Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Power Vertical

The Kremlin Floats An Exit Strategy

A piece of the wreckage is seen at a crash site of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in the village of Petropavlivka in eastern Ukraine
A piece of the wreckage is seen at a crash site of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in the village of Petropavlivka in eastern Ukraine

Sometimes it's a good idea to pay attention to what Andrei Kolesnikov writes.

The "Kommersant" columnist is one of the Kremlin's anointed court scribes and is often described as President Vladimir Putin's favorite journalist.

Ben Judah, author of "Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell Out Of Love With Vladimir Putin," recently wrote that the Russian president "pays particular attention" to Kolesnikov's columns, which he enjoys "greatly and always reads right to the end." 

Kolesnikov regularly travels with Putin and is often a conduit for messages from the regime's inner sanctum to the broader elite. It was in an interview with Kolesnikov in the summer of 2010, on an epic road trip across the Russian Far East in a bright yellow Lada, that Putin strongly hinted that he intended to return to the presidency in 2012 and that pro-democracy protesters should be beaten. 

Both of these things, of course, happened.

So it didn't go unnoticed when Kolesnikov wrote on July 29 that Putin was prepared to wash his hands of the separatists in eastern Ukraine if they were indeed proven to be responsible for the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. 

"If at some point it becomes evident that the insurgents had some connection to this, that would radically change [Putin's] attitude toward them -- even if it was a fatal mistake," Kolesnikov wrote. "Children who died for nothing, as well as adults and elderly people, this is a red line he will not cross. He will not cover up for those who did this if he knows they did it. He will not have this sin on his soul."

Kolesnikov's argument should by no means be taken at face value. Who really believes that Putin is suddenly shocked that the separatists he has been sponsoring could have shot down a civilian airliner? And does anybody really believe civilian deaths are a red line he will never cross?

But Kolesnikov doesn't write anything by accident. And it's safe to assume he doesn't write anything that is not Kremlin-approved. So with his July 29 column, he is clearly either floating a trial balloon or delivering a message from Putin to the elite that a change of policy is imminent.

There are other signals that a change in the Kremlin line may be coming. In an interview with CNN on July 22, Russia's UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin suggested reports that the rebels in eastern Ukraine thought they had shot down a military aircraft around the same time that MH17 crashed suggested they weren't really culpable.

"According to them, the people from the east were saying that they shot down a military jet, so if it was [that they thought they] shot down a military jet, there was confusion," Churkin said. "If there was confusion, it was not an act of terrorism."

Kolesnikov's column has also provoked a bit of hand wringing in the nationalist press. "Common people who read 'King Lear' think that court jesters exist to tell the monarch the truth with a smile on their face," Yegor Kholmogorov wrote in "Vzglyad."  "The truth is that they are used to tell lies in the monarch's name. Andrei Kolesnikov is one such person who is close to Putin who set off a storm among journalists who are accustomed to seeing signals every time he sneezes."

It's too early to tell whether this was a trial balloon, a signal of a policy shift, or a court jester telling noble lies for the king.

But the column's timing, on the day when the European Union and the United States announced tough new sanctions against Russia's financial and energy sectors, was certainly interesting.

It also comes at a time when Russia's erstwhile defenders in Europe appear to be distancing themselves from the Putin regime -- putting additional pressure on the Kremlin.

In a cover story last week titled "Stop Putin Now!" the Hamburg-based weekly "Der Spiegel" reported that "52 percent of Germans said they would favor tougher sanctions, even if they would lead to the loss of many jobs in Germany." 

According to the article, Germany's business community, which has close ties to Russia, "has also gotten the message. Although the initial sanctions had few direct consequences for them, many business leaders had warned against sanctions -- drawing the ire of the chancellor and other politicians. Now they are changing their position."

In a July 22 article, Yevgenia Albats, editor of the opposition magazine "Novoye vremya," or "The New Times," issued an emotional call to the Russian elite to persuade Putin to change course in Ukraine or be left "without a country."  

"Never before in its post-Soviet history has Russia been in such a horrific position as it is now. All possibilities -- from a major war to a junta in the Kremlin -- are possible," Albats wrote, adding that Putin's "Chekist entourage...has led him not just into a dead end," but also "into a nightmare in which he will go down in history as someone who has the blood of innocent children on his hands."

