Wednesday, August 24, 2016


The Morning Vertical, August 23, 2016

Brian Whitmore

ON MY MIND

During Vladimir Putin's tenure, some form of political upheaval has always seemed to precede elections to the State Duma.

The December 1999 elections came in the wake of the suspicious apartment bombings in Moscow, Buinaksk, and Volgodonsk and at the start of the second Chechen war -- events that propelled Putin to power. 

The 2003 elections came just months after the arrest of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, which signaled that Putin was consolidating the elite and making an authoritarian turn. 

The 2007 elections came amid the uncertainty surrounding the imminent end of Putin's second term and the ascent of Dmitry Medvedev to the presidency. 

And the 2011 elections came as the political elite split over the controversial "castling" -- in which Putin and Medvedev swapped jobs.

This year's elections are no exception. They will come in the wake of a massive reshuffling of the elite and a clear culling of Putin's inner circle.

State Duma elections in Putin's Russia have also been watersheds that herald the birth of a new political reality. And if this holds true, Putin's rule is about to enter a new phase. 

IN THE NEWS

A court in the Armenian city of Gyumri has sentenced Russian Army Private Valery Permyakov to life in prison for killing seven members of an Armenian family in January 2015.

Iran’s parliament speaker Ali Larijani says Russian warplanes are still using an Iranian military base to strike targets in Syria. Larijani made the comment a day after an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman said Russia’s use of an air base in Hamadan had ended "for now."

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said talks between the United States and Russia on military cooperation in the fight against the Islamic State terrorist group in Syria are nearing an end.

A court in Russia has ordered that Nikita Belykh, the former governor of the Kirov region who has spent two months in custody on a charge of accepting a bribe, should be kept there until December 24.

Finland’s defense minister says the Nordic country is negotiating a defense collaboration agreement with the United States and aims to sign it this autumn.

The Court of Arbitration for Sport has rejected Russia's appeal of a blanket ban from the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro for doping.

Vedomosti is reporting that Dzhakhan Pollyeva, the State Duma's chief of staff, is stepping down.

WHAT I'M READING

Russia, Islamic State, And Civilian Deaths

According to a highly detailed and documented report by the Syrian Network for Human Rights, Russia has now killed more civilians in Syria than Islamic State.

Putin's New Generation

William E. Pomeranz, deputy director of the Kennan Institute, has a commentary for Reuters on how Putin's shrinking inner circle means a return to Soviet politics.

"Reading the Russian tea leaves is a growth industry. But even among all the comings and goings, certain trends have become apparent. Most notably, the people who built Putin’s system are on their way out, replaced by people of the system," Pomerantz writes.

"This may be a subtle distinction, yet it is a crucial one. The older generation brought a combination of intelligence, street smarts, and toughness that was essential for surviving in the highly competitive, often chaotic, post-Soviet environment. In contrast, their replacements have only known the relative stability of the Putin years and remain largely untested in times of crisis. Their inexperience may yet come to the forefront."

Nuclear Disinformation

Jeffrey Lewis of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute has a piece in Foreign Policy looking at what might have been behind all those murky and unsubstantiated reports that the United States was moving nuclear weapons from Turkey to Romania. 

"The whole thing reads like a pretty classic Russian disinformation operation. A few anonymous sources make a claim in an obscure foreign newspaper. That allows Russia’s state media to 'cover' the allegations without quite taking responsibility for them," Lewis writes. 

The Disturbing Case Of Ilmi Umerov

The Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group has a write-up on the plight of Ilmi Umerov, the deputy head of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis, who has been forcibly confined to a psychiatric hospital for opposing Russia's annexation of Crimea.

Back To The Future

MIkhail Khodorkovsky's Open Wall web portal has a piece asking what Russia would look like today if the August 1991 coup succeeded. The answer: a lot like Russia today.

The End Of Ideology

Writing in Snob, Moscow-based economist and political analyst Vladislav Inozemtsev explains why ideological labels like liberal and conservative are irrelevant in Putin's Russia.

Reshuffle Rumors And Speculation

Kommersant is reporting that more reshuffles of Russian officials are coming after the State Duma elections in September. According to the report, which cites unidentified officials, Deputy Kremlin Chief of Staff Vyacheslav Volodin will become speaker of the State Duma. The outgoing speaker, Sergei Naryshkin, will be named head of Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service. It could be a trial balloon. It could be speculation. We'll know soon enough. 

Incriminating Evidence

The Ukrainian Prosecutor-General's Office has released what it claims are recordings of telephone conversations involving Kremlin adviser Sergei Glazyev discussing preparations for the secessionist referendum in Crimea two years ago. The recordings also depict him helping organize unrest in Donetsk, Odesa, and Kharkiv.

The recordings were initially posted on YouTube but have since been removed. They are still available on censor.net.ua.


Video The Daily Vertical: Putin's Syrian Victims

The Daily Vertical: Putin's Syrian Victimsi
X
August 23, 2016
Brian Whitmore

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

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


The Morning Vertical, August 22, 2016

Brian Whitmore

ON MY MIND

This week, on August 24, Ukraine celebrates a milestone -- a quarter-century of independence. And this week, fears of a fresh Russian offensive against Ukraine are at their highest levels in years.

This is probably not an accident. As I note on today's Power Vertical Briefing (featured below), the very idea of an independent Ukraine is offensive to Vladimir Putin.

Ukraine is Russia's road not taken. It has truly competitive elections, a pluralistic elite, and a vibrant civil society. And since the Euromaidan revolution, it has been trying with mixed results to take the next crucial step -- moving from oligarchic pluralism to the real thing. It's an alternative model of governance that is threatening to Putin, and he feels compelled to crush it.

