More than a month has passed since the murder of Boris Nemtsov, one of the main leaders of Russia’s opposition, who was shot four times in the back, right in front of Kremlin.
Ukrainian experts are convinced: the assassination of a prominent political figure like Nemtsov represents another link in the chain of events that could be leading to the total collapse of the European security system, and even the dismantling of the World Order as we know it.
After the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation this time last year, and the intervention of Russian troops during the conflict in Ukraine’s eastern region of the Donbas, it is easy to recognise this assassination as another historical watershed moment.
That much is clear. But it is far harder to understand why Nemtsov was shot; and it is even more difficult to figure out what this means, and to predict what will happen next in Russia.
Ilya Yashin, the chairman of the regional branch of RPR-PARNAS, the opposition political party which was led by Boris Nemtsov until his assassination, says that the bloody trail from the Big Moskvoretsky Bridge leads straight to the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov.
“All those people who are now detained, are connected with Kadyrov directly. They come from power structures of Ramzan Kadyrov, they are close to him, he personally presented them state awards,” says Yashin, speaking to The Baltic Times by phone.
“Without a doubt,” Yashin continues, “full investigational actions must be conducted for an objective investigation against Ramzan Kadyrov: searches, interrogations, inquiries made of him and his inner circle. That’s the only way to clarify the possible role of Kadyrov in the assassination of Nemtsov. By the way, I do not exclude that if such investigations will be made, there may be senior officials from high Kremlin cabinets standing behind Kadyrov. It seems to me to be rather difficult to organise such an audacious show-case murder without having any agreement with the Kremlin, though. And in high Kremlin cabinets some kind of nod must have been received.”
However, Yashin is quick to point out the complexity of such investigations in Russia because of its specific political system. For now, he believes, Kadyrov is practically untouchable. Kadyrov has created a state inside a state and has absolute power in Chechnya, according to Yashin. Despite the fact that 90 percent of the Chechen budget consists of subsidies from the Russian federal budget, Chechnya lives by its own laws, and its own set of concepts and rules. Even Russian security forces are not able to conduct operations there without coordinating their actions with Kadyrov.
Whether Kadyrov had a hand in the murder of Nemtsov, or whether the prospect of a Chechen plot is being used as a smokescreen to prevent blame being channeled directly towards the Kremlin itself, is something that remains shrouded in mystery. But the location of the shooting is telling, according to leading Ukrainian political journalist Vitaliy Portnikov: “A murder in front of the Kremlin is always a showcase murder.”
Portnikov, who specialises in covering post-soviet countries, and who knew the late Boris Nemtsov personally, believes that his shooting has a number of dramatic political implications.
“The assassination of Boris Nemtsov is a serious blow to the foundations of the state,” says Portnikov. “It demonstrates the absence of security in the country even several meters from the Kremlin.”
“The Kremlin is a well-patrolled, wired and recordable area,” Portnikov continues. “When someone is killed in such a place, it provokes a lot of questions, among which two stand out: either the security of the state is finished, or the state itself is the executioner”.
Portnikov is sure that such an assassination is not beneficial to anyone. But totalitarian regimes have their own rules and their own logic, he suggests. He compares Nemtsov’s death to the assassination of Giacomo Matteotti, an Italian Socialist leader who was stabbed to death in his own car during the rule of the Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. There was, however, no evidence pointing to Mussolini’s guilt — even when all the archives of those times fell into the hands of anti-Fascists in 1944.
Portnikov draws another historical analogy with the assassination of Ivan Stambolic in Serbia. For a time, Stambolic was Slobodan Milosevic’s political rival, but by the time of his death in 2000, he had already retired and was definitely not active on the political stage. It could seem that such murders can only lead to the blackmailing of political leaders, Portnikov points out, and superficially they cannot be beneficial; but Portnikov believes there is a profound psychological element at play.
“This kind of murder allows the regime to cross another line, because before the assassination of Nemtsov, there was a non-aggression pact between Russian elites, which meant that the people who were among the top party leaders in ex-president Yeltsin’s time could feel safe, no matter what political position they adhered or did not adhere to. The assassination of Nemtsov has just exploded this unity,” says Portnikov.
The same happened in 1924, after the assassination of Matteotti: the unity of Italian political class was undermined, so that Mussolini’s regime could move on to the next actions, for example, to military aggression in Ethiopia in 1935-36 and get people’s support.
“Now the principal part of the ideology of the Russian regime is that Russia does not participate in the war. And it is positively perceived by Russian society. People are sure that Ukrainians arranged Maidan for themselves and caused a civil war in the country. In order to succeed, the Russian regime needs society to accept its participation in the war, as Italian society accepted the war against Ethiopia or as Serbian society accepted the war against Croatia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. To do it in the face of the day. For this sort of things you need to tie people with blood”.