Maybe somebody in high places actually heard her call.

-- Brian Whitmore 

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments page of 2
by: Anonymous
July 30, 2014 21:24
now I ask you
which is the Exit Strategy of ukraine and its ally US ?
No one
they think only to kill and gain ground much more they can

no logic of dialogue
no attempt at a political solution

Kiev speak only with the force of arms against civilians

For this reason, however gonna end up with Donbass
here who lost is whole Ukraine
and will no longer be possible to speak about an united country
In Response

by: caaps2 from: Toronto
July 31, 2014 13:32
The "exit" in "exit strategy" when used in reference to Russia is "exit from Ukraine". That is: exit from Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk. You are right, Ukrainians have no intention of exiting from their own country.
In Response

by: Anonymous
August 02, 2014 20:08
you are wrong my dear UkroCanadian
ukraine has many problems
and a very big one problem
a problem that now you don't see

but when will be ended the war against its own people of eastern side
it will be immediately afloat

Ukraine is a country completely divided,
the people of eastern side never will forget
of the bombing on civilians operated by Kiev

The biggest mistake that is done by those who don't knows ukraine
is to believe that all this wasn't predictable
they don't knows that all was waiting for happen by years

The same Crimea has always been unstable
and with big secessionist forces

I don't think that there is only one Ukrainian
that don't know this

by: Anonymous
July 30, 2014 22:08
just another story that would camouflage and put gaze over our eyes while there is children, elderly, and women dying and being bombarded each day across the world so that only few can get very rich from all this non sense called war
In Response

by: Panas
July 31, 2014 12:11
This not an exit strategy but a change in strategy. Putin has many tricks up his sleeve.

by: Alski from: Location
July 30, 2014 22:35
Written by a person who knows little about Russia.

by: saucymugwump from:
July 31, 2014 00:07
Whitmore quasi-quoted Kolesnikov: "Putin was prepared to wash his hands of the separatists in eastern Ukraine if they were indeed proven to be responsible for the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17."

We have already proven that a missile was responsible for the murders, but proving who actually pushed the button will be rather difficult unless they defect to the West and spill the beans. And why would they do that, given that they would probably be charged with war crimes? Should we set our DVRs to capture the digital era's version of Stalin's show trials where the defendants confessed because they had been tortured?

Putin had his chance. If he would have immediately sent his army in and secured the site, he could have claimed that he had nothing to do with it. Putin is looking for a way out, to return to the status quo. And our pampered leaders will probably allow him to do it because Putin has what all capitalists, especially American ones, covet: oil and gas.

by: Konstantin from: Los Angeles
July 31, 2014 02:38
Putin is not the Czar of Russia, even if he wanted to.
Russian Varag-Cossack brigants are plunder and kill.
Putin is "Ataman", limited if brigants express their will
To plunder, kill, expand - why rely on his mood to do?
Why obligate World to one man's will, live or be killed?

The interests of Russia, its legitimate part, is free trade
With Ukraine and all other nations, mutually beneficially,
Not intrigue, invasion, genocide, blackmail, or blockades
That Russia does - from East Europe busting perpetually
Through corrupting all Globe - addicting gas, inciting riots.

Only legitimate, or at least understandable interest Russia
has - negotiate free and mutually beneficial trade, projects
Some global Security, as equals, with independent Ukraine
And other countries around Russian borders, including new
EU members, starting with return of land, property and rest.
In Response

by: Anonymous
August 02, 2014 20:13
Ataman is cosak not russian
In Response

by: Konstantin from: Los Angeles
August 03, 2014 21:27
It is Varag too, and all-Russian tyranny obsession with
"Brigant" mentality of "Sten'ka Razin".

