Who Killed Boris Nemtsov: The Chaff vs. the Wheat

He ruffled too many feathers, made too many powerful enemies, and when the media painted him as a fifth columnist and a traitor, he didn't crawl on his knees begging forgiveness but carried on with his head held high. That's not how you win over friends at the Kremlin; they dislike people who walk upright.

A member of the Russian parliament from the Communist Party, Comrade Obukhov, has officially stated that the assassination of Boris Nemtsov is nothing like those of Kirov and Kennedy. That almost sounds nostalgic: they don't shoot 'em like they used to. He should know, since both Kirov and Kennedy had been gunned down by communists. But it could also be sour grapes.

Russia's authoritarianism hasn't been the same ever since the Party had lost its license to kill, but there's still a chance the glory days may come back. Like certain species capable of regenerating missing body parts, Putin's Russia is now miraculously regenerating its previously lost militarism, territories, and spheres of influence.

The first to regenerate was the KGB and the Kremlin-run media propaganda, along with the barnacles of old political jokes that seem to have regained their edge. In one such joke, spirits of Caesar, Napoleon, and Alexander the Great are watching a military parade in Moscow and fantasize about conquering the world if they had Russian tanks, planes, and missiles. Then Napoleon says, "And if I also had the Russian media, the world would have never learned about my defeat at Waterloo."

In Russia the government-controlled pen has always been mightier than its weapon systems. A de facto vassal of the KGB, the Soviet media faithfully served as a weapon in Moscow's defensive and offensive strategies. It was used to attack perceived domestic or international enemies, as well as to release chaff of disinformation that swamped radar screens and impeded detection of targets. An ex-KGB colonel with experience in information warfare, Putin began his reign by overtaking Russia's newly independent press and weaponizing its content.

Today's coverage of Boris Nemtsov's assassination is a fair example. Far from being silent about it, the Kremlin-run media is abuzz with seemingly chaotic theories:

  1. This was a provocation by foreign special services (a media euphemism mostly reserved for the CIA). First proposed by Putin, it immediately became the official working theory of the investigation. The enemy's goal is believed to be the destabilization of Russia and making Putin look like a thug (or, on the contrary, an incompetent fool unable to control the situation).
  2. Ukrainian intelligence hired Chechen rebels to kill Nemtsov (who was the best friend Ukraine could ever hope to have in Russia).
  3. Nemtsov was paid by Ukrainian oligarchs to destabilize Russia; he failed and they eliminated him to cover their tracks.
  4. Nemtsov's business partners rubbed him out for embezzling their money (he had no business partners and wasn't actively involved in any businesses).
  5. Nemtsov was killed by his own colleagues inside the anti-Putin opposition as a result of a power struggle, or possibly over the money coming from overseas sponsors.
  6. That night he got involved in a bar brawl with random gangsters, who followed him from the restaurant and shot him in the back.
  7. Islamic terrorists affiliated with ISIS killed Nemtsov for his vocal support of Charlie Hebdo.
  8. Bon vivant Nemtsov broke many hearts by dating a gorgeous young model from Kiev; it was a crime of passion.

Tellingly absent from this is the single and most obvious theory the entire world is mulling over: the Kremlin connection. But if the Kremlin-run media mentions Putin in that context, it's only as a trusted leader who has promised to hunt down the thugs and bring stability to the troubled nation. Attacks on Russia's president by the Western media and domestic opposition (Garry Kasparov, Alexei Navalny, etc.) only prove to the average media consumer that this was a provocation aimed at attacking Putin. Back to Theory One above.

Although the mission may seem accomplished, the media's work isn't over. Expect more narratives of varying plausibility that will crush any residual sympathy for the deceased and establish him as a brawling playboy with a predictably low life expectancy. If anyone is to blame, it's Nemtsov himself.

A similar template was activated when Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 from Amsterdam crashed over eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014, with all evidence suggesting a strike by a surface-to-air-missile launched by a Moscow-controlled military unit (the final report by the Dutch Safety Board is expected in August, 2015).

The initially stunned denial of facts was followed by an immediate allegation of a conspiracy to blow up Putin's plane, soon accompanied by a motherload of competing theories, all of them clearing Russia of any wrongdoing. The scenarios were getting curioser and curioser, until the entire media landscape began to resemble a psychedelic scene from the last remake of Alice in Wonderland, with Johnny Depp as a lovable Russian president helping to end the reign of terror in the neighboring Ukraine. Once again, tellingly missing from that script was the Kremlin's involvement, along with any feelings of shame or empathy:

