Monday, February 02, 2015


Audio Podcast: The Shrinking 'Collective Putin'

Vladimir Putin is getting smaller.

Not the man, of course. He's still the same size, give or take a few kilos. But the "collective Putin" -- that deep inner sanctum of decision making that once comprised dozens of people representing various elite interests -- has clearly been downsized to a handful of close and like minded associates.

The fat cat oligarchs, the bean-counting financial experts, and the pragmatic technocrats are out. The hardline siloviki and the ideologues are in -- with no check on their ambitions.

This marks a sharp departure from the way Russia has been governed for the past decade, which has been based on broad elite consensus.

And the implications of this are much more wide reaching than the current conflict in Ukraine.

On this week's Power Vertical Podcast, co-host Mark Galeotti and I discuss the withering of Russia's "deep state" and the emergence of what looks like a small ruling cabal. Also on the podcast, Mark and I take a look at the surprising changes in Russia's relations with Belarus.

Enjoy...

Podcast: The Shrinking 'Collective Putin'
Podcast: The Shrinking 'Collective Putin'i
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Tags:belarus, Vladimir Putin, Russian politics, Power Vertical podcast, Collective Putin


The Daily Vertical: Who's Delusional About Whom?

The Daily Vertical: Who's Delusional About Whom?i
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January 30, 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: Lukashenka's Gambit

The Daily Vertical: Lukashenka's Gambiti
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January 29, 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: Navalny's Second Act

The Daily Vertical: Navalny's Second Acti
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January 28, 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: Navalny's Second Act

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 Putin's Fantasy Island

Can he distinguish between fantasy and reality?

You can learn a lot about someone from their delusions.

Consider Vladimir Putin's comments on January 26. Speaking to students at St. Petersburg, the Kremlin leader said the Ukrainian Army is not really the Ukrainian Army at all. Those soldiers fighting pro-Moscow separatists in Donbas? They're actually NATO's foreign legion. 

"We often say: Ukrainian army this, the Ukrainian army that. In actual fact though, who is fighting there? These are indeed official subunits of the armed forces. But to a large extent these are so-called volunteer nationalist battalions," Putin said.

"In effect, it is no longer an army but a foreign legion -- in this case NATO's foreign legion -- which does not of course pursue Ukraine's national interests. They have a completely different agenda that is connected with achieving the geopolitical objective of containing Russia."

Yep. He actually said that. 

Putin is doing a number of things here. On one level he is playing that old Kremlin game of drawing equivalencies. 

The West has long accused Moscow of manufacturing the separatist conflict in the Donbas, arming and supplying the militants, and sending in Russian troops to direct and reinforce them.

So Moscow naturally -- indeed almost instinctively -- says the West is doing the same with the Ukrainians: Look! NATO has little green men too!

But there is more here than the Kremlin's standard run-of-the-mill -- and entirely false -- whataboutism. It is more insidious than that.

There Is No Ukraine

Putin famously said that Ukraine "isn't even really a country." And here he is again peddling his longstanding meme that the Ukrainians themselves have no agency of their own. They are nothing but the playthings of great powers. Their army isn't even their army. And right now, they're just NATO pawns.

And this belief is actually pretty widespread in the Russian elite. In a recent article, political analyst Aleksandr Sytnik provided an eye-opening inside look at how decisions were made in the run-up to the Ukraine crisis. 

Sytnik recently left his post as a senior fellow at the Russian Institute for Strategic Research, a Kremlin-run think tank that provides expert analysis for foreign policy decision making. 

Sytnik writes that the institute's director, Leonid Reshetnikov, is a staunch Orthodox Christian who romanticized the tsarist Russian Empire. And the director of its Ukraine department, Tamara Guzenkova, was deeply hostile to the very notion of Ukrainian statehood.

The pair, Sytnik wrote, was fond of repeating phrases like: "there is no Ukraine, only Little Russia;" "Ukrainian statehood is a bluff and Ukraine is a failed state;" and "the Ukrainian language was artificially created by the Austrians and the Poles to break up Russian unity." They were backed up by dependent and subordinate researchers. 

