Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Power Vertical

Why The Kremlin Is Losing

Protesters gather with balloons and placards during an anti-Putin demonstration in Moscow on February 4.
Protesters gather with balloons and placards during an anti-Putin demonstration in Moscow on February 4.
Remember when something called "the Family" dominated Russian politics and Boris Berezovsky looked invincible?

It wasn't that long ago. Just over a decade back.
In late 1999, I was having dinner in a Moscow restaurant with some colleagues and we noticed Berezovsky and some hangers-on a few tables away.
One colleague gestured to the uber-oligarch's entourage, which was flanked by the usual phalanx of bodyguards, and said: "Wouldn't you love to just approach him and ask: 'Boris Abramovich, what exact scheme are you working on right now?'"
It was conventional wisdom at the time that Berezovsky was the master of Russia's political universe. As the informal leader of the so-called "Family," the shadowy collection of tycoons, cronies, and bureaucrats surrounding the ailing President Boris Yeltsin, he had the Kremlin wired and was orchestrating the rise of Vladimir Putin -- who the media called "the Family's candidate." We assumed Berezovsky would keep Putin on a tight leash, too.

We, of course, were dead wrong.

As the new millennium approached, Berezovsky and "the Family" may have looked omnipotent, but the tectonic plates supporting the political order were shifting. A new political era was on the way -- and "the Family" was on the way out (although some of its members, Roman Abramovich for example, found a place in the new order).

Inflection points like the one at the end of the 1990s can sneak up on you and there is often an analytical bias in favor of expecting the status quo to continue indefinitely. One of the tricks for Russia watchers is to know when the paradigm is about to shift, when the meta-narrative is truly changing.
Are we at such an inflection point again? I don't know for sure, of course, but I do suspect we are approaching one.
Putin still has the full weight of the Russian state at his disposal. He can use obedient courts to imprison his opponents and deploy administrative methods to rig elections. His cronies control the traditional media, the energy sector, and much of the country's heavy industry.
But regimes like Putin's don't survive on repression alone. To be stable and successful, they also need, for lack of a better term, soft power.
And on this score, 100 days into Putin's third term, it has become clear that the Kremlin has lost much of its mojo on this score. Team Putin isn't controlling the national conversation anymore. They've lost the support -- and even the passive acquiescence -- of important segments of the population. They are bickering among themselves and deeply divided. And a savvy new generation of opposition figures is on the rise.
Swindlers, Thieves, And Foreign Agents
There was a time when Putin could say something -- Мочить в сортире, or "wipe 'em out in the latrine," for example -- and it would be repeated endlessly and become part of the political lexicon.
It was entertaining for much of the public and burnished the president's pop culture image as an action-hero tough guy. But more importantly, Putin's colorful use of the Russian language helped establish a powerful national narrative: Russia has a strong, cool, and decisive leader and is rising up from its knees; Putin's opponents are feckless and doomed; the troubled '90s are over; we won't be pushed around anymore.
Putin's Kremlin once excelled at this kind of thing. They don't anymore. The narratives they try to push -- like blaming mass demonstrations on foreign agitators -- appear worn and dated, and Putin's scatological slang just isn't that funny anymore.
Now it is the opposition that is succeeding in getting its one-liners into the country's collective consciousness. With message discipline and tech-savvy that would make a political consultant proud, anticorruption blogger Aleksei Navalny has managed to turn phrases like партия жуликов и воров (Party of Swindlers and Thieves) and Иностранный агент Бастрыкин (Foreign Agent Bastrykin) into powerful cultural markers.
This may seem trivial, but it's not. It is helping to establish a new counternarrative that the current ruling elite is corrupt and incompetent -- and have overstayed its welcome. According to the Levada Center, some 42 percent of Russians now agree with the statement that United Russia is a "party of swindlers and thieves."
We Exist
For an opposition narrative to take hold, it needs a receptive audience. Does anybody remember the chants of "We Need Another Russia!" from anti-Kremlin rallies, attended by a dozen or so brave souls, back in 2006 or 2007? I didn't think so.
In those days, most people didn't want another Russia. Most were fine with the one they had and it was easier for the Kremlin to marginalize, trivialize, and ridicule its opponents. It's not so easy today.
Never mind the tens of thousands who can be counted on to regularly show up at opposition protests in Moscow. The broader public opinion poll numbers tell an even starker story.
Putin's raw approval rating is somewhere between the mid-50s and low 60s, depending on the poll. But as political analyst Kirill Rogov pointed out in a much-discussed article last month, it isn't as solid as it appears at first glance. 
"This would be an excellent result for the president of any democratic country, but it is unacceptable for a ‘tsar’ – an unassailable and all-powerful leader with an unshakeable mandate. Putin has, in effect, lost his mandate," Rogov wrote.

