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ON MY MIND

Ksenia Sobchak's announcement that she will run for president next year is dominating the conversation among Russia watchers today.

On today's Daily Vertical, I give my initial take, arguing that even if Sobchak's candidacy is a Kremlin-sanctioned ploy to create the appearance of a legitimate election, it also carries big risks as well.

I also don't rule out that Sobchak is probably playing her own game, even if she did cut a deal with the regime.

A few thoughts and data points jump out at me so far.

First, by framing her candidacy as a vote "against all" -- an option that was actually on the Russian ballot in the 1990s but was removed during Vladimir Putin's rule -- Sobchak is lowering the threshold for claiming a moral victory. She's, of course, not going to win and she knows it. But Russian elections are about the ritual, the optics, and the story. In her initial campaign video on her website (featured below), Sobchak makes a fairly compelling case for why this matters.

Second, by clearly saying that she would drop out of the race if Aleksei Navalny were allowed on the ballot (see video featured below), Sobchak is sending a pretty clear message that she does not want to be used as a foil against the opposition leader and anticorruption activist, who has been barred from running by the Kremlin.

Third, the dynamic between Navalny and Sobchak going forward will be fascinating -- and very telling -- to watch. If they act in tandem -- Sobchak on the inside and Navalny on the outside -- they could create a powerful force that could -- while not threatening Putin's reelection, which is a foregone conclusion -- severely damage the Kremlin's narrative and undermine the regime's legitimacy. If they operate at cross purposes, they will play right into the Kremlin's hands.

Next year's presidential election was already promising to be like nothing we've seen in the long Putin era. The rising discontent in society, the rise of a generation yearning for new political "products," and Navalny's unauthorized campaign from the sidelines already assured this. Sobchak's entry into the show makes it even more so.

Of course, Putin is going to "win" and the result is preordained. But this election is also about setting the stage for Russia beyond 2018.

IN THE NEWS

Ksenia Sobchak, the Russian socialite, TV personality, opposition activist, and daughter of a former St. Petersburg mayor, says she will run in Russia’s presidential election in March, a challenge to President Vladimir Putin, who is widely expected to run for reelection.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions insisted he answered truthfully when he earlier said that he had no contacts with "anyone connected to the Russian government" about the 2016 U.S. presidential election, although he acknowledged he had meetings with the Russian ambassador at the time.

Russian state-owned oil giant Rosneft says it has signed a production-sharing agreement with Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region worth up to $400 million.

Ukraine's parliament is set to consider changes to the immunity of lawmakers and the electoral law amid demands from protesters camped in front of the legislature to clamp down on corruption.

Five people were killed after a car plowed into a crowd of pedestrians in Kharkiv, Ukraine's Interior Ministry said in a statement that cited traffic-safety violations rather than an extremist plot or terrorist link.

WHAT I'M READING

Enter Candidate Sobchak

Former reality TV star and opposition pundit Ksenia Sobchak announces she will run for president on Dozhd-TV.

But adds that she would withdraw her candidacy if Aleksei Navalny were allowed on the ballot.

And launches her campaign website, on which she explains that by casting a ballot for her, voters can demonstrate their dissatisfaction with all the other candidates.

Meduza looks at the factors influencing Sobchak's decision and who will comprise her campaign team.

Opposition journalist Oleg Kashin gives his take on Sobchak in Republic.ru.

Newsru.com looks at suspicions that Sobchak cut a deal with the Kremlin.

And Mark Galeotti of the Institute of International Relations in Prague weighs in with a video commentary on what Sobchak's candidacy means.

Party Lines

Aleksei Gorbachev has a piece in Nezavisimaya Gazeta arguing that the Kremlin is in the process of reviving and rejuvenating the party A Just Russia as part of a renewed effort to establish a managed two-party system

The Czech Front

Coda has a piece on efforts to combat Russian disinformation in the Czech Republic's parliamentary elections.

Chatham House Report On Ukraine

Chatham House has released a new report: The Struggle For Ukraine.

Another Azerbaijani Journalist In Peril -- This Time In Ukraine

Eurasianet looks at the plight of opposition Azerbaijani journalist Fikret Huseynli, who is facing extradition from Ukraine.

Russia's Lost Economic Chance

Sergei Aleksashenko, a former deputy Russian finance minister and deputy Central Bank head, has an op-ed in The Moscow Times on why Russia was unable to transform the Soviet economy.

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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