Mark Galeotti has another blog post up where he once again casts doubt on the "Putin did it" assertions regarding the killing of Boris Nemtsov.
A particularly troubling aspect to this post is the author's belief that his own skepticism regarding Putin amounts to "the truth," i.e. he is implying that anyone putting together the available information and coming up with a reasonable assertion that Putin is behind this murder is indulging in conspiracy theory.
And that if you reason based on the unavailability of the most basic facts -- like no surveillance camera footage -- that there may be something sinister, then this is somehow speculative -- as if Putin's very war in Ukraine, if not his very wars in Chechnya and Dagestan weren't proof enough of willingness, ability and internal logic to kill.
Can you imagine if, say, Michael Moore was shot dead right next to the White House fence, that there'd be all this massive confusion about whether cameras were on, whose jurisdiction they were under, etc. etc.? Of course not. Very quickly, the tapes would be made available to the media. The media would sue to get them otherwise. In fact, we have footage every time an incident happens near the White House, which has a roughly similar protection zone of Secret Service.
Yet in Russia, we don't, and the absence of this then is somehow supposed to compel us to say "we don't know" and "we can't know" and "etogo ne mozhet byt' potomuchto etogo ne mozhet byt'!"
Instead, it should compel us to say -- given everything we know about Russia for the last 100 years and Putin for the last 15 -- that "this is suspicious."
So first, Galeotti covers himself by saying "I'm on the record saying..." but then essentially undoes everything about that claim because he really essentially believes that it wasn't a state-sanctioned assassination:
I’m on record as saying that I do not know, but think it unlikely it was a state-sanctioned assassination. (Though that does not wholly exculpate the Kremlin for stirring up the toxic passions which I think were more likely to have led to the killing.) Many of the aspects of the murder which “prove” to some Putin’s direct fingerprints as questionable and I think that it is important to understand what we do and do not know, what we can legitimately claim as fact and what is actually just opinion. This does not in any way “prove” that the Kremlin didn’t have Nemtsov killed, just that none of this necessarily proves anything either way.
The very “death of neutrality” about which I wrote in my previous post on the murder ensures that there will be those who regard this as tantamount to running interference for the Kremlin, alas. If anyone is interested, my “agenda” is simply that I happen to believe that facts and the truth are important. “And the truth shall set your free” is, to me, a much more compelling slogan than “And a more effective use of lies will set you free”…
But what is truth? Accepting the Kremlin lies at face value just because it's the polite thing to do?
And why is this so hard? Because to say Putin is capable of murder is...so horrible? Such a blow to the international order? So unthinkable in the scheme of things?
Why? Just because Russia has nuclear weapons on par with our own we can't speak the truth about Putin and have to believe in the niceties of diplomacy and establishment scholarship?
Galeotti's dubious proposition about the "death of neutrality" (outlined in a previous blog) is similar to the problem of "balance" Paul Goble has written so effectively about -- balance is not getting Hitler's side of the story -- giving Hitler equal air time -- as some kind of abstract balancing act; it's trying to get all sides of the story and then making a judgement about what is happening when, say, Poland is being invaded. Not acting as if fairness dictates that the invader "deserves a hearing". It's like Kevin Rothrock's indecent rush to get "the nationalists' side of the story" -- as if they were being drowned out, as if there were "all these people" who were saying that Putin had likely sanctioned this murder, when in fact, there were only a few.
In the same way "neutrality" is an artificial concept because it implies that "balance" and "objectivity" dictate the need to accept Putin's lies as a valid proposition. It means reporting that the FSO says first the cameras don't work, and then that they aren't theirs anyway, although neither is likely true -- it means reporting it, without the judgement that it is highly likely to be a lie. Even given russkaya khalatnost, the chances that cameras around Red Square and the Kremlin "don't work" are nil.
Boris Nemtsov was not Mathias Rust, dodging past security cameras and security cordons to land near Red Square; in fact, we don't even likely know everything about Mathias Rust.
So not even four days have passed, we've been fed an enormous amount of confusing disinformation and idiocy from the Russian state media, and yet we must only deal with "known knowns" -- as the "realist" school of International Relations defines them -- and none of these "known knowns" can involve -- hey, the fact that this president presided over a devastating suppression of the Chechen Republic with numerous civilians killed; that he has presided over the non-investigation and non-prosecution -- cover-up -- of all kinds of deaths from Sergei Magnitsky to people no one has heard of in Dagestan to -- hey again -- the war in Ukraine in which more than 6,000 people have lost their lives already.
