Tuesday, July 07, 2015


The Kremlin's Cold War Dreams

An anti-U.S. demonstration in Moscow

Brian Whitmore

Activists in St. Petersburg harass and film guests arriving at an Independence Day reception at the U.S. Consulate in St. Petersburg, peppering them with questions about sanctions and same-sex marriage. 

Teenagers in the town of Bratsk in the Irkutsk region mark Youth Day by kicking a cardboard cutout of U.S. President Barack Obama. Those who managed to kick him in the face got five points; those who could only reach his midsection got four.

And a man in the village of Brekhovskaya in Yaroslavl Oblast kills his friend after becoming convinced that he is an American spy. Afterward, he called the police himself and told them that he had neutralized a dangerous foreign agent.

Anti-Americanism in Russia is, of course, nothing new. A poll by the independent Levada Center earlier this year showed that more than 80 percent of Russians have a negative view of the United States -- a post-Soviet high. 

But it all appears to have become more hysterical, more absurd, and more lethal of late.

And it is not only being fed by the predictable rabble rousers like the bombastic State Duma deputy Yevgeny Fyodorov, who recently said "the United States wants to kill me and hang my child." 

It is also being encouraged by top Kremlin officials like Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, who said in an interview last month with Kommersant that the United States "really would like it if Russia did not exist as a state at all."

Patrushev's remarks did seem to cross a line. In an editorial, the daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta called them "unprecedented" for a senior Russian official, adding that they indicated that the cresting wave of anti-Americanism is not just tactical -- and certainly not just rhetorical.

If this is not just "a maneuver, but a strategic choice," the paper wrote, it means Russia's conflict with the West is approaching "the point of no return." 

Part of all this is just performance art and Kremlin dramaturgia. The key plot line in the movie that Vladimir Putin's regime is showing the masses to legitimize their rule is that of a Russia encircled by a treacherous West bent on destroying the motherland. And the main villain in the film, of course, is the United States.

And some of it is explained by sincere anti-American sentiments (which are always latent among part of both the elite and the masses) that have become manifest -- and more intense.

But the driving force behind it is an insatiable need by those in Putin's Kremlin to reclaim what they believe they are entitled to: their lost status as a global superpower.

Russia can't have a real Cold War with the West. It isn't strong enough -- not militarily and certainly not economically. And it lacks a viable alternative to democratic liberal capitalism.

But what it can do is create the illusion of a Cold War -- a blockbuster movie about a superpower showdown -- if only for themselves.


Audio Podcast: Is the Kremlin Drinking Its Own Kool-Aid?

The war movie that became real

In place of politics, there is performance art. Instead of debate, there is spectacle. In lieu of issues, there is dramaturgia. And in place of reality, there is fantasy.

Russia's politics have long been virtual. But this alternative reality has become more intense -- and more toxic -- of late.

And as the dose of virtual reality gets higher and higher to satisfy the addiction, more and more people have begun to believe the fantasy is actually real.

On the new Power Vertical Podcast, I discuss this phenomenon with two leading experts on the issue: Peter Pomerantsev, author of the book Nothing Is True And Everything Is Possible: Inside The Heart Of The New Russia, and Andrew Wilson, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and author of the book Virtual Politics: Faking Democracy In The Post-Soviet World.

Enjoy...

Podcast: Is the Kremlin Drinking Its Own Kool-Aid?
Podcast: Is the Kremlin Drinking Its Own Kool-Aid?i
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Listen to or download the podcast above or subscribe to The Power Vertical Podcast on iTunes.​

PROGRAMMING NOTE: Due to the public holiday, all Power Vertical products will take a hiatus on July 6. We'll be back full-force on July 7.

 


Video The Daily Vertical: Ukraine Calls Moscow's Bluff

Ukraine Calls Moscow's Bluffi
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July 03, 2015
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.

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.


Video Russia's G-Word Hang-Up

The Daily Vertical: Russia's G-Word Problemi
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July 02, 2015
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.

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.


Russia's Deadly Fantasy Politics

Is it real or is it fantasy? Many Russian officials are having trouble telling the difference.

For about 24 hours, it looked like Russia was about to do something truly insane.

Yeah, I know. What else is new? But I mean something even crazier than everything we've been witnessing the past couple of years.