by: sandy miller from: usa
July 31, 2014 03:35
Come on media stop this war now. Why allow anymore blood on your hands with propaganda? Tell Putin to let Ukraine go. Stop supporting the seperatists. Let Ukraine go their own way and try to rebuild themselves. Ukraine is no threat to Russia and neither is the USA. No one wants WW3.
In Response

by: Anonymous
August 02, 2014 20:15
you don't know ukraine

ukraine is divided country

divided into russians and ukrainians

ukrainians hate russians
In Response

by: Konstantin! from: Los Angeles
August 05, 2014 00:24
Ukrainians hate nobody, but Russians call "hate" any dignity
of non-Russians - any resistance is killed.
Your pact of 1954-56 try divide Ukraine with Germans-Austrians!
Ask intermarried in Ukraine,
unless one of them is a "Stervyatnik"-Nazi.
Ukraine must be one of the best and stable country in Center of Europe, with mutually beneficial trade an projects West and East, including Russia.
You use old known paradox:
"Stervyatnik's" spies pose as haters of Russia.
"Plantagenot's" and Hitler's spies pose as haters of the West.
Stealing hat screams – “Lovite vora!”

by: Neil Omalley from: Austin Texas
July 31, 2014 05:55
Thanks for this insightful glance into one of the important cogs in the kremlin machine. This is one of the more "stand-out" articles I have read over the recent developments in eastern Ukraine and will certainly eye on this character. Kudos, Brian.

by: michael walters from: canada
July 31, 2014 16:28
80 children and babies bodies are still out there....thanks to Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin
In Response

by: Bill
August 01, 2014 06:49
More like thanks to Western governments that support a divisive regime in Kiev, whose armed activity created the circumstances for a civilian airliner shoot down - something not yet fully established.
In Response

by: Tom H
August 02, 2014 03:05
The Western governments weren't ones to send in trained and armed militia into a foreign country to start a war. That was Putin
In Response

by: Ukrainian from the USA from: Ukrainian from USA
August 27, 2014 06:51
The whole situation is the result of undeclared Cold War 2 on Russia that was started in 1990. Hence West has to share the burden of blame too. I blame Putin and government in Kiev. Yet real criminal liability lies with those who allowed that plane to fly over war zone.

by: moderateGuy from: Henderson, NV, US
July 31, 2014 17:56
"If at some point it becomes evident that the insurgents had some connection to this [downing of MH17]...[Putin would wash his hands of the terrorists]" - he meant 'if at some point the evidence of who did this cannot be hidden and obfuscated any longer', right?
I thought so.
In Response

by: Anonymous
August 02, 2014 20:22
we are still waiting for the evidence of your U.S. Government

we are still waiting for the recordings
between Ukrainians air traffic controllers and pilots of 777

this after two weeks

and you still have the nerve to accuse without evidence

by: bob from: europe somewhere
July 31, 2014 18:58
All anyone needs to know about russia can be summed up by :

Holodomor 1932, Attack on winter war Finland 1939, treaty with Hitler to devour Poland 1939, budapest 1956, prague 1968 , KAL 007 airline shoot down 1980's . Case closed .
In Response

by: doublebo6 from: uzhorod
August 01, 2014 01:16
not quite. youre forgetting;
ignoring Kursk, killing russian citizens in theatre seige, bombing of moscow but blamed on chechens, litvinenko......100 maidan protesters...
In Response

by: John from: Nevada
August 04, 2014 23:14
.......and forgetting Beslan.....apartment bombings also blamed on Chechens.
Comments page of 2

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

19:16 November 21, 2014


On this week's Power Vertical Podcast, we use the one-year anniversary of the Euromaidan uprising to look at how it changed both Ukraine and Russia. My guests are Sean Guillory and Alexander Motyl.

09:14 November 21, 2014
09:11 November 21, 2014


09:09 November 21, 2014


From RFE/RL's News Desk:

