Thursday, July 30, 2015


Video The Daily Vertical: An Implicit Admission Of Guilt

The Daily Vertical: An Implicit Admission Of Guilti
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July 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.

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.


Ukraine As A Bargaining Chip?

A pawn in a great power game?

Brian Whitmore

If you believe all the talk out there lately, Vladimir Putin is not only duplicitous and hypocritical -- he's also been pretty damn busy lately. Busy cutting secret deals with the same Europeans and Americans he has been vilifying for years.

And if you believe the rumors, the Europeans and Americans have also been busy selling out Ukraine to the Russians.

Not that any of this would be unusual or particularly surprising. Cynicism, duplicity, and hypocrisy are often the reserve currencies of politics, where interests tend to trump values.

There have long been suspicions out there that the United States and Europe might give Ukraine up in exchange for Moscow's support in securing a deal to curb Iran's nuclear program.  

Additionally, Washington has been seeking Moscow's backing in securing a managed, orderly, and negotiated exit for Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, which would go a long way toward ending the conflict in that country.

And over the past two weeks, speculation has intensified that some kind of quid pro quo has in fact been reached with Putin. It began in earnest on July 14 when U.S. President Barack Obama praised Moscow's role in securing a deal to curb Iran's nuclear program. 

The suspicion only increased two days later, on July 16, when U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland traveled to Kyiv to persuade lawmakers to include language in amendments to the Ukrainian Constitution recognizing the special status of separatist-held areas of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. 

This is something Moscow has long sought, but that Ukraine had been resisting.

And the speculation reached a fever pitch when people began connecting the last couple months' data points: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Sochi on May 12 for talks with Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin on Iran, Syria, and Ukraine; a bilateral diplomatic channel on the Ukraine conflict was subsequently opened between Nuland and Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin; Obama and Putin had two long phone conversations, on June 25 and July 15.

Moreover, in addition to the Iran deal, Moscow also appears more open to helping broker Assad's exit in Syria, The Wall Street Journal reported. 

"A deal was cut without Ukraine, and at Ukraine's expense," Andrei Illarionov, a former Putin adviser turned critic, wrote in Kasparov.ru. 

Likewise, political analyst Vladimir Socor wrote that "the White House has reordered its policy priorities toward working with Russia on the Middle East, correspondingly becoming more accommodating to Russia’s position on implementing the Minsk armistice in Ukraine." 

A Quid Pro Quo?

It's tempting, it's elegant, and it seems to fit. But is it true?

Asked about a potential quid pro quo in Kyiv, Nuland said it was "offensive to suggest that the U.S. does tradeoffs." 

Offensive or not, it's worth asking, what exactly has Russia gained? Two things, actually -- but neither really qualifies as a wholesale sellout of Kyiv.

Establishing the Nuland-Karasin diplomatic channel gives Moscow something it has always craved: a bilateral format to decide the Ukraine crisis with the United States -- one that doesn't include the Ukrainians. It's exactly the kind of great-power politics -- where big countries decide the fates of small ones -- that the Kremlin loves.

And with all the predictable echoes-of-Munich allusions, it is also horrible optics. But in and of itself, the Nuland-Karasin channel doesn't really give Moscow anything deliverable.

The second thing Moscow has gained came on July 16, when the Ukrainian parliament passed the first reading of constitutional amendments that would grant more power to the country's regions.

After intense lobbying from Nuland, the legislation included the line that: "The particulars of local government in certain districts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions are to be determined by a special law." 

This was widely interpreted as giving Moscow what it really wants in Ukraine: a dysfunctional federalized state where its proxies in the separatist-held areas of Donbas will be able to paralyze decision making in Kyiv.

The United States and the European Union have been pushing Ukraine to grant greater autonomy for Donetsk and Luhansk and the legalization of separatist forces, as stipulated by the Minsk cease-fire, before Moscow and its proxies cease military operations and pull back heavy weapons. 

"Western powers are increasingly pressuring Ukraine to fulfill the [Minsk agreement's] political clauses unilaterally, without seriously expecting Russian compliance with the military clauses," Socor wrote

But the legislation that passed its first reading on July 16 doesn't actually give Moscow anything -- at least not yet.

