Thursday, October 23, 2014


The Power Vertical

After Putin

Is Putin contemplating life after Putin?
Is Putin contemplating life after Putin?
Leonid Brezhnev did it. Boris Yeltsin did it. Is Vladimir Putin doing it, too?

Kremlin leaders tend to be obsessed with succession. They think about it. They worry about it. And they actively try to manage it.

In the latter Brezhnev years, the upper echelons of the Soviet elite, mindful of their own mortality, actively sought to promote a younger cadre from which the next generation of leaders would be drawn. It was a process that ultimately landed Mikhail Gorbachev in the Kremlin.

And throughout his presidency, the aging Yeltsin toyed with a number of potential successors before -- fatefully -- settling on Putin.

The reasons for the fixation are obvious. In the absence of institutions, traditions, and a political culture to assure a smooth transition of power, Russia's rulers seek to control the process themselves.

So are Putin and his entourage thinking about life after Putin?

Political analyst Gleb Pavlovsky, the onetime Kremlin spinmeister who was instrumental in strategizing and marketing the president's initial rise to power, thinks so.

"It is noticeable that Putin is considering the formation of a group from which he will be looking to choose the next president," Pavlovsky told the daily "Moskovsky komsomolets" recently.

"The difficulty lies in the fact that he has not yet decided whether he wants to see a successor by 2018 or if he will need one in 2024. In the second case there will, of course, be difficulties. It is hard to imagine keeping a pool of successors for 12 years. This group will inevitably be updated repeatedly."

Audition Of The Heavyweights

So if Putin is, indeed, actively thinking about succession, who's likely to be on his short list?

Probably not Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, whose political capital has been severely diminished and who seems to grow more alienated from Putin by the day.

"Dmitry Medvedev is a worn-out figure whose weakness is seen by everyone," political analyst Pavel Svtatenkov wrote recently in the online "Osobaya bukva."

Medvedev's comments in January that he may seek the presidency again were widely ridiculed. He backtracked in an interview with Bloomberg at the World Economic Forum in Davos, stressing that he would never run against Putin.

Shortly thereafter, he became the target of a series of attacks -- most notably a slickly produced video assailing his acquiescence to NATO's air campaign against Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi.

"Medvedev began to position himself too aggressively as Putin's successor," political analyst Aleksei Mukhin told the daily "Noviye izvestia." "Some circles deemed this premature and they struck several very powerful blows at the prime minister's political image." 

Many Kremlin watchers don't even expect Medvedev to last the year as prime minister.

If and when Putin finally sacks Medvedev, whom he appoints as a replacement will be a major tell.

If Medvedev is replaced with a "technical" prime minister with no political profile -- somebody like Mikhail Fradkov or Viktor Zubkov, for example -- it will be a surefire sign that Putin is probably not pondering succession yet.

But if he appoints a real heavyweight, that person will inevitably be looked at like a president-in-waiting.

"By making a heavyweight prime minister, you know that you are giving someone not just power but the power to make more power for themselves," NYU professor Mark Galeotti, author of the blog "In Moscow's Shadows," said on the latest "Power Vertical Podcast."

"You are making an active move...[and] one that you know that not only will everyone else interpret as having succession implications, but one that will make the heavyweight even heavier."
 
Moscow Mayor Sergei SobyaninMoscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin
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Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin
Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin
Two such heavyweights have been getting a fair bit of attention lately in the Russian media: Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
 
Since taking over as Moscow mayor following the sacking of Yury Luzhkov in September 2010, Sobyanin has enjoyed high popularity in the capital and good relations with the Kremlin. Putin reportedly sees him as loyal, but he has also seemed to go out of his way not to alienate the opposition.
 
"I think Putin is counting on him and has included him in his own plans for the future," Pavlovsky said. "I think that Sobyanin is on Putin's personal short list today. Medvedev is not."
 
Sergei ShoiguSergei Shoigu
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Sergei Shoigu
Sergei Shoigu
Shoigu's star has also been rising dramatically.
 