Russian news agencies reported on June 30 that the Prosecutor-General's Office had opened an investigation into the constitutionality of the Soviet Union's September 1991 recognition of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania's independence. 

It was, of course, patently absurd. Prosecutors were going to investigate whether the actions of a state that hasn't existed for nearly two decades were constitutional according to a constitution that has been defunct for almost 24 years? Really?

And the issue at stake was whether it was legal for a Soviet Union on its deathbed to grant independence to three countries that it illegally annexed -- under the secret protocols of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact with Nazi Germany -- in the first place.

But beyond being the latest example of Vladimir Putin's Russia descending into la-la land, it was also menacing and deeply disturbing. Given Moscow's recent saber rattling vis-a-vis the Baltics -- and given that the Baltics are all NATO members -- it looked like a harbinger that something truly frightening could be on the horizon.

Could Moscow truly be contemplating an attack on the Baltics?

Fast forward one day.

On July 1, Russian officials scrambled to walk it all back.

Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the Kremlin was unaware of the case and couldn't make any sense of the idea. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov noted that Russia and the Baltics have mutual diplomatic relations and their relations are bound by a series of international treaties. 

And Marina Gridnyova, a spokeswoman for the Prosecutor-General's Office, said the inquiry into Baltic independence had no legal merit. Gridnyova said prosecutors had indeed opened a case but only because they were legally obliged to do so because two State Duma deputies had formally requested the probe. 

She added that the request, which came from lawmakers Yevgeny Fyodorov and Anton Romanov of the ruling United Russia party, was "entirely ludicrous."

So this wasn't the opening act of World War III.

But it nevertheless does point to an unsettling and potentially dangerous trend: an inability on the part of many Russians -- including top officials -- to distinguish between the hyperpatriotic fantasies the regime has been constructing and reality.

An Alternative Universe

On June 19 in a village in Yaroslavl Oblast, a 45-year old engineer beat a close friend to death because he was convinced the man was an American spy. He believed this, according to a report in Komsomolskaya Pravda, because the victim frequently traveled abroad. 

This little tabloid news item is a tragic example of the corrosive effects of the fantasyland the Kremlin has constructed -- a world where fascists have taken over Ukraine, Russia is encircled by enemies, and American agents are lurking around every corner plotting to destroy the motherland.

The creation of an alternative universe, a meta-narrative to feed to the public, has long been a cornerstone of Putin's rule.

During his first two terms, under the stewardship of Kremlin spinmeister Vladislav Surkov, the regime spun a convincing story of Russia rising from its knees. Putin was bringing order to chaos and establishing a "dictatorship of law."

The narrative was powerful because it had the virtue of coinciding with a dramatic rise in living standards due to rising oil prices.

Together with this, Surkov masterminded a virtual political system.

There were fake opposition political parties that created the illusion of pluralism and stage-managed elections that reinforced the legitimacy of the regime.

There were set-piece dramas with recognizable villains -- like the arrest and trial of MIkhail Khodorkovsky -- to entertain and divert public attention from what the regime was really doing. (In this case, eliminating a political threat and expropriating his oil company.)

Tightly managed pro-Kremlin youth groups harassed, and state television ridiculed, regime opponents like Garry Kasparov.

The aim of it all was to soothe the masses, foster passive acquiescence among the intelligentsia, and instill hopeless resignation among the diehard opposition.

It was, as Andrew Wilson, author of the 2005 book Virtual Politics: Faking Democracy in the Post-Soviet World, "the society of the spectacle."

But since Putin returned to the Kremlin in 2012, and especially since the conflict in Ukraine, the nature of the spectacle changed -- and acquired a sharper edge.

Now the requirements of a less secure regime demand almost constant agitation and mobilization. With those fascists running around Kyiv and the West plotting Russia's destruction, the very survival of the nation is at stake after all!

And as a result, Wilson wrote in a recent essay, "Russian politics is even more virtual than it was before." 

"And like all addictions, it has needed higher and higher doses to have the same effect," he added. "It has become more toxic as the impact of its more prosaic methods has grown blunt."

A Deadly Cocktail

All this has led to a spiralling dumbing down of Russian public discourse.