According to the Levada Center data that Rogov cites, Putin's hardcore supporters number between 15-20 percent, while his soft and conditional support is between 40-45 percent. But most of these people, the data show, do not want him to rule in the same manner he did between 2000-08. These soft-core supporters want another Putin, and they aren't getting one -- which means they can flip to the other side at any time.
Putin's hard-core opponents, meanwhile, number about 15 percent, while another 15-20 percent "share the anti-Putin mood to some extent."
One of the most powerful slogans to emerge over the past eight months actually wasn't produced by Navalny. I'm not sure where it came from, but It showed up on numerous placards at protests and was part of the refrain in one of Pussy Riot's (pre-Christ the Savior Cathedral) performances.
It was simply: "We Exist."
A powerful constituency for change does, indeed, exist now. It grew out of the increasingly confident middle class that emerged during Putin's rule. It is powered and networked by increased Internet penetration and the explosion of social networks. And it's not going away anytime soon.
The Next Generation
Yeah, but there isn't any real alternative to Putin and his team. The opposition is a hodgepodge of nationalists, leftists, and liberals and has no viable leaders.
These are common refrains, repeated by Kremlin-friendly spinmeisters since mass antigovernment demonstrations broke out in December.
And there is a degree of truth to this. At each period of change in recent Russian history, there has been a leader-in-waiting ready to take charge.
As the Soviet Union imploded, it was, of course, Yeltsin. And as Yeltsin's chaotic, turbulent, and corruption-tainted presidency wound down, there was the anointed successor Putin, whose style of rule reminded no one of Yeltsin.
Now there is...nobody.
But the flaw with this line of thinking is the assumption that just because change is in the air, the regime's fall is imminent. I don't think it is.
What I think is happening is that Team Putin has lost the initiative and lost it decisively. They have no rationale for their continued rule other than, well, they want their rule to continue. They could still be in power for awhile. But the hyperconfident Kremlin we saw during Putin's first two terms is a thing of the past.
And meanwhile, the opposition -- that hodgepodge of liberals, leftists, and nationalists -- is gearing up for a long endgame.
In the autumn, they will hold online primaries to choose a 45-member council that will be tasked with making key decisions, like which candidates will run in local elections, which initiatives to support, and when to hold demonstrations.

"The problem of the opposition's legitimacy needs to be decided through elections, [especially] if we are going to accuse the authorities of lacking legitimacy," Navalny said in a video explaining the primaries on his blog this week. 


The primaries won't quite produce a shadow government. But they'll be a start.
The Deep State Deep-Sixed?
When the history of this period is written, one date will likely loom large as the beginning of the end for the current ruling elite: September 24, 2011.
That was the day when it was announced at the United Russia congress that Putin would return to the presidency and Dmitry Medvedev would become prime minister.
It was also the day when what I like to call Russia's "deep state," a permanent super-elite that rules outside the confines of constitutional law, came to the surface -- and in the process lost a large degree of its legitimacy.
As New York University's Mark Galeotti pointed out in an earlier edition of "The Power Vertical Podcast," for a deep state to work, "it has to remain deep."

In other words, everyone knows it is there but everyone pretends that it's not.
As Mark explained, Putin made the mistake of "dragging the deep state into public view" -- a move that broke the spell, inflamed public opinion, and created crippling divisions within the elite itself.
"The deep state worked when everyone was aware that it existed...but it was willing to operate behind a carapace, a facade of politicians," he said. "Putin made the presence of the deep state so clear. He rubbed it in Russians' noses, and that was a big mistake."
-- Brian Whitmore

Tags: Vladimir Putin,Aleksei Navalny,Russian opposition

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: Americanuck from: Toronto
August 14, 2012 21:32
This is an excellent analysis. But I do wonder how the Putin regime can ever fall if there is no replacement for it. At the moment, the opposition consists of social movements, NGOs, and individuals. What's missing is a political party or coalition of parties that can actually formulate a coherent platform and present itself as an alternative to Tsar Vladimir and PZhiV.
In Response

by: Marko from: USA
August 15, 2012 11:30
Putin has been in power for a while; baggage inevitably accumulates and the bold reformer is transformed into a cautious and conflicted manager. But does that mean that he is on his way out-- no. To be fair Brian, you don't predict a collapse here. I think he serves out his term and retires. The economy is still chugging along, the security forces completely back him, the so-called "opposition" is itself divided, deeply unpopular and advocates discredited and "worn out" ideas. Communism and Americanization both failed disastrously-- producing a dizzying social, economic, military, and political collapse. Putinism has produced progress on the whole, not perfection mind you, but progress. Why trade partial success for inevitable and complete failure. Not logical. Russia's uninspiring political scene is also reflected elsewhere in the world-- including here in the US. We have a choice between Obama's failed ideas and a retread of those of President Bush (which got us into our current problems in the first place). Western Europe, even China and India now look to have uninspiring and uncertain political climates as well.
In Response

by: George Eccles
August 24, 2012 15:03
No chance of a replacement, surely? As my new novel 'The Oligarch: A Thriller' clearly demonstrates, the Russian President is strenghtening his hold over the country rather than losing it.

by: Marsha from: Russia
August 14, 2012 21:41

by: David Edick Jr from: San Diego, CA
August 15, 2012 05:03
Sharp analysis, Brian. Nice work. Thanks.

by: Mark from: Victoria
August 15, 2012 05:57
Memories......light the corners of my mind..........Mmmmm....Misty water-coloured memories......of when the corporate-raider oligarchs ran Russia....

A "savvy new generation of opposition figures is on the rise"? Where? To date, they have kept themselves well-hidden, which doesn't bode well for those supposedly seeking a leadership role.

"They've lost the support -- and even the passive acquiescence -- of important segments of the population."

Really? What gives you that idea? A drop in polled support month-over-month? Come on. If the presidential election were re-run next week, are you suggesting someone other than Putin would win? No? What, then, is supposed to be inferred from this supposed loss of support of important segments of the population? If the answer is that Putin would win, easily, the loss of support you imply is ipso facto neither important nor real.

Online primaries will be held to more sharply define and consolidate the opposition. Look for a big surge in midnight-oil purchases by the Kremlin this fall, I'm sure they will be burning a lot of it as they worry about how to meet this powerful new threat. You know what will happen? Pretty much an electronic version of Sakharov Prospekt, where Navalny threatened to take the Kremlin if it didn't stop lying, Kudrin was booed and Prokhorov elected not to speak. Euphoria, but absolutely no coherent plan at all. If the opposition had a plan, it might actually be a threat. In the absence of one, all it can do is shout "Putin is a crook", and spin visions of a strong independent liberal Russia that somehow will not rely on energy revenues, since that is Putin's chief stupidity.