For more than a decade as emergencies minister he was Russia's action man, appearing at nearly every disaster, either natural or man-made.

And since taking over the scandal-plagued Defense Ministry in December he has become, by far, the most popular minister in the government.

"Sooner or later, the Kremlin will be faced with a dilemma: whether to use Shoigu's reputation or remove him from the scene," Svtatenkov writes.

Likewise, former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, a political heavyweight who remains close to Putin despite his flirtations with the opposition, has been touted as a replacement for Medvedev.

A Lame Duck?

Of course, today's potential successor could be tomorrow's footnote. Just ask would-be presidents Sergei Shakhrai, Vladimir Shumeiko, or Boris Nemtsov -- all of whom were at one time or another touted as successors to Yeltsin.

And all the succession chatter, of course, may be coming not because Putin himself thinks it's time to consider the issue but rather because others in the ruling elite do.

"It is hard to think of Putin yet actively thinking: 'It's time I went and who is going to be my chosen heir?'" Galeotti noted in last week's podcast.

"It's actually that others within the deep state are either beginning the auditions or allowing conversations about succession to percolate as a way of signaling to Putin that he really ought to be thinking in these terms -- and if he doesn't, then others will begin thinking about it for him."

If this is indeed the case it means that some in the elite are already looking at Putin as a lame duck. Which would explain much of the turbulence and public intrigue that has gripped the political class recently.

"This is a sign of people realizing that Putin is no longer Putin. He's lost his touch," Galeotti said. "And it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: The more people talk about a succession, the weaker Putin becomes."

But there is one funny thing about managed successions in Russia: They often don't turn out how their orchestrators intend. The Brezhnev elites' efforts to groom a young cadre of leaders led to the rise of two men -- Gorbachev and Yeltsin -- who would be instrumental in bringing down the Soviet Union.

And Yeltsin's inner circle, the so-called Family, settled on Putin because they believed he would protect their interests after their patron left the Kremlin. Just ask Boris Berezovsky how that worked out.

-- Brian Whitmore

Tags: succession,Vladimir Putin,Sergei Sobyanin,Sergei Shoigu

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Spencer from: Iowa
February 12, 2013 20:14
I enjoyed this article a lot. I'm also a recent convert to the podcast. Thanks for putting it together. If we are looking for potential Putin replacement candidates, where are the most likely areas to see them? Are we going to see them at the head of Gazprom (a la Medvedev), defense (Shoigu) or put in charge of a state-wide anti-corruption task force? Just curious as to where I should fix my gaze in the coming years.
In Response

by: Camel Anaturk from: Kurdistan
February 12, 2013 23:43
Thanx to the russian way of doing things in 20 years`time the rashkas will be a minority in their own country with the majority coming from the mooselem -stan countries.so we can expect a tatar to rule the land thats till the chinese take over,but in the short term Dear Spence you can look no further than these pages for Jack from your country and his bedfellow-Eugenio from Vienna who are sure to enrich these pages with the perrenial wisdom of their comments!!!

by: Ray F. from: Lawrence, KS
February 12, 2013 22:28
Now that the seat in the Vatican is clear, Putin may be thinking about a transfer. Just kidding!

I see no evidence that VVP is thinking about stepping down. As long as oil prices remain high, he will be able continue to ‘work like a galley slave’ to strengthen Mother Rus. He definitely wants to be in charge of the Kremlin during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. As painful as it may sound to some, I can see him leading the country for another decade.

My succession tea leaves are as dark as the rest, and although I know he’s a longshot, I’m putting my bets on D. Rogozin as the next Russian prez. He’s cunning and has proven to be sufficiently malleable to satisfy the various Kremlin clans.

