REPRISE: After disappearing act, Vladimir Putin remains prime suspect in Nemtsov assassination

After disappearing act, Vladimir Putin remains prime suspect in Nemtsov assassination

Originally published on March 17, 2015

See

(1) Nemtsov assassination represents a stark warning to the opposition: ‘Criticize Putin, especially on the Ukraine, and you may die,'” The Trenchant Observer, (Updated March 6, 2015).

(2) “Putin’s disappearing act —- and rifts within the Kremlin,” The Trenchant Observer, March 15, 2015.

(3) Brian Whitmore, “The Power Vertical: The Sick Man Of Moscow,” Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, March 12, 2014.

Now that Vladimir Putin has reappeared, on March 16, after an 11-day absence from public appearances that began only six days after the assassination of the leading opposition figure in Russia, Boris Nemtsov, on February 27, 2015, news attention should be redirected to the question of whether Putin was the intellectual author of Nemtsov’s execution.

Nemtsov, with his participation in the large demonstration planned for the Sunday following his assassination, his announcement that he was finishing preparation of a report on Russian military participation in the invasion of the Ukraine, and his making public of his plans to travel to a town which lost soldiers in the Ukraine, posed a very serious threat to Putin.

The threat was that through his report and evidence gathered concerning Russian military participation in the fighting in the eastern Ukraine (including that he was soon to travel to gather from soldiers who he said had contacted him), he might pierce the propaganda bubble Putin had erected denying any Russian military involvement in the fighting in the Donbas.

(T)he threat Nemtsov represented was not that hundreds of thousands of demonstrators would storm the Kremlin, but rather that through his report or book and large demonstations calling for an end of the war in the Ukraine, Nemtsov might succeed in piercing the giant bubble of grotesque lies and war propaganda that Putin has spun around the subject of the Ukraine.

If and when that bubble is pierced, the hot gas may burst not only the propaganda balloon of the Ukraine narrative, but also the balloon of Putin’s popularity and the myth that Russia’s present economic crisis is not the result of his war on the Ukraine and the economic sanctions, capital flight and other consequences it has produced.

Nemtsov represented, in this sense, a grave threat to Putin and his hold on power. If the propaganda bubble were to burst, Putin could quickly encounter serious trouble within Russia.

That is why, for Putin, the greatest threat, the greatest enemy, is the truth, about the war in the Ukraine and its connection to the economic crisis in Russia. With his insistence on telling the truth and proving that Putin’s narrative of there being no Russian troops or other forces in the eastern Ukraine, Nemtsov embodied that threat.

While it is not yet clear–if it ever will be–who ordered the assassination of Boris Nemtsov, sometimes little details can be highly suggestive of what really happened.

One such detail was the fact that, shortly after Nemtsov’s death, Russian security forces raided his house, carrying away documents, computers, and hard disks.

–Nemtsov assassination represents a stark warning to the opposition: “Criticize Putin, especially on the Ukraine, and you may die” (Updated March 6, 2015), February 28, 2015.

Thus, Putin certainly had a motive to get rid of Nemtsov.

Second, Putin as the dictator of Russia with control of the FSB and other security forces within several hundred meters of the Kremlin’s walls, certainly had the opportunity to order Nemtsov’s execution. Nemtsov was under very close surveillance by Russian security officials, as attested to by Alexey Navalny, a leading opposition blogger.

Moreover, the occasion was striking. Nemtsov had just delivered blistering remarks against Putin in an interview on Radio Moskvy some four hours before he was killed. Worth noting is the fact that Putin is known to have an explosive temper.

For a contrary view, see “Russian security expert at New York University raises questions about “known and unknown” factors bearing on Nemtsov’s murder, The Trenchant Observer, March 9, 2015 (considerations raised by Mark Galeotti).

Third, Putin had the means available to orchestrate the assassination. These means included not only the FSB, presidential security officials, and other security officials in Moscow, but also the Chechen leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, and the agents and loyal followers at his command.

Another small detail that appears anomylous could be relevant here:

It remains to be seen who pulled the trigger in the Nemtsov case, but the motives are as long as your arm. Circumstantial evidence is chilling.

A nearby security camera caught some low-resolution footage of the lead up, but at the exact moment of the murder a huge snow plough pulls into view, blocking the camera lens. It was odd because there was no snow on the streets on the night Nemtsov was shot.

–Cahir O’Doherty, “Vladimir Putin’s path to glory will only end one way – in a graveyard,” IrishCentral, March 18, 2015 (02:11 AM).

Who arranged for the snowplow, and for the specific video to be released–of all the video available to the security forces to release–that showed the snowplow blocking the view of who killed Nemtsov? This is either evidence if amazing coiincidence, or an extraordinarily well-orchestrated assassination.

Consequently, Putin, the former KGB official who is a master of sleight-of-hand, had two types of means available to him. He could have used elements of the security forces, or indeed, with greater deniability, he could have given the order (or “green light” or “wink and a nod”) to Kadyrov, who could be counted on to carry it out.

Following the assassination, Putin appointed an investigator who had handled the investigation of the deaths of other political opponents in the past, usually finding a connection to Chechens or other terrorists in the Caucusus.

Immedediately, Russian investigators and other officials began a disinformation campaign, tossing out a wide variety of hypotheses and leads they were following, some of which were quite fanciful. They also went out of their way to stress that Nemtsov did not in any way represent a political threat to Putin.

Within a week, five Chechen suspects were arrested, and at least one confessed. He happened to be a high official in Kadyrov’s security forces. Even after he confessed, Kadyrov publicly expressed strong confidence in him, calling him a patriot. After meeting with representatives from human rights organization, he withdrew his confession amid allegations that it had been obtained by torture.

At the same time, Kadyrov published on the internet assurances of his absolute loyalty to Putin, “no matter what office you may hold.”

At this point, all one can say is that Putin should be considered a prime suspect in the assassination of Boris Nemtsov.

However, since Putin is himself in charge of the investigation of the crime, we are not likely to hear his name mentioned as a suspect by Russian investigators or security forces, or even by Western journalists operating within Russia or by the news organizations they represent.

We may never learn of evidence linking Putin to the crime, even if such evidence exists. However, we should certainly take with a grain of salt all protestations–even from opposition leaders–that Putin could not have been responsible for Nemtsov’s death. If you are living in Russia, this view is required.

Putin had the motive, the opportunity, and the means to carry out the crime. More than anyone else in Russia, he had the most to gain by Nemtsov’s death, provided it could not be traced back to him.

While Putin as President has the ability to orchestrate an endless stream of diversions (e,g., ordering combat readiness exercises of the Arctic forces, or announcing that mid-range missiles will be installed in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad), at the end of the day the attention of foreign jounalists, investigators and the public–both in Russia and abroad–must come back to the question of whether Putin was behind Nemtsov’s assassination.

The Trenchant Observer

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"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by The Observer, an international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. He is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (IACHR), where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, The Observer has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. The Observer speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, The Observer has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on the best articles that have appeared in the blog.