Boris Nemtsov’s murder may be a turning point in current Russian history. Unfortunately, it is almost surely not a turn to the better, but one to something bad or to something even worse. This point needs to be made clear from the beginning. It is an illusion to think that this event will lead to anything positive, such as a backlash in the population at large against nationalistic rhetoric or even some kind of liberal revolution, or “Russian Spring.”
Liberalism in Russia was left near-dead once Putin prevailed over the wave of protests in late 2011 and early 2012. The geopolitical conflict with the West over Ukraine—both Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions and the Western response of imposing sanctions—virtually guaranteed that liberal, democratic, pro-Western forces would remain irrelevant for now and, likely, for some years to come. Nemtsov’s murder only exacerbates this trend.
There are two probable scenarios going forward. Both begin with the realization that the most important conclusion from the Nemtsov murder is that it signals a lack of control by Putin over very dangerous elements in Russian society. Putin will respond by further tightening Kremlin control over Russian politics and society. The question is how forcefully and how successfully. In one scenario, Putin succeeds in stabilizing the political situation. This will result in an even more authoritarian, but somewhat stable, Russia. In the other, Putin fails to establish control and the result is a breakdown of all control and reversion to an even more extreme nationalism than now.
We do not know who murdered Boris Nemtsov. The most likely version is that it was rogue nationalist, anti-Maidan, forces. If so, this means that Putin has serious problems with his own security forces. They are either inexcusably negligent (because they allowed the murder to happen) or criminally complicit (if anyone inside the security forces in any way facilitated the crime).
Most everyone outside the Kremlin is obsessed with, as they say, the eternal Russian question of Kto vinovat—”Who is to blame?” Putin’s priorities are different. His first question is not, “Who did this?” but “Who let this happen?” So his primary concern is to solve the problem of the competence of and/or control over his security services.
Second, his main target now has to be extremist-nationalists inside Russia. They are the biggest threat to his regime, far greater than the demonstrators on Bolotnaya Square in 2011-2012. Despite the fact that it is the Kremlin itself that has been the biggest promoter of nationalism, it is aware that extreme nationalism is a danger. Last October, at the Valdai Club meeting in Sochi, Putin’s number two man, Sergey Ivanov, was asked about the threat of nationalist-extremists in Russia. He admitted there was a problem. “They do exist. They are a tiny minority. But they represent a clear risk. We need to think about that. And, especially, we need to do something about it. … We have to make it clear to extremists that the law will be strictly enforced, and that committing illegal acts is a road that leads to nowhere.” And when we do act against those who violate the law, he said, “we will not be constrained by concerns about human rights.”