Amy Knight is a former Woodrow Wilson Fellow. Her forthcoming book, Orders From Above: The Putin Regime and Political Murder, will be published next year. (April 2016)

Fatal Russian Poison in London: The Report

Andrei Lugovoy in his office at the Radisson Slavyanskaya Hotel, Moscow, 2007. He and Dmitry Kovtun are believed to have poisoned the exiled Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006.
When Sir Robert Owen’s much-anticipated report on the November 2006 murder of Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB/FSB agent exiled in Britain, was released at London’s Gray’s Inn on the morning of January 21, most of those present probably turned immediately, as I did, to Part 9: “Who Directed the Killing?” …

Russia: The End of the Illusion?

A recent poll by the respected Levada Center in Moscow reported that more than half of all Russians—53 percent—think the greatest threat now facing their country is economic impoverishment. Meanwhile, the Kremlin has been confronted with some of the most devastating revelations of high-level government corruption yet to surface during the Putin era. Presidential elections are not scheduled until March 2018. Will Putin be able to sustain his popularity until then?

Egypt: Why Putin Needs the FBI

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Sochi, Russia, August 12, 2014

Putin has justified Russia’s military involvement in Syria by saying that it is better to fight terrorists abroad rather than in Russia. But the apparent bombing of Flight 9268 may cause Russians to believe that the air campaign in Syria has actually turned them into new targets of extremist groups in the Middle East.

Stalin: His Daughter & His Crimes

Joseph Stalin and his daughter Svetlana, Moscow, 1933
In her revealing biography of Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva, Rosemary Sullivan portrays a woman who was never able to find herself. Her yearnings for a lifelong partner were never fulfilled and she was constantly disappointed in her choices of places to call home. Yet she carried on with determination until …

Why Russia Needs Syria

Top, Syrian President Hafez al-Assad and Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev, 1980; bottom, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin, 2005

In both the Ukrainian and Syrian conflicts, the Kremlin is trying to provide a counterweight to NATO. Yet while Russia has managed thus far to hold its own in Ukraine, the Syrian gambit is far riskier. Russian journalist Yulia Latynina says, “The scandals over Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib will seem like kindergarten in comparison to what in a month the western media will be saying about Russian involvement in Syria.”

A Kremlin Conspiracy Gone Wrong?

A memorial for slain opposition leader Boris Nemtsov at the site of his February 27 shooting in Moscow

When Russian authorities rounded up five Chechen suspects in the assassination of leading opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, it appeared the Kremlin was following a predictable path. Instead, the arrests have led to new speculation about the Kremlin’s involvement in the murder.

Russia: Another Dead Democrat

Slain Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, presenting an investigation of Putin's lavish lifestyle, Moscow, August 28, 2012

Not only was Russian politician and liberal activist Boris Nemtsov very close to the Kremlin when he was shot dead on Bol’shoi Moskvoretsky Bridge. He was also in an area that was under the intense surveillance of the Federal Protection Service (FSO), a security agency under the direct control of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Flight MH17: Will Russia Get Away With It?

Pro-Russian rebels stand guard at the crash site of Malaysian Airlines jet MH-17 near Donetsk, Ukraine, November 11, 2014

Western leaders have until now avoided directly confronting Russia about its part in the downing of Malaysian flight MH17 in eastern Ukraine. But a growing number of unofficial investigations show unambiguously that a Russian missile system was used to down the passenger jet, killing all 298 people on board.

Obama’s Putin Delusion

A museum installation by Russian artist Vasily Slonov, with flyswatters depicting Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama, Krasnoyarsk, Russia, October 25, 2012

To anyone who has followed the Kremlin closely over the years, its actions in Ukraine should not come as a great surprise. To the contrary, the recent events bear out longstanding policy aims of the Putin regime, which for years has worked to roll back US and European influence and rebuild its own suzerainty over post-Soviet states.

Putin’s Golden Dilemma

A golden toilet installed in central Kiev to symbolize the corruption of the Yanukovych regime, February 3, 2014

The toppling of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, an autocratic leader whose government was plagued by corruption, hits dangerously close to home for Russian President Vladimir Putin. The memory of large demonstrations in Moscow and continued allegations of Kremlin corruption are doubtless much on the minds of senior Putin advisers.

