Garvan Walshe was National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party until 2008.
Another opponent of Vladimir Putin is dead, this time Boris Nemtsov, former deputy prime minister, and liberal opposition politician. He joins Anna Politkovskaya and Alexander Litvinenko. Putin’s announcement that he intends personally to lead the investigation into the assassination is beyond parody. He will not have ordered it himself -like King Henry II, he’s above such things, and Nemtsov was anyway less of a threat than Thomas à Becket. He might well regret the vulgarity of the murder, directly outside the Kremlin. What appeared to one of his vassals as useful intimidation runs the risk of creating a martyr.
Nemtsov won’t be the last. Lacking the magic of kingship, religious authority that people take seriously, and the habits of traditional obedience, Putin’s dictatorship relied on fear and money. Money made sure wages and pensions were paid on time, began to reconstruct the Russia’s battered armed forces, gave the loyal elite a generous share of the spoils his regime extracted (the price Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Boris Berezovsky paid for disloyalty should concentrate their minds) and created opportunities for profit in the West. As the money gets more scarce, and shrinking budgets sharpen the edges of political conflict, more repression will take its place. As the crackdown worsens, he has at his disposal one crucial advantage: apparently limitless reserves not of Russian manpower, but of Western credulity.
Eight years ago, when Dimitri Medvedev pretended to run Russia, rather too much attention was devoted to who would succeed him as president (one wise old owl remarked that it would be Mr P. Utin). People who should have known better speculated that a more liberal cabal of reformers had coalesced around Medvedev and would make a bid for power. Six years ago Hillary Clinton, who now does know better, offered to “reset” Washington’s relationship with Moscow. Three years ago, Putin was to find a graceful way for Bashar Assad to step down from power. A year ago, he was supposed to be satisfied with Crimea and have no designs on Eastern Ukraine. Soon we will hear that “rogue elements” of the security forces killed Nemtsov.
Naturally, rogue elements, whether Russian, Iranian or Argentine, only ever target turbulent individuals the government would prefer did not exist. The failure of the government spies watching Nemtsov’s every move to notice that people were plotting to kill him, just before he was due to release evidence of the Russian military involvement in Ukraine, is no more surprising than the failure of the little green men of Crimea to wear Russian flags on their uniforms.
Putin’s “hybrid war” relies on a simple device: pretend to stick to international standards while systematically flouting them. Russia is not interested in upholding any international order, but uses our adherence to it to its own advantage. Resisting it begins with calling out its lies for what they are. Russia, not “Russian-backed separatists”, is invading Ukraine. There was no separatist movement there before Russian operatives created one, and what they had created was on the verge of defeat before it was reinforced by Russian regulars. Now their aim is a land bridge to Crimea.
The Ukrainian armed forces need to be helped to resist their advance and their state institutions reinforced (I am told that Official Development Assistance funding can be used for the second of these purposes). A British-style Magnitsky law, as proposed by Dominic Raab, imposing sanctions on individual Russian officials could be a useful symbol. Preventing Russian companies getting hold of North Sea oil assets is an important use of sanctions that are already in place.
Defence cuts need to be stopped and perhaps reversed: even Germany has begun to increase its defence budget. Russia has no legitimate in “sphere of influence” in which it is allowed to subjugate peoples unfortuante enough to find themselves in its “near abroad.” If they elect governments that want to integrate with the EU and NATO, and meet the criteria for membership, then they should be welcomed in.
We will be in conflict with Putin for quite some time and need to prepare for a long fight. His regime has always been based on banditry. Nemstov’s murder has eliminated any excuse to pretend otherwise.