Boris Nemtsov’s heart breaking execution provoked more than outrage. Much informed and emotive opinion quickly converged: Putin personally ordered the assassination. The murder’s audacity and brazen proximity to the Kremlin pointed to sanctioned activity. Speculation invoked dark Soviet precedents like Kirov’s 1934 death or (more improbably) 1937’s mass terror.
Many in the Russian opposition close to Nemtsov (Nemtsov’s own attorney, among others) in grief noted Russian domestic realities frequently are more complex: potential suspects extended beyond one man or the Kremlin. Yet they rightly emphasized even if Putin personally did not order the crime, he is still guilty. He created the domestic propaganda climate targeting opposition leaders.
Here’s our reaction as events unfolded at the time. We called some things decently, could have been more specific on others. We noted Kadyrov’s earlier signs of factional manipulation. We should have underscored Kadyrov’s new national ambitions and tensions with Moscow power ministries. Twitter has limits; the omissions, however, are ours.
Reuters and general media arrive at similar takes now. Russian sites Slon and Novaya Gazeta offered more detailed reporting a little earlier. Pavlosvky offers a general agreement. As of this writing, we believe the above frame is essentially accurate. Much remains unclear.
Putin’s public absence since March 5th ignited mass speculation. Rumors range from ill health, arrival of a new child to forcible detention as a result of factional infighting. The Kremlin promises a public appearance within days.
Putin’s initial lying low made sense if voluntary – regardless of speculation. Nemtsov’s assassination exposed the regime’s structural fissures.
One level is bureaucratic. The FSB and its rival the Ministry of Interior (MVD) energetically pursued the murder investigation; the Investigation Committee (a quasi FBI-like entity) less so. The FSB Chairman announced the arrest of Chechens in previously out-of-bounds (for Russian federals) Chechnya under Kadyrov, Putin’s regional protege. Moscow federal authorities long chafed at Putin’s protection over Chechnya. Kadyrov flaunted it by conducting criminal activity in Moscow immune from Russian authorities.
Nemtsov’s death and the Chechnyan angle stoked institutional rivalries. Putin since his 2013 return nurtured the MVD, placing loyalists in charge of its 170,000 troops. Some Putin appointees are considered ‘liberal’ in the Russian context. (Putin staunch supporter Yakunin, as head of the railways, also commands a significant armed force). Putin has criticized the FSB (and thus Chairman Bortnikov) in the past. For example, he blamed them for the 2011 opposition demonstrations. He then granted MVD more authority. Bortnikov’s personal announcement that the FSB arrested Chechens for Nemtsov’s death is significant in that context. Are we seeing a new version of the ‘Siloviki War’ from the mid 2000s?
Ideological differences on overall direction are another level. We’ve written here before how Putin attempted in 2014 to triangulate among his hardline ideologues and the more pragmatic as he improvised in Ukraine. Each Putin swing ignited protests. Those closest to the Novorossiya ideological project (and regime proxies such as Malofeev, etc.) find Kadyrov and his Chechen troops useful in Ukraine; others in the Ministry of Defense less so. The Novorossiya advocates feel Putin betrayed Russia with moderation. In parallel, economist Guriev and others in the Kremlin have demanded Putin go further towards a command-type economy (so-called mobilization). They, too, signal Putin’s triangulation is too liberal.
Can Putin forge a new consensus if free to do so? Indications are Putin’s first effort to placate after Nemtsov’s murder failed – granting Kadyrov new, long planned (but not first tier) federal honors, allow FSB et al. a substantial roll-up even in Grozny, and assure Kremlin elites and opposition figures no new violence. Recall that after Putin’s 2012/2013 re-election, he required protracted negotiations to build a consensus and form a new government. He worked then during the good times with a stable elite when the pie was still growing. A similar task today is infinitely more difficult.
Factions continue to leak on each other in various media outlets. Rumors swirl over possible institutions and figures aligning against or for Putin. Sechin, for example, it’s leaked to the Russian press, will retire – prompting immediate denials. Kadyrov is said to be scrambling as well. Sechin and Kadyrov traditionally are seen as actual and symbolic pillars of Putin’s authority yet Putin also has criticized Sechin for poor management lately.