The disappearance of Vladimir Putin coincides with an uptick in readership of this blog. We’re all curious about what is happening in Russia. In the last post, I offered a “pros & cons” for the hypothesis, “Putin ordered Nemtsov murder.” In the New York Review of Books blog entry “A Kremlin Conspiracy Gone Wrong?”, Amy Knight presents an amalgam of opinions that suggest responsibility for the murder of individuals close to Putin, and perhaps including Putin himself. You might decide to include the article as an entry on the pro side.
Putin’s removal from Moscow to an undisclosed location belongs with the cons. Some sources say he is at his residence in Novgorod, several hundred miles north of Moscow. Russia itself is a hotbed of conspiracy theories, as well as opinions, or coverups given as opinions, that Putin disappearances have happened before, and are par for the course.
Two quasi-rules, Occam’s Razor, and from physics, the “Principle of Least Action”, winnow the likely outcomes. Consider the news headline: “White House lock-down after loud noise is heard.” Adapting the physics principle to the occasion, we go through the list:
- A flying saucer crash landing.
- A diversionary explosion by a sapper team of white-power Nazis.
- Pyrotechnic release of nerve gas or radioactive material.
- Explosion of a food truck propane rig.
The Secret Service response covers all the bases. Subsequently, it is discovered that the food truck exploded. This is not clearly the choice of Occam’s Razor, which, against the threat background current in the U.S., excludes only the flying saucer. But Occam’s Razor works against intricate, hidden power shifts, favoring small people with small ideas.
The Principle of Least Action addresses a major concern since the rise of the criminal class in the post-Soviet era: staying alive. In Stalin’s Moscow, one could walk the streets at any time of night without fear of street crime, replaced, unfortunately, by terror of the NKVD. In Brezhnev’s USSR, crime and corruption grew steadily. Under Boris Yeltsin, the Russian Mafia became a super violent version of the classic Italian. Since Russia had become ungovernable in the classic fashion, Putin’s solution was to co-opt select members of the criminal class, using them to control the rest. They hide Putin’s money, and are as instrumental to Putin’s survival as he is to theirs, unless there were another way…
Another way? We tend to forget that, for Putin, survival is a matter of constant concern. The agility with which he has managed this is awe-inspiring. The Russian political opposition, who have our lingering hopes and sympathies, seem not to understand that, should they manage to replace Putin, survival would become their daily struggle. Or perhaps they truly have the hearts of heroes.
With all the constraints set up, as if we were about to solve a mechanics problem, application of the Principle is evident: It implies that Putin left Moscow for a place more isolated, while all the wires, cables, and exchanges of his governing apparatus are checked for little flaws, leaks, questionable loyalties, and outright treacheries that might endanger his survival. According to this argument, what is to us high drama, is for Putin, routine operating procedure. If he is in Novgorod, it puts Moscow between him and both Chechnya and Ukraine.
Since Putin is very popular, he cannot be replaced by political process. Neither can he be replaced by assassination, since legitimacy would be unobtainable by the successor. So, you might say, Putin is safe. But replacement is unnecessary to the criminal class, who flourished in Yeltsin’s chaotic Russia. Chaos might be refreshing, particularly if Putin’s alignment with the patriotic element is bad for business.
So, for a Russian leader, the threat climate is very different from the Western experience. Political violence in the West is the action of marginal individuals and groups. In Russia, the threat of violent change includes collateral groups that grade without sharp distinction into government. As Joe Valachi said , “Nobody will listen. Nobody will believe. You know what I mean? This Cosa Nostra, it’s like a second government. It’s too big. ” In Russia, it’s bigger. The Feds protected Joe Valachi. Putin has no protector bigger than himself.
For the sake of tidiness, let’s restate the pros & cons from the previous post with the additions in red:
Pro, Putin desired or ordered the murder of Nemtsov:
- Nemtsov’s unpublished report on Russian links to the Ukraine conflict, which, it is argued, Putin believed he could stop by the murder.
- The NY Review blog, “A Kremlin Conspiracy Gone Wrong?”. How should this be weighted? Most Russian history has a conspiratorial tinge. So the Russian contributors may have an inherited susceptibility to unjustified conspiratorial thinking. You decide.
- Putin’s “enlightened management of dissidents” was working, with no expansion of Nemtsov’s faction.
- FSB specialists could have murdered Nemtsov more subtly.
- A martyr has been created.
- Putin has removed from Moscow.
- Nemtsov’s report has not been stopped. Unlike other likely victims of Kremlin sponsored assassinations, Nemtsov had a lot of friends.
One possibility offered by the NY Review blog is that the murder was caused by a misunderstanding between Putin and Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, with mistaken encouragement of a very inept action. A logically adjacent thought is that Putin does not understand every detail of how it happened, and he considers the details important to his personal survival.
Errant branches must be pruned. Unauthorized hits are not permitted. In Russia, murder is not a right. It’s a privilege.