Vladimir Putin had a nerve writing to the mother of the murdered opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, saying he “shared her sorrow” over her son’s death, and then having his sugary words of condolence put on the Kremlin website. Few people believe that the Russian President would have been so foolish as to directly order the assassination of a well-known critic in front of the Kremlin. But Mr Putin is the man most responsible for creating an atmosphere in Russia in which critics and traitors are increasingly confused with one another.
Many Russians, including members of the security services, might well have seen the killing of a man like Mr Nemtsov as a patriotic duty for motives the authorities would surely “understand” even if they had not actually commissioned the deed. It is no accident that Mr Nemtsov was shot dead shortly before he was to attend a rally in Moscow condemning the Russian government’s expansionist policy in Ukraine, or that he was working on a report that he said would prove the Kremlin’s direct military role in the conflict.
The fact that tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Moscow and St Petersburg today to mourn him comes as a reminder that even in an atmosphere of oppressive conformity, there is another, more questioning Russia, which refuses to be led blindly by what the Kremlin media cynically serves up as the national interest.
While applauding the bravery of these people, we should not misinterpret the political significance of their actions, however. We have a history of rushing to conclusions about protest rallies in Russia, seeing each one as heralding the end of Putinism, which marches on regardless. The unfortunate fact is that most Russians view the Kremlin’s support for pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine – whatever form that support takes – as an almost sacred struggle against Ukrainian “fascists” and their sinister Western backers. Mr Nemtsov’s different reading of Russia’s role in eastern Ukraine – as an egregious violator of international law – flew over most people’s heads. Moreover, his involvement back in the 1990s with the ill-fated privatisations of those years, events most Russians recall with detestation, was enough to ensure that his strictures against the Kremlin reached only a limited audience.
The real danger to Mr Putin will not come from protests organised by the intelligentsia and well-meaning civil society groups against the war in Ukraine, or even against assassinations of the regime’s political opponents. It will be the result of steadily growing discontent with falling living standards and endemic corruption, which have the potential to bring far bigger crowds on to the streets of Russian cities than we saw today. The collapse in the exchange rate of the rouble and this year’s expected sharp fall in GDP are deadlier threats to Mr Putin’s system than a burst of anger over the death of a principled critic. Russia’s collapsing economy is undermining the regime’s basic trade-off with the population, which is to provide economic stability and a modest rise in prosperity in return for acquiescence.
Even so, we should not imagine Mr Putin will blink first. The more problems he faces, the more he will lash out against real and imagined enemies both at home and abroad. For the West, it has been difficult dealing with Mr Putin at his zenith. Dealing with Mr Putin at bay may turn out to be a whole lot worse.