In Response

by: Brian Whitmore from: Prague
February 13, 2013 07:15
Nowhere does this post suggest that VVP is thinking of stepping down. It suggests that either he or his inner circle (or both) are beginning to consider who they would want to succeed him, either in 2018 or 2024.
In Response

by: La Russophobe from: USA
February 15, 2013 10:43
Brian you seem to be contradicting yourself. You are saying it is believed Putin will step down "either in 2018 or 2024" as opposed to ruling as long as he lives, in the manner of Brezhnev. If he were not going to to step down, you'd be talking about who succeeds him after his funeral.
In Response

by: Camel Anaturk from: Kurdistan
February 13, 2013 13:50
No kidding Ray,no kidding!!! The head of the third Rome takes over the first Moscow-thats Rome of course and we may think of reviving the Roman,Byzantine and Soviet empires all three-in-one for once and for all time and Vladimir Vladimirovitch should be its emperor for life and after that,too!!!

by: La Russophobe from: USA
February 13, 2013 09:00
I don't agree that Medvedev was ever considered by Putin to be a possible successor, and don't believe there is any evidence to support this fantasy. Medvedev was chosen to become president specifically because Putin knew he could not rule Russia by himself, and has no desire to do so. Medvedev's noises have nothing to do with any actual desire for power, they have to do with his golden parachute. I also don't agree that Putin is giving any thought to a successor. The analogy to Brezhnev is apt, but it calls for the opposite conclusion, that there was no thought to successorship. That's why confusion and bedlam followed Brezhnev, because he held onto power in a greedy and reckless manner even when he wast totally unfit to wield it. Lenin did exactly that same thing, and that's why Stalin was able to grab power amid chaos. Putin is a classic Russian dictator who believes he'll live forever and the country cannot get along without him. You are projecting rationality and patriotism onto Putin as if he was like you, but you are not a career KGB spy and so such projection can only lead you astray.

by: peter from: ottawa
February 13, 2013 18:12
To all you poor naive slugs out there, there is no after Putin, Mr big has installed himself dictator for life , he still has another 12 years in power and will circumvent the system to his advantage as for Medvedev he s mr big s lap dog , hes all lick and no bite, as for the all others they are either in jail, in exile, or dead. End of story.

by: Vakhtang from: Moscow
February 14, 2013 04:14
I told you already that Putin will be sit in his place until he dies.
Нere in another danger-
Person does not want to die alone and he is always angry, why he had to die and others do not.
So, before his death Putin will press the special button and thousands of nuclear bombs explode.
Have you written a will, Mr.Whitmore?
I am sure that the cave in Kurdistan, where lives camel, also will not save.Putin is has foreseen all the options.

by: La Russophobe from: USA
February 27, 2013 22:09
This guy says you are being suckered by the Kremlin in asking such questions.

http://www.themoscowtimes.com/opinion/article/the-question-isnt-who-will-lead-russia/476150.html

The Power Vertical Feed

In this space, I will regularly comment on events in Russia, repost content and tweets I find interesting and informative, and shamelessly promote myself (and others, whose work I like). The traditional Power Vertical Blog remains for larger and more developed items. The Podcast, of course, will continue to appear every Friday. I hope you find the new Power Vertical Feed to be a useful resource and welcome your feedback. More

11:11

THERE IS NO RUSSIA WITHOUT PUTIN?

According to a report in the pro-Kremlin daily "Izvestia," deputy Kremlin chief of staff Vyacheslav Volodin told a meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club in Sochi that Western politicians "do not understand the essence of Russia."

"Volodin stated the key thesis about the current state of our country: As long as there is Putin there is Russia. If there is no Putin, there is no Russia," Konstantin Kostin, head of the Foundation for the Development of Civil Society, told "Izvestia."

11:01

MORNING NEWS ROUNDUP

From RFE/RL's News Desk:

MOSCOW AIRPORT MANAGERS RESIGNED, MORE SUSPECTS DETAINED OVER CRASH

Top managers at a Moscow airport have resigned and four more airport workers have been detained over a plane crash that killed the chief executive of French oil giant Total.

