Saturday, June 25, 2016

Podcast: Russia's Legitimization Ritual

Let the campaign begin! (cartoon by Sergei Elkin)

Brian Whitmore

Another political season gets under way in Russia.

Vladimir Putin kicked off Russia's parliamentary election campaign this week, setting a date for the vote and bidding the outgoing State Duma farewell.

Like all Russian elections under Putin, the outcome, of course, is not in doubt.

But the September 18 election, and the campaign leading up to it, is important nonetheless -- as a legitimization ritual for the regime.

And as Putin learned the hard way five years ago, such legitimization rituals can go horribly wrong.

On this week's Power Vertical Podcast, we discuss the upcoming political season and what it portends. 

Joining me are Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies and host of the SRB Podcast; and Maxim Trudolyubov, a senior fellow at the Kennan Institute in Washington and editor at large of the Russian business daily Vedomosti.


Power Vertical Podcast: Russia's Legitimization Ritual
Power Vertical Podcast: Russia's Legitimization Rituali
|| 0:00:00




The Morning Vertical, June 24, 2016

Brian Whitmore


It didn't take long for some Russian officials to start gloating as the results of the Brexit referendum came in. Almost immediately, Kremlin aide Boris Titov wrote the following on Facebook: "It looks like it's happened -- the U.K. is out!!! The most important long-term effect of all this will be Europe's escape from the Anglo-Saxons, and that means from the United States. This isn't the independence of Britain from Europe, but of Europe from the United States. Now we'll have a united Eurasia in 10 years' time." Bombastic lawmaker Vladimir Zhirinovsky, meanwhile, mockingly sent a message of congratulations to British Prime Minister David Cameron, who, of course, supported remaining in the EU. Russian state television, meanwhile, gleefully reported that Britain's exit from the EU could cause the country to split apart. The official Kremlin response will probably be more guarded, but there is no doubt that yesterday's Brexit result is causing Vladimir Putin to sport a broad grin. 


Just a reminder that later today, the Power Vertical Podcast will look at Russia's upcoming political season with the State Duma election campaign getting under way. The Brexit results, of course, add a whole new dimension to this discussion and are sure to come up. My guests include Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies and host of the SRB Podcast and Maxim Trudolyubov, a senior fellow at the Kennan Institute. So be sure to tune in!


The Russian Central Bank and Finance Minister Anton Siluanov say the economic effect of Brexit on the Russian economy will be minimal.

Former Russian Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin has said he regrets the British vote to leave the European Union, but says it will have little effect on the Russian economy.

The deputy head of state development bank Vnesheconombank says Brexit could attract investors to Russia.

Nationalist State Duma Deputy Vladimir Zhirinovsky has sent a message to British Prime Minister Cameron congratulating him on Brexit and praising the British people for their "accomplishment."
Russia's Foreign Ministry has warned Washington against imposing new rules on the movements of Russian diplomats in the United States, threatening that Moscow might institute similar restrictions.

The brother of the jailed mayor of Vladivostok has been arrested for corruption.
The head of Russia's soccer fan association is claiming that Russian fans were the victims of "politicized" treatment by French authorities at the Euro 2016 tournament.

Russia's troubled state development bank, Vnesheconombank, says it will restructure more than 200 billion rubles ($3.1 billion) in loans tied to the 2014 Sochi Olympics.


Russia and Turkey

Asli Aydintasbas, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, has a new report on Russian-Turkish relations: With Friends Like These: Turkey, Russia, And The End Of An Unlikely Alliance.

"The growing friendship between Russia and Turkey in recent years was a problem for Europe. But their recent bust-up -- after Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet over Syria in November 2015 -- is an even bigger one," Aydintasbas writes.

On a related topic, Yaroslav Trofimov has a piece in The Wall Street Journal on how the rift with Turkey is fraying Moscow's ties with Russia's Turkic peoples. 

The Kremlin's White Elephants

Writing on his blog, Maxim Trudolyubov, a senior fellow at the Kennan Institute, looks at Russia's fondness for massive "white elephant" construction projects like the Sochi Olympics and the Kerch Bridge.

"The only explanation I have for this stark disregard of common sense is the Kremlin’s irrational belief that this is the only way for Russia to develop," Trudolyubov writes. 

"In Russia, white elephants have special purpose and meaning. They are the tools with which the Kremlin can make things happen while keeping the top-level contractors, i.e. oligarchs and governors, in check. In all likelihood, this is the approach the Kremlin will continue to use in future, despite all talk of reform."

The Night Wolves Go To The Balkans

Vladimir Putin's favorite nationalist biker gang, the Night Wolves, plans to go on a Balkan tour across 12 countries.

Bandera Mythologies

Andrii Portnov, director of the Berlin-Brandenburg Ukrainian Initiative and a visiting professor at Berlin's Humboldt University, has a piece in Open Democracy that unpacks the truth and the mythology of Stepan Bandera.

"I believe that Ukrainian society needs to know about the antidemocratic potential of the Bandera cult and the dangers of idealized and uncritical depiction of the nationalist underground’s attitudes toward Poles and Jews, as well as Ukrainians whom they considered to be 'enemies,'" Portnov writes.

When Parody Is Not Far From The Truth

And on the lighter side, the spoof site Russia In Your Face has the following parody of Russia's reaction to Brexit: "Kremlin celebrates Brexit bonanza as sterling joins ruble in hell."

Here's a teaser: "Upon results of the British referendum on leaving the EU, Russian President Vladimir Putin has sent an official letter congratulating Britain 'for getting up off its knees and crawling into a dark pit of paranoid despair.' The Central Bank of Russia has also issued a press release thanking British voters for tanking the sterling." 

