(Ed. note: This article was originally published in The Interpreter.)
As can be expected, there is a wide range of theories now being published and discussed about the possible forces behind the assassination of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, who was gunned down February 27, two days before he was to lead a protest march against the Russian government’s war on Ukraine and its anti-crisis measures.
These range from official hypotheses made by law enforcement officials in state media, to semi-official theories publicized in state or pro-government media from anonymous sources, to theories made by unofficial pro-government and anti-government voices in social media.
Here’s a list of some we have found, which we will update:
- Islamists angry at Nemtsov’s support for the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists; this theory was indicated by Vladimir Markin, spokesman for the Investigative Committee)
- Other opposition leaders within Russia or dark outside forces interested in “destabilizing Russia” and willing to make a “sacrificial victim” (Vladimir Markin); these include “right-wing Ukrainian field commanders like Dmitro Yarosh and Dmitro Korchinsky, ex-leader of UNA-UNSO,” who recently spoke of “the need to commit terrorist attacks in Russia (TV Zvezda)
- Russian ultranationalists; Nemtsov’s case has been reportedly assigned to a group at the Investigative Committee headed by Major General Igor Krasnov, a senior special cases investigator known for his past work on the cases of ultranationalists, RBC.ru reported, citing Prokhorov, lawyer for Anna Duritskaya, Nemtsov’s companion who was with him on the night he was murdered.
Krasnov’s cases include that of Ivan Mironov, the nationalist accused of attacking Anatoly Chubais, head of Unified Energy System (RAO UES) in 2006, who was later acquitted in 2010, and also the ultranationalist group BORN (Battle Organization of Russian Nationalists), some of whose members have been convicted of murdering a number of people associated with opposing hate crimes including anti-fascist activists and a judge, and some of whom are still awaiting a verdict.
That suggests that the Kremlin is moving in the direction of fingering extremists in the ultranationalist movements, which at first were encouraged during patriotic campaigns unleashed with Russia’s forcible annexation of the Crimea, then later reined in by Putin in some cases when intellectuals began to complain about their incitement of violent against Ukrainians.
- Exposure of corruption in purchase of medical equipment in Yaroslavl (Dmitry Peskov, Kremlin spokesman).
- Other opposition leaders who have scores to settle.
- Ukrainian paymasters disappointed that Nemtsov didn’t sufficiently destabilize Russian society; LifeNews claimed an investigator told them this hypothesis:
“Boris Nemtsov traveled to Ukraine a number of times and actively contacted the representatives of the so-called party of war, whose purpose was to overthrow the government in Russia. They could have sent cash to him to destabilize the situation in Russia. For this cash, Nemtsov’s Ukrainian partners may have quite likely expected from him work in splitting Russian society. But not only did the split not happen, on the contrary, a consolidation of Russian society occurred. Understanding that they would not obtain any result, Nemtsov’s sponsors could have removed the politician, unable to realize their plans, said a source in the investigative group.”
- Third party in love triangle jealous of his relationship with model; LifeNews claimed a high-ranking law enforcement official told them this theory:
“The girl with whom Boris Nemtsov was with at the moment of his murder is a citizen of Ukraine. As we have already determined, she recently flew from Moscow to Switzerland to have an abortion from the politician. We can’t rule out that an ordinary conflict over her could have taken place.”
- Political activity related to position as deputy in Yaroslavl legislature (Interfax source)
- Business activity (Interfax source)
- The CIA; Russia-Insider.com says “There are folks in Langley tonight who get a promotion.”