The amendments still need to win a two-thirds majority in parliament in their final reading, far from a certainty -- especially given the mood of the Ukrainian public, which is strongly opposed to granting autonomy to the rebel-held areas and legal recognition to their leaders. 
 
And even then, the separate law that will determine Donetsk and Luhansk's status won't be drafted and debated until the autumn.

Moscow's Dirty Little Secret

Which effectively leaves us pretty much where we were before -- in a stalemate. Ukraine insists that Moscow fulfil the military end of the Minsk deal before it fulfils the political end; and Russia insists Kyiv deliver the political changes first.

Writing in the pro-Kremlin daily Izvestia, Russian political commentator Aleksandr Chalenko wrote that "the Minsk process is deadlocked" and Moscow should just consider annexing the separatist-held territories. 

Similarly, a recent article by defense analyst Valery Afanasyev in the influential military journal Voennoye Obozreniye argued that the rebel territories should be turned into "a second Belarus...an autocratic state completely dependent on Moscow." 

This could be seen as an implicit threat to annex these territories of turn them into a protectorate. But Russia's dirty little secret is that these are the last things it wants. Who, after all, would want to be saddled with the cost of rebuilding and the hassle of administering these places? 

And Russia's dirty little secret is no longer so secret. It's clear to anybody paying attention that Moscow's endgame is to embed these territories back into Ukraine as a Trojan horse. And it is desperate to cut a deal to secure this result.

"As long as Putin is in Ukraine, he is dependent on others. And this dependence can be used," Ukrainian political analyst Petr Oleshchuk wrote. 


Video The Daily Vertical: 'Patriotism' As Official Ideology

The Daily Vertical: 'Patriotism' As Official Ideologyi
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July 28, 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: Oil Games And A Feast Day

Oil and religion are in the news this week.

Brian Whitmore

OPEC Secretary-General Abdullah al-Badri visits Moscow amid falling oil prices. And Orthodox Christians mark a millennium since the death of Prince Vladimir.

On this week's Power Vertical Briefing, we preview Badri's July 30 trip to Moscow. Russia has been lobbying OPEC to cut production in order to boost prices, but until now, OPEC -- and Saudi Arabia in particular -- have been reluctant to do so.

Also on the Briefing, we look at how Moscow and Kyiv will honor Prince Vladimir, the ruler who brought Christianity to Kievan Rus, on his feast day, July 28.

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

Enjoy...

Briefing: Oil Games And A Feast Day
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EDITOR'S 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.


Video The Daily Vertical: Russia Fights The Law

The Daily Vertical: Russia Fights The Lawi
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July 27, 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 Podcast: Russia's Money Laundromat

London's dusty Victorian bricks have become the reserve currency of Russian money launderers.

Brian Whitmore

It began with a television documentary. A sting operation in which two journalists posed as Boris and Nastya -- a Russian official and his mistress, seeking to buy luxury homes in London with money pilfered from the state budget.

Boris explains the situation to five separate real estate agents, stressing that the sale must be kept secret and off the books. And in each case, the real estate agent agrees to go ahead with the sale, in violation of the United Kingdom's disclosure laws.

From Russia With Cash debuted on July 8 on Britain's Channel 4, and in the weeks since, it has sparked an online campaign to shame British MPs into reforming the country's property laws.

It has also opened a much-needed discussion about how Western countries are complicit in Russian corruption -- and are aiding and abetting Vladimir Putin's authoritarian and increasingly aggressive regime.

On the latest Power Vertical Podcast, I spoke with one of the masterminds of the From Russia With Cash project, journalist and Kremlin-watcher Ben Judah, author of the book Fragile Empire: How Russians Fell in and Out of Love With Vladimir Putin; and with journalist Oliver Bullough, author of the book, The Last Man In Russia and the Struggle to Save a Dying Nation.

Enjoy...

Podcast: Russia's Money Laundromat
Podcast: Russia's Money Laundromati
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Listen to or download the podcast above or subscribe to The Power Vertical Podcast on iTunes.​


Video The Daily Vertical: Give Me Your Rich, Pampered Kleptocrats

The Daily Vertical: Give Me Your Rich, Pampered Kleptocratsi
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July 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.

