Known Knowns and the Nemtsov Murder

Nemtsov-deathI write this post in some trepidation. I have become increasingly concerned and even somewhat irked by a lot of the easy misstatement of basic facts around Boris Nemtsov’s murder and the way that those determined to see this as a “Kremlin hit” are interpreting every fact or inference as proof thereof. I’m on record as saying that I do not know, but think it unlikely it was a state-sanctioned assassination. (Though that does not wholly exculpate the Kremlin for stirring up the toxic passions which I think were more likely to have led to the killing.) Many of the aspects of the murder which “prove” to some Putin’s direct fingerprints as questionable and I think that it is important to understand what we do and do not know, what we can legitimately claim as fact and what is actually just opinion. This does not in any way “prove” that the Kremlin didn’t have Nemtsov killed, just that none of this necessarily proves anything either way.

The very “death of neutrality” about which I wrote in my previous post on the murder ensures that there will be those who regard this as tantamount to running interference for the Kremlin, alas. If anyone is interested, my “agenda” is simply that I happen to believe that facts and the truth are important. “And the truth shall set your free” is, to me, a much more compelling slogan than “And a more effective use of lies will set you free”…

(Oh, and also for the record: all those ludicrous claims that Nemtsov was killed by the CIA, or by the Ukrainian SBU, or by other oppositionists looking for a martyr. They are even more ridiculous and, unlike the “Putin dunnit” claims, usually offensively so.)

“Nemtsov was under 24/7 surveillance.” Very unlikely. Having an obvious watcher trailing someone is one thing, but there have been no suggestions that this was the case. Maintaining a full, round-the-clock and discreet surveillance operation on someone is terribly labour-intensive, requiring multiple teams of trained officers on foot and in cars, rotating regularly to ensure they are not recognized and so forth. We are talking up to 60 officers, which would be a commitment far over and above Nemtsov’s importance to the FSB. Constant interception of his email and telephones would be another matter as this is essentially a technical matter, but physically watching him? Doubtful.

“This area is under constant, minute surveillance.” Really? This is another of those instant orthodoxies, probably because of the relative proximity to the Kremlin. Former Deputy CIA Director John McLaughlin, interviewed by Newsweek, for example, said it would be “undoubtedly crawling with security personnel.” I’m not sure last time he was on that bridge, but I have a very different experience. It is far enough away from the Kremlin that the Federal Guard Service (FSO), the agency protecting government facilities, would not be maintaining any extensive watch. Their cameras and eyes on the ground are much closer to the Kremlin walls. (Any more than, say, the Secret Service monitor the junction of New York Ave NW and 14th St NW.)

The idea that there would also be human surveillance on the bridge as a matter of routine is likewise simply wrong. Even by day, it does not generally get that much foot traffic; by night, as other footage (such as from this dashcam just minutes after the shooting) demonstrate, it is very sparsely used by pedestrians. Any uniformed or plainclothes security would stick out like the proverbial sore thumb, and I certainly never saw anyone who might be such an officer the many times I’ve crossed that bridge. One bored GAIshchik traffic police officer in a booth at the end of the bridge, and that’s it: if he even saw anything amiss, which is dubious, he’d have maybe sixty seconds to do anything before the getaway car has gotaway: what would be do?

“The cameras were switched off to avoid having to use facial recognition software.” Doubtful. First of all, whether the cameras on the bridge were on or off is unclear; there were reports they were, then Moscow city government, whose cameras they are, said they were working and their footage has been presented to the investigation. Either way, most of these cameras seem to me to be mid-resolution traffic cameras there to spot accidents and monitor traffic flow rather than anything else. While the Russians are indeed actively using and developing facial recognition software, this is still an immature technology and very much depends on the quality of the images. Security camera footage is pretty grainy at the best of times; throw in that this was at night, the image strobes by passing headlights, recoloured by the red, white and blue lights strung along the bridge, and the chances of any such images retrieved being usable for this software are pretty minimal.

“Hitting Nemtsov repeatedly and not his girlfriend proves it was a professional killing.” Not necessarily. This was a close range attack on an unexpecting target. To be sure, pistol accuracy is often questionable, but in such conditions and at a range in which the attacker could have thrown the gun and him Nemtsov, it is by no means exceptional. Many Russians have had some pistol training, whether in the military, police or private security sector. That’s not, of course, to say it was not some hawk-eyed pro…just that it need not be.