Christophe de Margerie and three French crew members died when a corporate jet collided with a snow-removal machine at Vnukovo Airport late on October 20.

The Investigative Committee said on October 23 that prosecutors had detained an air-traffic controller intern, her supervisor, the head of air-traffic controllers, and the chief of runway cleaning.

Meanwhile, the airport announced the resigntion of its director-general, Andrei Dyakov, and his deputy, Sergei Solntsev.

And a Moscow court ordered that the snowplough driver remain in custody until December 21.

The driver says that he has lost his bearings before the collision.

(Based on reporting by Reuters, AFP, Interfax, and TASS)

And these items from Reuters:

COURT POSTPONES RULING ON BASHNEFT SHARES

By Denis Pinchuk

MOSCOW, Oct 23 (Reuters) - A Russian court decided on Thursday to postpone to next week a hearing on a move to wrest control of an oil company from oligarch Vladimir Yevtushenkov, a case that has deepened investors' fears the Kremlin wants to reclaim prized assets.

Russian prosecutors filed the suit last month to regain state ownership of Bashneft, saying there had been alleged violations in the privatisation and subsequent sale of the oil producer to Russian oil-to-telecoms conglomerate Sistema in 2009.

On Thursday, the judge at the Moscow Arbitration Court ruled in favour of the prosecutors who had requested more time to prepare their case and said the next hearing would take place on Oct. 30.

Sistema's shares, which lost 70 percent after it reached a peak this year in July, traded down nearly 5 percent in early trading in Moscow. Bashneft's shares were down 1.3 percent on the day.

In September, a Moscow court ordered the seizure of Sistema's majority stake in Bashneft a day after a judge refused to release Yevtushenkov, who is under house arrest on suspicion of money laundering during the firm's acquisition.

The case centres on the privatisation of oil production and refining assets in the Russian republic of Bashkortostan in the Ural mountains in the early 2000s and Bashneft's subsequent sale to Sistema.

The Russian investigators say the privatisation and the sale was illegal.

Sistema, which directly owns almost 72 percent of Bashneft's voting rights and has a stake of 86.7 percent, including 12.6 percent which it owns through its subsidiary Sistema-Invest, has denied the allegations.

Yevtushenkov is ranked Russia's 15th richest man by U.S. magazine Forbes, with an estimated fortune of $9 billion.

Some analysts have said that state-controlled Rosneft , Russia's biggest oil producer run by an ally of President Vladimir Putin, was interested in buying Bashneft.

The company, Russia's sixth largest crude oil producer, extracted more than 16 million tonnes (320,000 barrels per day) of crude oil last year, increasing output by more than 4 percent - the best results among domestic majors after launching production at new deposits in the Arctic.

Its oil refining capacity stands at 24.1 million tonnes a year. (Reporting by Denis Pinchuk; writing by Katya Golubkova and Vladimir Soldatkin, editing by Elizabeth Piper and William Hardy)

NATO, SWEDISH FIGHTERS SCRAMBLE TO INTERCEPT RUSSIAN PLANE

BRUSSELS, Oct 22 (Reuters) - NATO and Swedish fighter jets were scrambled to intercept a Russian intelligence-gathering plane that briefly entered Estonian airspace on Tuesday, the alliance said on Wednesday.

The Estonian Foreign Ministry called the Russian ambassador to the ministry and gave him a protest note over the incursion, the Estonian defence forces said.

Fighters from Denmark as well as Portuguese F-16s from NATO's air policing mission in the Baltics took off after radar detected an unidentified aircraft flying close to NATO airspace in the Baltic Sea, NATO said.

The plane was identified as a Russian IL-20 intelligence-gathering aircraft that had taken off from Russia's Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad, heading towards Denmark.

The Russian aircraft was first intercepted by Danish F-16s and later, as it headed further north, by fighters from Sweden, which is not a NATO member.

The Russian aircraft turned south again, entering Estonian airspace for less than one minute, a NATO statement said.

