Commentary Magazine


Topic: Boris Nemtsov

What Will Nemtsov’s Assassination Mean for Hillary?

On February 27, Boris Nemtsov, a former Russian deputy prime minister and a liberal opponent of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was shot dead in the shadow of the Kremlin. It wasn’t the first time a Russian figure who ran afoul of Putin paid the ultimate price—think Sergei Magnitsky or Anna Politkovskaya—but it was among the most brazen attacks, or at least the most brazen attack that didn’t involve polonium. Unknown assailants killed Nemtsov, a critic of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, just two days before a major opposition rally. Any doubt that Vladimir Putin is anything but a cold, calculating psychopath, an aggressive despot who seeks not Russian greatness, but rather his own unquestioned power, should now be put to rest.

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On February 27, Boris Nemtsov, a former Russian deputy prime minister and a liberal opponent of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was shot dead in the shadow of the Kremlin. It wasn’t the first time a Russian figure who ran afoul of Putin paid the ultimate price—think Sergei Magnitsky or Anna Politkovskaya—but it was among the most brazen attacks, or at least the most brazen attack that didn’t involve polonium. Unknown assailants killed Nemtsov, a critic of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, just two days before a major opposition rally. Any doubt that Vladimir Putin is anything but a cold, calculating psychopath, an aggressive despot who seeks not Russian greatness, but rather his own unquestioned power, should now be put to rest.

Hillary Clinton rose to prominence not on her own merits as an elected leader, but rather as a first lady. She might be smart and talented, but her path to power was not her own. Granted, she leveraged her prominence to run and win a Senate seat in New York, but she approached the office with extreme caution and simply bided her time; she certainly will not go down as a great legislator. After surprising no one and running for the presidency in 2008, she got her chance when President Barack Obama appointed her to be his secretary of state. It is chiefly the legacy of these four years in office that provide the only window into Clinton’s executive experience and policy judgment.

Hindsight is always 20/20, but few secretaries of state appear to have been so quickly proved wrong on the major initiatives they oversaw. Like it or not, Clinton’s foreign-policy legacy—the experience she needs to prove that she is worthy of answering the 3 a.m. phone call—rests upon her tenure at the State Department. And it is here that the Russian reality might come crashing down upon Clinton’s presidential ambitions.

President Obama took the Iran issue as his own—asking the Iranian leadership figuratively to unclench its fist—leaving Clinton in charge of Russia. Clinton shaped and oversaw the so-called “reset.” The conceit of the reset was the belief on Obama and Clinton’s part that their predecessors had mishandled the Russian relationship and allowed it to derail. George W. Bush was far from perfect on the issue—his claim to have looked into Putin’s eyes and seen his soul showed poor judgment and misplaced trust—but he quickly calibrated his policies to reality as the real Putin showed through. Clinton’s reset at best reflected a willingness to forgive and forget the Russian occupation of Georgia and, at worst, showed a complete ignorance of Putin and his ambitions.

Had Clinton learned from her mistakes, she might not be tied to Putin today. But, even against the backdrop of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Clinton insisted that her reset policy was a success, that it somehow benefited the United States’s security and position in the world. Alas, the opposite is demonstrably true. Russia is far more aggressive today than it has been in decades. Russian bombers not only probe NATO defenses in Europe, but also may soon patrol the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico.

Then, of course, there was the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). In order to win congressional approval for a deal riddled with holes, the State Department withheld information from Congress which detailed Russian cheating on previous agreements. Clinton’s point person on the new START was her undersecretary of state for arms control and international security affairs, Ellen Tauscher. Tauscher subsequently left the State Department and joined the Atlantic Council, where she sought to further the reset with an initiative called “Mutually Assured Stability,” a silly name for an idea that treated Russian ambitions naively. There is no stability when the Kremlin sniffs weakness. What was incredible about Tauscher’s project was that she accepted Kremlin money to underwrite it. The Kremlin founded the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) to act as its representative in the NGO world. Clinton had hundreds of staffers, and dozens claimed to be her close aides, so can she really be held accountable for what Tauscher did after leaving the State Department? Normally, the answer would be no. But Clinton has since brought Tauscher back as a key aide in one of the shadow groups organizing her campaign. That suggests Clinton is doubling down on her embrace of Russia even as Putin shows his true colors.

Few presidential elections revolve around foreign policy. Americans tend to vote with their wallets. But 2016 may be an exception: Obama’s diplomatic and national-security strategy had now been tried and found wanting. Obama did not cause the Arab Spring, but his belief in leading from behind allowed wildfires in Libya and Syria to spin out of control. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has reinforced a malaise not seen since the Carter years. Add into this mix that Clinton, if she runs, will have to run on her State Department tenure and it seems evident that foreign policy will matter in 2016. If Clinton cannot admit an error, that’s bad enough. If she truly believes her ideas and actions on Russia were to the benefit of international security, then that suggests a far greater question of judgment.

