Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Power Vertical

Siloviki Run Wild

The head of the Russian Investigative Committee, Aleksandr Bastrykin
The head of the Russian Investigative Committee, Aleksandr Bastrykin
Investigative Committee chief Aleksandr Bastrykin has finally spoken. And all around him, the plot is thickening.

Following a day of silence after he was publicly accused of threatening the life of Sergei Sokolov, deputy editor of the opposition newspaper "Novaya gazeta," Bastrykin issued a curt denial in an interview with the pro-Kremlin daily "Izvestia."

As I wrote in my last post, "Novaya gazeta" Editor in Chief Dmitry Muratov alleged in an open letter on June 13 that Bastrykin's security guards forcefully took Sokolov to a forest outside Moscow where their boss was waiting -- and where he threatened to kill the journalist.

Earlier, Bastrykin and Sokolov had argued over "Novaya gazeta's" coverage of the Investigative Committee's work. Sokolov has since left the country, according to Muratov.

In his "Izvestia" interview on June 14, Bastrykin admitted that he and Sokolov had argued heatedly while both were attending a security conference in Nalchik last week. But he called the allegation that he later threatened Sokolov in the woods "the delusions of a fevered mind." Bastrykin added that he didn't "even remember the last time I was in a forest. My job is so demanding that there is no time for trips to the countryside."

Later in the day, after meeting Muratov and other journalists, Bastrykin apologized for what he called an "emotional breakdown" during his meeting with Sokolov in Nalchik. It is still unclear, however, whether he admitted to the incident in the woods.

For his part, Muratov said he received "safety guarantees" from Bastrykin for Sokolov and other "Novaya gazeta" staff. Sokolov will, presumably, now return to Russia.

So all's well that ends well, right? Well, not so fast.

If this twisted tale worthy of a Quentin Tarantino film looked murky when it first came to light, it seems even more opaque now. So what just happened?

The daily "Vedomosti" suggested in an editorial that the security services have received carte blanche to go after the Kremlin's opponents and "are having the time of their lives" in doing so:

Irritated by protests, the Kremlin apparently told the siloviki to go after the president's political enemies. And the siloviki did. Carrying out the order, they arranged a manhunt this May when pedestrians were taken in without a cause, much less a courtesy of explanation or excuse afterwards, when draconian fines were adopted for protesters, protesters themselves were bagged, and opposition leaders' apartments ransacked in a thoroughly humiliating manner. In short, this May and June the Russians found themselves living in a police state. There's no use waiting for a reprimand for Bastrykin, much less his resignation. Life teaches us that he will probably be decorated or even promoted instead.

But while the siloviki-run-wild theory may be the simplest explanation for the "forest scandal," it isn't the only one out there.

Media reports have suggested that this week's scandal could be part of an ongoing struggle for power, access, and influence between Bastrykin's Investigative Committee and the Prosecutor-General's Office.

Some Kremlin-watchers see it as a harbinger of a new "Siloviki War" similar to the one that broke out in 2007 between different factions of the security-service veterans surrounding Vladimir Putin. That dust up, which actually got bloody, occurred as Putin's second term as president was drawing to a close and various clans in the elite, nervous about the succession, were furiously jockeying for advantage.

Those analysts who see a larger game going on point to the fact that on June 11, two days before Muratov's letter, Aleksandr Khinshtein, a State Duma deputy from United Russia, wrote on his Twitter feed that "an unprecedented scandal awaits Bastrykin."  (You can view Khinshtein's Twitter feed here. Scroll down to June 11 to see the tweet.)

Khinshtein, who is very plugged in to the ruling elite, tweeted this comment as the Investigative Committee agents were searching the apartments of opposition figures -- including Aleksei Navalny and Ksenia Sobchak -- and a week after Bastrykin and Sokolov argued in Nalchik.

Of course, the Siloviki War scenario is not incompatible with the siloviki-run-wild theory. Both could actually be correct. The Investigative Committee has clearly taken the lead in the Kremlin's crackdown against the opposition, and their methods appear to have other parts of the elite recoiling.

"Vedomosti" quoted Russia Today Editor in Chief Margarita Simonjan as saying that "a man from the upper echelons of state power, someone I cannot in all earnesty call a liberal, told me the other day that he was frequently befuddled by the logic of the Russian Investigative Committee."

Of course, it's all speculation at this point. But as I noted, the last time the elite was behaving like this was in late 2007, amid the uncertainty that prevailed just before Putin left the Kremlin. If this is indeed what is going on now, it suggests the ruling elite is just as nervous today, little more than a month after Putin's return to power.

-- Brian Whitmore

(Be sure to tune in to this week's edition of the Power Vertical podcast, where I will discuss this topic with Kirill Kobrin, managing editor of RFE/RL's Russian Service, and special guest Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University, author of the blog "In Moscow's Shadows," and an expert on the Russian security services.)

Tags: siloviki,Aleksandr Bastrykin,Sergei Sokolov,Novaya Gazeta

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: Vakhtang from: Moscow
June 15, 2012 05:18
If you ask what any Russian patriot, why such things happen in Russia you will receive an answer, that Bastrykin did everything right and correct because no other options in Russia, too many irresponsible people in Russia, especially among journalists .

