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ON MY MIND

So 2016 is over and 2017 promises to be just as tumultuous -- if not more so.

In foreign affairs, we'll see how the relationship between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump will play out in practice. In Europe, we'll see if the populist wave Moscow has been aiding and abetting will sweep through the Netherlands, France, and Germany. In Russia's neighborhood, we'll see if Moscow tries to claim its coveted "sphere of influence" and exert imperial dominance over its neighbors -- and how the Ukrainians, Georgians, and Moldovans will respond.

Russian domestic politics should prove no less turbulent as the country gears up for the 2018 presidential election and the Kremlin prepares for the tricky undertaking of marking the centennial of the Bolshevik Revolution.

The Morning Vertical and all The Power Vertical's products will be there to help everybody make sense of the coming year.

So Happy New Year everybody, thanks for the support, and we'll see you again in 2017.

IN THE NEWS

The United States says it is expelling nearly three dozen Russian diplomats as it announced new economic sanctions and other punitive measures in response to alleged Russian hacking during the presidential election.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said his ministry had sent to Putin the names of 31 U.S. diplomats in Moscow and four from the U.S. Consulate in St. Petersburg with the recommendation that they be expelled in retaliation.

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump has called on the country to "move on" after the White House hit Russia with major new sanctions for interfering in the November election through cyberattacks.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has said Russian security services are waging a cyberwar against the country, with hackers targeting Ukrainian state institutions about 6,500 times in the past two months.

Russia's security agencies say they have arrested seven people suspected of preparing New Year's terror attacks in Moscow on orders from the Islamic State extremist group in Syria.

A Russian stadium that is due to host a 2018 World Cup semifinal match has been officially completed after many construction delays and corruption scandals.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Egyptian counterpart, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, have discussed what the Kremlin said were "plans for the resumption of regular flights between Moscow and Cairo in the near future."

A Russian military official says there was was no explosion aboard a jet that crashed in the Black Sea en route to Syria but that terrorism has not been ruled out as a possible cause.

Russian President Putin says the Syrian government and its opponents have signed an agreement on a nationwide cease-fire and a declaration expressing willingness to begin peace talks.

A new nationwide cease-fire in Syria brokered by Russia and Turkey appears to be largely holding, despite reports of isolated clashes, a monitoring group has said.

LATEST POWER VERTICAL BLOG

The Power Vertical's year-ender blog on domestic politics looks back as The Year The Collective Putin Died.

And in case you missed it, the Power Vertical's year-ender blog on foreign affairs surveyed the damage from Putin's Perfect Storm.

WHAT I'M READING

What Changed? What's Coming?

Republic.ru has a piece asking the experts: What changed in 2016 and what can we expect in 2017?

Putin, Trump, And The Culture Wars

Masha Gessen has a piece in The New York Review Of Books looking at how Putin thinks he won the global culture war -- and what this may portend.

"Putin has declared victory in his war on modern culture, which gives him the right to call himself the most powerful man in the world. But, of course, that description has generally been part of the definition of a different job—the one to which Trump has in fact just been elected," Gessen writes.

"One suspects that having two men who believe themselves to be the most powerful in the world can't go well."

Britain's Dangerous Year

Veteran Kremlin-watcher Edward Lucas, author of The New Cold War, writes that Britain is now facing its most dangerous year since the Cold War.

Russian Emigres

Khodorkovsky.com has an interesting piece up on where Russians go when they emigrate.

The Sanctioned

Republic.ru looks at at the individuals who have been sanctioned by the Obama administration over alleged Russian interference in the U.S. elections.

Calling All Hackers

Andrew Higgins has a nicely reported piece in The New York Times on how Russia recruits hackers for its cyberwar.

Moscow On The Chesapeake

The Baltimore Sun takes a closer look at those Russian facilities in Maryland that have been closed under U.S. sanctions.

Boxed In

Bloomberg has a news analysis claiming that "President Barack Obama is forcing his successor Donald Trump into a difficult choice: reverse the sanctions the departing president just imposed on Russia for hacking the U.S. election or put at risk his campaign vow to improve relations with Vladimir Putin."

Kasparov Appears On The Waking Up Podcast

Former world chess champion and self-exiled Russian opposition figure Garry Kasparov appears on Sam Harris's Waking Up Podcast

Ukrainians In Defense Of Russian Historian

Ukrainian authorities are asking for the international community to protect Russian historian Yury Dmitriyev, head of the Karelia branch of Memorial, who is facing criminal charges in a case many see as trumped up and politically motivated.

Kleptocrats Playground

Ben Judah, author of the books This Is London and Fragile Empire, has a piece in The New York Times on how London rolls out the red carpet for kleptocrats.

Russian Words Of The Year

Global Voices has a fun piece identifying and explaining Russia's "words of the year."