You keep alluding to a "powerful constituency for change" that "isn't going away anytime soon". Where? According to most western press sources, the elite - presumably the prime movers of this constituency for change - are fleeing Russia at a horrifying rate. How can this be, if the constituency for change is always growing and is not going away? Is the "nascent middle class" - the ones who elected Putin - replacing the elite as the constituency for change? I'm afraid I need convincing. Are the elite being replaced as the elite by the nascent middle class? Who in their right mind would depose a leader who achieved that?

Rather than this supposed groundswell not going away soon, it is already gone and is unlikely to resume without the emergence of an electrifying, unifying opposition leader. So far, the horizon looks pretty empty.
In Response

by: Ray F. from: Lawrence, KS
August 15, 2012 13:12
Nice comment and thanks for balancing Brian’s perhaps misplaced hope for change. However, I share some of Brian’s sense that the internal political situation is becoming pregnant with an understanding that the system needs repair. Advances in technology and social media have weakened the power-vertical. Every time there is another disaster, the Kremlin team tries to self-manage the situation and dampen down sparks of social protest. What happens if they can no longer put out the fires, stop the floods, release the hostages, etc…? At some point, the average Russian might simply get fed up with the lies, hypocrisy and corruption, and demand a greater voice in running the country.
In Response

by: Mark from: Victoria
August 15, 2012 17:44
Ray, if ordinary people could run the country, they'd be doing it. Ordinary people are too busy making a living to attend endless meetings on municipal codes, highway repairs and construction proposals. Ordinary people elect representatives to perform those tasks for them. The system under which they do that is referred to as a democracy as defined by popular democracy advocate Karl Popper if it is not a dictatorship or a tyranny, if the people are able to control their leaders and oust them without a revolution. Is Russia a dictatorship, do you think? An election was just held, in which Putin could have been driven from power if that were the people's choice. It manifestly was not; even the staunchest anti-Putin sources grudgingly admit that the most optimistic levels (meaning the highest) of vote fraud accused would not have kept Putin from the presidency. Western sources focus on vote fraud because that is one of the electoral tactics whose use is quite rare in the west. Voter suppression is something else again, and there are plenty of examples of western dodges to disenfranchise groups that predictably vote a certain way. Every government uses dirty tricks to stay in power for as long as the law allows.

There's no disputing the system needs repair - if it's not perfect, it needs constant adjustment to get it as close to the ideal as is practical. And I wouldn't say Brian's hope for change is misplaced; I think we all hope for change. It seems clear from much of what you can read here, though, that this blog simply wants Putin gone and a liberal in his place. As the old saw goes, that's change - but is it progress? Change for the sake of change is simply rearranging the deck chairs on the TITANIC. The aim of change should be the betterment of the citizens' lives and the improvement of the infrastructure that serves them, for their benefit and not that of outside interests focued on regime change as a strategic goal.

You might think that lies, hypocrisy and corruption are exclusive to Russia. Au contraire, mon frere. There is more than enough of each in pretty much any government you care to name. However, the list of countries that are the focus of western complaint and social engineering is pretty short.

The idea that the average citizen wants to run the country is a popular myth. Running the country is an enormous responsibility, and ordinary citizens have little objection to that job being done on their behalf provided it is run the way they imagine they would do it if they had the time and the education. Everybody thinks the country could be run a little better for their personal benefit, so that they received higher pay, more vacation time and lots of diverting entertainment that is to their personal taste. But most everybody is willing to forego a little of that personal benefit if it is apparent the country is moving in the right direction and the nation as a whole benefits.

Is that the case in Russia, do you think? Is the average citizen's life judged on those benchmarks getting better, or worse? Believe me, if Russians were getting less pay every year and having to work harder and longer for it, you'd hear about it in excruciating detail. In fact, Russian living standards, broadly applied, have risen steadily. You can tell they have, because the focus of complaint is "Putin is too reliant on energy revenues!!!" instead of "Putin is cheatring the people and they make less now than they did in 2000!!"

What do you suppose Mikhail Prokhorov or Aleksey Navalny or Boris Nemtsov would use to fund his plans and projects for Russia if he were leader tomorrow? The stuffed-toy market? Sexy calendars of Russian girls? Of course not - any liberal leader of Russia would rely heavily on energy revenues to prop up the budget.
In Response

by: Ray F. from: Lawrence, KS
August 15, 2012 19:29
Again, a lot of good comments and thanks for your thoughts. I don’t claim to be an expert, and agree, Russians alone should decide which form of government is best for their country. I think Brian’s point was that at least some Russian people may not be satisfied with the status quo, but instead of allowing them to voice their complaints, the Putin government has now resorted to greater repression. Besides the folks at RFE, there are some smart Russians who believe that repressing just concerns and basic rights could, in the long-term, have tragic consequences.

No, I don’t think the country is run by a ‘dictatorship,’ though I suspect that important political decisions are made by a small group of people around Putin. I also agree that Russians are quite like any other people, in what they want from life, their goals and their dreams. I do think, however, that the civil-contract in Russia has been damaged, and that for good reason, some Russians believe that their elected/appointed representatives use their office to line their wallets. No citizen enjoys paying taxes or performing other civil duties, but most are willing to do their share as long as the schools are decent, the water safe to drink, the garbage collected, roads are safe etc….