Throughout the Ukraine crisis, the institute consistently gave the Kremlin bad advice based on faulty premises. It helped organize insurgency movements in eastern Ukraine and lobbied for the establishment of so-called Novorossia -- a strip of eastern and southeastern Ukraine stretching from Kharkiv to Odesa.

It isn't entirely clear whether the institute was the architect of Russia's Ukraine policy over the past year, or whether they simply reinforced the prevailing prejudices in Putin's inner circle.

What is clear, however, is that their analysis -- as represented by Sytnik -- overlaps completely with the policies that the Kremlin enacted. It also illustrates the prevailing groupthink about Ukraine in the inner sanctum of Russian decision making. 

We're Fighting NATO!

But Putin's widely shared delusions about Ukraine are not even the most disturbing thing about his comments.

What he is really getting at here is nicely captured in a tweet by journalist Natalia Antonova.

This really gets to the heart of things. Putin wants to view the Ukraine conflict as a twilight showdown between Russia and the West. But his endgame in this fantasy isn't Ukraine -- it's the West itself.

In a recent interview with the Kyiv Post, military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer recalled a conversation he had with a European ambassador present at high level meetings with Russian officials. 

"Russians all the time want to put a map on the table and carve up Europe, Yalta-style, or Molotov-Ribbentrop style," Felgenhauer said. 

"Russia is waiting for the West to begin talking on substance -- where Vilnius goes, where Lviv goes. In the Russian view, there should be a map and a line on the map. They can’t say so publicly. They would want a secret appendix."

Now that's never going to happen of course. But it nicely illustrates the level of delusion among Russian officials these days. And if that is indeed Russia's endgame it's still pretty damn chilling.

Mini Me: The Shrinking 'Collective Putin'

Part of the reason such groupthink is prevailing among Russian decision makers is because the group calling the shots is getting smaller and smaller.

According to media reports, the so-called "collective Putin" -- that inner sanctum of decisionmaking -- has shrunk to just a handful of trusted advisers -- all of them hardliners associated with the security services.

The economic elite both inside and outside government, which has been urging an exit from the Ukraine crisis, has been marginalized. Bloomberg reported recently that officials dealing with economic issues complain of needing to wait months just to present their policy proposals to the president. 

Political analyst Gleb Pavlovsky, who advised Putin during his first two terms, told Bloomberg that there was “a very high level of concern among a fairly wide circle of people” in the Russian elite.

"There is a group of people in the upper echelons trying to protect themselves from losses," Pavlovsky said. “They are critical of Putin but they can’t challenge him because he can easily crush them. That makes them even more unhappy."

Not only is Putin not talking to his economics team -- he apparently isn't even thinking about the economy.

WATCH: The Daily Vertical: A Dangerous Delusion​

The Daily Vertical: A Dangerous Delusioni
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January 27, 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.

Since the Ukraine crisis erupted, the Kremlin disinformation machine has been in constant overdrive. And we've learned a lot about the role of propaganda and subterfuge in hybrid war. 

Nutty statements from Russian officials are so commonplace that we almost don't even notice them all anymore. 

But we seem to be crossing a threshold and getting close to a very dangerous point. When you build up a make-believe world and surround yourself with only people who reinforce it -- there comes a point where you cannot distinguish reality and fantasy.

And if Putin really believes his own hype, then we're in a very frightening place, indeed.

-- Brian Whitmore

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


Video The Daily Vertical: A Dangerous Delusion

The Daily Vertical: A Dangerous Delusioni
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January 27, 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: Damn The Economy, Full Speed Ahead!

The Daily Vertical: Damn The Economy, Full Speed Ahead!i
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January 26, 2015
Published 22 January 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.


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
Podcast: The Second Fronti
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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

The Daily Vertical: War Of Governancei
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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

The Daily Vertical: Changing The Gas Gamei
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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

The Daily Vertical: Mr. Shoigu Goes To Tehrani
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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

The Daily Vertical: The Seventh Columni
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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?

Daily Vertical: Russia's Liberal Westernizersi
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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?

The Daily Vertical: Primakov Said What?i
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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

The Daily Vertical -- 14 Jan 2015i
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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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Listen to or download the podcast above or subscribe to "The Power Vertical Podcast" on iTunes.

Tags:Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Vladimir Putin, Aleksei Navalny, Russian politics, Power Vertical podcast

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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