Video The Daily Vertical: Brexit Makes Putin Smile

The Daily Vertical: Brexit Makes Putin Smilei
June 24, 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.

Putin's War On Europe

"Insert investments here" (cartoon by Sergey Elkin)

Brian Whitmore

The times, they seem to be a-changin'

The vibe at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum was distinctively different this year, with European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, and former French President Nicolas Sarkozy making high-profile appearances.

The noises coming out of European capitals are also taking on a different tone, with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier calling for a phasing out of sanctions and decrying what he called NATO "warmongering"; Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz suggesting a rapprochement with Moscow; and Italy insisting on a formal review of the European Union's policy toward Russia before agreeing to extend sanctions.

Additionally, on the 75th anniversary of Adolf Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, more than 100 German intellectuals penned an open letter to Chancellor Angela Merkel, calling on her to "learn the lesson from this most terrible war" and "pursue a policy of mutual understanding with Russia."

And a recent poll by the Pew Research Center showed that a plurality of 48 percent of Europeans believe "having a strong economic relationship with Russia" is more important that "being tough" with Moscow in foreign-policy disputes.

Spooked by Brexit and the migrant crisis, many European politicians are increasingly concluding that a conflict on their eastern flank is the last thing they need. And lured by Kremlin cash, entrepreneurs and industrialists are chomping at the bit to get back to business as usual with Russia.

But here's the thing. Seeking to undermine European unity is business as usual for the Kremlin. It predated the Ukraine crisis and Moscow's current standoff with the West -- and it is not going to stop no matter what Brussels does now.

"The struggle against the European Union cannot end," Yale University historian Timothy Snyder, author of the books Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler And Stalin and Black Earth: The Holocaust As History And Warning, said in a recent talk.

"If sanctions are ended tomorrow," Snyder added, Russia will not stop supporting and encouraging far-right leaders like France's Marine Le Pen and Britain's Nigel Farage.

"They won't stop inviting the Nazis of Europe to St. Petersburg for annual conferences. If sanctions stop tomorrow, all that stuff continues because the problem with Europe is fundamentally a domestic problem for Russia. The existence of Europe is a domestic problem for Russia." 

Put another way, Vladimir Putin regime's problem isn't with what Europe is doing -- but with what Europe is.

Europe presents a transparent and democratic model of governance close to Russia's borders that directly challenges the authoritarian kleptocracy in the Kremlin. 

The European Union provides a model of integration based on consensus that is far more appealing than Moscow's, which is based on coercion. 

And the EU has a magnetic pull on Russia's neighbors, undermining Putin's dream of a sphere of influence in the former Soviet space.

And as long as that remains the case, as long as Europe remains Europe, Putin's war on Europe will continue.

Indeed, in a recent column for Bloomberg, political commentator Leonid Breshidsky noted that despite Putin's efforts to charm the Europeans at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum, "the Russian regime is not thawing, and there's no retreat from its geopolitical assertiveness or its dogged economic statism."

Nor is there any retreat from the active measures designed to sow division and discord in Europe. 

These include efforts to manipulate the Brexit campaign in the United Kingdom, providing covert -- and sometimes overt -- support to the far right and extreme left, and financing "alternative" online media outlets across the continent that aim to undermine faith in European institutions. 

"As long as Putin is in power, they are not going to stop trying to undo the European Union," Snyder said. 

The Morning Vertical, June 23, 2016

Brian Whitmore


Vladimir Putin this week set September 18 as the date for Russia's parliamentary elections and addressed the outgoing State Duma. And thus begins a new political season. The outcome of this autumn's vote is not in doubt. The Kremlin is pretty skilled at using administrative methods to get the result it wants. But that doesn't mean the election isn't important.

Even more so than presidential elections, State Duma elections have proven to be watershed moments in Vladimir Putin's Russia. The 1999 election marked the end of the Boris Yeltsin era and the true start of the Age of Putin. The 2003 elections marked the turn to a more tightly controlled system of "managed democracy." The 2007 elections were a transition to the brief era of the tandem. And the 2011 votes pointed to the breakdown of the old Putin system and led to the establishment of the current one. 

If this pattern holds, this year's elections -- which are being played out amid a deep economic crisis and a costly conflict with the West -- should prove to be a watershed, as well.

I'll be discussing the upcoming political season and what it portends on this week's Power Vertical Podcast with guests Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies and Maxim Trudolyubov, a senior fellow at the Kennan Institute. Be sure to tune in on June 24.


Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev will lead the electoral list of the ruling United Russia party in elections to the State Duma in September.

The State Duma has removed provisions to strip the citizenship of Russians convicted of terrorism from a controversial antiterrorism bill.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland is scheduled to meet senior Kremlin aide Vladislav Surkov in Moscow today.

The International Weightlifting Federation said Russia, Kazakhstan, and Belarus face being banned from the Rio Olympics in August due to positive drug tests on samples from previous Olympics.

The World Anti-Doping Agency has come out against the International Olympic Committee's decision this week to allow Russian athletes who are drug-free to compete under their own flag in Rio.

The commander of the U.S. Army Europe says NATO would currently be unable to protect the Baltics against a Russian attack.

Russian authorities have detained Yevgeny Dod, the chairman of power company Quadra, and opened a criminal case against him.


The Ghosts Of 1996

Andrei Kolesnikov looks back at Russia's 1996 election and how it set the stage for Vladimir Putin's authoritarian regime.

"Those efforts to get Yeltsin elected look positively amateur compared to the electoral manipulations we see today. But we can see a direct line between the price paid back then for victory and subsequent developments. Modern Russia’s dishonest elections grew out of the experimentation of the 1990s," Kolesnikov writes.