Ukrainians are marking a new national holiday on November 21 -- the anniversary of the start of Kyiv’s Euromaidan protests that led to the ouster of the country’s former pro-Kremlin regime.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko signed decree on November 13 that declared the holiday for annual “Day of Dignity and Freedom” celebrations.
The protests began with a few hundred people who met spontaneously on a vast square in central Kyiv of November 21, 2013 – disappointed by then-President Viktor Yanukovych’s rejection of a landmark deal with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Russia.
After that first night, as the protests quickly swelled to tens of thousands of demonstrators, brutal police efforts to disperse the crowds with batons and teargas backfired.
As the crowds got bigger, the protesters began to call for Yanukovych’s ouster – which came in February 2014 after more than 100 people were killed in clashes with police that failed to end the demonstrations.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden was expected to announce an increase in nonlethal U.S. military assistance to Ukraine on November 21 as he meets in Kyiv with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk.
The talks come on the first anniversary of the start of the Euromaidan protests in Kyiv that toppled Ukraine's former pro-Kremlin regime.
As Biden arrived in Kyiv on the evening of November 20, U.S. officials told reporters that he will announce the delivery of Humvee transport vehicles that are now in the Pentagon’s inventory of excess supplies.
They said Biden also would announce the delivery of previously promised radar units that can detect the location of enemy mortars.
The U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, did not specify a dollar value for the assistance. 
Russia on November 20 warned the United States not to supply weapons to Ukrainian forces.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Lukashevich cautioned against "a major change in policy of the (U.S.) administration in regard to the conflict" in Ukraine. 
He was commenting on remarks by U.S. President Barack Obama's choice to fill the number two spot at the State Department, Anthony Blinken, who told a congressional hearing on November 19 that lethal assistance "remains on the table. It's something that we're looking at."
The U.S. State Department's Director of Press Relations Jeffrey Rathke on November 20 told reporters that "our position on lethal aid hasn't changed. Nothing is off the table and we continue to believe there's no military solution."
He added, "But, in light of Russia's actions as the nominee mentioned [on November 19] in his testimony, as he indicated, this is something that we should be looking at."
The aid expected to be announced by Biden on November 20 falls short of what the Ukrainian president requested during a visit to Washington in September when he appealed for lethal aid - a request echoed by some U.S. lawmakers in response to what NATO allies say is Russia's movement of tanks and troops into eastern Ukraine.
In September, Washington promised Ukraine $53 million in aid for military gear that includes the mortar detection units, body armor, binoculars, small boats, and other nonlethal equipment for Ukrainian security forces and border guards in the east.
The United States and its European allies have imposed several rounds of economic sanctions on Russia for its seizure of Crimea and incursion into eastern Ukraine.
(With reporting by Reuters, AP, AFP, dpa, and TASS)

Russian Olympian hockey player Slava Voynov – who plays with the Los Angeles Kings NHL hockey team – has been charged with felony domestic violence against his wife.
Voynov faces one felony count of spouse abuse with a maximum penalty of nine years in prison. If convicted, he also could be deported.
Prosecutors say Voynov “caused his wife to suffer injuries to her eyebrow, check, and neck” during an argument at their home in October.
Voynov has been suspended from the NHL since his arrest early on October 20 at a California hospital where he took his wife for treatment.
Voynov’s attorney, Craig Renetzky, says his client didn’t hit his wife.
Renetzky blames the charges on a misunderstanding between police and Voynov’s wife, who speaks very little English.
Voynov – who played on Russia’s team at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics -- faces arraignment on December 1.
(Based on reporting by AP and Reuters)

NATO says Russia's growing military presence in the skies above the Baltic region is unjustified and poses a risk to civil aviation.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in Tallinn on November 20 that the aircraft regularly fail to file flight plans or communicate with air controllers and also fly with their transponders off.
Speaking at the Amari air base, he said alliance fighters have intercepted planes more than 100 times in the Baltic region alone so far this year, a threefold increase over 2013. 
He did not say how many of the intercepted aircraft were Russian.
Stoltenberg also said that, overall, NATO aircraft have conducted 400 intercepts to protect the airspace of its European alliance members in 2014 -- an increase of 50 percent over last year.
(Based on reporting by AP and AFP)


16:55 November 19, 2014


Konstantin Eggert has a commentary in "Kommersant" on Russia's anti-Americanism. He opens like this:

"Sometimes I have this feeling that there are only two countries in the world - Russia and the United States. Of course, there is Ukraine, but it either to join us or the Americas. Russian politicians and state television are constantly in search of the 'American hand' in all spheres of our life. In Soviet times, the United States was formally considered to be our number one military and ideological enemy. But even then it didn't occupy such a large space in the minds of the political leadership and citizens. And the paradox is that, on one hand, officials and the media regularly talk about the decline of America as a great power, and on the other declare it to be the source of all evil in the world. This contradiction does not seem to disturb anybody."

