Russian President Vladimir Putin wants the public to believe he doesn’t benefit from the death of Boris Nemtsov, and some of the slain politician’s anti-Kremlin allies seem inclined to agree. Putin has used this propaganda line before, however, and there’s no reason to believe it now. Nemtsov’s murder – regardless of who ordered it and pulled the trigger – plays into the Russian leader’s hands more than anyone else’s.
Putin’s handling of Nemtsov’s death is remarkably similar to the way he reacted to the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya in 2006. “Her influence on the country’s political life was minimal,” he told a press conference then. “The murder of such a person, the cruel murder of a woman, a mother, is essentially directed against our country, against Russia, against the current government. This murder does a lot more damage… to the current government than her articles did.”
After Nemtsov’s murder, Putin sent a telegram of condolences to his dead opponent’s mother, calling the killing “vile and cynical.” His press secretary, Dmitri Peskov, told the daily Kommersant that Nemtsov “did not present any threat – of a political nature, obviously – to the current government of Russia and to Vladimir Putin. If we compare the popularity ratings of Putin, the government and so on, on the whole Boris Nemtsov was just a little more than an average citizen.”
The elements are the same: sympathy for mothers, righteous indignation, condescension, some faint praise (in Politkovskaya’s case, Putin noted her popularity among rights activists, in Nemtsov’s his unwavering directness). For some reason, this insincere mix impresses some intelligent people.
“This is clearly a provocation, and it clearly doesn’t benefit Putin,” Gazeta.ru quoted Nemtsov’s friend and long-time political ally Irina Khakamada as saying. “If you consider Putin a calculating, smart person who precisely and coldly weighs all the pros and contras, and the whole world sees him that way, getting rid of Nemtsov was not just meaningless but damaging to him, and it did damage him,” TV host Vladimir Posner, one of Russia’s most respected political journalists, wrote on his blog.
The problem with these protestations is they never detail what harm the murder can do to Putin.
Can it make him a villain in the world’s eyes? But Putin has nothing left to fear in this respect: The West has already laid the war in Ukraine, and the downing of a passenger jet there last summer, at his doorstep. A British court is now conducting an inquiry into the 2006 polonium poisoning of an avowed Putin foe, former intelligence agent Alexander Litvinenko, and there is strong evidence that the murder was officially sanctioned by Moscow. Could another death really do much harm to Putin’s reputation, such as it is?
Can Nemtsov’s killing harm Putin by strengthening the domestic opposition? That suggestion would have made sense if the shooting had given rise to a powerful wave of protests. All that happened, however, was a lame march that attracted 50,000 people – less than 4 percent of Moscow’s population. The participants lined up to pass through metal detectors beforehandand went home meekly afterward. This wasn’t a revolution, but another demonstration that even an extreme event such as Nemtsov’s death cannot galvanize the anti-Putin cause.
Putin benefits from Nemtsov’s murder in the same way he benefits from the Ukrainian military’s painful defeats: it feeds his reputation as a man who is dangerous to oppose. No matter how many “I’m Not Afraid” signs people hold up at rallies, they cannot but feel a cold shiver down their spines when they think of him. I admit feeling it, too.
Fear is a powerful weapon for authoritarian rulers, and Putin is no exception. This doesn’t mean, of course, that he personally ordered a gangland-style – or KGB-style – hit on his opponent. Plenty of his allies and sympathizers would not need instructions from him to carry out what they perceive as the country’s best interest – consolidation around the leader as he wages a war on the treacherous West.
The circumstances of the killing suggest it was far from a random hit by a lone wolf killer. Kommersant reported today that there were no usable recordings of the killing from the numerous security cameras watching the heavily surveilled area near the Kremlin wall where the murder took place, because some of the cameras had been turned off for repairs. (The Moscow city government has denied this, but no recordings have leaked, and in Moscow, they usually do.) A snowplow that seemed to trail Nemtsov and his girlfriend as they walked along a bridge obscured the shooting in the only footage available to the public so far.
Nemtsov’s old friend and co-author of his pamphlets on the Putin regime’s corruption, Vladimir Milov, wondered about all this in a LiveJournal post today. He also wrote: “In the past year Putin has convincingly proven that he has different views than uninformed commentators on what benefits him and what doesn’t. He showed he was ready to take war, losses, sanctions, international isolation – all for the sake of his own sacral and strategic goals that he alone understands.”
There is a lot to be said for Milov’s logic, especially since Putin’s foes occasionally turn up dead – liberal legislator Sergei Yushenkov in 2003, Politkovskaya and Litvinenko in 2006, Nemtsov in 2015 – but there hasn’t been a single high-profile murder of a Putin supporter. The specific mechanics of every murder only matter to the victims’ friends and families. To the rest of us, the pattern is the important thing. It tells Putin critics to do their best to keep safe.
Leonid Bershidsky, a Bloomberg View contributor, is a Berlin-based writer.