Thursday, October 02, 2014

The Power Vertical

Podcast: Putin's Choice

What will he do? And what are the consequences?
What will he do? And what are the consequences?

After months of fierce fighting, frantic diplomacy, and bitter acrimony, Russia's nonlinear proxy war in eastern Ukraine crisis appears to be careening toward an endgame. And Vladimir Putin appears to be losing the initiative and running out of options.

Throughout Putin's 15 years in power, he has seemed to have an almost supernatural ability to, one way or the other, consistently come out on top. Has his luck finally run out? Or can he pull yet another rabbit out of the hat?

In the latest "Power Vertical Podcast," we discuss Putin's options and their consequences as the Ukraine crisis moves into a decisive juncture.

Joining me are Andreas Umland, a longtime Kremlin watcher, an expert on Russian nationalism, and a professor at Kyiv Mohyla Academy, and Peter Pomerantsev, author of the forthcoming book "Nothing Is True And Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia."


Power Vertical Podcast -- August 15, 2014
Power Vertical Podcast -- August 15, 2014i
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Listen to or download the podcast above or subscribe to "The Power Vertical Podcast" on iTunes.

Tags: Vladimir Putin,Power Vertical podcast,Ukraine Crisis

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Comment Sorting
by: American Tolerast
August 15, 2014 16:08
Old Russian saying: Great Russian leader pull rabbit easier out of hat if hat lubricated with sufficient quantity of blood.
In Response

by: George
August 16, 2014 13:39
Industry and infrastructure of Eastern Ukraine is utterly destroyed. It will take excessive resources to rebuild it and it will take years to accomplish. Who wants that burden, Putin?
In Response

by: RecallCarlLevin from: USA
August 17, 2014 00:51
Novorossiyan Armed Forces are winning.
In Response

by: guest
August 18, 2014 10:34
There is no such saying, or you have to spell it in Russian

by: peter from: ottawa
August 16, 2014 13:54
The noose is tightening around Putin's throat. Can you feel the tension?

by: Eugenio from: Vienna
August 16, 2014 15:38
May I remind you, guys, that it is 4 months already since the fascist Kiew junta started its punitive operation against the people of Donbass (April 15th 2014). And did it achieve its aims? Of course, not: Donetsk and Lugansk are just as much outside of control of the junta as they were four months ago. The junta forces have repeatedly failed to gain control over a lengthy section of the border with Russia - the section which is being used to transfer fighters and armaments from Russia to the self-defense forces of Donbass.
And most importantly: the coming Winter is only 2 moths away now. And this is going to be a cold one for Ukraine, which promises new internal unrest and further dsisintegration of this failed "state".

by: David Johnson from: Chincoteague
August 16, 2014 16:34
Could RFE/RL on occasion seek out people who don't already agree with you? That effort at a bit of recognition of the complexities of issues might be helpful to understanding.
In Response

by: Brian Whitmore from: Prague
August 19, 2014 11:50
David, the criteria for selecting guests on this podcast are their level of expertise about Russia and their ability to articulate that expertise on air. Any thoughtful analyst of Russia, or of any other country for that matter, is going to look on it (hopefully) with a critical eye. To suggest we select guests because they agree with us is to completely -- and spectacularly -- miss the point of this program. We're trying to understand and explain the politics of a complicated and rapidly changing country. I'm not interested in having professional Kremlin apologists and professional Russia-bashers engaging in a Crossfire-like spectacle.

by: Ray Finch from: Lawrence, KS
August 16, 2014 16:59
Enjoyed the podcast; very interesting guests. I wonder, however, whether the RFE crew may be suffering from its own propaganda-induced mania. Objectively, I see little evidence that Putin is “losing the initiative and running out of options.” Indeed, one could argue that he has never been more powerful.

What is the true face of modern Russia? The folks managing the Kremlin script may have realized that it is not reflected in the urban, creative class in Moscow or St. Petersburg, but rather in the brutish and hungover visage found in the provinces. The latter really do find comfort in the all-powerful tsar, ornate orthodoxy, military conquest, and flag-waving enthusiasm. They love Putin for these qualities.

