In Background, Feature Articles, Russia

By Alexis Mercouris, published in Russia Insider, March 4, 2015

Nemtsov’s murder is a tragedy, but who is behind it? Most of the “facts” cited to “prove” state involvement in Boris Nemtsov’s murder have no foundation

The murder of Boris Nemtsov was an outrageous act of violence cutting short the life of a man whose political career was peaceful and who was once seriously considered a possible President of Russia.

Given who Nemtsov was, it is inevitable that his murder has provoked a swirl of speculation.  Much of this is uninformed and a number of common myths that distort understanding of what happened have gained currency. My purpose here is to explain why these myths are wrong.  I do so on the basis of actual experience and knowledge.

1. The circumstances of Nemtsov’s death show his murder was premeditated and his murderers knew where he was when they killed him.   

That does not prove Nemtsov’s female companion tipped off his murderers.  Nor does it require any elaborate organisation on the part of his murderers such as a state security organisation or service is capable of.

It is actually easy to follow someone to keep track of their movements. All it requires are some basic precautions and a small effort of time and resources.  Private security agencies do it all the time.  So do gangs of criminals. Even private individuals sometimes do it. Unless the person followed is exceptionally observant, is taking precautions, or knows those following him, he would be most unlikely to notice or to realise that he was being followed, especially if more than one person was following him.

Whilst following a private individual is relatively straightforward, following a public figure like Nemtsov who refuses to take precautions is doubly so.  Many of his movements would be matters of public knowledge.  It would therefore be easy to know where he was on certain times and days, making it easy to pick up his trail from there.

Nemtsov’s murder took place at night when was in the company of a female companion who would have been the focus of his attention.  This makes it barely conceivable that he would have noticed he was being followed unless this was done in an obvious and clumsy way or unless Nemtsov himself was alert to the possibility that he was being followed.  It seems that he was not, which is why he was taken by surprise when he was killed.

2. It has been said that Nemtsov was under constant surveillance on the part of the authorities.  This fact is said to prove their involvement in his death, presumably on the basis that they would have intervened if someone unauthorised sought to kill him.

This assumption is unwarranted.  Nemtsov was a peaceful man with no access to state secrets who conducted his political life openly and in public. Why would the authorities need to keep a constant eye on him?

It is a myth that security services keep watch on individuals everywhere and all the time. Like all organisations security services are limited in what they can do by the extent of their resources.

There would be no point in keeping someone like Nemtsov under round the clock surveillance and there is no evidence the Russian authorities did so. Doubtless they kept the odd eye out on him – in case he met someone they judged interesting or dangerous – but the idea he was under continuous surveillance is farfetched.

3. It is claimed that the murder could not have happened in an area close to the Kremlin and supposedly under the “complete control” of the authorities without their having been involved in the murder in some way.

This claim is unwarranted.  It is again based on common myths about the supposedly all-pervasive power of security services.  These simply do not take into account the practical limits of what security agencies can do, which are imposed on them by the limited extent of their resources.

The Kremlin covers a huge area of central Moscow.  Since it is a walled enclosure, it can be secured easily.

The same, however, is not true of the Kremlin’s environs where the murder took place. These include Red Square, Manege Square, the Alexander Garden and, of course, the bridge which was the site of the murder, as well as various other places in the immediate vicinity.

There are no security barriers controlling access to Red Square or Manege Square or most of this area except at times of heightened security. Such a state of heightened security did not exist on the night when Nemtsov was killed so there was no particular control of the area when the murder took place.

The area is full of important historic and cultural sites. Nearby there are large shopping and entertainment districts in Okhotny Ryad, in the basement and ground floor of the former Moskva Hotel and in GUM. These stay open late into the night. Slightly further away but still in close proximity are important international hotels such as the National Hotel, the Ritz, the Metropole and the Baltchuk Kempinski.  The area is popular with visitors, revellers and tourists of whom there are many present at most hours of the day or night. No effort is made to control their movements.

Much of this area, including the bridge on which Nemtsov was killed, is open to road traffic. CCTV footage of the murder actually shows road traffic driving past as Nemtsov is being killed.

Short of deploying an entire army it would be impossible to “completely control” this area so as to keep track of the movements of every car or person who passed through it. This is true even if one takes into account the various electronic devices such as CCTV cameras and hidden microphones that are doubtless used to secure the area.

Why would the security forces anyway want to “completely control” the entire area in the way that is said? Their priority is presumably to secure those points that actually matter e.g. the eternal flame, Lenin’s mausoleum, the Duma building and the Kremlin itself. Why would they waste time and resources trying to “completely control” everything else?

That is not to say that the area is not kept under closer observation than are other parts of the city.  However, to the extent that this is so, the purpose is presumably to prevent unauthorised protests or, more seriously, terrorist attacks.

If a group of people gather in a way that might suggest a protest, or if a car is parked in a way that appears suspicious, then that would doubtless after a short time attract the attention of the security forces. By contrast, there is no reason why a couple, walking on a bridge some distance from the Kremlin late at night in an area where no public official requiring protection was present, and followed at some distance by a third man, would attract any interest at all.

