Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov’s brutal murder within a few minutes’ walk of the Kremlin may well become a new inflection point in the trajectory of U.S.-Russia and EU-Russian relations. If President Vladimir Putin does not handle the aftermath effectively, it could be the fourth such point bending the curve downward in less than eighteen months. The consequences for U.S. and European policy, and for Western-Russian relations, could be stark.
While Washington and Brussels have made their share of mistakes in handling Ukraine and helped to set the stage for its bloody internal conflict, Mr. Putin’s responses have produced the sharpest turns by dramatically changing how Western leaders, elites and publics perceive him and his goals. Putin’s annexation of Crimea, his subsequent March 18 address to Russia’s parliament taking credit for the move and implying that he would not be satisfied until he had created “Novorossiya’ in eastern and southern Ukraine, and his denial of any Russian role in the fighting in Ukraine (and especially Moscow’s assertion that Kyiv’s forces shot down Malaysian Airlines flight MH-17) have profoundly shaped U.S. and European attitudes toward his leadership and—perhaps most significantly—his trustworthiness in any settlement.
Mr. Putin set two of these processes in motion himself: the seizure of Crimea and his post-annexation chest-thumping. The third—his reaction to the MH-17 disaster—followed an unexpected event. If his response to Nemtsov’s killing follows his approach to the airliner tragedy, he will likely produce the same result: greater Western unity and resolve, not to mention stronger Western voices calling for additional sanctions and new efforts to isolate Russia.
Thus far, Western governments have generally limited themselves to condemning the killer and calling for a swift and thorough investigation. Secretary of State John Kerry’s statement said that he was “shocked and saddened” by the news and that “the United States urges the Russian authorities to act expeditiously to investigate and bring to justice those responsible.”
Yet this attitude will not last forever. Senator John McCain, now Chairman of the Armed Services Committee, has already taken a harder line, essentially blaming Putin without waiting for Moscow’s investigation:
That Boris's murder occurred in a secure part of the Russian capital raises legitimate questions about the circumstances of his killing and who was responsible. But regardless of who actually pulled the trigger, Boris is dead because of the environment of impunity that Vladimir Putin has created in Russia, where individuals are routinely persecuted and attacked for their beliefs, including by the Russian government, and no one is ever held responsible.
The central role of Alexander Bastrykin, the Chairman of the Investigative Committee of Russia (SKR), in the investigation buttresses those like Senator McCain, who don’t want to wait. Bastrykin had a leading part in the questionable second trial of the now-exiled oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky and—as a former classmate of Putin’s—has been close to Russia’s president since they attended law school, shepherding more than one politically sensitive case through investigation and prosecution in recent years.
Putin’s directive to Bastrykin, the heads of the Federal Security Service (FSB, the successor agency to the KGB) and the Ministry of Internal Affairs (which supervises Russia’s police forces) to take “personal control” of the investigation and to create a joint investigating group suggests that he does see the case as an important one. The fact that the Russian president has so far avoided making flippant or nasty comments—which he often does in referring to opposition figures—is also significant. He was much less careful in the wake of muckraking journalist Anna Politkovskaya’s murder in 2006.
Indeed, Russia’s political class as a whole clearly expects a strong reaction from Western governments. Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov expects “all Russia’s foes will use this murder to the maximum.” Even former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev said , “certain forces will try to use the killing to their own advantage. They are thinking how to get rid of Putin.”
Unfortunately, the fact that Putin and others in Russia see Nemtsov’s murder and its aftermath as politically important both domestically and internationally helps little in predicting the Russian government’s conduct. Ultimately, the Kremlin will choose between its approach to the MH-17 disaster—a not particularly believable public relations campaign—or its remarkably open approach to the tragic 2010 crash of Polish President Lech Kaczynski’s official aircraft in Smolensk, which transformed Russia’s relationship with Poland (until the Ukraine crisis).
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.