"Another way in which Yeltsin’s victory of 1996 ultimately became a Pyrrhic one was that it legitimized the idea that there could be a controlled handover of power in Russia. This was later implemented when Yeltsin passed the 'scepter of the nation' to Putin. When you decide that it’s possible to control elections, then you can also impose a leader on the people. In this case, Vladimir Putin, the new young leader, was cynically constructed as the opposite image of his predecessor." 

Requiem For Human Rights

Meduza has a nice rundown of what is in Russia's controversial "antiterrorism" bill that the State Duma is scheduled to vote on this week.

"The legislation would amend nearly a dozen different laws, broadly expanding the state's powers, tightening the controls placed on citizens and limiting the civil rights guaranteed by the Russian Constitution. If the legislation is approved (which is almost certain), Russia's authorities will gain the power to strip Russians of their citizenship, revoke the foreign travel rights of people convicted of reposting certain 'wrong' content online, and access every single telephone conversation and e-mail that crosses Russia's telecommunications lines."

The Kremlin's Taint

Political commentator Leonid Bershidsky has a strong and heartfelt column for Bloomberg on how the doping scandal and the Kremlin's general behavior is tainting all Russians.

"In a whole range of pursuits -- from business to culture -- Western partners want proof from Russians that they are not part of the Putin regime," Bershidsky writes.

"The IOC has formalized that feeling: Russians have been told to prove they're clean. It's assumed -- on the basis of plentiful data -- that the regime has corrupted those who live under it. As a Russian citizen, this stigma is hard for me to accept, but here are my choices: I can assume, as many Russians do, that the West hates my country and all its people, or I'm forced to prove that the Putin taint isn't on me. I understand why some see the latter option as humiliating, but I can't honestly support the former because I believe the regime to be rotten and worthy of condemnation. That doesn't mean the flag doesn't belong to me too."

Inconvenient Truths

Historian Nikitia Sokolov, executive director of the Yeltsin Foundation, has a piece in Intersection magazine (in Russian and English), about the "forgotten truths" about the start of World War II.

"Contemporary Russian officious propaganda has only slightly modified the Soviet stereotype taking into account its opportunistic needs. As a result, the traumatic experience of World War II in Russia as opposed to in Germany, for example, has not been lived through and reflected upon," Sokolov writes.

Kadyrov Country

In a piece in Yezhednevny Zhurnal, journalist and political commentator Igor Yakovenko writes that Russians are now living under the "yoke" of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov.

Don't Forget Ukraine!

Melinda Haring, editor of the UkraineAlert at the Atlantic Council, has a piece on Europe's Short Memory And Ukraine's Long Crisis.

Fear And Terror

On the latest SRB Podcast, Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies explores the origins of Josef Stalin's Great Terror. Sean's guest is James Harris, a senior lecturer in modern European history at Leeds University and author of The Great Fear: Stalin’s Terror In The 1930s.

Video The Daily Vertical: As Long As Europe Remains Europe

The Daily Vertical: As Long As Europe Remains Europei
June 23, 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: Always The Victim

The Daily Vertical: Always The Victimi
June 22, 2016
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday.

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, June 22, 2016

Brian Whitmore


Russian state media will no doubt make a big deal out of Vladimir Putin's visit to China later this week. But in reality, Moscow's pivot to Beijing as an alternative to the West, a move announced amid much fanfare in 2014, has turned out to be much less than advertised.

Last year, the two countries failed to achieve their goal of $100 billion in annual trade -- which actually fell by 27.8 percent in 2015. Russia and China continue to be competitors for influence in Central Asia. And the terms of a $400 billion gas deal between Gazprom and China's CNPC were clearly advantageous to Beijing. Putin's trip is an effort to revive this disappointing partnership and showcase his personal rapport with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Moscow hopes to sell arms to China, attract investment in its energy sector, and is reportedly even considering selling a 19.5 percent stake in Rosneft to Chinese and Indian companies. And speaking at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum last week, Putin announced that he would like to form a new trade bloc including Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Iran, and other former Soviet states.

But this relationship is probably doomed to remain stuck in neutral due to fundamentals: China is a rising power and it knows it and Russia is a declining power in denial.


The Clinton Foundation has reportedly been breached by Russian hackers.

France deported Russian soccer fan leader Aleksandr Shprygin for the second time in less than a week over violence that marred the start of the Euro 2016 tournament.

Moscow has signed an agreement with a Los Angeles company to explore building a futuristic, high-speed transportation system known as a Hyperloop in the Russian capital.

Pole-vault champion Yelena Isinbayeva said she'll lead what could become a wave of Russian athletes appealing the ban on Russian participation in the Rio Olympics.

Today marks the 75th anniversary of Nazi Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union.

The State Duma is scheduled to vote on a controversial "antiterrorism" bill today.

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov is lobbying to have the republic's largest mosque depicted on the 200-ruble note.

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has signed a decree making the state-controlled oil giant Rosneft the sole supplier of fuel to Russia's police.


Deutsche Welle Documentary: The Return Of Old Enemies

Or in this case, what I'm watching. A new documentary by Deutsche Welle looks at the origins of the current showdown between Moscow and the West.

Words And Deeds

Mikhail Alexeev, a professor at San Diego State University, has a piece in PONARS Eurasia, The Tale Of Three Legitimacies: The Shifting Tone And Enduring Substance Of Moscow's Ukraine Policy, that looks at Russia's rhetoric and actions in the Ukraine conflict. The conclusion: A softer tone does not mean a softer policy.

"A systematic analysis of official Russian statements and military conflict data over the last two years reveals that Moscow has no plans to accept Ukraine’s sovereignty over the Donbas," Alexeev writes. 

"The Kremlin’s enduring Ukraine policy is to stall genuine conflict resolution unless the Donbas is provided political autonomy on Moscow’s terms, essentially turning the region into Russia’s client statelet."