Portuguese F-16s, which had been scrambled from their base in Lithuania, escorted the Russian plane away from NATO airspace.

Interceptions of Russian military aircraft by NATO planes over the Baltic region have increased since Moscow annexed Ukraine's Crimea region in March, but usually Russian planes only approach NATO airspace and do not enter it, a NATO source said.

At a time when tension between Russia and the West is running high over Ukraine, Swedish forces have been scouring the sea off Stockholm following reports of activity by foreign submarines or divers using an underwater vehicle. (Reporting by Adrian Croft in Brussels and David Mardiste in Tallinn; Editing by Tom Heneghan)

11:12 October 22, 2014

THE BEGINNING OF THE END OF RUSSIA'S 'GAS WEAPON'

In less than a week, on October 27, Lithuania is scheduled to open its first Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) import terminal at the port of Klaipeda. The terminal, which will begin receiving deliveries in early 2015, is a significant step toward changing the energy equation in Lithuania, the Baltic states, and ultimately in Europe as a whole.

Initially, Lithuania plans to buy enough LNG to cover about a quarter of its domestic needs. But once the terminal is operating at full capacity, and once Lithuania's pipelines to Latvia are upgraded, it will be able to supply 90 percent of the three Baltic states' natural gas demand.

Oh, and by the way, Lithuania's current supply contract with Gazprom expires at the end of next year.

And this is just one of the ways the gas game is changing. Poland is also building a LNG import terminal, which is scheduled to go online in mid-2015.

And as energy analyst  Wenyuan Qiu writes in "The Moscow Times" today, a steep rise in U.S. production has made it "functionally independent of offshore suppliers." As a result, "the closure of the U.S. LNG import market is forcing producers in the Middle East and Africa to look for customers elsewhere" leading to "downward pressure on prices" in Europe.

"Russia will remain an important European energy provider because its gas is relatively economic. But Russia's ability to leverage this resource as an instrument of foreign policy is diminishing," Qiu writes.

 

08:27 October 22, 2014

MORNING NEWS ROUNDUP

Some items from RFE/RL's News Desk:

RUSSIA-UKRAINE GAS DEAL REPORTEDLY CLOSER

European Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger has announced substantial progress was reached in October 21 talks between representatives of Ukraine and Russia on gas supplies, but a final deal has yet to be agreed.

A summit held in Milan October 17 had produced hopes for a breakthrough, after Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko met Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin and said they had reached a preliminary agreement on a gas price until March 31.

Oettinger said as part of tentative deals, Ukraine planned to purchase some 4 billion cubic meters of gas from Russia before the end of this year.

Oettinger also said Ukraine would pay $1.4 billion of its debt to Russia for gas supplies already received before the end of October and another $1.6 billion by the end of this year.

The head of Russia's delegation to the talks, Energy Minister Aleksandr Novak, said the price of gas for Ukraine would be $385 per 1,000 cubic meters, much lower than the $485 that Russia's state-controlled Gazprom was demanding just weeks ago.

However, the price, which was first announced by Poroshenko following his meeting with Putin on October 17, is still higher than the average of some $350 that Gazprom charges EU companies

Novak said that price would be in force from October 2014 until late March 2015 -- provided Ukraine pays in advance.

However, Novak added the EU should take responsibility for guaranteeing Ukraine pay its $5.3-billion debt for gas to Russia before the end of 2014.

Kyiv has asked the EU for an additional loan of $2.6 billion, but a spokesman stressed on October 21 that the request was not made in connection with the ongoing gas talks.

The EU has so far offered Kyiv loans totalling more than $2 billion.

Russia cut off gas deliveries tro Ukraine in mid-June, citing the $5.3-billion debt. However, Gazprom has not halted supplies transiting Ukraine en route to EU member states.

But Novak again ruled out Gazprom's agreeing to let EU states re-export its gas to Ukraine.

Oettinger announced another meeting would be held in Brussels on October 29.

