Thursday, April 24, 2014


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Podcast: The Putin Show Goes Global

This year's Putin Show had global -- and ominous -- overtones.

Relaxed, confident, and full of pithy one-liners, Vladimir Putin was in his element in this week's call-in show with carefully screened ordinary citizens.

The event has been an annual ritual of his presidency. But this year, coming in the wake of Russia's annexation of Crimea and amid Moscow-backed turmoil in eastern Ukraine, it had more ominous -- and global -- overtones as Kremlin-watchers tuned in for clues to Putin's intentions.

So what did we learn? In the latest Power Vertical Podcast, we discuss the Putin show and what it shows about the Kremlin leader's thinking. 

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."

Enjoy...
Power Vertical Podcast -- April 18, 2014
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Listen to or download the podcast above or subscribe to "The Power Vertical Podcast" on iTunes.

Tags:Ukraine, Vladimir Putin, Power Vertical podcast


Podcast: Putin Then And Now

Putin then and now: From the Ozero Cooperative to the Kremlin

Before he built the vertical, he built a team of like-minded cronies. Before he saved Russia from the chaos of the wild '90s, he manipulated that very chaos to advance his power and influence. And before he became the "gatherer of the Russian lands," he gathered a fortune for himself and his inner circle.

Before the Kremlin, before the oil boom, before Russia Inc., before the Georgia war and the Crimea annexation, there was the Ozero Dacha Cooperative -- a group of influential St. Petersburg politicians and businessmen centered around the city's deputy mayor, Vladimir Putin.

And if you were doing business in St. Petersburg in the 1990s, there was one iron-clad rule: Putin was the man to know. But what does the Putin of two decades ago tell us about the man today?

On the latest "Power Vertical Podcast," we look at Putin's St. Petersburg years. Joining me is Karen Dawisha, director of the Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies at the University of Miami, Ohio, and author of a forthcoming book on that subject. 

Also joining me are co-hosts Mark Galeotti, a professor at NYU, 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...
 
Power Vertical Podcast -- April 11, 2014
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Tags:Vladimir Putin, St. Petersburg, Ozero Dacha Cooperative, Tambovskaya Mafia, Karen Dawisha


The Kremlin, Crimea, And 'The Good Hitler'

An activist in Kyiv holds a poster of Russian President Vladimir Putin caricatured as Adolf Hitler.

We've been hearing a lot from Moscow about all the Nazis and fascists purportedly running around Kyiv lately. In fact, the only place you could probably hear more references to Nazis than on Russia's state-controlled media is on the History Channel.

But the fiercely pro-Kremlin daily "Izvestia" seems to have crossed into entirely new territory with a piece by Andranik Migranyan on April 3 (a big h/t to Vladimir Kara-Murza for flagging this first). 

Migranyan heads the New York office of the "Institute for Democracy and Cooperation," an NGO set up under President Vladimir Putin in 2007 to monitor human rights in Western countries. His piece in "Izvestia" is basically a hit job on historian Andrei Zubov, who lost his job at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations after writing an article comparing Putin's annexation of Crimea to Adolf Hitler's seizure of Czechoslovakia's Sudetenland in 1938.

Thing is, Migranyan doesn't really refute Zubov's claim. Instead he writes that we need to -- brace yourself -- distinguish between the "good Hitler" and the "bad Hitler."

And who exactly was this "good Hitler" of whom Migranyan speaks?

"We should distinguish between Hitler before 1939 and Hitler after 1939, and separate chaff from grain," he writes.  

"The fact is that while Hitler was gathering German lands and he united Germany, Austria, the Sudetenland, and Memel without a single drop of blood. If Hitler stopped at that, he would be remembered in his country’s history as a politician of the highest order."

Blogging on the article at "World Affairs Journal," Kara-Murza appeared nothing short of flabbergasted.

"Just when you think Vladimir Putin’s propaganda cannot sink any lower, it invariably does," he writes

"Perhaps someone could remind Andranik Migranyan and his Kremlin overseers of the track record of this 'politician of the highest order' and 'gatherer of German lands' prior to 1939 -- including the establishment of concentration camps and the public burning of books; the purges of 'non-Aryans' and the creation of the Gestapo; the closure of newspapers and political parties and the establishment of a one-man dictatorship; the Nuremberg racial laws and Kristallnacht. But of course they already know that."

Migranyan's article comes as the State Duma is debating legislation that would impose stiff fines and prison sentences for publicly justifying Nazism. The bill recently cleared its first reading and is expected to be passed into law in time for the May 9 Victory Day holiday.

The irony was not lost on Gazeta.ru, which asked, "What kind of fascists is the Duma afraid of?" in an April 4 editorial suggesting that, in the Kremlin's eyes, not all Nazis are created equally bad.

"The bill...is directed against the so-called national-traitors who disagree with the course of the president -- those that propagandists today lightly call fascists," the online publication opined. "But any stick -- even a police baton -- has two ends. And the law could also be useful for those anxiously reading in Izvestia about the 'good Hitler' who only turned bad after 1939."

-- Brian Whitmore

Tags:nazism, crimea, hitler, Power Vertical blog


Podcast: Russia's Looming Tatar Problem

Crimean Tatar demonstrations. Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev.

Russia's largest ethnic minority just got larger.

With Moscow's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, hundreds of thousands of Tatars have suddenly become reluctant Russian citizens. They aren't happy and they're getting feisty -- rejecting Russia's overtures and pushing for their own referendum on autonomy.

And Russia's looming Crimean Tatar problem comes at a time when Moscow's relations with its existing 5 million-strong Tatar minority are becoming increasingly tense.

The Kremlin is celebrating its annexation of Crimea as a patriotic victory and evidence of Russia's revival. But will it come at the cost of yet another ethnic conflict?

