Valerij Ledenev

World News


Known Knowns and the Nemtsov Murder

I write this post in some trepidation. I have become increasingly concerned and even somewhat irked by a lot of the easy misstatement of basic facts around Boris Nemtsov’s murder and the way that those determined to see this as a “Kremlin hit” are interpreting every fact or inference as proof thereof. I’m on record as saying that I do not know, but think it unlikely it was a state-sanctioned assassination. (Though that does not wholly exculpate the Kremlin for stirring up the toxic passions which I think were more likely to have led to the killing.) Many of the aspects of the murder which “prove” to some Putin’s direct fingerprints as questionable and I think that it is important to understand what we do and do not know, what we can legitimately claim as fact and what is actually just opinion. This does not in any way “prove” that the Kremlin didn’t have Nemtsov killed, just that none of this necessarily proves anything either way.

The very “death of neutrality” about which I wrote in my previous post on the murder ensures that there will be those who regard this as tantamount to running interference for the Kremlin, alas. If anyone is interested, my “agenda” is simply that I happen to believe that facts and the truth are important.

“And the truth shall set your free” is, to me, a much more compelling slogan than “And a more effective use of lies will set you free”…

(Oh, and also for the record: all those ludicrous claims that Nemtsov was killed by the CIA, or by the Ukrainian SBU, or by other oppositionists looking for a martyr. They are even more ridiculous and, unlike the “Putin dunnit” claims, usually offensively so.)

“Nemtsov was under 24/7 surveillance.” Very unlikely. Having an obvious watcher trailing someone is one thing, but there have been no suggestions that this was the case. Maintaining a full, round-the-clock and discreet surveillance operation on someone is terribly labour-intensive, requiring multiple teams of trained officers on foot and in cars, rotating regularly to ensure they are not recognized and so forth. We are talking up to 60 officers, which would be a commitment far over and above Nemtsov’s importance to the FSB. Constant interception of his email and telephones would be another matter as this is essentially a technical matter, but physically watching him? Doubtful.

“This area is under constant, minute surveillance.” Really? This is another of those instant orthodoxies, probably because of the relative proximity to the Kremlin. Former Deputy CIA Director John McLaughlin, interviewed by Newsweek, for example, said it would be “undoubtedly crawling with security personnel.” I’m not sure last time he was on that bridge, but I’ve had a very different experience. It is far enough away from the Kremlin that the Federal Guard Service (FSO), the agency protecting government facilities, would not be maintaining any extensive watch. Their cameras and eyes on the ground are much closer to the Kremlin walls. (Any more than, say, the Secret Service monitor the junction of New York Ave NW and 14th St NW.)

The idea that there would also be human surveillance on the bridge as a matter of routine is likewise simply wrong. Even by day, it does not generally get that much foot traffic; by night, as other footage (such as from this dashcam just minutes after the shooting) demonstrate, it is very sparsely used by pedestrians. Any uniformed or plainclothes security would stick out like the proverbial sore thumb, and I certainly never saw anyone who might be such an officer the many times I’ve crossed that bridge. One bored GAIshchik traffic police officer in a booth at the end of the bridge, and that’s it: if he even saw anything amiss, which is dubious, he’d have maybe sixty seconds to do anything before the getaway car got away: what would he do?

“The cameras were switched off to avoid having to use facial recognition software.” Doubtful. First of all, whether the cameras on the bridge were on or off is unclear; there were reports they were, then Moscow city government, whose cameras they are, said they were working and their footage has been presented to the investigation. Either way, most of these cameras seem to me to be mid-resolution traffic cameras there to spot accidents and monitor traffic flow rather than anything else. While the Russians are indeed actively using and developing facial recognition software, this is still an immature technology and very much depends on the quality of the images. Security camera footage is pretty grainy at the best of times; throw in that this was at night, the image strobes by passing headlights, recoloured by the red, white and blue lights strung along the bridge, and the chances of any such images retrieved being usable for this software are pretty minimal.

“Hitting Nemtsov repeatedly and not his girlfriend proves it was a professional killing.” Not necessarily. This was a close range attack on an unexpecting target. To be sure, pistol accuracy is often questionable, but in such conditions and at a range in which the attacker could have fired the gun and hit Nemtsov, it is by no means exceptional. Many Russians have had some pistol training, whether in the military, police or private security sector. That’s not, of course, to say it was not some hawk-eyed pro…just that it need not be.

“The symbolism of the date or location mean it must have been Putin.” Not really. OK, so it was the one year anniversary of the first appearance of the “little green men” in Crimea, a date that Putin made the new Day of the Special Purpose Forces, but apart from the fact that killings are generally driven by opportunity rather than calendar, this need not indicate the state. The ultra-nationalists whom I suspect are more likely culprits might just as easily have seen significance here. And as for the Kremlin backdrop, surely that actually works against Putin? Even if Nemtsov had been murdered in some anonymous sidestreet, those inclined to see the Kremlin’s hand would have done so. If anything, the location of Nemtsov’s shooting actually to me is an embarrassment for this president who prides himself on the order he brought to the streets.

Let me re-iterate: Putin could still have ordered Nemtsov killed or hinted that he would like to see this happen and let others take the initiative. But so far we don’t know. The one particular issue that I do think stands out is quite how the killers targeted him. Once they knew he was dining at the Bosco on Red Square, given that he is known to live over the river, then waiting to catch him on the bridge, a natural choke point, makes sense. But how did they know where he was? Had they been following him beforehand (in which case there may be traces on other cameras, and perhaps cellphone traffic mirroring his, which could be a useful clue)? Or was his location monitored through his phone, which again could mean direct government responsibility, or the involvement of some security officer acting on his own authority, or just criminal/informal connections. Either way, answering that question might get us a little closer to knowing for sure what happened.

This article was originally posted in In Moscow’s Shadows.