The more Putin embraces the paranoia and worldview of former Soviet Premier Josef Stalin—a comparison which will only be highlighted by Nemtsov’s murder—the more Clinton may find her State Department tenure not to be her greatest asset, but instead her Achilles’ heel.

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The Murder of Yet Another Putin Critic

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.

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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.

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Kasparov, Nemtsov call McFaul’s Bluff

On Tuesday, I wrote about U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul’s objection to tying America’s economic interaction with Russia to the promotion of human rights. McFaul was in Washington for a conference and also to push for repeal of the Jackson-Vanik amendment, a piece of Cold War-era legislation that sanctioned Moscow’s trade status for restricting Jewish emigration. Now that Russia is joining the World Trade Organization, Jackson-Vanik disadvantages American businesses, and so it’s time to repeal it.

But I argued that McFaul’s emphasis on repealing Jackson-Vanik was a dodge, since its repeal is uncontroversial. The real issue is whether it should be replaced by legislation that would hold Vladimir Putin’s administration accountable for its atrocious human rights record. Were McFaul not representing the Obama administration, I added, he might very well support such action–McFaul is the author of several books on promoting democracy in the post-Soviet space. Today, Garry Kasparov and Boris Nemtsov, two outspoken Russian opposition figures, take to the pages of the Wall Street Journal to make those points, and a few others.

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On Tuesday, I wrote about U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul’s objection to tying America’s economic interaction with Russia to the promotion of human rights. McFaul was in Washington for a conference and also to push for repeal of the Jackson-Vanik amendment, a piece of Cold War-era legislation that sanctioned Moscow’s trade status for restricting Jewish emigration. Now that Russia is joining the World Trade Organization, Jackson-Vanik disadvantages American businesses, and so it’s time to repeal it.

But I argued that McFaul’s emphasis on repealing Jackson-Vanik was a dodge, since its repeal is uncontroversial. The real issue is whether it should be replaced by legislation that would hold Vladimir Putin’s administration accountable for its atrocious human rights record. Were McFaul not representing the Obama administration, I added, he might very well support such action–McFaul is the author of several books on promoting democracy in the post-Soviet space. Today, Garry Kasparov and Boris Nemtsov, two outspoken Russian opposition figures, take to the pages of the Wall Street Journal to make those points, and a few others.

The authors note that McFaul challenged a crowd on Monday to ask Aleksei Navalny, a popular Russian activist and blogger who has become a vocal leader of the protest movement, what he thinks. McFaul was certain his interlocutors would decline to accept the challenge. Kasparov and Nemtsov called McFaul’s bluff:

So we asked Mr. Navalny, who, along with several other members of the opposition leadership, signed a letter cited by Mr. McFaul calling for the removal of Russia from Jackson-Vanik. “Of course no one in Russia is foolish enough to defend Jackson-Vanik,” he told us. “But we also understand that it should be replaced with something else. And we said as much in our letter when we recommended the passing of the Magnitsky Act, as has been done in Europe.”

Mr. Navalny is referring to the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2011, which was introduced in the U.S. Senate last May with wide bipartisan support. Named for the Russian attorney who died in police custody in 2009 while investigating official corruption, the Magnitsky Act would bring visa and asset sanctions against Russian government functionaries culpable of criminal and human rights abuses.

Kasparov and Nemtsov also challenged the administration’s realpolitik approach to the “reset” policy, arguing that McFaul’s devotion to his own policy (the “reset” is McFaul’s handiwork) is causing the erstwhile defender of human rights to subjugate his own value system in the mad dash to defend his legacy. What’s more, the authors point out the assault on logic the administration must conduct in order to justify its behavior:

Moreover, if economic engagement is the best way to promote an open society, why does the Obama administration not forge a free-trade pact with Iran instead of levying sanctions? Russia will be joining the World Trade Organization regardless of what the U.S. does. But WTO membership will not undo Mr. Putin’s monopolization of political and economic power. If Mr. Putin and his oligarchs believed for an instant that the WTO might weaken their grip, they simply would stay out.

The Obama administration is not only attempting to overturn a law, but also its spirit. As Mr. Kissinger did 39 years ago, Amb. McFaul is trying to make the case that human rights should not get in the way of realpolitik and the business of doing business. He reminds us that the State Department already has its own secret list of banned Russian officials, and so nothing more need be done. But the entire object of such laws is to publicly shame and punish the rank and file of Mr. Putin’s mob so they know the big boss can no longer protect them.

The Obama administration talks a lot about human rights. Kasparov and Nemtsov are right to ask if those speeches are, as the president himself might say, just words.

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