  1. According to initial reports, heroic pro-Russian militia shot down a Ukrainian military transport plane; any rumors about a downed Malaysian airliner must be a hostile provocation (was there seriously a plan to clean up the crash site and pretend nothing ever happened?)
  2. The Ukrainians were planning to assassinate Putin by shooting down his presidential aircraft but got their planes mixed up. The proof was in the photograph of Putin's plane that looked somewhat similar to the Malaysian jet, even though Putin was nowhere near Ukraine that day.
  3. The bloodthirsty Ukrainian junta wanted to murder passengers on a Russian airline, but instead they killed 298 foreign citizens. The SBU (Ukrainian National Security Service) covered their tracks by killing the crew of the Buk missile system.
  4. Ukrainian air traffic controllers deliberately redirected the Malaysian jet towards the war zone and lowered its altitude, as part of Kiev's plan to make Russia look bad.
  5. A Ukrainian fighter jet attacked Flight MH17 from behind, first spraying it with bullets and then turning around and launching a heat-seeking missile. This was proven by a satellite photo and an admission by a Ukrainian pilot, both of which turned out to be fake.
  6. A Spanish air traffic controller claimed he saw two Ukrainian fighter jets closely following the Malaysian Boeing (a report later withdrawn as false).
  7.  An anonymous defector from Ukraine, speaking with a proper Russian accent, claims that on the day of the tragedy he witnessed a takeoff of a Ukrainian military jet carrying air-to-air missiles. The jet later returned without the missiles as the visibly shaken pilot said, "It was the wrong plane."
  8. Flight MH17 contained dead bodies that had been soaked in formaldehyde and smelled of decomposition within minutes of the crash. Most bodies were naked, with yellowed skin and no blood inside. The luggage was full of winter clothes even though it was summer. It was obvious that the bodies had come from a different Malaysian plane, which had been shot down by Americans and hidden away on a US Air Force base. The Americans then secretly transported the preserved bodies to Amsterdam, loaded them onto the Boeing, and sent it on an unmanned flight over eastern Ukraine in a plot to frame Russian separatists. This elaborate conspiracy reveals how desperate the Western governments have become to undermine Russia's reputation as a peaceful power.

Are Russian journalists really such a bunch of unruly and idle gossipers?  That could be the case if they also weren't so disciplined in executing the same maneuver every time Putin gets caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Then, just like werewolves on a full moon losing their humanity, "serious" pro-Kremlin journalists and editors suddenly drop their respectable personae and start acting like conspiracy-obsessed lunatics.

As a result, according to a survey conducted by the Levada Center a week after the crash, 80% of Russians believed that the Boeing was shot down by the Ukrainian military with only 3% blaming the Kremlin-controlled separatists. These numbers are still true today and won't change anytime soon. Expect a similar result with the coverage of Boris Nemtsov's murder, including the same lack of shame or empathy for the victim.

Editor's note: This article is part one of a series.  Part two will be published tomorrow.

He ruffled too many feathers, made too many powerful enemies, and when the media painted him as a fifth columnist and a traitor, he didn't crawl on his knees begging forgiveness but carried on with his head held high. That's not how you win over friends at the Kremlin; they dislike people who walk upright.

A member of the Russian parliament from the Communist Party, Comrade Obukhov, has officially stated that the assassination of Boris Nemtsov is nothing like those of Kirov and Kennedy. That almost sounds nostalgic: they don't shoot 'em like they used to. He should know, since both Kirov and Kennedy had been gunned down by communists. But it could also be sour grapes.

Russia's authoritarianism hasn't been the same ever since the Party had lost its license to kill, but there's still a chance the glory days may come back. Like certain species capable of regenerating missing body parts, Putin's Russia is now miraculously regenerating its previously lost militarism, territories, and spheres of influence.

The first to regenerate was the KGB and the Kremlin-run media propaganda, along with the barnacles of old political jokes that seem to have regained their edge. In one such joke, spirits of Caesar, Napoleon, and Alexander the Great are watching a military parade in Moscow and fantasize about conquering the world if they had Russian tanks, planes, and missiles. Then Napoleon says, "And if I also had the Russian media, the world would have never learned about my defeat at Waterloo."

In Russia the government-controlled pen has always been mightier than its weapon systems. A de facto vassal of the KGB, the Soviet media faithfully served as a weapon in Moscow's defensive and offensive strategies. It was used to attack perceived domestic or international enemies, as well as to release chaff of disinformation that swamped radar screens and impeded detection of targets. An ex-KGB colonel with experience in information warfare, Putin began his reign by overtaking Russia's newly independent press and weaponizing its content.

Today's coverage of Boris Nemtsov's assassination is a fair example. Far from being silent about it, the Kremlin-run media is abuzz with seemingly chaotic theories:

  1. This was a provocation by foreign special services (a media euphemism mostly reserved for the CIA). First proposed by Putin, it immediately became the official working theory of the investigation. The enemy's goal is believed to be the destabilization of Russia and making Putin look like a thug (or, on the contrary, an incompetent fool unable to control the situation).
  2. Ukrainian intelligence hired Chechen rebels to kill Nemtsov (who was the best friend Ukraine could ever hope to have in Russia).
  3. Nemtsov was paid by Ukrainian oligarchs to destabilize Russia; he failed and they eliminated him to cover their tracks.
  4. Nemtsov's business partners rubbed him out for embezzling their money (he had no business partners and wasn't actively involved in any businesses).
  5. Nemtsov was killed by his own colleagues inside the anti-Putin opposition as a result of a power struggle, or possibly over the money coming from overseas sponsors.
  6. That night he got involved in a bar brawl with random gangsters, who followed him from the restaurant and shot him in the back.
  7. Islamic terrorists affiliated with ISIS killed Nemtsov for his vocal support of Charlie Hebdo.
  8. Bon vivant Nemtsov broke many hearts by dating a gorgeous young model from Kiev; it was a crime of passion.

