Russia: Who Killed Boris Nemtsov?

by Peter Marzalik on 3/6/2015

Russia: Who Killed Boris Nemtsov?
By Peter J. Marzalik and Sara Jane Cuschleg

On 27 February, Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was killed by unknown assailants less than 200 meters away from the Kremlin. A former deputy prime minister and vocal Putin critic, Nemtsov feared that his most recent campaign against Russian involvement in Ukraine could pose a threat to his life. Tragically, this proved to be true. In the aftermath, many theories on the motive of the murder have surfaced in both Russian and Western media. The most outlandish of these range from a CIA-orchestrated plot to an act of vengeance by a disgruntled girlfriend. Propaganda aside, we will now examine the most plausible explanations as to who killed Boris Nemtsov.

Putin Strikes Again

Our discussion must begin with the man at the top, Russian President Vladimir Putin. One year in, his subversion of eastern Ukraine remains largely unabated. With an impressive 86% domestic approval rating, Putin continues to ride the wave of popularity from his illegal annexation of Crimea last March. His unwavering public denials of Russian involvement in Ukraine enrage Western officials now trying to secure the latest fragile ceasefire.

However, parts of the official narrative are under pressure. Bold opposition leaders, like the late Boris Nemtsov, work at great personal risk to expose the truth. Nemtsov had prepared to release a report that outlines direct Russian support to the separatists, including conventional military forces and deliveries of heavy weapons systems. As an integral voice of the movement, his death came as a shock just days before a highly anticipated anti-war rally. This nascent challenge to Putin’s policy in Ukraine may have prompted the removal of ever-defiant Nemtsov.

The attack has all the signs of a contract killing from the cloak-and-dagger era of Putin’s KGB days. Fellow opposition leader Alexei Navalny asserted that Nemtsov was definitely under surveillance. Additionally, a spotter signaled the attackers when Nemtsov and his girlfriend approached the Great Moskvoretsky Bridge, according to a police source. Bullets found at the scene came from a Makarov pistol, used by Russian security forces for years. These facts indicate a high level of preparation and professionalism previously seen in assassinations tied to the Putin regime, such as the shooting of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya.

A government sanctioned plot is certainly within the realm of possibility. Though Putin may not have directly ordered the hit, it is likely Russian security services were involved. Surveillance cameras outside the Kremlin should have captured footage of the incident. Conveniently, authorities said they were turned off for maintenance, literally turning a blind eye to the crime. Whether involved or not, Putin must be pleased with having one less critic to stifle.


Bad for Business

Though irritated by the liberal opposition, Putin must be even more wary of his own class of elites, the bigwig oligarchs who pull the financial levers of industry that dictate politics in Russia. Western sanctions due to Putin’s Ukrainian venture coupled with the global decline in oil prices have hit the country hard. The ruble has depreciated by a staggering 50% against the dollar since September. Shrinking foreign investment and restrictions on the financial, defense, and energy sectors continue to hurt all to the detriment of economic growth. Russian businessmen are not happy to say the least.

“The economic and business elite is just in horror,” said Igor Bunin, director of the Moscow-based Center for Political Technology, in a July interview with Bloomberg after the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine. Yet Bunin explains that any overt challenge to Putin is simply too dangerous. “Any sign of rebellion and they’ll be brought to their knees.”

Aggressive foreign policy is generally bad for business. Therefore, it is possible that an opportunistic oligarch finally had enough of Putin’s escapades abroad. He hired a team of hit men to assassinate vocal anti-war activist Boris Nemtsov in the hopes of riling public dissent against Russian involvement in Ukraine. The act was executed with alacrity and secrecy in order to dodge detection and the ire of Putin. Kremlin authorities ludicrously posited that a fellow opposition leader may have killed Nemtsov to create a martyr for the movement and destabilize the regime. It is highly doubtful a friend of Nemtsov would do such a thing. On the other hand, a ruthless businessman with millions of dollars at stake makes a more likely suspect.