The Hidden Face of Russian Security

Russian special force soldiers during an anti-terrorist operation in Makhachkala, Dagestan, January 20, 2014

As the US prepares to send more than two hundred athletes to Sochi, concerns about terrorism continue to mount. The December bombings in Volgograd might have been anticipated or even thwarted if the FSB had not botched an earlier investigation. Meanwhile, continued threats provide a convenient pretext for more crackdowns on civil rights.

Putin’s Downhill Race

Vladimir Putin at Novo-Ogaryovo, the presidential residence outside Moscow, June 2002
When the Russian city of Sochi, on the Black Sea, was chosen as the site of the 2014 Winter Olympics in 2007, Vladimir Putin had every reason to be pleased. Russia was given a chance to show the world the accomplishments of his regime. Now that he is again Russia’s …

Snowden in Exile

Moscow, 2008

It is probably unfair to draw comparisons between Edward Snowden and Kim Philby, another Westerner who fled to Russia, whose betrayal of his country as a double agent did unprecedented damage and cost many lives. Snowden was not an agent of a foreign state, and was apparently motivated to divulge NSA secrets to journalists by his indignation at the discovery of the NSA’s pervasive and intrusive eavesdropping program. But the longer Snowden remains in Russia, at the mercy of his Russian hosts, the greater the chances of his ending up like Philby and living the life of a man without a country.

Playing Moscow’s Game

US Secretary of State John Kerry in Moscow's Red Square, May 7, 2013

As usual, the Russian government is playing a tough game with the US and its Western allies over Syria, with the revelations in late May that it plans to deliver advanced S300 anti-aircraft missiles and other military aid to the Assad regime. Yet while voicing criticism of these deals, the Obama administration has been welcoming a series of senior Russian officials to Washington, and Britain has actually softened its relations with the Russian government. Why is the Kremlin getting away with this? One reason is that US officials—and their European counterparts—are loath to upset ties with the Russians in the run-up to the Syrian peace conference, which the Obama administration is trying to convene this summer with Russian support. But just as telling may be Washington’s newly-declared cooperation with Moscow in fighting terrorism, prompted by the April bombings in Boston.

Russia After Boston: A Free Pass on Human Rights?

Russian opposition blogger Alexei Navalny being detained in Moscow, December 15, 2012

The close cooperation between Moscow and Washington on the Boston bombing investigation raises new questions about the issue of human rights in Russia. Will the US government now turn a blind eye to Russia’s increasingly brutal crackdown on its own democratic opposition because of overriding concerns about national security, just as it did after 9/11? Will the Kremlin wager that it can get away with its hard-line approach now that, as a result of the Boston attacks, the Obama Administration needs its help in counter-terrorism efforts? A test case could be the trial of Russian anti-corruption blogger and opposition leader Aleksei Navalny.

Finally, We Know About the Moscow Bombings

A destroyed apartment building at the site of one of the Moscow bombings, September 9, 1999
In 2000 Sergei Kovalev, then the widely respected head of the Russian organization Memorial, observed in these pages that the apartment bombings in Russia in September 1999, which killed three hundred people and wounded hundreds of others, “were a crucial moment in the unfolding of our current history. After the …

Russia: The New Struggle with Putin

Khimki mayoral candidate Evgeniya Chirikova being detained during a protest in Moscow, July 19, 2011

Although they have gotten little attention in the Western press, the regional elections taking place throughout Russia on October 14 may be Vladimir Putin’s greatest test since his return to the presidency last spring. With voters in seventy-three of Russia’s eighty-three regions going to the polls less than a year after the Kremlin faced allegations of widespread fraud in parliamentary elections, the looming question for Putin is whether he can ensure a favorable outcome without overt manipulation. For the opposition, a primary concern is whether their candidates will even be on the ballot.

Putin’s Propaganda Man

A cartoon of Vladimir Medinsky which appeared in the Moscow Times

Though he was inaugurated only weeks ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin already faces serious challenges to his administration. Judging from a controversial cabinet appointment that Putin made last week, one way the Kremlin may try to combat growing opposition is to revive a traditional Soviet-era weapon—propaganda. The person running the propaganda machine will be the new Minister of Culture, 41-year-old Vladimir Medinsky, who some Russian commentators have already dubbed the Russian Goebbels.

