Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Power Vertical

The Propaganda Machine

Surkov (left) and Medvedev at a meeting with political party leaders last November.
Surkov (left) and Medvedev at a meeting with political party leaders last November.

About a month ago I wrote a post about the dueling polling agencies in Russia and discussed briefly the relations between the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) and the Kremlin (particularly with the office of the Kremlin’s domestic-politics curator Vladislav Surkov and with the United Russia party).


That post prompted a query from a reader of the blog that made me think that the subject deserved a little more attention. Joera Mulders, writing from Amsterdam, asked the following:


You write about a " ... network of purportedly independent political parties, nongovernmental organizations, think tanks, and the like that are brought to bear in many situations to press the Kremlin’s line or, at least, to blur the non-Kremlin lines.


Isn't it a lot simpler to acknowledge the uprise of a considerate group within civil society that supports the current form of government and the current division of property? Do you really believe Surkov is orchestrating all that by himself? I did check out the partner and clients page at the VTsIOM side. Besides United Russia other 'organisations we cooperate with' are mentioned. NATO amongst others. Do you have other proof that VTsIOM is controled by UR or the Kremlin?


First, I do think that Surkov is orchestrating such a network and has been doing it for years now. Of course, he is not doing it “by himself.” Within the presidential administration, Surkov heads something called the “Main Department of Domestic Politics” (Glavnoye upravleniye vnutrennei politki), which was created in 2000 and in March 2004 (following United Russia’s successful showing in the December 2003 presidential election and just 10 days after Vladimir Putin’s reelection to the presidency) was elevated to the status of an “independent subunit” of the presidential administration.


It is a pretty secretive “subunit,” so there is no telling how many people Surkov has working under him there, but even its bland description on the Kremlin’s webpage is a little unnerving: “Within the areas of its competency it develops and presents to the president and the head of the presidential administration materials about the sociopolitical situation in the country, as well as proposals about matters relating to the state structure, federal relations, local self-government, and regional and informational policies.”


It oversees the relations between the Kremlin and “the Federal Assembly, organs of state government, organs of local self-government, political parties, professional and creative unions, business organizations, commerce chambers, social and religious organizations, and other civil-society structures.”


It oversees the president’s relations with the presidential envoys to the seven federal districts, which means that it has powerful mechanisms for implementing its policies on the local level across the country.


It isn’t easy to figure out all the threads of the “network of purportedly independent political parties, nongovernmental organizations, think tanks, and the like” that this office oversees, but I can say that I stumble across new ones all the time. In the run-up to the Georgian war last August and in its wake, numerous “Russian-Caucasian friendship societies” popped up to spread the Kremlin’s take on events in the Caucasus, to take one example.


There are other examples in the information sphere. Last December I wrote a post about some mysterious English-language websites that were publishing pro-Kremlin “information” and a man named “Vladimir” who was working out of the Russian Embassy in Washington and offering U.S. journalists money to reprint their materials. Some great reader comments to that post offered up links to other, equally suspicious websites.

Foreign Policy” this week posted a nice little piece about a Kremlin 2.0 project called, a project of Kremlin-connect spin doctor Gleb Pavlovsky that is intended “to make the Kremlin’s increasingly unappealing ideological package relevant to the younger generations.” (And speaking of Georgia, when I opened today they were featuring on the homepage a nice little video called “The Battle for History: Georgia 1989” that blames the anti-Soviet uprising in Tbilisi in 1989 on the CIA.)


Returning to Joera’s questions, I do feel that VTsIOM is a crucial part of this network and a look at the list of organizations for which VTsIOM conducts research gives some indication at how effective it is in distributing the Kremlin’s views on what public opinion in Russia is. In part, it is responsible for what I called in an earlier post, “the myth of Putin’s popularity” and, the other side of the same coin, the myth of the fecklessness of the anti-Putin opposition, including former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and former world chess champion Garry Kasparov.


The telling part of the list of partner organizations on the VTsIOM site comes when you scroll all the way down to the bottom and get to the real “partner organizations.” These include, in order, the presidential administration, the Health and Social Development Ministry, the Interior Ministry, the sociology center of the Defense Ministry, and the United Russia party.


Further down the list you will find Kremlin-friendly political consultant Stanislav Belkovsky's National Strategy Council (famous for “predicting” the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky) and Pavlovsky projects such as the Effective Politics Foundation (its site is under reconstruction), and the “experts network” Another partner is the Center for Political Forecasting, which is headed by Aleksei Chesnakov – who until last June was deputy head of – you guessed it! – the Main Department of Domestic Politics of the presidential administration (the department is headed by Oleg Govorun, a colorful character in his own right, but we don’t have time to pursue that thread of the network just now).


How does Chesnakov’s name fit into this picture? In preparing a response to Joera’s message, I dug through my VTsIOM files and came across the most thorough look at the polling agency, a November 2007 expose published in “Novoye vremya” by Moldovan investigative journalist Natalya Morar (you may remember her because she was not allowed into Russia because she purportedly presents a national security threat to Russia and because of the role she played in the April political unrest in Moldova).


Morar’s piece makes excellent reading and begins to expose both the ties between VTsIOM and the presidential administration and the shady scheme of offshore companies VTsIOM uses to hide its financial dealings.


