The United States, Russia, and other members of the UN Security Council have agreed to arm the Libyan government.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will co-chair Syrian peace talks in Vienna today.

The State Duma's health-care committee is considering issuing "reproductive health certificates" to men.

Russia's economy contracted less than expected in the first quarter of 2016.

Investigators say a massive shoot-out at Moscow's Khovanskoye Cemetery was financially motivated.


The Battle For Khovanskoye Cemetery

In his column in, journalist Oleg Kashin calls this weekend's shoot-out at Moscow's Khovanskoye Cemetery "a dress rehearsal for a civil war."

Will Sanctions Be Extended?

A commentary by Fredrik Wesslau on the European Council on Foreign Relations website predicts that the EU will extend sanctions on Russia next month.

Nationalizing Corruption

Ivan Krastev, chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, has a piece in The New York Times on why Putin "tolerates" corruption.

"The Kremlin’s top priority then is not purging corrupt elites, but nationalizing them. Russian elites have the right to be corrupt, but only if they have proved their loyalty," Krastev writes.

Don't Mention The Annexation!

Mikhail Khodorkovsky's Open Wall has a piece looking at the case of Andrei Bubeyev, a mechanical engineer from Tver who was sentenced to 27 months in prison for reposting an article critical of Russia's forceful annexation of Ukraine on social media.

"Bubeyev case is the byproduct of the very nature of the law enforcement agencies in Putin's Russia, and of the so-called 'quota system' used to judge the performance of the FSB, the police, and their many confederates. Every region -- Tver, Chechnya, and the rest -- is given a set of targets whereby a certain number of extremism-related cases must be launched every year. Which, clearly enough, presents the counter-extremism authorities in Tver with a far tougher challenge than the one facing their colleagues in the Caucasus."

Managing the Spooks

In an interview with, Mark Galeotti discusses his widely circulated report on the management of Russia's security services for the European Council on Foreign Relations.

The End of Privacy

Shaun Walker has a chilling piece in The Guardian about the application FindFace, which compares photos to profile pictures on the popular Russian social network VKontakte and works out identities with 70 percent accuracy. 

The Arctic Front

In a piece on the War On The Rocks blog, Robert W. Murray of the Frontier Center for Public Policy, argues that it would be a mistake to oversell the Russian threat in the Arctic.

NATO's Reaction Force

According to a report in the Financial Times, NATO generals say the alliance's new rapid-reaction force is not yet ready to be deployed to Eastern Europe in the event of a war with Russia.

"The 'Very High Readiness Joint Task Force,' the 5,000-strong centerpiece of the 2014 NATO summit and the package of measures it produced to counter Russian aggression, would be too vulnerable during its deployment phase to be used in Poland or the Baltic States, two senior NATO generals with close knowledge of the alliance’s logistical and military planning told the Financial Times."

The Kremlin And The Islamists

Reuters has a special report on how Russia allowed homegrown Islamic radicals to go and fight in Syria.

Privatization In Ukraine

Writing on the Atlantic Council website, Anders Aslund argues that it is time for Ukraine to start mass privatizations.

Video The Daily Vertical: The Tsar Has No Clothes

The Daily Vertical: The Tsar Has No Clothesi
May 17, 2016
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.
Brian Whitmore

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

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

The Morning Vertical, May 16, 2016

Brian Whitmore


So what will RBC's senior editors do now that they have been sacked and one of Russia's best news sources is being emasculated? Maybe they can move to Riga and form a news agency called Pegasus, as Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies suggested on Facebook. (That is, after all, what their colleagues at did following a similar Kremlin assault on that once fine news agency. They moved to Riga and formed Meduza.) Will the Baltics now become the hub of independent Russian journalism? How will the crackdown on RBC effect the few remaining independent media outlets? What will happen at Vedomosti? At At Novaya Gazeta? In a remarkably brave move, The New Times today published an investigative piece (featured below) on Moscow properties linked to the FSB being registered offshore. They've clearly decided that if the last remaining free media is going down, it may as well go down swinging.