Early Presidential Elections?

Political analyst Nikolai Petrov argues in Nezavisimaya Gazeta that Vladimir Putin is caught in a "legitimacy trap" and may opt to hold early presidential elections to get out of it.

The Plight Of Ukraine's IDPs

On The Atlantic Council's website, Kateryna Moroz takes a look at the painful journeys of Ukraine's internally displaced people.

Hybrid Hooligans -- Or Not?

Writing in Intersection magazine, Steffen Halling, a researcher at the University of Bremen's Center for East European Studies and a fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, takes on the notion that the violence at Euro 2016 in France was orchestrated by the Kremlin. 

"In calling the Marseille events an operation orchestrated by Putin we commit a grave error in reasoning about Russia: We grossly overestimate Russian regime efficiency and governance capacity. In the end, we help portray Putin as an omnipotent leader, and quite paradoxically, contribute to perpetuate his public image of a farsighted strongman," Halling writes. 

"But analysts should actually deconstruct this very myth. Even more so as the thesis that the Kremlin planned and organized the Marseille events does not fit the overall picture on how sports is usually politically instrumentalized in Russia."

What Brexit Means For Russia

The European Leadership Network has three pieces looking at what the Brexit referendum means for Russia.

ELN research fellow Joseph Dobbs argues that while a Brexit serves Putin's geopolitical interests, it does not serve Russia's economic interests.

Andrei Sushentsov of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations looks at the adverse effects a British exit from the European Union would have on the Russian economy.

And Moscow State University professor Pavel Kanevskiy argues that, despite appearances, Brexit is not in Russia's geopolitical interests

Why Is Putin Going To China?

Newsweek has a piece looking at what Vladimir Putin hopes to accomplish during his visit to China this week.

War Mobilization?

Writing in openDemocracy, New York University professor Mark Galeotti argues that Russia is not, in fact, mobilizing for all-out war.

"Putin appears to have internalized a Manichean, zero-sum sense of his relationship with the West, and this drives so much other policy, from countersanctions to political repression. Many in the West likewise embrace -- with near-relief -- a return to the comfortingly simplistic dualism of the us-and-them mind-set of the Cold War," Galeotti writes.

Cold War Redux

The U.S. Senate's Intelligence Committee is considering imposing Cold War-era restrictions on Russian diplomats.

Shekhovtsov On Dugin

Anton Shekhovtsov, a leading scholar and critic of the Russian far right, reviews two books by Aleksandr Dugin: Eurasian Mission and The Fourth Political Theory.

The Morning Vertical, June 21, 2016

Brian Whitmore


In a resolution passed today, the State Duma compared the ban of Russia's track-and-field athletes from the Summer Olympics to "the Spanish Inquisition." Over the top? Sure. But it's also par for the course for Vladimir Putin's regime.

Back in early 2000, shortly after Putin came to power, a Foreign Ministry official in Moscow told me with a straight face that the Baltic state's treatment of ethnic Russians constituted "apartheid." During Russia's war with Georgia in 2008, Russian state media persistently accused Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili of committing "genocide." And of course, when a popular uprising in Ukraine overthrew the corrupt pro-Moscow regime of Viktor Yanukovych, the Kremlin described it as a "putsch" by a "fascist junta."

By using the most odious terms available to describe its adversaries, the Putin regime is speaking volumes about itself.


European Union ambassadors have agreed to a six-month extension of sanctions against Russia.

The Kremlin has rejected an offer from Germany to hold a meeting on the Ukraine crisis before the NATO summit.

Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko says he doesn't rule out a ban on the whole Russian Olympic team for the 2016 Summer Games.

The Russian Defense Ministry says it has successfully tested components of a missile-defense system.

Russian President Vladimir Putin will visit China at the invitation of Chinese President Xi Jinping on June 25.

NATO’s top civilian leader brushed aside comments from Germany’s foreign minister that accused the alliance of “warmongering,” saying the 28-nation bloc needed both a military response and a political dialogue in dealing with Russia.

The Russian State Duma has passed the second reading of a bill imposing tougher penalties for "extremism."

Russia’s state-run RT network has broadcast footage appearing to show Russian jets in Syria armed with cluster bombs.


Hipster Communists

Lenin with a laptop. Marx in a leather jacket. Stalin puffing an e-cigarette. Russia's Communist Party's advertising campaign for September's State Duma elections has a hipster vibe.

When Navalny Wrote Putin

Writing on his blog in, Oleg Kashin explores why opposition leader Aleksei Navalny wrote a letter asking Vladimir Putin for his party to be allowed to compete in the Duma elections.

"Given the existing relationship between Putin and Navalny, the request seems a bit strange: 'You are a tyrant, a thief, and a killer. Now please allow me to participate in your elections,'" Kashin writes. "But we should be accustomed to the fact that 'strange' is not a category in Russian politics, because everything is strange."

Election Preview

Vedomosti, meanwhile, has an overview of what to expect in the Duma elections.

The Strelkov Factor

Journalist and author Anna Arutunyan has a commentary on the European Council on Foreign Relations that looks at efforts by Igor Girkin, aka Strelkov, to form a nationalist movement to challenge the Kremlin.

"This is an extremely important development to watch," Arutunyan writes. 

"As I wrote last year, the real threat to the regime, if it is going to emerge, will come from nationalists co-opted, groomed, and then set loose by the Kremlin, and not from the liberals. To that extent, Strelkov’s increasingly aggressive posturing as a critic of Vladimir Putin raised real questions about whether he, indeed, could become that formidable opponent.

