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The Morning Vertical, May 25, 2016


So the Kremlin has finally released its most famous hostage. As I write this, kidnapped Ukrainian military pilot Nadia Savchenko is on a flight from Russia to Ukraine. Not much time to process all this, but here are my initial thoughts:

This saga, which has dragged on for nearly two years, has given Ukraine something it has long lacked: a leader with clear and unambiguous moral authority; someone unsullied by the past and uncompromised by the current corrupt elite; someone who took herself to the brink of death for the sake of Ukraine and who flipped the bird at Vladimir Putin's kangaroo court. Ukraine has its Vaclav Havel. Savchenko won't even need to formally enter politics to claim this mantle. Her mere presence on Ukrainian soil should do the trick.

Can the current Ukrainian elite live up to her example? We'll see.

And as for Russia, Savchenko was just the most high-profile example of Moscow's recent habit of hostage-taking: of snatching foreign citizens from their homelands and forcing them to endure ridiculous show trials in Russia. That list runs from Estonian law-enforcement officer Eston Kohver, who has been released, to Ukrainian film director Oleh Sentsov, who has not. For those released, the pattern is similar: the abduction, the transparently absurd charges and cover story, the show trial, and finally the exchange for Russians who have committed actual crimes.

It's a pattern that is bound to repeat itself as long as the Kremlin keeps getting away with it.


Ukrainian military pilot Nadia Savchenko has been released after being exchanged for two Russian military intelligence officers.

Russia has acknowledged that 14 of its athletes are suspected of doping at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko says Russia will pass legislation making doping a criminal offense.

A Russian national and Portuguese citizen have been arrested in Rome on suspicion of espionage


A War With No Winners

Moscow-based foreign affairs analyst Vladimir Frolov has a thoughtful and in-depth piece in, A War Without Victors: Why Russia and the U.S. Are Powerless In Syria. Frolov writes that the inability of Moscow and Washington to control their proxies in Syria is making a political solution to the conflict unlikely.

Iran Can Surge In Syria, Too

Aron Lund of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has a piece that looks at the Iranian ground operation that has buttressed Russia's air campaign in Syria.

"What happened in autumn 2015 was not just that Russia began operating in Syrian airspace. The reason the Russian intervention was so successful was that it was also accompanied by Iranian intervention on the ground," Lund writes.

Wiretap Sting

Election monitor Golos says it has conducted a sting operation to expose that the pro-Kremlin television station NTV has been wiretapping their telephones, most likely with the assistance of the police. Golos employees arranged a fictitious meeting with officials from the Canadian Embassy in Moscow over the telephone, and at the appointed time a camera crew from NTV arrived at their office, Golos chairman Grigory Melkonyants told Novaya Gazeta.

Talking To Putin

Pavel Baev has a piece on The Jamestown Foundation's website on "the futility of dialogue with Vladimir Putin."

"The fundamental political belief in the inherent benefit of maintaining open dialogue with an opponent may be seriously misplaced in Putin’s case," Baev writes.

"He cannot be dissuaded from using war as an instrument of policy, because only war provides justification for his regime. Nor can he be persuaded to choose what is best for Russia, because his regime is corrupt and the loyal security services (siloviki) are wrangling over the shrinking loot. Even the most no-nonsense talks cannot reduce the unpredictability of Russia’s behavior, because the country is going through spasms of angst and anger. A sincere Western commitment to dialogue could become a means of fooling itself -- and Putin is certainly a great help in that."

Russia's Mythological Army

Also on The Jamestown Foundation's website, military analyst Roger McDermott argues that Russia's new-look army isn't all it's cracked up to be.

"The representation of Russia’s army as a new all-powerful tool at the Kremlin’s disposal is hyperbole," McDermott writes.

"The many weaknesses in defense planning, reform setbacks, and the systemic challenges facing the domestic defense industry have been submerged in overly glowing public relations assertions, as well as masked by the Crimea operation and the air campaign in Syria"

Getting Russia Wrong

Timothy Frye, director of the Harriman Institute at Columbia University, has a piece in Foreign Affairs on why political theory consistently gets Russia wrong.

"Why has divining Russia’s political future been so hard?" Frye writes. "It is a challenge not because of the supposedly inscrutable Putin, the opacity of the political system, or the vagaries of the 'Russian soul,' but because our two most prominent arguments about political change make precisely opposite predictions about Russia."

Optimistic Ukrainians

Diane Francis, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center, has a piece on why, despite everything, Ukraine's reformers are still optimistic. The piece focuses on three members of Ukraine's parliament -- Sergii Leshchenko, Hanna Hopko, and Mustafa Nayyem -- who were propelled into politics by the Euromaidan revolution.

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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