Morar writes: “Deputy head of the Department of Domestic Politics of the presidential administration Aleksei Chesnakov personally oversees the work of the sociologists. According to a VTsIOM employee, center director Valery Fyodorov personally goes over all survey questions with Chesnakov for the weekly national express polls of public opinion. Every Friday, the presidential administration approves all the VTsIOM press releases that are being prepared for issue the following week.”


After discussing the surveys for a bit, Morar goes on to begin unraveling the research center’s financial structure, which involves at least two offshore companies – one registered in Cyprus and one in the British Virgin Islands. An independent financial analyst who studied the documents Morar secured said: “The purpose is obvious – avoiding taxes and shipping capital out of the country.” One might add that another purpose is to prevent outsiders from knowing how much money is going through the organization to keep them, for example, from seeing how it spikes during the election cycle. (Morar has said that the roots of the accusations that she presents a “national security threat” to Russia stem from her various investigations into the offshore financial manipulations of the ruling elite.)


Another VTsIOM employee (speaking anonymously, of course) said: “They pay us for our loyalty by giving us the chance to steal. They let us sit on certain money streams and don’t watch what we do with them. It is a classic example of bureaucratic kickback: using a state organization to draw in money that ends up in the pockets of bureaucrats. We are allowed to earn whatever we want as long as we meet all their conditions…. In general, I think that today’s VTsIOM is not a research organization. It was not created for this. It is part of a propaganda machine.”


Anyway, Joera, thanks a lot for reading and for writing. Your message set me off on a really interesting voyage of discovery.


-- Robert Coalson

Tags: surkov,vtsiom,propaganda,Russia

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: La Russophobe from: USA
June 05, 2009 12:03
Now I've got a question!<br /><br />Putin went to Finland and said &quot;Ukraine won't survive.&quot; He went to Piter and said capitalists are &quot;cockroaches&quot; and they, not he the proud KGB spy, are responsible for Russia's problems.<br /><br />A little while ago, Russian tanks rolled into Georgia.<br /><br />To repeat, the KGB governs.<br /><br />Oh and, at the Olympics, the music of the USSR plays for Russia.<br /><br />And now you document this insidious propaganda machine. <br /><br />So my question is: Just how exactly is Putin's Russia different from the USSR?<br /><br />So much for the idea that Russia could &quot;never go back.&quot; Those who said so helped delay our opposition and create our current nightmare, just as Chamberlain once did.

by: La Russophobe from: USA
June 08, 2009 17:14
On the topic of propaganda, you guys really should consider blogging the story of Yelena Maglevannaya. The Kremlin's actions towards her are the ultimate expression of propaganda.<br /><br />

by: Joera Mulders from: Amsterdam
June 09, 2009 11:40
Dear Robert Coalson, <br /> <br />I am delighted to hear my comments sent you on a voyage of discovery. Please consider the below comment a well intended continuation of a conversation. <br /> <br />Let me first return to the initial post that prompted our exchange of opinions. There you wrote that you “think some sort of “thawing” is taking place (not a liberalization, but a kind of reorientation as factions within the ruling elite compete for a dwindling pool of resources).” Whether such a reorientation of factions can be described as a liberalization, I will leave to the historians. <br /> <br />I was drawn to this sentence because I like the framework of competing factions to explain developments in Russian politics. Honestly said, I had hoped and still hope that this aspect of our conversation is to be the one to set you on a voyage of discovery, but it did not and so be it. <br /> <br />To be clear with these factions I do not mean the so called liberal and silovik towers in the Kremlin, but something I would refer to as stakeholders in the company called Russia; these can indeed be the various siloviye and economic ministries and state organs, but also big business, the SME lobby, the juridical corpus, civil society representatives, governors, political parties, middle class, pensioners etc.. With every new president the relations between the center and these various stakeholders acquire new meaning. These are therefore interesting times for us ‘russiawatchers’. <br /> <br />I mention this because even though ‘the power vertical’ is the right concept to explain major tendencies within Putin’s two presidencies, ‘the power vertical’ is a too limited concept to explain the full scope of developments taking place inside Russia. I may interpret you wrong, but for me the term suggests the image from a cold war movie with a soviet desk with some twenty telephones, from which orders are given to amongst others party representatives (in our times multiple parties), history teachers and pollsters. <br /> <br />Modern Russia’s society - I am convinced -is much too open and diverse for such control to be effective. This is most likely the crux of our conflicting opinions. Your professional affiliation with Russia originates in the Cold War, while I visited Russia for the first time in 2000. For you – it seems - modern Russia has (still) to prove it is different country from the Soviet Union. For me, you will have to prove that modern Russia is indeed as totalitarian as you suggest it is. As people who stand for freedom and pluralism of opinion, let us say our opinions should strive to be complementary. <br /> <br />Let us get concrete and talk about VTsIOM. The right approach to prove your alleged VTsIOM subordinance to the Power Vertical either trough Surkov’s office or the United Russia office is to point at differences in polling results between VTsIOM and other polling agencies. I still challenge you to find such examples. <br /><br />My complete reply can be found here: <br /><br /><br /><br />In case the url breaks, try this one:<br /><br /><br />Joera Mulders<br /><br />

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



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."



From RFE/RL's News Desk:


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:


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)


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


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


Some items from RFE/RL's News Desk:


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)


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)


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


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


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.


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


Some items from RFE/RL's News Desk:



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 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)


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