Be sure to check out this week's Power Vertical Briefing in which Steve Gutterman and I discuss the attack on RBC and new legislation restricting some Russians' right to travel.


And in case you missed Friday's Podcast, Georgia's Fading NATO Dream, in which I discuss Georgia's efforts to join the alliance with James Nixey of Chatham House and Tbilisi-based political analyst Ghia Nodia.

Russia's sports minister apologizes for doping scandal.

Ukraine's Jamala wins Eurovision as Russia cries foul.

The director of St. Petersburg's Symphony Orchestra has been found dead in his apartment.

The head of Chechnya's Supreme Court has resigned after being criticized by Ramzan Kadyrov.

A new report by the human rights group Agora claims that 6 percent of Russians have had their phones tapped from 2007-15.

Russia is reportedly planning to introduce a progressive income tax, replacing the current 13 percent flat tax, after the 2018 presidential elections.

Police officers have reportedly been killed in a shoot-out at a Moscow cemetery.

Remaining RBC editors will need to clear stories with the company's general director.


Offshore Paradise

The New Times has a new investigative report claiming that nearly one-fifth of the land and properties in the Moscow suburbs are registered offshore -- and many of them are former properties of the KGB and the FSB. 

The Kleptocrats' Helpers

Anne Applebaum has a commentary in The Washington Post on how the United States and Great Britain help kleptocrats around the world -- and pay the price.

Here's the opening: "In the village of Bramley, Hampshire, an English country estate is undergoing a major renovation. A large crane can be seen from the road, along with wide lawns and the old trees of an elegant park. Beaurepaire Park was pointed out to me a few weeks ago by locals who told me the surprising name of their new neighbor: Yuri Luzhkov, the former mayor of Moscow.

Fascinated to learn that Luzhkov and his wife, Elena Baturina, Russia’s only female billionaire, had decided to experience English country life, I looked up the house in the British Land Registry. But although the purchase price was there – £5.5 million ($7.9 million) — I found no Russian names. The owner is Skymist Holdings Limited, which is also responsible for the extensive renovation. Were it a British company, it might be possible to check whether Luzhkov is really the owner. Alas, Skymist is registered in the British Virgin Islands, where ownership can be concealed, and the trail ends there."

Read the rest here.

Remembering Lennart Meri

On the eve of this past weekend's Lennart Meri conference, Donald Jensen remembered Estonia's moral lodestone and first post-Soviet president -- and what he stood for.

"With Europe wracked by a variety of challenges -- Russian aggression in Ukraine, terrorism, waves of immigrants from the Middle East, sluggish economies, and populist movements questioning the very democratic foundations of their societies -- it is wise to recall the spirit of Lennart Meri, the Estonian president in whose memory a major international conference is being held this weekend in Tallinn," Jensen wrote.

Baltic Security: It's Complicated

BNEIntellinews has a piece on NATO's Baltic buildup and a recent Lithuanian intelligence report on Russia's intentions.

"A recent intelligence revelation out of Lithuania spoke of how a couple years ago Russian paratroopers, simulating a special task operation in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, sandwiched between the NATO states of Poland and Lithuania, might have crossed over the border into Juodkrante, a lush Lithuanian settlement on the Baltic Sea," according to BNEIntellinews.

The Day RBC Died

Meduza has a piece on the dismantling of RBC and "how Russia gained and lost a great source of news."

Conspiracy Of The Day

And in today's nutty conspiracy theory news, Kommersant has an an interview with Vladimir Vasilyev of the Russian Academy of Sciences U.S.A. and Canada Institute arguing that Barack Obama is planning a castling move: making Joe Biden president and continuing to rule the country as vice president.

Video The Daily Vertical: No Criticism Allowed

The Daily Vertical: No Criticism Allowedi
May 16, 2016
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.
Brian Whitmore

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

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

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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 offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or