Rus­sia Will Re­gret Turn­ing to the ‘Dark Side’

The Moscow Times - - LOOKING BACK -

The shock­ing as­sas­si­na­tion of Rus­sian politi­cian-turned­pariah De­nis Voro­nenkov last week has sharp­ened fears among the Rus­sian di­as­pora of Moscow’s in­cli­na­tion to­ward vendetta.

Al­though the mo­ti­va­tion for the killing is not yet clear, the sad irony is that Moscow’s geopo­lit­i­cal sta­tus means that, not only will it be blamed for any such in­ci­dent, it will also per­versely ben­e­fit from them.

A Com­mu­nist deputy who voted for the Crimean an­nex­a­tion be­fore flee­ing to Kiev in 2016 and re­ceiv­ing fast-track Ukrainian cit­i­zen­ship, Voro­nenkov was un­doubt­edly a hated fig­ure in cer­tain Moscow cir­cles. Much like crim­i­nals, spies, zealots and rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies, to­day’s masters of the Krem­lin re­gard traitors as even worse than reg­u­lar en­e­mies. In Dante’s Inferno, vir­tu­ous pa­gans face limbo, but heretics are trapped in flam­ing coffins. In Putin’s Inferno, apos­tates may face the bul­let, the bomb, or the iso­tope in­stead, but the spirit it much the same.

De­spite Kiev’s quick (and pre­dictable) at­tri­bu­tion of blame, the style of the hit – am­a­teur­ish, with­out back-up – does not im­me­di­ately sug­gest a Rus­sian se­cu­rity ser­vices op­er­a­tion. A sin­gle gun­man with an age­ing (and jam-prone) Tokarev pis­tol tak­ing on a tar­get with an armed bodyguard on a busy day­time street does not seem pro­fes­sional. Be­sides, the risk that he would be caught alive was con­sid­er­able.

Of course, the Krem­lin’s fin­ger­prints could still be on the trig­ger. The Rus­sians cer­tainly seem to have had the best mo­tive to want Voro­nenkov dead, and might have had to use whomever they could find. How­ever, at this stage, we can­not rule out the pos­si­bil­ity that it was a per­sonal en­emy, some­one who feared what Voro­nenkov knew, or some­one with a less pre­dictable mo­tive.

On an­other level, the mo­ti­va­tion and the “client” mat­ter sig­nif­i­cantly less than why peo­ple think the mur­der was or­dered and who they be­lieve was be­hind it.

Here is the bit­ter irony: If you are a regime striv­ing for le­git­i­macy, be­ing as­sumed to dis­patch as­sas­sins against your en­e­mies left, right and cen­tre is a prob­lem. But if you have al­ready em­braced the dark side, then it ac­tu­ally be­comes an ad­van­tage. You have no real soft power to lose, and only what we could call dark power to gain.

Litvi­nenko’s mur­der (def­i­nitely a Krem­lin hit) chilled the Lon­don­grad set, and oli­garchs and mini­garchs who un­til then had flirted with anti-Putin pol­i­tics sud­denly em­braced the virtues of apo­lit­i­cal char­i­ta­ble ac­tiv­ity in­stead. Who would be next on the hit list if they didn’t mend their ways?

Mag­nit­sky’s mur­der (at the very least cov­ered up by the Krem­lin) sent out a warn­ing to any­one think­ing of stand­ing against the cor­rupt schemes of those in gov­ern­ment. Is any busi­ness worth dy­ing for?

Nemtsov’s mur­der (in my opin­ion not a Krem­lin-sanc­tioned hit) caused the Krem­lin con­sid­er­able short-term angst

and con­fu­sion, but has helped raise the pro­file of Chech­nya’s Ramzan Kady­rov as the bogeyman of Rus­sian pol­i­tics. Who could even dream of re­strain­ing the Chechen cut­throat if not Putin?

Even Rus­sia’s ex­pen­sive and likely un­winnable Don­bass ad­ven­ture has, in its own way, also be­come a gen­er­a­tor of ‘dark power.’ Watch how Be­larus’s Lukashenko, af­ter openly chal­leng­ing Moscow dur­ing high-stakes hag­gling over en­ergy prices, be­gins to echo Rus­sian lines about “Western in­ter­fer­ence” the more his own se­cu­rity peo­ple start wor­ry­ing about hy­brid war­fare at home. Can smaller states in Rus­sia’s self-pro­claimed sphere of in­flu­ence — but out­side the pro­tec­tive em­brace of NATO or the Euro­pean Union — stand against Putin?

‘Dark power’ gen­er­ates it­self through fear, sus­pi­cion, and ex­pec­ta­tion. But it also taints and cor­rodes. The more Rus­sia seems to revel in near-pariah sta­tus, the more ef­fec­tive its bullying. But for a coun­try with the econ­omy of a sec­on­drank Euro­pean state, yet as­pi­ra­tions to be a global power, soft power and pro­duc­tive part­ner­ships will prove much more valu­able in the long run.

Per­haps not Putin, but cer­tainly his even­tual suc­ces­sor will face the daunt­ing task of wip­ing away this taint and find­ing ways to con­vert ‘dark power’ back into some­thing more pro­duc­tive. The more blood as­sumed to be on Rus­sia’s hands— whether or not that is de­served — the harder this will be.

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