And for that reason, Ukraine's independence celebrations this week will be tense indeed.

TODAY'S POWER VERTICAL BRIEFING

On today's Power Vertical Briefing, we discuss the rising tensions between Moscow and Kyiv, which come as Ukraine prepares to mark 25 years of independence.

LATEST POWER VERTICAL PODCAST

In case you missed it, the latest Power Vertical Podcast, All The President's Men, looks at Vladimir Putin's culling of his inner circle and what it portends. Joining me are co-host Mark Galeotti, a senior research fellow at the Czech Institute of International Relations in Prague and a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, and Andrei Soldatov, editor in chief of the investigative website Agentura.ru and co-author of the books Red Web: The Struggle Between Russia's Digital Dictators And The New Online Revolutionaries and The New Nobility: The Restoration Of Russia's Security State And The Enduring Legacy Of The KGB.

IN THE NEWS

Iran’s Foreign Ministry says Russia’s use of a military base in Hamadan for striking targets in Syria has ended for now.

Russian authorities are investigating an attack on journalist Yulia Latynina in which the prominent critic of President Vladimir Putin was doused with fecal matter by an unidentified assailant.

The Ukrainian military and Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine continue to accuse each other of violating a cease-fire agreement.

Austria's Constitutional Court has refused to consider an appeal by Ukrainian businessman Dmytro Firtash in an attempt to fight his extradition to the United States, where he is wanted on corruption charges.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has reassured his Ukrainian counterpart, Petro Poroshenko, that Ankara will continue to recognize the Crimean Peninsula, which was illegally annexed by Russia, as Ukrainian territory.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden urged both Russia and Ukraine to show restraint one day after Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko warned he could not rule out "a full-scale Russian invasion."

According to a poll by the Levada Center, nearly a quarter of Russians would be prepared to sell their votes in next month's State Duma elections.

Russian media is reporting that opposition figure Aleksei Navalny is seeking ways to run for president in 2018.

WHAT I'M READING

Remembering August 1991

Prominent Russian journalist Sergey Parkhomenko has a piece up on the Kennan Institute's Russia Files blog recalling the events of August 19-21, 1991.

And in Vedomosti, Oleg Ozherlyev, who served as an aide to former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, speculates about what Russia might look like today if the August 1991 coup attempt never happened.

The Kremlin's Election Dilemma

Sergei Orlov has a piece on Mikhail Khodorkovsky's Open Wall web portal on the dilemma facing the Kremlin in next month's elections.

"The Kremlin loudly trumpets its wish to see free and fair elections this September, but it needs to come up with a public strategy, which ensures that the desired result keeps the courtiers in place while at the same time observing all the external proprieties," Orlov writes.

The Crimea Incident

Writing in Slon.ru, Moscow-based foreign affairs analyst Vladimir Frolov unpacks the so-called "Crimea incident" and Russia's recent saber-rattling with Ukraine.

"Russia wants to solve the 'Ukrainian issue' through negotiations, not on the battlefield. But it wants to resolve it directly with the West, without Ukraine's participation," Frolov writes.

"Moscow is presenting the West with an ultimatum -- either you provide a 'Minsk-2' right now and over Poroshenko's head, or Russia has a free hand -- and everything is possible."

Death Of A Mobster

Writing on his blog, Mark Galeotti examines the recent killing of Azerbaijani-born mob boss Rovshan Janiev, also known as Rovshan Lenkoransky.

"What made Janiev interesting is that around him cohered a loose coalition of hungry young and youngish gangsters, who felt the relative stability of the post-'90s status quo -- and the end of the rapid social mobility caused by periodic turf wars and gangland killings -- was locking them out of the big time," Galeotti writes.

The 1999 Apartment Bombings

Writing in The National Review, veteran Kremlin-watcher David Satter -- a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a fellow at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, and author of the recently published book The Less You Know, The Better You Sleep: Russia’s Road To Terror And Dictatorship Under Yeltsin and Putin -- looks back at the 1999 apartment bombings that helped bring Putin to power.

"I believe that Vladimir Putin came to power as the result of an act of terror committed against his own people," Satter writes. 

"The evidence is overwhelming that the apartment-house bombings in 1999 in Moscow, Buinaksk, and Volgodonsk, which provided a pretext for the second Chechen war and catapulted Putin into the presidency, were carried out by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB). Yet, to this day, an indifferent world has made little attempt to grasp the significance of what was the greatest political provocation since the burning of the Reichstag."

Russia's Opposition Is Dying -- Literally

Moscow-based journalist Andrew Kramer has a piece in The New York Times on how many of the Kremlin's opponents keep winding up dead.

Ukraine And August 1991

Don't miss the latest edition of Hromadske Radio's Ukraine Calling Podcast. Host Marta Dyczok and her guests look at the failed hard-line coup of August 1991 from Ukraine's perspective.


Video The Daily Vertical: Putin Unbound

The Daily Vertical: Putin Unboundi
X
August 22, 2016
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday.
Brian Whitmore

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

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


Audio The Briefing: War And Independence

A jittery Independence Day looms in Ukraine.

Brian Whitmore

Ukraine marks a quarter-century of independence this week amid war jitters, as Russia turns up the heat.

President Petro Poroshenko has warned that an all-out invasion could be imminent. The OSCE says the number of Russian heavy weapons on the border has doubled in the past week and multiple-rocket systems are being used against Ukrainian positions in Donetsk Oblast.