Separately, the Kremlin said Putin and Poroshenko discussed Russian gas supplies to Ukraine among other issues during a telephone conversation October 21.

It didn't provide further details.

(Based on reporting by Reuters, TASS, and Interfax)

PROSECUTORS TARGET EKHO MOSKVY

The independent Russian radio station "Ekho Moskvy" said it has been informed of an unscheduled inspection by the prosecutor's office.

The station's deputy chief editor Sergei Buntman said on October 21, "We received a document dated from yesterday (October 20) that said the main directorate of the Emergency Situation's Ministry" had requested the prosecutor's office to conduct an inspection of the radio station.

Buntman said according to the document, the inspection would start on October 22 and last for 20 working days.

"Taking into consideration days off, that means almost a month," Buntman said, and he added that the inspection should not affect the activities of the station.

Buntman said, "Of course questions arise about why this decision is taken so suddenly."

"Echo Moskvy" posted a copy of the document the radio station received that indicated the inspection was meant to determine if the station was in compliance with fire safety laws.

(Based on reporting by "Ekho Moskvy" and Interfax)

PUTIN, POROSHENKO DISCUSS CEASEFIRE AND GAS SUPPLIES

The Kremlin said the Russian and Ukrainian presidents stressed the importance of supporting the peace process in Ukraine and observing the ceasefire the country's south-east during a phone conversation on October 21.

President Vladimir Putin and Petro Poroshenko also discussed Russian gas supplies to Ukraine after a tentative agreement reached in Milan last week on the basic terms of future supplies, the statement said.

It didn't provide further details.

Russia raised the price it charges Kyiv for natural gas after Ukraine's pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted in February, then halted gas supplies to Ukraine in June when Kyiv failed to pay the higher price.

Some progress was reportedly made toward resolving the issue of Russian gas supplies to Ukraine during last week's talks in Milan.

Poroshenko said a preliminary agreement had been reached on a price of $385 per 1,000 cubic meters until the end of March -- $100 less than Russia had originally demanded.

(Based on reporting by Reuters, TASS, and kremlin.ru)

RUSSIAN INVESTIGATORS SAY 'CRIMINAL NEGLIGENCE' BEHIND TOTAL AIR CRASH

Russian investigators say the air crash that has killed the chief executive of French oil giant Total was caused “criminal negligence” by airport officials.

Christophe de Margerie and three French crew members died when his corporate jet collided with a snow-removal machine at Moscow's Vnukovo Airport late on October 20.

The Investigative Committee warned that several senior airport officials would be suspended, adding that investigators will assess the "actions and non-action" of management.

The snow plough driver has already been detained.

Investigators have said the man was drunk at the time of the accident, which his lawyer denied.

Total is one of the top foreign investors in Russia.

The Kremlin said President Vladimir Putin "highly esteemed" Margerie's business qualities and his "consistent devotion" to developing bilateral Russia-French relations.

(Based on reporting by AFP, Interfax, and TASS)

 

16:08 October 17, 2014

NEW POWER VERTICAL BLOG

I just posted a new piece on the Power Vertical blog: Putin's Class of 2014.

The iPhone-toting hipsters hanging out in their trendy downtown Moscow office are just the high-profile part of the Kremlin's new youth strategy.

Founded in November 2013, the youth group Set -- which means "Network" in Russian -- has organized patriotic fashion shows and film festivals, created an alphabet for schoolchildren that highlights the regime's accomplishments, and painted murals in seven cities on October 7 to mark Russian President Vladimir Putin's 62nd birthday....

But the rise of Set is just one side of the story. The other aspect of the Kremlin's youth strategy is stealthier -- and much more consequential.

Over the past 18 months, Putin has been quietly bringing a new cadre of officials to Moscow, reshaping the rank-and-file bureaucracy in his own image.

You can read it all here.