Finally, to suggest that the Kremlin is running out of options when it comes to SE Ukraine and the Novorossiya project might be specious or shortsighted. Winter is not too far on the horizon and Ukraine remains a near-empty basket case. The West/US remains distracted, and believe it or not, has rarely demonstrated genuine altruism. History is long and I suspect that the Kremlin leadership still has other cards up its sleeve to prevent Ukraine from wandering too far west.
In Response

by: Brian Whitmore from: Prague
August 19, 2014 11:52
Thanks Ray, I believe Peter, Andreas, and I addressed each of these issues you raised in the podcast.

by: James Stanhope from: Atlanta, GA, USA
August 16, 2014 18:33
Interesting podcast. But the commenters at Power Vertical keep talking about Putin as though he were a Western democratic politician. He's not. He's a KGB operative-turned-Russian-autocrat who is not accountable to the Russian public. If Russian hardliners become troublesome, he can simply lock them up. Putin is not yet vulnerable.
In Response

by: Brian Whitmore from: Prague
August 19, 2014 11:54
I don't think anybody on the Power Vertical Podcast ever mistook Vladimir Putin for a "Western democratic politician." You must be confusing us with another podcast.
In Response

by: Mamuka
August 26, 2014 10:49
I think I see Mr Stanhope's point: while none of the panelists would consider Putin to be a western politician, sometimes your analysis seems to think he will REACT or MAKE DECISIONS as if he were a western politician, ie, responsive to voters opinions and world influence. While Putin has shown he is not completely immune from such forces, they are far from his primary concern. As a result, too often we get optimistic predictions of Vova retreating, which leaves me in the unfortunate situation of having to agree with Eugenio and Jack from Gde-Nibud that Vlad Vladych is not going away anytime soon.

by: David Johnson from: Chincoteague Virginia
August 17, 2014 19:19
You did not display my earlier comment drawing attention to the lack of balance in rferl material. Why?
In Response

by: Andy
August 18, 2014 06:40
Hi David,
Apologies for the delay. Our moderation was left unattended for much of the weekend, so your and other comments were left in limbo.
In Response

by: Bill
August 26, 2014 11:38
Your "moderation" appears censored. Hence, limited exchanges that are akin to the crony establishment culture out there that seeks to determine what are valid contrasting views.
In Response

by: Bill
August 26, 2014 11:44
BTW, how hypocritical for some to moan about not having their view heard.

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Good morning. Here are a few items from RFE/RL's News Desk:


German Chancellor Angela Merkel says Russia has a duty to exert influence on pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Merkel made the remark during a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on October 1.

According to a German government spokesman, the two leaders expressed concerned that violence was still being used in Ukraine every day.

Merkel said the border between Ukraine and Russia needed to be monitored and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation had a big role to play in that. 

She said Germany would continue to support the OSCE mission in Ukraine, adding it could play an important role in planned local elections in the regions around Donetsk and Luhansk. 

Earlier, NATO's new Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the cease-fire in Ukraine offers an opportunity but Russia still has the power to destabilize the country.

(Based on reporting by TASS and Reuters)


Russia's child-protection ombudsman has linked Moscow's decision to suspend participation in the Future Leaders Exchange Program (FLEX)  to a gay American couple that established guardianship over a Russian high school student who was in the United States for the program.

Pavel Astakhov said on Twitter ( on October 1 that Washington had violated its obligation to return Russian students to their country when  "a Russian teen stayed behind in the United States."

Astakohov said a homosexual couple established illegal "guardianship" over the boy.

But the U.S. administrator of the program says the events described by Astakhov occurred after the child had completed the exchange program and that the student's host family was not a same-sex couple as Russian officials have implied.

U.S. Ambassador John Tefft expressed regret over Russia's decision to withdraw from next year's FLEX program.

(With reporting by TASS and Interfax)


NATO's new Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has said that the cease-fire in Ukraine "offers an opportunity" but says Russia still has the power to destabilize the country. 