SRB Podcast

The latest SRB Podcast, hosted by Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies, looks at The Perils of Donbas Fatigue. Sean's guest is aid worker Brian Milakovsky, who lives and works in Ukraine's Luhansk Oblast.

NOTE TO POWER VERTICALISTAS: The Morning Vertical and all Power Vertical products will not appear next week, from January 2-6. All Power Vertical products will resume their regular schedule on Monday, January 9.

In place of a prince and his entourage, we now have a tsar and his servants.

Sergei Ivanov and Viktor Ivanov have a lot in common.

In addition to sharing a last name, both are KGB veterans, both are longtime cronies of Vladimir Putin -- and both were thrown under the bus by the Kremlin leader this year.

Viktor Ivanov got the boot in May when Putin liquidated the Federal Antinarcotics Service he ran, merging it into the Interior Ministry, leaving his once-influential pal out of a job and on the outside looking in.

And in August, it was Sergei Ivanov's turn.

With the stroke of a pen, Putin put his longtime cohort out to pasture, firing him as Kremlin chief of staff, one of the most powerful posts in Russia, and exiling him to the meaningless job of special assistant to the president for ecology and transportation.

It was a spectacular fall for a man who had served as Security Council secretary, defense minister, and deputy prime minister; and who was widely seen as a potential successor to Putin.

The fall of the Ivanovs made it crystal clear that 2016 would be the year the "collective Putin" died and big changes were in store for the way Russia was governed.

As political analyst Vladimir Pastukhov noted at the time, it demonstrated that "the age of the collective rule of Putin's friends is coming to an end" and that "in place of a prince who ruled with his entourage, there is now a tsar who rules over his servants."

Touching The Untouchables

Until this year, Putin's 16-year rule had been characterized by the dominance of an inner circle of about a dozen men who had worked with the Kremlin leader for decades, either in the KGB or in the St. Petersburg city government in the 1990s.

Known colloquially as the "collective Putin" or "Putin's Politburo," they were widely viewed as Russia's untouchable ruling clique.

When one of their number, Vladimir Yakunin, was fired as head of Russian Railways in August 2015, it became clear they were, in fact, quite touchable.

And this year's deeper culling of the inner circle put to rest any notion of a ruling clique.

Russian politics essentially became a one-man show and Putin became its solitary man.

Moscow-based political analyst Nikolai Petrov wrote that Putin was abandoning a model of collective leadership reminiscent of Leonid Brezhnev in favor of one oriented on a single leader, as in the time of Josef Stalin.

And in case anybody failed to get the message, in April, Putin set up a powerful National Guard, a 400,000-strong force that absorbs Russia's Interior Ministry troops, the OMON riot police, and the SOBR -- or SWAT -- forces.

The guard force is run by Putin's uber-loyal former bodyguard, Viktor Zolotov, and answers to the Kremlin leader alone.

And in September, Russian media reported that plans were in the works to reconstitute the old KGB in the form of a new Ministry of State Security, which would unite Russia's main security agencies under one roof and have the charming Stalin-era acronym MGB.

"The Kremlin and the Russian government now resemble an old-world royal court, more than a modern state," Mikhail Fishman wrote in The Moscow Times.

"Putin is remodeling the institutional power of Russia’s presidency into a force under his personal control."

Ideologues And Kleptocrats

But the story of 2016 is about more than the death of the collective Putin and the rise of the personalized rule of the individual Putin.

The primary reason Putin scrapped his old system of ruling through elite consensus and balancing clan interests was because in a shrinking economy Russia's kleptocratic elite risked undermining Putin's ideological project of restoring Russia's great-power status.

And in this sense, 2016 was also the year when the Kremlin took a decisive ideological turn.

It was the year when what Mark Galeotti of the Institute of International Relations in Prague calls "ideological Russia" became ascendant over "kleptocratic Russia."

According to Galeotti, kleptocratic Russia is "the realm of the embezzling senior officials, the pampered sons and daughters of the mighty, the business people who depend as much on sweetheart deals and covert cartels as any real acumen."

Ideological Russia, on the other hand, is Putin's "vision of a nation restored to its due place in history and the world."

Both of these Russias have been present, and in constant tension, throughout Putin's long rule -- and indeed, through most of Russia's history.

And while kleptocratic Russia reigned supreme for most of Putin's 16 years in power, this year it was forced to take a back seat to the Kremlin leader's grand ideological project.

But by making examples of some of his old cronies, and by replacing them with younger sycophants who owe their careers to him, like the obscure new Kremlin chief of staff, Anton Vaino, Putin has transformed the Kremlin from a collective band of thieves into a one-man band.

And instead of protecting the interests of the collective Putin regime, the system appears now to be geared toward preserving the power of Putin the man -- and advancing his ideological dream of a great Russia.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL

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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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