Vladislav Inozemtsev, director of the Moscow-based Center for Post-Industrial Studies, wrote recently that "Russian propaganda is incredibly inane and officials’ lie shamelessly and flagrantly" because the ruling elite has laid the groundwork to "first secure the same level of stupidity among the population."

It's all a potentially deadly cocktail. The longer you live in a fantasy, the easier it is to believe that fantasy is real.

That goes for a villager in Yaroslavl Oblast, who becomes convinced his friend is an American spy -- and kills him.

And it goes for two State Duma deputies from Russia's ruling party who thought it would a good idea to set in motion a process that could have led to a devastating international conflict.

Yevgeny Fyodorov and Anton Romanov's crazy idea may have been dismissed by the authorities as the rantings of two lawmakers who were "dizzy with success." Or it may have been part of yet another Kremlin spectacle designed to keep the West off balance and the public entertained.

In either case, it could be just a matter of time until somebody with real decision-making power gets caught up in the fantasy loop and does something truly insane.

"The dramaturgia has developed a logic of its own, one that long ago lost touch with reality or real-world consequences," Wilson wrote.

"Russia is not sleep-walking into disaster; it is marching at high speed while drugged up to the eyeballs."


The Daily Vertical: Into La-La-Land

The Daily Vertical: Deep Into La-La-Landi
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July 01, 2015
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.

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.

NOTE: The Russian Prosecutor General's Office announced on July 1 (after this video was recorded) that an investigation into the constitutionality of the Soviet Union's recognition of the Baltic states' independence has no legal merit.

 


Video The Daily Vertical: The Aces Up Putin's Sleeve

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June 30, 2015
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.
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.


Putin's Godfather

Primakov and Putin in May 2000

Brian Whitmore

It was more than a eulogy. It was a man bidding farewell to his political godfather.

Speaking at the funeral of veteran politician Yevgeny Primakov, President Vladimir Putin called him "a great citizen of our country" who exemplified "true patriotism and selfless devotion to the fatherland."

And Putin had good reason to praise Primakov, one of the elder statesmen of Russian politics, who died on June 26 at the age of 85.

Without Primakov, there probably never would have been a Putin.

"Both chronologically and ideologically, Primakov is the godfather of Putinism in Russia," Moscow-based commentator Kyamran Agayev wrote in Kasparov.ru. "He put in place the beginning of the twilight of the so-called romantic period of Russian democracy.” 

A veteran of the Soviet security services, Primakov blazed the trail for siloviki rule in post-Soviet Russia. And many of the hallmarks of Putin's rule -- an anti-Western foreign policy, a state-heavy economy, Soviet-style controls on society -- were spearheaded by Primakov, who served as foreign minister from 1996-98 and prime minister from 1998-99.

"Primakov’s positions," veteran Kremlin-watcher Paul Goble wrote on his blog, "were in fact a more sophisticated version of those Putin has adopted." 

Primakov's decision in March 1999 to turn his airplane around over the Atlantic Ocean when he was en route to the United States after he learned that NATO's bombing campaign against Serbia had begun is widely seen as the start of the anti-Western turn in Moscow's foreign policy.

But opposition figure and former energy minister Vladimir Milov noted that the trend actually began earlier, when Primakov was named foreign minister, replacing the staunchly pro-Western Andrei Kozyrev, in January 1996.

“Already in 1996, when Primakov headed the foreign ministry, he laid the groundwork for an anti-American shift in Russian foreign policy,” Milov told the Ukrainian news agency Novy Region-2, noting that he lobbied heavily for the Kremlin to support Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic and Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. "Foreign Ministry documents written in an anti-American tone began to circulate."

Moreover, Putin's rise to power was intimately tied to Primakov. Or more accurately, to a fear of Primakov, who as prime minister famously threatened to build additional prisons so the Russian business elite could be incarcerated should he come to power.

By the late 1990s, especially following the 1998 financial crisis, Primakov was in sync with the public mood and had become the most popular politician in the country.

In 1999, he forged a powerful alliance with Yury Luzhkov, then Moscow's mayor, and other regional leaders and appeared to be the odds-on favorite to succeed the ailing Boris Yeltsin as president.

Yeltsin's inner circle, informally dubbed "The Family," desperately wanted to prevent this. And to fend it off, they decided they needed their very own silovik -- somebody who could defeat Primakov, succeed Yeltsin, and protect their interests.

