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Putin may be mad – but not mad enough to have had Boris Nemtsov killed

28 February 2015

2:57 PM

28 February 2015

2:57 PM

Boris Nemtsov signed his own death warrant when gave an interview earlier this month to the Russian newspaper Sobesednik saying that he was afraid he was going to be killed on Vladimir Putin’s orders. Perhaps he thought he was safeguarding himself from the possibility of such an attack by talking about it openly. Perhaps he did even save himself from Putin. But in this proclamation, he made himself a massive target – he made sure that his death would be a major political event inside Russia. So killing him became an objective for any number of people who will wish for the unrest which will now follow. “Boris Nemtsov shot dead: Outspoken Putin critic who had expressed fears for his life is killed near the Kremlin” is exactly the headline his killers were after.

Putin may be bad and a little mad – but is he a psychologically unstable bloodthirsty maniac? He ought be the last person who would have wanted Nemtsov’s death. It could be a cunning double-bluff.

Nemtsov has been a fierce critic of the Kremlin’s policies since at least 2008. So, why kill him now, right before the protest march that he was organising? Why now, after Nemtsov openly named Putin as his most likely killer? Why now, when only a couple of months ago the Kremlin was worried about jailing a far more prominent leader of the opposition – Navalny – who was then let off the hook with softer pressure being used on him. Why murder an ageing politician like Nemtsov, who was far less of a threat to the regime than Navalny?

Putin with Nemtsov in the Kremlin, in happier times

Putin with Nemtsov in the Kremlin, in happier times

Gorbachev said the goal of Nemtsov’s killers was to destabilize Russia. It certainly feels that way. Whoever did it sensed the fear Kremlin has in provoking the liberal part of the population, and the potential for a Maidan-style protest in Moscow. That fear of a provocation is precisely why the Kremlin has actually been careful with handling Navalny.  It is the same fear that drives the Kremlin’s need to organize ridiculous Soviet-style anti-Maidan marches in Moscow.


With the protest march planned for tomorrow, Nemtsov was a convenient victim. The country is in shock. For the rest of the world it is yet another reason to point the finger at Putin and shout “murderer!” (And you can read this between the lines of some of the international reaction to his killing today). Now,  nothing is off the cards. The head of MI6 is this morning talking about a “state-to-state threat”.

The sense of déjà vu is all too vivid for those who remember and lived through the 1990s. Criminals killed each other and rival businessmen for their slice of the pie, and journalists were killed by politicians and businessmen alike, including the brutal murder of the much-loved journalist Vladislav Listiev.

Anna Politkovskaya was killed on Putin’s birthday. A Chechen trail was often quoted as lying behind her death. There is an opinion that she was sacrificed to Putin by those desperate to showcase their loyalty to him, albeit in a cruel and utterly perverted way. And a similar way, Nemtsov could have been sacrificed as a sign of loyalty to the regime by idiots who thought they were helping Putin this way, ridding him of a turbulent priest. But they will have ended up harming Putin, putting a corpse outside the Kremlin at a time and inviting the world to draw their own conclusions.

If Nemtsov  was killed by Putin loyalists, then Putin has to blame himself. His state-controlled TV has been  broadcasting the message of hatred of any dissident opinion; and any sign of free thinking has been portrayed as a sign of disloyalty and the betrayal of the Motherland. This tends to psyche up hardliners. Thinking people who have questioned the dangerous direction the regime has been heading have been called “a fifth column”. Day after day people have been taught to hate “the enemies of the Motherland”. Opposition activists like Nemtsov, Makarevich, Navalny and many others have been portrayed as traitors, in league with the US State Department.

In such an atmosphere of hyped-up patriotism and hatred it shouldn’t be a surprise if a number of loyal idiots who feed off this media-fed nationalism are prepared to act upon it, deluded in their view they are cleansing their country of “a fifth column”. But if they are guilty, they are unlikely to be found. Putin is known as someone who doesn’t betray his “friends”.

It could be about money, too. Some of the oligarchs who used to be in the inner circle of Putin but have now been pushed aside (or have distanced themselves) and who have lost millions due to sanctions and an ailing economy, could be thinking of the ways to change the regime.  Regardless of who was right or wrong in the Ukraine crisis, in many ways Putin has become and is seen by some of the elite as a liability for Russia. There are people who want to see him go although would not admit so publically, and this “departure” is unlikely to happen without a Moscow Maidan.

Let’s not dismiss the Ukrainian links either – of which rumours abound. Nemtsov was walking with a female acquaintance, a Ukrainian citizen, when a car drove up and he was shot in the back. The woman was unhurt.  And there are Ukrainian nationalists – not the official Poroshenko’s Kiev – but nationalists aligned with the likes of Parubiy and Co, who hate Putin and everything Russian, and some would argue wouldn’t think twice of sacrificing anyone if they could get at the Kremlin. Nemtsov could have been their bullet shot at Putin, a human bomb detonated at the walls of the Kremlin.

What isn’t in doubt though, was that whoever did it achieved the impossible: suddenly, even the most politically lethargic of Russians has woken up. As of last night, the war is no longer somewhere in Ukraine – it is back to the streets of Moscow.


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