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United States

Russia experts criticize 'absurd' US response to Nemtsov murder

American Russia scholars have criticized the official US response to the murder of opposition figure Boris Nemtsov, calling it too timid. They have called for Washington to at least send its ambassador to the funeral.

The US State Department's press release following the assassination of Russian opposition figure Boris Nemtsov in Moscow on Friday consisted of eight lines.

In the document, Secretary of State John Kerry expressed his shock and regret of the killing of the country's former deputy prime minister, characterized Nemtsov as striving for a "more democratic, prosperous, open Russia" and urged "Russian authorities to act expeditiously to investigate and bring to justice those responsible."

For Yoshiko Margaret Herrera, a Russia expert and co-director of the International Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the US response wasn't good enough. "We know that the justice system in Russia is deeply flawed," she told DW. "I think essentially asking the Putin regime to investigate amounts to basically zero."

Almost absurd

Instead, Herrera would have wanted the State Department to point out that this event serves as a clear indication that Russia is on the wrong path. Washington should have also made clear that "the kind of propaganda and extreme negativity, some would even say hatred that the regime supports, have led us to a very tragic outcome where a voice of the opposition can be murdered outside the Kremlin," she said.

"But the least we can do is not be advocates for [President Vladimir] Putin's investigations of the Nemtsov murder. This strikes me as almost absurd," she added.

"It certainly was a formal and correct diplomatic response," said Allen Lynch, a Russia scholar at the University of Virginia, of the official US response. But, he added, it was also one that was pretty much devoid of any emotional connection to the event and did not convey a real sense of Nemtsov's political legacy.

John Kerry und Sergei Lavrow in Genf Schweiz

Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met Monday for talks on Ukraine and Iran

Given the State Department's cadre of excellent Russia experts, "it would have been very simple to craft a response that combines the two, the formal expression of regret, the encouragement to conduct a complete investigation, but at the same time to note what Nemtsov stood for, which is an alternative Russia," he told DW. "So in that respect I was disappointed."

While Herrera and Lynch don't believe that the Kremlin was directly involved in orchestrating the Nemtsov killing, they think Moscow has a clear responsibility for what happened.

"I think it's a reflection of the atmosphere," said Lynch. "The highly charged atmosphere of Russian politics, identifying traitors, fifth columnists - and Nemtsov was clearly understood to be in that column, because of his vocal view of Ukraine - did send a signal that people like him are enemies of Russia and perhaps that their elimination could even be tolerated."

Nuclear talks with Iran a factor: Lynch

"This is somebody that is murdered within view of the Kremlin where there is tons of surveillance and security cameras," said Herrera. "This is somebody who was being actively followed by security services. So Nemtsov's whereabouts were well known, he was in a very public place. It's a stunning act of violence against an opposition leader who wasn't particularly threatening to the regime. And that is one of the reasons why I think it is so frightening."

So why then did the Obama administration not come out stronger against Putin?

For Lynch, Washington's terse reaction to the murder of one the highest-ranking opposition members yet is a clear sign that the US does not want the Nemtsov incident to interfere with other aspects of US-Russia relations, particularly the ongoing nuclear talks with Tehran.

The Iran negotiations are the administration's top foreign policy priority, and Washington wants to avoid "anything that might call into question the possibility of getting Russia to agree with the US on any endgame that might frame an agreement with Iran," said Lynch.

Against arming Ukraine

For that reason, an all-out confrontation between the West and Russia, for instance by arming Ukraine, as suggested by prominent opposition voice Garry Kasparov in response to the murder - Nemtsov was highly critical of Moscow's Ukraine policy - is highly unlikely. It is also misguided for other reasons, noted the experts.

Barack Obama

Will the US send its ambassador to the Nemtsov funeral?

"Arming Ukraine will not send a signal to Putin," said Herrera. "The signal it would send to him is to use more violence."

"The question of Russia's policy to Ukraine is quite independent actually of the nature of Putin's internal regime," said Lynch. "Russia's determination to be the primary international power along its historical borderland predates Putin coming to power."

Sending a sign to Moscow

While the political options for the US to influence Russia's internal politics are thus very limited, both scholars have urged Washington to do one immediate thing to relay a message to the Kremlin.

"They should send the [US] ambassador to the funeral," said Lynch. "No question about it. That would be a sign that the administration was paying attention."

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