‘To the decision-makers in the Kremlin, heirs to a militaristic and often paranoid tradition of statecraft, Russia appears surrounded by [its own] crumbling frontiers… .’

Professor Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers.

When Professor Kennedy wrote those words in the mid-1980s, he surmised that were the USSR to withdraw its forces from its Warsaw Pact satellites in Eastern Europe, the Red Army General Staff feared that ‘it may be seen as indication of Moscow’s loss of willpower’.  Vladimir Putin was stationed as a KGB officer in East Germany and was one of those withdrawn, returning to a country in chaos.  This is why Germany and France negotiated a ceasefire deal in the Ukraine overwhelmingly favourable to the Kremlin because Putin and the security establishment to which he is beholden, would not permit anything interpreted as a loss of willpower.  With the assassination of Boris Nemtsov, a former Deputy Prime Minister of the Boris Yeltsin years opposed to Russian action in the Ukraine, that narrative has a domestic focus too.

Nemtsov was to be one of the key leaders at an anti-war rally on Sunday the 1st of March dissenting from the nationalistic bombast and foreign meddling of the establishment hierarchy.  Instead, the protest became a memorial for a man killed within sight of the Kremlin walls in a drive-by shooting.  Like the contract murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya in 2006, for which five men were convicted last June, it will probably never emerge who ordered Nemtsov’s elimination and for what exact motive.  Putin may denounce it as ‘vile’ and there will be no paper trail leading back to him (Russian authorities are very good at destroying computers as FIFA’s flawed inquest into the bidding process for the 2018 World Cup discovered), but all roads point to him and his coterie, if only for the siege mentality atmosphere.  Having criticised Russian intervention in the Ukraine, Nemtsov was walking with his Ukrainian girlfriend when he was gunned down, so it is possible that a nationalist group unaffiliated with the government could have been responsible.  It is unlikely, given the professional nature of the assassination but if true, this action was given cover by the tone of the Russian government, with its talk of internal enemies and fifth columns.

It is a paradox of Russia’s political climate that it permits protests despite the steady squeezing of political and civil rights.  The security elite are relatively well ensconced in power with stage-managed ‘sovereign democracy’ and Putin’s own high approval ratings, stemming from the widespread belief that he prevented the disintegration of Russia when he assumed the reins of the last day of 1999, means that there would have to be a very sharp economic shock to provoke widespread discontent.  As such, protests are tolerated and disparaged, if not ignored altogether.  They also allow the security services to identify key members of the opposition and circumscribe them – Alexei Navalny, a vocal critic of Putin and the Kremlin, is currently under house arrest.

Nevertheless, an estimated 70,000 marched through central Moscow on the 1st of March at what had become a memorial rally, with a further 6,000 in St Petersburg.  The crowds may have been lower had Nemtsov not been murdered, as some attendees have attributed their presence to international media.  Unlike the march in Paris in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo/Jewish supermarket attacks, no world leaders turned up to join them, contenting themselves with the hue and cry for their own domestic audiences that they have issued since the uprising in Syria began.

In Moscow, they gathered at Slavyanskaya Square, proceeded to the bank of the Moskva river before turning right to the spot where Nemtsov met his end.  In this way, it was a secular marking of significant death similar to the religious commemoration in the form of the construction of the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood on the site where Tsar Alexander II suffered mortal injuries at the hands of anarchists.  The Russian Orthodox Church today is as full of fervent praise for Putin’s administration as it once supported the Imperial Family and it is unlikely that Moscow City Hall will support  a form of permanent remembrance of Nemtsov.

Ultimately, the marchers were as much committed to self-respect in their turnout rather than changing the political situation, bearing banners saying ‘I am not afraid’.  That a forest of Russian flags were held aloft rebutted claims that they are traitors to the Russian state – indeed they are the people the country and the world needs.

While Putin and his security cronies seek tactical victories in the east while fostering division in the west, Russia, in the long-term is doomed to decline with its catastrophic demographic shrinkage.  Hiding behind the barricades while it withers away from within and investment is scared off is disastrous, not least in that it could lash out.  As Professor Kennedy states, ‘historically, none of the overextended, multinational empires… the Ottomans, the Spanish, the Napoleonic… ever retreated to their own ethnic base until they had been defeated in a Great Power war’.  Further, he adds, ‘such transformations normally occur at very great cost and not always in a predictable fashion’.  How to coax Russia back into the comity of nations will be the supreme challenge to Western policymakers, if they can even grasp it.

Protests Correspondent, Europe

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