On the latest "Power Vertical Podcast," we discuss Russia's new Crimean Tatar problem and what it may portend. Joining me are guests Rim Gilfanov, director of RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service, and Merkhat Sharipzhan, a senior correspondent and analyst for RFE/RL's Central Newsroom.

Also on the podcast, Rim, Merkhat, and I take a closer look at Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev.

Enjoy...
Power Vertical Podcast -- April 4, 2014
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Tags:Crimean Tatars, Power Vertical podcast


Audio Podcast: Autocrat Man

Is the "collective Putin" becoming less collective?

It's been called a "sovereign democracy," a "managed democracy" and an oligarchy.

But with Vladimir Putin's decision to annex Crimea and the nationalistic fervor and hunt for traitors that followed, an increasing number of Kremlin-watchers now say Russia becoming something simpler and cruder: a good old-fashioned autocracy.

It has long been assumed that Putin was the front man and decider-in-chief for an informal collective leadership -- the "collecticve Putin," if you will.

But with Western sanctions poised to hit key members of Putin's inner sanctum hard, and reports that much of the elite was dismayed by the annexation of Crimea, it increasingly looks like Putin is turning into an autocratic ruler who is no longer restrained by his court.

Is the collective Putin becoming less collective? And if so, what are the implications?

On the latest "Power Vertical Podcast," we discuss this issue. Joining me are Kirill Kobrin, editor of the Moscow-based history and sociology magazine "Neprikosnovenny zapas," Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies and author of "Sean's Russia Blog," and RFE/RL correspondent Merkhat Sharipzhan.

Also on the podcast, Kirill, Sean, Merkhat and I discuss the new "pan-Russism" -- the Kremlin's efforts to use ethnic Russians abroad as a political weapon.

Enjoy...
 
Power Vertical Podcast -- March 28, 2014
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Listen to or download the podcast above or subscribe to "The Power Vertical Podcast" on iTunes.

Tags:Vladimir Putin, Power Vertical podcast, pan-Slavism, Autoctracy, Collective Putin


Podcast: Tactical Victory. Strategic Defeat?

Has Vladimir Putin set events in motion he won't be able to control?

Russian state television called it historic and a pivotal event, and in many ways it was.

Russia's annexation of Crimea, which was formalized this week, was the first such territorial seizure in Europe since World War II. It also sent a signal that the Kremlin no longer intended to play by the rules that have governed international affairs for decades.

But Russian President Vladimir Putin's speech may also turn out to be pivotal and historic in ways the Kremlin leader did not intend. In resetting Russia's domestic political agenda with a wave of anti-Western nationalism, he may have also unleashed forces he may not be able to control.

The past week will certainly go down in Russian history as a watershed. But the question looms, how?

On the latest "Power Vertical Podcast," we discuss the ongoing domestic fallout of the Crimean annexation in Russia.

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 Nina Khrushcheva, a professor of international affairs at The New School and author of the recently published book "The Lost Khrushchev: A Family Journey into the Gulag of the Russian Mind."

Enjoy...

Power Vertical Podcast -- March 21, 2014
Power Vertical Podcast -- March 21, 2014i
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The Pros And Cons Of Propaganda

Propaganda works. But only for awhile.

Propaganda works. Or at least it's working for the time being.

In concluding his speech to a joint session of parliament this week, Vladimir Putin claimed that 92 percent of Russians favored the annexation of Crimea.

The number was inflated, but not by much, according to Lev Gudkov, director of the independent Levada Center, Russia's most respected pollster. In a recent interview with Gazeta.ru, Gudkov said his data show that nearly 80 percent of Russians consider Crimea to be part of Russia.

In recent weeks, Westerners have looked on with derision at the over-the-top and clearly inaccurate way the Russian state-controlled media have depicted events in Ukraine: a coup by neo-Nazis that has unleashed a wave of anti-Semitism and reprisals against Russian-speakers, sparking a humanitarian crisis and a surge of refugees escaping the chaos.

Who would believe this stuff, right? I mean, the facts on the ground so obviously run counter to the distorted and outright false picture Kremlin spin masters have so carefully painted.

Well, apparently somebody does.

According to Gudkov, between November 2013, when mass demonstrations in Kyiv started, until late February, when President Viktor Yanukovych was deposed, a clear majority of Russians thought what was happening in Ukraine was an internal affair and Russia should not interfere.

Now, in addition to the 79 percent who view Crimea as part of Russia, some 58 percent favor the deployment of Russian troops

"The campaign that began in the last week of February -- which was unusual in its intensity and aggressive tone -- has drastically changed the public mood," Gudkov said. "The propaganda has stunned people. The public is now in an agitated state with all of their imperial complexes awakened."

So game over, right? Putin's got his mojo back and he's got his people behind him. It's 2007 all over again.

Well, not so fast. The propaganda may be working wonders for the Kremlin now. But according to Gudkov, it will likely prove ephemeral -- and eventually cause a backlash. "After a while, the effect will wear off and a pensive state will set in," he said.

And after the pensiveness, comes the backlash. And the reason for this, Gudkov said, can be found in the very nature of propaganda itself. "Propaganda's effectiveness is directly linked to the subject. It is very difficult to convince people that the authorities consist of competent and decent people.  But it is easy to convince them that Americans torture adopted Russian children because this cannot be verified," he said. 

"Basically, propaganda destroys alternative understanding. It may not quite convince people, but it imposes on them the cynical view that everyone is a bastard, politics is a squabble between interest groups, and nobody should be believed."

And it is here, he added, that the Kremlin may end up being a victim of its own success.

"The Kremlin spin doctors and manipulators do not understand that after a while this will turn against the Russian authorities themselves because imposing such a view of social processes in a country dominated by a paternalist state mind-set cannot but lead to increasingly negative attitudes toward the authorities themselves" he said. 

