Boris Nemtsov’s Execution: Real Time Crisis*

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.

Boris Nemtsov, Putin, Assassination, Kremlin

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.

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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.

Rumors Fly

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.

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*UPDATED: Thanks to @Lena_Mukhina for noting questions surrounding a news report:

Sechin, Nemtsov, Kadyrov
Sechin calls Kadyrov an ‘ignorant animal’

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.

The Baroque Incentives Of A President Addicted To Dealing Death

Overtly covert wars and drone assassinations happen because Obama and his unremarkable White House national security staff want them. Obama’s fulsome embrace of tactical expediency only accelerates degeneration of American strategic thinking into compartmentalized, impulsive, unconnected random spasms of violence.

Ignatius repackages known struggles within the U.S. Islamabad embassy over who controls U.S. drone war in Pakistan, the ambassador or CIA? (Ignatius adds a morsel that St. David Petraeus is cross).

Drone War, Obama
Bureaucratically, ambassadorial struggles for policy control are not unprecedented. State overall has been fending off encroachment on ambassadorial authority for a long time. Rummy pushed DoD assassination teams into embassies who expressly were exempt from ambassadorial oversight. Earlier, even Commerce and FBI drove wedges. Managing an embassy now is far more demanding for any ambassador than just 20 years ago. Without the drones.

In Pakistan’s case, the ambassador’s attempt to control policy predestined to fail. He didn’t understand Obama court political realities. Obama faces domestic gridlock. (Much of it his own doing). Foreign policy and especially ‘covert’ action are his release. The ambassador really contested Obama’s authority and the one sphere of presidential positive feedback.

Foreign policy as mentioned here recently is the preferred refuge for domestically stymied presidents. CIA, CTC and DoD covert militarism cater to Obama’s frustration and proclivity for judging others. They tease and often deliver instant gratification: ‘results’ (aka death), action, baseball cards, full motion video and alleged secrecy. Approving who lives or dies? Doesn’t get any judgier.

Per the NYT it requires a veritable death bureaucracy, faceless GS and super grades, to feed the Addict-In-Chief. The death apparatchiks routinely offer candidates like discussing draft picks in ‘Moneyball’. The rot is deep. Think about this the next time someone suggests watching ‘Conspiracy’. Obama insists on bringing the Cesarian thumbs up/down into the Oval Office. Is it really noble sacrifice to control the otherwise out-of-control system? Then why the leaks bragging about it all?

It’s a compartmentalized program, except spread very far and with direct presidential patronage. The secrecy, insularity and reward mechanisms (presidential approval, a ‘good kill’) create an alternate reality, smug, aloof and at odds with those not read in (let alone ‘Consensual Reality’).

Into this disposal, the ambassador in Pakistan stuck his hand. Others control the switch. Only a poor poker player challenges Obama to abandon his one area of seeming control and instant kicks for what? Prolix cables back to Foggy Bottom? More complexity and frustration with brown people far away?

State’s failure in Pakistan is part of a wider pattern. Lack of strategic coherence is in some ways unavoidable. Institutions of all types erode and dissolve into digital ADD across American society. Tactical impulsiveness commands media, corporations and individuals. Why should foreign policy be any different? Compartmentalized thinking and operations are perfectly suited for a fractured age.

Crafting and implementing enduring, strategically rational architectures perhaps was easier under the old monoculture. No one can deny contemporary American inability to govern domestically. Still, it’s not that we are powerless even so. The root enabler of American imbalance abroad — and Obama’s personal mechanism of death — are the budgets we craft here at home. DoD and the Community must be pared down from their wartime extravagances. Eliminating the gross resource imbalance at least makes a more coordinated, recalibrated strategic posture likely. And State restored to a modestly functioning role.

One unanswered question is would Weberian bureaucratic logic compel any president in these circumstances to pursue similar activities — regardless of character?

All we know is this president isn’t interested in trying to find out.

Panetta And DoD Plain As Plain Can Be On Syria

Is it better the second time around? Leon Panetta and CJCS Dempsey again warn Congress about American intervention in Syria. Substantively and atmospherically, words now echo those of Bob Gates and Admiral Mullen over Libya. Recall Messrs. Gates and Mullen explained that a Libyan ‘no-fly zone’ would be tantamount to a full scale military assault and the post-Khaddafi scenario not thought through.

Predictably,McCain and a die hard group of Neocons push mindless bellicosity. More important politically are liberal pundits and policy advocates calling for sanctuary zones, special forces, drones, military assistance to regime opponents, etc. These voices, more than Neocons by all accounts, persuaded Obama to overrule Gates and Mullen and strike Libya.