They settled on Putin, and the rest is history.

The irony, of course, is that in drafting Putin to neutralize the Primakov threat, The Family ended up with a younger, coarser -- albeit more telegenic -- version of...Primakov.

It was a miscalculation that key Family members, most notably oligarch Boris Berezovsky, would soon regret.

There are, of course, important differences between the two men, and a Primakov presidency would probably not have mirrored Putin's.

It is hard to imagine, for example, the kind of loose nuclear rhetoric that has become common in Putin's Kremlin coming from Primakov -- who hails from the generation of Soviet officials who had a deep respect for and understanding of Moscow's responsibilities as a nuclear power.

In eulogizing Primakov, Putin noted that Russian officials "consulted him," sought his advice, and listened to him.

"I can say this is also entirely true about me," Putin said.

Well, not entirely.

In one his his last public acts, Primakov in January urged Putin to wind down the Ukraine conflict and ease tensions with the West.

It was advice that Putin, obviously, did not heed.


Video The Daily Vertical: Absurdity, Intolerance, Bravado

The Daily Vertical: Absurdity, Intolerance, Bravadoi
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June 29, 2015
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.
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.


Audio Briefing: Russia Reacts To U.S. LGBT Ruling

LGBT activists hold rainbow flag in Moscow in May.

Brian Whitmore

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling resonates in Russia. And Moscow tries a soft approach with Armenia.

On this week's Power Vertical Briefing, we look at how last week's ruling extending same-sex marriage to all 50 U.S. states is resonating in Russia -- and surprisingly, the official reaction has not been uniformly negative.

Also on the Briefing, we look at recent moves by Moscow to appease protesters in Armenia and what this may portend.

Joining me is Pavel Butorin, senior producer for RFE/RL's Russian language television program Current Time.

Enjoy...

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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 every Monday.

 


Electric Yerevan Exposes Kremlin's Mind-Set

Civil society? What's that?

Brian Whitmore

So imagine you're the Armenian president and are you're faced with massive street protests over electricity price hikes. The demonstrations have already paralyzed the capital. And they're growing and spreading to other cities.

So what do you do?

Well, if you are Russian State Duma Deputy Valery Rashkin, the answer is obvious: you kick out the American ambassador, of course!

"There are the only two countries in the post-Soviet space that are true friends of Russia: Belarus and Armenia," Rashkin told the pro-Kremlin daily Izvestia. "And this is why the Americans are trying with a vengeance to stage a colored putsch right under our noses."

You can learn a lot about a country from how it reacts to a popular uprising in its neighborhood. And this is especially true if the country is Russia and the uprising is in one of its former Soviet vassals.

Rashkin's remarks were part of a drumbeat of comments pouring out of official and semiofficial Moscow claiming that the protests in Armenia are a Western-backed coup attempt.

Konstantin Kosachyov, head of the Federation Council's International Relations Committee, said the crisis was following the script of "colored revolutions" in Georgia and Ukraine. Lawmaker Igor Morozov, a member of that same committee, said Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian needed to learn the lessons of Ukraine's Maidan and get tough -- or face an armed coup.

And political analyst and Kremlin surrogate Sergei Markov wrote on Facebook that the protests were "being directed from an external headquarters." 

So everybody appears to have their predictable talking points lined up. And what does this all show us about Russia? A few things, actually.

The Kremlin Just Doesn't Get Civil Society

Russia's characterization of the protests as a Western plot is not only wildly off the mark -- it's deeply insulting to Armenians.

It denies the thousands of people who have taken to the streets and are braving police reprisals any agency of their own. In Moscow's eyes, they are nothing but pawns in the games of great powers.

And this points to the fact that the Kremlin is completely and utterly incapable of understanding that an independent civil society can exist. They can't wrap their heads around the simple notion that ordinary citizens can form voluntary associations to pressure their government in order to achieve political goals.

And it is this -- not a Western-backed coup -- that is happening in Yerevan. People in an economically struggling country are angry about electricity price hikes that are going to cut deeply into their disposable incomes. And they are taking to the streets. It's really that simple.

But for Moscow, there has to be a hidden hand. There has to be a plot.

