Late February not only marks a momentous anniversary in Russia’s long and difficult history, but also solemnizes a tragic event from its much more recent past. One hundred years ago (March 8, 1917, but February 23 on the Julian Calendar, still used by the Russian Empire), a peaceful revolution dethroned the Romanov monarchy, opening for Russia an opportunity to emerge out of the catastrophe of World War I as a democratic state. Public enthusiasm, however, evaporated quickly: the Provisional government lost control over the crumbling state, setting the stage for the Bolshevik coup in late October (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, February 20). And two years ago (February 27, 2015), Boris Nemtsov, perhaps the most appealing and daring of the leaders of Russia’s democratic opposition, was gunned down on a bridge over the Moskva River, steps from the walls of Kremlin. The authorities granted the intrepid opposition permission to stage a march on Sunday in downtown Moscow, toward the “Nemtsov bridge.” Clearly, the Kremlin considers these groups too marginalized to interfere with the master-plan for re-electing Vladimir Putin for yet another presidential term a year from now (Moscow Echo, February 24).
The investigation into the Nemtsov murder keeps going through the motions, so officials apparently see no need to comment on this political assassination—one of the latest in a long list, including Anna Politkovskya, Galina Starovoitova, Sergei Yushenkov and many more (Kommersant, February 21). More surprising, given today’s massive propaganda glorification of Russian history, is the authorities’ complete inability to provide a coherent interpretation of the February Revolution. Official discourse cannot overcome the Kremlin’s fear of revolutions or acknowledge that, throughout history, autocratic regimes responsible for setting their states on the trajectory of degradation and decay were, at times, ousted by public discontent (Gazeta.ru, February 21). The current ruling regime in Moscow has had an even more difficult time reflecting on the old lesson about the unreliability of the army and police during chaotic domestic crises—regardless of how much supreme attention was granted to keeping the privileged siloviki (security services personnel) well paid and loyal (Republic.ru, February 22).
Instead of reckoning with the uncomfortable past, the Kremlin staged festivities marking the Day of the Defender of the Fatherland, essentially a celebration of militarism (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, February 23). The tone was set by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, who reported on further achievements in the modernization of the Russian Armed Forces and adamantly dismissed the United States’ intentions to deal with Russia from a “position of strength” (Kommersant, February 22; see EDM, February 23). Putin confirmed that the Russian army had “huge combat potential” and was rightly perceived as a “solid pillar for the state and society” (RIA Novosti, February 23). It is noticeable that, while indulging in this self-praise, the Russian leadership is reluctant to refer to US President Donald Trump’s pledge to launch a massive military build-up in his own country (Newsru.com, February 24). This ambivalence translates into a gradual counter-alarmist shift in public opinion: presently, only 58 percent of responders in a recent independent poll saw a direct military threat to Russia, compared with 68 percent in 2015 (Levada.ru, February 20).
Putin appears at a loss when it comes to identifying and exploiting opportunities for building rapport with Trump. Early perceptions of rich areas of potential common interest have been dissolving shockingly fast (see EDM, January 30, February 6, 21). One thing the Russian president seems confident in, however, is that the current US administration has no interest in democracy promotion and lacks any advocates of the human rights agenda. Therefore, he trusts that his plans to suppress the opposition during the rigidly controlled election campaign will be safe from hostile Western interference (Novaya Gazeta, February 21). He also assumes that Ukraine is a low priority for Trump and his team of billionaires and hawks, so stagnation in the deadlocked war in Donbas would presumably be enough to remove this problem from Washington’s political agenda (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, February 21). Russia, on the other hand, will definitely remain a high priority matter for the US; but the content of this priority is increasingly worrisome for the Kremlin as tough pragmatists move into key Executive Branch positions in Washington (Moscow Echo, February 24). Mainstream experts in Moscow now hope for a “normal” regulated confrontation, rather than for a “deal.” But Putin will likely be unable to accept the inevitable reconfiguration of this “strictly business” relationship. After all, Trump and his key policy-shapers are unlikely to treat the declining Russia as an equal (Gazeta.ru, February 23).
The only dimension of state power in which Russia is on par with the US is nuclear capabilities, and Shoigu confirmed that the modernization of this arsenal would remain a top priority in military planning (RBC, February 21). The Russian top brass duly noted Trump’s declared intention to invest in upgrading the US strategic forces, and Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin (always quick with strong words) asserted that Russian missiles would be able to “tear apart” any missile defense system (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, February 19). At the same time, many “talking heads” in the State Duma, who had before recently firmly rejected cuts to nuclear forces, have suddenly become proponents of negotiations with Washington on an extension of the New START and further strategic arms reduction talks (RIA Novosti, February 24). The fact of the matter is, Russia cannot possibly step up its already overstretched efforts to build new submarines and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM). Whereas, Moscow’s withdrawal from the 1988 Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty cannot improve its negotiating position. So there is little to talk about in this traditional channel of high-level dialogue.
While the Kremlin struggles to counter every signal the White House sends to various audiences with an appropriate rebuff or polite disagreement, Russian-US bilateral relations continue to sink deeper into limbo. Shoigu’s decision to consolidate Russia’s recent cyberattack successes by creating “information operations forces” will not be met with approbation in the US Congress or the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which is still looking into alleged Russian connections to the new US administration (Newsru.com, February 22). And while these political games play on, thousands of people marched in Moscow in memory of a man who understood that there was more to politics than intrigue. He also knew that the democratic agenda is no less important than strategic arms control and that the Ukraine crisis goes too deep to be bracketed out from opportunistic deal-making. Nemtsov did not want to see another Russian revolution, but his murder brought this specter a little bit closer to the Kremlin.