While assigning criminal culpability for the murder of Boris Nemtsov is essential; it is by no means the whole or possibly even the most important story. Nemtsov’s murder once again highlights a much more critical series of issues that any observer or politically active person in Russia must grapple with. Nemtsov’s murder shows that if it has not reached that destination (which is debatable) Russia is well on the way toward becoming both a terrorist state and state sponsor of international terrorism. We do not make this statement just to shock but rather to illuminate the situation. Nemtsov’s murder marked the twenty-ninth political assassination since Putin came to power and there were several more before him all of which remain unresolved. Nor does this number count the hundreds of threats to dissidents and journalists that if they did not leave or desist they would no longer be living or that their families too were at risk.
But these witch hunts do not end with dissidents or journalists. It is quite clear that in academia, the arts, and in regard to ethno-religious or other minorities like the LGBT population we see abundant examples of official incitement of hatred amounting to violence, repression, and terrorism. The Crimean Tatars and other inhabitants of Crimea are now living under a reign of terror not unlike what happened to communities after 1918 when they experienced the full force of the onset of Bolshevik rule. Moreover, this incitement and repression continues unabated. Meanwhile chances for restoring legal order are fading.
The investigation of Nemtsov’s murder revealed the murderous competition between Russia’s “legal organs” and the Chechen death squads organized and led by Ramzan Kadyrov who are eager to carry out “wet affairs” for Putin or Kadyrov if not others. These signs that the state might be losing control of the legitimate means of violence are always hallmarks of a descent into the maelstrom of domestic terrorism. Indeed the North Caucasus in particular has seen this and not only from the Jihadis either by the Caucasus Emirate or by supporters of ISIS. In fact much of the activity of Moscow’s multiple militaries in the North Caucasus, whether they be Kadyrov’s auxiliaries or Russian regular forces consists of terrorism. Many reports have noted that government forces habitually commit most of the abductions and kidnappings of innocent civilians for ransom.
And apart from the North Caucasus attentive readers of the Russian press will know that the Ministry of Interior and other variously designated forces comprising several hundred thousand troops have received upgraded training and equipment to put down opposition across Russia, if necessary, by force. Things have reached the point where the Duma, blithely uncomprehending the dangerous precedent it is establishing, has voted to strip the lone legislator who voted against annexing Crimea of his parliamentary immunity. Thus opposition is now criminalized and all deputies are potentially at risk.
Neither does this state-sponsored terrorism stop at Russia’s borders. Russian legislation actually permits the president to assign to order state organs to conduct political assassinations abroad with impunity because they are defending state interests. Thus Russian agents have assassinated regime opponents in Doha and London and even attempted one in Washington D.C. several years ago! In Latin America Russia supplied the arms to Venezuela that the late Hugo Chavez then offered to the FARC in Colombia to attack that US ally in 2008 and these activities may well be continuing.
Russian actions in the Middle East are even more visible despite Moscow’s fears concerning Jihadis shuttling between Syria and Iraq and the North Caucasus or the fall of Central Asia that could trigger a terrorist offensive across Central Asia. The chemical weapons used by Syria’s government against its own people were Russian in origin, and Moscow provides Syria with thermobaric weapons as well. Similarly Hezbollah employed Russian weapons against Israel in 2006 and Russian arms sellers to Iran and Syria had to know where these weapons were going even though Moscow kept denying these facts until Israel demonstrated the weapons publicly and privately to them. But this policy has not stopped. Moscow is now eagerly positioning itself to resume selling advanced weapons to Iran despite its knowledge that some systems will “migrate” to terrorists. Moscow is already being accused of providing weapons to the Houthis in Yemen and its political posture regarding that catastrophe is quite consonant with support for the Iranian-backed Houthis.
The huge scale of Moscow’s weapons sales to Syria and the provision of intelligence and massive financing to his forces also demonstrates its support for a regime that has used chemical weapons against its people in an act of state terror. And recently Israeli authorities stated that they believe Hezbollah has acquired Russian Yakhont anti-ship missiles, if not from Syria and/or Iran then directly from Russia. Russia also has long since accorded recognition to Hamas in Gaza allegedly because it was elected thereby exemplifying the principle that your terrorist is my freedom fighter or ally. So Moscow is clearly supporting terrorists across the Middle East.
Worse still is the fact that these groups then link up with each other as suggested by recent reports of Hezbollah’s cooperation with Mexican drug cartels. Thus we confront a state whose domestic policies are penetrated by numerous instances of systematic state terrorism and that has no compunction of employing that tactic abroad. Indeed, in Ukraine the “separatists” newest tactic is the terror bombing of civilian targets across Ukraine from Khar’kiv to Odessa. Under the circumstances it is worth asking analysts and legislators here and elsewhere if they can distinguish between these actions and those of other state sponsors of terrorism. The immediate answer is that Russia has nuclear arms and they don’t. But that fact should lead us to think about Russia and how we relate to its policies with much grater seriousness than has hitherto been the case.