You are right, the quality of life for many Russians has improved greatly over the past decade, but I sense that many Russians believe that their elected/appointed representatives are not doing enough to strengthen the country’s social fabric (i.e. schools, roads, environment, medical etc…). This has led some to protest, and when that same quasi-corrupt government suppresses this protest, well, sooner or later, you will reach what Brian calls an ‘inflection point.’ Are we there? Who knows, and my point was simply the new tools available that will allow more Russians to perhaps coalesce and demand greater accountability from their politicians.

by: Eugenio from: Vienna
August 15, 2012 06:07
Once again congratulations to the author of this "brillaint" section: just as on most occasions, the article is so uninteresting that no one cared to comment on it (I know, there are a couple of guys who are still trying to "digest" the content :-))). I am really concerned of the economic well-being of the author once budgetary cuts (that are becoming a brandmark of any advanced market economy) arrive to the offices of RFE/RL a couple of months from now :-)).
In Response

by: Jack from: US
August 15, 2012 14:23
I fully understand your concern, Eugenio, and I am worried, too. If budgetary cuts spell the end of RFE/RL, then we will have to vent our frustrations elsewhere, or, God forbid, we might actually need to find full-time jobs.
In Response

by: Eugenio from: Vienna
August 16, 2012 07:43
Konstantin, reminding the nation of Beavus and Butthead of the fact that they are getting militarily defeated on all the fronts, getting kicked out of one country after the other (Iraq, Egypt, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Serbia etc etc etc) AND of the fact that the US and their NATO allies are going bankrupt while this kind of web-sites try to look for some imaginary problems elsewhere IS a full-time job: what do you think I got the money for to go on vacation on the Black Sea, while you were rotting in front of your computer screan ? :-))) Cheers from Vienna!
In Response

by: Jack from: US
August 16, 2012 14:08
If that's your job, then you might need to get a life. Besides, very few Americans read this website. You're preaching to the choir, vato. If the reason behind your anger is that your advances were rejected by a US soldier, then don't feel too bad. I am sure you found true love on your gay cruise in the Black Sea. Cheers from Los Angeles. :))))
In Response

by: Konstantin from: Los Angeles
August 30, 2012 11:10
Eugenio, lying again!
I write only under my own name!
Are you one of those that organized murder of my mother,
7/7/2012, using your part-relatives, German nazis from CIA,
so you would lie about me and non-Russian nations,
while I wouldn't be able to reply to you?
Trying to be another lying Russian "hero", Kadochnikov?

by: Mark from: Victoria
August 16, 2012 04:42
Bravo for standing firm, Ray, and you are right - the roads and the transportation systems and the little conveniences that make life easier do need improvement. However, I don't see a great deal of what is popularly referred to as "repression" or "crackdowns" when protesters are disobeying the law. Demonstrations require permission, just like in every other civilized country. The vast majority of them have been approved so long as the demonstrators stay within the law, but a fairly recent one turned violent and some policemen were hurt. The demonstration turned violent when some demonstrators led by well-known opposition figures attempted to break through a police cordon and lead an unsanctioned march on the Kremlin. Surely you agree the government is not obligated to let people break the law just because they feel strongly about something, especially when they constitute less than 1% of the population. Demonstrator Alexandra Dukhanina was filmed apparently taking what turned out to be a chunk of asphalt from a bag she carried, looking around - for a target? - and throwing it. That she apparently brought it with her suggests premeditation. At least one young man was filmed dressed as a woman, and some suggest he did so in order to make his arrest appear more brutal for the cameras (he was arrested).

People who attempted to set up tents had them torn down by police. For one thing, you can't camp in the streets; it's against the law, and most would agree reasonably so. For another, the government recognized it quickly as the beginnings of establishing a tent city like the one at Maidan Square in Kiev during the Orange Revolution. There's a certain pattern to these events, the following of a playbook. The government would be foolish to let it happen, for the people's good as much as their own - the Orange Revolution was a disaster for Ukraine from every way you look at it, ushering in two terms of the worst government Ukraine has experienced as an independent nation.

The United States has laws that regulate public assembly and protest marches. If they are disobeyed, should those who disobey be allowed to break the law because they are passionate about their cause, and so that the government will not be accused of repression? Of course not.

Russia needs to improve infrastructure and transport; I think the government recognizes that. That's partly why anyone who can raise a complaint and collect a certain number of signatures has the right to have the complaint debated in the Duma. I can't think of any progressive country that allows such a right.
In Response

by: Ray F. from: Lawrence, KS
August 16, 2012 14:16
From what I have read and experienced, Russians tend to have a more jaundiced view toward the concept of ‘law.’ While I consider laws as protective tools against the arbitrary power of the state, many Russians have a different understanding, and regard the law and their legal system as just so many weapons in the hands of the elite. In this type of understanding, ‘following the law’ will usually only bring delay, grief or added expense.

Who threw the first punch in the May 2012 demonstrations in Moscow? Impossible to tell, but history suggests that Russian security forces have been known to provoke violence to justify a greater crackdown. I would not be surprised to discover that some of the protestors were on the police payroll.

The concern of the Putin entourage in preventing an Orange Revolution may have less to do with maintaining public order than with a gnawing sense that their political legitimacy is partially based upon fear, deception, and coercion.

It may be disingenuous to compare protests in the US with those in Russia. While the US is no paragon of virtue, the steel-boot and truncheon have much greater utility in Russia.

BTW, have you ever lived in Russia, visited a police station or one of their prisons? Theory is well and good, but reality can be a tad more sobering.
In Response

by: Mark from: Victoria
August 17, 2012 05:11
You say, Ray, that your views are based on what you have read and experienced. Have you spent much time in Russia, yourself? Been part of a demonstration in Moscow? No? Yet you seem perfectly prepared to believe the police pay protesters - opposition leaders, at that - to start something so they have an excuse to crack down. Why? Because "that's what history suggests". And where did you get that history? You probably read it.

