How war in Ukraine led to Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov’s death

March 2, 2015
A portrait of Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov, who was shot dead on Friday night, is seen during a march to commemorate him in central Moscow

A portrait of Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov, who was shot dead on Friday night, is seen during a march to commemorate him in central Moscow March 1, 2015. The words under the portrait reads “These bullets are meant for each of us.” REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

Feb. 27 has become a dark day for both Ukraine and Russia. A year ago on that day, heavily armed men seized the Crimean parliament, and Russian soldiers fanned out across the peninsula, making its annexation a fait accompli within hours. This year, liberal Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, a fierce critic of the Kremlin’s policy toward Ukraine, was gunned down in cold blood in central Moscow.

Just a day earlier, Russian President Vladimir Putin had signed a decree designating Feb. 27 “Special Forces Day.” The Russian government’s official newspaper explained the choice of date obliquely: “Remember what happened where a year ago, and how it all ended.” Putin, at the time, denied Russian involvement in Crimea, just as today he denies Russian involvement in eastern Ukraine.

Disagreement over Russia’s role in Ukraine — and Ukraine’s role in Russia — has become the most bitter issue dividing Russians today. The vast majority backs Putin’s course: 84 percent of Russians approve of Crimea’s annexation and 62 percent believe eastern Ukraine should become independent or join Russia, according to a poll taken by the independent Levada Center in January. The omnipresent state TV channels have branded the minority supporting Ukraine’s territorial integrity as a traitorous “fifth column.”

Nemtsov, who ran a cottage industry publishing reports on the corruption gnawing away at Russia, was reportedly about to release an investigation into Russian military involvement in eastern Ukraine. He was also one of the organizers of an “anti-crisis” protest march, planned for March 1, demanding fair elections and “the immediate end to the war and any aggressive actions toward Ukraine.” After Nemtsov’s murder, the demonstration was hastily reformatted into a memorial procession attended by tens of thousands of people. Isolated yellow and blue Ukrainian flags could be seen in the sea of red, blue, and white Russian tricolors that filled downtown Moscow on Sunday afternoon.

For two nations as intertwined as Russia and Ukraine, the Ukrainian flag has become a political symbol. As strenuously as the Kremlin propaganda machine raises the hobgoblin of Ukrainian nationalism, the conflict between Ukraine and Russia isn’t about ethnicity or language — it’s about the kind of country that people want to live in. Most Ukrainians want to build a Western-style democracy; most Russians are convinced that trying to do the same in their own country would be calamitous, impossible, or both.

As much as Ukrainians may want to step out of Moscow’s shadow, their fate is inextricably tied to Russia’s because Putin is gambling his own political future on their country. Ukraine is so crucial to the Kremlin because of its strategic geographic location. A pliant, easily bribed government in Kiev was the preferred way of controlling Ukraine’s natural-gas pipelines to Europe and keeping the country out of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

In Putin’s reverse domino theory, Ukraine had to remain weak, dysfunctional, and divided to be an effective buffer zone. When the Kremlin’s client, then-President Viktor Yanukovych, fled the Maidan protesters in Kiev a year ago, Putin interpreted the change in power as an impermissible encroachment by the West that had be stopped by whatever means possible. While the seizure of Crimea was based on the geopolitical calculation of securing Russia’s Black Sea Fleet base once and for all, Putin cloaked the move in quasi-religious mythology, describing the peninsula as a holy land for Russian Orthodox believers. His use of nationalistic rhetoric fueled separatist sentiment in eastern Ukraine and raised the stature of long-marginalized chauvinists within Russia.

For Putin, the conflict with Ukraine is worth all the risks involved — including damaged relations with the West — as he sees himself in a battle for his regime’s survival. Russian involvement in Ukraine is just a pretext for Western economic sanctions, he said in a nationally televised speech in December.

What happens in Ukraine is also of vital importance to Russian liberals. Like Russians, Ukrainians have struggled with corruption and bad governance, income disparities and a bought judiciary. But in contrast to Russia, political power in Ukraine has been much more fragmented because of regional rivalries and competing oligarchs, creating an opening for ordinary citizens to get involved. Through their civic engagement and willingness to protest, Ukrainians have been a source of inspiration — and envy — to opposition activists in Russia.

The first significant show of people power in Ukraine was the Orange Revolution 10 years ago, when Yanukovych, openly endorsed by Putin, won flawed presidential elections, sparking a non-violent, popular uprising. Pro-Western politician Viktor Yushchenko prevailed in a repeat vote. Russian liberals cheered his victory — and Nemtsov, a reform politician under former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, joined Yushchenko’s team as an adviser.

Putin, on the other hand, became determined not to allow a repeat of the Kiev protests in Russia and began a systematic crackdown on civil liberties. When street protests broke out in 2011 after he had announced his intention to run for a third presidential term, Putin blamed the U.S. State Department for fomenting unrest.