Panetta and Dempsey explain what you, Dear Reader, have been saying for some time. Sanctuary spaces, no-fly zones or other calls face sophisticated Syrian air defenses, a 600,000 strong army, targets commingled, and solid officer corps tribal loyalties. Logistics even for a drone footprint let alone special forces non-trivial if not out right complicated.

Panetta could have channeled Gates when testifying:

The fundamental issue that is before us is whether or not the United States will go in and act unilaterally in that part of the world, and engage in another war in the Muslim world unilaterally. Or whether or not we will work with others in determining what action we take.

He mentioned that DoD is now preparing specific scenarios and planning.

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Still Smells Like A Strategic Disaster . . . Can You Check?

As a result, starting next month, we will be able to remove 10,000 of our troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year, and we will bring home a total of 33,000 troops by next summer, fully recovering the surge I announced at West Point. After this initial reduction, our troops will continue coming home at a steady pace as Afghan Security forces move into the lead. Our mission will change from combat to support. By 2014, this process of transition will be complete, and the Afghan people will be responsible for their own security. We are starting this drawdown from a position of strength.

American media has to put Obama’s nonsense into a cognitive frame they understand: who’s up, who’s down. Thus the bogus attention paid to Petraeus vs. Biden. This was classic Boy King Goldilocks. Withdrawing the surge troops (assuming it happens) still leaves 70,000 in a strategic black hole. One of the most comical moments tonight was to behold Gergen’s phlegmatic outrage that Obama did not do everything Petraeus told him.

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Unlike Gergen, Zakaria etc. you wouldn’t be surprised that we thought the speech merely modest if not mediocre. Its trumphalism hollow to even the most casual observer. What to make of such absurdities as “We are starting this drawdown from a position of strength? Many cynics might opine that the Boy King began misleading with “Good evening”, but, as Richard Cheney once said, we are not one of them.

The alleged goals and victory conditions enunciated again tonight – a cohesive national Afghan government, a reliable Afghan military, a non-corrupt police, etc. are not only wholly historically anomalous and thus beyond our means, but nothing can be achieved by kinetic violence. Whether one campaign season, two campaign seasons or a dozen.

In that sense, Obama’s cynical Goldilock’s solution is imposition of crass political calculation in the face of strategic insanity. Whether he pulls 10,000 now, leaves them, or pulls any other fraction of 100,000. Leaving a large American army in Afghanistan further exposes U.S. logistics to an increasingly hostile Pakistan. And that’s the rub.

The only feasible ‘victory’ outcome in Afghanistan as enunciated by the Boy King requires not only combat in Afghanistan. Pakistan must be eliminated as sanctuary and sponsor. A joint occupation of “Afpak” is beyond U.S. means and even imagination. But it does mean that prosecuting the ‘war’ in Afghanistan is even more strategically bankrupt than the Southeast Asian unpleasantness.

For a while Pakistan thought it would emerge the ultimate winner together with its proxies seeking control of Afghanistan for strategic depth (if no longer branded ‘Taliban’). Until recently, that is. The arrest of a brigadier and the naval base raid merely the latest signs of a burgeoning who whom.

For the U.S., Obama in Afghanistan presents a double irony. The first? LBJ et al. were actually more sincere in their mistakes than this crowd. The second? The first passes unrecognized.

A Tiny Flicker Of . . . Hope . . . ?

As nervous as I was about this whole process, the one thing I didn’t lose sleep over was the possibility of taking bin Laden out. Justice was done. And I think that anyone who would question that the perpetrator of mass murder on American soil didn’t deserve what he got needs to have their head examined.

Obama on ’60 Minutes’ (May 8, 2011)

Maybe Bismarck really was right after all. Although, to be fair, once again the Goldilocks process is revealed. The options before him were: (a) stand-off kinetic force; (b) boots on the ground; or (c) wait for more data to increase confidence percentage. He chose (b). (Thank goodness – ed.)

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We Just Came To Bomb Hello*

Kinda like this thing but there’s something you should know
we just came to bomb hello



*(revised Azure Sky video edit)

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These are dangerous times even without hype. For the first time since 1918, Waltz’ structural architecture of systemic international anarchy (defined not as ‘chaos’ but competitive positioning limited only by viable international means) puts forth a vacating chair. The Continent anticipated and feared the coming American century. The foundations of this entire blog have roots there.