"This should end with clear analogies or the association of the current Russian authorities with the Yanukovych regime."

Gudkov is not alone in predicting that what looks like a stunning victory for Team Putin will soon turn into an albatross.

Writing in "Nezavisimaya gazeta," Aleksei Malashenko of the Moscow Carnegie Center says Putin has changed the game both in his relations with the elite and with society -- and dangers loom on both fronts.

"The president has to know that even in the ruling class many people are 'perplexed' by his Crimean action, and this is contributing to irritation with the leader," Malashenko writes.

He'll still be president for a very long time. But he’ll no longer have a iron-clad rear. As an ex-security service officer, he surely has to sense this. And keeping nationalist intensity at its height for any length of time is very difficult. People will soon be distracted by things like inflation and other issues from which their attention has been temporarily averted."

And how will Putin react when this happens?

In a recent interview with "Nezavisimaya gazeta," political analyst Nikolai Petrov had a chilling prognosis. "There will follow a surge in Putin’s popularity and a consolidation of the legitimacy of the regime. But this surge will be very brief," Petrov said.

"When the price is clarified, we will see that people are not prepared to pay it. Not prepared to take part in a war, not prepared to live under the stiff sanctions of the West, and so forth. And Putin’s task will be in this short time to organize repressive mechanisms. In order, when the public enthusiasm subsides, to preserve the system of control of the country.”

With the ongoing crackdown on independent media -- most recently the television channel Dozhd, which has already been pulled off cable networks, lost its lease -- those repressive mechanisms appear to be already moving into place.

-- Brian Whitmore

NOTE TO READERS: Be sure to listen to the "Power Vertical Podcast" on March 21 when I will discuss the issues raised in this post with co-hosts Sean Guillory and Nina Khrushcheva.

Tags:propaganda, Vladimir Putin, Lev Gudkov


Audio Podcast: Springtime For Putin

A woman in Simferopol walks past a mural depicting Russian president Vladimir Putin giving a hand to Ukranians.

Vladimir Putin's inner circle is shrinking; the Kremlin's crackdown on dissent and independent media is intensifying; and Russia's economy is bracing for a shock with unpredictable consequences.

The ongoing crisis in Crimea is changing -- perhaps fundamentally -- Russia's domestic political arrangements. In the latest Power Vertical Podcast, we look at how.

Joining me are 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...
Power Vertical Podcast -- March 14, 2014
Power Vertical Podcast -- March 14, 2014i
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Through The Crimean Prism: Five Things We've Learned About Russia

Changing the game. Vladimir Putin chairing a meeting with Russia's Security Council on March 13.

Every time Vladimir Putin opens his mouth, the goalposts seem to move.

After speaking with the Kremlin leader by telephone this week, Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev said Putin told him that Ukraine's 1991 independence referendum -- and therefore the subsequent breakup of the Soviet Union -- was "not really legal." 

The Russian president's comment, which spread like wildfire on social media, could not be independently confirmed. But given that Putin has called the Soviet breakup the "greatest tragedy of the 20th century," it certainly seemed plausible.

And it served as as the latest reminder that with the Crimean crisis, we have entered into a new phase of the post-Soviet and post-Cold War period.

"Russia resorted to military force because it wanted to signal a game change," Ivan Krastev, chairman of the Sofia-based Center for Liberal Strategies wrote in "Foreign Affairs." 

The most immediate manifestation of this is in Russia's relations with the West and with its former-Soviet neighbors. But Putin has also initiated a clear game change at home, which is visible in how he makes decisions, the constituencies he appeals to, how he views the Russian economy, and how the Kremlin deals with dissent. 

The Incredible Shrinking 'Collective Putin'

It has gone by different names, from "the collective Putin" to "Putin's Politburo." But Kremlin-watchers have long argued that Russia is governed by an informal clique, a collective leadership of about a dozen key figures -- with Putin as the front man and decider-in-chief. 

Veterans of the security services have always had the strongest voice in this inner sanctum,but they did not monopolize it. They were countered by a group of technocrats seeking to integrate Russia into the global economy -- until now, that is.

The way the decision to intervene in Crimea was made seems to suggests that the "collective Putin" is getting smaller and smaller -- and is entirely made up of of KGB veterans.

Putin, it appears, has made his choice. The battle between the siloviki and the technocrats is over -- and the siloviki have won.

"The decision to invade Crimea, the officials and analysts said, was made not by the national security council but in secret among a smaller and shrinking circle of Mr. Putin’s closest and most trusted aides," according to a recent report in "The New York Times."

"The group excluded senior officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or the cadre of comparatively liberal advisers who might have foreseen the economic impact and potential consequences of American and European sanctions."

According to the report, the group included Kremlin chief of staff Sergei Ivanov, Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, and FSB Director Aleksandr Bortnikov -- all of whom served with Putin in the KGB in the 1970s and 1980s. Other reports suggested that Russian Railways head Vladimir Yakunin, a close Putin confidant widely rumored to have KGB ties, was also present.

The Best Laid Plans

In all likelihood, Putin has been preparing for something like the Crimea intervention for some time.

Less than a year after he returned to the Kremlin in May 2012, he initiated a campaign to force officials who hold assets abroad to repatriate them. The campaign to "nationalize" the elite was presented as an effort to make Russia less vulnerable to Western pressure. 

The respected political analyst Yevgeny Minchenko said at the time that Putin was seeking to make sure officials were "completely independent of foreign countries and fully accountable to the president." 

And with the threat of economic sanctions now looming, those that didn't heed Putin's warnings are probably having regrets.

In a recent post on Facebook, Valery Solovei, a professor at the Moscow State Institute for International Relations, said based on conversations he's had with insiders, the handful of officials with Putin when he made the decision to intervene in Crimea don't hold foreign assets.

