On June 29, 2017, a Moscow jury found five Chechens guilty of the murder of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. The evidence, however, tells a different story. It shows that the murder was carried out not by the defendants but by the Russian Federal Protective Service (FSO) under direct orders from the Russian president, Vladimir Putin.
According to the prosecution, Nemtsov, who was assassinated on February 27, 2015, just before midnight as he walked across the Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge next to the Kremlin, was shot six times by Zaur Dadaev, a former officer of the “Sever” internal-forces battalion, which is based in Chechnya. The other defendants allegedly assisted in the crime. A sixth person, Beslan Shavanov, allegedly blew himself up in Grozny, the Chechen capital, while resisting arrest.
The lawyer for Nemtsov’s family, Vadim Prokhorov, agreed that the Chechen defendants were guilty and objected only that the instigator of the crime had not been identified. He called for an investigation of the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov. A focus on Kadyrov, however, diverts attention from Putin. And the facts demonstrate persuasively that it was Putin, not Kadyrov, who was responsible for the crime.
There is evidence that Putin planned the murder of Nemtsov three years before it was carried out. On February 28, 2012, Andrei Piontkovsky, a Russian political journalist, and Nemtsov were warned in Oslo by Ahmed Zakaev, the Chechen separatist leader in exile, that the Russian authorities were planning to kill Nemtsov. Nemtsov and Piontkovsky were skeptical, but as they discussed the warning in an Oslo hotel room, Putin appeared on the television screen and said that members of the Russian opposition were planning to murder one of their leaders and blame it on the regime. The time between Zakaev’s warning and the televised announcement was 30 minutes.
Nemtsov himself feared that Putin would kill him. For a long time he shared these fears only with his 87-year-old mother, Dina Eidman, but on February 10, 17 days before his murder, he expressed them in an interview with the newspaper Sobesednik. He said that his mother warned him that if he continued with his criticisms of the Russian leader, Putin would have him killed. The interviewer asked Nemtsov whether, after talking to his mother, he feared that that Putin would kill him. “You know,” he said. “Yes. A little, not as strongly as Mama but, nonetheless . . . ” The interviewer then said, “I hope that common sense will prevail and Putin will not kill you.” Nemtsov replied, “Let’s hope.”
In addition to signs that the murder of Nemtsov was planned three years in advance, Putin and the FSO are implicated by details of the crime itself. The bridge where Nemtsov was shot while walking home with his girlfriend, Anna Duritskaya, a 23-year-old model from Ukraine, is under 24-hour-a-day surveillance by the FSO. At each end of the bridge, there are posts where officers survey video information, and a strike group can seize any suspicious person immediately within 20 seconds.
At the time of Nemtsov’s assassination, 16 to 18 video cameras were focused on the crime scene. This video, which is in the possession of the FSO, was never released. Two videotapes of what happened, however, have emerged. The first, a tape made by the video camera of the Moscow television station TvTs, was shot about 300 meters from the crime scene. Before it could be seized, someone succeeded in putting an edited version of the tape on the Internet. The second tape was made by a camera on the dashboard of a car driven by a man named “Kalugin.” The tape from his camera also appeared on the Internet.
On the day after Nemtsov was murdered, Igor Murzin, a St. Petersburg lawyer who specializes in auto accidents and the interpretation of videotape, began to investigate the case “to stop the terror against Russian citizens.” In addition to the two original tapes, he obtained video from city cameras that recorded what was happening in the immediate surrounding area.
Murzin’s analysis of the video material leaves little doubt that what was at stake in the murder of Nemtsov was a carefully planned military operation that could not have been carried out by anyone other than a ruthless and highly skilled intelligence organization.
The TvTs tape showed that just before he was killed, two persons were walking ahead of Nemtsov. As the shooting began, they jumped onto a platform over the river so as not to be shot. At the same time, six persons were monitoring Nemtsov from the other side of the street. These were three couples who were seen walking together and then separated and took up posts on the bridge. All eight were visible on the TvTs tape, but none was mentioned in the case or ever found.