On the latest Power Vertical Briefing, we discuss the rising tensions as Ukrainians mark a milestone.

Joining me is RFE/RL senior editor Steve Gutterman.

Also on The Briefing, Steve and I look at how the Kremlin is spinning Russia's performance at the Summer Olympics.

Enjoy...

The Briefing: War And Independence
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NOTE: The Power Vertical Briefing is a short look ahead to the stories expected to make news in Russia in the coming week. It is hosted by Brian Whitmore, author of The Power Vertical blog, and appears on Mondays. 


Audio Podcast: All The President's Men

Viktor Zolotov (top, center) is up. Vladimir Yakunin (bottom, left), Viktor Ivanov (bottom, center) and Sergei Ivanov (bottom, right) are down.

Brian Whitmore

Another shoe drops. Another Kremlin insider takes a fall. Another sign that these are far from normal times for Russia's ruling class.

The dismissal of Sergei Ivanov as Kremlin chief of staff was indeed a bombshell. Few Russian officials were closer to Vladimir Putin and few wielded as much influence.

But Ivanov's downfall didn't happen in isolation. He was the third member of Putin's innermost circle to go down in the past year.

And it came on the heels of high-profile corruption investigations targeting the Investigative Committee and Federal Customs Service, the establishment of a new National Guard, and a shakeup in the Federal Security Service (FSB).

So what are we witnessing? Normal cadre rotation? A shakeup ahead of the elections? Or a purge and the birth of a new elite?

On this week's Power Vertical Podcast, we take a deep dive into what is going on with the Russian elite.

Joining me are co-host Mark Galeotti, a senior research fellow at the Czech Institute of International Relations, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, and author of the blog In Moscow's Shadows; and Andrei Soldatov, editor in chief of the investigative website Agentura.ru and co-author of the books Red Web: The Struggle Between Russia's Digital Dictators And The New Online Revolutionaries and The New Nobility: The Restoration Of Russia's Security State And The Enduring Legacy Of The KGB.

Also on the podcast, Mark, Andrei and I will discuss the meteoric rise of Viktor Zolotov, the chief of the new National Guard.

Enjoy... 

Power Vertical Podcast: All The President's Men
Power Vertical Podcast: All The President's Meni
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Listen to or download the podcast above or subscribe to The Power Vertical Podcast on iTunes.


Video The Daily Vertical: The Spirit Of 1991

The Daily Vertical: The Spirit Of 1991i
X
August 19, 2016
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday.
Brian Whitmore

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

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


The Morning Vertical, August 19, 2016

Brian Whitmore

ON MY MIND

The dismissal of Sergei Ivanov as Kremlin chief of staff last week was indeed a bombshell.

Few Russian officials were closer to Vladimir Putin and few wielded as much influence. But Ivanov's downfall didn't happen in isolation. He was the third member of Putin's innermost circle to go down in the past year.

And it came on the heels of high-profile corruption investigations targeting the Investigative Committee and Federal Customs Service, the establishment of a new National Guard, and a shakeup in the FSB.

On this week's Power Vertical Podcast, we take a deep dive into what is going on with the Russian elite.

What are we witnessing? Normal cadre rotation? A shakeup ahead of the elections? Or a purge and the birth of a new elite?

Joining me are co-host Mark Galeotti, a senior research fellow at the Czech Institute of International Relations, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, and author of the blog In Moscow's Shadows; and Andrei Soldatov, editor in chief of the investigative website Agentura.ru and co-author of the books Red Web: The Struggle Between Russia's Digital Dictators And The New Online Revolutionaries and The New Nobility: The Restoration Of Russia's Security State And The Enduring Legacy Of The KGB.

Also on the podcast, Mark, Andrei and I will discuss the meteoric rise of Viktor Zolotov, the chief of the new National Guard.

Be sure to tune in.

IN THE NEWS

Russian military forces are carrying out "logistical exercises" in and around the occupied Crimean Peninsula.

Russia agreed to a 48-hour cease-fire in the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo after a haunting video of a young boy injured by an air strike there went viral on the Internet on August 18.

Prominent Russian human rights lawyer Mark Feygin has been barred from leaving Russia in a move he says is aimed at preventing him from defending Crimean Tatars at an Organization for Security and Cooperation event in Warsaw.

Ukraine’s president has said the likelihood of an escalation of the conflict with Russia and Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine "remains significant" and said he cannot rule out "a full-scale Russian invasion."

A court in Russia's St. Petersburg has convicted Vladimir Barsukov, aka Vladimir Kumarin -- a high-profile reputed mafia kingpin who led the notorious Tambov Organized Crime Group, of murder and attempted murder and has sentenced him to 23 years in prison.

Russian pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva, who was barred from the Rio Olympics under a blanket doping ban, was elected as an athletes' representative on the International Olympic Committee on August 18.

Ukraine has protested to the Commonwealth of Independent States over the organization's plans to send monitors to the Russian State Duma elections in the region of Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014.

Oleg Gazmanov, a prominent Russian singer known for his nationalist songs such as "Made In The U.S.S.R." has been denied entry to Lithuania.

The Russian Prosecutor-General's Office has deemed two U.S.-based NGOs -- the International Republican Institute and the Media Development Investment Fund -- as being "undesirable" in Russia and of threatening the country's national security.

Russia's Central Election Commission has already registered nearly 1,000 complaints of alleged irregularities in the preparations for the country's December legislative and local elections, chairwoman Ella Pamfilova told journalists.