According to the Kremlin, the Maidan protest a year ago was a Western-engineered putsch — and a practice run for the Kremlin. The gloves came off for good.

It’s not a coincidence that a pro-government rally in Moscow on February 22 was called “anti-Maidan.” Demonstrators held up banners that said “Yankee, get out and take Maidan with you!” and “Strong Russia or Maidan?” Some held up a sign with Nemtsov’s picture under the words “Maidan organizer.” A week later, he was dead.

At Sunday’s memorial march, a woman held up a different sign. It read: “The war killed Nemtsov.” She was right.

23 comments

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Russia is acting like a Central American right-wing regime in the 1980’s.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Most Russians get their news from Russian television which is completely under the control of Putin and his cronies.

Putin has turned Russia into a police state and the most dangerous figures for Putin are those who oppose his military aggression in Ukraine.

It’s time for a total economic, cultural, sporting and scientific boycott of Russia. This is the only way the people of Russia will hear the truth about Putin’s mad imperial drive into Ukraine.

The U.S. And Europe should also provide urgent defensive military assistance to Ukraine to raise the cost for Putin of waging his war in east Ukraine.

Posted by havryliv | Report as abusive

Most Russians get their news from Russian television which is completely under the control of Putin and his cronies.

Putin has turned Russia into a police state and the most dangerous figures for Putin are those who oppose his military aggression in Ukraine.

It’s time for a total economic, cultural, sporting and scientific boycott of Russia. This is the only way the people of Russia will hear the truth about Putin’s mad imperial drive into Ukraine.

The U.S. And Europe should also provide urgent defensive military assistance to Ukraine to raise the cost for Putin of waging his war in east Ukraine.

Posted by havryliv | Report as abusive

“The omnipresent state TV channels have branded the minority supporting Ukraine’s territorial integrity as a traitorous “fifth column.””
Should we seriously take all the “analysis” in this article, if the author doesn’t know or just “forgot” that Russia officially recognizes Ukraine’s territorial integrity? Does he really think that “the omnipresent state TV channels” have branded Putin and Lavrov as a traitorous “fifth column”?

Posted by Chichikov | Report as abusive

First of all, I am not paid by the Russian Government, as every individual not aligned with the “truth” about Ukraine has been pointed at.
It is amazing how Reuters takes side on the subject of Ukrainian crisis, when neutrality should be the reference. Let´s see some sentences of the Reuter´s article on Ukraine: “…the conflict between Ukraine and Russia isn’t about ethnicity or language” (Does Lucien Kim know the differences between people from Galicia, which is backing Poroshenko, and the people of Eastern Ukraine?); “…Most Ukrainians want to build a Western-style democracy” (Really?? A “democracy” where the political party linked to the Eastern part of Ukraine was prohibited to take part in the last “free” elections? A “democracy” where the legitimate President was thrown out of office by 1/3 of the Parliament?Come on…); “…A pliant, easily bribed government in Kiev…” (Mister, what do you have now in Kiev? The current government in Kiev has been easily driven by the United States, ignoring advices from European governments to settle a political agreement with Eastern Ukraine and, worse, pushing for a impossible-to-achieve military solution). Again, I am amazed by such lack of balance in a supposed “professional journalism”…

Posted by mlcrjvi | Report as abusive

It’s quite obvious at this point that the US likes ‘regime change’ better than any other form of warfare.

Any country that is not onside with US policy is in danger of having this very effective weapon used against them. Erdogan is one who has realized this danger and is cracking down on various CIA financed organizations in his country. Boris Nemtsov is an old Yeltsin guy and obviously a part of the CIA’s efforts in Russia.

At this point the only reason the US promotes democracy is to allow ‘regime change’ in that country.

Posted by PenGun | Report as abusive

President Putin is a real patriot and is doing everything to preserve Russia from the Western imperialism.The blame is always on him starting from the organized crime inherited from the drunkard that held office before him ,extremely powerful selfish and oligarchy that got rich by getting conglomerates for a bottle of whiskey by the drunkard,separatist movements supported by foreign countries,constant NATO expansion to Russia borders for which he was constantly warning in every speech or meeting with Russia’s “partners”, at least 3 colorful revolutions in Ukraine,all Russia’s friendly countries ravaged by NATO or civil war…
He is a Great president that every Russian should be proud of.
Glory to Russia and Vladimir The Righteos!!!

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

As investors continue to pull out of Russia and put their money in REAL countries.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Russia has devolved into a blatantly fascist totalitarian state. No wonder educated professional Russians who have the means to leave are doing so by the thousands each month. I have a friend here in Houston who left Russia with his wife and son two years ago because he saw what Putin and those around him were doing to the country.

