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Boris Nemtsov, a leading Russian opposition figure, age 55, was shot dead Friday night as he walked across a bridge connecting the Kremlin with the embankment district of central Moscow. The youthful and handsome Nemtsov was accompanied by his 23-year-old girlfriend, a Ukrainian model. According to initial BBC reports, he was shot four times by several men emerging from a white car and then speeding away. Nemtsov’s death was confirmed at the site by an aide, who reported that Nemtsov’s corpse lay in front of him on the street, surrounded by police. Contacts in Moscow reported that the murder scene was mobbed by mourners bringing flowers. Nemtsov’s female companion was taken away to be interrogated at police headquarters. (See video) Let’s see how long she’ll remain in custody.
Nemtsov served as Deputy Prime Minister under Boris Yeltsin. He was also mayor of Nizhny Novgorod before joining the liberal opposition to Putin. During his tenure under Yeltsin, Nemtsov was considered a possible successor, but handicapped by the fact that he was Jewish.
Nemtsov had expressed fears of being murdered shortly before his death. His last tweet to the people of Moscow read:
“If you support stopping Russia’s war with Ukraine, if you support stopping Putin’s aggression, come to the Spring March in Maryino on 1 March.”
Nemtsov’s murder has the typical features of a Russian contract killing, similar to the still unsolved murder of investigative journalist Anna Politovskaya. The killing of a prominent opposition figure in central Moscow cannot be passed off as a random act of violence. Even the Kremlin identified the murder as a contract killing.
A possible motive, other than being a thorn in the Kremlin’s side: Opposition figure (and Putin’s goddaughter), Ksenia Sobchak, said that Nemtsov was preparing a report on Russian troops in Ukraine at the time of his death – a subject that is strict taboo under Putin.
The Putin propaganda machine immediately began its spin. A Kremlin spokesman stated shortly after the murder that Putin regards “this cruel murder (as having) every sign of being a contract killing, which has a solely provocative nature.” In a condolence telegram to Nemtsov’s 86-year-old mother, Putin vowed to do “everything to ensure that the perpetrators of this vile and cynical crime and those who stand behind them are properly punished.” Putin’s notorious star-chamber Investigative Committee spoke of Nemtsov as a “sacrificial victim” of those who oppose the state and echoed the murder as a “provocation” against the state. Kremlin-friendly media darkly identified his companion as a Ukrainian model 30 years his junior, as if suggesting Kiev had something to do with the murder. The Investigative Committee, noted for its indictments of dissidents on trumped-up charges, also revealed it was looking for a Ukrainian or even Islamic extremist connection.
The Kremlin’s obvious strategy: Kick up the dust of confusion. Surely, they say, the “provocation” was instigated by Putin’s enemies (Take your pick: Ukraine, NATO, the CIA, “hohol” Nazis, ISIS, etc.). Putin at least had the sense not to dismiss Nemtsov, like he did Politovskaya, as an insignificant person. Instead Putin damned Nemtsov with faint praise as someone “who occupied significant posts in a difficult time of transition.”
The unfortunately predictable reactions of Western leaders only contribute to the Putin narrative of sinister forces out to get the Kremlin. Angela Merkel called on President Putin “to ensure that the murder is cleared up and the perpetrators brought to justice.” Barack Obama echoed Merkel in “calling upon the Russian government to conduct a prompt, impartial, and transparent investigation into the circumstances of his murder and ensure that those responsible for this vicious killing are brought to justice.” Do Merkel and Obama not realize they are conceding Putin’s defense? By declaring Putin’s Kremlin responsible for finding the murderers, they are ruling out the possibility that the Kremlin itself ordered the hit.
Western leaders are reluctant to recognize what Putin and his regime are capable of. Scholars John Dunlop and Karen Dawisha have chronicled the strong evidence that Putin was behind the 1999 apartment bombings that killed almost 400 Russians and brought him to power. Ordering the killing of one irritating opposition figure pales in comparison to this and other acts of violence.
In my own view, there are two possible explanations of Nemtsov’s murder: One is that the murder was ordered by the Kremlin itself to signal a new phase of clamp down on opposition figures. To date, figures like Nemtsov, Gary Kasparov, and Mikhail Kasyanov have been roughed up and jailed, but none have been murdered.
My second explanation would be a rogue element within the Kremlin — perhaps an overzealous oligarch — but an act of violence of this import would be an unlikely move for subordinates operating within Putin’s fabled vertical of power. I do not know how such things are arranged, but they are most likely done through a wink and a nod with no paper trail.
Note that a murder — especially one that basically happened on Kremlin grounds, on a street traveled by Putin’s motorcade, rigged with security cameras and security police — requires some degree of official cooperation, or at least looking the other way. The professional murderers chose the Bolshoi Moskvrechky Bridge leading from the Kremlin, a landmark that allows better escape from the crime scene. The assassins in the white car, however, would have had to risk getting caught in Moscow’s notorious 24-hour traffic jams in their escape attempt. Without such safeguards, Russia’s notorious contract killers would not have done the deed. In any other metropolis, the murderers would have been apprehended within minutes or would have been identified through leaks, eye witnesses, and security cameras within a short period of time.
There will be no justice for Nemtsov. An expert on Russian contract killings explains that they are rarely solved “because of the interwoven nature of criminality and Russian officialdom.” In the best case, some lower-level gangsters will confess and will quickly disappear within the Russian penal system. They and their families will likely be well-paid.
If my suspicions are correct (and we will likely never know the truth), the murder of a major opposition figure on the eve of a major rally shows the supreme level of confidence Vladimir Putin has in his hold on power. He has annexed Crimea, has de facto taken much of eastern Ukraine, and has stared down the intimidated West. What’s one murdered opposition figure?
We will see how the people of Moscow react to this vicious murder. Will they conclude that Putin is behind it? After all, his message to the Russian people is that he is responsible for all that is good. If so, would he also not answer for this cowardly act of murder by contract?Published in