We Americans, blissfully withdrawn in our own continent, focusing on accumulating capital, largely unaware of the tired Lion’s increasingly feeble efforts to maintain its seat. Wilson thusly delivered a double blow — demonstrating the Empire’s implausibility then failing to deliver American power to the systemic framework. Now it is our turn to look back at our ‘Diamond Jubilee’ (you’re welcome to nominate your own candidate) aware that the chair, to which we had become so accustomed to that it felt a very part of us, is wobbling.

It’s become oddly jejune to muse about international theory. First it was Japan (remember when Summers glommed onto that one in *1990*?). A hard case of the unipolar flu has given way to seeing nothing but China. In spite of Friedman, belatedly we Americans are beginning to realize that BRICs are not just for houses (How’s that for parody? Think it a one off? Here comes another.) We keep one hand trying to steady our chair with almost a trillion dollars a year invested in (usually recognized) negative returns through militarization in all its various guises. The other hand? Why, it’s in front of our faces, frantically searching for something secure to hold on to. (See? No sweat).

Quick, Think Fast

Some argue this moment poses risk but also presents opportunity. The Obama Administration’s merely tinkering with the momentum of the 2001-2008 disaster frustrates. These American Great Jump Aheaders urge us to see the de-stabilized Waltzian international order as Kobe Bryant looks down court on a fast break: reacting to what just passed (the old-bi-polar comfort and the briefly hellish uni-polar fever). The analogy is that the U.S. naturally reacts to reality now but seeks to shape fluid events. No excessive dwelling on the last play. (Forgive the sports metaphors. We rarely use them).

Some conversations are fanciful. Most seem unsound. Some might have strategic merit if ever we Americans reconcile national interest with ideals. And it’s not at all clear that a nominal constitutional republic premised on separation of powers will have the wherewithal to think let alone act with the necessary alacrity.

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“One possible future. From your point of view… I don’t know tech stuff.”

Welcome to another Stiftung Comic, this ‘ish, “NATO STRIKES!”

The Secret Behind Sarkozy’s Mania To Attack Libya

The comic issue begins with the fateful decision to bomb Libya. . .

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Obama declares his firm decision that he will bomb and attack Libya, but no boots will ever touch Libyan soil. The U.S. military follows its orders to the letter . . .

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But even the best military plans go awry . . .

Listening To Admiral Mullen Tonight It’s Worse Than Thought

Admiral Mullen is a supple intellect and adroit interpersonal politician in marked contrast to his two hapless, unlamented predecessors. He effortlessly maintains zero daylight between him and the Commander in Chief while still sending oblique messaging. We saw more nuance in him being up close than guessed before reluctantly accepting tonight’s invitation.

The Whisper Of Spread Spectrum

As Mullen recited the Administration line several points seeped through in interstitial spread spectrum whisper. First, it’s clear (to the Stiftung, at least) Mullen remains unenthused about the State/White House slap-dash ‘winging it’ decision-making. He is aligned with his boss, although Gates did the patented Washington-two-step earlier on the Hill, assuring that ‘all alternatives were *exhaustively* examined’. (Clever phrasing).

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U.S. Wages A Clueless War Over Libya

[After finally unlocking WH:] “Mission creep? No one *ever* utters those words. Tell Carney to use ‘saving more lives’ if he wants to keep the job.”

Even as other nations begin taking a larger role in the international air assault mission in Libya, the Pentagon is considering adding Air Force gunships and other attack aircraft that are better suited for tangling with Libyan ground forces in contested urban areas like Misrata, a senior Pentagon official said Friday.

Gortney [JCS staff director], however, said there has been no reduction in the number of American planes participating. In fact, he said the Pentagon was considering bringing in side-firing AC-130 gunships, helicopters and armed drone aircraft that could challenge Libyan ground forces that threaten civilians in cities like Misrata. The U.S. has avoided attacking in cities thus far out of fear that civilians could be killed or injured. AC-130 gunships, which operate at night at low altitude, can attack with unusual precision.>

Meanwhile, this is what we fight for:

As the transition to NATO command and control of the military operation proceeds, the administration has still not made a decision about recognizing the Benghazi-based Libyan opposition council as the legitimate government of the country. The U.S. closed its embassy in Tripoli in February but has not broken diplomatic relations with the Gadhafi regime.

Gene Cretz, the U.S. ambassador to Libya who has been reaching out to opposition figures, said the administration was still not entirely certain about the identities and intentions of the transitional council, although he said they had made positive statements about their goals and plans to respect human rights.

“I think they’re off to a good start,” he told reporters at the State Department. “That’s not to say that we know everything about them; we don’t. We have to be very careful about who might be included in the future and how they go about forming a government, if in fact they have that opportunity.”