But I'll bet that, presented with the story about how Navalny, with great ceremony and lots of press, discovered a bug in his would never occur to you that Navalny put it there himself, or had it put there, to make himself look important, feared by the Kremlin. Why? Because Navalny is one of the good guys, and the good guys would never do that. Never mind that Navalny's emails are regularly hacked by those who disagree with him, his phone conversations recorded, and that snooping is now completely wireless. Even 15 years ago you could stand across the street and hear everything said in Navalny's office with a good parabolic mike. But no; the FSB must have bugged Navalny's office with 1970's technology, a clumsy electronic bug the size of your little fingernail. You could probably put everything in the Library of Congress on there.

Yes, crowd policing is generally a good deal more violent in Russia than in the USA. Starting a business is harder. The standard of living is lower. Public transport is mostly terrible in comparison. I've never been arrested in Russia, so I've never been in a police station or in a prison in Russia, although I hear the latter are terrible and see no reason to imagine they're not. Forced to choose between the two, I'd live in the USA.

None of that means it's a dungheap filled with mindless savages. It's filled with people who are fiercely proud of their country, and who become bitter and cynical when all they get is constant abuse and derision. Especially considering Russia is certainly far less corrupt, rotten and contemptuous of human rights than Saudi Arabia, which for some reason is a valued ally of the USA and rarely criticized, even gently. Russia is criticized and mocked, all day long, day in and day out, and virtually none of it is constructive - like, "You guys are doing this all wrong. We had that problem, and here's what we did; try it, and if you have trouble, call me. I'll help you". No, it's more like "You suck. Be like us".

I lived in the Russian Far East for about half a year, a month at a time spread over 5 years. My wife is Russian, from the Far East, near Vladivostok. I'd be more likely to believe her than I would a western newspaper or blog. Particularly considering she's never lied to me, and newspapers lie all the time. And joke about it afterward.

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

18:33 October 29, 2014


From RFE/RL's News Desk:


Vladimir Putin's spokesman said on October 29 that the Russian president is in good health, seeking to quash rumors of an illness.

Dmitry Peskov told reporters in Moscow that "everything is okay" with Putin's health, Russian news agencies Interfax and TASS reported.

"They will wait in vain. May their tongues wither," Peskov said of those who claim Putin is ill.

Peskov spoke after a spate of Russian media reports referring to an October 24 column in the tabloid "New York Post" whose author, Richard Johnson, cited unidentified sources as saying Putin had pancreatic cancer.

Putin and the Kremlin have strongly discouraged reporting about the 62-year-old president's private life.

(Based on reporting by TASS and Interfax)


Russia's largest oil company, Rosneft, is threatening to sue the Russian daily "Kommersant" for a report alleging Rosneft sent President Vladimir Putin proposals for countersanctions against Western companies and individuals.

"Kommersant" reported on October 29 that state-run Rosneft's proposals include limiting cooperation aboard the International Space Station, prohibiting burial of U.S. and EU nuclear waste in Russia, and possible confiscation of property in Russia owned by Western countries or their citizens.

Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, denied there were any Rosneft proposals for sanctions, but presidential aide Andrei Belousov and Economy Minister Aleksei Ulyukayev seemed to contradict this.

State-run TASS reported Peskov said reports Rosneft had sent such proposals were untrue.

Peskov said decisions on imposing sanctions were made "in line with the relevant departments, and taken on the level of the government and president."

A different TASS report quoted Belousov as saying, "We are closely studying Rosneft's proposals."

Belousov went on to say, "I would say the radicalism of the proposals for now exceeds the current level of tensions."

The Interfax news agency quoted Ulyukayev as saying the proposals were a "very complex document" and adding, "I don’t think it is grounds for making any decisions."

The "Kommersant" report said "Russian government officials" had provided information about the alleged proposals.

A statement from Rosneft said the company was "deeply shocked" by the "Kommersant" article and might sue the newspaper.

Western governments have imposed several rounds of sanctions on Russia over its annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.

The sanctions target key Russian industries and individuals close to Putin, including Rosneft and its head, Igor Sechin, who is a former Kremlin deputy chief of staff.

The sanctions have hurt Rosneft, which has already requested additional funding from the Russian government to make up for losses incurred due to sanctions.

British oil company BP reported on October 28 that its income from its operations with Rosneft dropped from $808 million in the third quarter of 2013 to $110 million in the same period this year.

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


The White House says it has taken measures to counter suspicious activity detected on its unclassified computer network.

A White House official would not say who might have been responsible for the activity on what was described as an unclassified computer network used by employees of the Executive Office of the President.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the authorities had taken "immediate measures to evaluate and mitigate the activity."

In a report on October 28, the "Washington Post" cited sources as saying hackers believed to be working for the Russian government breached the unclassified computer network in recent weeks.

The White House has declined to comment on the "Washington Post" report.

A U.S. administration official said there were no indications that classified networks had been affected.

(Based on reporting by Reuters, AP, and dpa)



Activists are gathering near the former KGB headquarters to honor the memory of thousands of men and women executed by Soviet authorities during Josef Stalin's "Great Terror."

Speakers at the daylong ceremony at the Solovetsky Stone memorial on Moscow's Lubyanka Square read out aloud the names, ages, occupations, and dates of executions of some 30,000 people killed by Soviet authorities in 1937-1938.

Muscovites and others brought flowers, pictures of victims and candles to the site of the "Returning the Names" commemoration, which began at 1000 (local time; 0800 Prague time) and was to end at 1000 (local time; 0800 Prague time).

The annual ceremony is organized by Memorial, Russia's oldest and best-known human rights organization, which is under pressure from the government.

On October 10, Russia's Justice Ministry appealed to the Supreme Court to close Memorial.

Memorial has held the ceremony every year since 2006 at the site near the headquarters of the Federal Security Service, the KGB's main successor.

Ceremonies were also being held in other Russian cities.