The Moldovan Foreign Ministry has complained to Russian diplomats over a recent military exercise involving Russian troops on the territory of Transdniester, a region of Moldova that is de facto controlled by Russia-backed separatists.

According to a poll by the Kremlin-connected VTsIOM agency, nearly half of all Russians would wear clothes featuring the Russian flag.

The German airline Eurowings will stop flights to Russia.

WHAT I'M READING

Dealing With Moscow

Angela Stent, director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown University and author of the book The Limits of Partnership: US-Russian Relations in the Twenty-First Century, argues in The Washington Post that there will be no reset with Russia.

"It’s been a quarter-century since the Soviet Union collapsed. In the aftermath, the United States had two main goals: The first was integrating the new Russia into Euro-Atlantic and global institutions; the second, if that did not work out, was ensuring that Russia not thwart America’s commitment to create a peaceful, rules-based post-Cold War order. A quarter-century later, it is clear that the first goal was not achieved. That means the next occupant of the White House will have to redouble efforts to achieve the second," Stent writes.

Also in The Washington Post, David Kramer, director for human rights and democracy at the McCain Institute for International Leadership and a former U.S. assistant secretary of state, argues that Russia is a threat and should be treated as one. 

"The next U.S. administration should recognize that the nature of the Putin regime precludes real partnership between the United States and Russia and vastly limits areas of cooperation. Increasing engagement will not change that -- both George W. Bush and Barack Obama tried and failed -- and even risks appearing desperate, which Putin would exploit as weakness on our part," Kramer writes.

The Russian Economy

Vladislav Inozemtsev has a piece in Intersection magazine laying out what needs to be done to rescue the Russian economy.

"Despite the hopes of the authorities, the economic crisis in Russia is not coming to an end -- on the contrary, a growing number of Russians are still experiencing it," Inozemtsev writes. 

"According to recent data, 41 percent of citizens cannot afford basic food and clothes, while real disposable income has already decreased nearly one fifth since the beginning of the crisis. At the same time, those "at the top" do practically nothing about the economy, whereas the groups of experts who are developing absolutely different programs (as they believe), are now, in fact, offering similar recipes for recovery: both strategies focus on the need to support producers (one through cheaper loans in larger volumes; the other through the reduction of institutional obstacles to business).

It seems to me that the “mainstream Russian economists” are wrong."

The Kremlin And Khodorkovsky

Oleg Kashin has a piece in Slon.ru exploring why the Kremlin is allowing candidates from Mikhail Khodorkovsky's Open Russia to participate in next month's State Duma elections.

"The most obvious conclusion is that the authorities are not afraid of Khodorkovsky, or are pretending that they are not afraid of him," Kashin writes. "The electoral prospects of these candidates are slim and none of them are likely to get into the Duma. Why not allow them to participate, divide the protest vote, and give the impression of a fair election?" 

He goes on to speculate that perhaps "the Kremlin is hedging its bets" and "building a new system of relations with Khodorkovsky."

The Coup Plotters' Advocates

Shon.ru editor Yulia Taratuta has a piece looking at the lawyers who defended Russia's August 1991 coup plotters.

The Coup In Photos

To mark this week's anniversary, Slon.ru also has a nice photo gallery of the coup.

Belarus In The Middle

The Minsk-based Center for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies has a new report titled: Belarus In The Context Of The Russia-NATO Confrontation.


Video The Daily Vertical: Putin Ups The Ante

The Daily Vertical: Putin Ups The Antei
X
August 18, 2016
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday.
Brian Whitmore

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

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


The Morning Vertical, August 18, 2016

Brian Whitmore

ON MY MIND

It's quite telling that there are no official events planned in Russia to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the failed hardline coup in August 1991.

It's telling that Moscow authorities have denied permission for a human rights group to hold a march in the center of the city to commemorate this historic event and to lay wreaths at a monument to the three men who were killed. 

It's telling that, as Masha Gessen notes in a piece featured below, this out-of sight-out-of-mind monument to these three men is in disrepair while the famous statue of Soviet secret police founder Feliks Dzerzhinsky has been restored and is displayed in a park near the Kremlin.

It's all very telling, of course.

But it's not at all surprising at all. 

IN THE NEWS

Municipal authorities in Moscow have denied permission for a commemoration march to mark the 25th anniversary of the failed hard-line coup attempt against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.

Russian officials say four suspected members of an illegal armed group were killed by security forces in an operation at an apartment building in St. Petersburg.

A court in St. Petersburg has jailed three members of the banned Islamic organization, Hizb ut-Tahrir.

Authorities in Moscow say two unidentified men armed with guns and axes attacked a police post outside of Moscow.

Authorities in Ukraine say they have detained an Uzbek citizen believed to have been fighting alongside Russia-backed separatists in Ukraine's eastern region of Donetsk.

Two Interior Ministry officials from Chechnya have been detained in Moscow on suspicion of extortion.

Russia's media watchdog has blocked five websites calling for boycotting Russia's September 18 State Duma elections.

The Conflict Intelligence Team open-source research organization is reporting that two Russian officers have been killed in Syria.

 WHAT I'M READING

Sanctions? What Sanctions?

The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project has a new piece out looking at how, despite sanctions, international trade continues with Russian-annexed Crimea.

The Crimea Psy-Op

Writing on his blog, Anton Shekhovtsov looks at Russia's allegations of a terrorist plot in Crimea as being a psy-op.

Does Propaganda Work?

Theodore P. Gerber, director of the Center for Russia, East Europe, and Central Asia at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Jane Zavisca, a professor of sociology at the University of Arizona, have a scholarly article in The Washington Quarterly that asks: "Does Russian Propaganda Work?"

