The gangland-style murder of Boris Nemtsov late on February 27 marks a second death that occurred long ago but is too difficult for many in the West to accept: the passing of a Russia many had hoped for but which never emerged.
Boris Nemtsov was a carrier of that hope for many of us at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow in the mid-1990’s. We wanted to believe that this dashing reformist mayor of Nizhniy Novgorod represented the vanguard of a new generation of visionary leaders who might guide Russia into a modern era of democracy, market economics, and partnership with the West. As Russia’s Old Guard fought back, Nemtsov’s elevation to Deputy Prime Minister in 1997 sustained our hope that perhaps at last, this latest generation of Russian Westernizers might triumph. With his characteristic exuberance, Deputy Prime Minister Nemtsov dove into de-monopolizing Russia’s economy to transform corrupt and inefficient behemoths like Gazprom into normal companies that could compete on a level playing field.
In hindsight, Nemtsov didn’t stand a chance. Already four years earlier, Russia’s national mood had shifted from hope for integration into the West toward a Slavophile crouch, as the radical reformist followers of Yegor Gaidar’s “Russia’s Choice” movement were routed in Duma elections by the xenophobic traditionalists of Vladimir Zhirinovskiy’s Liberal Democratic Party.
Despite these telltale signs, many Russians and their friends in the West hoped Russia had turned a more optimistic corner. In the U.S., throughout most of President Clinton’s Administration, the State Department stuck to the mantra, “periodic setbacks are inevitable, but we believe Russia remains on the path of reform,” even as organized criminals and oligarchs took control of key swathes of Russia’s economy and the Kremlin stoked deadly ethnic conflicts in Georgia and Moldova.
These negative trends intensified when Yeltsin passed over Nemstov as his successor, opting instead for his security services chief, Vladimir Putin. Initially, Western leaders wanted to give Putin the benefit of the doubt, with even President George W. Bush famously believing he had glimpsed President Putin’s soul during their first encounter in Ljubljana, Slovenia in June 2001. Even after what he dubbed “Russia’s invasion of Georgia” in August 2008, President Barak Obama “reset” U.S. relations with Russia. Putin responded to Obama’s goodwill with a massive military buildup along Russia’s borders with NATO’s Baltic members, which has included helicopter assault units, heavy armor, and theater nuclear weapons. (See Kaarel Kass’s article in the May/June 2014 issue of ICDS’s Diplomaatia: www.diplomaatia.ee/en/article/russian-armed-forces…)
Eventually, Presidents George W Bush and Barack Obama developed convergent views on Russia: President Putin made his own decision to split Russia from the West and define Russia’s greatest security threat as the very values that define us as a transatlantic community. The Kremlin views this threat as sufficiently severe to justify the enormous costs incurred by invading Russia’s brotherly neighbor, annexing its territory, and provoking a broader hybrid war. These tactics went so far as to create a climate in eastern Ukraine that enabled a Russian missile launcher to shoot down Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, and most recently, a climate in Moscow that brought hybrid warfare to the ramparts of the Kremlin with Nemtsov’s slaying.
Like the obviously false claims that no Russian troops are fighting in Ukraine, some of Russia’s most senior officials and their cronies are peddling empty condemnations of Nemtsov’s killing and pledges to track down his murderers, who must be either Islamist extremists, the Ukrainian Government, or the CIA. These ridiculous claims insult the intelligence of Westerners and Russians alike, and mask some critical questions. How could one Russia’s most carefully followed citizens be gunned down on one of the most heavily protected and surveilled spots in all of Russia, just 200 meters from the Kremlin, without even a suspect being identified? And, if the Kremlin genuinely condemned Nemtsov’s killing, why has not a single security official been held accountable?
It is powerfully symbolic that this murderous special operation was executed on “Special Operations Forces Day,” a brand new holiday declared by President Putin just one day before Nemtsov’s execution, and which may have inspired the killer.
Additional symbols speak louder than the Kremlin’s official telegrams to Nemtsov’s widow and mother. The killer chose to pull the trigger while Nemtsov was walking against the backdrop of St. Basil’s Cathedral, late at night with a young Ukrainian girlfriend, and just a day before Nemtsov was to lead a rally in which he would release evidence of Russia’s direct military involvement in Ukraine. The unarticulated message is clear: Nemtsov and his anti-Putin allies who oppose Russia’s actions in Ukraine diverge from Russia’s traditional morals of orthodoxy, autocracy, and fatherland, and must be eliminated. President Putin, on the other hand, protects Russian values, including through his divine quest to recreate “Novorossiya” in eastern Ukraine.
Many European leaders will want to dismiss this symbolism as far-fetched. They similarly choose to ignore the inconvenient truth that the Russia for which they hope vanished before it ever existed. They wish to believe President Putin is just like them. But in reality, the Russian President is not interested in joining a rules-based community of shared values; he portrays the West as a collection of degenerate societies that must be opposed by force if necessary, including even nuclear weapons (witness recent Russian military exercises simulating nuclear attacks on Stockholm and other European cities).
Rather than recognizing the urgent need for a firm response to Russian revanchism, Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande have fed it. For over a year, President Putin has cleverly exploited the greatest fears of the German and French leaders: a new war in Europe. At Minsk-2, Putin was able to convince his Western counterparts to accept his price for peace: an absurd agreement that legitimized the military gains of separatists led and supported by Moscow, while allowing two additional days of fighting to facilitate the fall of Debaltseve, and without even recognizing Russia as a party to the conflict it started.
Merkel and Hollande may have convinced themselves they were engaged in a noble endeavor to end a war and save lives. But, they only rewarded aggression and sowed the seeds of further military adventurism and death. This was the same mistake then-French President Sarkozy committed in August 2008, when he forced a tragically flawed cease fire agreement on Tbilisi, obligating Georgia to withdraw its military forces from its own territory while permitting invading Russian troops to remain in place. Such pandering to Moscow only encouraged the next round of Russian military aggression, this time against Ukraine.
Boris Nemtsov’s brutal and symbolic murder should therefore serve as a wakeup call for Europe’s leaders. President Putin’s Russia does not seek partnership with the West; it views Western values as a mortal danger. Rather than looking for ways to work together to stabilize Ukraine and save lives, the Russian President is probing along a front stretching from Mariupol to Minsk and now to Moscow itself, to the bloody pavement beneath the corpse of a true Russian patriot.
Just a few days ago, those Russian probes included large-scale military exercises near Russia’s border with NATO’s Baltic states. If European appeasement continues, it risks encouraging an existential challenge to NATO’s along the Alliance’s Eastern Frontier, and threatening a human tragedy beyond anything imagined thus far.