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The Morning Vertical, February 16, 2017

  • Brian Whitmore

ON MY MIND

Domestic violence is in. Atheism is out.

In Vladimir Putin's Russia, you can now face harsher criminal penalties for questioning the existence of God or insulting someone's religious beliefs than for wife beating.

Recent legislation decriminalizing domestic violence, as well as older laws outlawing blasphemy and gay propaganda, are just a few examples of the Kremlin's ultraconservative turn during Putin's third term in the Kremlin.

But these laws aren't just about domestic politics. They are also a key element in Russia's foreign policy.

The Putin regime's embrace of what it calls traditional Christian values at home, combined with its support of far-right, xenophobic, and Euroskeptic forces abroad, are components of an incipient ideology aimed at shoring up domestic support, undermining Western liberalism, and restoring Russia's status as a great power.

Call it Putinism 2.0 -- and it's gone international.

IN THE NEWS

Top U.S. lawmakers have continued to question the relationship between Russia and President Donald Trump's aides, with a growing number of Republicans joining calls for inquiries into the matter.

Three U.S. lawmakers from Connecticut are expressing concern over reports of a Russian intelligence-gathering ship sailing near a U.S. naval submarine base in their state. Senators Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy and Representative Joe Courtney condemned what they described as Russia's increasing aggression.

U.S. House Democrats are pushing forward with legislation to make sure Congress can block any effort President Trump's administration might make to lift sanctions on Russia.

France says it will not accept meddling by Russia or any other country in its upcoming presidential election, and that it could respond to such interference with "retaliatory measures."

Turkish media reports say a new suspect has been detained in connection with the December assassination of Russia's ambassador to Turkey.

The U.S. Embassy in Georgia has condemned plans by separatist authorities in South Ossetia for a referendum on a proposed name change for the Russia-backed breakaway region.

Ukraine has accused Russian hackers of targeting its power grid, financial system, and other infrastructure with thousands of attacks and a new type of virus that attacks industrial processes.

Ukraine has declared a state of emergency for its energy sector that could lead to rolling blackouts as officials try to dramatically reduce electricity consumption across the country.

An international mediator from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe says Ukraine's warring sides have agreed to withdraw heavy weapons from the front line by February 20 in line with the Minsk peace plan.

WHAT I'M READING

Master Of The Middle East

Owen Matthews, Jack Moore, and Damien Sharkov in Newsweek discuss Russia's plan to become the Middle East's new power broker.

"Russia’s return to the Middle East has proved a stunning, sudden success -- and a setback to American power and prestige," the authors write.

"Up until recently the U.S. had no real diplomatic or military rival in the Middle East. Now, as Trump begins his presidency with promises of wiping out ISIS, there are Russian planes in the air and troops on the ground in Syria; battleships off the coast of Libya; and Moscow’s friends occupy -- or are in line to occupy -- presidential palaces from Tripoli to Damascus. Any time Trump makes a move in the Middle East, he’ll have to ask himself: 'What will Putin think of this?' No other recent American president had that problem."

Can Germany Save NATO?

Former NATO official Fabrice Pothier, a senior associate at Rasmussen Global and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, has a piece in Politico arguing that Germany holds the key to reviving NATO.

"With Europe's largest GDP and by far its strongest economy, Germany is the swing state in European defense," Pothier writes.

"If Berlin commits to spending the recommended 2 percent of GDP on defense, it would add $30 billion of defense spending in Europe -- a large share of the $100 billion surplus that would be generated if all European members and Canada met their targets. The move would significantly boost European defense."

Can Europe Save The West?

In a piece in Foreign Policy, Charles Kupchan, a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that continental Europe represents the West's last line of defense against populism.

"If the United States and Great Britain are to be, at least temporarily, missing in action when it comes to defending the liberal international order, then continental Europe will have to hold down the fort," Kupchan, author of the book No One's World: The West, The Rising Rest, And The Coming Global Turn, writes.

"With the internal cohesion of the EU strained by the very populism the bloc needs to face down, it is not good timing for the EU to fill the gap left by Anglo-American dysfunction. But at least for now, European leadership is liberal internationalism’s best hope."

Surkov And Crimea

In his column for Republic.ru, opposition journalist Oleg Kashin looks at what is behind recent claims that Kremlin aide Vladislav Surkov had opposed the annexation of Crimea.

More MH17 Revelations

A new Bellingcat report has identified retired Russian officer Sergei Dubinsky as the man in charge of transporting the Russian Buk that downed MH17.

Suspense? What Suspense?

In The Moscow Times, political analyst Mikhail Fishman writes that "the suspense is over" and "Putin is running" for reelection next year.

"At first glance, the 2018 election should present little challenge to the sitting president. The street protests and dissent that characterized his last presidential election in 2012 are a distant memory. The nation is seemingly coming to terms with Putin's everlasting rule. Without competition or obvious alternatives, Putin's approval ratings remain at record-highs," Fishman writes.

"Yet there are some signs this election may not be as straightforward as the Kremlin expects. The challenge is avoiding boredom. The faces are the same. The conclusion is foregone. There is no drama, no fight, and, consequently, no reason to go out and vote."

Fake News, Fake Ukrainians

In The New York Times, Andrew Higgins looks at how Moscow influenced last year's Dutch referendum on Ukraine's Association Agreement with the European Union -- with disinformation and a team of Russians posing as Ukrainians opposed to the pact.

Fatal Attraction

Why are so many Western leaders enthralled by the Kremlin leader? The BBC's Tim Whewell addresses the issue of "the pull of Putin."

Anatomy Of A Phone Call

In Foreign Policy, Marc Ambinder unpacks how former U.S. national security adviser Michael Flynn's calls to the Russian ambassador came to light.

And on his blog In Moscow's Shadows, Mark Galeotti of the Institute of International Relations in Prague looks at the known unknowns in the scandal over contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian officials.

The Ghost Of Boris Yeltsin

In his column for Bloomberg, political commentator Leonid Bershidsky compares Trump to former Russian President Boris Yeltsin.

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on 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

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