Sunday, January 25, 2015


Audio Podcast: The Second Front

Which side is stronger on the governance front?

The battle between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russia separatists in Donbas is settling into a tense and fragile stalemate.

But the real battle between Moscow and Kyiv is only just beginning.

If 2014 was largely defined by the military conflict between Russia and Ukraine, now -- with both countries economies devastated by the conflict -- the coming year will likely be defined by a war of governance. Moscow is doubling down on its statist authoritarian model, while Ukraine is attempting to create a European-style free-market democracy.

And a lot is riding on which model wins. 

On the latest Power Vertical Podcast, we discuss this front in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. 

Joining me are Kirill Kobrin, editor of the Moscow-based history and sociology magazine Neprikosnovenny Zapas; Natalya Churikova, managing editor of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service and host of the program European Connect; and Andreas Umland, a professor of Russian and Ukrainian history at Kyiv Mohyla Academy and a senior research fellow at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kyiv.

Also on the podcast, we look at the military situation in the Donbas and examine the respective strategies of Moscow and Kyiv.

Enjoy...

Podcast: The Second Front
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Listen to or download the podcast above or subscribe to "The Power Vertical Podcast" on iTunes.

Tags:Power Vertical podcast, Russia-Ukraine conflict


The Daily Vertical: War Of Governance

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January 23, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that will appear Monday through Friday. Viewers can submit suggested topics to address on Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.

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


The Daily Vertical: Changing The Gas Game

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January 22, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that will appear Monday through Friday. Viewers can submit suggested topics to address on Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.
The Daily Vertical: Changing The Gas Game

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


Video The Daily Vertical: Desperately Seeking A Scapegoat

The Daily Vertical: Desperately Seeking A Scapegoati
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January 21, 2015

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


The Daily Vertical: Mr. Shoigu Goes To Tehran

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January 20, 2015

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


The Daily Vertical: The Seventh Column

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January 19, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can submit suggested topics on Twitter to ​ @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.

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


Audio Podcast: The Sixth Column

The beleagured Westernizers (clockwise from top left): Aleksei Kudrin, Dmitry Medvedev, German Gref, Sergei Aleksashenko, Arkady Dvorkovich, and Sergei Guriyev.

They've been isolated. They've been marginalized. They've been silenced. Many of them are living in fear. And some of them have even fled the country.

Ever since the Ukraine crisis broke out -- and particularly since the patriotic fervor unleashed by the Crimea annexation -- Russia's establishment Westernizers have been on the outs and on the run.

Exiled from the inner sanctum of decision-making, derided as a traitorous "sixth column," and devoid of influence in society, Russia's Westernizers are clearly down. But are they out?

On this week's Power Vertical Podcast, we look at the plight and the prospects of the beleaguered pro-Western camp in the Russian elite.

Also on the podcast, we unpack some eyebrow-raising comments this week by former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov.

Joining me are Mark Galeotti, a professor at NYU, an expert on Russia's security services, and author of the blog In Moscow's ShadowsKirill Kobrin, editor of the Moscow-based history and sociology magazine Neprikosnovenny Zapas; and Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies and author of Sean's Russia Blog.

Enjoy...

Podcast: The Sixth Column
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Listen to or download the podcast above or subscribe to "The Power Vertical Podcast" on iTunes.

Tags:Russian politics, Aleksei Kudrin, Power Vertical podcast, Westernizers, Yevgeny Primakov


Video Russia's Liberal Westernizers: Down But Not Out?

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January 16, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can submit suggested topics on Twitter to @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.
Daily Vertical: Russia's Liberal Westernizers

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


Video The Daily Vertical: Primakov Said What?

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January 15, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that will appear Monday through Friday. Viewers can submit suggested topics to address on Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.

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


Video The Daily Vertical: Trading Prosperity For Empire

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January 14, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that will appear Monday through Friday. Viewers can submit suggested topics to address on Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.