Death, death, death. And we can't say that's the "known known"?
I think this rush to protect Putin from "indefensible conspiracy theories" -- because that is indeed what it is -- is about the establishment in the US -- the fear that if you go outside this box, you will not only be taken seriously and heeded at the State Department and other government agencies, but you will lose your access to Russia -- literally your visa, or your ability to get meetings with influencers and knowledgeable people.
But of course, the people actually in this box never want to say they are in a box; they want to say everyone outside is fact-free, conspiratorial, emotional, biased, hateful, etc.
I think for 50 years this has been the sordid state of Sovietology and now Russianology, and I think that's why it's so hard to respect it and take it seriously. And that's why I think it does us all a disservice as a field of knowledge vital to national security because it never takes the Russian threat seriously and warns about it sufficiently. None of the Russianologists predicted the invasion of Crimea; indeed, the only journalist I know who did so was Robert Coalson of RFE/RL, who visited there a few weeks before the invasion and rang the alarm, based on what was happening to the Crimean Tatar people and other signs.
Your comment is awaiting moderation. [Galeotti has deleted or blocked my past comments so I doubt this one will clear].
I fail to understand why you find it so hard to accept that Nemtsov indeed could be under 24/7 surveillance. It’s not the mammoth task you indicate, given that one car could follow him or perhaps two, especially when it seemed likely he might have a meeting the FSB would like to record.
And *on the eve of a huge opposition march* in which 30,000 or more people could be expected to participate, as indeed they had in the past, OF COURSE Nemtsov would be under surveillance! It’s a huge anti-government undertaking, and naturally the FSB would want to see if, according to their own conspiracy theories, Nemtsov was meeting with “Ukrainians, Georgians, CIA, State Department” etc. etc.
UPDATE: In fact, to say that Nemtsov was NOT followed on the eve of this huge march -- which authorities didn't want to allow, and had banished to the outskirts of Moscow, and even created and funded an entire Anti-Maidan group and organized counter-marches and alternative events -- is simply to defy imagination.
I don’t see why there is so much skepticism about this. The idea that we “don’t know” this makes no sense. There’s a lot of things we “don’t know” about Russia, which is a closed society under control of a former KGB officer and his cronies who were also in the KGB to a large extent. So it’s reasonable to assume that on the eve of a march — 2 days away — he would be watched. He may have been watched as a matter of course every time his Ukrainian girlfriend came to see him because they may have suspected she was a courier (again, in their minds).
The other thing that is definitely NOT established is that this is “not” the FSO security area. It’s more than likely that in fact it *is* because it is so close to Red Square and the Kremlin. And again, the fact of the matter is that this *is a secret*. It’s classified. There is no published map of the FSO protection area. And of course there wouldn’t be, as this is a highly-secured area. In fact all of downtown Moscow tends to have more patrols and even army presence, but certainly this bridge, this close would be.
The fact that at a moment of a video of a few minutes length from a dashcam of this bridge you don’t happen to see a patrol car doesn’t mean a thing. They might come every 15 or 30 or 60 minutes. The fact is *you don’t know* because *it’s a secret, and they are secret police.* Again, I fail to see why the fact of secrecy and “not knowing” then defaults to “not likely” in a country where under Putin, not to mention under Yeltsin, civic figures have been assassinated in large numbers, and the masterminds or contractors of their killings have rarely been found.
Then there’s the question of the date. The date is also the anniversary of the Reichstag fire, the classic “false flag” story of history, and Special Operations Force Day (and by the way the SOF is *not* “like* the US Special Forces at all). Perhaps a Chekist like Putin or one of Putin’s Chekist followers would add this signature. Like the Litvinenko poisoning, the purpose would likely be to demonstratively indicate that it is, indeed the state with the highest command that is behind the murder. Or do you think Litvinenko isn’t murdered by the Russian state?
Indeed, yes, in this day and age, the agency following Nemtsov could save on personnel just by having a “find my phone” and Google maps open on their desktops. Then they could signal the snow plow or whatever elements of the murder seem to be relevant.
