Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Power Vertical

The Trial Of The Decade

Russian Opposition Leader Says Putin Wants Him Jailedi
|| 0:00:00
April 16, 2013
Two days before the start of his trial for embezzlement, Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny claimed he will be found guilty in a falsified case that will be decided personally by President Vladimir Putin, whom Navalny accuses of defending corrupt officials stealing billions of dollars. Navalny is a 36-year-old anticorruption blogger who was one of the leaders of the biggest opposition protests seen during the Putin era late last year. His trial starts on April 17. (Reuters video)

WATCH: Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny says President Vladimir Putin wants him jailed

It's always interesting when officials get caught telling the truth.

In a recent interview with the pro-Kremlin daily "Izvestia," Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin pretty much admitted that the criminal case against anticorruption blogger Aleksei Navalny is politically motivated.

"When somebody is constantly attracting attention to himself and even mocking the authorities, claiming he is so pure, then interest in his past increases and the process of exposing it is accelerated," Markin said.

Navalny's trial on charges that, while working as an unpaid advisor to Kirov Governor Nikita Belykh, he organized the theft of 16 million rubles from a state-owned timber company is set to begin on April 17.

Navalny has dismissed the charges as "ridiculous" and, in an effort to make a public case for his innocence, posted all the case materials online. 

"There are bank documents, and we show those documents to everybody: to the investigation, to the public, to everyone. And everybody, apart from the investigation… said, 'oh God this has been totally fabricated.' But the investigation is not interested in this," Navalny said in an interview with Reuters

The fact that the Kremlin has decided to go ahead and prosecute a case against Navalny that has been dropped numerous times due to lack of evidence is a sign of the times. Like the prosecution of Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky a decade ago, it has the potential to be an era-defining event.

"It may not be the trial of the century, but it could be the trial of the decade in terms of defining what is going to happen [in the coming years]," Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University and author of the blog "In Moscow's Shadows," said recently on the Power Vertical podcast.

Indeed, Navalny's trial could turn out to be the mirror image of the 2003 Khodorkovsky case, which helped consolidate and strengthen Vladimir Putin's ruling elite by sending a message that politically uncooperative tycoons would be dealt with harshly.

Khodorkovsky's prosecution also played well with the public, which was weary of the wild capitalism of the 1990s and supportive of cracking down on the oligarchs who defined that era.

The Navalny case is doing the opposite. It is fracturing the elite and sending a message that the Kremlin is desperate and frightened of a blogger with a cult following who made his name exposing graft in high places.

"Navalny is a far far more dangerous enemy/victim for the state than any they've taken on so far," Galeotti said.

"In prison, Khodorkovsky has been able to reinvent himself as a liberal martyr, but at the time [of his prosecution] he was just one more of these arrogant get-rich-quick oligarchs. [Here] you have a very weak case and you've got a Kremlin with less credibility."

Navalny, Galeotti adds "is not a man who enriched himself obscenely, this is a man who has gone after corrupt officials." Moreover, the trial will give the PR-savvy Navalny "the platform to create his own narrative" and define himself before the public.

In fact, he is already doing so. In media interviews he has showcased his modest lifestyle. He has stressed that he will continue to expose corruption, even if he has to do it from behind bars. And he recently admitted that he wanted to someday seek the presidency to continue his antigraft fight and change the way that Russia is ruled.

And he is seeking to frame the trial as a David and Goliath showdown, pitting an honest blogger against Putin's overbearing Kremlin monolith, which "will destroy anybody who opposes Putin being a lifelong president."

And at least publicly, he appears to be accepting the inevitability of a guilty verdict and the possibility of a long prison sentence stoically.

"I understood that this would happen," he told Reuters. "I perfectly understood that I was fighting against people who stole billions and have seized power in a vast country. And I understood that these people would defend their right to steal those billions. And they will not give up just like that."

Navalny's case is about to join last year's Pussy Riot trial and the ongoing prosecutions of the May 6, 2012 protestors on Bolotnaya Square as defining events of Putin's third term in the Kremlin.

And if the 2003 Khodorkovsky trial, regardless of its merits, showcased a confident and ascendant regime, these cases are exposing one that is exhausted, frightened, and increasingly desperate.

-- Brian Whitmore

Tags: Aleksei Navalny

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: Da Russophile from: Mordor
April 16, 2013 18:23
"In a recent interview with the pro-Kremlin daily "Izvestia," Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin pretty much admitted that the criminal case against anticorruption blogger Aleksei Navalny is politically motivated."

I know that many media outlets are saying the same, but repeating it in lockstep won't make it so. Here is what Markin *actually* said:

Interviewer: But if the case didn’t have Navalny, then, probably, the case itself wouldn’t exist?

Vladimir Markin, IC spokesman: Perhaps, it would not have happened so quickly, because unfortunately the numbers and energy of our investigators are quite limited. In an ordinary case of embezzlement and misappropriation perhaps our hands wouldn’t have reached in so quickly. But if the person in question draws attention to himself with all his strength, or we can even say, teases authority – saying that oh I am so white and flawless, then the interest in his past increases and the process of exposing it to the sunlight, understandably, accelerates.

That is not a equivalent to saying that the prosecution is "politically motivated." What he is saying is that Navalny's high profile and taunting of business drew attention to and interest in his past faster than it otherwise would have.
In Response

by: Marko from: USA
April 18, 2013 11:38
I don't think this thing is going to turn out to be terribly important. Navalny is the darling of the elements of the US media that cover Russia-- that is about it. Most Russians don't even know who he is, and most of those who do know who he is don't like him. I've listened to the tapes in the case. My Russian is a tad rusty, but I would say that those tapes don't make him sound very ethical but also don't necesasarily show that he committed a crime (at least according to my understanding of business law principles). I honestly don't know whether he did anything or not... I will say though that this blog consistently overestimates his chances of seriously influencing Russian politics or holding national office. That unlikely event would obviously be wildly beneficial to US interests-- Navalny was trained by NED, etc and would be completely obedient to American wishes, but again what on earth would be in this for Russians-- a return to the merry old 1990s? Brian, do you really think that can be "marketed" over there. Seems insanely optimistic and unrealistic-- the rose-colored glasses are really strong!
In Response

by: La Russophobe from: USA
April 19, 2013 07:51
"Most Russians don't even know who he is, and most of those who do know who he is don't like him."