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


The Daily Vertical: Hostage Economy

The Daily Vertical -- 13 Jan 2015i
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January 13, 2015
The Daily Vertical -- 13 Jan 2015

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


Video The Daily Vertical: A Winter Of Discontent

The Daily Vertical -- 12 Jan 2015i
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January 12, 2015
Brian Whitmore discusses Russia's upcoming political season.

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


Podcast: The Crisis And The Reckoning

In many ways, the Russia story over the past year can be summed up as a tale of two Tuesdays -- nine months apart.

On Tuesday March 18, there was Vladimir Putin's rousing, swaggering, chest-thumping speech to the nation announcing the annexation of Crimea and heralding Moscow's new dreams of empire. That was the day that Russia challenged the world order

And then the bill came due. On December 16, there was Black Tuesday, when the ruble crashed and the economy swooned under the weight of falling oil prices and Western sanctions. That was the day the world order bit back.

The Kremlin is no doubt feeling the heat. And on the first Power Vertical Podcast of 2015, we look at how it is likely to react.

Joining me are co-host Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University, an expert on Russia's security services, and author of the blog In Moscow's Shadows; and Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies and author of Sean's Russia Blog.

Also on the podcast, Mark, Sean and I discuss the different approaches Aleksei Navalny and Mikhail Khodorkovsky are taking to oppose the Putin regime.

Enjoy...

Podcast: The Crisis And The Reckoning
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Tags:Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Vladimir Putin, Aleksei Navalny, Russian politics, Power Vertical podcast


Podcast: What Happens Next?

A revolution, an annexation, a war, and a looming financial crisis.

From the Euromiadan to the seizure of Crimea to the conflict in the Donbas, 2014 has been a momentous -- and highly consequential -- year.

And with the conflict in eastern Ukraine unresolved, Russia headed for a recession, and the air thick with political uncertainty, 2015 promises to be just as eventful.

In the last Power Vertical Podcast of 2014, we look back at the year that was -- and ahead to the one approaching.

Joining me are co-hosts Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University, an expert on Russia's security services, and author of the blog "In Moscow's Shadows"and Kirill Kobrin, editor of the Moscow-based history and sociology magazine "Neprikosnovenny zapas."

Enjoy...

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Podcast: The State Of The Empire

Cartoon Of Putin's State-Of-The-Nation Speechi
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December 04, 2014
As Putin talks, the ruble sinks (cartoon by Sergei Elkin)

He accused the West of trying to destroy and dismember Russia. He trumpeted the annexation of Crimea, which he called hallowed ground for Russians. And he said speculators were behind the dramatic decline in the ruble's value -- speculators he pledged to punish.

And over the 75 minutes that Vladimir Putin spoke, the ruble lost more than 1.2 percent of its value.

With the Russia currency tanking, oil prices falling, and the Russian economy reeling, Putin offered no apologies, no retreat, and no plan in his annual state-of-the-nation address -- a speech that can be summarized by three Ds: Defiance, Denial, and Delusion.

But despite the bluster, Putin's luck may be running out as the economic costs of his Ukraine adventure begin to hit home.

In the latest "Power Vertical Podcast," we look at Putin's big speech in the context of Russia's looming recession.

Enjoy...

Podcast: The State Of The Empire
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Tags:Vladimir Putin, Russian politics, Power Vertical podcast


Putin's Luck Runs Out

2014 was good. 2015, not so much.

Vladimir Putin has been on quite a roll for about a year now. But December 1, 2014, just might turn out to be the day the tide finally turned against him.

Ever since Russia's annexation of Crimea in March sparked the worst East-West showdown since the Cold War, Moscow has enjoyed a clear asymmetrical advantage: it was prepared to use force to achieve its ends in Ukraine -- and perhaps elsewhere -- while the West was not.

But this week marked something of an inflection point where whatever short-term asymmetrical advantages Moscow enjoyed are now being eclipsed by its long-term structural weaknesses.

And the signs they were aplenty.

First, there was the ruble. The Russian currency -- reeling from the combined effect of sanctions and falling energy prices -- experienced its sharpest one-day drop since the August 1998 financial crisis on December 1, falling below the psychologically important level of 50 to the dollar for the first time.

