In 1934 Sergei Kirov, an old Bolshevik who had been head of the Party organization in Leningrad, was assassinated with a shot to the back. Most of his NKVD bodyguards had been mysteriously removed before the murder. Josef Stalin, the Soviet Union’s absolute dictator, expressed shock at the murder and promised to investigate personally. Within weeks a disgruntled former party functionary was arrested, convicted, and that very night executed. Stalin then used the assassination as an excuse to purge Trotskyites and others who he claimed were a threat to the regime, and whom he blamed for Kirov’s death. In reality, the bulk of the historical evidence suggests that Stalin himself arranged the assassination because he viewed Kirov, like other old Bolsheviks, as a potential threat to his rule.
Sound familiar? On Friday, Boris Nemtsov, a leading critic of the Putin regime, was gunned down with four shots to the back within yards of the Kremlin, the most heavily patrolled and secured area in the entire country. Vladimir Putin promised to personally take charge of the investigation while immediately branding it a “provocation,” presumably designed by his enemies to unfairly implicate him. Before long the Kremlin-controlled media were dropping dark hints that the CIA or the Russian opposition–or maybe the two in cahoots–were responsible for killing Nemtsov to blacken Putin’s good name. Or perhaps, they speculated, Nemtsov was killed because of his own moral turpitude; he was said to be involved in a back-alley abortion or some such.
Putin is no Stalin, but he has been rehabilitating Stalin’s image in Russia and he gives the clear impression that he has learned a few tricks from one of the most brutal dictators in history. Like how to get rid of your opponents.
There is, in fact, a disturbing and obvious pattern of what happens to those who challenge Putin’s authority. The “lucky” ones like Mikhail Khodorkovsky are merely sentenced to prison on trumped up charges–a decade in the gulag in Khodorkovsky’s case. Or their relatives are sentenced to prison–the brother of opposition leader Alexei Navalny was recently sentenced to three and a half years in prison on trumped up charges. The unlucky ones are simply eliminated from the face of the earth.
As the Washington Post notes, Nemtsov “was by no means the first Putin opponent to be murdered in brazen fashion. Similar hits by gunmen killed the dissident lawyer Stanislav Markelov and journalist Anna Politkovskaya in Moscow and the human rights activist Natalia Estemirova in Chechnya. A former KGB agent who turned on Mr. Putin, Alexander Litvinenko, was assassinated in London by agents who poisoned him with radioactive polonium.”
Putin treats other countries pretty much the same way he treats his own people. He has eliminated resistance in Chechnya with scorched-earth tactics. He has invaded Georgia and carved out Russian protectorates in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. And now he has invaded Ukraine, annexing Crimea and turning eastern Ukraine over to Russian-backed rebels.
Why does he do it? Because he can. Because Putin is a deeply corrupt, deeply amoral man who is out to acquire as much wealth and power as possible. Not just for himself and his cronies, to be sure: He is also, in his fashion, a Russian patriot who views the breakup of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [20th] century,” and he is clearly bent on undoing it. He is determined, in other words, to resurrect if not exactly the Soviet Union (he is too much of a crony capitalist for that) then the Russian Empire with himself as its benevolent tsar.
No doubt Putin, like countless other despots throughout history, has convinced himself that his country will become “great” again only if he is its absolute leader. Just as Hitler reacted to the weakness of Wiemar Germany and Mao to the weakness of the warlord era in China, so Putin is reacting to the perceived weakness of the Yeltsin era in the 1990s. He no doubt sincerely believes that it is in the interest of all Russians to swallow weak neighboring states, and that anyone who stands in his way is a “traitor” and “Fifth Columnist”–the epithets used to brand the likes of Nemtsov and Navalny. Whether Nemtsov was killed on Kremlin orders or killed by some ultra-nationalist inspired by the Kremlin’s ultra-nationalist propaganda is immaterial: No matter how many layers of cut-outs Putin had between himself and the dark dead, he is still morally culpable.
Beyond being a moral monster, Putin is also a supreme opportunist. He advances when he senses weakness and retreats, at least temporarily, when he encounters staunch resistance. He hasn’t been encountering a lot of staunch resistance lately.
The Bush administration all but ignored his subjugation of Chechnya, which could be linked to the broader struggle against Islamist terrorism, and did almost nothing about his invasion of Georgia, which came when the administration was war-weary and on its way out. John McCain argued for a stiffer response and was laughed off the stage.
Predictably Barack Obama, who came into office promising a “reset” of relations with the man in the Kremlin, has been even more supine in the face of Putin’s blatant aggression in Ukraine. Obama refuses to supply Ukraine with the weapons needed to defend it from Putin’s aggression. He won’t even provide Ukraine with usable intelligence on where Russian troops and Russian rebels are located. Because he is afraid of “provoking” Putin.
Which is just what Putin is counting on. The murder of Nemtsov and the invasion of Ukraine are of a piece: they are barely disguised acts of aggression designed to show Putin’s adversaries, real or perceived, what happens if they oppose his corrupt, imperial designs. No question about it, he is a scary man. He is capable of anything–anything that he can get away with.
But he is not suicidal. Putin is not a member of ISIS who seeks death in opposing the West. He seeks a long, prosperous life for himself and his cronies. If he thought that his criminal actions would endanger the prospects of such a happy outcome, odds are he would pull back. But he has no reason to think that now.
Sure, the U.S. and the European Union have imposed some sanctions on Russia, but Putin is convinced that when oil prices return to $100 a barrel, Russia will be in good shape. The sanctions aren’t doing much to hurt Putin personally or his inner circle; they still control their ill-gotten billions not only in Russia but in places like the City of London, Switzerland, and Cyprus. It’s the little people who are getting crushed by the devaluation of the ruble, but, a la “1984,” they are being narcotized by the steady stream of Kremlin propaganda which is touting the aggression in Ukraine as the greatest thing that has ever happened to the long-suffering Russian people.
Only a few Russians such as Boris Nemtsov have been brave enough to expose Putin’s lies–to oppose the aggression in Ukraine and the corruption behind the Sochi Winter Olympics. But Nemtsov is now gone, and few will follow in his footsteps.