FPI Bulletin: Boris Nemtsov’s Threat to Putin’s Authoritarianism

March 2, 2015

The assassination of Boris Nemtsov just steps away from the Kremlin was shocking but, sadly, not entirely surprising. Mr. Nemtsov, 55, a former deputy prime minister and member of the Duma, had become a leader of the democratic opposition to the authoritarian rule of Vladimir Putin. Now he is the most recent and most prominent of Putin’s murdered critics.

Nemtsov was killed two days before he planned to take part in a march against the war in Ukraine and for democracy in Russia. He and his fellow democrats have been clear that the two are connected.  Putin, they argue, is not motivated by an innate drive to restore Russian greatness or respond to NATO’s expansion in the 1990s. Rather, he seeks to distract attention from his authoritarian rule, corruption, and dismal economic record by mobilizing the Russian people against an external enemy, in this case Ukraine, lest it become  a model for Russians of a successful, Europe-oriented democracy right next door.     

Regrettably, the Obama administration refuses to accept this reality. To do so would require a fundamental change in its policy toward Russia, which ignores the relationship between the nature of the Putin regime and its behavior abroad. Instead, the White House and its European partners prefer to treat Putin’s aggression in Ukraine as a discrete matter, just one of many issues about which the West seeks to engage with Putin. This stubborn belief has persisted even after Putin has flagrantly violated yet another ceasefire in Ukraine.

Not even Nemtsov’s murder seems to have shaken the flawed assumptions about Putin’s Russia that guide U.S. policy. President Obama must know that the “prompt, impartial, and transparent” investigation he called for is impossible. Nemtsov and fellow opposition leaders, journalists, and others are vilified by Putin as a fifth column and enemies of the state. Putin has placed himself in charge of the investigation and delegated it to the state body that leads the persecution of his critics. 

Meanwhile, Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov grotesquely suggesting that Nemtsov’s colleagues in the opposition killed him as “a provocation” to discredit Putin and dismissed Nemtsov as “not a threat.”

Nemtsov undoubtedly was a threat. He was a charismatic intellectual and an energetic street protester, for which he had been jailed multiple times. He collaborated with the younger opposition figures, including Alexei Navalny, who emerged – and eclipsed him – in the wave of protests that followed Putin’s decision to return to the presidency and fraudulent Duma elections in 2011 and 2012. Navalny learned of Nemtsov’s death from jail, where he is serving a sentence for handing out flyers for last weekend’s march.

In addition to being a threat, Nemtsov was brave.  He exposed official corruption and, at the time of his death, was preparing a report on Russia’s direct military involvement in Ukraine, a fact Putin denies. Speaking at the murder scene on Friday night, Mikhail Kasyanov, a former prime minister and co-chair with Nemtsov of the political party RPR-Parnas, dismissed any other explanation for the assassination – “There can be only one version: that he was shot for telling the truth."

In Washington and other Western capitals, debates about how to handle Putin are too often pessimistic, in light of Putin’s high poll ratings and the weaknesses of the opposition. Nemtsov, like other opposition leaders, served in government during the chaotic post-Soviet 1990s, an era that discredited democracy, and them, for many Russians. Today, however, it is difficult to find where the opposition’s shortcomings end and Putin’s dominance of politics and media begins. Fear and a stranglehold on the media inflate Putin’s popularity. In any case, emphasis on the opposition weakness and Putin’s poll ratings play into his hands, absolving the West of responsibility and bolstering the canard that Russians are uninterested in the universal values associated with successful Western democracies.

Nemtsov believed otherwise and worked passionately for a better Russia. Hours before he was killed, Mr. Nemtsov appeared on the radio station Echo of Moscow, a rare surviving outlet for unsanctioned views. In this final interview, Nemtsov appealed to Russians to attend the planned opposition march:

“Taking to the streets in today’s Russia requires great courage. A brave man, an active man counts more than the one who out of convenience or fear doesn’t do anything.This is just the beginning.”

In the wake of Nemtsov’s murder, tens of thousands of Russians did take to the streets as the protest march was transformed into a mourning procession.

Nemtsov’s death is an inestimable loss to his family and his country.  It is also a blow to anyone who cherishes freedom. The United States should honor him by transforming its approach toward Vladimir Putin’s rule. This must include support for democracy, including expanded sanctions as well as efforts to undermine the Kremlin’s media monopoly in Russia and the spread of its dangerous propaganda abroad. 

Above all, Washington should acknowledge the importance of a democratic, secure Ukraine to Russia’s future. The United States should arm and train Ukraine to effectively defend its territory and help it to become a successful economy based on the rule of law.

Boris Nemtsov believed that if democracy succeeds in Ukraine, it can also prevail in Russia.  So does Vladimir Putin.

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
Read More