And then there was oil. The price of this backbone of the Russian economy has fallen 25 percent since the summer. On December 1, following OPEC's decision not to cut production, the price of Brent Crude, the world benchmark, dipped below $70 a barrel, a five-year low. And the slide is expected to continue.

"What do the ruble, oil, and Vladimir Putin have in common?" goes a joke making the rounds in Moscow. "They will all hit 63 this year." 

The twin phenomena also prompted Twitter-user Robert Dambergs to quip, "I hear the ruble will soon be sold by the barrel!" 

And, of course, there was South Stream. After talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara on December 1, Putin announced that Russia will drop the South Stream natural-gas pipeline -- a project the Kremlin once hoped would cement Moscow's dominance over Europe's energy market. The move followed Brussels insistence that Gazprom abide by the EU's antimonopoly laws -- which it had been flouting for years

The New York Times' Andrew Roth called the scrapping of South Stream "a rare diplomatic defeat" for Putin and "a rare victory for the European Union and the Obama administration, which have appeared largely impotent this year as Mr. Putin annexed Crimea and stirred rebellion in eastern Ukraine." 

All true. But such a turnaround was also pretty predictable. And we should expect to see more setbacks for the Kremlin in the coming months.

Because a key source of Russia's strength has long been its ability to reap the benefits of being integrated into the global economy and be treated as a respected member of the international community -- while at the same time flouting their rules.

Prior to the Ukraine crisis, Putin's Russia had indeed found something of a sweet spot.

It was a respectable G8 member that was able to spread its influence by corrupting Western elites, stealthily buy up European energy infrastructure through shady shell companies, and flagrantly violate the EU's antimonopoly legislation.

It could even behave like a rogue occasionally, as in the August 2008 invasion of Georgia, and get off with barely a slap on the wrist.

But in Ukraine, Putin basically jumped the shark. By annexing Crimea he initiated the first forceful change of borders in Europe since World War II. And by manufacturing a pro-Moscow insurgency in Donbas, he effectively invaded Ukraine.

Once this happened -- and particularly after pro-Moscow separatists downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 -- it was no longer possible for Western leaders to continue to pretend that Russia is a respectable member of the international community. It became untenable to carry on with the charade that Moscow was a partner with which they could work. Instead, Russia became a problem they needed to confront.

Russia became a rogue state. And once it did, a crucial source of its strength began to melt away.

Western sanctions and the steady isolation of Russia from the world economy might not have been enough to contain Moscow in the short term. But, with an assist from falling energy prices, they are more than enough to cripple it in the long run.

And the long run begins now.

The Russian government on December 2 acknowledged what has long been obvious, that the economy would slide into recession in 2015.

Official projections say it will contract by 0.8 percent while other estimates say it could shrink as much a 2 percent. Disposable incomes are expected to drop by 2.8 percent. Inflation this year is at 9 percent, and is projected to continue rising. And capital flight is forecast to reach $128 billion.

And on top of all that, Russian firms owe $700 billion to foreign banks and, due to sanctions, are largely blocked from any additional Western financing.

The looming economic crunch "is a completely new reality" for Putin, economist Sergei Guriyev, who fled Russia last year, told "The New York Times." 

"He has always been lucky, and this time, he is not lucky," Guriyev added.

As 2013 drew to a close, Putin appeared to be running circles around his Western counterparts.

He managed to thwart U.S. air strikes against his ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. He strong-armed Armenia -- and temporarily, Ukraine -- into abandoning plans for a free-trade pact with the European Union in favor of the Moscow-led Eurasian Union.

Putin has indeed had a strong year. But 2015 promises to be a lot rougher.

-- Brian Whitmore

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


Podcast: A Year Of Living Dangerously

It began -- appropriately for our times -- with a post on a young man's Facebook page. It grew into a revolution that overthrew a president. And it was followed by an undeclared war that rages to this day.