Fortress Russia

Taken together, all of this suggests that Putin is on the verge of sacrificing the economic gains of the past decade on the altar of imperial expansion.

The sidelining of the technocrats and the fact that the Kremlin felt it necessary to compel the political elite to repatriate its assets suggests that Russia is retrenching on its longstanding policy of integrating into the global economy.

Citing unidentified officials, Bloomberg reports that Moscow is "bracing for sanctions resembling those applied to Iran after what they see as the inevitable annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region." One official said a sanction war with the West "could wipe out 10 years of achievements in financial and monetary policy." Another said it "could erase as much as a third of the ruble’s value." 

Bloomberg also cited Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, as saying Putin met senior officials in Sochi on March 12 to discuss Russia's options in a "difficult global environment."

Russia's main stock market, the MICEX, has had its worst week since 2011 and on March 13 closed 24 percent below its January 2013 high. Likewise, the ruble has lost nearly 10 percent of its value this year.

Putin, Krastev wrote in "Foreign Affairs," is apparently ready to abandon all thoughts of Russia being a European nation in good standing -- far better for it to be a civilization of its own -- and has proved willing to sacrifice his country’s economic interests to achieve his goals."

Tightening The Screws

And as Russia stops to even pretend that it cares what the West thinks -- or does -- it appears that the opposition is in for a rough ride.

From the closure of independent websites like Grani.ru, Kasparov.ru, and "Yezhednevny zhurnal" to the firing of Galina Timchenko as editor of Lenta.ru, it is clear that the crackdown that began when Putin returned to the Kremlin is intensifying. And it is intensifying concomitant with the escalation of the crisis in Ukraine.

"As Vladimir Putin sends troops into Crimea and hints at following up on this cruel gambit with further moves into eastern Ukraine, he is, step by step, turning back the clock on information," David Remnick wrote in "The New Yorker" magazine. "It is a move of self-protection."

This week's rollback of independent media was preceded by a series of moves earlier in the year that now appear part of clear pattern.

On January 24, the popular social networking site VKontakte came under Kremlin control when Pavel Durov, its founder and CEO, was pressured into selling his remaining shares to Ivan Tavrin, a partner of pro-Putin oligarch Alisher Usmanov. 

Late January, the opposition-leaning television Dozhd TV came under fire for posting a controversial poll about the Leningrad blockade during World War II. In early February, Dozhd's main satellite and cable providers announced -- one after another -- that they would stop carrying the channel, effectively barring it from the airwaves. 

And on February 28, a Moscow court placed opposition leader Aleksei Navalny under house arrest, barring him from speaking to the media and using the Internet.

Nationalist Love

Suddenly, the nationalists love Putin again.

When the Kremlin leader lost the support of Russia's urban middle class in 2011-12, he began appealing to the the working and urban classes with populist appeals.

There was just one problem with this strategy. The country's nationalist electorate, a key part of this demographic, had turned against him. Indeed, angered by an influx of migrant workers, many had become enamored of Putin's nemesis, Navalny. 

In addition to the predictable chants of "Russia for Russians," "Stop feeding the Caucasus" and various antimigrant diatribes at this year's Russian March, there were plenty of calls for the end of Putin's "Chekist regime."

But with Putin flexing Russia's imperial muscles with his incursion into Crimea, all seems to be forgiven.

"The most radical members of the nationalist subculture are rushing before our eyes to become ardent 'Putinists' and are eager to swear allegiance to the current government, which only recently they opposed because of the 'import of Tajiks,'" commentator Aleksei Roshchin wrote in Politcom.ru

This week, for example, Aleksandr Prokhanov, editor in chief of the nationalist newspaper "Zavtra," penned a commentary singing Putin's praises in the pro-Kremlin daily "Izvestia." 

"Western pressure on Russia will be enormous," Prokhanov wrote. "But the response will be society's spiritual mobilization and consolidation around their leader -- Putin. He has qualities unsurpassed in world politics. In the image of a spiritual leader, Putin has said 'Russia --  this is your fate.' And now we see how the fates of Russia and its president have merged."

NOTE TO READERS: Be sure to listen to the Power Vertical Podcast on March 14, when I will discuss the issues raised in this post with co-hosts Mark Galeotti and Kirill Kobrin.

-- Brian Whitmore

Tags:crimea, Vladimir Putin, Russian politics, Power Vertical blog


Audio Podcast: The Crimean Game Changer

Three cities. One crisis.

We've been here before.

In the conflicts in Georgia's breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia -- as well as in Moldova's separatist Transdniester region -- in the early 1990s. We were here dramatically, in Russia's August 2008 war with Georgia.

And here we are again today in Crimea. And soon, we may find ourselves in the same place yet again -- in Ukraine's Russophone East.

In the past, these conflicts resulted in Moscow's de facto control of another state's territory.

The stakes are higher this time. But do we have any reason to believe the outcome will be any different?

In the latest Power Vertical Podcast, we look at the effects of the ongoing crisis in Crimea, both domestically in Russia and internationally.

Joining me is 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...

Power Vertical Podcast -- March 7, 2014
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Tags:Vladimir Putin, Russia-Ukraine relations, Crimean crisis


The Crimean War Redux

An armed man in military uniform, believed to be Russian, stands outside Ukraine's naval headquarters in Sevastopol. Inside, Ukrainian troops guard the base.

The last time Russia and the West clashed over Crimea, one of Vladimir Putin's heroes, Tsar Nicholas I, was in power. And it didn't end well.

If past is prologue, Putin should be more than a little nervous about the adventure he is now launching.

The 1853-56 Crimean War, which Russia ostensibly launched to protect the rights of Orthodox Christians on the Black Sea peninsula (sound familiar?), ended with its military soundly routed by an alliance of Great Britain, France, Sardinia, and the Ottoman Empire.

