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The Morning Vertical, May 4, 2016


Drip. Drip. Drip.

Three months ago, something we always suspected was confirmed when an official British investigation concluded that former KGB bodyguard Andrei Lugovoi and his accomplice, Dmitry Kovtun, most probably killed former Russian security agent Aleksandr Litvinenko, likely with Vladimir Putin's approval. One month ago, something else we always suspected was confirmed when the Panama Papers revealed that Putin's close associates were siphoning billions of dollars out of Russia through shady shell companies. And now, another long-held suspicion was given an official imprimatur when Spanish Judge Jose de la Mata issued arrest warrants for top Russian officials and close Putin cronies in a decade-old investigation into organized crime.

No matter how much hedging, nuance, rationalization, and whataboutism you throw into the mix, it is getting increasingly difficult to ignore the obvious: The Putin regime is basically a crime syndicate masquerading as a state.


A Spanish judge has issued international arrest warrants for top Russian officials for alleged ties to organized crime.

Sweden's prime minister says he is not interested in Moscow's opinion on his country joining NATO.

Oleg Yezhov, the former deputy governor of Primorsky Krai, has been detained on corruption charges.

Interfax is reporting that Aleksei Navalny and the liberal Yabloko party are in negotiations about cooperating in the September 2017 State Duma elections.

Estonia's defense minister is accusing Russian jets of behaving "incredibly recklessly" in Baltic airspace.

U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter has called on Russia to stop "saber-rattling."

Three Russian naval ships have arrived in Brunei to participate in exercises in the Pacific. The ADMM-Plus exercises run from May 2-12 and include 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, as well as Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, South Korea, and the United States.


My latest Power Vertical blog post, Putinfellas, looks at Vladimir Putin's long-standing links to organized crime groups and how a Spanish investigation has exposed these ties.

"Putin's Kremlin has used organized crime to carry out the tasks it wants to keep its fingerprints off, be it arms smuggling, assassinations, raising funds for black ops, or stirring up trouble in the former Soviet space…

"But now, thanks to Spanish Judge Jose de la Mata, the mask is coming off Putin's mafia statecraft in a big way."


Victory Day On A Budget

According to a report in RBK, Russia will spend four times less on this year's Victory Day celebrations than last year's lavish 70th anniversary festivities.

Cyber Attacks And Article 5

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg says a cyberattack on an alliance member could potentially trigger its Article 5 collective defense clause.

"Stoltenberg told a key alliance planning summit on Wednesday morning that 'cyber is now a central part of virtually all crises and conflicts. NATO has made clear that cyberattacks can potentially trigger an Article 5 response."

Sweden, Finland, And NATO

Veteran Kremlin-watcher and foreign affairs analyst Edward Lucas explains why NATO needs Sweden and Finland.

"I have been urging both countries to join NATO for years," Lucas writes. "My argument was, 'Do it now while you don’t need to, because the circumstances that will make it necessary will also make it harder."

Lucas was reacting to a recent report commissioned by Finland's Foreign Ministry on the effects of joining the alliance.

New Bellingcat Report On MH17

Bellingcat has issued a report that provides new details about the identity of the Buk missile that shot down Flight MH17 over Ukraine in July 2014.

Victims Of Success

The U.S. Air Force has become a victim of its own success, retired U.S. General David W. Barno and Nora Bensahel of the School of International Service at American University write in the War On The Rocks blog.

"The stunning success of the Air Force in dominating its domain since the 1991 Gulf War has created two looming problems for the service leadership: The Air Force no longer has any substantive experience in how to fight and win in a highly contested environment, and its current airmen have never experienced serious losses of people and machines in air combat…

"Yet today, the threat to American air dominance is growing. Growing antiaccess and area denial (A2/AD) tactics and capabilities by potential adversaries such as China, Russia, and Iran are of increasing concern for U.S. military leaders."

Russia's Trade Unions

Ever wonder where Russia's trade unions get their money? Check out RBK's new investigation to find out.

Russia And The Hajj

On the latest Sean's Russia Blog podcast, Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies looks at the underexplored topic of how Russia manages the hajj. Sean's guest is Eileen Kane, a professor at Connecticut College and author of the book Russian Hajj: Empire And The Pilgrimage To Mecca.

Homophobia Inc.

Meduza has an important and deeply disturbing story about "how a gang of thugs in St. Petersburg has made an industry of baiting and extorting homosexuals."

Ukraine's Energy Reforms

Writing on The Atlantic Council's website, Basil A. Kalymon of the University of Western Ontario looks at Ukraine's recent successes in reforming its gas market.

The Next UN Secretary-General

Foreign Policy asks: Will the next UN secretary-general be from Eastern Europe?

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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