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Putin’s War and the Murder of Boris Nemtsov

The murder last Friday of Boris Nemtsov, as he was crossing a bridge a stone’s throw from the Kremlin, has silenced yet another brave critic of Vladimir Putin, who has turned Russia into such a great danger to itself and to the world. Unlike the journalist Anna Politkovskaya, the human rights defender Natalya Estemirova, the auditor Sergei Magnitsky, and many other martyred critics of official violence in Putin’s Russia, Nemtsov was a political leader, a former deputy prime minister, and elected governor who was once considered a possible heir to the reform president Boris Yeltsin. He offered an alternative vision for Russia, one that Putin has systematically assaulted since he took power in 1999 in a restoration of Kremlin and FSB hard-liners.

Looking back over these last 15 years, one can see an inexorable process of the centralization of power in the Kremlin, the repression of human rights and independent journalism, the use of regime propaganda to demonize all opponents and to whip up nationalist hatred, and the projection of harsh military power against alleged internal and foreign enemies, first in Chechnya, then in Georgia, and today in Ukraine. Putin has followed an integrated strategy, using fear of terrorism and foreign enemies as a mobilizing tool to consolidate unchallenged internal control. There is no separation here between conducting foreign wars and repressing internal enemies. Putin is fighting a single war with a single objective—to prop up a system of personalized power, using that power to steal from the people and eliminating every challenge to it.

Nemtsov’s liberal vision of a country with human rights, political competition, and the rule of law represented a threat to that system, and his readiness to speak out, to hold demonstrations, and to organize politically took great courage. He also boldly sought to gain international support for Russian democracy. He visited Washington in 2010 to speak in favor of the Magnitsky Act. He came again in 2012 to share information about the enormous corruption taking place in Sochi, his hometown, in connection with preparations for the 2014 Winter Olympics. In the weeks before his murder, he was writing a report on Ukraine charging that Russian troops were fighting alongside separatists in eastern Ukraine, something the Kremlin continues to deny.

Speaking in Washington in 2010, Nemtsov said that Magnitsky was killed because of “the atmosphere which we have now in Russia. This is an atmosphere of hatred and intolerance. … If you are for Putin and for his policy, you are okay, you are in the safe position. If you are against, you are an enemy.”

That atmosphere is much worse today, with Putin having declared in his Kremlin speech last March, following the annexation of Crimea, that political critics in Russia are “a fifth column” and “a bunch of national traitors.” In effect, Putin was inviting extremists to use violence against dissidents. Nemtsov knew he was in danger and said just weeks before his murder that he worried that Putin would have him killed. But he pressed on, hoping that his status as a former government leader might give him protection. When he was murdered he was planning a large opposition rally on March 1st, a protest that turned into a solidarity march in his memory.

Vladimir Markin, the spokesman for the committee appointed by Putin to investigate the murder, has already said that regime opponents may have arranged the killing to give themselves a martyr and to raise their profile. “Nemtsov,” Markin said, “could have been a kind of sacrifice for those who stop at nothing to attain their political ends.” But of course it is Putin and his thugs who will stop at nothing, and we haven’t seen the end of it.

On the day after Nemtsov’s murder, the photograph of him lying gunned down on the bridge ran on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, right above a story explaining that the US is limiting the spy-satellite intelligence it provides Ukraine to avoid provoking Russia, and that the Obama administration also remains deeply divided over granting lethal aid a year after it was requested by Kyiv. The contrast between the horror in Moscow and the dysfunction in Washington is revealing and also very disconcerting. The image from the bridge radiates globally because Russia under Putin is a danger not only to Ukraine but to Europe, the US, and the entire international order. The refusal to provide meaningful aid to Ukraine, a country that is fighting for its freedom and territorial integrity against this danger, will only invite more Russian aggression, and it will not end with Ukraine. This is a lesson that has had to be learned too many times in history, and we need to learn it again—quickly—before much more harm is done.

The greatest harm is that which is being done to the Russian people themselves. Under Putin, Russia is a country that is destroying itself economically, socially, demographically, morally, and in many other ways. The fact that people like Nemtsov, Politkovskaya, Estemirova, Magnitsky, and many others—the country’s most outstanding citizens, who would be the flower of any normal society—have been killed by elements connected to official structures is a devastating commentary on Russia’s death wish. The additional fact that 22 percent of the adult population would like to leave the country, according to a poll by the Levada Center, is further evidence of the mood of hopelessness in Russia, which will only grow worse with the economic crisis, the war in Ukraine, and now the murder of Nemtsov.

The young democratic activist Oleg Kozlovsky wrote on Sunday: “Boris was a very honest person who stood up for truth in spite of all. I have just returned from the mourning march for Boris. It was a huge, orderly, dignified demonstration of solidarity. Thousands after thousands of Muscovites went to show that they were not scared into silence.” But will they be able to save Russia? All of us have a stake in the answer to that question.

Carl Gershman is the president of the National Endowment for Democracy.

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