First thoughts on Nemtsov’s posthumous “Putin. War.” report on Russian operations in Ukraine

Ilya Yashin, presenting the report

Ilya Yashin, presenting the report

Putin. War., the report on the Ukrainian adventure that Boris Nemtsov was working on when he was murdered, has been released, completed by Ilya Yashin and other allies and cohorts. It’s an interesting document, even if it essentially fleshes out what we already knew rather than saying anything truly novel (the section on the MH17 shoot-down, adding to the chorus of voices blaming the rebels, largely draws on existing, available studies, for example). That’s not in any way to undermine the genuine bravery of those people involved in the project, including not just Yashin but a range of opposition-minded figures from Oleg Kashin to Ekaterina Vinokurova. But I think it does put paid to the suggestion that Nemtsov was assassinated to prevent the report from coming out, especially as now it will probably get more coverage than it would otherwise.

Anyway, here are a few first thoughts on the report: (more…)

No Coups Today…

"Nah, nah, he's only resting."

“Nah, nah, he’s only resting.”

Putin’s continued absence from the public scene and his unexpected calling off of a meeting with his Kazakh counterpart led to a tsunami of rumour, supposition, denial and outright fantasy. He was dead. He had had a stroke. He was in Switzerland on the birth of his latest love-child. He was hiding from having to make difficult decisions between Kadyrov and the FSB. There had been or was a coup… I’ve no idea where Putin is now, and what’s his health like. Unless the Armenian president is part of a conspiracy — not impossible, but unlikely — then we do know that he (or, if you really want to follow the paranoid route, and go for a really, really unlikely possibility, a gifted mimic) had a phone conversation with Putin on Thursday 12th. A phone conversation could have been patched through from wherever, and Putin could have spoken from a sick bed, so other options could still apply, but at least this suggests no need to start planning the state funeral.

What about a coup, especially a military one? Again, I’m unconvinced. Some day, I suspect Putin will fall to a political coup; that seems to me much more likely than a willing retirement (assuming his health lasts), let alone stepping aside after losing an election (hah!). However, this seems far too soon to me. It will have to be something like the move that ousted Khrushchev, a reflection of near-enough elite consensus, and we’re not anywhere near that now. Things will have to get worse, for longer, for that to become a possibility. And as regards a military coup, that is one thing Russia is actually quite inoculated against. The military does not have a tradition of political involvement (remember, most held back from active support of the 1991 August Coup and Yeltsin’s 1993 coup against the Supreme Soviet alike), Shoigu is hardly the kind of bloody-handed adventurer we’d see as a likely prospect, and there is a powerful control network. The FSB and FSO (Federal Guard Service) both monitor the loyalties of the military and the balance of forces in Moscow itself (two army divisions, the FSO’s Kremlin Guard, the Interior Troops’ ODON ‘Dzerzhinsky Division’, plus the police and FSB) is to a large extent an exercise in ensuring no one agency could mount a swift seizure of power itself.

Besides, were this happening or even possible, we’d see troop movements, unexplained dismissals or ‘accidents,’ and public rhetoric to match. Russians would have been hearing that Putin was ill, as a prelude to the announcement of his ‘retirement,’ or else they’s be being warned of the prevalence of ‘traitors’ in the ranks, to rationalise the subsequent purge. Instead, there is nothing of the sort.

Whatever the reason for Putin’s current absence — and it could yet be something serious — this is being handled clumsily, yes, but the Kremlin spin is definitely that there is nothing to see here, move right along. It is instead I feel a mark of the heightened and even feverish mood amongst the Muscovite chattering classes and their Kremlin-watching interlocutors and counterparts outside the country that this is being made something more than it probably is.

And yet that mood in itself matters. The news of the phone call — and the rumours of another mini-Putin — have helped dampen the flames, but still the longer before we get a real, credible evidence of Putin’s health (so no still publicity shots, nor yet footage of insider meetings that could easily have been taken previously), then the more the speculation will rage, and the more likely it is that the tsar is, if not dead, somehow seriously impaired. And then all bets are off; so much of Putin’s self-image but also public persona are tied into his image as the bare-shirted Chuck Norris of leaders, that although there may be no practical reason why he could not still rule, he will probably get a first-hand lesson in how far politics is a subjective rather than objective art.

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.) (more…)

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…

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.


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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