Putin's Next Move in the Nemtsov Case

The investigation into Boris Nemtsov’s murder will have stark consequences... 

Of course, the Russian government had reason to suspect in advance that the Smolensk disaster was a terrible accident.  Top Russian officials cannot really know where the Nemtsov investigation might lead (unless the killing was government-directed, which seems unlikely in view of its predictable and potentially negative consequences).  In fact, some of the theories about the murder could be quite damaging to the Kremlin if proven—for example, the possibility that Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov ordered the killing in response to Nemstov’s public questions about Kadyrov’s security forces and their activities in Russia and in Ukraine.

Especially problematic for Putin is that after the Russia government’s less-than-credible statements about its involvement in Ukraine, few Western leaders (or politicians, journalists or commentators) will be disposed to believe that Russia can conduct an impartial investigation.  Yet if the Kremlin wants to avoid further sanctions and deepening isolation from Western governments, financial systems and societies, that is the only viable path.  This will not be easy for Russia’s president, a proud man who likes nothing less than the appearance of caving in to pressure.  Hopefully he can find his own politically attractive reasons to ensure a serious, credible and open investigation.

For their part, Western governments have been correct so far in withholding judgment regarding who killed Nemtsov and why.  If they want Mr. Putin to make the right choices in Russia’s investigation of the crime, giving him the space to do so is more likely to succeed than pressure that encourages some of his least constructive instincts. 

Which way the process goes will be apparent soon enough.

Paul J. Saunders is executive director of The Center for the National Interest and associate publisher of The National Interest. He served in the U.S. State Department from 2003 to 2005. Follow him on Twitter:@1796farewell.

Image: Flickr/World Economic Forum