Honestly, I wonder some times what Putin would have to do if he really wanted to make absolutely sure that everyone understood he did it, for the fear factor. Use polonium? or wouldn’t a hit on the bridge by the Kremlin be good enough?
Catherine, this is the kind of stuff I’ve been working on for 25 years. I’ve talked to spooks, counterspooks and spookwatchers, active and retired, ours and theirs. I’ve read around, chewed over and written about it. When I am in Moscow (you spend much time there of late?), I’m looking for cameras, assessing police presences, logging which units they come from.
For example, you say it’s easy to keep someone under 24/7 surveillance, that it is “not the mammoth task you indicate, given that one car could follow him”. Actually unless you are just mounting surveillance as intimidation, you have to assume the target might seek to evade it. And what does that “one car” do while he’s walking across the bridge? Drive behind him _at walking speed_? Be serious.
Now, it’s entirely your prerogative to consider me ignorant of the topic. But I can’t help but notice that while I am simply trying to note the limits of our knowledge, you are expressing impatience with such niceties and asserting your opinions as objective fact: “OF COURSE Nemtsov would be under surveillance”, “certainly this bridge, this close would be [under FSO surveillance]”, etc. Believe what you will, and indeed as I say, it may indeed be that this was a government hit, but please don’t critique me just because I don’t automatically assume the same thing you do. If nothing else, that is a perfect example of the “death of neutrality” to which I referred.
(Oh, and by the way, had you bothered checking you’d know that I have often and publicly said that I am sure the Litvinenko killing was a government hit.)
And my further response:
Well, this is the kind of stuff I've been working on for 35 years. I've talked to many of the kinds of people you've talked to, but likely a lot more of the victims and families because I have been active in the human rights movement, not Kremlinology.
No, I don't go to Moscow and haven't for years, especially after being denied a visa, because it is not safe for critics of the Kremlin, especially working on high-profile cases and making very specific human rights criticism. And no, it's not a prerequesite to travel to Moscow to make the case that dissidents are kept under surveillance. That's because Moscow comes to us more and more -- and people who were under surveillance there are the ones to leave, and they will explain this to you.
That's my assessment of the situation. Your mileage may vary; your selection of contacts and sources may be different, and that may be what gives you the sense that people aren't watched or that you aren't watched. Foreigners can be very professionally watched -- and are. I've had years of experience being watched in both the Soviet Union and Russia, and sometimes it is obvious, with black cars and strange people on your heels but other times you only discover later that you must have been watched when someone was interrogated because you visited them.
Once again, it really defies the imagination that you are having such difficulties conceding that a high-profile opposition leader, on the eve of leading a march, would somehow NOT be watched. You have no grounds for claiming this, given that people are constantly watched, their conversations and plans are outed and they are stopped or suffer consequences.
Indeed it is not the mammoth task claimed, and these are experts at this task as surely you'll concede. They will know Boris' routine and may have various people helping them, for example, a doorman, a janitor, a dezhurnaya somewhere. They have the latest technology like cell phone monitoring. There are also not that many routes he can take to go home from the Bosco; look at the map. And who says the surveillance has to be in a car literally at his heels? It can be from high-powered binoculars or from those self-same surveillance cameras on the bridge. I'm *really* not getting this.
Once again, OF COURSE opposition people are under surveillance. You know how we know, Mark? Because they are put on TV all the time, and special broadcasts are made of them all the time, such as NTV has made indeed of Navalny and Nemtsov, showing them meeting foreigners, for example, or in meetings with their friends and colleagues when they didn't think they were being watched. One such NTV film was to feature Nemstov on March 1, and was cancelled when he was killed. THAT is how we know.
It's not merely "an opinion" to assert that opposition leaders are under surveillance by the FSB. Indeed, given how Nemtsov's cell phones were monitored and leaked to the media; given the TV broadcasts; given the print media's harassment of them giving personal details, given the experiences they themselves recount in seeing this surveillance, it's a completely reasonable assertion beyond reasonable doubt. The overwhelming set of data from Russia lets us know such people are under surveillance; indeed, the challenge would for you to explain why you think the FSB was in a blackout about Nemtsov the night he was murdered. And no, you aren't merely indicating the limits of knowledge. You're refusing to accept as valid what years of opposition and human rights activists' legitimate experience tell us; indeed, what state TV broadcasts prove to us.
Further discussion on Twitter in this thread.