Remembering Nemtsov

Nemtsov's death was shocking and will have an immediate impact on the image and substance of the Russian society. But now that the man is buried and everyone has put in their two cents' worth of belated concessions and acknowledgements, let's not lose sight of the man behind the tragic symbol.

As the governor of the Nizhny Novgorod region, between 1991 and 1997 Nemtsov presided over an unprecedented economic decline that cost his region tens of thousands of jobs. You can say that elsewhere in Russia things weren't going much better and you'd be right, but Nemtsov was no miracle worker. He toured dilapidated factories, shook hands with soon-to-be unemployed workers, gave rousing speeches.

Loyal mediocrity is frequently rewarded in politics and in 1997 Nemtsov was made Minister of Fuel and Energy. With the economy falling apart, Yeltsin tried to capitalize on Nemtsov's popularity and almost immediately promoted him to First Deputy Prime Minister. Nemtsov resigned shortly after Russia defaulted on its debts in 1998.

A few years later Russia's Kommersant-Vlast daily briefly mentioned Nemtsov's Kremlin gig as "undistinguished". Nemtsov was remembered primarily for his call to force the government officials to drive Russian-made cars and for his preppy sports blazer and white pants. But Nemtsov was also a capable public speaker and he eventually reinvented himself as an ad-hoc opposition leader.

After calling Putin in 1999 "a hardworking, experienced and smart man", varied forms of Putin-bashing formed the core of Nemtsov's new political platform. In a recent highlight of his new career, in 2014 Nemtsov appeared in an episode CNN's Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown show.


Some Thoughts on Nemtsov's Murder

Russia is abuzz with rumors and theories ranging from unlikely to the absurd. The country's token opposition leader was shot four times in the back a stone's throw away from the Kremlin wall on the eve of a major opposition rally.

Nemtsov was a bit of a paradox. A vocal critic of the Kremlin as well as its former high-ranking functionary, Nemtsov counted both Putin and Khodorkovsky among his adversaries. Critical of the Russian oligarchs, as senior member of the government Nemtsov presided over many questionable privatization deals. Author of dozens of scientific works on quantum physics, thermodynamics and acoustics, Nemtsov struggled to come up with a strategy to unify the country's fractured opposition.

They say one should speak no ill of the dead. Ignoring this ancient Greek wisdom, I always believed Nemtsov was a pompous windbag prone to theatrics. He frequently accused his fellow opposition leaders of lacking substance, but had little to offer beyond pointed opinions and snarky commentary: a cornerstone of the Russian opposition movements.

Nemtsov's killers will rush to take full advantage of publicity that ensued. From the looks of it, the investigators' theory that rival opposition leaders are involved is not devoid of merit. Hours after their colleague's murder assorted senior members of the opposition are already squabbling over time on camera, enjoying their fifteen minutes of fame.

The killer was hiding in the service staircase under the bridge and a spotter alerted him of the approaching target. Four rounds fired from an unsilenced Makarov pistol hit Nemtsov in his back and the back of his head, killing him instantly. Then a white Ford sedan pulled up and the killer jumped in, leaving numerous witnesses behind, including Nemtsov's girlfriend.

The investigators say the rounds fired were from different manufacturers. It takes huge balls or incredible stupidity to kill a former senior member of the Russian government under police surveillance on the CCTV-infested Kremlin's doorstep using an old jam-prone Soviet gun loaded with sundry ammunition.

Having said that, it would be difficult to find a more generic type of pistol in Russia and varied ammunition will make ballistic analysis unreliable and tracing complicated. I am thinking stupidity is an unlikely scenario.

The location of the murder scene seems deliberate. Killing Nemtsov in such a heavily-surveilled area undoubtedly added much risk and complexity for the perpetrators. Therefore, it stands to reason, the extra risk was deemed necessary to make a point. So what might have been this point?

Nemtsov's murder anywhere in Moscow would have occasioned equivalent domestic and international resonance as his murder near the Kremlin. However, you have to agree the Kremlin backdrop for the murder scene makes for better photos. Putin called the murder a provocation and I find myself in agreement. It would seem the killers considered how well the planned murder scene location will look on camera and implying a logical link.