The FSB Shuffle

In a piece for Meduza, Andrei Soldatov -- editor in chief of and co-author of the books The New Nobility: The Restoration Of Russia's Security State And The Enduring Legacy Of The KGB and The Red Web: The Struggle Between Russia's Digital Dictators And The New Online Revolutionaries -- looks at the recent personnel changes in the FSB.

Life During Stagnation

On his blog for RosBalt, political analyst Dmitry Gubin offers Russians five rules for surviving the coming Putin stagnation.

Little Green Fans?

Writing on his blog, Kremlin-watcher and security expert Mark Galeotti looks at Russia's "Little Green Fan" problem at Euro 2016.

"The open enthusiasm of some Russian politicians about the thuggish behavior of their football fans in France speaks volumes about the boorish nationalism and crude us-versus-the-world mentality that has been liberated by Putin in recent years," Galeotti writes.

"And yet for all that, there is also a dangerous Western narrative that the Kremlin is the malign grandmaster behind everything that goes wrong, from Brexit to migration. The hooligan crisis has likewise been inserted into this unfolding narrative."

Russia's Spunky Regional Press 

A post on Mikhail Khodorkovsky's Open Wall portal looks at Russia's surprisingly feisty regional newspapers.

Here's a teaser: "In the capital, people have been going on forever about it being time for 'regime change,' and doing very little to make it happen; whereas, in the rest of Russia something has been quietly gathering pace. And this something is a provincial intelligentsia. The description might seem archaic, but what else can you call a newspaper publisher in the regional center of Siberia’s back-of-beyond. The provinces dragged Russia out of medieval barbarism once before, under the Romanovs, when the district councils, or zemstva, built national schools and hospitals. They laid the foundation for the political system that emerged with the first State Duma in 1906."

Ukraine's Unlikely Reformers

John Herbst, director of the Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council and the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, has a piece explaining why the West was wrong about Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Groisman’s government.

"It is too early to draw firm conclusions, but Prime Minister Volodymyr Groisman’s and Prosecutor-General Yuriy Lutsenko’s early moves indicate that Ukraine is still on the reform path," Herbst writes.

Putin's German Enablers

Also on The Atlantic Council's website, Rutgers University-Newark professor Alexander Motyl looks at how Germany's Social Democratic Party is enabling Vladimir Putin, and the cost of this for Ukraine.

Video The Daily Vertical: They're Still Dying In The Donbas

The Daily Vertical: They're Still Dying In The Donbasi
June 21, 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, June 20, 2016

Brian Whitmore


The official reaction to Russia's track-and-field athletes effectively being banned from this year's Summer Olympics is both predictable and telling. Despite the overwhelming evidence of systematic state-sponsored doping and despite reports that armed Russian security agents prevented international doping officials from testing athletes, the whole thing is being presented as part of an ongoing Western campaign to undermine Russia. The ban means, like the 1980 and 1984 summer games in Moscow and Los Angeles respectively, this year's Olympics in Rio will effectively have an asterisk. And as a result, the whole world loses due to the nonparticipation of Russian athletes. And the reason is because the Kremlin decided to flagrantly break the rules. But never mind. The Putin regime is using the whole affair to play the victim and stir up more anti-Western sentiment.


German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has said the European Union should phase out sanctions against Russia.

Steinmeier has also criticized NATO military exercises in Eastern Europe, calling them "warmongering."

Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz has also called for a phasing out of sanctions and for the EU to improve relations with Russia.

Russian investigators have opened a criminal probe into the former director of the country's anti-doping laboratory, after he publicly detailed a vast state-sponsored system to help Russian athletes improve their performance.

Vladimir Putin is due to visit China this week.

Leaders of the world's Orthodox Christian churches have gathered for the first time in more than 1,200 years despite a boycott by the Russian church and three others.

Russian officials said 14 people died after boats traveling on a lake in northern Russia capsized. Most of those dead were teenagers attending a summer camp.


On today's Power Vertical Briefing, I discuss the fallout from Russia's track-and-field athletes' effective ban from the 2016 Summer Olympics with Pavel Butorin, managing editor of RFE/RL's Russian-language television program Current Time. 


And in case you missed it, here is the latest Power Vertical Podcast, Baltic Memory and Russian Denial, on the 75th anniversary of the June 1941 Baltic deportations.


Russia's Referendum Shenanigans

In advance of the Brexit vote this week, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project has a piece looking at how Russian influence undermines public trust in referendums.

Sports, Hooligans, And War

The Guardian has a piece about how authorities in Great Britain suspect links between the football hooligans who attacked British fans in France and the Kremlin.

"Senior government officials fear the violence unleashed by Russian hooligans at Euro 2016 was sanctioned by the Kremlin and are investigating links with Vladimir Putin’s regime," the author, Daniel Boffey, writes.

"It is understood that a significant number of those involved in savage and highly coordinated attacks on England fans and others in Marseille and Lille have been identified as being in the 'uniformed services' in Russia. The theory is that the sanctioning of hooliganism by Putin is a continuation of what has been described as Russia’s campaign of 'hybrid warfare.'"

Meanwhile, a petition to move the 2018 World Cup from Russia to Poland and Ukraine has been launched on

Putin and the European Left

Much has been written about the Kremlin's links to the European far right. Now Open Democracy has a piece examining the Putin regime's courtship of Europe's far left.

Hitler's Ghost

Military analyst Michael Peck has a piece in The National Interest on how Hitler made Russia a superpower.

"What would Russia look like today if World War II had never happened? What if Hitler had remained a failed painter in Vienna, or had been blown up by an assassin’s bomb in a Munich beer hall?" Peck writes.

Graphic Novels

Olena Goncharova reviews "The Ukrainian and Russian Notebooks," a graphic novel depicting the Holodomor and the life of slain investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya.

