Darkness in Moscow
The targeted, theatrically-staged murder of Boris Nemtsov represents both a culmination and a turning point. A culmination because it is impossible not to see it as a kind of horrific, grisly completion of a line of political murders perpetrated during Vlaidimir Putin’s tenure in office stretching back in time over a decade. There was Sergei Yushchenkov (1950-2004), long-time liberal Russian parliamentarian who was murdered the day he registered his Liberal Russia Party for forthcoming elections. Doubts continue to surround those who were ultimately convicted of his murder. Then there was Anna Politkovskaya (1958-2006), the fearless investigative journalist and human-rights campaigner, shot dead outside her apartment in Moscow. Some street criminals were found guilty eight years later, but who ordered the assassination? That remains a mystery. And then there is Alexander Litvinenko (1962-2006) poisoned to death in London by a polonium isotope. My list is selective and abbreviated. To resist Vladimir Putin is to court death.
But if the Nemtsov assassination is the latest, most dramatic link in a chain of murders running the length of Putin’s time in office, it also gives every indication of being a turning point. For Nemtsov was a figure known and admired by the entire international community. A trained and gifted physicist, he emerged as an important voice for reform in the Soviet Union’s last days and he was a principal figure in the Boris Yeltsin administration. He rose in rank as high as deputy prime minister and appeared for much of the second half of the 1990s as a plausible successor to President Yeltsin himself.
The student of Russian and Soviet history will know that there are parallels to the Nemtsov murder and the one that comes most to mind is the killing of Sergei Kirov (1886-1934). Kirov was a promising and energetic party leader from Azerbaijan. At the Party Congress of 1934 he was elected to the Communist Party Central Committee with fewer negative votes than Joseph Stalin. Thus he became Stalin’s rival. And he was murdered inside Leningrad Party headquarters in December 1934. Who ordered the assassination, it goes without saying, has never been determined.
The Kirov assassination opened the door to the instability of the middle and late 1930s. Stalin’s old Bolshevik allies – men like Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev – were tried and executed. The Great Purges commended with their show trials and mass killings. Stalin’s tentacles finally reached even into the Western Hemisphere with the murder, in August 1940, of Leon Trotsky in Mexico City.
If the Nemtsov assassination is a turning point like the Kirov murder, what larger lessons can we draw from it?
First, The murder represents not Vladimir Putin’s strength but his political weakness. One does not tolerate or condone the murder of one’s opponents if one is dealing from a position of strength. Nemtsov was among the principal organizers of protests against the Ukrainian war scheduled for this weekend. Protests might get out of hand. Protests in places like Georgia (2003), Kyrgyzstan (2005), and Ukraine (2014) led ultimately to regime change in those places. We are entitled to ask: Were there fears that a protest in Moscow this might set off a similar chain reaction?
It is also said that Nemtsov was prepared to release evidence definitively linking Russia to the Ukrainian War. No less a figure than Petro Poroshenko, the President of Ukraine, had made this charge. If this is true and Nemtsov’s murder is an effort to conceal evidence of military involvement, then the evidence must be truly damning. We do not know how weak the Putin regime is internally, but chances are that this assassination will weaken it still further especially if it is trying to suppress incriminating evidence.
Second, the assassination is reflective of a certain reckless disregard. This is so even if the Putin regime is finally determined not to be directly implicated in Nemtsov’s killing. A political climate where such killings are tolerated, where they go unsolved, where they are brusquely and cavalierly dismissed by the authorities says to the world: “we don’t care. We don’t care what you think of our means and our methods. Life in Moscow is a Hobbesian world, nasty, brutish, and short, especially for those who dare to question we autocrats who are running the show.” And, of course, should it turn out that the Putin regime was involved in the murder, the recklessness it signifies is truly frightening.
Third, as with the killing of Kirov eighty years ago, we can expect that Nemtsov’s murder is the opening act to much greater instability. Putin has enemies, both real and imaginary. They could be anywhere, hiding around any corner. In the military, in his general staff, in the Parliament, in the press, in the private sector, among the oligarchs, in the academy. The paranoia that this killing will unleash will extend across the fabric of elite Russian society and have everybody looking over their shoulders. After all, you don’t have to be an enemy to be on an enemy’s list.
Fourth, we in the West must realize that we are living in a time of maximum danger. Vladimir Putin has spoken recklessly for many months about his reliance on and readiness to use nuclear weapons. We must take him at his word. Indeed, Michael Fallon, the UK Defense Minister, has warned of the possibility that Putin’s regime has “lowered the threshold” on the use of nuclear weapons. Loose talk like Putin’s certainly reduces inhibitions. The world thus may be closer to a nuclear exchange than anyone appreciates, and that is something that must be taken account of.
What, then, should the West do?
First, the West should support Putin’s democratic opposition. That must be done discreetly, so as not to discredit them in the eyes of ordinary Russians. Public opinion surveys suggest that Putin retains substantial popularity and that the liberalizers of the 1990s are still dimly regarded. Support for the opposition must take account of these realities. Still, the Nemtsov assassination is the kind of event that could begin to shift the public mood away from Putin and his dangerous game of defiance.
Second, the West must not be reckless itself. It must bear in mind that it does not know where the nuclear tripwire lies and what might set it off. One can, indeed, envision many scenarios in which tactical nuclear weapons are employed, either in Ukraine or somewhere along NATO’s eastern periphery. Putin’s regime is both weak and reckless and may have nothing to lose, and that is a potentially catastrophic combination. Accordingly, the West should avoid shipping arms to Ukraine at this time. On the other hand, intelligence sharing and non-lethal forms of assistance are probably in order.
Third, the West should keep its sanctions regime in place and move to strengthen it. Over the course of 2014, an ever-tightening body of economic sanctions and restrictions were imposed on Russian businesses and individuals. The Russian energy sector, Russian-owned banks, and the Russian defense industry were especially affected. Nations that have not yet subscribed to the sanctions should be encouraged to do so. It would be wrong to call Russia a pariah state. But the Putin regime is a pariah government, and the world should send an unequivocal message that it will not do business with such an entity.
On the other hand, our isolation of Russia must not be complete. In particular, it may well be in our interest for Western generals to open lines of communication with senior Russian military personnel. This should be done, if only to ensure that the Russian nuclear sword remains safely in its scabbard.
Fourth, China must be encouraged to side with the West in this confrontation. No nation in the world today has a greater interest in stability than China. The Chinese social contract more less asks its people to sacrifice political liberty and to sublimate a natural instinct to have children in return for an implicit promise by the regime of ever-increasing prosperity. China is a trading nation that depends on global good will and good order. Russia, on the other hand, is the world’s consummate threat to stability and order. Even leaving to one side its murderous politics and its probable involvement in the Ukrainian War, Russia’s, and more specifically Putin’s, nuclear threats, place it beyond the pale of civilized standards.
What, then, should be the West’s goal?
The peaceful replacement of the Putin regime and the integration of Russia into the global order must be our priorities. In the process, Russian interests must be respected. Russia is, and always will be, a continental great power. It possesses the strength of culture to be a powerful force for good in the world. From its inventive and creative scientists, to its towering literary history, to its deeply moving, spiritually enriching religious faith, Russia can yet realize its true destiny – a great culture, a great civilization, sharing its wisdom and its insights with the world, and peacefully doing business with its neighbors.
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