“The symbolism of the date or location mean it must have been Putin.” Not really. OK, so it was the one year anniversary of the first appearance of the “little green men” in Crimea, a date that Putin made the new Day of the Special Purpose Forces, but apart from the fact that killings are generally driven by opportunity rather than calendar, this need not indicate the state. The ultra-nationalists whom I suspect are more likely culprits might just as easily have seen significance here. And as for the Kremlin backdrop, surely that actually works against Putin? Even if Nemtsov had been murdered in some anonymous sidestreet, those inclined to see the Kremlin’s hand would have done so. If anything, the location of Nemtsov’s shooting actually to me is an embarrassment for this president who prides himself on the order he brought to the streets.

Let me re-iterate: Putin could still have ordered Nemtsov killed or hinted that he would like to see this happen and let others take the initiative. But so far we don’t know. The one particular issue that I do think stands out is quite how the killers targeted him. Once they knew he was dining at the Bosco on Red Square, given that he is known to live over the river, then waiting to catch him on the bridge, a natural choke point, makes sense. But how did they know where he was? Had they been following him beforehand (in which case there may be traces on other cameras, and perhaps cellphone traffic mirroring his, which could be a useful clue)? Or was his location monitored through his phone, which again could mean direct government responsibility, or the involvement of some security officer acting on his own authority, or just criminal/informal connections. Either way, answering that question might get us a little closer to knowing for sure what happened.

“Putin’s Third Term: Assessments amid Crisis,” at GWU, on 11 March

Putin's Third Term Flyer

All welcome, but do please RSVP as indicated on the flier

Nemtsov’s Murder and Three Other Deaths

NemtsovThe shocking murder of opposition figure Boris Nemtsov, literally in sight of the Kremlin, clearly marks the beginning of a new era in Russian politics and Russiawatching alike. And it is unlikely to be pretty.

Who killed Nemtsov, who was behind it? At this stage, I have absolutely no idea. The government? I find it hard to think Putin would actually order Nemtsov killed, not because Putin is a pacifist but because I see no real advantage. Already people are throwing around the parallel of the Kirov murder which at one stroke did away with Stalin’s greatest rival and gave him a pretext for purging the elite. But I don’t think Putin needs any excuses for whatever repressions he may want to do, and Nemtsov was certainly no threat. (I doubt he had the kind of “smoking gun” information on Ukraine some have suggested.) Besides, for a leader whose legitimacy is in part based on the way he ended the bespredel, the overt and violent lawlessness of the 1990s, this happening so close to the seat of power is an embarrassment. We’ll see if it dampens the mood of tomorrow’s planned opposition protests, but if anything I suspect it may galvanise them. Perhaps over-zealous security officers doing what they thought would please the boss? Maybe, but we have no reason to believe that. Nationalists or crazies inspired by the new mood of xenophobia and witch-hunting being stoked by the Kremlin? Much more plausible. Oppositionist figures wanting a martyr or, to go to the real extremes of the crazy spectrum, US agents likewise stirring trouble. I don’t believe that for a second.

But we don’t know. We know pretty much nothing but the facts, and so we are all tempted to interpret them based on our assumptions about Russia and Putin and the world. And that’s human, and inevitable, and dangerous. And it also points to the way I do think this is something of a watershed, marking three things that have been processes rather than sudden events, but as if often the way with processes become demonstrated through particular catalysts.

1. The death of neutrality. It is increasingly difficult not to be on one side or the other. We’ve already seen this over Ukraine (I’ve been castigated as a Kremlin stooge for not using the word “terrorist” to describe the rebels, and a Western shill for claiming that Russian troops are present, all for the same article!), but I think it’s also happening with Russia. Not to regard Putin as a murderous mafioso-fascist-tyrant-kleptocrat who kills for the hell of it is to be an apologist. To refuse to believe the State Department is actively trying to install Navalny in the Kremlin makes you a tool of Western “colour revolution.” Analysis increasingly, I’m sorry to say, takes second place to assertion of the world as the observer “knows” it to be.