(Based on live broadcast by


Pro-Russian separatists reportedly shelled the position of Ukrainian government troops in southeastern Ukraine on October 29, despite an almost two-month-old cease-fire agreement.

Authorities in the port city of Mariupol say military positions located near the village of Talakovka were targeted on October 29 by conventional artillery and Grad rockets that were fired from from the separatist-controlled region of Donetsk.

Casualties were reported among troops.

The cease-fire agreement signed in early September ended most fighting between the two sides -- although battles at the Donetsk airport, in Mariupol, and in villages near the city of Luhansk continue on an almost daily basis.

The UN says more than 3,700 people have been killed in six months of fighting between government forces and separatists in eastern Ukraine, with hundreds of thousands fleeing their homes.

(Based on reporting by Interfax and UNIAN)


By RFE/RL's Armenian Service

The Grozny Air civil aviation company, based in the Russia's Chechnya region, is pressing ahead with plans to launch regular flights from Yerevan to Crimea, despite protests from Kyiv.

Timur Shimayev, an executive officer for Grozny Air, told RFE/RL on October 29 that the firm's inaugural flight to Crimea is scheduled for November 17.

But Ukraine's Ambassador to Armenia, Ivan Kukhta, told reporters in Yerevan on October 29 that any commercial flights between Yerevan and Crimea must first be approved by Kyiv.

Kukhta's statement came five days after a spokesman for the Armenian government’s Civil Aviation Department, Ruben Grdzelian, said that a Russian regional airline had not been allowed to launch flights between Armenia and Crimea since the Ukrainian penninsula was annexed by Russia in March.

Moscow's annexation of Crimea has been condemned as illegal by the United States, the European Union, and the United Nations General Assembly.


12:55 October 29, 2014


The Russian daily "Kommersant" reports that the state-run oil giant Rosneft is calling on President Vladimir Putin to impose new sanctions on the West. The new moves reportedly include limiting cooperation aboard the International Space Station, prohibiting burial of U.S. and EU nuclear waste in Russia, and possible confiscation of property in Russia owned by Western countries or their citizens.

12:41 October 29, 2014


Just a few things I've noticed this morning:

Russian-German Trade Down

German exports to Russia have dropped by more than a quarter, "The Moscow Times" reports. In August, exports from Germany to Russia were 2.3 billion euros, a 26.3 percent decrease from a year ago. Moreover, German exports to Russia fell by 16.6 percent from January-August 2014.

Russian Elite More Cohesive -- For Now

According to a report by Reuters, sanctions have had the "opposite effect to the one intended" among the elite. "Far from dividing those closest to President Vladimir Putin, they have forced the main players in the energy sector to rally behind him. This circle has by necessity become more focused, Western and Russian businessmen, diplomats and politicians said," according to the report.

Sweden Is Warming Up To NATO

Foreign Directors Bail On Russian Firms

Since the start of the year, 14 percent of foreigners serving on the boards of Russian firms have left their posts, "The Moscow Times" reports. "Western sanctions have forced some foreign directors to step down or curb their activities on the boards of publicly traded Russian companies, leaving a critical gap that few domestic candidates are equipped to fill," according to the report.

09:17 October 29, 2014


From RFE/RL's News Desk:


Russia and Ukraine are set to resume talks over a gas dispute on October 29 in Brussels.

The new round of negotiations comes after inconclusive talks October 21, when European Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger announced some progress, but said a final deal has yet to be agreed.

Russia cut off gas deliveries to Ukraine in mid-June, citing a $5.3-billion debt.

Oettinger said that, as part of tentative deals, Ukraine planned to purchase some 4 billion cubic meters of Russian gas before the end of this year.

Russia on October 21 said the it would sell gas to Ukraine for $385 per 1,000 cubic meters, much lower than the $485 that Russia's state-controlled Gazprom was demanding just weeks ago.

Moscow said that price would be in force from October 2014 until late March 2015 -- but only if Ukraine pays in advance.

(Based on reporting by AFP and AP)


Ukraine on October 28 condemned as “destructive and provocative” Russia’s support for elections organized by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, while the United States said a vote by separatists in eastern Ukraine would be unlawful.

The November 2 vote was scheduled by rebels in defiance of Ukrainian national elections on October 26, which were won by pro-Western parties.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on October 28 described the vote planned by rebels as "pseudo-elections," saying they "grossly contradict the spirit and letter" of international agreements reached in Minsk in September.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says Moscow plans to recognize the elections that are being organized by separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine.

Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry warned that the the vote "will be a clear violation of the commitments made by both Russia and the separatists that it backs in the Minsk agreements."

(Based on reporting by Reuters, AP, AFP, and TASS)


Gazprom Neft, the oil arm of Russia's state-controlled natural gas monopoly Gazprom, said on October 28 that it has challenged European Union sanctions against the firm in the EU’s Court of Justice.

The sanctions against Gazprom Neft were imposed as part of wider restrictions against Russia over its illegal annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and its support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.

The EU sanctions restrict the ability of Gazprom Neft, Russia's fourth biggest oil producer by output, to raise funds on European markets.

The United States also has imposed sanctions against Gazprom Neft in response to Russia’s role in Ukraine’s crisis.

The West says Moscow is supplying arms and troops to help pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine battle Ukrainian government forces.

Moscow denies that, despite increasing evidence to support the charges.

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

18:54 October 27, 2014


Sam Greene, Director of the Russia Institute at King’s College London and author of "Moscow in Movement: Power & Opposition in Putin’s Russia," has a depressing (and must-read) blog post up about his recent trip to Moscow titled: "Russia's Tomorrow, Today."