The Fall of the Cronies

Writing on his blog, In Moscow's Shadows, Mark Galeotti looks at the different ways three Putin cronies -- Vladimir Yakunin, Viktor Ivanov, and Sergei Ivanov -- were treated as they were dismissed.

The State Of Nord Stream

In a piece for EUobserver, Sijbren de Jong of The Hague Center for Strategic Studies asks: "Is Nord Stream 2 Dead?"

The Internet And The Coup

Historian and journalist Natalia Konradova has a piece in openDemocracy on how an infant version of the Internet helped avert the Soviet hard-line coup of August 1991.

A $240-Billion Boondoggle 

Writing on Mikhail Khodorkovsky's Open Wall web portal, Ilya Klishin looks at Russia's proposed $240 billion transport proposal using dirigibles.

August 1991

In an op-ed in The New York Times, journalist Masha Gessen, author of The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, asks if the Soviet Union ever really ended.

Putin's Useful Sympathizers

Andrey Makarychev, a visiting professor at the University of Tartu's Skytte Institute of Political Studies and Stefano Braghiroli, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Tartu's Institute of Government and Politics, have a scholarly article in the journal PONARS Eurasia looking at anti-status-quo groups on the far left and far right that have been courted by the Kremlin.


The Morning Vertical, August 17, 2016

Brian Whitmore

ON MY MIND

The Kremlin's unexpected decision to postpone the privatization of Bashneft led to a sharp decline in the oil company's share prices. It also is an indication of the declining political capital of one of Vladimir Putin's longtime cronies, Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin.

Long one of the Kremlin's wiliest and most powerful insiders, Sechin has been losing more than his share of political battles of late and has come under criticism for his management of Rosneft.

He had been seeking to acquire a controlling stake in Bashneft, but was reportedly rebuffed by Putin himself.

Together with former Russian Railways CEO Vladimir Yakunin, former Kremlin chief of staff Sergei Ivanov, and Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, Sechin was long seen as a member of the so-called "collective Putin" -- the security service veterans who formed the Kremlin leader's innermost circle.

Yakunin and Ivanov have been banished from that privileged island. And one can only wonder if Sechin will be the next member of the collective Putin to take a fall. 

IN THE NEWS

The FSB has launched an operation in St. Petersburg to round up suspected North Caucasus militants.

Oil prices got another lift as Russia hinted at efforts to relieve the global glut in crude by working with the OPEC oil cartel.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has postponed the privatization of oil producer Bashneft, in a surprise move his spokeswoman said was approved by President Vladimir Putin.

And Bashneft shares fell 12 percent on the news.

Vladimir Ionov, a 76-year-old Russian opposition activist who was the first person charged under a strict new law restricting protests has received political asylum in Ukraine.

The mufti of Russia's North Caucasus region of Karachayevo-Cherkessia, Ismail Berdiyev, has said the genital mutilation of girls does not contradict Islam and is necessary in order "to limit the unnecessary energy" of future brides.

The United States says Russia's use of an Iranian air base to carry out airstrikes in Syria is "unfortunate but not surprising."

Estonia has reportedly detained Aleksandr Kornilov, the publisher of pro-Russian websites, on charges of forging documents and providing false information to tax authorities.

WHAT I'M READING

The New Elite

Commentary and analysis continues to pour in on the dismissal of Kremlin chief of staff Sergei Ivanov and the makeover of Russia's ruling elite.

Fabian Burkhardt, for example, has a detailed and really informative piece in Intersection magazine on generational change in the Kremlin bureaucracy 

"By all means, we are apparently witnessing a gradual rejuvenation and therefore reproduction of Russia's electoral, bureaucratic authoritarianism.

The million dollar question is whether the regime will continue to have an aging personalist leader, or whether Russia's highest office will eventually see a power transition, too," Burkhardt writes.

Andrew Monaghan of Chatham House, meanwhile, sees more continuity than change.

Anton Vaino's Strange Prose

Author and journalist Masha Gessen has a widely circulated piece in The New Yorker on the very strange writings of Anton Vaino, the new Kremlin chief of staff.

"Back in 2012, [Vaino] published an article in a Russian academic journal, and in the past few days hundreds if not thousands of Russians have struggled to deduce meaning from its twenty-nine pages. The article is called 'The Capitalization of the Future'; the pages that follow do little to shed light on the meaning of the title or, really, much else," Gessen writes.

But don't take her word for it. Just try reading the article for yourself.
 
New Generation Warfare

David Ignatius has a piece in The Washington Post on how the Pentagon is seeking to develop a new generation of high-tech weapons to deter Russia and China.

What Happened -- Or Didn't Happen -- In Crimea

Hromadske Television's English-language Sunday Show does a nice job of unpacking Russia's largely discredited claims that Ukraine sent a team of agent-saboteurs to Crimes to carry out terrorist attacks. 

Crimean Tatars In The Crosshairs

The Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group has a piece by Halya Coynash up on its website suggesting that the real target of the Crimea incident may be the Crimean Tatars.

"Although Russia’s claims that Ukraine had tried to 'attack' its own territory in Crimea have failed to convince anybody outside Russia, the arrests are continuing. Videos have been shown of three men and nine in all were recently reported to be in custody, with that number likely to rise," Coynash writes.

"In a potentially menacing new slant, a top official in the occupation government has claimed that Ukraine is planning “new sabotage” under the guise of acts of resistance by Crimean Tatars."