"I expected a graphic novel to fall short when it came to telling the grim history of Holodomor, a government-orchestrated famine that ravaged Ukraine in the winter and spring of 1932-33. Neither did I think the assassination of prominent Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya could be depicted so poignantly in comic book panels.

I was wrong," Goncharova writes.

Russia's Elderly Hostage

Euromaidan press takes a look at the case of Yuriy Soloshenko, the 74-year-old Ukrainian man who spent two years in a Russian prison on trumped-up espionage charges before being released earlier this month.

Moscow's Gilded Youth

Mikhail Khodorkovsky's Open Wall web portal has a piece by Ilya Klishin that looks at the antics of Russia's rich youths, focusing on the case of Ruslan Shamsuarov, the son of the president of Lukoil, who was arrested after leading police on a high-speed chase through Moscow.

Briefing: Doping And Consequences

Rio without Russia?

Brian Whitmore

The prospect of a Russia being banned from this year's Olympic games hits home as the consequences of a series of major doping scandals becomes apparent.

On this week's Power Vertical Briefing, we discuss the fallout from Russia's track-and-field athletes being banned from the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in August.

Joining me is Pavel Butorin, managing editor of RFE/RL's Russian-language television program Current Time.


Power Vertical Briefing June 20
Power Vertical Briefing June 20i
|| 0:00:00



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


Video The Daily Vertical: Head Games And Sanctions

The Daily Vertical: Head Games And Sanctionsi
June 20, 2016
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday.

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 Podcast: Baltic Memory And Russian Denial

A woman in Tallinn lights candles during a gathering in memory of Estonians deported to Siberia.

Brian Whitmore

Seventy-five years ago this week, an ethnic cleansing campaign began.

Three-quarters of a century ago, tens of thousands of people were uprooted from their homes, their lives, and their families.

On June 14, 1941 -- less than two years after the Soviet Union signed a secret pact with Nazi Germany to carve up Europe and one year after the U.S.S.R. invaded the Baltic states -- the mass deportations of Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians began.

More than 40,000 people, a quarter of them children, were rounded up at gunpoint, stuffed into cattle cars, and forcefully exiled to Siberia.

Among the deportees were the three nations' best and brightest; their top political, business, and civic leaders.

Fewer than half returned home alive.

The anniversary of the Baltic deportations was solemnly marked this week in Tallinn, Riga, and Vilnius as well as in Europe and North America.

But in Moscow, this dark chapter of World War II has been tossed into the historical memory hole.

On this week's Power Vertical Podcast we discuss the legacy of the deportations and the struggle over history between Russia and the Baltic states.

Joining me are Agnia Grigas, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and author of the books Beyond Crimea: The New Russian Empire and The Politics Of Energy And Memory Between The Baltic States and Russia; Maria Malksoo, a senior research fellow in International Relations at the Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies at Tartu University and author of the book The Politics Of Becoming European; and Vello Pettai, a professor of Comparative Politics at the Johan Skytte Institute and co-author of the book Transitional And Retrospective Justice In The Baltic States.


Power Vertical Podcast: Baltic Memory And Russian Denial
Power Vertical Podcast: Baltic Memory And Russian Deniali
|| 0:00:00

Listen to or download the podcast above or subscribe to The Power Vertical Podcast on iTunes.

Video The Daily Vertical: Russia's 'Real Men'

The Daily Vertical: Russia's 'Real Men'i
June 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.

The Morning Vertical, June 17, 2017

Brian Whitmore


The foundations of Vladimir Putin's authoritarian regime were established by what appeared at the time to be a triumph of democracy. This week marks the 20th anniversary of Russia's first post-Soviet presidential election, the first round of which took place on June 16, 1996. When Boris Yeltsin ultimately defeated Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov in the July 3 runoff, many Russians and much of the world breathed a sigh of relief. But rather than a victory for Russian democracy, that election established the precedent for many of the hallmarks of the Putin regime: the marriage of money and power, oligarchic rule, and a media that (during the election campaign) slavishly followed the Kremlin line. As a result, when Yeltsin handed Putin the keys to the Kremlin in 1999, he had the tools to establish an autocratic state.


The International Association of Athletics Federations is scheduled to rule today on whether to uphold its suspension of Russian track-and-field athletes from international competitions. Upholding the suspension would effectively ban Russia's track-and-field athletes from the 2016 Summer Olympics.

Vladimir Putin has signed a decree setting September 18 as the date for State Duma elections.

Putin is also scheduled to address the outgoing State Duma on June 22.

Four Russian security officers have been killed during a special operations in Daghestan.

The United States has accused Russia of carrying out air strikes in southern Syria against rebels, including forces backed by the United States, that are battling the Islamic State group.

Police in Cologne, Germany, say they have detained six Russian soccer fans for allegedly beating up three Spanish tourists outside Cologne's landmark cathedral on June 16.

Ukrainian lawmakers have approved an appeal to the worldwide head of the Orthodox Church asking him to recognize the Ukrainian Orthodox Church's independence from Moscow.


Today's Must-Read: A Russian 'Illegal' In Spain

Politico has a fascinating piece, The Spanish Story Of A Russian Illegal, about a Moscow spy who worked for two decades under cover in Europe by building a fake biography.

"As relations between Moscow and the West have gone from guarded cooperation to hostile defiance under Russian President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB head, the scope of intelligence activities, and the number of Russian spies operating in Europe, has 'roughly doubled,' according to the former head of a major European power’s intelligence service, who added that in such matters, estimates are by definition difficult,'" the author, Pierre Briancon, writes. 

A Call To Intensify Sanctions

Former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt has written a piece for Project Syndicate, Don't Appease Putin, that argues for sanctions to be intensified.

"Those who are calling for a softer approach to Russia need to remove their blinders and recognize the scale of the Kremlin's efforts to bring about the EU’s disintegration," Verhofstadt writes.