It opens like this:

The news and the invitation were waiting for me, both, when I got off the plane from London to Moscow. I saw the invitation first—from a long-time colleague, to attend a workshop on the future of Russian politics later this month at Memorial, the venerable Russian historical society and human rights organization. I saw the news two hours later: 17 days after that workshop, Russia’s High Court will hold a hearing on the government’s demand that Memorial be liquidated.

That is the condition of life in Russia these days: two hours in which an invitation takes on a funerary pallor, 17 days in which the world becomes immeasurably smaller. Rarely has the distance between today and tomorrow been so great and so fraught as it is now.

And it concludes like this:

The tomorrow whose arrival now seems inevitable is one in which the archives of Memorial and the Sakharov Center disappear, to be replaced with a single national history textbook and a single national literature textbook, so that the past may have no bearing on the future. It is one in which policy analysis disappears from the public space, along with honest reporting, so that the present may also have no bearing on the future. Tomorrow, when it arrives, will bring one sole purpose: to preserve and protect the status quo. It is a tomorrow after which there are meant to be, politically speaking, no more tomorrows at all..

What the designers of this new tomorrow may not realize, however, is that, once freed from the paralysis of a pointless today, the despair of disaffection becomes the desperation of dissent. Dissidents, pitted against a regime that can never fall, take risks that are unnecessary in a more fluid system. They speak at all costs to demonstrate that they have no voice, and they go to jail to demonstrate that they are not free. Once today becomes tomorrow, and there are no more tomorrows for which to wait, the imperative of immediate action reemerges. 

Is the Kremlin ready for an opposition that, because everything is already lost, has nothing left to lose?

Read it all here.

And a h/t to Ben Judah for flagging.


15:42 October 27, 2014


The Russian health and consumer watchdog Rospotrebnadzor has issued a dire warning: SEFIES CAUSE HEAD LICE!

No, really. I'm serious! It is actually on their official website:

"One reason for the spread of lice among teenagers, in the opinion of experts, is because selfie photographs have become more common. In these group photos, lice are transfered due to the touching of heads."

And it is causing a lot of laughs on the Twitter:

15:24 October 27, 2014


The Russian newspaper "Novaya gazeta" has launched a new video series on its YouTube channel called Украинское эхо, or The Ukrainian Echo, that looks at Moscow's relations with former-Soviet states in the aftermath of the Ukraine crisis.

The first installment, which was out on October 20, focused on Georgia:

And the latest, which went online today, looks at Kazakhstan:

15:04 October 27, 2014


From RFE/RL's News Desk:


The European Union has hailed the parliamentary election in Ukraine as a victory for democracy and pro-European reforms in the ex-Soviet republic.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said in a tweet on October 27: "Congratulations to the people of #Ukraine! Victory of democracy and European reforms' agenda."

Pro-Europe parties won a sweeping victory in a parliamentary election that Ukrainians hope will strengthen the country after a year of political turmoil and months of warfare against Russian-supported separatists in the east.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin said it was clear the election was valid "in spite of the rather harsh and dirty campaign," Interfax news agency reported.

He said the new Rada would have to "start an inclusive dialogue with entire society."

(Based on reporting by AFP and Interfax)


State-controlled Russian airline Aeroflot has resumed flights between Moscow and the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, after a six-year hiatus caused by the war between the two former Soviet republics.

An Aeroflot Airbus 320 carried about 100 passengers from Moscow to Tbilisi on October 27.

It was the Russian flag-carrier's first direct flight since a five-day war in August 2008 over breakaway South Ossetia.

Russia recognized South Ossetia and another Moscow-backed separatist province, Abkhazia, as independent states after the war, and it has troops stationed in both regions.

Diplomatic ties were severed over the war.

Direct flights between Russia and Georgia - operated by Russia's S7 and Ural Airlines as well as Georgian Airways - have been available in charter form only since August 2010.

(Based on reporting by and Interfax)

And via Reuters:


PRAGUE, Oct 27 (Reuters) - Russia deployed an "extremely high" number of intelligence officers at its Czech embassy last year, the NATO member country's secret service said in an annual report released on Monday.

The reported increase in spying comes as relations between Russia and the West have worsened, culminating in the Ukraine crisis that began a year ago with street demonstrations against pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovich.

Czech spy-watchers have long warned about Russian intelligence services activities in the central European country, a member of the European Union, which is popular with Russians who often travel to and buy property in the country.

The Security Information Service (BIS) said Russian and Chinese spies in the Czech Republic work mostly to use politicians or journalists to extend their influence and secure their countries' economic interests.

"Both the Russian and the Chinese embassy employ intelligence officers serving under diplomatic cover. In 2013, the number of such officers at the Russian embassy was extremely high," the BIS report said.

Other intelligence officers travelled to the Czech Republic individually as tourists, experts, academics or businessmen.

"Russian intelligence services attempted to make use of both open and covert political, media and societal influence to promote Russian economic interests in the Czech Republic," the report said.

Russian intelligence activity previously jumped in 2007, when the Czech Republic and the United States held negotiations on building a missile defence radar in the country. The plan was eventually cancelled by President Barack Obama's administration after also running into opposition in the Czech parliament.

The current centre-left Czech government has taken a cautious approach as relations between Western countries and Russia have deteriorated this year over Moscow's role in the Ukraine crisis.

A number of Czech officials have spoken against sanctions imposed by Brussels -- for which Russia has retaliated by banning food imports from Europe -- although the government has backed the EU's actions.

Yanukovich's overthrow in February prompted Moscow to annexe the Crimea peninsula and back separatist rebellions in eastern Ukraine in which more than 3,700 people have died.

The BIS has in the past warned of Russian intelligence officers building networks in the country using Czech citizens as well as the local Russian community.

The Polish government said on Saturday it had withdrawn accreditation from a Russian journalist after arresting two Poles, including a military officer, earlier this month on suspicion of spying for Russia.