Memoir Of A Diplomat

On the Center for European Policy Analysis website, veteran Kremlin-watcher Edward Lucas, author of The New Cold War, has a short review of the book "From Washington to Moscow," a memoir of U.S. diplomat Louis Sell.

Crunch Time

Economist Sergei Aleksashenko of the Brookings Institution has a piece in Slon.ru arguing that Russia's currency reserves might fall to critical levels just in time for the 2018 presidential election.

Weak Ruble? What Weak Ruble?

Meanwhile, Slon.ru also has a piece up looking at why Russians are not so worried anymore about the weak ruble.

Say What?!

Samara Oblast Governor Nikolai Merkushkin says Russia is unable to pay pensions because of a plot by the U.S. State Department and the CIA.

 


Video The Daily Vertical: The Putin Doctrine

The Daily Vertical: The Putin Doctrinei
X
August 17, 2016
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday.
Brian Whitmore

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

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


Video The Daily Vertical: The Crimea Con Job

The Daily Vertical: The Crimea Con Jobi
X
August 16, 2016
Brian Whitmore

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

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


The Morning Vertical, August 16, 2016

Brian Whitmore

ON MY MIND

Two winners emerging out of Vladimir Putin's decision to dismiss Sergei Ivanov as Kremlin chief of staff appear -- at least for the moment -- to be National Guard chief Viktor Zolotov and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov. 

The two are allies. Both have feuded with Ivanov in the past, both won those feuds, and now Ivanov is out (although not entirely, as he retains a seat on the Security Council). When Kadyrov emerged as the presumed mastermind in the February 2015 assassination of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, Ivanov and FSB Director Aleksandr Bortnikov tried to clip his wings. They were stopped by Putin. Ivanov also appears to have opposed the creation of a National Guard under Zolotov's leadership. He obviously lost that fight. 

Putin has abandoned his old policy of balancing the Kremlin's competing clans. He's sticking with the people he trusts the most and those he feels are the most loyal.

He appears to have thrown his lot in with his old bodyguard, one of the most hard-line members of the Russian elite, and with the mercurial Chechen leader. 

IN THE NEWS

The Russian military has conducted air strikes in Syria using warplanes based in Iran for the first time, Russian state media are reporting.

A downturn in oil prices has prompted Russia and Saudi Arabia to start talking again about freezing output to try to stabilize prices.

Russia has proposed cutting the number of cosmonauts at the International Space Station from three to two -- a plan NASA is studying to see whether it poses risks to other crew members.

Russian doping whistle-blower Yulia Stepanova has said she and her husband fear for their lives after an attempt was made to hack her World Anti-Doping Agency records.

Russia's defense minister said Moscow and Washington were getting closer to an agreement that would help defuse the humanitarian crisis in the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo.

Some 44 percent of Russians believe that recent high-profile corruption cases targeting the Investigative Committee and the Federal Customs Service are just for show in advance of September's State Duma elections, according to a poll by the Levada Center.

Ilya Yashin of the opposition party Parnas is preparing a report on alleged criminal activities by members of the ruling United Russia party.

United Russia has picked 12 quotes by Vladimir Putin to use in its election campaign.

LATEST POWER VERTICAL BLOG

In case you missed it, on Power Vertical blog I argue that as he dismisses his cronies, Vladimir Putin is becoming Russia's Solitary Man.

WHAT I'M READING

Fear and Loathing In the Inner Circle

In a piece for OpenDemocracy, Mark Galeotti, a senior research fellow at the Czech Institute of International Relations and a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, plays off of Sergei Ivanov's dismissal as Kremlin chief of staff and looks at Putin's Incredible Shrinking Circle.

"This...does not represent a fundamental change in the system," Galeotti writes.

"Putin has always been the unchallenged 'decider' presiding over a court of boyars who know their power, wealth, and futures depended on the tsar’s favor. And while many of the new appointees are not yet well-known, we cannot assume that they are all docile yes-men and colorless ciphers. Today’s grateful appointee will likely become tomorrow's arrogant power in the land." 

Anders Aslund, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, meanwhile argues that Ivanov's dismissal points to rifts in the security services.

Putin the Big

Writing in Vedomosti, Maksim Trudolyubov looks at how Vladimir Putin has gotten too big for the Russian political system.

"The most amazing thing about the political game in Russia is that even the generous powers granted by the constitution are too narrow for the Kremlin," Trudolyubov writes. "For more than 16 years these people have been continuously rewriting the laws, rules, and regulations; yet they still need to resort to schemes and special operations."

Russia and the European Right

Anton Shekhovtsov takes a historical look at Russia's ties to the European far right.

War Without End?

On the Atlantic Council website, Alexander Motyl argues that peace with Putin is impossible.

"While one must negotiate with irrational leaders, the only thing that can keep them in check -- possibly -- is preparedness," Motyl writes.

"Their promises are as meaningless as their declarations of peace, and appeasement only whets their appetites. Only a strong military and a determined policy of containment has any chance of keeping them in bounds."

Russia-Turkey Tensions

Foreign Policy's UN correspondent Colum Lynch has a piece arguing that despite the public rapprochement between Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Russia and Turkey are still bickering over Syria behind closed doors.

"Erdogan and Putin are publicly trying to bury the hatchet. Away from the cameras, their cold war over Syria rages on," Lynch writes.

Counter Propaganda

Vice has a piece profiling the Lithuanian colonel in charge of countering Russian propaganda.

August In Crimea

Mikhail Khodorkovsky's Open Wall web portal has a post up looking at how the Kremlin's manufactured crisis in Crimea is confirming Russia's traditional "August curse."

