Since it has proved impossible to gather the “usual suspects” into one room for intensive, brutal interrogation, let’s proceed with informed speculation.
Emotional involvement contaminates our thoughts. Since the financial crisis of 2007-2008, Vladimir Putin has betrayed our hopes for a modern, peaceful, westernized Russia. It appears that, since the financial meltdown, Putin lost faith in the West as the image of the shining path, and chose instead to re-author Russia’s path on the basis of a personal vision. We say about democracy that, of all the alternatives, it is the least bad. Putin chose not to buy into that. Seeking another road for perfection, he chose something so ancient, it is surprisingly undead: Plato’s Republic. Putin observed that, while paying lip service to Communism, the Communist Party of China is actually a privileged ruling class that has with rather brilliant success modernized a society with blazing speed. The main difference between the modern, and classical embodiments of the Republic is in the qualification of the members of the ruling class. While in Plato’s Republic, fitness to rule is the direct consequence of both selection and education, modern membership is about as pure as a Mafia induction ceremony.
It is repugnant to us that, in both China and Russia, members of the ruling class are immune to challenge by those outside it. But curiously, China has recently mounted an active immune response to corruption. With extreme contrast, Putin, in order to solve an otherwise unsolvable problem, co-opted leading elements of the criminal class. Russia, in addition to being a very misshapen version of Plato’s Republic, is a kleptocracy.
There is an enduring misapprehension among many so-called analysts that Putin rules Russia. These people have seen too many B sci-fi flicks, where the alien steps off the flying saucer, and says, “Take me to your leader.” Curiously, we know for ourselves that we elect persuaders, not leaders, but we don’t seem to get it with other societies.
Even in the most totalitarian societies, loyalties must be constantly reinforced or recreated. Two of the most horrible examples, Hitler’s Germany, and Stalin’s Russia, were not exceptions. With an astuteness about plurality rather shadowed by his monstrous obsession, Hitler divided the power structure among competing fiefdoms. Stalin, impeded by ideology from having anything to divide, chose to simply kill off practically everybody of importance periodically.
Putin chose a third, more humane method. His huge stash has one purpose: to buy Russia. He may shortly be forced to use some of it. But returning to the contamination of our thoughts, Putin has been such a let-down, there is the strong temptation to pin the murder on him, simply out of blind rage at where he has taken Russia.
The road to Hell is paved with good intentions. Russia is the most indefensible of countries. The battle count of Russia’s army is puny, her borders huge, and her people soaked in ennui and alcohol. Perhaps Putin thought this was the most important problem. So he revived the Cossack caps and uniforms, and, metaphorically, the snare drum of Kurt Vonnegut‘s The Sirens of Titan, that beats a rhythm to incite the brainless to fight. He revived nationalism. But nationalism is its own first cause. Once willed into existence, it needs nothing to keep it going.
Putin’s character permits the murder of Nemtsov, but does not prove that he did. There have been many suspicious murders in Russia. Some of them were of individuals who may have had information that would undermine the credibility of the Russian “elite.” A particularly determining factor is whether such an individual could provide corroboration from sources that are outside of Russia. Documentation of Putin’s “stash”, which resides mainly outside of Russia, would be a cause for assassination. To put it another way, an individual who makes allegations about activities inside Russia is relatively harmless, because corroboration is difficult or impossible. But if the chain leads outside of Russia, it’s a different story.
Vladimir Putin presents one of the more unusual pictures of a world leader. He appears personally modest, and, aside from the fact that he lives in a palace, seemingly has little to enjoy from life, other than the sense of proper (to him) execution of a job. If, by another turn of history, he had come from a different background, with a grounding in Western values, he might be esteemed on this side of the fence. This adds to the tragedy. But his tenure has so far demonstrated a notable absence of “crimes of passion”, and considerable skill as a tactician. His tactical flexibility is what has so frustrated the policy wonks.
So the question is posed that, with the assumption that Putin is a masterful tactician, what tactical advantage would have accrued by ordering the murder of Nemtsov? Petro Poroshenko says that Nemtsov was going to reveal Russian links to the Ukraine conflict. Who doesn’t know this already? What kind of “smoking gun” could Nemtsov have had? These days, dirt travels on a thumb drive, so how could it die with Nemtsov?
That is the extent of the pros of “Putin ordered murder of Nemtsov.” The cons have several elements.
1. Part of Putin’s “enlightened” management of dissidence is the permission of controlled demonstrations, which serve several purposes:
- The opportunity to see and document dissidents.
- Gauge popular will.
- Provide an escape valve.
- Present the semblance of democracy.
It appears that the control of Nemtsov’s partisans was in good order. Nemtsov was marginal, and the propaganda machine was and is working well, with no evidence of spread or enlargement of Nemtsov’s faction.
2. The KGB, and the successor FSB, were and are masters of the art of murder. They could make him get sick and die suddenly, die slowly, lose his mind, lose his legs, or simply have the flesh fall off his body. People could spend years arguing over the simple fact of whether Nemtsov was murdered.
3. A martyr, however minor, has been created.
This inclines my opinion that the murder is due to elements of less sophistication than Putin’s masters of social control. His dilemma is pointed out in “Putin, Rodeo Bull Rider”, when I wrote,
…But they have a problem. By now, the oligarchs have gotten the message that, if they betray the rebels, some people who are handy with guns and have long memories will obtain what they call justice. It would be hard to distract these disaffected people, because it is hard to become fat, happy, and lazy in Russia. Life is just not that easy there.
If Putin and his inner circle decide to do the right thing, they are then faced with arranging the mysterious disappearances, accidents, falling down stairs, getting run over by cars, etc., of hundreds of people. These days, arranging even one unfortunate accident can take years.
Why would the murder occur just outside the Kremlin? In killing Nemtsov there, the perpetrators sent a message to Putin: “Do not betray our hopes, because you are not safe.” The Russians, masters of the profane vernacular, would say that the perps have a finger up a delicate part of Putin’s anatomy. He would not be the first ruler murdered by the palace guards.
This is a bonanza for open source intelligence. Against the perpetual darkness of the Russian power structure, a lightning flash illuminates a minute part of the byzantine workings of the Russian State, heralding, perhaps, another Time of Troubles.