There can be little doubt that Boris Nemtsov’s murder was a contract killing, but as to who was responsible for this, conflicting narratives are emerging in the Russian press. Outside of Russia, suspicion clearly falls upon Vladimir Putin, of whom Nemtsov has been a vocal critic, for such a mode of dealing with political opposition would seem to be perfectly in keeping with the former’s character, as well as his previous role as head of the FSB.
The Russian liberal newspaper Novaya Gazeta has stated that prior to his murder, he had been ‘preparing a report on the Russian Army’s participation in the Ukrainian war,’ and that earlier in February he had voiced concerns that he might be killed by the regime. Clearly, such a report would be at the very least inconvenient for Putin. Moreover, Nemtsov had been organising a protest against the war in Ukraine which is due to be held in Moscow tomorrow. Whoever is responsible, this killing will either have a chilling effect upon opposition in Russia, or galvanise dissident opinion, making it more determined to bring true democratisation and accountability to the country. Six shots, four of which hit Nemtsov in the back, may well intimidate, but it will not kill independent thought in Russia.
Izvestiya, a pro-Putin paper, publicises a different range of scenarios as motivations for the murder of Boris Nemtsov. It should therefore come as no surprise that none of them portray Nemtsov or his supporters in a positive light. These scenarios are:
Firstly, that Nemtsov was with a Ukrainian woman at the time of his murder, who had recently flown from Moscow to Switzerland for an abortion. The paper therefore floats the suggestion that Nemtsov may not have been her only partner, and that another lover may have been behind the murder. Where did this suggestion originate? From ‘a senior source in the law-enforcement agencies’. This tale would therefore appear to be a piece of pure misinformation concocted by the Russian secret services.
Secondly, it was widely known that Nemtsov had travelled to Ukraine on many occasions and had made many contacts with the local political and business elites whom the paper characterises as representing “the party of war.” Izvestiya continues:
They could have provided him with the means for destabilising the situation in Russia. In return for this money, the Ukrainian oligarchs would have expected Nemtsov to split Russian society. However, not only has a split not occurred, but quite the opposite – the consolidation of Russian society. Understanding that their intended result had not been achieved, Nemtsov’s sponsors decided to remove the politician who had not been able to fulfil his task.
Once again, this rather outlandish suggested motive originated with the same unnamed ‘source’.
Thirdly, Izvestiya suggested that the murder could have been a ‘provocation’ staged by political opponents of Putin to discredit the incumbent regime: ‘External and internal opponents may have chosen “a sacrifice” for the sake of destabilising the situation in Russia.’ Once again, this possible motivation was outlined by an unnamed source.
The three motives for Nemtsov’s murder suggested in the pro-Putin Izvestiya appear to be fabrications dreamt up by Russia’s shadowy security apparatus. They are akin to the conspiratorial narratives dreamt up by the Bolsheviks in justification of ‘liquidating’ their opponents, and for Putin, with his professed admiration for the political methods of the Soviet past, ‘liquidation’ is a likely technique to which he turns when dealing with particularly troublesome opponents (Litvenenko and Politovskaya are but two notable figures to have suffered this fate). That Putin is said to be taking a personal interest in overseeing the investigation into Nemtsov’s death does not bode well for its objectivity.
Novaya Gazeta does not concur with the official explanations being offered for the politician’s murder:
The version of events in which this is viewed as the chance murder of a politician does not hold up. Now, it is doomed to become a symbol of the country that we have built over the past fifteen years. A country in which words are met with bullets, and choked with blood.
The paper later commented:
Nemtsov’s murder therefore marks a point of no return, in which a radical destabilisation of the internal political situation in Russia will lead to consequences as yet impossible to predict. Perhaps we will witness official mourning on the part of senior state officials, and then a witch-hunt launched by the secret services and the adoption of new emergency laws to restrict civil liberties.
The view of Novaya Gazeta is likely to be closer to the truth than that of Izvestiya. With conflict in Ukraine, economic difficulties occasioned by the sharp decline in oil prices and political assassination, Russia is in for a rough time. Whatever happens, policy makers in the UK and the EU should not confuse the actions of the Putin administration with the Russian people as a whole, and thus ought to lend support to dissident voices within Russia, to the likely democrats of the future, rather than to bullishly persist with manufacturing a dangerous and unnecessary military standoff with Russia, which would only serve to cement Russian public opinion behind the Putin regime. Putin must not be permitted to play the victim card.