- Ramzan Kadryov says, “Western intelligence striving by any means to provoke internal conflict” was responsible
- Mikhail Khodorkovsky, in order to discredit Putin
- Dmitro Yarosh and Aslan Alkhanov; two unverified articles published here and here by an obscure online news site pravosudija.net (which means “There is No Justice”) claim that Ukrainian ultra-nationalist Yarosh, head of Right Sector and now a member of parliament and deputy head of the Verkhovna Rada’s Commitee for Defense and Security, together with an unknown man, Aslan Alkhanov, were behind Nemtsov’s murder. The story makes a neat package tying together the most notorious Ukrainian ultra-nationalist, frequently the subject of Kremlin conspiracy theories, with a man with a Chechen name, and also claims the involvement of CANVAS, the NGO supported by the U.S.-funded National Endowment for Democracy. According to this site, Alkhanov, who was “the main thread to the contractors of Nemtsov’s killing,” was himself found dead February 28 of self-inflicted gunshot wounds in Klyonovskoye Troitskogo, a suburb of Moscow. None of these stories could be confirmed at all, and the motive is hazy; presumably the claim is like the “Ukrainian paymasters” or “destabilization” stories indicating a falling out between various opponents of the Kremlin.
- “Novorossiya” fighters or supporters
- Anti-Maidan movement (bikers, Afghan vets, Cossacks)
- Anyone motivated by “climate of hatred” incited by Anti-Maidan marchers, Dmitry Kiselyev, state TV, billboards, print media against “fifth columnists.” This reason for Nemtsov’s death was cited most often by participants in the March 1 memorial procession for Nemtsov who were interviewed by Hromadske TV.
- Putin government through FSB or through cut-outs; opposition Duma deputy Ilya Ponomarev said in a speech this weekend at Tufts University, “I think it’s pretty obvious that it’s this regime, this system that is to blame.”
Significance of Date:
- Russians are very familiar with history, and many memorized in school the story of the Reichstag fire on February 27, 1933, which enabled the Nazis to come to power by claiming the Communists were plotting against them and burned down the parliament. Hitler was able to get the Reichstaf Fire Decree suspending civil liberties in Germany as a result of the fire. To this day historians debate whether a Communist was indeed to blame or whether the Nazis themselve set the fire, but it is invoked as a classic example of a false-flag operation that could then be used to justify a crackdown.
- The date is the anniversary of the forcible takeover of the parliament in Crimea, and the takeover of airports and airfields the following day, which led to the forcible annexation of the Crimea;
- Many have noted that this is also Special Forces Day, which was just established this year, to celebrate the Special Operations Forces founded in March 2013 and empowered to fight in Russia’s interests abroad; these are the “polite people” or “little green men.” Putin himself served in foreign intelligence in the KGB, not the special forces, and as he signed the decree on the very day of Nemtsov’s murder, it’s not likely the murderers chose this date in advance. On the other hand, the preparation of the decree for his signature would have been known in advance inside the government, the combination of all the dates may indicate deliberate symmetry.
We’ve taken a look at these various theories and here’s our analysis:
1. Business partners, jealous lovers, or other private persons. In most cases involving money and love triangles, the victim is killed inside or right outside their home. The murderer is not going to want to risk being seen in a wide-open public space, or caught on surveillance cameras. The fact that Nemtsov was killed in a wide-open space with lots of possible witnesses, and surveillance cameras in a highly-secure area near the Kremlin, tends to suggest that personal reasons are not involved.
2. Ukrainian government or State Department paymasters. Those positing the involvement of the Ukrainian or any Western government in the assassination who are unhappy with their charge’s supposed work for them have to explain why these putative paymasters looking to “punish for poor performance” or conversely “split society” didn’t wait until March 1, and a presumably failed march with fairly low turnout (or a wildly successful march), to then settle their scores—and thus miss an opportunity for a high-profile event first to attract support of their cause. Given that in Russia, murders and arrests tend to intimidate dissidents rather than fuel them to more protest, this seems counterintuitive to their hypothetical interests.
There’s also the obvious problem that if these paymasters want to recruit new helpers, making obvious examples of poor performers by executing them may tend to drive down recruitment.
3. Western intelligence seeking destabilization of Russia. The argument that any assassination “destabilizes society” seems readily credible until we contemplate that in Russia, killing an opposition leader without much of a following in the broader society does not achieve the desired effect.
