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‘It’s Putin’s war for power and money’ What the Nemtsov Report says about the Russia’s role in Ukraine’s war

Meduza
Photo: Stanislav Krasilnikov / TASS / Vida Press

On May 12, the offices of the Russian opposition party RPR-Parnas unveiled Putin: War, a report based on material gathered by the party’s late co-chair, Boris Nemtsov, who was murdered in Moscow in February 2015. Before being killed, Nemtsov managed to meet with or submit questions in writing to members of the security services about Russian military activities in eastern Ukraine. The report was completed posthumously by members of the party, as well as a handful of journalists and economists. The result of Parnas’ labors is fact-based text that abandons the usual epithets against the Kremlin and other oppositionist rhetoric. The document is essentially a timeline of the events in eastern Ukraine over the past 18 months. Nemtsov’s supporters believe the contents of this report could become the basis for a future criminal case against those who initiated the conflict. Meduza’s special correspondent, Andrey Kozenko, reviews the report and tried to understand why it was written.

“The aim of the opposition now is enlightenment and truth. And the truth is that Putin is war and crisis.” This is the epigraph on the report: words uttered by Nemtsov within a month of his death. It’s no secret that Nemtsov (and many of his supporters) were deeply concerned that the years of Vladimir Putin’s presidency would culminate not just in the loss of their jobs, but in the very disappearance of their profession. 

For many years now in Russia, it has been impossible to be a politician of national significance and an oppositionist at the same time. Nemtsov attempted to combine his work on local taxes and the duties of his seat in Yaroslavl’s regional parliament with denunciations of Putin. He issued these denunciations from every possible podium, on Facebook for example, well after people had stopped having big protests in Moscow. 

Investigating the conflict in Ukraine helped Nemtsov feel needed. He was very taken with the idea of the report, having come up with it back in late 2014. In January 2015, Nemtsov fully committed himself to gathering documentation for the project. By late February, when he was shot in Moscow, the general outline of the document was already mostly completed.

The report was finished by Nemtsov’s close friends and supporters—RPR-Parnas members Ilya Yashin, Olga Shorina, and Leonid Martynyuk, as well as economists Sergei Aleksashin and Alfred Koch, and journalists Oleg Kashin, Aidar Mujabayev, and Yekaterina Vinokurova. Another two dozen people provided additional material, too.

Nemtsov’s previous reports, which focused on corruption among Putin’s associates and graft in construction for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, were well-received but not extensively quoted in other media. If they lacked for sufficient facts, Nemtsov’s reports made up for it in oppositionist rhetoric, which didn’t do wonders for the credibility of his work.

The current report has 63 pages of text and photographs, with more than 150 citations of Russian and Ukrainian government agencies and dozens of reports and videos by journalists. There were far fewer, far more dubious citations in previous reports. (For example, one quote was taken from an interview with Nemtsov himself.) Thanks to a wider base of documentary evidence, the latest and final Nemtsov report is more even-handed and measured, which is ironic given that it describes some of the most emotional events of the 21st century. Toning down the rhetoric has led to the clearest anti-war declaration the Russian opposition has made since the start of the Ukrainian crisis.

The report’s structure is fairly simple—the authors describe the conflict’s key events in in chronological order. In the first chapter, the authors point out that the Kremlin considered Putin’s 2012 approval rating of 45 percent to be insufficient, leading the Putin Administration to search for ways to secure his position. “The ‘Crimean return to Russia’ scenario had undoubtedly been planned and quietly prepared by the Russian authorities in advance. The scale of this preparation is visible today,” states the report in what is possibly its weakest part. This assertion isn’t backed up with any facts. What’s more, the haphazard unfolding of events in spring 2014—the very fact that they brought forward the referendum dates in Crimea—most likely speaks to the contrary.

The rest the report, however, backs up its thesis. The next ten chapters are an attempt to iron out and clarify reality, which has been twisted more in 2014—by news anchors on television screens and politicians behind podiums—than in all of the proceeding century.

The authors’ aim is simply to lay out facts with links to primary sources. The report begins with Crimea, then moves to events in the Donbas, then to the first coffins coming back to Russia, and then to the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. The text gradually reveals the figures responsible for what’s happened. Finally, the report estimates the conflict’s direct and indirect financial costs to Russia, which amount to 53 billion rubles (more than $1 billion)—the amount they calculate has been necessary to support volunteers, as well as operate military hardware.

The report also lists some of the main distortions in the media that have accompanied the conflict. It documents how Right Sector (an organization banned in Russia as extremist) came to be mentioned more often in the media than the ruling political party, United Russia. It examines widely-reported stories like the tale of a three-year-old boy supposedly being crucified in Slovyansk, and how the separatist commander Mikhail Tolstykh, better known by the nom de guerre “Givi,” forced Ukrainian prisoners to eat their own epaulettes on camera.

As for the “polite people” of Crimea (the Russian soldiers disguised as local militia who seized the peninsula from Ukraine), Putin: War highlights that even Vladimir Putin has now admits he was personally responsible for leading their activities—a far cry from his official position at the time, when Putin claimed categorically that Russia wasn’t interfering in Crimea.

The biggest regret of the report’s authors (and another of its obvious weaknesses) is that is wasn’t possible to speak properly with the relatives of the soldiers deployed to Ukraine. Nemtsov had by the sheer force of his personality managed to be in contact with these people, but the relationship died with him in February. “If Nemtsov could be shot at the walls of the Kremlin, then they could have done what they wanted with our clients in Ivanovo. You couldn’t help but realize it,” a lawyer says in the report, summarizing the relatives’ thinking.

The report also collects testimonies about Chechens from Ramzan Kadyrov’s security services fighting in Ukraine, information about the first body bags returning to Russia, and data about the types and makes of weapons used by separatists and how many of these instruments have never been exported. Throughout the document, it’s interesting to see how massive state secrets are given away by such minor things.

It’s not the brilliant detective work of oppositionists that controverts the official government line, but ordinary people using smart phones, and photographs of license plates and military equipment that officially “doesn’t exist” in eastern Ukraine, and young soldiers boasting online about their exploits, and so on.

The text is short, but it’s surprisingly all-encompassing, addressing all the main events from autumn 2013 to spring 2015.

On the print edition of the report, the back cover features a message from Nemtsov to Russian soldiers, written in the summer of 2014. “This isn’t your war,” he said. “It’s Putin’s war for power and money.” It’s unlikely many soldiers ever got this message.

The report’s final conclusion is already clear in the first pages, and the authors make no bones about it: these findings could serve as evidence in an international criminal court against Russia’s sitting president, who in this scenario would stand accused. Nemtsov believed such a trial would one day take place, just like he believed that one day there would be political changes to save today’s opposition.

Andrey Kozenko

Moscow