NATO's Cyber-Vulnerabilities

The New York Times' David Sanger has a piece reported out of NATO's cyberdefense center in Tallinn, Estonia, that claims the alliance is struggling to find a strategy to counter Russia's state-sponsored hackers. 

"While there are frequent conferences and papers, there are no serious military plans, apart from locking down the alliance’s own networks. Russia, China, and Iran have increasingly sophisticated offensive cyberforces; NATO has none, and no established mechanism to draw on United States Cyber Command or its British equivalent," Sanger writes.

"That stands in sharp contrast to NATO’s strategy for dealing with more familiar threats."

 Why Putin Needs American Commerce

Bloomberg has a story arguing that Russia's has become increasingly reliant on trade with the United States.

"President Vladimir Putin loves to reel off statistics, but here’s one he may not trumpet at his annual investment forum in St. Petersburg this week: Russia’s reliance on American commerce has never been greater," the authors, Jake Rudnitsky and Ilya Arkhipov, write.

Pork-barrel Politics, Russian Style

Intersection magazine has a piece (in Russian and English) by Perm-based political analyst Pavel Luzin looking at the competition among Russia's regions for resources in advance of September's State Duma elections.

"The main source of suspense over the next two years will be the way regions fight for access to the resources in the hands of the Kremlin and the way the Kremlin manages this access in order to maintain the existing power system," Luzin writes. 

"The goal of regional elites is to maintain their well-being and to increase their chances of political survival. The methods used to achieve this goal are aggravation of intra-elite competition, and reliance on their clientele. The Kremlin's goal is to maintain the existing system of distribution of power and of economic resources. The methods for attaining this goal are trading subsidies for loyalty. The paradox is that, when it comes to bargaining, both parties are increasingly tempted to increase citizens’ tax revenues and thereby face the risk of clashing with them."

The United Russia Platform

Vedomosti has a piece looking at the platform of the ruling United Russia party.

More on the Orthodox Schisms has a piece looking at this week's summit of Orthodox Christian churches and deepening splits in the Orthodox world.

The Economist, meanwhile, has a piece examining efforts in Ukraine to establish a unified Orthodox Church that is independent from the Moscow Patriarchate.

The Soviet Origins of the RuNet

The latest SRB Podcast, hosted by Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies, takes a look at "the stillbirth of the Soviet Internet." Sean's guest is Ben Peters, a professor at the University of Tulsa and author of the book How Not To Network A Nation: The Uneasy History Of The Soviet Internet. 

The Morning Vertical, June 16, 2016

Brian Whitmore


OK, I've still got this soft power thing on the brain. So at the risk of being repetitive, I'm going to offer some more thoughts on Russia's surprise appearance in this year's Soft Power 30 rankings by the London-based consultancy Portland Communications.

As I noted yesterday, the report cited Russia's global media empire, the attraction of its cultural heritage, and its diplomatic efforts in Syria as the key variables increasing Moscow's soft power. I will, of course, grant the cultural heritage point. This is probably Russia's main claim to soft power. But the other two? Let's take them one at a time.

True, RT has become a global media empire broadcasting in multiple languages and gaining viewers worldwide. But RT's programming is designed less to build up Russia's image than to tear down the image of the West. And in that sense, it is a perverse inversion of what soft power is supposed to be.

And the diplomacy in Syria? That came after a military intervention designed to undermine the West's efforts to end the Syrian civil war. It was an exercise in spoiling and geopolitical extortion. These things may advance Russia's interests and increase its influence, but they do not resemble soft power at all. At least as I understand the term.


NATO has announced a Comprehensive Assistance Package for Ukraine.

The United States will give Ukraine $220 million in new aid this year to support Kyiv's economic, political, and energy reform efforts.

Vladimir Putin will meet with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker at the St. Petersburg economic forum on June 16.

Russia's Defense Ministry has announced that a 48-hour cease-fire will start on June 16 in the Syrian city of Aleppo.

In a new report, the World Anti-Doping Agency says hundreds of attempts to carry out drug tests on Russian athletes this year have been thwarted.

St. Petersburg has formally named a bridge after the slain former Chechen leader Akhmat Kadyrov, the father of current Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov.

The State Duma has passed the so-called "Google tax" law requiring IT companies to pay value-added tax on the sale of online content.


Today's Must-Read Piece

If you read nothing else today, be sure to check out Marius Laurinavicius's excellent piece, The Many Faces Of Putinism, in The American Interest. Laurinavicius uses the career of filmmaker Andrei Nekrasov to illustrate that Putinism is not about just one man but rather is a systemic phenomenon. 

"The faces of Putinism are legion, and at first glance, one might be tempted to draw sharp distinctions between them when in fact more unites them than divides them," Laurinavicius writes. 

"In order to understand whom we are really dealing with when we deal with the Russian regime, we need to learn to recognize and publicly name them. And we must avoid the lulling illusion that we might be able to count on some of them as driving forces for regime change."

Perception And Misperception

Writing on his blog, Maxim Trudolyubov, a senior fellow at the Kennan Institute, looks at how Russia and the West have continuously misinterpreted each other in recent years.

"The irony of the moment is the fact that Moscow is running out of capacity exactly when others have started to respond to Russia’s assertive behavior by spending more on their military," Trudolyubov writes. 

"The Russian security community has been reading too much into what the West was doing during the previous decade."

Scare Tactics

In a piece in The National Interest, Andreas Umland, a senior research fellow at the Kyiv-based Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation, argues that Russia is baiting the West by appearing to be scarier than it actually is.

"NATO and its member states are overreacting rhetorically, militarily, and politically to Russia’s new aggressiveness. Without realizing, they are barking up the wrong tree and playing Moscow’s game," Umland writes.

