Analyst of European-Russian relationships looks at the Nemtsov affair.

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Analysis by Jacque Sapir

Published March 1, 2015

Translated from French by Tom Winter


Today is too soon to want to designate a culprit in the assassination of Boris Nemtsov, but in view of the emotion that this odious act has provoked, one can nevertheless pose a few questions. Having personally known Nemtsov in the early 90s, when he was mayor of Nizhni Novgorod, then having met him again several times right up to his entry into the government, I was moved, as were many others.

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But I do not overlook that Nemtsov’s support for the liberal ideas current in Russia at that time made him one of those responsible (even if he wasn’t, by a long shot, the main one responsible) for the detestable economic policy that drove the country to ruin and its population to misery, up to the financial crisis of 1998. From 2004, and from the “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine, he installed himself into the team of Victor Yushchenko and the pro-west people in Ukraine, to the point of becoming, briefly, an adviser of the Ukrainian government. His opposition to Putin led him to frequent the oligarchic circles, and strange people in Ukraine. More recently, he took up the “Maidan” cause and criticised the position of the Russian government about the Ukraine crisis.

His systematic opposition to Vladimir Putin marginalized him and he was quite less well known than other figures in the oppositions such as Communist Party Chief Zyuganov, former finance minister Alexei Kudrin, or even Navalny. In the last elections, his micro-party got less than 1% of the vote, and as a matter of fact, has no weight. He was, then, in no way “the” principal opposition figure, as they attempt to paint him in France and in the US. Though in spite of his young age (he was 55) he was in fact, a ‘has been.’ One must keep these elements in mind when considering “who would have had a motive to kill Nemtsov.”


A staged murder? [A set-up?]

The first questions that come to the spirit concern the scenario of the assassination. It is known that he dined with a Ukrainian model at a restaurant within the GUM, and one of GUM’s exit debouches onto Red Square. From there, the facts seem to be as follows:

  1.  Nemtsov and his companion left the restaurant on foot, passed St. Basil’s Cathedral, and took the grand bridge that crosses the Moscow River. Considerint the hour (between 11 p.m. and midnight), and the season, there was no large crowd on the bridge.
  2.  Nemtsov was killed by a shooter who was in a car following Nemtsov, and who fired 8 shots, four of which hit Nemtsov in the back. The weapon used appears to have been  and automatic pistol of the Makarov type. 
  3.  Nemtsov’s companion was not hit.

This raises several questions. Shooting from a moving car implies that one has perfectly identified the target, and, moreover, that one knows one’s way. This implies further a degree of expertise in weaponry that is incompatible with a murder by contract. The risk of missing the target, or of inflicting non-lethal wounds is elevated. From this point of view one wonders why not wait till Nemtsov returned home? The classic type of a contract killing occurs in a spot where one is sure to find the victim, the stairwell of the apartment building, or as the victim exits a restaurant. The choice of crime scene  could indicate a demonstrative intention, such as to implicate Putin in the murder? In any case, it is evident that the assassins took risks that seem to indicate a political intention. All this makes one think of a set-up, a staging.

The technical conditions of the murder

One can certainly understand that the assassins did not fire on Nemtsov at the exit from the restaurant. It’s a spot where there are always people and which is very much under surveillance. But the modus operandi itself raises several questions.

  1.  How could the assassins be sure of the route that Nemtsov and his companion would take. If a strong degree of certitude existed, this would permit the killers to intercept on the bridge at the chosen time. But if no certainty existed, how could they be surte that Nemtsov would be, at the chosen time, on the bridge? Visibly, this implies an important level of organization.
  2.  The car, a white Lada, could not circle Red Square. Nemtsov could not have ben followed by the killers from the time he left the restaurant to the moment when he got to the route of the street. For several hundred meters, the car could neither follow nor precede Nemtsov. The car had to intercept the trajectory of the couple. This holds true whether it was the case of a shooter in the car, or of a shooter getting in after firing. This means very probably one or more accomplices who tailed Nemtsov and who informed the future killers on the location of Nemtsov and his companion (via mobile phone?). But one can also think of another hypothesis, which is technically possible: he or the young lady could unknowingly (or voluntarily?) be wearing a radio-tag that would give the car of the assassin the position and exact placement of the couple.
  3. The difference in speed between pedestrians and a car implies again, a perfect synchronization so the car would come up to Nemtsov when he was on the bridge. Here again, this is compatible with the hypothesis of accomplices as well as with the idea of a radio tag.

One sees (except if for one reason or another the killers knew perfectly the destination of Nemtsov and the young lady),  that the murder implies a sophisticated organization, implicating perhaps accomplices, (certainly one to report when they left the restaurant, and another to say when Nemtsov and his companion were on the bridge) or electronic means of surveillance and localization, a tag. This explains why the Russian justice immediately set forth the hypothesis of an organized hit.

What theories?


The press, in France and in countries of the West, have put forth the idea of a murder commanded by the Kremlin, or by movements close to the Kremlin. We will say right now that the first hypothesis is not coherent with the crime scene. Further, it is hard to see what interest the Russian government would have to have one of the opposition killed, certainly a well-known opponent, but one who had fallen into the political background. When Vladimir Peskov, spokesman for President Putin, said that Nemtsov did not represent any danger nor any threat for power, it was perfectly true. And supposing the murder of Nemtsov was an attempt to frighten the others in opposition, it would have been lots simpler to kill him at home. The idea of an involvement direct or indirect of the Russian government thus appears highly improbable.

Another hypothesis put forward by the Russian opposition, is that the crime would have been committed by an extremist fringe, close, but not directly tied, to the Russian power. In effect, the extremist groups have threatened diverse opponents, including Nemtsov. These groups fault Vladimir Putin’s being lukewarm in support of the insurgents of the Donbass, and in supplying the insurrection with volunteers. It is perfectly possible to find, in the ranks of these movements, persons capable of committing this murder. But then one would have to reply to several questions:

  1.  How cold a group of this type dispose of the sophisticated means which were used to kill Nemtsov?
  2. Why would these people, who one expect to be viscerally anti-Ukraine, spare the young woman accompanying Nemtsov?

Here again, had the murder taken place at the exit, or at Nemtsov’s, one could believe in this hypothesis. However the conditions in accomplishing this assassination, and the staging implicit in it, seem barely compatible with the act of a group of extremists. Let’s say it bluntly: the level of organisation of this assassination probably carries the trace of implicating “services”, which could be at state level or private level — and the oligarchs have the means to use private ‘services.’

One must repeat, the involvement of Russian services makes no sense. From Putin’s point of view, and from the government’s, this assassination is a catastrophe, not just for politics, but also in the war of information.

A provocation?

The hypothesis of a provocations was immediately advanced by Vladimir Putin and the the Russian government. Easy to see the appeal for Putin of this hypothesis. But one must have the honesty to say that that’s what it is. This provocation could have been organized by a lot of people, since many countries and many people have a motive to trip up Vladimir Putin like this.

This assassination, on the eve of an opposition demonstration, could perfectly destabilize the political situation, if not in Russia, at least in Moscow. It focusses attention of Vladimir Putin, who is going to have to made the case for his innocence, so strong is the suspicion pointing at him. Emotion is important in Moscow, as witness the size of the demonstration in honor of Boris Nemtsov’s memory, which assembled tens of thousands of people today, March 1. This is why it is in the interest of Vladimir Putin to shed light on this crime as soon as possible.  

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