One year ago, the Euromaidan began. And neither Ukraine nor Russia will ever be the same again.

On the latest "Power Vertical Podcast," we look at how this landmark event has changed Ukraine and Russia -- and where each may be headed.

Joining me are Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies and author of Sean's Russia Blog, and Alexander Motyl, a professor at Rutgers University-Newark and author of numerous books and articles on post-Soviet affairs.

Enjoy...

Podcast: A Year Of Living Dangerously
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Tags:Ukraine, Russia, Power Vertical podcast, Euromaidan, Ukraine Crisis


Podcast: The Kremlin's Mind Bombs

Is it real? Is it an illusion? Does it matter?

If it walks like a duck, looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and denies it's a duck -- it's probably Vladimir Putin's duck.

For the past eight months, the world has been subjected to a blitzkrieg of disinformation, distortions, and outright lies from Kremlin officials and the Russian media.

It's been a wild ride. It's been a baffling reinvention of reality. And its been a mass hallucination. No sooner is one Kremlin myth, lie, or distortion debunked than a dozen more pop up in its place.

But there's a method to this madness. And it happens to be one of the strongest weapons in the Russian arsenal.

On the latest Power Vertical Podcast, we discuss Russia's weaponization of information and its implications.

Joining me are co-host Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University, an expert on Russia's security services, and author of the blog "In Moscow's Shadows." Mark and I are joined by two authors of a recent report on Russia's information warfare: Peter Pomarantsev, author of the book "Nothing Is True And Everything Is Possible," and Michael Weiss, editor in chief of the online magazine "The Interpreter."

Enjoy...

Power Vertical Podcast: The Kremlin's Mind Bombs
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Tags:Power Vertical podcast, russian propaganda, Information war


Don't Mention The Cold War

Mikhail Gorbachev says we're "on the brink" of one. Henry Kissinger thinks he knows how to avoid one. And Vladimir Putin seems to be trying to provoke one. 

Cold War talk is in the air and Cold War fears are on the rise. Over the past eight months, according to a report by the London-based European Leadership Network, close military encounters between Russia and the West have spiked to their highest levels in decades.

These include "violations of national air space, emergency scrambles, narrowly avoided mid-air collisions, close encounters at sea, simulated attack runs...harassment of reconnaissance planes, close overflights over warships, and Russian ‘mock bombing raid’ missions."

But despite the rhetoric and the posturing, the escalating conflict between Russia and the West is not a new Cold War.

For this to be a Cold War, Russia would need to be a superpower. It is not. Moscow would need to lead a bloc of nations that enjoys rough parity with the West. It doesn't. And it would need to be offering an alternative model to Western liberal democratic capitalism. It isn't.

"Russia is a mid-sized power that lacks the capacity to shape the international environment single-handedly. It is not in the top league with the U.S. and China," political analyst Vladimir Frolov wrote recently in "The Moscow Times." 

"Moscow suffers from superpower phantom pains, but its ambitions are not backed by economic power or technological prowess. Its sole claim to superpowerdom is its nuclear weapons, brandished too cavalierly."

Despite Moscow's best efforts, there is no Russian-led bloc of countries opposing the West. The much-touted BRICS is essentially a group of mid-level powers clinging to a rising China.

And for all its flaws -- and they were legion -- Soviet communism presented an alternative political and economic system to Western democratic capitalism and an alternative development model that enjoyed some traction, particularly in the Third World. What is Russia offering today? Homophobia and gay bashing masquerading as"traditional values"? A kleptocracy fueled by petrodollars? Fantasies of a revived Russian empire?

"Neither Russia nor even China (whose leaders long ago abandoned the communist vanguard for the pursuit of profit) offer universalist ideologies capable of competing with free market capitalism," Stewart M. Patrick, director of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations International Institutions and Global Governance Program, wrote recently on his blog

At best, Moscow is offering a scattershot critique aimed at appealing to all the foes of globalization, be they on the left or the right.