AND A NEW POWER VERTICAL PODCAST COMING SOON

We're in post-production for the new Power Vertical Podcast: Ukraine's Loyal Russians

A country divided between a Ukrainian-speaking west and a Russian-speaking east. An irreconcilable schism forged in history and set in stone. Lviv vs. Luhansk; Orange vs. Blue.

It's long been a truism that Ukraine was hopelessly split. It's a truism repeated endlessly by the Kremlin's propaganda machine -- and one used by Vladimir Putin to justify his Novorossiya project.

But it's a truism that the majority of Ukraine's ethnic Russians -- in cities like Odesa and Mariupol in the south to Dnipropetrovsk and Zaporizhia in the east to Kharkiv in the north  -- are proving false. Most of Ukraine's ethnic Russians, it turns out, are loyal Ukrainian citizens.

Joining me are Andreas Umland, a professor of Russian and Ukrainian history at Kyiv Mohyla University and Natalya Churikova, Senior Editor of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service. It's in post-production now and will be up soon.

 

13:25 October 17, 2014

AFTERNOON NEWS ROUNDUP

Some items from RFE/RL's News Desk:

RUSSIA-WEST RIFT PERSIST AFTER DIFFICULT UKRAINE CRISIS TALKS

By RFE/RL

Italy's prime minister said he was "really positive" about the prospects for a solution to the Ukraine conflict after a meeting attended by Russian President Vladimir Putin, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and European leaders, but the Kremlin suggested deep rifts remained after the "difficult" talks and accused Western officials of inflexibility.

"In general, I am really positive after this meeting," Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said after the talks over breakfast during a Europe-Asia summit that was overshadowed by the crisis in Ukraine, where deadly fighting persists in the east despite a cease-fire between government forces and pro-Russian separatists.

Putin, in the spotlight and under pressure from the West to do more to bring peace to Ukraine, said the meeting -- attended by Putin and Poroshenko as well as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande, British Prime Minister David Cameron, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, and outgoing EU leaders Herman Van Rompuy and Jose Manuel Barroso -- was "good, positive".

But his spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, gave a grimmer account.

"The talks are indeed difficult, full of misunderstandings, disagreements, but they are nevertheless ongoing, an exchange of opinion is in progress," Peskov told reporters.

He said some participants displayed "a complete lack of desire to take an objective approach" to the Ukraine crisis, which Russia blames on the European Union, the United States, and the pro-Western government that gained power in Ukraine after the ouster of a president sympathetic to Russia, Viktor Yanukovych, In February.

Kyiv, NATO, and Western governments say Russia has supported the rebels with troops, weaponry, and propaganda after illegally annexing the Black Sea peninsula from Ukraine in March.

The conflict in eastern Ukraine has killed more than 3,660 combatants and civilians since April and driven Moscow's ties with the West to post-Cold War lows, prompting punitive sanctions against Moscow and a Russian ban on many foods from the EU, its biggest trading partner for years.

The breakfast-table talks came hours after lengthy Putin-Merkel meeting that stretched past midnight and failed to resolve what the Kremlin said were "serious differences of opinion about the genesis of the internal Ukrainian conflict as well as about the causes of what is happening there now."

Western leaders have rejected Russia's denials of involvement and said Moscow must see to it that a cease-fire and steps toward peace agreed on September 5 in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, are implemented.

"It is obviously above all Russia's task to make clear that the Minsk plan is adhered to," Merkel told reporters on October 16. "Unfortunately, there are still a lot of shortcomings but it will be important to look for a dialogue here."

British Prime Minister David Cameron said Putin assured the other leaders at the breakfast that Russia does not want a divided Ukraine or a frozen crisis.

Kremlin critics say Russia has supported the cease-fire and plans for peace because the September 5 agreement followed rebel gains that left the separatists in control over large portions of Ukraine's Donetsk and Luhansk regions, giving Moscow a lever to influence its France-sized neighbor and keep it destabilized - and out of NATO - for years to come.

Putin and Poroshenko were to meet with Merkel and Hollande later on October 17.