The BIS said rejecting Czech visas or accreditation for Russians with ties to the intelligence services had led to cases of retaliation against Czech career diplomats.


MOSCOW, Oct 27 (Reuters) - A parliamentary election in Ukraine offers a chance for peace in the country's east, a deputy Russian foreign minister said on Monday but warned that "nationalists" in the chamber could undermine the process, RIA news agency reported.

An initial vote count showed pro-European parties had secured a clear victory in the Ukrainian poll, the first to be held since street protests ousted the country's pro-Russian leader, Viktor Yanukovich, earlier this year.

"Parties supporting a peaceful resolution of the internal Ukrainian crisis won a majority. This gives them a new chance to return to the agreements made, first and foremost, in Minsk," Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin said, referring to agreements made by Kiev, Moscow and pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Ukraine's pro-Western President Petro Poroshenko hailed the election result as a show of popular support for his plan to end a pro-Russian rebellion in the east and pursue reforms.

Kiev and the West blame Moscow for destabilising Ukraine by supporting and arming the rebels as well as reinforcing them with Russian troops. Moscow denies taking part in the armed conflict.

"The fact that openly nationalistic and chauvinistic forces won considerable support and will be represented in the Rada (parliament) creates an additional threat that again calls will sound ... for the use of force, for bloodshed," Karasin added.

"That is extremely dangerous."

14:36 October 27, 2014


Just now catching up with defense analyst Pavel Felgenhauer's disturbing analysis of Russia's military thinking: "Preparing for War Against the US on All Fronts—A Net Assessment of Russia’s Defense and Foreign Policy Since the Start of 2014."

"During all of 2014, Russia’s rulers and most of the population seem to have been living together in a daydream. Consequently, Russian defense and foreign policy plans as well as the country’s decision making apparatus have, for months, been based on little more than strange fantasies and outlandish assumptions. Yet, these fantasies are backed up by a formidable military machine, billions of petrodollars and a nuclear superpower arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. And this is a truly dangerous mix."

Read it all here.

17:49 October 24, 2014


From RFE/RL's News Desk:


Russian President Vladimir Putin has accused the United States of escalating conflicts around the world by imposing what he called a "unilateral diktat."

Putin made the remarks in a combative speech to political experts at the Valdai International Discussion Club, in Russia's Black Sea resort of Sochi.

Putin said the United States has been "fighting against the results of its own policy" in Iraq, Libya and Syria.

He said risks of serious conflicts involving major countries have risen, as well as risks of arms treaties being violated.

He also dismissed international sanctions over Russia's actions in Ukraine as a "mistake," saying they aimed at pushing Russia into isolation and would end up "hurting everyone."

We did not start this," he added, referring to rising tensions between Russia and the West.

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


German Chancellor Angela Merkel has urged Russian President Vladimir Putin in a telephone call to push for a quick resolution of the ongoing gas dispute with Ukraine as winter looms.

The call by Merkel to Putin on October 24 comes as representatives of the EU, Russia, and Ukraine are due to meet again next week in EU brokered talks aimed at solving the gas dispute between Kyiv and Moscow.

Merkel also underlined that upcoming elections in areas of eastern Ukraine controlled by Russian-backed separatists must respect Ukrainian national law.

Pro-Russian insurgent leaders are boycotting a parliamentary snap poll on October 26 in Ukraine and are holding their own election in the Lugansk and Donetsk regions, home to nearly three million people, on the same day instead.

(Based on reporting by AFP and Reuters)



The United Nations says the conflict in Ukraine has forced more than 800,000 people from their homes.

Around 95 percent of displaced people come from eastern Ukraine, where government troops have been battling pro-Russian separatists.

UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, told a briefing in Geneva that an estimated 430,000 people were currently displaced within Ukraine -- 170,000 more than at the start of September.

It said at least 387,000 other people have asked for refugee status, temporary asylum, or other forms of residency permits in Russia.

Another 6,600 have applied for asylum in the European Union and 581 in Belarus.

The agency said it was "racing to help some of the most vulnerable displaced people" as winter approaches.

It also said the number of displaced people is expected to rise further due to ongoing fighting in eastern Ukraine.


Three alleged militants have been killed by security forces in Russia's volatile North Caucasus region.

Russia's National Antiterrorism Committee says that two suspects were killed in the village of Charoda in Daghestan on October 24 after they refused to leave an apartment and opened fire at police and security troops.

One police officer was wounded.

Also on October 24, police in another North Caucasus region, Kabardino-Balkaria, killed a suspected militant after he refused to identify himself, threw a grenade towards police, and opened fire with a pistol.

A police officer was wounded in that incident.

Violence is common in Russia's North Caucasus region, which includes the restive republics of Daghestan, Kabardino-Balkaria, Ingushetia, and Chechnya.

Islamic militants and criminal groups routinely target Russian military personnel and local officials.

(Based on reporting by Interfax and TASS)


A lawyer, who represented an alleged victim of the notorious Orekhovo criminal group in Moscow, has been assassinated.

Police in the Russian capital say that Vitaly Moiseyev and his wife were found dead with gunshot wounds in a car near Moscow on October 24.

Moiseyev was representing Sergei Zhurba, an alleged victim of the Orekhovo gang and a key witness in a case against one of the gang's leaders Dmitry Belkin.

Belkin was sentenced to life in prison on October 23 for multiple murders and extortion.

Last month, another of Zhurba's lawyers, Tatyana Akimtseva (eds: a woman), was shot dead by unknown individuals.

The Orekhovo group was one of the most powerful crime gangs of the Moscow region and in Russia in the 1990s. Its members are believed to be responsible for dozens of murders.

(Based on reporting by TASS and Interfax)

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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