Use Nemtsov assassination to reexamine Russian power
“I’m jealous, Viktor. You don’t answer to anyone. You have no real opposition, you know exactly how every election is going to turn out.” So says Frank Underwood to the fictionalized Russian president Viktor Petrov in the new third season of House of Cards, which premiered on Friday. Petrov, a not-so-subtle stand-in for Vladimir Putin, makes no pretense of viewing other nations as anything but pieces in a chess game. And he plays the game well; Petrov quickly presents himself as the only character this season who’s just as ambitious and ruthless as Underwood himself.
Yet the issue most critics have leveraged at the character is that he’s too soft. In the third episode (Spoiler Alert), Petrov attends a dinner at the White House, to which the band Pussy Riot—playing themselves—is also invited. Petrov takes photos with the band, tells them he’s “considering” their activism and even offers a toast in their honor. The magazine Foreign Policy pointed out that if Petrov is supposed to be Putin, then “Petrov is uncharacteristically concerned about the opinions and well-being of Pussy Riot, two of whose members in real life were imprisoned for nearly two years for protesting against the Russian Orthodox Church and Putin himself.” In an interview with the New Times, Pussy Riot’s Masha Alyokhina herself added “Petrov is more of a little Tsar. He is too jolly for Putin, of course.”
Any Netflix binge-watchers who took a break on Friday night to check the news would only have had this criticism reinforced. In what the New York Times called “the highest-profile political assassination in Russia in a decade,” Boris Y. Nemtsov was shot to death mere feet from the Kremlin. Nemtsov, a prominent and outspoken critic of the real world’s Russian president, was out on a walk with his girlfriend when he was shot four times by unknown assailants.
Many are questioning exactly how such a violent crime could be perpetrated steps away from one of Russia’s most heavily surveilled landmarks, a question which is itself secondary to the greater debate of who was behind the shooting. Most doubt this question will ever be answered. Russian police have a history of finding the man who pulled the trigger but never the man behind the man, especially so in political killings.
Of course, a wide range of theories have emerged as to why Nemtsov was gunned down. The most ridiculous is the one proposed by Russian police officials on Saturday, who said that Nemtsov may have been a “sacrificial victim” killed by his own supporters in an act of martyrdom. The most prominent in the Western media—if not explicitly stated, certainly implicit in almost all coverage—is that Putin himself is behind the attack.
Articles repeatedly reference an interview Nemtsov gave a week before his death, in which he coincidentally gave an offhand remark that he was worried Putin would kill him. There are also frequent interviews with Nemtsov’s opposition allies who all hurl the blame at Putin, and even though the lack of balancing interviews may just be the administration’s unwillingness to talk to the press, this is all the more suspicious to the burgeoning conspiracy theorist.
Proponents of this theory point to the startling track record of Putin critics being hushed up: though Nemtsov is certainly the most high-profile case, similar hits by gunmen silenced lawyer Stanislav Markelov, journalist Anna Politkovskaya and human rights activist Natalia Estemirova. Additionally, the investigative committee looking into the crime will answer to Putin personally, even though he himself is a prime suspect. This fits with a Western narrative that is more and more antagonistic to Putin: a Feb. 16 Gallup poll found that 18 percent of Americans now view Russia as the nation posing the greatest threat to the United States, beating out both China and North Korea. Gallup found that Russia’s annexation of Crimea and belligerence to Ukraine and the United States were the reasons for this shift—both of which can be squarely blamed on Putin.
So is the president of Russia behind an assassination on the steps of the country’s most famous monument? Much as it would make a good House of Cards twist, there’s no way to know anything about why Nemtsov was killed until more evidence is gathered, and any accusations against the government are based on circumstance and politics. What’s sad is that, in all likelihood, that evidence will not be gathered and whoever did hire the hitmen will remain unprosecuted.
But of all the conspiracy theories and speculation, I find the comments of Vladimir Milov, who collaborated with Nemtsov on a series of pamphlets alleging corruption within Putin’s administration, most believable. “There is ever less doubt that the state is behind the murder of Boris Nemtsov. The motive was to sow fear.”
Regardless of why Nemtsov was murdered, the end result is the same. In a country where one man holds ever-growing autocratic power, which has massive military capability and which has committed the most globally significant land-grab in recent political history, one of the only true contenders is now dead.Putin’s internal poll numbers continue to swell, and the United States and its allies are still trapped in a position where meaningful action against him would lead to refrozen Cold War.
While President Obama bragged that the Russian economy was “in tatters” at this year’s State of the Union, the country’s foreign debts are declining alongside its reserves, and the Gaidar Institute estimates that Russian gross domestic product will shrink by only 2.7 percent this year, despite falling oil prices. Russian standard of living is dropping, but internal public opinion is that this is due to Western sanctions and that continued trust in Putin will hold the country together. Meanwhile, those sanctions aren’t even that strong: the Gaidar Institute estimates that 6 percent of Russia’s industrial enterprises are affected by U.S. sanctions, which, though significant, is not enough to utterly cripple the country’s economy as Obama implied.
There is no denying that Putin plays hardball and plays like a bully. And there isn’t much that the U.S. can do about him. Hostile behavior will only be matched by more hostility, slowly escalating toward nuclear standoff. Negotiating would require sacrifices the U.S. likely isn’t willing to make—and which Russia isn’t willing to give up on, knowing that the U.S. will back down from a meaningful military standoff against them.
So as much as the response to Nemtsov’s shooting likes to imply a story about a grand conspiracy spearheaded by a madman politician, the factual Putin is much scarier. He’s calculating and efficient, and he uses his lack of meaningful internal checks against his power to great consequence in the international community. So let’s not get hung up on the drama of an assassination and instead look long and hard at the Russia situation writ large.