Stoltenberg, speaking on October 1 in Brussels at his first news conference as NATO leader, said Russia must comply with international law and demonstrate it is respecting its international obligations.

He said: "We see violations of the cease-fire" in Ukraine.

But the new NATO chief said he saw no contradiction between aspiring for a constructive relationship with Russia and being in favor of a strong NATO.

Stoltenberg, a former two-term Norwegian Prime Minister, is NATO's 13th secretary-general in the trans-Atlantic organization's 65-year existence.

He replaced Danish former Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen. 

(With additional reporting by Reuters and AP)


Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said after meeting in Moscow with North Korea’s Foreign Minister Ri Su Yong on October 1 that he sees a possibility for six-party talks to resume on Pyongyang’s nuclear program.

But Lavrov said the resumption of the talks "will take a certain amount of time – not immediately."

He said the main conditions are "to achieve from all sides a calm, balanced approach" and to avoid "any abrupt steps that would only polarize positions."

North Korea, South Korea, Japan, China, Russia, and the United States began talks in 2003 with the aim of ridding the Korean peninsula of nuclear weapons.

But Pyongyang withdrew in 2009 and indicated it would not abide by a 2005 pledge to abandon its nuclear programs.

Ri, who is on a 10-day visit to Russia, said a "long tradition of relations" between Moscow and Pyongyang is "bonded with blood."

(Based on reporting by TASS and Interfax)

And this, via Reuters:


By Michael Kahn and Jan Lopatka

PRAGUE, Oct 1 (Reuters) - The cat and mouse game between Europe and Russia on gas intensified on Wednesday with Slovakia saying its supply from Russia was down by a half and its prime minister calling the move part of a political fight.

Since September, Russia's state-controlled Gazprom has sent less-than-requested deliveries to Poland, Slovakia, Austria and Hungary - after the European Union began sending gas to Ukraine - in a clear warning from Moscow ahead of the winter heating season which officially starts today, when the industry switches to higher pricing.

The 50 percent cut reported by Slovakia, a major transit point for Russian gas exports to Europe, was by far the deepest yet, and Prime Minister Robert Fico said he would call a crisis meeting of his government if the problems persisted.

Fico, who normally has warm relations with Russia and has criticised EU sanctions against it, said he saw political factors behind the cuts.

"The Russian side talks about technical problems, about the necessity of filling up storage for the winter season," Fico said. "I have used this expression and I will use it again: gas has become a tool in a political fight."

There was no immediate comment from Russian gas exporter Gazprom

Slovakia's western neighbour the Czech Republic became the latest former Soviet-bloc nation to experience reductions. RWE Czech Republic, its main gas importer, said it saw unspecified reductions on several days over the past week, although the flow seemed normal on Wednesday.

It was unlikely there will be any impact for now on consumers of gas in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, or the countries further West that receive it via there, because gas storage reservoirs throughout Europe are close to full.

As well as shipping Russian gas west, Slovakia also sends it east into Ukraine. That has irked Russia, which switched off gas deliveries to Ukraine to persuade Kiev to pay its arrears.

"Nobody should be surprised by what Russia does. They want to keep pressure on Ukraine... at the start of the heating season," said Michael LaBelle, a gas expert at the Central European University in Budapest.

Central European spot gas markets rose to over 25 euros ($31.52) per megawatt-hours (MWh), their highest levels since the Ukraine crisis broke out in February/March.

Russia is Europe's biggest supplier of natural gas, meeting almost a third of annual demand and in return, Gazprom receives around $80 billion in annual revenues from its European customers, making up the majority of its income.

Moscow halted gas flows to Ukraine three times in the past decade, in 2006, 2009 and since June this year, although this year gas for the EU via Ukraine has so far continued to flow.

Opening up gas flows eastward was part of the EU's response to Gazprom's decision to cut supplies to Kiev in June. Slovakia, Poland and Hungary can also send gas to Ukraine but so far deliveries have not been without incident.