The Mysterious End of the Soviet Union

Russian President Boris Yeltsin gesturing toward Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev during a session of the Russian parliament in Moscow on August 23, 1991, the day after Gorbachev returned to Moscow following the failure of the coup
With protests against Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin continuing in the aftermath of his recent victory in the presidential election, the August 1991 coup attempt in Moscow seems particularly relevant to our understanding of what is now happening in Russia.1 The failed coup led not only to the disintegration …

Stealing Russia’s Future

Police officers patrol Manezhnaya Square just outside the Kremlin, Moscow, March 6, 2012

It came as little surprise that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin won Russia’s March 4 presidential election, but the fact that he received over 63 percent of the vote was unexpected. To be sure, the Kremlin had launched a huge propaganda effort on Putin’s behalf, and the four other candidates on the ballot, including billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov (who represented no party and had no clear platform), hardly offered viable alternatives. But Putin’s popularity had been eroded following December’s disputed parliamentary elections, and recent large-scale protests had called into question the continued strength of his support. In fact, there are multiple indications that the Kremlin has again manipulated the outcome. If these reports are correct, they suggest Putin is playing a dangerous game, since the widespread perception that December’s elections were fraudulent was what brought tens of thousands of Russians into the streets in the first place.

The Kremlin Strikes Back

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev attend the session of the State Council in the Kremlin in Moscow, December 26, 2011

For much of the past decade, Putin’s Kremlin was able to consolidate its power by marginalizing the democratic opposition and providing enough economic benefits for middle-class Russians to keep them quiet. As recently as late November, Putin’s smooth return to the presidency for six and perhaps twelve more years seemed virtually assured. But then there were the December 4 Duma elections, marred by allegations of widespread fraud, and everything changed. Now, with presidential elections less than six weeks away, the old formula may no longer work. Which leaves two possibilities: a vigorous reform effort, or more drastic steps to insure the election outcome.

Making the Case Against the Kremlin

Mikhail Khodorkovsky at the Siberia court

There are many reasons for the poor showing of Vladimir Putin’s party in Russia’s December 4 parliamentary elections, among them the way Putin announced earlier this fall that current president Dmitry Medvedev would step aside in the March 2012 presidential elections so that he could run largely unopposed. But there also seems to be an increasing sense among Russian voters that the Kremlin has done nothing to stop pervasive corruption and that its own behavior is often above the law. To understand the extent of the crisis, observers might do well to watch German filmmaker Cyril Tuschi’s provocative new documentary about jailed Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, which began showing in Russia and the United States just days before the elections and is now at New York’s Film Forum.

Putin’s Risky Course

An activist of 'Army of Putin' cuts a birthday cake in honor of Vladimir Putin, Moscow, October 7, 2011

On October 7, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin celebrates his birthday, which this year—his 59th—is probably an especially happy occasion for him. Two weeks earlier, on September 24, President Dmitry Medvedev announced that he would step aside so that Putin instead of him could represent the United Russia Party in the March 2012 presidential elections. This means that Putin—who after years of dominating the political scene is unlikely to face a credible challenger—could serve as leader of the Kremlin until 2024, when he will turn 72, in the age group of his predecessors in the Soviet era. But perhaps Putin should not celebrate too soon.

Caving to the Kremlin

Investigators of the Federal Agency for Radiation Protection examining traces of radiation linked to poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko by polonium, Haselau, west of Hamburg, Dec 13, 2006

Judging from Prime Minister David Cameron’s visit to Moscow on September 12, the British government has decided to cave in to the Russians in the long-running dispute over the November 2006 murder in London of former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko. The victim, who was highly critical of Vladimir Putin and had been given asylum in Britain in 2000, died an agonizing death at a North London hospital on November 23, three weeks after being poisoned with polonium 210—a rare and highly lethal radioactive substance. As a result of Russia’s unwillingness to cooperate with its investigation of the crime, Britain ended intelligence sharing with Moscow and introduced new visa restrictions on Russian businessmen trying to go to the UK. But Cameron’s meeting with President Dmitry Medvedev and Putin this week indicates that Britain is reassessing its Moscow strategy—and by extension, its view of the Russian leadership.

Hope for Khodorkovsky, and for Russia?

Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev standing behind a glass wall in a Moscow courtroom, May 17, 2011

At first glance, it is hard not to conclude that the future looks dire for Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev, the former Yukos executives who have been in prison since 2003 and are widely seen as victims of the Kremlin’s power politics and greed over oil assets. Yet despite this apparent bad news, there may be growing reason to hope that Khodorkovsky and Lebedev will be released early. Above all, there has been a dramatic shift in how the Russian media is handling the case.

