Last week, opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was killed near the Kremlin. Independent commentators, politicians and the thousands who took to the streets of Moscow and other Russian cities in protest on Sunday hold no illusions as to the motive behind his shooting. Grigory Yavlinsky, the leader of the Yabloko party and a veteran of the pro-democracy movement, said: “The political responsibility for the murder lies with the regime and personally with President Putin — all those who started and waged the war [in Ukraine] along with the hate propaganda.” The columnist and radio host Yulia Latynina said: “We have entered a new era — the era of physical annihilation of political opponents of the regime.”
Yes, this murder is an important demarcation in the degradation of politics of Russia, which are linked organically to Russia’s foreign policy. Two trends are particularly alarming, especially bearing in mind that Russia remains a nuclear superpower:
First, aggressive anti-democracy and anti-Western propaganda is being elevated to the level of a state ideology guiding domestic and foreign policy. It is not only the regime but also all kinds of supporting political forces and even militias that are inspired to act in accordance with this creed. It is within the realm of possibility that a zealot pulled the trigger of the weapon aimed at Nemtsov.
Second, reliance on violence has an unambiguous tendency to become more brutal and unrestrained over time. The annexation of Crimea was praised in Russian propaganda for being carried out almost bloodlessly. But the mass destruction and death that accompany advances by pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine are cheered on practically in real time on state TV.
Yavlinsky has correctly located the main political responsibility for these trends, but it is important to notice a second row of forces contributing to the process. There are all kinds of collaborators and facilitators, some of whom are acting intentionally and some of whom are simply naive. It is depressing to hear Russian media moguls, journalists and diplomats repeat propaganda and cliches about a Western conspiracy or offer a muddled comparison of the Ukraine crisis to the division of Germany in the Cold War. They and their foreign followers seek to justify today’s cowardly aggression and fratricidal war by citing the last decade’s NATO enlargement, thus denying the sovereign right of all Eastern European nations to join the alliance of their choice. Also on the shame list are the Gazprom hirelings and other “friends of Russia” retired from Western chancelleries, along with the so-called “system liberals” and technocrats at the top of Moscow bureaucracy, who pretend that everything is okay.
The West cannot, and should not, interfere in Russian domestic affairs. But it must stand by its values and obligations, including the inviolability of frontiers and territorial integrity, human rights and democratic freedoms. It is not firmness in defending these values and norms, but a lack thereof, that will provoke further warmongering in Russia. As the Russian saying goes: “Appetite comes with the food.”
Andrei Kozyrev was foreign minister of the Russian Federation from 1990 to 1996.