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: A Belarus In The Donbas?

The Daily Vertical: A Belarus In The Donbas?i
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July 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: A Belarus In The Donbas?

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 Second Crimean Invasion

In Crimea, the honeymoon is over.

Brian Whitmore

More than a year after the anschluss, Crimea is about to experience what a real Russian invasion feels like.

And this time it won't be "polite people" arriving to lead a virtual liberation of the peninsula from the clutches of mythological Ukrainian fascists.

According to a report in Kommersant, the Kremlin is preparing to dispatch an army of political commissars to de facto run Crimea's affairs and oversee the local authorities.

"Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak has instructed federal departments to draw up a list of candidates from among their high-ranking officials for appointment to posts as first deputy chiefs of the peninsula's executive bodies," the daily reported, citing unidentified Kremlin officials.

You have to wonder whether all those pro-Moscow Crimeans who celebrated last year's annexation had any idea what they were getting themselves into. If they didn't then, they sure do now -- because the honeymoon is definitely over.

"In effect we are talking about a revival of the institution of commissars," a Kremlin official told Kommersant, referring to the Soviet-era institution of Communist Party political officers dispatched to ensure ideological discipline and purity.

"All decisions on key issues relating to the life of Crimea will be made exclusively in coordination with the officials sent from the center," Kommersant quoted one official as saying.

Put another way, the Crimean elite is about to feel the crushing embrace of Vladimir Putin's power vertical. And it is about to learn that being part of Russia means being colonized and cannibalized by Putin's cronies.

Let The Purges Begin

And before Crimea's new commissars arrive, Moscow is already beginning to clean house.

Over the past month, the Federal Security Service (FSB) and the Investigative Committee have launched criminal corruption cases against three top Crimean officials: Industrial Minister Andrei Skrynnik, chief tax inspector Nikolai Kochanov, and Yalta port chief Dmitry Petrov. 

Meanwhile, federal officials have accused Crimea's Construction Ministry of misappropriating approximately two-thirds of the funds provided to rebuild the peninsula's roads.

Russian media has naturally presented the cases as evidence that the Kremlin is determined to combat corruption and suggested there would be more to come. 

But corruption investigations in Russia are almost never really about corruption; they're almost always about power struggles and battles over resources.

Political analyst Yekaterina Schulmann told The Moscow Times that the cases signal that Crimea is no longer "sacred" and will now be subject to the same pressure and clan battles as any other region.

"The Crimean elite has little chance in this fight because it was built under a completely different system of government -- the Ukrainian system," she said.

"The question is not whether the Ukrainian government was more or less corrupt than Russia. Its system of corruption was built on different lines, and connections led to different people and structures. Now, these connections are no use to anyone and don't offer protection from anything." 

Under Ukrainian rule, Crimea was spectacularly corrupt, enjoyed broad autonomy, and local clans were largely left to run the peninsula's affairs. And now Moscow wants a piece of the action.

'Crimea Has Come Under Attack'

Sergei Aksyonov, the reputed former gangster Moscow installed as Crimea's leader, initially appeared to accept the new order. In a statement posted on the official government website, he said officials "do not have immunity" and "should be held accountable for their actions." 

But days later he changed his tune, saying the cases were "fabricated," calling the FSB "provocateurs" and accusing it of trying to discredit the Crimean authorities.

"Some characters from the mainland came here and claim that Crimeans are useless idiots and they are heroes who will change things. I guarantee you, this will not happen," Aksyonov said.

Likewise, the chairman of Crimea's legislature, Vladimir Konstantinov, said "Crimea has come under a serious attack."

And it is not just the Crimean elite that is about to get a hard lesson about what it means to be a subject of the Russian Federation.

The daily Noviye Izvestia reported that the Russian armed forces plan to draft 2,500 Crimean men in the autumn, a fivefold increase over the spring draft. 

Leonid Grach, the former head of Crimea's legislature, noted that anti-Moscow sentiments are rising on the peninsula and the Kremlin could face a rebellion if it is not careful.

