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Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe.
Eight years ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin labeled the murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov a disgrace.
“The most serious attention should be paid to high-profile crimes, including those with political motives,” he told officials from the Ministry of Internal Affairs. “We need to finally rid Russia of disgraces and tragedies like the one that we have recently endured and seen. I mean the murder, the provocative murder, of Boris Nemtsov right in the center of the capital,” he added.
The apparent assassination of Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin didn’t happen on the streets of Moscow near the Kremlin though — it was in the skies, a few hundred kilometers northwest of the Russian capital.
But it was every bit a lesson for others to heed.
It is always instructive to observe how Putin reacts to the latest high-profile assassination. And the Russian leader’s public response to the violent death of a onetime friend betrays a nervousness not previously seen.
Of course, mentioning Nemtsov and Prigozhin in the same breath seems morally inappropriate — even obscene. Nemtsov was a liberal politician who had measure of Putin since the start of his rule, and from 2000 onward was an outspoken critic, opposing the regime’s increasingly authoritarian nature and highlighting widespread corruption, profiteering and embezzlement.
Prigozhin, meanwhile, was a thug, a criminal and a ruthless killer — despite having written a children’s book. He was a man who approved the wielding of sledgehammers to splinter the skulls of Wagner recruits accused of desertion and treachery.
And when Putin acknowledged Prigozhin’s death on Thursday, he went out of his way to pay a generous tribute to his former pal — not just burying him but praising him, and calling him a “talented businessman” who, when asked to do his bit for the common cause, would. In televised remarks made during a meeting with the Moscow-installed head of the occupied Donetsk region in Ukraine, Putin said Prigozhin’s paramilitary Wagner group had “made a significant contribution to the fight against Nazism in Ukraine.”
“We remember this, know this, and won’t forget it,” he said. But Prigozhin was “a man with a complicated fate, who has made many serious mistakes in his life.” In short, Prigozhin’s death was his own fault — he made an egregious error but, according to Putin, that doesn’t entirely wipe out what he did for Russia.
Crocodile tears? A Judas peck on the cheek? Maybe so. But combine those comments with Friday’s mandatory order for all Wagner fighters to sign an oath of allegiance to the Russian state, and there’s a sense of real unease that we haven’t seen before from Putin.
Usually, Putin is dismissive and disparaging, even while sorrowfully shaking his head about an awful crime.
Three days after the 2006 murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya, shot at point-blank range outside her Moscow apartment, Putin lamented an “appalling” crime “that cannot go unpunished.” He made the remarks while on a trip to Germany and in the face of an intensifying international outcry. However, he still couldn’t resist belittling the indefatigable reporter, saying, “I think that journalists should know, and experts perfectly understand, that her capacity to influence political life in Russia was extremely insignificant.”
And at other times, when Putin really hates someone — or doesn’t care about international reaction — there’s no tut-tutting at all. Putin dubbed former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal a “scumbag” and a “traitor” in his public comments following the failed 2018 Novichok poisoning in Salisbury, England. “He was simply a spy. A traitor to the motherland” he said at a conference in Moscow.
That was Putin at his purest, recalling his 1999 promise as prime minister to rub out Chechen rebels wherever they may be, including when they are “in the toilet, we will waste them in an outhouse at long last.”
Of course, whenever anybody dies — or comes close to it — by vial or bullet, bomb or missile, Putin has nothing to do with it. The Kremlin has labeled any claims that the Russian leader had a hand in Prigozhin’s death an “absolute lie.”
Skripal and Navalny? Nothing to do with those. Nothing to do with Denis Voronenkov either — the former Russian Communist Party member and Putin critic who was shot dead in Kyiv in 2017, in what then Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko dubbed an “act of state terrorism by Russia.” And nothing to do with the two Russian tycoons — Pavel Antov and Lukoil chairman Ravil Maganov — who fell out of windows last year. Both were critical of the invasion of Ukraine, and the Kremlin has pooh-poohed any idea that their deaths were untoward.
Ultimately, despite Putin’s insistence in 2015 that all political murders should cease, the poisonings, the tumbling out of windows, the suspicious suicides, the shootings, the bombings — and now a plane plummeting — all continue with remorseless regularity.
So, shouldn’t Putin be a tad worried that his instructions for the killings to stop go unheeded? Is the czar so weak that his writ doesn’t run very far? Even as an investigator, he seems to fail miserably. Putin put himself in charge of the hunt for Nemtsov’s killers, and although five Chechnya-born men were convicted, there was no luck in identifying who hired them.
It is all an inside joke — Russians have been tutored by decades of Communism, and now of Putinism, to be able to hold two contradictory narratives in their heads at the same time, to know what is true and what is convenient. The Kremlin tells them the official narrative to accept — not that it necessarily expects anyone to really believe it, it’s just what they must pay lip service to.
But the Kremlin may have been uncertain about whether that would hold up this time. Hence the carrots and sticks, hence the praising and burying and the Judas kiss. It would also explain the two-month delay after Prigozhin’s ill-fated mutiny before he met his end, allowing time for the Wagner Group to be nationalized, for recruits and officers to be separated and for a loyalty assessment of the renegade mercenary’s allies in the armed forces.
And that hint of nervousness and preparation smacks of a killing of another era — the 1934 shooting of Sergei Kirov, an old Bolshevik and onetime friend and ally of Joseph Stalin. For reasons that are unclear, Leningrad party chief and Politburo member Kirov was gunned down by a troubled young communist, who had the profile of a perfect fall guy. And despite the efforts of Soviet and Russian historians to point the finger away from Stalin, according to historian Amy Knight, there’s a “fairly convincing circumstantial case” linking Stalin to the murder of a possible and popular rival.
The circumstances of the crime points to the involvement of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs — the Federal Security Service’s predecessor — and Knight doesn’t think for a moment that the security agency would have acted without Stalin’s express orders.
And on this occasion, Stalin displayed some nervousness too. Notably, however, he used the killing as a pretext to tighten political repression and launch his Great Purge.