And closes like this:

We still have not been able to use the opportunity that we were given with the collapse of the communist regime - to arrange our lives based on liberty and civic virtue. And today, we, as a people, want to go back to the starting point, to beat everyone. And the Soviet Union, with its absence of sausage and freedom, again suddenly seems sweet and dear. But it won't happen. I will put it banally: you can't go into the same river twice.

Read the whole thing here (in Russian, with audio)

15:53 November 19, 2014


MIchael Weiss, editor-in-chief of The Interpreter magazine, appearing on Hromadske TV to talk about Russia's information war.

Michael and Peter Pomarantsev recently co-authored an excellent report "The Menace of Unreality: How the Kremlin Weaponizes Information, Culture, and Money." Both also appeared recently on The Power Vertical Podcast to discuss the report.

15:42 November 19, 2014


Oleg Kosyrev has a snarky and clever blog post on the subject up on the Ekho Moskvy website. 

1) The United States is the ideal opponent. "It is big and strong and your self-esteem increases when you fight somebody really influential."

2) The United States is not fighting with Russia. "They aren't really interested. They have enough of their own problems and dreams. It's nice to fight somebody who is not fighting you."

3) It is a substitute for the authorities' inability to benefit Russians. "How convenient. Who is to blame for rising food and gas prices? The U.S.A.. Who is to blame for the fact that Russian has political prisoners? The U.S.A. Who is to blame for people demonstrating on the streets? The U.S.A. Who is to blame for the fact that independent international courts denounce the Russian court system? The U.S.A. You can even blame the U.S. for the fact that the light doesn't work in the entrance to your apartment building."

Read it all (in Russian) here.

15:23 November 19, 2014


14:47 November 19, 2014


From RFE/RL's News Desk:


Ukraine says it will not tolerate pressure from any other country over whether or not it seeks to join NATO.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Yevhen Perebyynis spoke made the remark to reporters in Kyiv on November 19, after the BBC quoted Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying in an interview that Moscow wants "a 100 percent guarantee that no-one would think about Ukraine joining NATO."

Hitting back with a reference to Russia's annexation of Crimea and support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, Perebyynis said Kyiv would like guarantees that Moscow will not interfere in Ukraine's internal affairs, send in troops, or annex Ukrainian territories. 

The U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, told journalists on November 19 that any decision on seeking to join NATO could be made only by the Ukrainian people, not by Russia, Europe, ar the United States.

The Canadian Ambassador to Ukraine, Roman Waschuk, made a similar statement on November 19.

(Based on reporting by UNIAN and Interfax)


President Vladimir Putin says that Russia is ready for cooperation with the United States as long as Washington treats Moscow as an equal, respect its interests, and refrains from interfering in its affairs.

Putin spoke November 19 at a Kremlin ceremony during which he received the credentials of foreign envoys including John Tefft, the new U.S. Ambassador to Moscow.

Putin said, "We are ready for practical cooperation with our American partners in various fields, based on the principles of respect for each other's interests, equal rights and non-interference in internal matters." 

The remark echoed a formula Putin set out in a foreign policy decree at the start of his third term in 2012.

Tefft, 64, is a career diplomat who previously served as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Georgia and Lithuania. 

His posting starts at a time when ties are badly strained over the Ukraine crisis. 

Tefft replaces Michael McFaul, who was ambassador from January 2012 until February 2014. 

(Based on reporting by Reuters and TASS)



Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has signaled that a landmark nuclear arms treaty with the United States is not in jeopardy despite severe tension over Ukraine.

Speaking to Russian lawmakers on November 19, Lavrov said the 2010 New START treaty "meets our basic strategic interests and, on condition of its observance by the United States, we are interested in its full implementation."

The treaty, one of the main products of President Barack Obama's first-term "reset" of ties with Russia, requires Russia and the United States to have their long-range nuclear arsenals under specific ceilings by 2018.

But Lavrov said the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty, which President Vladimir Putin suspended in 2007, is "dead" for Moscow. 

NATO has refused to ratify a revised version of the CFE treaty without a full withdrawal of Russian troops from Moldova and Georgia.

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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