In the aftermath, Russia was temporarily barred from having warships on the Black Sea. It lost the territories of Moldavia and Wallachia. And it was in so much debt that it was forced to sell Alaska -- to the United States -- for a song.

Losing the Crimean War, while humiliating, also led Russia to launch a wave of reforms under Nicholas I's successor, Tsar Aleksandr II, including the abolition of serfdom, judicial reform, and a new system of local self-government.

History, of course, doesn't repeat itself. It doesn't even always rhyme. And a direct military conflict with the West is, to put it mildly, highly unlikely. (And a new wave of reform, even more so.)

But with the ruble tumbling to record lows and Russian shares falling, Putin's decision to flex Moscow's military muscle on the Black Sea peninsula, and implicitly threaten to invade the rest of Ukraine, has already proven costly. The MICEX fell by 11.3 percent, wiping nearly $60 billion off the value of Russian companies in a day and the Russian Central Bank spent $10 billion of its reserves to prop up the currency.

And it will get costlier still. In Prague two government ministers said this week, for example, that Russia's Atomstroieksport should not be allowed to bid for a $10 billion contract to expand the Czech Republic's main nuclear power plant. And although the Czech prime minister later walked back the comments, the issue of Russia's participation in the tender will become increasingly contentious.

We should expect more of this kind of thing, which will disrupt Moscow's carefully orchestrated business strategy in Eastern Europe, as the crisis drags on.

Putin appears to be counting on a scenario similar to its August 2008 war with Georgia, which caused Western protests and hand wringing -- but little resistance and no real consequences for Russia -- and ended with Moscow firmly in control of the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

"Yet a war in Ukraine would be potentially catastrophic for Russia and Putin, in a way that invading Georgia could never have been," Bloomberg's Marc Champion wrote in a commentary on March 1.

"If Putin decides on a real military intervention in Ukraine, he will be gambling everything he has."

Champion notes that "in terms of Western response, Putin cannot be as sanguine as he was in 2008" adding that "NATO member Poland cares deeply about its neighbor Ukraine, and even Germany would find a Russian onslaught in Ukraine too close for comfort."

Additionally, he adds, Russia today does not enjoy the advantages it had in 2008, when oil prices were climbing and the Russian economy was growing.

And while snatching Crimea from Ukraine will prove costly for Russia in ways that securing Abkhazia and South Ossetia was not, a full-fledged invasion of the rest of Ukraine could prove to be a catastrophic and bloody quagmire.

"If Russian troops really delve into the Ukraine, I think Putin will not remain in power for more than one year," political commentator Mikhail Yampolsky wrote in Colta.ru

"It is difficult to imagine that Ukrainians will simply lay down their arms and bow humbly under the boots of Russian 'peacekeepers,' especially if Russian troops try to penetrate beyond the Crimea," Yampolsky wrote.

"Recently we witnessed the Berkut troops trying to clear the Maidan. The center of Kyiv was like hell and this was a battle between civil society activists and police loyal to the president. Now, imagine in place of the Berkut are Russian paratroopers -- occupiers -- and fighting alongside the locals, Ukrainian soldiers with guns."

In a post on his Facebook page, Valery Solovei, a professor at the prestigious Moscow State Institution for International Relations, wrote that he had spoken to well-informed insiders and concluded that the situation was "very serious and even tragic." 

Solovei wrote that Putin made the decision to intervene in Crimea with the support of a small group of five or six senior officials who have no assets in the West; that the Kremlin is counting on a weak Western response; and that if this turns out to be correct, Russia will move to annex eastern Ukraine in the coming weeks.

He adds that there is opposition to the decision within the elite, but officials are afraid to speak out. "These officials don't dare to oppose Putin. They almost superstitiously believe in his good fortune," he wrote.

Speaking to RFE/RL's Russian Service,  suggested that Putin has simply taken leave of his senses. 

"The poor guy's brain isn't working," political commentator Stanislav Belkovsky told RFE/RL's Russian Service.

"It is a typical case of schizophrenia, what is happening now. It is a medical case, and when this happens, it is impossible to say what a person will do five minutes from now. It is simply unpredictable. It would be irresponsible to try. Such a person needs a strong sedative and isolation from society."

-- Brian Whitmore

NOTE: This post has been updated.

Tags:crimea, Vladimir Putin, Power Vertical blog, Crimean War


Podcast: Russia's Two-Front War To Contain The Maidan

Russia's two fronts: Containing the contagion and reversing a stinging geopolitical setback

What do a court placing Aleksei Navalny under house arrest, the mounting unrest in Crimea, the roundup of opposition protesters in Moscow, and Russian military exercises near Ukraine's border all have in common? 

They are each part of the Kremlin's reaction to last week's Euromaidan revolution in Ukraine.

In the latest Power Vertical Podcast, we look at Russia's two-front war against the Maidan. The objectives: contain the contagion at home and reverse a stinging geoploitical setback abroad.

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 guest Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies and author of "Sean's Russia Blog."

Enjoy...

Power Vertical Podcast -- February 28, 2014
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Tags:crimea, Aleksei Navalny, Russian opposition, Power Vertical podcast, Euromaidan


A Specter Is Haunting Russia

A protester holds a placard that reads "Maidan" outside a courthouse in Moscow on February 24.

A crowd chants "Maidan! Maidan!" before riot police move in, arresting scores of demonstrators. Three people stand behind a makeshift barricade of burning tires waving Ukrainian flags and banging sticks against metal shields.

A redux of violence in Kyiv? Not quite. Both of these scenes took place in Russia.

The first was in Moscow today, where hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside a courthouse where defendants in the so-called "Bolotnaya case" were being sentenced for their roles in anti-Kremlin protests that turned violent in May 2012.