The War Fetish

In a piece on Moscow Carnegie Center's website, political analyst Andrei Kolesnikov takes a granular look at how the Kremlin is using war -- and Russians' perceptions of it -- to legitimize the regime.

"The Kremlin’s permanent war footing has become the primary means for Russian elites to keep themselves in power. And this discourse -- of providing wars that are fair, defensive, victorious, and preventive -- constructs the foundation for a heavily personalized regime," Kolesnikov writes.

War Hooligans

Mikhail Khodorkovsky's portal The Open Wall has a piece titled The Battle Of Marseilles that playfully looks at the fight between Russian and English fans at the European football championship in the context of Russia's fetishization of war.

Here's a teaser: "It was a crushing victory, one for the chronicles. The Russians were heavily outnumbered. Facing them were the massed ranks of the English. On the sidelines sat the French, waiting to see which way the battle would go. But our brave Russians were armed to the teeth, disciplined and well trained, battle-hardened from the civil wars they had fought in St. Petersburg and Moscow, scarred veterans returning from Ukraine and Syria. The battle was joined, and the English soon put to flight, fleeing through the back streets of the old city, cowering under the onslaught of our bare-chested and bloodied warriors."

Syrian Tipping Point?

In a piece in Intersection magazine, Stephen Blank argues that Putin's Syria campaign has reached a critical moment.

Orthodox Schisms

Writing in Georgia Today, Nicholas Waller notes the rifts in the Orthodox Christian world in advance of a scheduled summit on the Greek island of Crete next month.

Espionage Then And Now

NPR has a story looking at how the espionage game between Moscow and Washington has changed -- and stayed the same.

Fighting Bigotry With A Song

And finally, LGBT activists in St. Petersburg have turning the homophobic statements of local lawmaker Vitaly MIlonov, the initiator of Russia's infamous "gay propaganda" law, into a song.

Video The Daily Vertical: Dope, Lies, And Guns

The Daily Vertical: Dope, Lies, And Gunsi
June 16, 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 Baltics Remember, Russia Forgets

The Daily Vertical: The Baltics Remember, Russia Forgetsi
June 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, June 15, 2016

Brian Whitmore


Russian soft power? Really? Quite frankly, I'm having a hard time wrapping my head around Russia's surprise appearance in this year's Soft Power 30 rankings by the London-based consultancy Portland Communications.

Soft power means a country's capability to project influence abroad without resorting to military force or economic pressure.

The report cites Russia's global media empire, the attraction of its cultural heritage, and its diplomatic efforts in Syria as the key factors propelling it into the top 30.

It also notes that corruption and doping scandals, discriminatory laws against sexual minorities, and the intervention in Ukraine as factors dragging down its ranking.

Russia's counterintuitive appearance in the Soft Power 30 has made headlines.

But when you look under the hood, it appears to be less than advertised.Russia debuted in the rankings at 27th place, just ahead of China, just below Greece -- and far below the world leaders: the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Canada, and France.

And the report notes global polling shows that Russia continues to have a negative image abroad. 


The Federation Council has formally approved another five-year term for Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika.

The defendants in the Boris Nemtsov assassination case are asking for a jury trial.

A bill has been introduced into the State Duma eliminating the statute of limitations for treason and espionage.

Russia is considering selling nearly one-fifth of the state oil company Rosneft to "strategic investors" in a private transaction rather than trying to raise the money through a public offering.

Vladimir Putin will meet UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura in St. Petersburg on June 16.

Russian tennis star Maria Sharapova appealed her doping ban to the highest court in sports, which agreed to expedite a ruling before the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in August.


Russian Soft Power

For the first time, Russia has made it into the ranks of the world's strongest countries in terms of "soft power." According to annual rankings compiled by the London-based PR firm Portland Communications, Russia ranked 27th in soft power. (The United States ranked first.) Meduza has a pretty good explainer on what this all means.

NATO Exercises On Eve Of Summit

Edward Lucas has a brief write-up on NATO's Anaconda 16 exercises, the alliance's largest since the end of the Cold War.

The Eastern Pivot That Wasn't

Writing in Vedomosti, political analyst Aleksandr Gabuyev explains why competition between Moscow and Beijing for influence in Central Asia is hampering Russia's much-vaunted pivot to the east.

Hybrid Hooligans

Writing in, political commentator Ilya Milshtein argues that the attack by Russian football hooligans on English fans in Marseilles was part of Vladimir Putin's hybrid war against the West.

LGBT Russia After Orlando

Kevin Rothrock has a piece in Global Voices on "What It's Like To Be A Lesbian In Russia, The Day After The Orlando Massacre."

"People around the world are sharing their reactions to the deadly massacre that occurred in Orlando this past weekend, where nearly 50 people were gunned down at a gay night club. For many supporters of LGBT rights in Russia, the bloodshed has been a reminder of their own vulnerability in the face of what they say is a resurgence of antigay violence in Russia," Rothrock writes.

Unearthing Kievan Rus

Styler RBK-Ukraine has an interesting piece on the archaeological ruins of Kievan Rus that are buried beneath modern Kyiv.

The Latest Russian Hack

Politico has a comprehensive write-up on the Russian hackers' theft of opposition research on Donald Trump from the computer system of the Democratic National Committee.

Goodbye Lenin -- Or Maybe Not

In an op-ed in The New York Times, author Masha Gessen asks: why do so many Lenin statues remain in Russia? 

Ukraine's New Media

Writing on The Atlantic Council's website, Roman Shutov, program director of the Kyiv-based NGO Detector Media, notes that while oligarchs own much of Ukraine's media, the country's new public broadcasters are shaking things up.

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