2. The death of “stuff happens.” Nothing, it seems, is not part of a plan, a strategy, a ploy or a gambit. MH17 was a Ukrainian act of misinformation to demonise the rebels (arrant nonsense). Nemtsov must have been killed by the state because he was under 24/7 surveillance (very doubtful: that kind of surveillance would require a massive operation, out of proportion with his actual importance). The truth of the matter is that politicians and government are much less in control of events than they and we might think.

My working hypothesis is that Nemtsov was killed by some murderous mavericks, not government agents, nor opposition fanatics. But the reason they felt obliged to go and gun down a frankly past-his-peak anti-government figure is highly likely to be precisely because of the increasingly toxic political climate that clearly is a product of Kremlin agency, in which people like Nemtsov are portrayed as Russophobic minions of the West, enemies of Russia’s people, culture, values and interests. So, to loop things round, Putin is guilty, I suspect–and all the caveats about the lack of hard evidence yet–the same way that tobacco companies are considered guilty of cancer deaths after they may have known about the risks, or any hate-speaker may be when some unhinged acolytes take their sentiments and decide to turn them into bloody action. So maybe I am implicitly pointing to a third casualty:

3. The death of optimism. How does a regime soothe such feverish sentiments? Indeed, can it do so? I do not believe Putin is intent on World War III, or wants to create a neo-Stalinist terror-state, or do any of the other things the more extreme critics aver. But I suspect that in the name of holding onto power (his greatest ambition) and asserting the true sovereignty of Russia (his second greatest), regardless of the opposition of liberals at home, Ukraine, the West, or whoever, Putin has taken a step too far along a dark and dangerous path for him ever to be able to step back or even, worst yet, stop walking forward…

‘Russia, Ukraine and the new “Hot Peace” with the West’ – Prague, 17 March 2015


The Minsk-2 Accords: peace in our time? Hardly

All we are saying, is give war a chance

All we are saying, is give war a chance

So, a new ceasefire agreement emerges from the Minsk summit. Forgive me if I fail to applaud, especially as it allows another couple of days of mayhem before it even is meant to come into effect. The sad truth of the matter that what happened in Minsk has everything to do with optics, nothing to do with substance.

Getting Merkel, Hollande, Poroshenko and Putin together pretty much ensured that the summit had to lead to something. Had Putin simply dug in his heels and rejected every overture, then he would have been demonstrably the villain of the peace. More to the point, he would have personally snubbed Merkel and Hollande, and political credibility and amour proper would have forced them to push for a tougher line in Europe. As is, this ensured that Russia will not be on the agenda for the 12 February summit of EU leaders.

Now, though, they are at least for a few days committed to seeing this ceasefire agreement through, at least until—like the last one, let’s not forget—it is demonstrably a hollow sham.

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The Battle of the Big Beasts? Would an expanded MVD give the FSB a run for its money?

Time for bigger dogs?

Time for bigger dogs?

A report in RBK suggests that the Federal Anti-Drug Service (FSKN) and the Federal Migration Service (FMS) are to be rolled into the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD). Meanwhile (and this is an idea which has been floated before) former Putin bodyguard and judo sparring partner Viktor Zolotov will become the new Minister of Internal Affairs. Current minister Kolokoltsev is, after all, too much of a professional and too little of a close Putin crony for such a crucial position, the thinking goes, despite his recent efforts to reinvent himself as a populist authoritarian of sorts.

The official logic would be to save money through efficiency savings. Maybe, though rarely does that actually happen when any government makes this claim. The FSKN has done, in my opinion, an at best mediocre job, not least as its determination to focus on interdiction and destruction of the supply-side (at which, incidentally, it has failed) has also derailed efforts to address the demand, and Russia is now the world’s largest per-capita heroin market. Its main preoccupation often seems rather empire-building (even wanting its own external intelligence role) and turf wars with other agencies. But whether rolled into the MVD or not (and this might at least address some of the jurisdictional issues which do arise between the FSKN and the police), there will still be an FSKN-like agency. With the FMS, the logic is even less apparent, although with the growing public disquiet about foreign migrants and workers, it is likely to become a more politically-significant (and thus fraught) body; the FMS may be in for a rough time ahead of it, but it will certainly be in the public eye.

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