World·Analysis

Boris Nemtsov's support for Western sanctions against Russia possible assassination motive

Vladimir Milov, a colleague of assassinated Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, says Nemtsov's support for sanctions in response to Russia's seizure of Crimea may be why Nemtsov was killed.

Slain opposition leader had intimate knowledge of Russia's economic weak spots

Boris Nemtsov's body lies covered on the bridge in Moscow where he was slain on Feb. 27. (Pavel Bednyakov/Reuters)

A close colleague of assassinated Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov says Nemtsov's support for Western sanctions in response to Russia's seizure of Crimea from Ukraine may be why he was gunned down on Feb. 27.

A year ago today Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a treaty annexing Crimea, triggering a wave of Western sanctions.

The previous month, Putin had sent Russian special forces to occupy the Russian base and the larger centres on the Crimean Peninsula, on the Black Sea, something he denied at the time.

As for Nemtsov, he had been an important opposition voice on Crimea over the last year. Even his last Facebook post, on the day he died, was marking the first anniversary of the seizure of the Crimean parliament by pro-Russian gunmen. 

The parliamentarians in the chamber then voted to hold the referendum on autonomy for Crimea.

"This one episode tells [us] about the total unlawfulness of Crimea’s seizure," Nemtsov wrote.

Vladimir Milov, leader of the Russian political party Democratic Choice, had been one of Nemtsov's opposition colleagues. (Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters)

While the Russian elite may have anticipated that Western governments would respond to Putin's actions with sanctions, they probably expected they would not be too onerous, says opposition politician Vladimir Milov, 

But they might not have expected the sanctions would hit the banking and corporate sectors as hard as they have, he said.

Milov leads Democratic Choice, an officially registered political party in Russia. He had been a colleague and ally of Nemtsov in some of Russia's recent opposition coalitions. (When he was killed, Nemtsov was the co-chairman of another party, RPR-Parnas.)

In 2002, Milov served as Russia's deputy minister of energy, and today he also heads a think-tank, the Institute of Energy Policy, in Moscow. He had also been a co-author with Nemtsov of several pamphlets critical of Putin's regime.

Milov told CBC News that over the last few months there were many signals that Putin and his closest allies blamed Nemtsov for the seriousness of the Western sanctions, adding that some people had lost a lot of money because of them.

"They don't like to take the blame themselves, they prefer to appoint someone to be guilty," Milov says. 

In 2011, Milov and Nemtsov, right, sit in a Moscow courtroom for a hearing in a civil defamation suit against Vladimir Putin after the then Russian prime minister used a TV call-in show to accuse his political enemies of stealing from the state. (Mikhail Metzel/Associated Press)

He also notes that Nemtsov was a very visible target, as he was frequently talking to Western leaders and governments, actively lobbying them to introduce more and deeper sanctions. 

Nemtsov had been deputy prime minister of Russia in 1997-98, while Boris Yeltsin was president. He was also part of the leadership team responsible for the economy and industry.

Milov says that made "Nemtsov a very dangerous person," someone who could explain to other governments about sanctions and where the Putin regime would be the most vulnerable. 

Official theories 

Milov's view, of course, is not the motive the official investigators say they are pursuing. 

People carry a banner reading 'Those Bullets for Every One of Us, Heroes Never Die!' as they march in memory of Nemtsov in Moscow on March 1. Demonstrators carried flowers, portraits and signs that said 'I Am Not Afraid.' (Dmitry Lovetsky/Associated Press)

Official sources have alternated between claiming the West was somehow responsible, wanting to turn Nemtsov into a martyr and destabilize Russia, or that his death was carried out by disaffected Chechen Muslims and had something to do with the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris.

Although blaming the West has faded as an explanation for Nemtsov's death, on Monday the Russian news agency Interfax again stated that its sources in the investigation team "said that the trail of the person commissioning the murder could lead to abroad."

The Charlie Hebdo theory has Nemtsov killed because of statements Nemtsov made at the time of the Paris attacks, which allegedly angered Chechen Islamists.

Milov calls this an "exotic explanation that doesn't have a root in real life, an artificially invented false lead." 

Zaur Dadayev, charged with involvement in the Nemtsov assassination, is escorted in a court building in Moscow on March 8. Moscow authorities have charged five men with involvement in the killing. (Maxim Shemetov/Reuters)

Nemtsov had long supported the Chechen people's cause, even organizing a million-signature petition against the Chechen war back in the Yeltsin years. 

As well, the five Chechen men now facing charges for Nemtsov's murder have connections to Ramzan Kadyrov, the Putin loyalist running Chechnya with an iron fist.

While Milov argues the theory doesn't make any sense, he also says that if you are in Russian intelligence or the Kremlin "and you wanted to create a cover operation for this murder, the first story is to blame it on Chechens, because everybody would buy it, because Chechens have a reputation here."

Milov says it's possible but unlikely the men charged pulled the trigger. But it's more likely they were set up by the FSB, the Russian security service.

A rivalry in the inner circle?

Another theory popular outside Russia is that Nemtsov was somehow the victim of a rivalry between the FSB and Kadyrov.

But Milov finds it hard to imagine that Kadyrov would ever risk carrying out an independent action that might irritate Putin, especially as Putin's authority is so dominant within the Russian system.

In a weekend blog post for the New York Review of Books, Amy Knight quotes the head of the London-based Chechen government in exile, Akhmed Zakayev, as strongly doubting Kadyrov would be responsible for the killing of someone as prominent as Nemtsov without first getting Putin's approval.

Kadyrov "can do what he wants in Chechnya, but not in Moscow or Russia. It is most likely that Nemtsov was assassinated because it was Putin’s wish," Zakayev told Knight.

The editors at the New York Times have a different view. A Monday editorial argues: "Most Western experts discount the notion that Mr. Putin or his lieutenants would have wished Mr. Nemtsov killed, since the furor over his death was bound to outweigh his impact as an opposition figure."

Symbol of disobedience

A memorial to Nemtsov remains at the site where he was killed on the Great Moskvoretsky Bridge in Moscow. Milov says Nemtsov 'was a symbol of a different view of Russia, he was a symbol of truth.' (Maxim Shemetov/Reuters)

Milov says that the Nemtsov killing has unnerved both opposition figures and establishment members who have, until now, felt that "when you get to a certain level of politics that you are safe and that the system is out there to protect you as well." 

In additional to sanctions, there had long been bad blood between Putin and Nemtsov. Nemtsov had once been seen as Yeltsin's successor as president, a position Yeltsin eventually handed to Putin.

Milov adds that Nemtsov was also an extremely useful communicator between different opposition leaders.

"He was a symbol of a different view of Russia, he was a symbol of truth, which is trying to break out despite this web of lies and propaganda in which our society is covered at the moment."

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