The View From Mariupol

Ivan Sigal, executive director of Global Voices, has a nice color piece from Mariupol, "a city at peace, but close enough to hear the war." 


Russia's Solitary Man

It's getting lonely at the top.

Brian Whitmore

Vladimir Putin is throwing his old pals under the bus. He's replacing them with loyal and docile servants. And he's building a security apparatus that answers to him alone.

A year ago, Putin fired longtime associate Vladimir Yakunin as head of Russian Railways. 

A few months back, he effectively dismissed Viktor Ivanov as director of the Federal Antinarcotics Service.

Last week, he removed his old crony Sergei Ivanov as Kremlin chief of staff. 

And in the middle of all that, Putin set up a powerful National Guard, a 400,000-strong force that is run by the Kremlin leader's former bodyguard and answers to him alone. 

Putin is becoming a solitary man. He's building a personal army and members of his once-powerful inner circle are dropping like flies.

"The age of the collective rule of Putin's friends is coming to an end," writes political analyst Vladimir Pastukhov, a visiting fellow at St. Antony's College at Oxford University.
 
And they're not just being fired, they're being humiliated.

Consider Sergei Ivanov, a KGB veteran who has worked with Putin for decades. In addition to being Kremlin chief of staff -- one of the most powerful posts in the country -- Ivanov has served as Security Council secretary, defense minister, and deputy prime minister. 

And his new job? Special assistant to the president for ecology and transportation.

But hey, at least he still has a job.

When Viktor Ivanov got the boot this past spring, it was almost an afterthought. Putin simply liquidated the Federal Antinarcotics Service he ran, merging it into the Interior Ministry, leaving the once-influential KGB veteran on the outside looking in.

When Yakunin was dismissed as head of Russian Railways, he was offered the soft landing of a seat in the Federation Council, the upper chamber of parliament. 

Given his stature and long-standing ties to Putin, Yakunin assumed that he would be given a leadership position, perhaps even deputy speaker.

But when leaks to the media revealed that he would be just a rank-and-file lawmaker, that he wouldn't have an office in the Federation Council's main building, and that his official car wouldn't be a Mercedes or a Volvo but a Ford Focus, Yakunin said, "Thanks, but no thanks."

This trend is likely to continue. There are persistent reports in the media that another old Putin crony, Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin, is quickly falling out of favor.

And who is getting promoted is just as important as who is getting fired: Mid-level bureaucrats and career civil servants who have no power base of their own and who owe their careers to Putin alone.

Anton Vaino, the new Kremlin chief of staff, is emblematic of this new governing class.

"In place of a prince who ruled with his entourage, there is now a tsar who rules over his servants," Pastukhov writes.

One group of Putin's old inner circle, however, appears to be immune to the purge.

Businessmen like Boris and Arkady Rotenberg, Gennady Timchenko, and Yury Kovalchuk make their billions off of state contracts, but they can also be counted on to finance Putin's pet projects. In Putin's new system, they remain useful.

"Putin is moving closer to those who serve him and away from those who, because of their resources, claim to be co-rulers," writes political analyst Tatyana Stanovaya.

By scrapping his old system of ruling through elite consensus and balancing clan interests and moving toward one-man rule, Putin is not only breaking with the governing model he has used for his 16 years in power, he is also breaking with the governing model used by every Russian or Soviet leader since Josef Stalin.

And we all know what Stalin felt he needed to do to make that system work.

Which is why the new National Guard, run by Putin's old bodyguard and uber-loyalist, Viktor Zolotov, is so important. It absorbs Russia's Interior Ministry troops, the OMON riot police, and the SOBR -- or SWAT -- forces. And it reports directly to Putin.

When it was first announced in the spring, commentators assumed the National Guard's primary purpose would be to quickly suppress a popular uprising -- and it may eventually be used for that reason.

But its real target appears to be the elite. It's a message that if anybody gets any bright ideas about attempting a palace coup, they will need to contend with Putin's own personal Praetorian Guard.

And in that case, we'll see just how far Russia's solitary man is prepared to go.


Video The Daily Vertical: Another Kremlin Tale Unravels

The Daily Vertical: Another Kremlin Tale Unravelsi
X
August 15, 2016
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday.
Brian Whitmore

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

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


The Morning Vertical, August 15, 2016

Brian Whitmore

ON MY MIND

A year ago, Vladimir Putin dismissed longtime associate Vladimir Yakunin as head of Russian Railways.

Last week, he removed his old crony Sergei Ivanov as Kremlin chief of staff.

And in between, Putin set up a powerful National Guard, a 400,000-strong force that is run by the Kremlin-leader's former bodyguard and answers to him alone.

Putin's move away from a leadership style based on consensus and balance among elite clans not only breaks with how he has governed Russia for most of his long stint in the Kremlin -- it also breaks with how every Russian or Soviet leader has governed since Stalin.

But in order to make one-man rule work, Stalin needed to resort to terror and repression.

Which makes one wonder exactly what Putin has in mind.

TODAY'S POWER VERTICAL BRIEFING

On this week's Power Vertical Briefing, RFE/RL Senior Editor Steve Gutterman and I discuss Sergei Ivanov's dismissal as Kremlin chief of staff and Russia's unraveling story about an alleged Ukrainian terror plot in Crimea.  

LATEST POWER VERTICAL PODCAST

And in case you missed it, on the latest Power Vertical Podcast, Putin's Strongman Club, I discussed Vladimir Putin's efforts to unite the world's autocrats with veteran Kremlin watcher James Sherr and Daniel Drezner, a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a columnist for The Washington Post.

