Friday, November 21, 2014


The Power Vertical

Siloviki TV

Russian opposition leader Sergei Udaltsov (right) gestures as he is escorted from his apartment after being detained in Moscow on October 17.
Russian opposition leader Sergei Udaltsov (right) gestures as he is escorted from his apartment after being detained in Moscow on October 17.
If you happen to find yourself featured in an NTV documentary, then you'd best watch your back.

On October 5, the state-controlled television station broadcast the second installment of its "Anatomy of a Protest" series, in which it accused Left Front leader Sergei Udaltsov of plotting with senior Georgian officials to stage a coup in Russia.

Five days later, on October 10, Federation Council speaker Valentina Matviyenko instructed the upper chamber of parliament's Defense and Security Committee to investigate the allegations.

And on the morning of October 17, agents from the Investigative Committee -- which has gleefully taken on the role of Russia's "politics police" -- raided the apartments of Udaltsov and two associates, took them in for questioning, and announced they had opened a criminal case based on the NTV documentary.

If you end up being the subject of discussion on an NTV talk show, trouble could be on the way.

On October 13, the host and guests on the program "Metla" spent a good portion of their time smearing the upcoming primary elections to the opposition's Coordinating Council. Among the allegations were that opposition leaders like anticorruption blogger Aleksei Navalny intended to falsify the online vote, scheduled for October 20-21. The program also suggested that organizers had committed financial improprieties involving candidate-registration fees.

Four days later, prosecutors announced that they were launching a criminal investigation into potential fraud and embezzlement by the organizers of the primaries.

NTV, which is owned by the state-run natural-gas monopoly Gazprom, appears to have become the stalking horse of Russia's security services.

It has long been derisively dubbed "Mentovskoye televideniye," or Cop TV, due to its tendency to air police shows and true-crime dramas. But it is increasingly looking more like Siloviki TV, the place where opposition leaders are smeared with material "leaked" by the security services in slickly produced programs -- complete with dramatic lighting and ominous background music.

The effort has two obvious goals: to discredit key opposition figures in the eyes of the public and to lay the groundwork for potential prosecutions.

And the two most recent targets -- Udaltsov and the primaries for the Coordinating Council -- are particularly telling about what threats the authorities see on the horizon.

A protester holds a banner calling for a boycott of NTV at a rally in support of jailed opposition activists and civil society members in Moscow in March.A protester holds a banner calling for a boycott of NTV at a rally in support of jailed opposition activists and civil society members in Moscow in March.
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A protester holds a banner calling for a boycott of NTV at a rally in support of jailed opposition activists and civil society members in Moscow in March.
A protester holds a banner calling for a boycott of NTV at a rally in support of jailed opposition activists and civil society members in Moscow in March.
Udaltsov is a threat because as the authorities implement what promise to be painful reforms of the social-welfare sector, he will increasingly become a key -- if not the key -- player in the protest movement.

"He is an atypical leftwing politician who could potentially put together competition for the Communists and create a leftist opposition," Igor Bunin of the Center for Political Technologies told "Nezavisimaya gazeta."

"We are now approaching a period of strong social protest that is inevitable in light of the impending crisis and the reforms that the regime is being forced to implement."

And if the opposition manages to elect a Coordinating Council with real democratic legitimacy -- admittedly a big "if" given the splits in its ranks -- it could become, at least in moral terms, a shadow parliament that represents what I have come to call "The Other Russia."

"The key to [President Vladimir] Putin's black PR campaign is to portray the opposition as radicals, anarchists, or ultranationalists who lack both a cogent political program and leadership experience," opposition figure Vladimir Ryzhkov wrote in a recent op-ed in "The Moscow Times."

"They are portrayed by the Kremlin's propaganda machine as self-serving puppets of Western powers who hang out by foreign embassies in Moscow begging for financial support. The other message Putin is trying to send is that opposition leaders based in Moscow are out of touch with the common people in the regions and don't understand their problems and needs."

But the smears could also backfire and lead to greater solidarity among the opposition's ideologically diverse ranks.

Soon after the smear against Udaltsov was launched, much of the opposition -- from social democrats like Gennady Gudkov to rightists like Navalny to socialite-turned-activist Ksenia Sobchak -- rushed to offer moral support.

"The little nips at the opposition by the regime are consolidating this community and this entire subculture because they feel they are in a besieged fortress and they're sticking by one another. They are forgetting about their political differences," Bunin told "Nezavisimaya gazeta."

-- Brian Whitmore

Tags: ntv,Sergei Udaltsov

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09:11

AND AS TENSIONS RISE IN THE BALTICS...

09:09

MORNING NEWS ROUNDUP

From RFE/RL's News Desk:

UKRAINE MARKS START OF EUROMAIDAN PROTESTS WITH NEW HOLIDAY
By RFE/RL
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.

BIDEN TO MEET UKRAINIAN LEADERS, ANNOUNCE NONLETHAL U.S. AID
By RFE/RL
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 CHARGED WITH SPOUSAL ABUSE IN UNITED STATES
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: RUSSIAN ACTIVITY IN BALTICS POSES RISK
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

MORE ON THE SOURCES OF RUSSIAN ANTI-AMERICANISM

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

UNDERSTANDING THE INFORMATION WAR

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

WHY IS PUTIN PICKING A FIGHT WITH THE U.S.?