Poland temporarily stopped deliveries to Ukraine last month after Warsaw said it was getting less gas from Russia than requested. Hungary stopped eastward supplies last week in order to fill its own storage tanks ahead of winter.

Slovakia, with the largest EU capacity to Ukraine, had maintained deliveries.

Analysts agree the moves are a warning to Europe that Russia is ready to retaliate should Brussels impose further sanctions on Moscow over its intervention in Ukraine.

"It (the Russian export reductions) could actually be in the end quite harmless. But the fact that they did not tell anyone in advance, (shows) that nobody should trust any explanation he or she gets, and that in itself is damning," Czech energy security ambassador Vaclav Bartuska told Reuters this week.

He added it would be foolish to expect gas to flow as usual through Ukraine this winter.


Traders have, however, pointed out that Russia's recent reductions to Europe, at least before the latest cuts to Slovakia, were within contractual allowances and came during times that EU gas storage tanks are well filled.

Gas Infrastructure Europe data show that the EU's gas storage sites are filled to an average of over 90 percent, compared to just 68 percent this time last year.

"Most of the EU has its gas tanks filled to the rims, so they don't need more gas at the moment, while Gazprom needs to still fill its domestic reserves ahead of the Russian winter, so I'm not surprised by its flow reductions to the EU, which were all within contractual allowances," one EU utility trader said.

While gas deliveries to Germany, Gazprom's biggest customer, should continue through the Nord Stream pipeline which bypasses Ukraine, the outlook is far less certain for central and southeastern European nations which receive most or all of their imports from Russia and via Ukraine.

To deal with a potential shortfall this winter, the European Union has prepared emergency plans and has also sought a compromise to safeguard winter supplies in a potential deal that would guarantee Kiev at least 5 billion cubic metres of Russian gas for the next six months if Ukraine made pre-payments.

The Russian energy ministry said on Wednesday that there would be not further gas talks with Ukraine and the European Commission this week. (1 US dollar = 0.7933 euro) (Additional reporting by Vera Eckert in Berlin; Writing by Henning Gloystein and Christian Lowe; Editing by William Hardy)



The always insightful -- and often provocative -- Alexander Motyl has a piece up at Huffington Post suggesting the Western and Russian positions on Ukraine are irreconcilable.

"Should the West therefore try to understand Russian perceptions even if it knows that they are completely wrong? Obviously, understanding Russian delusions can help the West and Ukraine craft a better response to Putin's expansionism. But it makes little sense to say that the West and Ukraine should try to accommodate these delusions in their search for peace in eastern Ukraine and the Crimea.

Should the democratic world have accommodated Hitler's perceptions of Jews? Or of Germany's need for Lebensraum? Or of the innate superiority of the Aryan race? The questions are rhetorical, but they are exactly the ones we should be asking about Russian perceptions.

The implications for policy are clear. Finding a compromise under such conditions may be impossible. And agreeing to disagree may be the best one can possibly achieve. Russia currently controls the Crimea and one third of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine. Let it continue to do so. The West has imposed sanctions on the Russian economy and supports Ukraine. Let it also continue to do so. Finally, Ukraine has adopted a defensive position and appears intent on preventing further Russian incursions into its territory. It, too, should continue to do so.

There is no practical solution to the Russo-Ukrainian war. The most one can hope for is to "freeze" it and thereby transform hot war into cold war between Russia and Ukraine and between Russia and the West. That cold war will continue as long as Putin remains in power and continues to promote his delusional views of the world." 

Read the whole piece here.

Semyon Guzman, a prominent Ukrainian psychiatrist, says Vladimir Putin hasn't gone crazy -- he's just evil.

"Many really consider that he suffers from definite psychological illnesses,” Guzman wrote in a September 30 article (a big h/t to thei ndispensable Paul Goble for flagging this).  

"This is only a convenient explanation in the existing situation. Unfortunately, it is not correct.”

Putin's character traits, "ike those of a murderer, thief or other good for nothing, are not psychiatric phenomena but rather objects of the subjects of moral philosophy.” Guzman wrote. He added that Putin was "absolutely responsible" for his actions.

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