That the Kremlin is not presenting an alternative to the West is even evident in the nature of its propaganda, as Peter Pomerantsev noted in a recent piece in "The Atlantic." 

Putin's Russia, according to Pomerantsev, "reinvents reality, creating mass hallucinations that then translate into political action."

Unlike the propaganda promoting Soviet communism, which was based on a universalist and more-or-less internally consistent and logically coherent ideology, facts and proof are irrelevant.

"For the Soviets, the idea of truth was important -- even when they were lying. Soviet propaganda went to great lengths to 'prove' that the Kremlin’s theories or bits of disinformation were fact," he wrote.

"The point of this new propaganda is not to persuade anyone, but to keep the viewer hooked and distracted -- to disrupt Western narratives rather than provide a counternarrative."

No, this isn't a Cold War. But guess what? It's even scarier and more dangerous.

During the Cold War the Kremlin had a stake in -- and was interested in maintaining -- the existing international system. Despite its ideology and rhetoric, the Soviet Union after Stalin wasn't revolutionary at all. It was a classic status-quo power.

But in the past 25 years, a new international order has taken shape to replace the bipolar superpower rivalry -- and Moscow doesn't like it. It wants the old 20th-century bipolar world back, or a 19th-century concert of great powers, each free to act in their own spheres of influence.

And if it doesn't get it, it is going to do its best to disrupt the existing order.

"Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, however disingenuously denied and creatively concealed, constitutes a frontal assault on the liberal international order that the United States and its Western allies have done so much to promote and build," Patrick of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote. 

Russia's behavior, he added, represents "the resurgence of a more primitive form of power politics" in which established norms like "the principle of sovereignty, the sanctity of borders, the illegitimacy of spheres of influence, and the supremacy of citizenship over ethnicity" are under assault.

The Cold War was a stable and predictable arrangement. The world we are now entering is anything but.

Russia is playing the role of a spoiler. And spoilers bent on challenging the international order -- especially nuclear-armed ones -- are dangerous.

And we've seen this movie before. Napoleonic France tried to disrupt the British-dominated European order in the early 19th century, as did Germany -- twice -- in the early 20th century.

"We are not in a 'revolutionary' period of world politics, in Kissinger’s terms, in which a radical power -- think revolutionary France, Leninist Russia, or Maoist China -- pursues (at least for a while) dreams of world revolution," Patrick wrote.

Not yet. But we could be soon.

-- Brian Whitmore

Tags:Ukraine Crisis, Cold War


Podcast: The World According To Putin

Putin says the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact wasn't such a bad thing after all.

He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past. It's a lesson Vladimir Putin understands well. And one he is putting into practice as we speak.

This week, Putin met in the Kremlin with leading Russian historians to offer some friendly guidance on how Russia's past should be represented.

Putin has taken quite an interest in history of late. And this interest has ominous overtones for Russia's present -- and its future.

On the latest "Power Vertical Podcast," we look at Putin's revision of history and its implications.

Joining me are Rim Gilfanov, a historian who is also director of RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service; Nina Khrushcheva, a professor at the New School and author of the book "The Lost Khrushchev: A Journey into the Gulag of the Russian Mind"; and Ola Cichowlas, a journalist covering Russia whose work has appeared in "The New Republic," "Foreign Policy," and "Politico."

Enjoy...

Podcast: The World According To Putin
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Tags:Vladimir Putin, Russian politics, Power Vertical podcast, Russian history

The Power Vertical Feed

In this space, I will regularly comment on events in Russia, repost content and tweets I find interesting and informative, and shamelessly promote myself (and others whose work I like). The traditional Power Vertical Blog remains for larger and more developed items. The Podcast, of course, will continue to appear every Friday. I hope you find the new Power Vertical Feed to be a useful resource and welcome your feedback. More

16:01 December 18, 2014

14:13 December 18, 2014

Putin says it's important that Crimean Tatars feel a part of Russian Federation...

But Crimean Tatars only constitute a part of the people who live in Crimea. "Squatting" is not a good practice. 

 

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About This Blog

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It covers emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or