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 Kadryov, 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 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 – grant 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 Kadryov traditionally are seen as actual and symbolic pillars of Putin’s authority yet Putin also has criticized Sechin for poor management lately.
It’s therefore no surprise that Putin skipped the annual FSB Board meeting (after also canceling a summit in Astana days earlier) if healthy. Regardless of rumors. To attend would require first resolving stakeholder questions. Similarly, if Putin could travel it’s unlikely he would leave Moscow for Kazakhstan while authority is perceived to be in flux.
Foreign policy is linked beyond ideological fervor. For example, Patrushev, Secretary to the Security Council and former FSB Chairman, highlights the regime’s worst fears about ‘privatizing’ its Ukraine war from February 2014 are coming true. Patrushev acknowledges fighters from Ukraine are now able to plan and conduct “sophisticated terrorism” inside Russia. Eminently predictable from the start; recall Russian border guards earlier reportedly shot at those seeking exfiltration back into Russia from Donbass.
Patrushev, of course, seeks to frame the official agitprop that Ukrainian terrorists in Moscow shot Nemtsov. He’s also underlined the main driver of Moscow’s war: most of the Donbass effective fighters are Russian mercenaries/”volunteers”. The Kremlin has few appealing options: 1) offer likely unworkable one-way permission; 2) increase formal Russian military ratios; or 3) re-calibrate/possibly scale back goals and methods. Each choice demands interrelated political costs at home linked to the regime’s stakeholder struggles. Boris Nemtsov’s murder is forcing the regime collectively to glance at (even if obliquely) some fundamental questions.
Russia’s deepening domestic crisis will tax our analytical community, too. Throughout history, Russian and Soviet domestic politics are usually the main engine for foreign policy. Some Western analysts/commentators may be experiencing their first real protracted crisis – along with many Russians. One hopes we remember to distinguish between advocacy’s emotional tribalism and analysis for informed policy-making.
Frankly, we’re a bit skeptical about that.
*UPDATED: Thanks to @Lena_Mukhina for noting questions surrounding a news report:
The news item report apparently was poorly sourced and originates back to an unofficial Twitter account. For completeness, we double checked the Nezavissimaya Gazeta editor’s report on Sechin’s retirement (denied by his representatives) and other items cited above.