However, Olexandr Palii, a Ukrainian political expert, thinks that it is inappropriate to claim that the assassination of Matteotti or Stambolic really legitimised the wars in Ethiopia, Croatia or Bosnia and Hezegovina, or to compare these crimes with Putin’s policies.
“These murders were primarily just a manifestation of the fear of the truth felt by false and bloody regimes, even when the truth is weak. Although one of the reasons of the assassination of Nemtsov can be the fact that he was collecting proof of Russian military aggression in Ukraine”.
Continuing the thought about Russian people’s acceptance of the war, Vitaliy Portnikov says that now there is a real danger of military aggression towards Russia’s neighbours, such as Ukraine, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.
“Putin wants to re-format the global security system,” says Portnikov. “If the Russian political regime is not broken down by the economic sanctions and political pressure, sooner or later Putin will realize that he cannot scare the West with his actions in Ukraine. The West does not have any real obligations to Ukraine, except the Budapest Memorandum, which is completely forgotten. But to NATO member states, it does have such obligations. So, Putin may wonder what will happen if there is a threat to the territorial integrity of the Baltic States or Poland. What will NATO do?”
“After all, there are two options,” says Portnikov. “Either NATO will explicitly defend the territorial integrity of the member states through its own military capabilities, not economic sanctions, not voting in the UN Security Council, but through an adequate military strike. Or there will be a “but” option – that they do have these commitments, but what about the Russian-speaking population that has failed to integrate into the state system of these countries; but what about the danger of nuclear war, because we have to take into account that Russia is a nuclear power, which can use tactical nuclear weapons without hesitation. Also there is need to maintain the overall security in Europe in the economic sense, and we are dependent on Russian energy supplies. You can find a lot of "buts". And if such a "but" is found, the global security system will collapse. And Putin will win, at least until the moment when Russia will collapse right after this global security system, because economically Russia will not be able to stand it”.
But Olexandr Palii does not see fit to talk about the danger for the Baltic States. In his view, if NATO stands firm, if it provides military training in the Baltic countries, if the US and NATO station at least a few thousand troops in each country, the aggression will not happen and Russia will continue to pretend not to notice the Baltic States and their economic and political successes. However, he agrees about the intentions of Putin’s regime to reformat the global security system.
“Putin wants to cause maximum chaos, as Russia means very little in the present formatting of the World Order. It does not produce anything constructive. The Russian government has enough brains to realize its non-competitiveness. It is much harder to work than to instigate a war. And instead of working, these prisoners of their own psychological complexes want to gain everything through blood”.
Both Portnikov and Palii predict the collapse of Russian regime. According to Portnikov, alongside all of the obvious factors such as lack of funds, foreign exchange reserves, costs, and damages, there is something that he calls irreversible losses, such as the assassination of political rival.
And if all of the other factors are reversible, because for example, the price of oil could increase, the troops could be removed from Donbas, there could be a new vector of interaction with the West – a new cold peace, when Russia no longer touches Donbas, and the West says nothing about the Crimea. But a murder is a process of irreversible loss. And this process of irreversible loss hastens the collapse of the whole regime.
Ksenia Sobchak, a Russian journalist and representative of the opposition, suggested publicly that Nemtsov was assassinated by the so-called “chaos of hatred” — a phenomenon which is not controlled by Putin anymore. The force that demonstrates the atmosphere of fear and hatred in society. Mustafa Nayyem, Ukrainian journalist and deputy, expressed his opinion that there must be some “third force”. But Portnikov, who has spent a lot of time with Russia’s current political leaders, is sure that all the talks about such force is just an effort to avoid understanding the reality.
“There is no third force beyond the control of Putin which can kill a man in front of the Kremlin. We just need to understand this. I assure you that there are no third forces in such areas. If it was really a third force, it could kill Nemtsov anywhere, in any other place. As I said, a murder in front of the Kremlin is always a showcase murder, just because the people who committed it will be happy to watch you looking for a third force where you do not need to look for it at all. They will watch how you are afraid of them and do not want to call a spade a spade. This is the diagnosis of the fear of the reality”.
Olexandr Palii supports this thought: “The moral degradation and total falsity of the state, even bigger than during the Soviet era, may indicate its collapse,” says Palii. “The thing is not about the fact that people do not receive the truth – they do not need it anymore. All the rest is derivative: an unproductive and non-competitive economy, a high crime rate, a high social disease rate, poor demographics ... But the main thing is what I call the necrosis of morality”.