In addition to the Maidan chants, the crowd also shouted in Ukrainian "Bandu het" (Out with the gang!) and hurled insults at riot police, calling them by their Ukrainian name, "Berkut."

Among those detained were opposition leader and anticorruption blogger Aleksei Navalny as well as Pussy Riot members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina.

The second scene happened in St. Petersburg a day earlier, on February 23, and was the work of performance artist Pyotr Pavlensky, who earned international headlines in November for nailing his scrotum to Red Square to protest Russia's "police state."

A specter is haunting Russia -- the specter of Ukraine's Euromaidan.

The stunning and dizzying fall of Viktor Yanukovych's regime -- which the hapless Ukrainian ruler tried to model on Vladimir Putin's kleptocratic and authoritarian power vertical -- is inspiring Russia's opposition.

Pavel Durov, the iconoclastic founder of the popular social-networking site VKontakte, helped a pro-Maidan video called "Fear is not Real" to go viral by republishing it on his page (a big h/t to Kevin Rothrock at Global Voices for flagging this.)

WATCH IT HERE: ​
 
In a February 22 post on his Facebook page titled "Lessons of the Maidan," opposition figure Boris Nemtsov wrote that the conditions that led to Yanukovych's fall are all present in Russia. 

"The only difference is that Putin has more money and the Russian people are more patient. But their patience is not infinite," Nemtsov wrote.

"Will the Kremlin learn the lessons of the Maidan? Will they lie and steal less? Will they give citizens their freedom back? I doubt it very much. They will lie even more. They will seize and cling to power more. Place your bets on repression. Then comes the inevitable Russian Maidan."

Whether or not the inevitable Russian Maidan is on the way, Nemtsov is right to place his bets on repression, intimidation, and petty harassment in the near term.

Police detained more than 300 people on February 24, some outside Moscow's Zamoskvoretsky Court and some who were attempting to enter Manezh Square near the Kremlin for a rally in support of the Bolotnaya defendants (seven of whom received sentences ranging from 30 months to four years). 

And wearing the wrong colors, even by accident, can get you in trouble in Moscow.

Yegor Maksimov, a journalist with Dozhd TV, tweeted that he saw a man detained by the police for wearing a hat with the blue-and-yellow colors of the Ukrainian flag. 

"Idiocy! A man in a blue-and-yellow hat, WHICH HAD NEW YORK INSCRIBED ON IT, has been detained," he wrote, adding that the police said to the man: "So you support Kyiv, do you? Come with us."

Tweets and social-network posts supportive of Ukraine's Euromaidan are also increasingly attracting the authorities' attention.

Yulia Archipova, a student at Moscow's Higher School of Economics, found this out the hard way. Russian TV and radio journalist Vladimir Solovyov used an entire program to deride her and other students for pro-Maidan posts.

As Kevin Rothrock wrote at Global Voices, Archipova, who holds a Russian passport, was "vilified (in absentia) for being a homosexual-loving Ukrainian citizen."

They used to say that when Moscow sneezes, Kyiv catches a cold. We'll soon see if this logic works in reverse. The Russian opposition seems emboldened by the Maidan and a spooked Kremlin is tightening the screws to prevent the revolutionary virus from spreading north.

As I've blogged in the past, the protest movements in Ukraine and Russia have been energized by the coming of age of a post-Soviet generation in both countries that yearns for a different kind of politics.

The difference is in Ukraine -- where the security services are less embedded in politics, the system is more pluralistic, and civil society is more developed -- people were willing to remain on the streets in large numbers even in the face of brutal police tactics and live ammunition. The more the authorities cracked down, the more emboldened and persistent the demonstrators became. The Ukrainian street simply wore the regime down.

The Russian street has not shown this kind of stamina and resolve. At least not yet.

-- Brian Whitmore

Tags:Russian opposition, Bolotnaya case, Euromaidan


Audio Podcast: When Russians Talk About Ukraine

A Tale of two cities? Kyiv in flames; Bolotnaya defendants in the dock

The Russian state-controlled media has described the unrest in various alarming ways: A coup attempt by extremists and neo-Nazis; a Western-backed insurrection; and a nefarious attempt to dismember Ukraine, just to name a few.

For its part, the Russian opposition, while disturbed by the violence in Kyiv, is raptly watching events in Ukraine with a mixture of envy and respect.

And as the Ukrainian crisis climaxed this week, many Russians' attention quickly shifted from the Winter Olympics in Sochi to the showdown on the streets of the Ukrainian capital.

So what are Russians talking about when they talk about Ukraine?

In the latest Power Vertical Podcast, we discuss what lessons the authorities, society, and the opposition are absorbing from the Euromaidan uprising. Joining me are co-hosts Kirill Kobrin, editor of the Moscow-based history and sociology magazine "Neprikosnovenny zapas," and Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University and author of the blog "In Moscow's Shadows."

Also on the podcast, Kirill, Mark, and I discuss Russia's so-called Bolotnaya case, which wound up this week with guilty verdicts for eight anti-Kremlin protesters and the trial of Left Front leader Sergei Udaltsov, which has just commenced.

Enjoy...

Power Vertical Podcast -- February 21, 2014
Power Vertical Podcast -- February 21, 2014i
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Tags:Russian politics, Russian opposition, Power Vertical podcast, Sergei Udaltsov, Bolotnaya case, Euromaidan


Audio Podcast: The Comeback Kid

Putin's Olympic kitsch

Suddenly, Vladimir Putin seems to be having the time of his life.

He is visibly relishing the Sochi Olympics, which -- at least in the eyes of the Russian public -- are coming off much better than expected. There has also been a noticeable, and predictable, backlash against foreign criticism in the run-up to the games.

And, oh, by the way, Putin's approval ratings are steadily and clearly rising.

In the latest Power Vertical Podcast, we discuss the Putin "resurrection." Is it real? Is it an illusion? Is it a trend?  Or is it a blip?