Putin, who basked in attention at a military parade in mostly Slavic, Orthodox Christian Serbia on October 16, set the stage for tense talks in Milan by warning in Belgrade that a dispute with Kyiv over natural gas could jeopardize Russian supplies to Europe via transit nation Ukraine this winter.

He said Europe faces "major transit risks" to gas supplies from Russia.

Blaming Kyiv in advance for any possible cuts in supplies to Europe, Putin said that if Ukraine siphons gas from transit pipelines to the European Union, Russia will reduce supplies in the amount of the "stolen" gas.

Russia raised the price it charges Kyiv for natural gas after Yanukovych was ousted by street protests he had touched off last November by scrapping plans for a deal tightening ties with the EU and turning toward Russia instead.

In June, Russia halted gas supplies meant for domestic consumption in Ukraine when Kyiv failed to pay the higher price.

Russia is the EU's biggest external gas supplier, providing about one-third of the gas consumed there, and previous price disputes between Moscow and Kyiv have led to supply cuts that have chilled Europeans in wintertime.

Some government officials said the Western leaders would ask Putin to explain the threat of gas supply cuts.

Merkel and Poroshenko held talks earlier on October 16, and Poroshenko said he received "a great demonstration of support for Ukraine" from the German leader.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin also met with former Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi, whom he referred to as Putin's "old friend."

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said he spoke briefly to Putin and asked him for "maximum cooperation" over the downing of a Malaysian Airlines passenger jet in the conflict zone in eastern Ukraine in July.

More than half of the 298 people killed were Dutch citizens, and many in the West suspect the plane was shot down by the separatists with a missile system provided by Russia.

Hundreds of people have been killed since the cease-fire, with fierce fighting focusing on the devastated Donetsk international airport and shelling reported in the city of Donetsk and elsewhere almost daily.

Ukrainian military officials said three soldiers were killed and nine wounded on October 16.

NATO said it has not yet detected "significant" movements of Russian troops in a region near the border with Ukraine back to their home bases, as the Kremlin said Putin ordered last week.

A NATO spokesperson said "there is still a large and capable force sitting on the border of Ukraine, and heavy equipment still has to be pulled back [from the border]."

(With reporting by Reuters, AP, TASS, Interfax, and AFP)

GEORGIAN PM SAYS NO PROGRESS NORMALIZING RELATIONS WITH MOSCOW

Georgian Prime Minister Irakly Garibashvili says attempts by Tbilisi to normalize political relations with Russia have thus far been unsuccessful.

Garibashvili said in Tbilisi on October 16 that the Georgian government had done "all it could" to improve bilateral relations with Moscow has only achieved progress in the economic sector.

The premier's Georgian Dream party took power two years ago pledging to engage with Moscow.

Garibashvili made his comments one day after Russia announced it would sign an "alliance and integration" treaty with the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia.

The treaty would create a "common defense infrastructure" between Abkhazia and Russia while forming joint law-enforcement structures and a more integrated economic space.

Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili issued an "emergency statement" on the treaty on October 15.

Moscow recognized Abkhazia as an independent state after a brief war between Russia and Georgia in 2008.

(Based on reporting by Interfax, AFP, and TASS)

RUSSIA DETAINS TWO JOURNALISTS OVER WORKSHOP

Russian officials temporarily detained and then banned two American journalists from conducting an investigative-journalism workshop in St. Petersburg.

The men were found by a court on October 16 of violating Russian visa regulations and released after several hours.

Randy Covington, a professor at the University of South Carolina, and Joe Bergantino of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting were detained by immigration authorities while conducting the first of a two-day workshop for 14 Russian journalists.

St. Petersburg's branch of the Federal Migration Service said the men's activities "did not correspond" to the purpose of their trip to Russia.

Officials said they could no longer teach the workshop but were free to leave Russia as scheduled.

The New England Center for Investigative Journalism said the men had tourist visas and had already held a workshop in Moscow.

(Based on reporting by AP and "The Boston Globe")

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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