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Remembering Boris Nemtsov and His Dream of a Free Russia

With every passing year, the Putin regime engages in thuggish acts that turn the once-unthinkable into dreadful new norms. To cite just a few examples, the past decade has seen the cut off of gas to Europe, the invasion of Georgia, the state-sanctioned killing of Sergei Magnitsky, the expulsion of USAID because of its support ...

By , the executive director of the Clements Center for National Security and the author of The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink.
RUSSIA-POLITICS-MURDER-OPPOSITION-CRIME
RUSSIA-POLITICS-MURDER-OPPOSITION-CRIME
Russia's opposition supporters carry portraits of Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov during a march in central Moscow on March 1, 2015. Words under portraits read "He fought for a free Russia", "He died for the future of Russia". The 55-year-old former first deputy prime minister under Boris Yeltsin was shot in the back several times just before midnight on February 27 as he walked across a bridge a stone's throw from the Kremlin walls. AFP PHOTO / YURI KADOBNOV (Photo credit should read YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images)

With every passing year, the Putin regime engages in thuggish acts that turn the once-unthinkable into dreadful new norms. To cite just a few examples, the past decade has seen the cut off of gas to Europe, the invasion of Georgia, the state-sanctioned killing of Sergei Magnitsky, the expulsion of USAID because of its support for civil society and rule of law, the assassination in London of Alexander Litvinenko, cyber-attacks on Estonia, violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty, the invasion of Ukraine, the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH 17 – and, on Friday, the murder of Boris Nemtsov.

With every passing year, the Putin regime engages in thuggish acts that turn the once-unthinkable into dreadful new norms. To cite just a few examples, the past decade has seen the cut off of gas to Europe, the invasion of Georgia, the state-sanctioned killing of Sergei Magnitsky, the expulsion of USAID because of its support for civil society and rule of law, the assassination in London of Alexander Litvinenko, cyber-attacks on Estonia, violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty, the invasion of Ukraine, the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH 17 – and, on Friday, the murder of Boris Nemtsov.

Nemtsov’s death struck a personal chord. I did not know Boris well, but a few years ago had the honor of hosting him for a lunch talk at a policy institute I ran at the time in London. As a former deputy prime minister and leading opposition voice, he carried a distinctive credibility and moral seriousness. His remarks were scheduled for just 30 minutes, but (in what I learned was not atypical for him) he instead spoke for 90 minutes, without notes and with eloquence and passion about Putin’s growing repression. Nemtsov’s talk took place when President Barack Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were still pursuing their willful fantasy of the “reset” with Russia. Not beguiled by American optimism, Nemtsov instead unsparingly described Putin’s malevolence, duplicity, and grandiosity. At the time his message was largely dismissed by elite foreign policy opinion in the West, which instead remained dogmatically determined to pursue a traditional great power relationship with Russia based on ostensibly shared interests. In hindsight Boris’ words were prophetic. He knew then what should be apparent to all now: Russia is not a prudent great power but a gangster state controlled by a murderous megalomaniac.

Nemtsov’s death poignantly illustrates the connection between international aggression and domestic repression. As one of the premier dissident voices in Russia, he also led the small but vocal domestic opposition to Russia’s ongoing campaign against Ukraine. Yet just as Putin has encountered little effective international opposition to his invasion of Ukraine, he also faces few domestic constraints on his Ukraine war. His almost complete control of the media, sophisticated domestic propaganda, and use of imprisonment, exile, or murder to squelch dissenting voices, have together prevented the Russian people from hearing any alternative to the state’s distorted narrative of “protecting” persecuted Russian minorities in Ukraine. The permanent silencing of Boris Nemtsov now gives Putin even greater freedom of action, in Ukraine and elsewhere.

In life and in death, Nemtsov is best honored not just with White House statements of tribute, but with a renewed international commitment to his cause of a free Russia. His beloved country’s dwindling band of beleaguered dissidents and opposition figures now face their most perilous straits since the heyday of the Soviet Union. They are America’s natural allies; they want and deserve our support.

YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images

Will Inboden is the executive director of the Clements Center for National Security and an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, both at the University of Texas at Austin, a distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law, and the author of The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink.

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