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

UKRAINE SAYS MHI7 SHOT DOWN BY RUSSIAN CREW

14:47 November 19, 2014

AFTERNOON NEWS ROUNDUP: THE SEQUEL

From RFE/RL's News Desk:

KYIV, WEST SAY RUSSIA CANNOT BAR UKRAINE FROM NATO

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)

PUTIN TELLS U.S. ENVOY TIES MUST BE BASED ON EQUALITY

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)

RUSSIA SAYS 2010 NUCLEAR ARMS PACT STILL IN RUSSIA'S INTERESTS

By RFE/RL

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.

12:45 November 19, 2014

AFTERNOON NEWS ROUNDUP

From RFE/RL's News Desk:

RUSSIA BLAMES WEST FOR UKRAINE CRISIS

By RFE/RL

Russia has lashed out at the United States and European Union over Ukraine, saying the conflict there is the product of what Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called 25 years of selfish Western expansionism.

Addressing Russia's lower parliament house on November 19, Lavrov said the West "must support the process of mutually acceptable agreements instead of supporting the party of war in Kyiv, closing its eyes on outrageous human rights violations, lawlessness, and war crimes." 

Lavrov repeated Moscow's denials of involvement in an armed conflict between government forces and pro-Russian separatists that has killed more than 4,100 combatants and civilians since April.

He said the conflict is an internal issue for Ukraine and "all attempts to turn Russia into a party to the conflict are counterproductive and have no chance of success."

His address to the State Duma, which was broadcast live on state television, appeared aimed to assure Russians that the Kremlin is in the right and fend off growing Western accusations of direct Russian military support for the separatists, who hold large parts of Ukraine's Donetsk and Luhansk provinces.

"The Ukraine crisis is a consequence of the policy Western states have pursued for a quarter-century of strengthening their own security at the expense of the security of others and broadening the geopolitical space under their control."

It came a day after President Vladimir Putin, who has used anti-Western words and actions to strengthen his grip on the country, said that the United States wants to "subordinate" Russia to itself and "solve its problems at our expense." 

Lavrov tempered the anti-Western message by saying that there is no alternative to cooperation between Russia and the European Union, long its biggest trade partner.
 
But he blamed the EU for the strains and said Russia's relations with the West must be based on the assumption of equality, echoing a demand Putin set out in a foreign policy decree at the start of his third term in 2012.

"Russia's constructive course toward integration is running up against the desire of the United States and its allies to divide and rule, to push their tactical plans."

Russia banned a broad range of food imports from the EU and the United States in August in retaliation for sanctions they imposed on Russia over the Ukraine crisis.

The conflict in eastern Ukraine has raised fears among Russia's neighbors that it could seek control of more territory, and has brought Moscow's relations with the West to post-Cold War lows.

Ties had already been badly damaged by Russia's annexation of Crimea in March, which followed the flight of a Russian-backed president from Ukraine after months of protests over his November decision to spurn a political and economic pact with the European Union and turn toward Moscow instead.

Kyiv and the West accuse Russia of sending weapons and troops into eastern Ukraine to aid the separatists, who consolidated their hold on parts of eastern Ukraine's industrial Donbas region with November 2 elections denounced by Ukraine, the United States, and the EU as illegal.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said on November 18 that there had been a "serious military buildup" both in eastern Ukraine and on the Russian side of the border, and urged Moscow to pull back its forces.

Kyiv and Western governments are concerned that Putin may want pro-Russian separatists to seize more ground in Ukraine or solidify control over the territory they hold, creating a "frozen conflict" that could destabilize the country, drain its economy, and crimp its pro-Western government for years.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who met with both Putin and Lavrov in Moscow on November 18 after talks in Kyiv, said during his visit that he saw "no grounds for optimism in the current situation."

Steinmeier warned of a "dangerous situation developing" in Ukraine and appealed to all sides to stick to an agreement signed in Minsk on September 5 on a cease-fire and steps toward peace.

The cease-fire is violated daily, but Steinmeier said the Minsk accord must not be abandoned and called for the swift completion of a plan for the "disengagement" of the conflicting sides.

RUSSIA WILL NOT PUSH 'ALLIES' ON CRIMEA RECOGNITION

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says Moscow will not pressure its "allies" to recognize Crimea as a part of Russia or to join it in recopgnizing Georgia's breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions as independent states.

In a question-and-answer session following an address to Russia's lower parliament house on November 19, Lavrov said the security and economic groupings that Russia is currently building with other former Soviet republics are aimed to "protect the legitimate interests of our countries' security."

He said that "on some issues, including the status of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, or Crimean history, we are not making our partners share our assessments 100 percent, as we do not want to put them into an awkward position if for some reason it is uncomfortable for them."

The remarks appeared aimed to assuage concerns among ex-Soviet republics that Russia, which annexed Crimea in March in a move that Kyiv and the West say was illegal, wants to diminish their sovereignty or control their foreign policy.

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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