On the other hand just look at the face of Bastrykin and you will see that Lombroso was right-mug of the typical bandit.

Imagine... Bastrykin apologized!!!The incident has been exhausted!!
Who is now interesting that Bastrykin committed a criminal offense-abduction of a person and threats to kill a ordinary citizen for such actions would go to Mordovia for 10 years..a bandit mug Bastrykin to a restaurant to fill his belly.
Where is the justice in the Russia?

I think that if Mr. Whitmore will be meet by accident Mr. Bastrykin anywhere at а press conference, he must say:"Hello Bandit Bastrykin, how many people are you took to the woods and buried?"
Someone has to eventually restore justice in this country...

by: Gene from: Moscow
June 16, 2012 12:39
I see one back-yard party from this report: Chayka, Khinshtein, Aleksei Navalny and Ksenia Sobchak, "Vedomosti", Russia Today Editor in Chief Margarita Simonjan. What's the name of the party? Back to the future?
And, from the other hand, another party: Bastrykin Putin's ally &Co. Their name must be "We are in the future". And the actual issue must be a couple of cottages in suburban Moscow and in the Caucases and a couple of oil/gas share packages.
It's very interesting and worth of a special regular bulletin "Weekly rating of two factions". Why not?

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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.

12:45 November 19, 2014


From RFE/RL's News Desk:



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.


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.

10:09 November 19, 2014


10:04 November 19, 2014


From RFE/RL's News Desk:


Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is expected to focus on the crisis in eastern Ukraine when he addresses the State Duma on November 19.

Ahead of his speech before Russia's lower house of parliament, Lavrov met with visiting German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

Both reportedly agreed on the need to return to the so-called Minsk protocol, a dialogue that involves the warring factions in Ukraine, as well as Russia and the OSCE.

But Steinmeier said he was not optimistic the Minsk protocol could change the situation on the ground in eastern Ukraine, where government forces are battling pro-Russian separatists.

Steinmeier traveled to Moscow from Kyiv where President Petro Poroshenko told him Russia had failed to uphold a September 5 cease-fire agreement.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on November 18 accused Russia of a "serious military build-up" both inside eastern Ukraine and on the Russian side of the border.

(Based on reporting by Tass and Reuters)

A Russian journalist who runs an online support group for LGBT teenagers is to be charged under the country's controversial law on promoting "gay propaganda" to minors.


Russia's media watchdog said it had received more than 150 complaints from "citizens and organizations" about Deti-404 (Children-404), which was founded and is run by Yelena Klimova.

The number "404" refers to the "page not found" error code in Internet searches.

Roskomnadzor did not specify what on the project's pages constituted "gay propaganda," and suggested Klimova was not fit to counsel LGBT teenagers.

Klimova slammed the country's "gay propaganda" law, and accused authorities of failing to provide support to LGBT teenagers in a country where homophobia is widespread.

"If those 'problems' should be handled by 'professionals' … and not amateurs like myself, then where are they?" she said on her LiveJournal page.

(Based on reporting by the Moscow Times and the Calvert Journal)


The chief editor of the "Ekho Moskvy" radio station Aleksei Venediktov has said he was preparing to make an offer to purchase the embattled station.

Venediktov met on November 18 with Mikhail Lesin, the chairman of board of directors of the state-controlled entertainment giant Gazprom Media, the owner of Ekho Moskvy.

Venediktov told journalists he would have a proposal for purchasing the station "before the end of the current year."

Lesin said a verbal offer had already been made but he did not disclose any details.

Lesin on November 14 called for a vote of Ekho Moskvy's board of directors that could determine the future of one of the last independent media outlets in Russia.

The absentee voting by the board of directors, set for November 21, will determine the editor-in-chief of the station, the staff and the format of the broadcasting.

(Based on reporting by Interfax and TASS)


German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier flew from Kyiv to Moscow and met with his Russian counterpart during the evening of November 18.

Steinmeier and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov discussed the deteriorating situation in Ukraine.

Both reportedly agreed on the need to return to the so-called Minsk protocol, a dialogue that involves the warring factions in Ukraine, as well as Russia and the OSCE.

Steinmeier said he did not "see reasons for optimism" that the Minsk protocol could achieve a breakthrough on the ground in eastern Ukraine where more than 4,000 people have been killed in fighting since March.

But he said "it would be a huge loss" to abandon the protocol at this time.

Steinmeier and Lavrov also called on Kyiv and the separatist leadership in Donetsk and Luhansk regions to start direct talks aiming at pulling their military forces back.

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


President Vladimir Putin has said he does not believe the United States wants to humiliate Russia but does want Russia to be under Washington's influence.

Putin was responding to a question at the Action Forum sponsored by the All-Russia Popular Front political movement, a core Kremlin support group, on November 18.

He said the United States does not "want to humiliate us, but they want to bring us into subjugation, they want to resolve their problems at our expense, and to get us under their influence."

Putin added, "Nobody has ever been able to do so in Russian history and nobody ever will."

(Based on reporting by Interfax and Reuters)

09:56 November 19, 2014


Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says the Ukraine crisis is the result of what he calls 25 years of efforts by Western countries to strengthen their own security at the expense of others.
(Live broadcast, RIA Novosti) 

And it's already inspiring funny tweets:

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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