Perhaps. And if so, it would likely be suppressed as ruthlessly as it would anyplace else.

If Crimeans are experiencing buyer's remorse, it's coming a bit late.

Especially now that the commissars are coming.

Tags:crimea


Video The Daily Vertical: Mood Hardens In Ukraine

The Daily Vertical: Mood Hardens In Ukrainei
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July 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.


How Do You Solve A Problem Like The Donbas?

A pro-Russian separatist near the Ukrainian village of Frunze in Luhansk Oblast

Brian Whitmore

Just one sentence, inserted into a complex piece of legislation, caused some to wonder whether Kyiv has been sold out by its Western allies.

One sentence that was too much for many Ukrainians. One sentence that was not enough for the Kremlin. One sentence that the United States reportedly lobbied heavily for to assure that Kyiv was holding up its end of the Minsk cease-fire.

The sentence: "The particulars of local government in certain districts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions are to be determined by a special law." 

This controversy over that one sentence in amendments to the Ukrainian Constitution aimed at devolving some power to the regions is the latest step in the delicate, duplicitous, and dangerous dance between Ukraine and Russia in the twilight of the Donbas war.

From the moment the ink dried on the Minsk cease-fire back in February, it was obvious that the thorniest problem to solve would be how the separatist-held areas of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts would ultimately be reintegrated into Ukraine.

War is politics by other means and the Kremlin's goals in Donbas are ultimately political.

Vladimir Putin may have once dreamed of seizing all of what his propagandists call Novorossia -- the strip of land from Kharkiv to Odesa -- and establishing a land bridge to Crimea.

But that's off the table now and he is clearly not interested in annexing the war-ravaged and economically devastated enclaves his separatists currently hold.

"The Kremlin, for its part, is losing interest in the armed conflict it helped create: It wants to move on from military interference in Ukraine to quieter political destabilization," political commentator Leonid Bershidsky wrote in Bloomberg View. 

The Autonomy Dance

Russia is seeking to have the rebel-held areas enjoy broad autonomy inside Ukraine -- a status similar to that enjoyed by Republika Srpska in Bosnia-Herzegovina. And Moscow wants this status enshrined in Ukraine's constitution. A Ukraine decentralized to the point of dysfunction, after all, would make it all the easier for Moscow to meddle in Kyiv's affairs.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is no fool. He knows this is Russia's game. And when he presented his proposals for constitutional reform last month -- a decentralization plan for all of Ukraine -- it made no specific mention of any special status for Donetsk and Luhansk.

But the fact that the version of the law now before parliament does -- and the fact that U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland traveled to Kyiv and met with lawmakers on the day they voted for its first reading -- has made many in the Ukrainian capital nervous.

"Has the United States sold out Ukraine in exchange for Iran and Syria?" asked a headline in gordonua.com

Likewise, in an interview with that same publication, Taras Stetskiv, a former member of the Ukrainian parliament, asked: "What exactly has Russia bought with its signature under the deal to close down Iran's nuclear program? At least a special status for the Donbas in the constitution, and that's why Nuland came to control the vote."

But while Ukrainians like Stetskiv may be suspicious that they have been sold out to Moscow, the Kremlin and its surrogates were unsatisfied.

"Poroshenko's amendments to the draft constitution are a far cry from the Minsk agreements and close only to the political whims of Poroshenko himself," Aleksei Pushkov, chairman of the State Duma's Foreign Affairs Committee, tweeted. 

Kicking The Can

Political analyst Vladimir Socor wrote that "many Western officials are fearful that failure to wrap up a political settlement" on the status of Donetsk and Luhansk by the end of 2015, as stipulated by the Minsk agreement, "could free Russia to 'escalate' again the military hostilities."

As a result, Socor wrote, Ukraine's Western allies are pressuring it into fulfilling these political provisions of the ceasefire despite Moscow's failure to fulfil its end on the military side by ceasing military operations and pulling back heavy weapons.

What Poroshenko effectively did is kick the can down the road a bit.

The legislation that will ultimately determine how much autonomy the rebel held areas will be granted -- the one referenced in the constitutional amendments -- won't be drafted and debated until the autumn, when lawmakers return from their summer recess.

