Alphen, Netherlands. 2 March. What does the murder of Boris Nemtsov’s murder mean for Russia and Europe’s security? A few years ago I met Nemtsov at an event in Geneva. Unfailingly courteous, even self-deprecating, he was highly-intelligent and offered a fascinating glimpse into a better Russia, a different Russia. Indeed, my impressions of the man and his ideas suggested that his great country still had a real chance of transitioning from autocracy to democracy, and through that transition, Europe could finally become whole, free, and at peace.
Sadly, all that Nemtsov stood for was blown away on Friday by four bullets in his back - the cynical act of that other, all-too cynical Russia. Many are blaming President Putin. However, this is simply not his style, and is in any case far too close to home. Why murder a leading opposition figure on the approach road to the Kremlin? It is pure speculation on my part but it is more likely to have been the deed of the now-multiple ultra-nationalist groups that stalk Russian politics. Well to the right of even President Putin such groups have tentacles that reach far into the so-called Siloviki, the security apparatchiks who run an increasingly powerful security state.
The other day I had dinner with Putin opponent Mikhail Khordokovsky, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linus Linkevicius, Slovak Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak, former Swedish Prime and Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, and NATO Deputy Secretary-General Alexander Vershbow. Now, I am not at liberty to reveal the content of our discussion (and I will not). However, I was struck by Khordokovsky’s concern for and about his Motherland. Indeed, having listened to Khordokovsky I tore up my prepared remarks and put it bluntly to the gathered dignitaries; Europe’s strategic vacation is over, all the comforting self-absorbed assumptions about peace, stability and security we Europeans have clung to since the end of the Cold War will be torn up over the next decade…and Russia will do much of the tearing.
You might say my motivation was fairly obvious given the tragedy in Ukraine. However, I was also driven to speak by the unworldliness of Western European politicians in particular. Too many of them seem to believe that what is happening TO Russia, and what is happening IN Ukraine, is unfortunate, but remains a side-show to the ‘real’ issues of debt and ‘Europe-building’. In fact, what is happening in Russia is extremely dangerous and concerns us all. This weekend here in the Netherlands Gary Kasparov, the former Russian chess master, said that President Putin regards the West as weak and divided. He is of course right. However, what is not understood is just how weak and divided Russia is itself, and just how dangerous such divisions are for Europe’s security.
When he started his third term in office in 2012 President Putin set out to fulfil three parallel and connected strategic missions: to centralise power on the President’s office via the National Security Council; to marginalise all opposition to his rule; and to re-establish Russian influence over the states on Russia’s so-called ‘near abroad’, be they EU/NATO members or not. Most commentators have assumed that the primary mission is the re-establishment of Russia’s influence over its ‘near abroad’. In fact, President Putin is using that mission, and the appeal to nostalgic Russian patriotism it generates, to justify absolute control over the sprawling Russian state apparatus and, by extension, Russian society. To President Putin the need for a stable Russia on his terms is far more important than a free Russia on our terms.
It is in that context that Nemtsov and his supporters have been portrayed as a threat to the Kremlin, because Nemtsov espoused the kind of European civil society which would see a Russia emerge that would indeed be on our liberal democratic terms. It should be noted that in Ukraine Maidan was triggered by an EU agreement, not a NATO agreement.
However, for all his concerns about Nemtsov and his ilk he is equally concerned about forces to his political right and the ultra-nationalist movements which could tear Russia apart, and by extension Europe, if they ever gained power. Not versed in political reform as other Europeans would know it Putin sees the greatest danger to Russia as the ‘chaos’ that would emerge if a power struggle were to break out into the open between liberals and ultra-nationalists. In that light Putin sees the focusing of power on himself as a move to stabilise Russia and thus prevent Russian fracturing under the triple pressures of nationalism, globalisation and Europeanisation.
Therefore, Nemtsov’s assassination is clearly a function of the very profound tensions that exist at the heart of Russian politics and society, and such tensions are likely to get worse. President Putin has manoeuvred himself into a political dead-end. He offers Russians no political vision, no political development, and no political evolution which would over time help ease such tensions and create a Russia with state institutions of sufficient strength to cope with pluralism. Rather, he is trying to divert such tensions by appealing to Russian nationalism, wrapping himself in the Russian flag, and by centralising all power on himself and using an assertive displacement policy. Consequently, Putin himself has nowhere to go but more of the same assertive displacement policy. If he fails Putin will be swept aside by the tides of change that are indeed boiling away below the surface of the Russian body politic. Putin’s ‘strategy’ may not make sense to many strategically-illiterate western European politicians. However, it makes ‘perfect’ Russian sense to the Baltic states, and indeed all states across Central and Eastern Europe who have ‘benefitted’ from past Russian rule.
Contrast all of the above with the utterances of last week of British Prime Minister David Cameron. Amidst growing and justified concerns about further cuts to British defence spending (and blatant attempts by Downing Street to shut down any defence debate prior to the May general election) Cameron assured the British people that the UK can defend itself against the Russians. That is precisely NOT the point, Dave, and you know it. The real issue is whether the British armed forces will be able to fulfil their treaty commitments to NATO and provide critical forward deterrence to Britain’s allies. Today, the answer is just about yes. Any more defence cuts to the British defence budget and the answer will be an emphatic no as Britain effectively ceases to be a major power (see my new paperback – Little Britain? Twenty-First Century Strategy for a Middling European Power. www.amazon.com)
Here’s the strategic cruncher. President Putin is looking at NATO anchor-states such as Britain to see if they have the resolve to contain him. Indeed, if I want to be really provocative (and why not) I would suggest that in the absence of any meaningful strategic partnership Putin NEEDS the West to contain him so he can concentrate on consolidating power in Russia, and in his very narrow terms maintain political stability therein. However, as Gary Kasparov pointed out, Putin certainly does not believe countries like Britain, or indeed any other European state, are up to the strategic task he has set them. Sadly, I have to agree with President Putin.
So, will the murder of Boris Nemtsov be seen one day as Putin’s nemesis? No. However, it reveals a Russia that combines immense, over-centralised power with dangerous instability. And, if what is happening in and to Russia is not seen through the cold light of political realism Putin’s Russia could one day be the nemesis of us all.