I fully agree with havryliv below. The west needs to impose a TOTAL economic blockade on Russia and we need to arm the Ukrainians with the best weapons that we have. Ukrainians know how to fight. All they need are the means.

Posted by Danram | Report as abusive

Ok, russian media is controlled by its government. But who controls you, reuters? Who decides whether or not to post an opinion? Explain me, please, how does opinion censorship/selection work in you glorious Brave New World of “western democracy”?

Posted by BraveNewWrld | Report as abusive

great. We get to read a captured western press telling us how bad Russian propaganda really is.

Posted by Laster | Report as abusive

Absolute propaganda and lies, The elections in 2010 where overseen by the OSCE and declared legal and transparent. I would suggest you read the report. As to Nemtsov, Putin is many things but an idiot he is not. He needed Nemtsov as a counter weight, please go and ask for an explanation by the CIA or any state security expert.

Posted by Moties001 | Report as abusive

Mr Kim, a question for you. If Nemtsov was President of Russia would he welcome with open arms the handing over of Crimea to NATO and the US. If your answer is yes how long do you believe he would remain President when US war ships were sitting so close to Russia’s coast. Or to put this another way how long would Obama be President with Russian war ships berthed permanently off the US coast.

Posted by Moties001 | Report as abusive

Moties

“Absolute propaganda and lies”? When did the author refer to the 2010 elections?! Apparently there’s nothing Kim wrote that you can accurately refute…instead you make a straw man argument that is ludicrous.

We get that you and Macedonian are Russian nationalists who see your proud country as a victim of evil Western nations’ machinations but don’t think for a moment we believe you or your beloved leader’s belligerent nonsense. Kim is absolutely right, Putin wants a weak, dysfunctional and pliant Ukraine as a buffer state and he is willing to go to whatever lengths necessary to ensure that status.

Posted by distancematters | Report as abusive

@distancematters
You see, the problem is that Mr Kim and reuters have fundamenyal “natural” advantage. What they can’t refute they can censor.

Posted by BraveNewWrld | Report as abusive

In the last 24 years the independent Ukraine had squandered one of the world’s most technologically advanced industries inherited from the Ukrainian SSR. The country with a highly educated workforce, capable of design and manufacture of one of advanced space rockets, largest in the world aircraft, aircraft carriers, and more, is no more there.

Instead, they preach the cargo cult of hobgoblin “western democracy” and jump on maiden.

Posted by BraveNewWrld | Report as abusive

Distance matters

You have completely missed my points, The US wanted there fleet based in Crimea that is the reason for the Russian annexation of Crimea. This has been coming since 1990 and all revolves around the potential loss of US financial hegemony, Mr Kim is perfectly aware of this. All of his reports are biased and anti Russian. At no time will he speak the truth about the USA. We have a world power that on one hand is prepared to interfere in the affairs of another country. But condones the brutal regime within Saudi Arabia. Please get the point, I am not pro Russian but in fact a believer in honesty and truth (which both my comments purport to be)and for the record I am a UK citizen. I also refer you to my second post, honesty again.

Posted by Moties001 | Report as abusive

What is the point of a buffer state in the age of ICBM’s, and internet hacking, and shadow wars with frozen assets. Putin’s goofy view of Ukraine as a ‘buffer against attack’ would have made sense in the time of Napoleon. So Russia is only what… 200 years behind the times? Again?

The russian billionaires who have had their assets frozen because of Putin’s outdated war text book have been yanking back to reality since last summer. That’s why Putin can’t win this. His own people are tying his hands because taking Ukraine was a pointless idea to begin with.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Distance Matters

Please see quote from article relating to the 2010 election

The first significant show of people power in Ukraine was the Orange Revolution 10 years ago, when Yanukovych, openly endorsed by Putin, won flawed presidential elections

Posted by Moties001 | Report as abusive

“A pliant, easily bribed government in Kiev was the preferred way of controlling Ukraine’s natural-gas pipelines to Europe.”

Yes!!! This is what you need to know.

Posted by Laster | Report as abusive

I read that the Ukrainian girl that was with Mr. Nemtsov when he was killed had abortion of his child. Could then, this story be political plays with an ordinary criminal drama?
Man who is 2 times older that his mistress and having her to have abortion – does he deserves such demonstration and proclamation of his significance as those, which this article describes?
It looks like all old–fashion values, including humanity and responsibility before woman who carries a child disappeared. I think that human values are the real victim in this case, and political wrapping is just disgusting cover up.
Alice–Sofia

Posted by AliceASofia | Report as abusive

Russia is the last colonial empire.

Posted by KVM342 | Report as abusive

Now we can see how absurdal making the logic of ‘Nemtsov and Ukraine’ was.

Posted by wirk | Report as abusive