And this insult has not been lost on Armenians. The opposition Zhamanak noted that "there is growing anti-Russian sentiment at the demonstrations" that is often directed at the state media. The paper noted that some protesters carried signs telling the state-run Rossia-24 television station to "get lost."

And the independent Aravot wrote that the "Russian propaganda tricks" were "laughable" and "nonsense." 

Putin Regime Sees World In 19th-Century Terms

So if the Putin regime doesn't see -- or is unwilling to see -- something called civil society, what does it see?

For Russia's rulers, politics consists exclusively of states competing with each other -- or more precisely, great powers competing with each other.

Small countries and societies are there only to be manipulated in the struggle for advantage in this great game.

It's all very 19th-century. But with the Putin crew, given their background in the KGB, there's a bit of a twist.

In a recent commentary on Kasparov.ru, political analyst Igor Eidman noted that such "narrow specialists" as Putin and his siloviki entourage "often think exclusively within the framework of their own profession." 

As a result, they sincerely believe that "the security services of rival countries" were behind popular uprisings in Georgia, Ukraine, and now Armenia.

"This corporate narrow-mindedness defined, a significant degree, Putin’s attitude toward the Kyiv Maidan," Eidman wrote. "Putin's ruling KGB seriously believed that their American colleagues were behind it all. This fed their vulnerable professional vanity and they decided to fight back at all cost and tilt at windmills, which led to a real war with real victims."

For them, policy is just one big covert op. Call it government by spetsoperatsia with a retro 19th-century mind-set -- John Le Carre meets Paul Kennedy.

Russia Can't Fight Corruption

The root cause of the Armenian protests is corruption. It is corruption that originates in Russia. And it is corruption that the Kremlin is utterly incapable -- and completely unwilling -- to deal with.

Armenia's utility regulator uncovered massive graft in the country's energy monopoly, Electric Networks of Armenia (ENA), which is fully owned by Russian energy giant Inter RAO UES. The regulatory commission established that ENA had been routinely overpaying suppliers and contractors -- activity that suggested kickback schemes

And when ENA sought a 40.8 percent hike in tariffs to offset a $250 million debt, the Armenian authorities initially balked. But they eventually agreed to an increase of 16.7 percent effective in August, sparking the protests.

And the corruption that led to this crisis is an essential feature of Vladimir Putin's operating system. It's a tool he uses to establish control over Russia's elites.

It is also a key instrument in the Kremlin's foreign policy, where it is used to capture and manipulate elites abroad. Corrupt business schemes, whether involving murky gas deals in Ukraine or shady electricity schemes in Armenia, are central to Russia's efforts to secure control over the former Soviet space.

But there is a paradox. This very corruption that captures elites in the former Soviet space also serves to infuriate the public. This was the case in Ukraine and now it's the case in Armenia.

The Kremlin could resolve the Armenian crisis by reining in corruption at Inter RAO UES -- whose board is chaired by Putin crony Igor Sechin -- and by extension at ENA.

But as political commentator Leonid Bershidsky notes in Bloomberg View, it won't. Russia "would have done better to deal with corruption inside the companies it uses to exert influence in its former empire," Bershidsky writes

"Moscow is unable to do that, however, because corruption is one of its main exports. It can only fight the symptoms, which often include popular discontent, as though they were part of a global conspiracy."


Audio Podcast: Et Tu, Angela?

Partners no more.

Brian Whitmore

The defense minister says it is best to speak to Moscow from a position of strength. The foreign minister says Russia is acting with Cold War instincts. And the chancellor is clearly fed up with the Kremlin's antics.

Of all the things Russia has lost as a result of its intervention in Ukraine, one of the most consequential might be the goodwill of Germany. In the space of one year, Berlin has gone from being Moscow's biggest advocate in Europe to being one of its harshest critics.

On the latest Power Vertical Podcast we look at how this happened and examine the consequences.

Joining me are co-host Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University, an expert on Russia's security services, and author of the blog In Moscow's Shadows; and Andreas Umland, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation and a professor of Russian and Ukrainian history at Kyiv Mohyla Academy. 

Enjoy...

Power Vertical Podcast: Et Tu Angela?
Power Vertical Podcast: Et Tu Angela?i
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Listen to or download the podcast above or subscribe to The Power Vertical Podcast on iTunes.​


Video The Daily Vertical: Here Comes The Hangover

The Daily Vertical: Here Comes The Hangoveri
X
June 26, 2015
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.

