Moscow Assassination Rethinking Russian Strategy After Shooting

Germany had hoped diplomacy could move Russia closer to the West. But the weekend murder of a Russian regime critic, Boris Nemtsov, has raised doubts about the approach.
The death of a reformer. Mourners at a rally on Sunday for Boris Nemstov in St. Petersburg.

Relations between Europe and Russia nosedived over the weekend after a leading critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin was gunned down a few meters from the Kremlin. Experts said the killing of Boris Nemtsov, the country's former vice premier under Boris Yeltsin, would cause many nations in Europe, perhaps even Germany, to recalibrate their Russian strategy.

Mr. Nemtsov was killed by a gunman while walking home Friday night with his Ukrainian girlfriend. The regime critic in the days before had claimed to have evidence proving the Russian government's direct role in organizing and supporting the Ukraine conflict.

“The Nemtsov murder will affect Western thinking on how to deal with an increasingly authoritarian Putin,” Hans Kundnani, a research director in London at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told Handelsblatt Global Edition. “It is turning away from Europe, rejecting Western norms. There is an increasing realization that Russia is not a partner for Europe. It is an adversary.”

Mr. Nemtsov had been a vocal campaigner against government corruption, and published in 2013 a report on corruption in the preparations of the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. He had recently focused on the Ukraine conflict.

People waved banners reading “We are Not Afraid,” a direct message to Mr. Putin, who has a reputation for imprisoning or killing his opponents. Gustav Gressel, International Relations analyst

Over the weekend, Mr. Nemtsov was eulogized in the West as a reformer. The European Union's foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, described him as a "strong advocate for a modern, prosperous and democratic Russian Federation."

Mr. Nemtsov’s murder was widely criticized as a sign that Russia had left the path to democratization. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said his “brutal death is a serious setback for all who work courageously for an open Russia.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel had positioned herself as broker between the West and Russia.

She grew up in the former East Germany, speaks fluent Russian, and her natural tendency has been to engage with, not alienate Mr. Putin. But her patience has been tested by Mr. Putin’s increasingly hard-line stance, and the war in Ukraine.

She has pushed for economic sanctions against Russia but has resisted calls by the United States and some NATO members to arm the Ukrainian military to fight against pro-Russian separatists.

Mr. Kundnani said that Mr. Nemstov’s death is unlikely to prod Ms. Merkel to support arming Ukraine, which is overwhelmingly opposed by most Germans, but may encourage her to back harsher economic sanctions against Russia, possibly in its key energy sector.

Video: The Moscow march on Sunday to commemorate Boris Nemtsov.

German businesses are heavily exposed to Russia. There are 6,000 companies with 300,000 employees that trade with Russia, but Ms. Merkel has been able to persuade this group to support sanctions to combat Mr. Putin’s increasing authoritarianism.

“There has been a gradual, growing sense of disillusionment and anger in Germany over Russia. Even before Ukraine, there was a sense of frustration among German companies over how hard it is to do business in Russia," said Mr. Kundnani. “This (Mr. Nemstov’s death) is another thing that increases that frustration."

Mr. Putin denied ordering Mr. Nemtsov’s assassination and called the killing a “provocation.” Over the weekend, the Russian president said he is taking direct charge of the investigation to find his killers. He is offering a reward of 3 million rubles – around $50,000 at the current exchange rate – for information.

Few believe Mr. Putin’s denials, or his willingness to find the killers. Mr. Nemtsov was shot within meters of the Kremlin, in an area surrounded by security guards and police and yet his killers managed to escape.

Nonetheless, Ms. Merkel, like many world leaders, was quick to issue statements condemning the killing and calling for a full investigation, but stopped short of accusing Mr. Putin of the murder.

I honestly don’t think there is a “back to business as usual” regarding Russia. That option expired a year ago. Gustav Gressel, International Relations analyst

The German chancellor said she was "shocked by the treacherous murder" and urged Mr. Putin to ensure the killers were caught.

A few hours after the killing, U.S. President Barack Obama released a statement. "The United States condemns the brutal murder of Boris Nemtsov, and we call upon the Russian government to conduct a prompt, impartial, and transparent investigation into the circumstances of his murder and ensure that those responsible for this vicious killing are brought to justice."

The day he died, Mr. Nemtsov had been finalizing details of the anti-government protest he had been organizing for Sunday March 1. The march went ahead, partly as an unofficial wake for Mr. Nemtsov, and partly as a show of defiance.

Around 50,000 people turned out onto the streets, waving banners reading “We are Not Afraid,” a direct message to Mr. Putin, who has a reputation for imprisoning or killing his opponents.

Since the end of the Cold War, Germany had traditionally pursued a policy of détente with Russia, looking for ways to build friendship and closer ties with the country. But several believe this policy cannot continue. The annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine make it clear that the relationship between Russia and Germany has changed forever.

“I honestly don’t think there is a “back to business as usual” regarding Russia,” Gustav Gressel, visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told Handelsblatt Global Edition.

"That option expired a year ago. Mr. Nemtsov’s murder is just a further issue why back to normal will not happen.”


Meera Selva is an editor with Handelsblatt Global Edition and has covered politics and war from Europe and Africa. To contact the author: [email protected]