So Kyiv hasn't given Moscow what it wants, enshrining a special status for Donetsk and Luhansk in the constitution -- at least not yet. But it did just enough to satisfy Western powers who are eager to demonstrate that Ukraine is adhering to the Minsk agreement.

It's a clever tactic. But one has to wonder if there is a strategy.

Because what eventually happens with the rebel-held areas of Donbas is crucial to Ukraine's future.

If they are reintegrated the way Moscow wants them to be -- with broad autonomy and the separatist forces legitimized as their political elite and police force -- then Ukraine's sovereignty will be severely curtailed. Integration with the West will be off the table.

If you want to see Ukraine's future under this scenario, just look at Bosnia.

Some observers, most notably Alexander Motyl of Rutgers University, have argued strenuously that it is in Kyiv's best interests to just let the territories go.

"If Kyiv were bold, it would countenance giving the occupied territories the independence that its separatist leaders say they want or have," Motyl wrote recently. 

"Think about it. If Kyiv took the initiative, it could, in one fell swoop, establish clarity in its east. If the enclave were independent, all talk of 'civil war,' autonomy, and 'economic blockades' would cease, and the only issue would be the Russian war against Ukraine proper."

Motyl acknowledges that such a move "would outrage Ukraine’s hyper-patriots and the pro-Kyiv eastern Ukrainians who’ve been fighting for their homeland in the Donbas" and is therefore unlikely.

Instead, the best worst option for Kyiv would be to "freeze the conflict and let the enclave drift away."

Which, by kicking the can down the road a bit, might be exactly what Poroshenko is doing.


Video The Daily Vertical: The Honeymoon Is Over In Crimea

The Daily Vertical: The Honeymoon Is Over In Crimeai
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July 21, 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: Power Plays In Ukraine, Georgia

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko addresses lawmakers on July 16 before a vote on decentralizing power to the regions.

Brian Whitmore

Ukraine gives some ground on granting special status to rebel-held areas of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. And Georgians protest their government's accommodationist policies toward Russia.

On this week's Power Vertical Briefing, we look ahead at legislation pending in the Ukrainian parliament decentralizing political power in the country -- and what it may mean in the war-torn east. Also on the Briefing, we take a look at the fallout from Russia's recent land grab along the de facto border with breakaway South Ossetia.

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

The Briefing: Power Plays In Ukraine, Georgia
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EDITOR'S 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.


Video The Daily Vertical: Give Moscow Your Hand, It'll Take Your Whole Arm

The Daily Vertical: Give Moscow Your Hand And It'll Take Your Armi
X
July 20, 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 Podcast: When Putin's Ukraine War Went Global

One year after MH17, the pressure on Putin mounts.

Brian Whitmore

One year after the downing of Flight MH17 killed 298 people from 10 countries on four continents, the evidence continues to mount that pro-Moscow seperatists in Ukraine -- and perhaps Russia itself -- were responsible.

And as the evidence piles up, pressure is building for an international tribunal to prosecute the guilty parties -- pressure Russia is strenuously trying to resist.

On the latest Power Vertical Podcast, we discuss MH17 one year later. Joining me are James Miller, managing editor of The Interpreter magazine, who authored a new report on MH17; and Andreas Umland, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation and editor of the academic book series Soviet And Post-Soviet Politics And Society.

Also making an appearance on the podcast is Han ten Broeke, a member of the Dutch parliament who chairs its Defense Committee and the Netherlands' delegation to the NATO Assembly.

Enjoy ...

Podcast: When Putin's Ukraine War Went Global
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Listen to or download the podcast above or subscribe to The Power Vertical Podcast on iTunes.​


Video The Daily Vertical: Disrespect Is Putin's Stock In Trade

The Daily Vertical: Disrespect Is Putin's Stock In Tradei
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July 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.


The Day Putin Became A Pariah

Rescue workers at the MH17 crash site carry away a victim.

Brian Whitmore

It was the day Moscow's dreams of empire cost European lives. It was the day the Kremlin lost its last vestiges of credibility. It was the day when it became impossible to continue even pretending that Vladimir Putin's regime was anything close to respectable.