Joining me are Kirill Kobrin, editor of the Moscow-based history and sociology magazine "Neprikosnovenny zapas"; Nina Khrushcheva, a professor of international affairs at the New School and author of the forthcoming book "The Lost Khrushchev: A Family Journey into the Gulag of the Russian Mind”; and Kevin Rothrock, project editor for RuNet Echo at Global Voices, author of the blog "A Good Treaty."

Also on the podcast, Kirill, Nina, Kevin, and I discuss the economic storm clouds appearing on Russia's horizon that have suddenly gotten Putin's attention.

Enjoy...

Power Vertical Podcast -- 14 February, 2014
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Tags:Vladimir Putin, Sochi Olympics, Russian politics, Power Vertical podcast


Podcast: The Sochi Syndrome

Sochi 2014, a metaphor for Russia

They're finally here!

After years of anticipation, the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi are finally underway.

What do the the seven years of preparations for the Sochi Olympics illustrate about Russia? And how will things develop once Vladimir Putin's big party is over?

In the latest Power Vertical Podcast, we discuss Sochi as a metaphor for Russia.

Joining me is 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.

Also on the podcast, Mark and I discuss recent efforts by the Kremlin to rein in social networks and new media -- including the recent moves against Dozhd TV.

Enjoy...
Power Vertical Podcast -- February 7, 2014
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Tags:Sochi Olympics, Russia corruption, Russian politics, Power Vertical podcast


The Kremlin Plays Whac-A-Mole

A woman attends a protest in Russia against Internet censorship, with a sign over her mouth reading "censorship."

Russia's nationalists are going anarchist. Or at least some of them are, sort of.

Take the movement "Russia Will Liberate Itself" or RONS, for example. The group's website features some of the normal expected nationalist staples: support for Orthodox Christian values, opposition to multiculturalism, revival of Russian culture, etc.

But they also declare themselves to be "opponents of the current regime" and call for its overthrow. And their site offers a series of highly technical -- albeit surprisingly readable -- primers that would please the hearts of many self-respecting liberals, libertarians, and, yes, anarchists.

There's a helpful little manual on "how to access blocked Internet sites," for example. And there's a list of dos and don'ts in case anyone suspects the FSB is tapping their phone. 

RONS is yet another example of how the Kremlin has lost control of the nationalist groups they once manipulated and used so effectively. But it also illustrates something else: despite the Kremlin's best efforts, and all the tools at its disposal, it will be increasingly difficult for the regime to regain complete control of Russia's information space.

"The Russian authorities are putting ever more pressure on the Internet in the hopes of imposing Kremlin control on the last relatively free segment of the Russian media," Paul Goble wrote on his blog "Window on Eurasia," which flagged RONS efforts in a recent post. 

"But their efforts are being countered by those most affected who are offering what they describe as 'very easy' workarounds so that those who want to visit banned sites can.

From the de facto takeover of the popular VKontakte, to new legislation making it even easier for the authorities to block websites they find distasteful, to the recent assault on Dozhd TV, the Kremlin is clearly trying to rein in new media and reassert control over the narrative.

The apparently imminent removal of the iconoclastic Pavel Durov as CEO of VKontakte has been widely interpreted as the endgame of a long campaign to gain control of a popular social-networking site that has been frequently used to organize opposition protests. (When the authorities told Durov to block VKontakte pages operated by anti-Kremlin activists in late 2011, he responded by tweeting a photo of a dog sticking its tongue out.) 

Cable- and satellite-television providers' decision to drop Dozhd TV after it aired a controversial poll on the Leningrad blockade looks like an obvious attempt to effectively shut down a key alternative media outlet.

And legislation signed by President Vladimir Putin in December enables prosecutors to block websites advocating "extremism" -- without a court order. Putin also signed a law criminalizing online calls for separatism. And another proposal seeks to allow for sites that publish incorrect information about banks to be blocked without a court hearing. In an editorial, Gazeta.ru quipped that the word "devaluation" could soon be forbidden.

"The goal is to erect a huge media wall to protect the authorities and isolate Russia from the free world," Yulia Latynina wrote recently in "The Moscow Times." "They are building that wall slowly but steadily."  

They may be. But that wall is bound to have many cracks in it, tunnels under it, and backdoors around it.

Dozhd TV may be on the ropes. But the channel's success has proven that there is a growing market for independent media that will sooner or later be filled -- one way or another.

The Kremlin may finally have gotten rid of Durov and gotten VKontakte under control. But this should provide an excellent expansion opportunity for Facebook -- or a startup opportunity for Russia's next Internet guru. 

And as RONS illustrates, young tech-savvy Russians -- regardless of their ideological bent -- are adept at finding workarounds when the authorities seek to block troublesome websites.

The Kremlin is late to the new media party. The regime has long focused its attention on corralling and controlling traditional media while ignoring the growing communities and outlets springing up online. And now, with Internet penetration at 59 percent, they are forced to play Whac-A-Mole

-- Brian Whitmore

Tags:Dozhd TV, Russian Internet, VKontakte


Audio Podcast: Two States. One Revolution?

Takin' it to the streets.

It's an uprising fueled by the young.

It features an odd alliance of nationalists and pro-Western liberals.

It's taken to the streets in unprecedented numbers and has baffled the regime with its mastery of social media.

It's goals are to replace a corrupt authoritarian regime with a more pluralistic and inclusive political system.

Wait. Are we talking about Russia or Ukraine?

Or are we talking about both?

In the latest Power Vertical Podcast we ask whether Bolotnaya and the Euromaidan are two parts of the same incomplete post-Soviet revolution. Joining me are co-host Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University and an expert on Russia's security services and author of the blog "In Moscow's Shadows," and guest Sean Guillory, a fellow at 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 Aleksei Navalny's return to the headlines this week and what awaits him in the coming political season.

