When reporters asked former world chess champion and Kremlin critic Garry Kasparov who was behind the assassination of opposition figure Boris Nemtsov, he dismissed the question as irrelevant.
Whoever did the dirty work, he implied, would have done so only with President Vladimir Putin's blessing.
"Who gave the order to kill Nemtsov? Who knows,” Kasparov said. ”But this was done not far from the Kremlin and it would have been done by Putin's cronies. Who ordered it? I don't care. Putin must be held responsible for the murder of Boris."
Kasparov’s remark gets to the heart of the larger significance of Nemtsov’s killing. We don't yet know who ordered and carried out the hit or why. But the specifics don't matter as much as the signal it sends -- and what it portends.
"The message is this," Kasparov said. "We have no allergy to blood and anyone can be killed."
Exactly one year after Putin launched a hybrid war in Ukraine with the appearance of the storied "little green men" in Crimea, the killing of Nemtsov -- by men shooting from a little white car -- appears to mark an escalation of what can be described as a hybrid campaign of terror against Russia’s beleaguered and largely ineffectual opposition.
The War At Home
Like the hybrid war against Ukraine, Putin’s war at home, his Hybrid Great Terror campaign against his domestic critics, uses multiple methods: a well-honed disinformation campaign, legal machinations, stage-managed public demonstrations, and indiscriminate violence.
The regime’s opponents have been derided as traitors in the state media, harassed by Kremlin-sponsored youth groups, hit with absurd criminal charges, put under house arrest, and sent to prison camps. They’ve been marginalized, vilified, and ridiculed to the point of irrelevance.
And like in Ukraine, the whole thing is designed to give Putin plausible deniability.
Just as Russia’s invasion of its southern neighbor is framed as a "civil war" in which Moscow is just an interested observer, the campaign against the opposition is presented as just journalists doing their job, just concerned citizens speaking out against sedition, just the justice system carrying out its work.
But the Nemtsov assassination takes Putin's hybrid war at home to a whole new level. The penalty for opposition now, is not just imprisonment -- it is death.
Yes, other Putin critics have met violent, mysterious, and unexplained ends -- State Duma deputies like Sergei Yushenkov and Yuri Shchekochikhin, who were investigating the 1999 apartment bombings that helped bring Putin to power; investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya; and emigre security officer Aleksandr Litvinenko just to name a few. But none had profiles as high as Nemtsov.
Taking out an internationally known former deputy prime minister whom Boris Yeltsin once touted as his potential successor as president suggests that -- just as in Stalin’s Great Terror of the 1930s -- nobody is immune.
A Nod And A Wink
It is hard to imagine assassins pulling off such a clearly professional hit on a figure of Nemtsov's stature and getting away clean -- in the heart of Moscow, just blocks from the Kremlin, in one of the most heavily policed parts of the capital -- without official sanction.
"Boris Nemtsov took not a step nor a breath that wasn't under the intense surveillance of the FSB. Just like all opposition leaders in Russia. Nothing Boris Nemtsov did was not bugged, tailed, filmed or monitored by the secret police,” journalist and Kremlin-watcher Ben Judah, author of Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In And Out Of Love With Vladimir Putin, wrote.
"It is quite simply impossible that this man could have been shot dead without the Kremlin knowing there was a plot afoot to kill him. This means the murder of Boris Nemtsov was either ordered or allowed to happen: which come to exactly the same thing."
Indeed, whether the permission to assassinate Nemtsov was in the form of an explicit order, came with a nod and a wink, or was the result of the general political climate in which opposition figures are vilified as traitors and enemies of the state, is largely irrelevant.
"In Putin's atmosphere of hatred and violence, abroad and in Russia, bloodshed is the prerequisite to show loyalty that you are on the team," Kasparov wrote on Twitter.
"If Putin gave [the] order to murder Boris Nemtsov is not the point. It is Putin's dictatorship. His 24/7 propaganda about enemies of the state."
For his part, Putin has condemned Nemtsov's killing, took personal control of the investigation, and said it could have been a "provocation" aimed at destabilizing Russia.
"But who was the provoker?" Bloomberg political commentator Leonid Bershidsky, a prominent Russian journalist who emigrated last year, asked in a column.
"In recent months, Putin's propaganda machine has been vigorously inciting Russians against the 'fifth column' -- those who protested against the annexation of Crimea and the Kremlin-instigated war in eastern Ukraine. Nemtsov was on every list of traitors published on the Internet and aired on state TV."
If you thought it couldn’t get much worse, if you thought Putin’s Kremlin couldn’t get more brutal or brazen, think again.
"Vladimir Putin has ruled Russia with three things: money, propaganda and terror," Judah wrote.
"Now the money is running out, the equation has shifted. Today, Russia is ruled mostly through propaganda and terror."
-- Brian Whitmore