There have been dozens of assassinations in the last 25 years of journalists, priests, civic activists, lawyers, parliamentarians, artists, and business people. None of these affected the rule of Vladimir Putin whatsoever; other factors were involved in the demise of Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin. Russia is already severely destabilized by Putin’s own actions in Ukraine, the fall of the ruble’s value and the price of oil. The effect of a chill on speech and assembly would arguably provide more stability (albeit of the potentially volatile kind due to state oppression), rather than destabilization.
This could be projection by Kremlin-controlled media, as one key way in which Russian-backed separatists and suspects who were trained in Russia, according to Ukrainian police, have destabilized cities like Lugansk and Kharkiv, is to commit high-profile assassinations or bombings (see the cases of the Russian ultra-rightist activist Aleksandr Prosyolkov, who came to Lugansk from Moscow; Aleksandr “Batman” Bednov in Lugansk; and at least 10 bombings of Kharkiv in which Maidan activists and other civilians have been killed).
4. Russian opposition itself making of Nemtsov a “sacrificial victim.” This is a version of the “false flag” technique in subversive activity, and is also likely a projection based on the Kremlin’s own methods. The single greatest disinformation story that the Kremlin has put out regarding Maidan is that the snipers who killed 100 people were from Right Sector or other ultra-rightist forces who killed their own fellow demonstrators as well as police to provoke a violent coup. While some of the demonstrators may have shot police, the evidence also indicates that most demonstrators were unarmed and shot by riot police.
Furthermore, there is indication that not only did the Kremlin have a scenario for takeover of the Crimea and the Donbass before Yanukovych fled, Yanukovych had plenty of reasons to flee without actually facing gunmen in his own office or residence — which never occurred.
Blogger Oleg Kashin has an interesting post about the “sacrificial lamb” theory, noting that he himself heard this theory espoused during his own police interrogations regarding the 2010 attack on him which left him severely injured, after which he was eventually forced to flee Russia to live abroad.
An investigator asked him if he didn’t think the attack on him was meant to “destabilize Russia” or was an effort by opposition to make him into a “sacrificial victim.” He didn’t think that about his own case, and doesn’t think it about Nemtsov’s case now, either. He took it at face value for what it was: government-related intimidation to punish him for blogging critically about an environmental issue.
Ilya Ponomarev argued backward from the actual “audience” that would be most affected by the assassination to discard the “destabilization of society” theory:
“The audience for that crime was not the Russian people; the target audience is within the Russian elites, who knew Nemtsov very well, and even those who were Putin supporters had great respect and they knew him as first vice prime minister; and elites in the West–an even greater target than elites in Russia.”
Not ordinary Russians or “all of Russia” were affected, because if Nemtsov had any recognition value, it was only as a figure hated for his association with the Yeltsin regime. Rather, it would be the liberal intelligentsia in Russia and its supporters in the West who knew Nemtsov and his value who would be most affected.
As Ponomarev pointed out, unlike other figures who were less transparent, everything about Nemtsov was known, including his love affairs and business dealings, and he was never shy about expressing his opinion on a wide range of issues. That made it difficult for officials to control him.
5. Ultra-nationalist or nationalist-Bolshevik or other type of groups to the right or left of the Kremlin operating on their own. The assassination of the most visible enemy designated by Anti-Maidan as “the organizer of Maidan” is not merely intended to “discredit Putin”—who is already quite discredited. Rather, it signals to Putin that extremists will hedge him in by “taking care of” enemies they believe may influence him, to one extent or another in the “fifth column.”
Regardless of the forces or interests at play in the murder of Nemtsov, it’s likely that suspects in the murder will be delivered quickly—already there is talk of “license plates from Ingushetia,” a Caucasian republic next to Chechnya, which indicates that a Chechen, the standard culprit for crimes in Russia may turn out once again to be involved.
For one, a key feature of the annual report of Aleksandr Bastrykin delivered last Friday, February 27 (the same day as Nemtsov’s murder) is that 89% of murders are solved, and that the percentage of such cases has increased since last year. After boasting about this facet of his Investigative Committee—which he believes makes the reason self-evident for separating the investigative functions from the prosecutor’s office—he will be under pressure to make good on his claim, not to mention under considerable political and media pressure with such a high-profile case.