Enjoy...
Power Vertical Podcast -- January 31, 2014
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Tags:Russian opposition, Power Vertical podcast, Euromaidan


The Russomaidan

A tale of two cities. Which is Moscow and which is Kyiv?

Aleksei Navalny has Ukraine on his mind.

The anticorruption blogger and opposition leader has been plugging the Euromaidan protests on his blog and promoting them relentlessly on his Twitter feed

Over the weekend, he approvingly retweeted an image posted by a Ukrainian activist -- a mock-up of a video-game screen. "If you were born in Ukraine or Russia, then you have chosen the most difficult level of play. But Russians are still at the first stage, while we are already wiping out the last big boss," the screen read.

"Ha ha! Excellent!" Navalny wrote.

Navalny's interest in the events in Ukraine and his support for the Euromaidan is hardly surprising.  His ongoing battle with the Kremlin and the intensifying upheaval in Ukraine are, in many ways, part and parcel of the same process.

"What is happening in Kyiv is not even strictly a Ukrainian revolution, nor is it simply a continuation of the events of 2004.  It is a continuation of the events of the late 1980s, a still ongoing perestroika," political commentator Aleksei Kolesnikov wrote recently in Gazeta.ru. 

"The empire is still disintegrating -- it is a long, multistep, multistage process."

It's also a slow process, a tortoise revolution, if you will.  

"The process has not ended," Kolesnikov wrote. "It was not exhausted by the 1990s or by the events of 2011-12, and may not be completed by the centenary of the Great October Socialist Revolution" in 2017.

And one of the things driving the process at this stage is the coming of age of a generation, in both Russia and Ukraine, which was born after the Soviet collapse. The Ukrainian activists use of a video-game metaphor on Twitter and Navalny's positive reaction to it are apropos; this is very much a revolution of the young.

In both Russia and Ukraine, the post-Soviet generation that is fueling the respective protest movements appears more liberal than that of their parents, aspiring to a more pluralistic, less corrupt, and less authoritarian political system. But, at the same time, they appear, by and large, to be simultaneously more nationalistic as well.

This is evident in the antimigrant sentiment prevalent in Russia, particularly among the young and well-educated and in Navalny's attempts to carve out a political niche as a "liberal nationalist." 

In Ukraine, it is evident in the prominent role nationalist youth groups from the country's west have played in the protests.

This politically active youth has no memories of -- and certainly no nostalgia for -- the multiethnic Soviet Union. In Russia, this manifests itself in the antimigrant slogan "Russia for Russians" as well as in opposition to what nationalists call Vladimir Putin's "Chekist regime." In Ukraine, it manifests itself in a yearning to be free of Moscow's influence and meddling -- which all too often veers into overt Russophobia.

The marriage of liberalism and nationalism has a historical precedent in 19th century Europe, when national liberation from empires went hand in hand with calls for political liberalization.

But, in a multiethnic Russian Federation and in a Ukraine with a large Russophone population, nationalism and liberalism inevitably come into conflict -- unless, that is, ethnic nationalism evolves into an inclusive form of civic patriotism.

"To ignore the alienation of Russophone Ukraine is to fundamentally misunderstand the prospects of the current protests," Leonid Ragozin wrote in a particularly thoughtful piece this week in "The New Republic." 

"Russophone Ukraine has a decisive say when it comes to the country’s future. Ukraine is not and will never be a classic monocultural eastern European nation state."

But if the Euromaidan movement successfully reached out to the Russophone population, he adds, they could become valuable allies.

"There is no reason why Ukraine's Russophone inhabitants should not support the protests. Euromaidan protesters want their country to join the European Union, and the EU has many qualities that should make it attractive to the Russophones," Ragozin writes, noting Brussels' protection of regional languages and minorities and its social welfare guarantees.

The Twitter image of the mock video-game screen that got Navalny's attention also pointed to another truth about the respective Ukrainian and Russian protest movements: the process is much farther along in Ukraine than in Russia.

Compared to its southern neighbor, Russia's political system is more tightly controlled, its economic elite is more obedient and housebroken, and the security services have much more political clout, as Julia Ioffe pointed out in a recent article

It will take time and not a small amount of skill to turn Bolotnaya into a Maidan

But success for Ukraine's Euromaidan protesters could deal a significant -- if not mortal -- blow to the corrupt political and economic model Putin has fine-tuned in Russia and is working to export to the rest of the former Soviet space. 

"The Putin epoch has been called a stage of post-revolutionary stabilization, but it hasn't turned out that way," Kolesnikov wrote in Gazeta.ru. 

"It is merely a period of the ongoing perestroika revolution and the half-dissolution of the Soviet imperial essence."

-- Brian Whitmore

NOTE TO READERS: Be sure to tune in to the Power Vertical Podcast on January 31 when I will discuss and debate the issues raised in this post with co-host Mark Galeotti and guest Sean Guillory.

Audio The Yukos Endgame

Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev

He was always the other guy in the case. Mikhail Khodorkovsky's silver-haired business partner was charged with the same crimes and received the same sentences as his more famous associate.

But when Khodorkovsky walked free in December after being pardoned by President Vladimir Putin, Platon Lebedev remained behind bars.

Until now, that is.

In the latest Power Vertical Podcast, we discuss the machinations surrounding Lebedev's release.

Joining me are co-host Mark Galeotti, a professor at NYU and author of the blog "In Moscow's Shadows," and guest Sean Guillory, a fellow at 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 reemergence of Investigative Committee head Aleksandr Bastrykin. And just for fun, we chatted about an odd photo from Sochi that went viral this week.

Enjoy...

Power Vertical Podcast -- January 24, 2014
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Tags:Mikhail Khodorkovsky

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

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