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.


Video The Daily Vertical: Moscow Colors In Yerevan

The Daily Vertical: Moscow Colors In Yerevani
X
June 25, 2015
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.

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.


Putin Wants To Party Like It's 1815

Vladimir Putin is a holy alliance of one.

Brian Whitmore

You just knew it was going to happen. There was no way it couldn't.

It was just a matter of time before a senior Russian official openly accused the United States of orchestrating a coup in Armenia, where thousands of demonstrators are protesting electricity price hikes.

And as if on cue, lawmaker Igor Morozov, a member of the Federation Council's International Relations Committee, delivered the goods

"The U.S. Embassy in Armenia is actively involved in the current events in Yerevan," Morozov told RIA Novosti on June 24. 

"Armenia is on the brink of an armed putsch. This will happen if President Serzh Sarkisian has not learned the lessons from the Ukrainian Maidan and drawn the correct conclusions."

Morozov didn't offer any evidence. But, then again, he didn't have to.

Senior Russian officials just know that any uprising anywhere against a Moscow ally in the former Soviet space -- or even beyond -- is orchestrated in Washington. It doesn't matter if it's Georgia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, Macedonia, or Armenia.

Call it "fear of orange" or call it "the taming of the rose." But by whatever name, the Kremlin's colored-revolution phobia may be paranoid, but it is very real -- and has been dialed up to 11.

"Western politicians imagine the Kremlin’s anxiety about color revolutions is rhetorical, not real. But Mr. Putin and his colleagues believe what they say: that street protests are stage-managed by Russia’s bitterest enemies," political analyst Ivan Krastev, head of the Sofia-based Center for Liberal Studies, wrote recently in the Financial Times

Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has even commissioned "a study on the phenomenon of color revolutions and the military’s role in their prevention."  The general staff began working on the research this week.

General MIkhail Smyslov, head of army personnel, called the colored-revolution threat "real and long-term," adding that the military needed to "understand how to counter it." 

Think of it as Moscow's policy of containment -- of democracy.

In a recent commentary, Christopher Walker, executive director of the National Endowment for Democracy’s International Forum for Democratic Studies, wrote that Putin's Russia has turned George Kennan's ideas about containing communism on their head by "seeking to contain the spread of democracy rather than the growth of totalitarianism."

"Having come to the conclusion that their regime security is under perpetual threat in the era of globalization, they have decided to go after democracy before it comes after them," Walker wrote.

And this has historical precedent. You just need to go back to the early 19th century to find it.

The Kremlin's antirevolutionary fervor is reminiscent of the Holy Alliance, the partnership among the monarchies of Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Prussia in the aftermath of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. 

And why not? Vladimir Putin has long expressed admiration for Tsar Alexander I, who founded the alliance, and Nicholas I, who continued it.

And now the Kremlin leader wants to party like it's 1815. 

Then, as now, Russia was concerned with containing popular revolutions and republicanism. The alliance helped suppress antimonarchist uprisings in Naples and Piedmont in 1821 and in Spain in 1822. It also managed to roll back the revolutions of 1848 across Europe.

Then, as now, Moscow was seeking to uphold "traditional values" amid a rising tide of secularism. The Holy Alliance's stated purpose was to protect the divine right of kings and instill Christian values in Europe.

But then -- in stark contrast to today -- Russia's aims were largely shared by other European rulers and it had the backing of two of the continent's strongest powers in its antirevolutionary crusade.

Today the Kremlin is moving sharply against Europe's mainstream and has to settle for support from fringe politicians like France's Marine Le Pen and rogue leaders like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

By the mid-to-late 19th century, the Holy Alliance was clearly a lost cause. But it's a cause Moscow is still clinging to more than a century later.


Video The Daily Vertical: Russia's War On Nazi Washing Machines

The Daily Vertical: Russia's War On Nazi Washing Machinesi
X
June 24, 2015
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.
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.


Video The Daily Vertical: Putin's Nuclear Antics

The Daily Vertical: Putin's Nuclear Anticsi
X
June 23, 2015
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.

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.