For another, the faster the government can find a credible scapegoat, even if the investigation and trial process drags out for years, the more any undesirable fallout can be controlled.
Ilya Ponomarev predicted that in the next few weeks, the culprit will likely be found:
“Their face will be on Russian TV, their biographies and the evidence—‘the evidence’ —would be on RT, very nicely presented, conveyed in perfect English by people like Ms. Boykov…conveyed in perfect English, and with all the proof that is needed to convince a Western audience. My personal bet is that it will be somebody next to Khodorkovsky whom Kremlin really fears.”
(Note: The Interpreter is a project of the Institute for Modern Russia which is funded by Pavel Khodorkovsky, son of Mikhail Khodorkovsky. )
6. The Kremlin. When political killings have occurred in the United States, Latin America, Asia, or Africa, media have no trouble questioning whether the government in power could be involved somehow. Yet when it comes to Russia, such probing is instantly relegated to the category of “conspiracy theory” and discredited as tin-foil hattery.
Even so, the simplest explanation for the murder of an opposition leader against the dramatic backdrop of the Kremlin walls and towers and St. Basil’s Cathedral, on the eve of a public anti-war march, is that forces in power or close to the government were most motivated and most capable of the deed.
There are a number of factors that support government involvement in some form:
a. Nemtsov was under constant surveillance. This was proven multiple times as his cellphone calls were publicized in the press and his meetings with people were broadcast on TV. His killers would know where he was meeting his girlfriend and where he might stroll after dinner on his way home. Presumably if an attempt was made on Nemtsov while he was under surveillance, agents could prevent it or quickly nab the culprits. Even if it seems unlikely Nemtsov wasn’t under 24/7 surveillance, in the period leading up to a high-profile march, he would be.
b. The videotape from the security camera trained on the Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge indicates the involvement of a city vehicle in deliberately blocking the view of the murder and making escape possible. As we noted regarding the video, there is suspicious activity as people get in and out of the vehicles and then make a getaway. This is the key indication of possible official collusion. Other video cameras much closer to the scene of the crime likely caught more details, but the footage has not been publicized.
c. A fear that the march might get more than the barely 30,000 that the government mustered for the Anti-Maidan cause, even paying demonstrators, busing in protesters, and urging unions and local government to turn out people dependent on the state for their salaries. Had 30,000 appeared for “Spring”—and it’s not clear at all that they would, although a rally last March produced that many—the Kremlin might have felt it had a significant challenge. It’s not a challenge it would have been overwhelmed with, however, as experience shows that with just a few dozens arrests and long sentences of four to five years such as in the Bolotnaya Square cases, the government could deter participation in large rallies. Even so, it could represent a fresh round of challenges.
d. Recent leak of a document purporting to come from the Kremlin indicating plans to annex the Crimea and the Donbass long before Yanukovych was toppled. So much effort has been spent on finding reasons to discount or downplay this document that it may be overlooked that it simply could be true. In that case, a leak from a top official would need to be punished and further leakers or would-be publishers discouraged. Perhaps the Kremlin does not (yet) know who the leaker is and needs to smoke him out.
Many believed Novaya Gazeta‘s Dmitry Muratov was in great danger when he announced the leak days before publication, yet to attack or jail him might not get as much publicity as the assassination of an opposition leader about to lead a large public march. Nemtsov was also planning to release a report himself.
e. A demonstrable need in advance of various threatened or anticipated crackdowns to have a powerful deterrence in place to prevent protest. These range from from blocking of independent media websites, Western social media like Twitter and Facebook, due to untenable demands on these companies to place their servers on Russian territory, to further taxation and austerity measures, and a law that will define “undesirable” organizations with foreign ties in addition to the “foreign agents” law.
Whatever person or group committed the murder of Nemtsov, one thing seems certain about their planning: They hoped that the indelible image broadcast by media all over the world of a Kremlin critic lying dead just outside the Kremlin’s walls—which he had never assailed in his lifetime—would serve as a powerful image to strike fear into the hearts of any other challengers.