Attack of the Separatists

According to Moscow, the thousands of Russians fighting in Donbas are not government-directed military and intelligence personnel but instead “patriotic volunteers.” These individuals, euphemistically known as “little green men,” back a ragtag assemblage of Russian-speaking Ukrainian locals, ultranationalist Cossack fighters, and Chechen mercenaries who make up the pro-Russian separatist movement in Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts. There is no question that direct Russian support has proved crucial on the battlefield as seen in recent rebel gains at Debaltseve.

Russian radicals sympathetic to the separatist cause in eastern Ukraine and perhaps aided by rogue elements in the Russian intelligence services may be behind the tragic demise of Boris Nemtsov. Enamored by the prospect of acting independently on behalf of Putin and Mother Russia, such culprits would have perpetrated this deadly deed for a number of reasons. First, they sought to earn the favor of Putin by disposing of a key opposition leader. Second, his death draws international attention away from the conflict zone, which gives the rebels additional breathing room to maneuver for a new assault. Lastly, this development potentially derails the shaky truce and restarts the war, enabling the separatists with Russian assistance to seize even more territory.

This theory should be grounded in reality though. Even with Russian backing, pro-Russian separatists have limited resources and more pressing priorities that likely trump such a provocative operation on Russian soil. A far-right Russian group battling in Donbas released a video accepting responsibility for the fatal shooting of Nemtsov. Not surprisingly, their leader quickly dismissed the claim.

“We would have liked to bump him off but we wouldn’t even have the money for the car,” he admitted on social media. In sum, any attack tied to separatists in eastern Ukraine would likely have involved material and logistical support from Russian security personnel.

Armed men drive an airborne combat vehicle with a Russian flag seen on the top outside Kramatorsk

Blame the Islamic Extremists

Russian Investigative Committee spokesperson Vladimir Markin has suggested that Islamic extremists carried out this brutal murder, citing Ingushetia license plates on the getaway car. As Russia has a rocky history with terrorism, most recently in the North Caucasus, this initially seems like a semi-reasonable assumption. Following the Paris terrorist attacks, Boris Nemtsov reportedly received death threats due to his strong public stance on freedom of speech. Charlie Hebdo’s latest satirical caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad sparked large protests in Muslim-majority regions of Russia and around the world. It is remotely possible a radical organization like the Caucasus Emirate sought to strike down Nemtsov in retaliation.

However, the targeted assassination of Nemtsov does not match the modus operandi of many Islamic extremist groups. Most glaringly, no valid claim of responsibility has surfaced. Terrorist networks often attempt to exploit the media sensation surrounding their acts of violence in order to spread their religious rhetoric. Instead, an outpouring of sympathy and sorrow dominated the aftermath. During Nemtsov’s funeral procession, mourners held signs that readборись,” a play on his first name Boris/Борис and the Russian verb for fight on. Others said “Je Suis Nemtsov” from the popular mantra Je Suis Charlie used to show solidarity with Charlie Hebdo. As much as the Russian government would love to pin this murder on their usual suspect, the Chechens, this case bears no evidence of Islamic extremists.

Going Forward

These four theories accusing President Vladimir Putin, business elites, pro-Russian separatists, and Islamic extremists represent the most plausible amid the conspiracies that continue to abound in Russian and Western media. Do not expect justice to be served in a swift and satisfactory manner. As seen in past investigations, the Russian government prefers to jail the convenient scapegoat over the actual perpetrator. Ultimately, we will likely never know who killed Boris Nemtsov, but one fact shines forth from his untimely passing. The political opposition in Russia faces darker days ahead under the reign of Putin.


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– author of 4 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Peter J. Marzalik is a Russia/Eurasia specialist pursuing an M.A. in Security Policy Studies at George Washington University. He recently graduated from The Ohio State University with a B.A. in International Studies and a B.A. in Russian Language. In 2012, he traveled throughout the autonomous republics of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan in Russia on a U.S. State Department Critical Language Scholarship. His published senior honors thesis examined the trends of Islamic radicalization and ethnic nationalism in southwest Russia following the 2012 Kazan terrorist attacks.

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