Tellingly absent from this is the single and most obvious theory the entire world is mulling over: the Kremlin connection. But if the Kremlin-run media mentions Putin in that context, it's only as a trusted leader who has promised to hunt down the thugs and bring stability to the troubled nation. Attacks on Russia's president by the Western media and domestic opposition (Garry Kasparov, Alexei Navalny, etc.) only prove to the average media consumer that this was a provocation aimed at attacking Putin. Back to Theory One above.

Although the mission may seem accomplished, the media's work isn't over. Expect more narratives of varying plausibility that will crush any residual sympathy for the deceased and establish him as a brawling playboy with a predictably low life expectancy. If anyone is to blame, it's Nemtsov himself.

A similar template was activated when Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 from Amsterdam crashed over eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014, with all evidence suggesting a strike by a surface-to-air-missile launched by a Moscow-controlled military unit (the final report by the Dutch Safety Board is expected in August, 2015).

The initially stunned denial of facts was followed by an immediate allegation of a conspiracy to blow up Putin's plane, soon accompanied by a motherload of competing theories, all of them clearing Russia of any wrongdoing. The scenarios were getting curioser and curioser, until the entire media landscape began to resemble a psychedelic scene from the last remake of Alice in Wonderland, with Johnny Depp as a lovable Russian president helping to end the reign of terror in the neighboring Ukraine. Once again, tellingly missing from that script was the Kremlin's involvement, along with any feelings of shame or empathy:

  1. According to initial reports, heroic pro-Russian militia shot down a Ukrainian military transport plane; any rumors about a downed Malaysian airliner must be a hostile provocation (was there seriously a plan to clean up the crash site and pretend nothing ever happened?)
  2. The Ukrainians were planning to assassinate Putin by shooting down his presidential aircraft but got their planes mixed up. The proof was in the photograph of Putin's plane that looked somewhat similar to the Malaysian jet, even though Putin was nowhere near Ukraine that day.
  3. The bloodthirsty Ukrainian junta wanted to murder passengers on a Russian airline, but instead they killed 298 foreign citizens. The SBU (Ukrainian National Security Service) covered their tracks by killing the crew of the Buk missile system.
  4. Ukrainian air traffic controllers deliberately redirected the Malaysian jet towards the war zone and lowered its altitude, as part of Kiev's plan to make Russia look bad.
  5. A Ukrainian fighter jet attacked Flight MH17 from behind, first spraying it with bullets and then turning around and launching a heat-seeking missile. This was proven by a satellite photo and an admission by a Ukrainian pilot, both of which turned out to be fake.
  6. A Spanish air traffic controller claimed he saw two Ukrainian fighter jets closely following the Malaysian Boeing (a report later withdrawn as false).
  7.  An anonymous defector from Ukraine, speaking with a proper Russian accent, claims that on the day of the tragedy he witnessed a takeoff of a Ukrainian military jet carrying air-to-air missiles. The jet later returned without the missiles as the visibly shaken pilot said, "It was the wrong plane."
  8. Flight MH17 contained dead bodies that had been soaked in formaldehyde and smelled of decomposition within minutes of the crash. Most bodies were naked, with yellowed skin and no blood inside. The luggage was full of winter clothes even though it was summer. It was obvious that the bodies had come from a different Malaysian plane, which had been shot down by Americans and hidden away on a US Air Force base. The Americans then secretly transported the preserved bodies to Amsterdam, loaded them onto the Boeing, and sent it on an unmanned flight over eastern Ukraine in a plot to frame Russian separatists. This elaborate conspiracy reveals how desperate the Western governments have become to undermine Russia's reputation as a peaceful power.

Are Russian journalists really such a bunch of unruly and idle gossipers?  That could be the case if they also weren't so disciplined in executing the same maneuver every time Putin gets caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Then, just like werewolves on a full moon losing their humanity, "serious" pro-Kremlin journalists and editors suddenly drop their respectable personae and start acting like conspiracy-obsessed lunatics.

As a result, according to a survey conducted by the Levada Center a week after the crash, 80% of Russians believed that the Boeing was shot down by the Ukrainian military with only 3% blaming the Kremlin-controlled separatists. These numbers are still true today and won't change anytime soon. Expect a similar result with the coverage of Boris Nemtsov's murder, including the same lack of shame or empathy for the victim.

Editor's note: This article is part one of a series.  Part two will be published tomorrow.