4. The Western media is unanimous in doubting that the perpetrators of this murder will ever be caught. A number have said that none of the various murders of well-known politicians and publicists that have happened in Russia since the end of Communism have ever been solved.  

This claim is also unwarranted. In reality, the Russian authorities have a reasonably good track record in cases of this sort.

The murderers of the prominent Russian liberal politician Galina Starovoytova have all been identified, including the former crime boss who ordered her death. The murderers of the liberal politician Sergei Yushenkov have also been identified and convicted. There have been convictions of the persons who carried out the murder of the well-known liberal journalist Anna Politkovskaya, though the identity of the person who ordered her death has not yet been established. Doubtless he will be when, as in Starovoytova’s case, Politkovskaya’s  murderers realise they have no prospect of leaving prison unless they name him. On the basis of information in the public domain, the Russian authorities have also identified the murderer of the journalist Nataliya Estemirova, though since he was killed in an air strike in Chechnya before he was caught, he cannot be brought to justice.

Whilst it is impossible to guarantee that Nemtsov’s murderers will be caught (no police force can ever guarantee that any particular crime will be solved and it is unreasonable to demand it) there is already enough information about Nemtsov’s murderers in the public domain to provide the investigators with important clues as to their identities.

More than one person was involved, with one person carrying out the shooting and at least one other person driving the getaway vehicle. That means the existence of a conspiracy involving persons who know and trust each other sufficiently well to carry out together a crime of this sort.

The person who carried out the shooting is a physically active man with access to handguns and some knowledge of their use. He was sufficiently ruthless to kill Nemtsov, but either he was in a hurry or he was not ruthless enough to kill Nemtsov’s female companion despite the risk that she might become an important witness against him. He is a man with some presence of mind, able to improvise quickly, making use of a passing snow plough to conceal the murder from the passing road traffic on the bridge (this is more likely than that he was concealing the murder from the CCTV camera, which was a considerable distance away). Lastly, he and his associate or associates knew how to steal the get way car and to change its licence plates.

All this information strongly suggests Nemtsov’s murderers are the sort of people who are likely to be known to the police already for other reasons.

Beyond these facts, the investigators are likely to have access to more information not yet in the public domain that will provide further clues as to the identities of the murderers enabling the investigators to narrow down their search further. By way of example, it is likely the getaway car contains clues as to the murderers’ identities since in the time available they are unlikely to have been able to clean it thoroughly.

Not only are there, therefore, good reasons to think this case will be solved, but it is quite likely the investigators have by now already formed a view on who the murderers  might be. It may take a long time, however, before there is enough evidence to justify arrests or to bring charges and it may take longer still – perhaps years – before the case can be brought to trial and the full facts become known.

None of the points I have made here either prove or disprove any of the theories that are currently circulating about this murder. However, they do show that some of the “facts” people cite in favour of their theories, in particular the theory of the Russian government’s involvement in the murder, have no basis.

In my opinion, the theory of the Russian government’s involvement in this murder is certainly wrong, if only because no remotely convincing reason has been produced to show why anybody in the government would want Nemtsov dead. However, that is something that requires a separate discussion.

* * *

Alexis Mercouris writes on his Facebook page that this article above is the first in a series he will write examining the murder of Boris Nemtsov. Here is that Facebook text, March 4, 2015:

There is so much to write about Boris Nemtsov’s murder that I have decided to write a series of articles about it rather than one giant one. This one [article above] briefly deals with some of the points that have been circulating which are obviously wrong.

To those who wonder about my knowledge of these questions I would say that I worked for much of my life in a “secure” building (the Royal Courts of Justice in London) where I became very well acquainted with the Chief of Security, that I have had numerous dealings with various levels of the police and with individuals the police have had under observation and with their lawyers, that I have often read surveillance reports and that I have personally and on a fair number of occasions both instructed private security firms (or “enquiry agents” as in Britain they often like to call themselves) and taken evidence from them. I have also read police reports and information concerning crimes. I am therefore as well acquainted with these sort of issues as anyone who has not actually worked for a security agency can be.

I appreciate that some some people will say that I am wrong to draw parallels between the security agencies in Britain and Russia. All I would say about that is they would be wrong to say this and though there are indeed substantial differences I can confidently say that in some respects, like security agencies the world over, they work in strikingly similar ways.

Lastly, I want to touch briefly on one point that I have seen doing the rounds, which I do not propose to write about because it is of purely historic interest. This is that the parallels some are making between Nemtsov’s murder and Kirov’s murder in 1934 are simply wrong because as a thorough US academic study of Kirov’s murder (which has examined all the police reports) has established quite conclusively, Stalin was not responsible for it. If anybody wants to check that out I would refer them to the study itself (The Kirov Murder and Soviet History: Matthew E. Lende, Yale University Press).


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