IN THE NEWS

Russia's Paralympic Committee has filed an appeal against a decision by the International Paralympic Committee to ban Russian athletes from participating in the September 7-18 games in Rio de Janeiro.

The Court of Arbitration for Sport has upheld an appeal by Russian long jumper Darya Klishina against her ban from the Olympic Games in Brazil.

The World Anti-Doping Agency says the electronic account that shows whistle-blower Yulia Stepanova's location has been hacked.

A Russian lawmaker's son who U.S. prosecutors say orchestrated a hacking scheme that resulted in about $170 million in fraudulent credit-card purchases goes on trial this week in the state of Washington.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said there is no "standoff" in relations between Russia and the West, predicting improved relations between Moscow and Berlin in the coming years.

WHAT I'M READING

Ivanov's Fall

Political analyst Konstanti Gaaze argues in Slon.ru that Sergei Ivanov's dismissal as Kremlin chief of staff is part of preparations for early presidential elections.

In a blog for the BBC's Russian Service, Vladimir Pastukhov, a political analyst and professor at Oxford University, puts Ivanov's fall in the context of broader changes in Russia's leadership in recent years.

"Instead of a 'Prince' who rules with his entourage, 'the King' has ascended, a manager and his slaves," Pastukhov writes.

Unraveling The 'Crimean Incident'

Paul Quinn-Judge of the International Crisis Group attempts to shed some light on what Russia is trying to accomplish with its allegations of a Ukrainian terror plot in Crimea.

Euromaidan Press, meanwhile, alleges that Moscow is playing "terror games" and has a useful timeline that casts doubt on Russia's official narrative.
 
The Season Of Menace

In Politico, veteran Russia correspondent Owen Matthews writes about how August is Russia's traditional "season of menace" -- and this year is no exception.

"August in Moscow is a season of brooding heat broken by sudden rainstorms, of bathing in chilly rivers and experiencing pangs of regret for a summer that never quite happened," Matthews writes.

"Also, it’s Russia’s traditional season of disaster."

The Putin Question

In a piece for Project Syndicate, Anders Aslund looks at what is motivating Putin.

"As war fever returns in Ukraine, the question of why Russian President Vladimir Putin went from would-be modernizer to aggressive autocrat is being revived. Whatever the reason – fear for his safety, a sense of historical grievance, or both – Putin’s inability to reform Russia’s economy seems certain to be his downfall," Aslund writes.

European Leaders Through Russian Eyes

The European Values think tank has a new report out on how the Russian media portrays European leaders.

"The Kremlin disinformation campaign works very hard to portray the European leaders accordingly to their inclination to support Russia. The more favourable those personalities are to Vladimir Putin's regime, the stronger voice in the international community they have according to the Russian-speaking outlets," the report says.

"This phenomenon leads to a large overrepresentation of Central European leaders like Milos Zeman, Viktor Orban or Robert Fico in the Russian media space. Together with Matteo Renzi, those politicians are Russian-speaking media favourites, some of them disproportionately to the weight backed by their population or even to the competencies and powers they have on their domestic scene."

Ossified Putinism?

The latest edition of the SRB Podcast, hosted by Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies asks whether Putinism is ossifying. Sean's guest is Mark Galeotti, a senior research fellow at the Czech Institute of International Relations and a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.


The Briefing: Another Putin Crony Takes A Fall

Has Putin kicked Ivanov off the island?

Brian Whitmore

The apparent purge of Vladimir Putin's inner circle continues with the dismissal of longtime crony Sergei Ivanov as Kremlin chief of staff last week.

On the latest Power Vertical Briefing, I discuss the reasons for and fallout from Putin's dismissal of his longtime associate.

Joining me is Senior RFE/RL Editor Steve Gutterman.

Also on The Briefing, Steve and I discuss how more and more holes are appearing in Russia's claims that Ukraine tried to carry out terrorist attacks in occupied Crimea.

Enjoy...

The Briefing: Another Putin Crony Takes A Fall
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NOTE: The Power Vertical Briefing is a short look ahead to the stories expected to make news in Russia in the coming week. It is hosted by Brian Whitmore, author of The Power Vertical blog and appears on Mondays. 

 


Audio Podcast: Putin's Strongman Club

The Autocrat International

Brian Whitmore

Are the autocrats of the world trying to unite?

Vladimir Putin's summits this week with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian President Hassan Rohani were the latest illustrations of how the Kremlin leader is working overtime to build alliances with the illiberal regimes of the world.

On this week's Power Vertical Podcast, we look at Putin's efforts to build an Authoritarian International.

Is it a true challenge to the West? Or an act of desperation?

Joining me are veteran Kremlin watcher James Sherr, an associate fellow with Chatham House's Russia and Eurasia program, and Daniel Drezner, a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a columnist for The Washington Post, and the author of the books Theories Of International Politics And Zombies and the recent The System Worked: How The World Stopped Another Great Depression.

Also on the podcast, James, Daniel, and I will discuss the tensions this week in Crimea and what they may portend.

Enjoy...

The Power Vertical Podcast: Putin's Strongman Club
The Power Vertical Podcast: Putin's Strongman Clubi
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Listen to or download the podcast above or subscribe to The Power Vertical Podcast on iTunes.


Video The Daily Vertical: Putin's Post-Fact World

The Daily Vertical: Putin's Post-Fact Worldi
X
August 12, 2016
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday.
The Daily Vertical: Putin's Post-Fact World
Brian Whitmore

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

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

Latest Podcasts

About This Blog

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