Aftermath of Ukrainian Withdrawal

Here's an interesting video made by the Donbas separatists showing the weapons and ammunition abandoned by the Ukrainian troops trying to escape encirclement in Debaltsevo. Ukrinian president Poroshenko claimed there was no encirclement and that the withdrawal (I guess they decided to withdraw just for the hell of it) was planned and orderly. The video shows otherwise.

The voice behind the camera is asking "hey guys, anyone needs a tank?" This hardware will be collected, repaired and pressed back in service - this time on the rebel side. Naturally and as usual, Kiev will accuse Russia of supplying weapons to the separatists. Seems to me the Ukrainian army is doing good enough job supplying the rebels.

Kiev's Quest for Undeniable Proof

For over a year now Kiev junta has been claiming to have undeniable proof of Russia supplying weapons to the Donbas separatists. About a month ago - likely after a long night of heavy drinking or the weekly meeting with his Chiefs of General Staff, which implies the former - Ukraine's president Poroshenko told the media there were some nine thousand Russian troops and five hundred Russian army tanks deployed in Ukraine.

Yet, for all such grandiose claims, the best photographic evidence of Russia's involvement remains the few Reuters photos of Russian tanks in South Ossetia circa 2008, kindly furnished to Sen. Inhofe of Oklahoma by a group of enterprising Ukrainian MPs. The good Senator took this "evidence" straight to the Hill, figuring he can always claim stupidity should the fakes be exposed.

Ukrainians are many things, but stupid is not one of them. Over the past year, during its daily press conferences, Ukraine's Ministry of Defense has been claiming to have destroyed hundreds of Russian tanks, APCs, self-propelled artillery and other heavy machinery. After a while the good people of Kiev started to doubt these claims, as they have never seen any physical evidence of their army's consistent and overwhelming victories over Russia.

To address this regrettable oversight, the head of Ukraine's National Security Council Aleksandar Turchinov took the initiative to organize a public event in downtown Kiev showcasing the sad remains of Russia's former military might, lest anyone cry shenanigans. You can view the excellent photo report from this event kindly shared by a fellow Live Journal blogger called "Galex".

Among many fine specimens of antique Soviet-era machines of war, you will find a
tank that must have been sitting in an open field for at least two decades to reach its current state of oxidation. There is a Soviet-made BM-21 MLRS with the rocket launcher tubes so rusty, you'd go through a whole can of WD-40 before you see its original color. Merkel was probably still a young physics student in Leipzig when this machine was built.

You will also see an old Ural army truck with the Soviet OTK quality control stamp and the manufacturer's serial number dating to the early 1980s. But perhaps the most damning evidence of all is the wooden Soviet ammo crates with the carefully burned-out identification markings that could have been used to trace the origin and nature of their contents.

I've been staring at these photos for a good half hour, trying to absorb the sheer incompetence of Ukraine's government propaganda. This "evidence" might have made an impression in Washington or London, but in Kiev most everyone over the age of twenty can accurately guess the origins of this collection of rusty scrap metal, giving us a good idea of the age of the people behind this PR stunt.

Rusty Soviet military relics displayed in Kiev to support the government claims of Russia supplying weapons to the separatists in the east.

Ukrainian Army Withdraws from Debaltsevo

Ukrainian president Poroshenko said some 80% of Ukrainian troops have withdrawn from Debaltsevo and the rest are expected to leave the besieged town in the next two days. The rebels are now in control of the country's largest railroad hub. However, this did not stop Poroshenko from presenting the withdrawal as a major victory over Russia.

Poroshenko said his army put Russia to shame because his troops managed to escape Debaltsevo. A few more victories like this and the rebels will be in Kiev. The rebel commanders are saying that the Ukrainian troops were completely surrounded in Debaltsevo, but were allowed to withdraw after pressure from Moscow.

Removal of Ukrainian troops from Debaltsevo will somewhat straighten out the separation line, possibly prolonging the ceasefire. So they may be in for more relative peace and quiet in eastern Ukraine then initially thought. This was probably the first major compromise in Ukraine's civil war. Based on the earlier statement by the rebel commanders, they fully intended to destroy every last surrounded government soldier, unless they laid down their arms.