That's not really true, or fair. Navalny has nearly 350,000 Twitter followers, a very powerful blog, and a clear majority of those who know him believe his corruption reports are true.

What's true is that a clear majority of those who know him would not vote for him for president, that he's in no way a serious contender in any type of election (indeed, perhaps for that reason, he's never been a candidate). What's true is that he's a bad political leader, and his pseudo political movement has collapsed.

But notwithstanding that, the Kremlin is prosecuting him on charges that are clearly dubious, so it's clear that it does see him as a potential threat or at least an irritant.

by: Ben
April 16, 2013 18:39
Government stakes on officials` patriotic solidarity which is regarded as the particulaily valuable when it`s against the common sense.The last Khodorkovsky trial was the peak of the absurd,the adoption ban was an
importaint step on the same way, Navalny trial has the same dangerous potential.

by: john from: canada
April 16, 2013 20:50
I was somewhat surprised to read Mark Galeotti's opinion about the Navalny case on his Moscow's Shadows blog. Saying stuff that might be construed by Putinists as not being 'neutral' enough has earned Prof Galeotti inclusion on Selyunin's "Russophobes Gallery" - List #3 - its growing!

With all these additions, people may start questioning objectivity of journalists who aren't (yet) included in the Gallery.


The Navalny Case and the Final Battle between Good and Neutrality?:
In Response

by: Ed from: Maryland
April 23, 2013 01:06
Kind of like the parade of exploding munitions storage facilities every 2-3 months in Russia, huh?

by: Eugenio from: Vienna
April 18, 2013 04:28
Guys, please explain what on Earth is going on in the land of bankrupt losers - the United States.
(a) First the US govt spends 12 years implementing anti-terror measures - only to have someone organize a terrorist attack in Boston and kill helpless and defenseless US citizens on the streets of this city. And what is the US govt - with all of its security measures - is doing? It just has NO CLUE who did this and what to do to prevent these killings on its own national territory! What a sad demonstration of incompetence and ineptitude of the US govt and of those who elected it!
(b) And then - due to this usual American Schlamperei - some kind of factory just EXPLODES in Texas wounding dozens of US citizens working there! And the US govt against is standing by and smartly watching things happen without having a slightest idea of what to do about this horrendously explosive situation in their country!
Really, what a country a inept incomptent losers!

by: La Russophobe from: USA
April 18, 2013 10:02
It's probably a bit excessive to call this the trial of the decade. The facts on the ground on Russia tell a different story.

The evidence shows clearly that the vast majority of Russians have never heard of Navalny. This is particularly true outside of Moscow. In Kirov, where the trial of Navalny is proceeding, nobody has heard of him and nobody cares.

A recent poll from Levada shows that a shocking 64% of Russians have never even heard of Navalny and only 14% (barely a third of those who have heard of him) would even consider voting for him for president. Navalny’s name recognition soared upwards in 2011, from just 6% in April 2011, to an amazing 34% in June 2012. But then more recently, it has plateaued. The number had increased to just 37% by March 2013.

It was not long ago we heard that Navalny was going to force a re-vote for Duma. It did not happen. Then we heard Navalny would force Putin into a runoff. It did not happen. Most recently, we heard he'd force early Duma elections. Now apparently that canard has been abandoned, and Navalny is going to force early presidential elections. That will be quite a neat trick indeed, if he's sitting in prison on a ten-year stretch. Navalny also promised he'd soon have 1 million or more Russians joining him in his street demonstrations. The opposite happened, and the demonstrations dwindled to virtually nothing.

46% of Russians who have read Navalny's anti-corruption reports, according to Levada, either don't believe them or don't know whether to believe them. So even within the tiny universe of people who know who he is, Navalny has the strong support of only 54%. And a mere 14% would cast a vote for Navalny as a candidate. Putin's job approval has been significantly higher than that every month for the last two years, and his figures include the entire country, not just a tiny subset.

Here's how Time magazine recently described Navalny: "His right hand was wrapped in a bandage — 'It’s nothing,' he said, 'I fell' — and he wore the same brown leather sneakers he had on a year ago, when he was leading the biggest protests ever to challenge President Vladimir Putin. Now the shoes were looking loose at the seams. The protests have faded, and their leader may soon be bankrupt, convicted of a felony and banned from politics for life."

Navalny claims he wants to run for president, but he has been, unsurprisingly, a complete failure that key political task, raising money, and now he's running out. Doesn't sound much like the next president of Russia to me. The time for Navalny to throw his hat in the ring was two years ago, when a new presidential election was on the horizon, not now, when one won't occur for another five years. I agree that Navalny would be a better ruler of Russia than Putin. But then, so would a ham sandwich.

Analysts do Russia a grave disservice by placing so much emphasis on a failed loser like Navalny. This man is not Russia's last, best hope, and if he were Russia would surely be a doomed state. It is time to look elsewhere for leadership, nurturing and supporting those who have a much better chance of bringing real change to Russia. Navalny is valuable as a sensationalist reporter of high-profile corruption, and nothing more.

The fact is that the vast majority of Russians don't know who Navalny is, and don't care if he goes to prison or not.

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")

Latest Podcasts

About This Blog

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