It was the day the mask came off. July 17, 2014 was the day Russia became a rogue state.

It wasn't just that the downing of Flight MH17 killed 298 people from 10 countries and four continents. It wasn't just that 80 of the victims were children. It wasn't just that the Netherlands alone lost 193 people, the largest Dutch loss of life since World War II.

And it wasn't even that Russia made this all possible by, according to all credible accounts, providing pro-Moscow separatists with a sophisticated BUK surface-to-air missile system capable of shooting down a civilian airliner flying at an altitude of 10,000 meters.

That was all bad enough. But it was what came after that really sealed it.

There was the disrespect the pro-Moscow rebels showed to the victims' remains -- the images of separatist fighters, smiling with cigarettes dangling from their lips, rifling through and looting the belongings of the dead.

And as the evidence poured in -- audio recordings, satellite images, and forensic data -- showing that the aircraft was almost certainly shot down by a surface-to-air missile fired from rebel-held territory, there was the obfuscation.

There was the Kremlin's formidable disinformation machine adding insult to injury by cranking out a dizzying barrage of crackpot theories about who really shot down the plane. And with this there was the realization that not only was Moscow responsible for a terrible tragedy, it was mocking the world -- and the victims -- in its aftermath.

MH17, of course, did not change everything. Russia's war on Ukraine continues. Crimea remains annexed. Pro-Moscow separatists and Russian troops are still in Donbas. And nobody has been held accountable for killing nearly 300 people.

But MH17 did change a lot. European leaders, most notably German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who had been inclined to work with Putin and give him the benefit of the doubt, turned into harsh critics. 

Russia was transformed from a troublesome -- and often tiresome -- partner you could do do business with into a potentially lethal problem that needed to be addressed.

According to the Pew Research Center, attitudes toward Russia in the European Union -- which were positive in 2013 -- tanked in 2014 and 2015

Russia is now not viewed favorably by more than one-third of the population in any single NATO country, according to Pew. 

These trends did not start on July 17, 2014, they commenced in earnest months earlier when Russia annexed Crimea. But they accelerated as a result of that day and its aftermath.

After MH17, it became a lot harder to be a Putin apologist. And a lot easier to be a critic.

And one year after that ill-fated flight crashed into the sunflower fields of Donetsk Oblast, Russia is coming under renewed pressure over the tragedy.

An investigation by Dutch authorities that has been distributed for review by agencies in numerous countries will pin the blame for the tragedy squarely on pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine, CNN reported, citing officials who have seen the text. 

And Malaysia, which lost 43 citizens on MH17, has drafted and circulated a UN Security Council resolution that calls for an international tribunal.

This puts Russia in a difficult spot.

Vetoing the resolution, as Russia has vowed to do, would be tantamount to an admission of guilt. Putin's protestations in a telephone call with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte that a tribunal would be "premature and counterproductive" don't really have a lot of traction.

And in the unlikely event that Moscow pulls an about-face, supports the resolution, and allows the tribunal to proceed?

Well that opens the door to some very uncomfortable questions being asked in open court. Not just about the pro-Moscow separatists, but about who in the Kremlin leadership approved giving them a surface-to-air missile system.

MH17 is already a watershed. And it could well turn out to be Vladimir Putin's Lockerbie moment.

NOTE: Be sure to tune in to the Power Vertical Podcast on July 17 when I will discuss the issues raised in this blog with Han ten Broeke, member of the Dutch parliament and spokesman for its Foreign Affairs Committee; James Miller, managing editor of The Interpreter magazine; 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.


Video The Daily Vertical: A Question Of Accountability

The Daily Vertical: A Question Of Accountabilityi
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July 16, 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: A Slow, Messy Divorce

The Daily Vertical: A Slow, Messy Divorcei
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July 15, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.

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


Video Russia And Iran Are Trading Places

"OK, now you go rogue..."

Brian Whitmore

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

Tehran and Moscow are essentially swapping places.

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

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

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

I'm A Rogue, You're A Rogue

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Gas Game

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oil, Atoms, And Weapons

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

That trend will likely be reversed.

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

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

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

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

 

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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