Putting the Watch on Putin

Vladimir Putin watching counter-terrorism exercises, Chebarkul, Russia, August 17, 2007. He is wearing a $10,000 Blancpain Leman Flyback watch, not even among his most expensive.

Russia’s democratic opposition gets a lot of criticism from political observers for failing to convey its message to ordinary Russians. No doubt this owes in part to the overwhelming dominance of the country’s political space by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his supporters as well as to general political apathy. As authoritarian states in the Middle East erupt in popular uprisings, the Russian public continues, for the most part, to be resigned to its political leadership. In a new poll conducted by the state-owned Russian Public Opinion Research Center, 61 percent of respondents said they take no interest in politics or public life, up from 39 percent in 2007. The liberal oppositionists clearly face an uphill struggle in trying to reach beyond the circle of urban educated people who comprise Russia’s small online community of bloggers and activists. But they have by no means given up.

Why the Kremlin Can’t Fight Terrorism

A clergyman lighting candles at the site of a bombing at Domodedovo Airport, January 26, 2011

As the story of the horrific January 24 bombing at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport continues to unfold, the parallels with past major terrorist attacks in Russia are striking. It is not just the high number of casualties (36 dead and 160 wounded) and that the perpetrators appear to have come from the volatile North Caucasus. As with earlier such violence, there were also serious warning signs in advance that were ignored, and the immediate handling of the attack by the authorities was botched. Above all, the confusing and contradictory response of both the security agencies and Russia’s leadership has once again raised troubling questions about the Kremlin’s counter-terrorism policies.

The End of the Medvedev Revolution?

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin stand with World War II veterans during the annual Victory Day parade on Moscow’s Red Square, 2009

Since a Russian judge sentenced former Yukos oil executive Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his business partner, Platon Lebedev, to thirteen and a half years in prison on December 30, many commentators have viewed the outcome—after a 22-month trial that openly flouted judicial standards—as a major setback for Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. After all, a little more than a year ago, Medvedev gained international attention for vowing to institute the rule of law in Russia and make foreign investment in Russia a top priority, and there had been growing speculation that he might begin to take on the entrenched interests of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. For the moment, those hopes seem dashed. In the long run, however, the case against Khodorkovsky and Lebedev may hurt Putin more than Medvedev as the two rivals position themselves for the 2012 presidential contest.

The Concealed Battle to Run Russia

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, his wife Svetlana Medvedeva,  
and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin at an Orthodox Easter celebration 
at Christ the Savior Cathedral, Moscow, April 4, 2010
Russia’s president, Dmitry Medvedev, and his prime minister, Vladimir Putin, apparently cannot agree on one question—which of them will be running for the Russian presidency in March 2012. As it has in earlier contests over leadership, the country’s all-powerful Federal Security Service (FSB) is bound to have a crucial part in that decision. During his leadership, Putin gave friends from the security services key positions in the Kremlin and in state corporations, thus creating a new power base of officials—commonly referred to as the siloviki (“strong men”), with loyalties to the security services and to Putin himself. By the year 2007 two thirds of the members of the president’s administration were siloviki. Can Medvedev afford at this point to take on the FSB if he wants a second presidential term?

All the President’s Men? Inside the Kremlin’s Moscow Problem

Former Mayor of Moscow Yuri Luzhkov (center) with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev

Poor Yuri Luzhkov. He can’t keep his mouth shut. Just when it seemed that the fall-out from his abrupt dismissal in late September as Moscow’s mayor had begun to dissipate, Luzhkov gave an interview on CNN in which he once more attacked Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, the man who fired him: “Unfortunately, we’ve seen a whole set of circumstances happening in the country on Medvedev’s watch—calamities, terrorist acts, bad harvest and so on. These kinds of things don’t contribute to the tangible results of his work as the President.” Of course, Luzhkov has a right to be bitter. After 18 years in office he was fired, according to the official version, because of “loss of confidence by the president of Russia.” (In the Russian Federation, provincial governors, including the mayor of Moscow, are appointed directly by and answer to the Russian president.) Luzhkov’s dismissal was apparently provoked by his outspoken criticism of the Kremlin; but as Russian journalist Yevgenia Albats pointed out, “There was not a word of explanation, either from the president’s side or the side of Prime Minister Putin, as to what he did to lose confidence.”