Russia's Ministry Of Mind Reading

Then-U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright with then-Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov in Moscow in January 2000

Brian Whitmore

It's the urban legend that just won't die.

It is usually raised by Russian officials when they want to back up claims that the United States is bent on destroying Russia. Everybody states it as fact. But I was never able to find any evidence of it ever actually happening.

So what is it? It is comments that former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright allegedly made that Siberia's vast natural resources were too important to the world for Russia to unfairly control on its own.

The claim came up in Vladimir Putin's annual call-in program back in 2007 when an engineer from Novosibirsk asked about it -- giving the Kremlin leader the opportunity to deliver this line: "Such ideas are a sort of political erotica. Perhaps they give somebody pleasure, but they are unlikely to lead to anything positive." 

It came up in an interview Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev gave to Kommersant just this week. The United States "really would like it if Russia did not exist as a state at all," Patrushev said.

"This is because we have a lot of resources and the Americans think we don’t deserve them or have rights to them; they think we don’t use them as we should.Remember the statement made by Madeleine Albright who claimed that neither the Far East nor Siberia belonged to Russia."

And it came up countless times in between.

So, where did it come from?

Well, back in December 2006, in an interview with Rossiiskaya Gazeta, retired KGB General Boris Ratnikov claimed he was involved with a top-secret occult project and had -- yep, you guessed it -- read Albright's mind. 

"In Madame Albright's mind, we found a pathological hatred of Slavs," Ratnikov said. "She resented the fact that Russia had the world's largest mineral reserves. She believed that Russia should not control its reserves but that they should be shared by all of humanity under the supervision, of course, of the United States. And the war in Kosovo this was considered only a first step to establish control over Russia."

So there you have it. One nutty claim made nearly nine years ago, and it is repeated ad nauseum as fact so often that everybody believes it is true. Call it the propaganda data point that just keeps giving.

Beyond the Albright mind-reading claim, the Ratnikov interview is so surreal, so weird, so wacky, and so nuts that you need to read it over several times before you get the full scope of its utter craziness.

Ratnikov claimed he was involved with a top-secret occult project that originated in the Soviet KGB. In the Soviet Union, he said, "almost all the people with supernatural powers were controlled by the KGB" and were used by the Soviet authorities.

"You can't even imagine the war of brains that unfolded in the first half of the last century," he added. "I'm hardly exaggerating when I say that sometimes there were astral battles. And all this was kept secret and camouflaged, probably not less than the nuclear project."

Ratnikov added that in the mid-1980s, there were concerns that the Soviet Union's enemies could use "psycho-generators" to remotely read and manipulate people's minds -- and Moscow spent hundreds of millions of rubles to counter it.

After the Soviet Union broke up, Ratnikov worked in the Federal Protection Service, where he claims he used his occult skills to prevent anybody from reading and manipulating President Boris Yeltsin's mind.

In this way, Ratnikov claims he stopped Yeltsin from turning the Kurile Islands over to Japan and prevented a war with China.

He also claimed that in the early 1990s he read the mind of U.S. Ambassador Robert Strauss and concluded that the U.S. Embassy had "equipment for psychotronic influence on Muscovites."

The fact that the claims about Albright's designs on Russia's natural resources came from this surreal interview has been exposed in the English-language media, initially in an investigation by Moscow Times reporter Anna Smolchenko in 2007. 

But nevertheless, it is the talking point that just won't go away.


Video The Daily Vertical: The Kudrin Conundrum

The Daily Vertical: The Kudrin Conundrumi
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June 22, 2015
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.

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.


Audio Briefing: A Long Standoff Looming

NATO soldiers conduct exercises in Zagan, Poland, on June 18.

Brian Whitmore

NATO defense chiefs gather. And Russia reacts to asset freezes in Europe. This week's Power Vertical Briefing looks at two issues in the news this week.

NATO defense ministers are due to meet in Brussels on June 24-25 as the alliance settles in for a protracted standoff with Russia; and Moscow is threatening tit-for-tat relaliations after some European countries freeze Russian assets in connection with a lawsuit by Yukos shareholders.

Joining me to discuss these stories is RFE/RL Senior Editor Steve Gutterman.

Enjoy...

Briefing: A Long Standoff Looming
Briefing: A Long Standoff Loomingi
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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 every Monday.

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