While this was going on, trucks for washing streets appeared and blocked the three streets that led to the bridge from the Kremlin. As a result, for 20 seconds, no traffic entered the bridge and no car with a video camera was capable of recording what took place. At the same time, a garbage truck that had been pre-positioned began to cross the bridge, blocking the TvTs camera. The garbage truck moved at 7 to 8 kilometers an hour, providing cover for the first killer, who ran alongside and caught up with Nemtsov and Duritskaya, firing twice. One of the shots hit Nemtsov, the second apparently missed. The prosecution argued that six shots were fired by Dadaev, but the killer along with Nemtsov and Duritskaya were hidden from the TvTs camera by the garbage truck for only two seconds. It would have been impossible to fire six shots in that period of time. It appears instead that the first killer’s gun jammed. He was picked up by a car that had been waiting and was driven across the bridge and away from the Kremlin.
After the first killer disappeared, a second person, Evgeny Molodikh, who had been standing at the bus stop at the beginning of the bridge, began moving toward Nemtsov, who was lying on the ground, seriously wounded. There were already cars on the bridge. Two cars, a Mercedes and a Volkswagen Kondi minivan, both of which had a driver and passenger, entered the right lane and drove slowly, forcing other cars into the far-left lane and shielding Molodikh from being videotaped from a passing car.
Molodikh was wearing earphones. He later claimed he was listening to music, but it was more likely that he was receiving commands. On the videotape, he is seen walking to the place where Nemtsov was shot. Duritskaya ran to the garbage truck, where she began speaking to the driver. Molodikh did nothing to offer any aid to Nemtsov. Instead, he went to the garbage truck and then left and returned to where Nemtsov was lying wounded. He then shot Nemtsov four times, killing him.
If one includes the eight persons on the bridge who shadowed Nemtsov, the two assassins, the driver and possible workers in the garbage truck, the drivers and passengers in the Mercedes and Volkswagen, the drivers of the three street-washing trucks, and the persons who mounted surveillance on the three streets leading to the bridge, the number of persons involved in the murder of Nemtsov was between 30 and 40, all of them coordinated by radio or telephone. Such an operation in the most intensively surveilled section of Moscow could have been carried out only by the FSO.
Further confirmation of this came from the tape of the crime scene, recorded by Kalugin. Kalugin was in a hurry and drove around the slow-moving Mercedes and Volkswagen. As a result, his video recorder was able to film the crime scene and the shooting of Nemtsov. Kalugin’s videotape showed a shot and a cloud of heat. This shot, the only one that is on tape, is believed by Murzin to be one of four or five shots fired by Molodikh. (Six shells were recovered at the crime scene.)
The tape also picked up fragments of conversation coming from the garbage truck. At first, they were unintelligible, because a radio transmitter in the garbage truck was interfering with all receivers for a radius of 200 meters. But by slowing the audio, Murzin identified the words “Kornienko” and the “shooting was not visible.” Gennady Kornienko is a general in the FSB. He is also the deputy director of the FSO and one of the closest and most trusted associates of Putin.
Finally, the case against the five Chechens falls apart because Dadaev, the supposed triggerman, has a strong alibi. Dadaev originally confessed to murdering Nemtsov but he then retracted his confession, which he said was given under torture, including death threats and beatings. In light of the fate of Shavonov, who died while allegedly “resisting arrest,” Dadaev had every reason to take the death threats seriously.
The videotape from the seventh entryway at 3 Veernaya Street, where Dadaev lived, shows that Dadaev entered the building at 4:03 p.m. on February 27 and left again at 12:46 a.m. on February 28. Nemstov was shot at 11:31 p.m. on February 27.
During the trial, the prosecutor, Maria Semenenko, argued that the timer on the video camera was damaged. Mark Koverzin, the lawyer for Dadaev, asked for an independent analysis of the tape, but his request was rejected and the court refused to enter the tape in evidence. In February, the lawyers for the Chechens sent the materials from the case to Murzin for his analysis.
The building where Dadaev lived was equipped with a rooftop camera that surveilled the entire territory, and with separate cameras that monitored each of the nine entryways. The investigation confirmed that the tapes from all of these cameras were in its possession, but they were not shared with the defense. The case file did, however, contain screen shots taken from the tape made from the roof camera. They showed traffic for five days from February 25 until March 2 and allowed Murzin to synchronize Dadaev’s movements and, in that way, confirm the accuracy of the original time codes within a margin of ten seconds.
Hours after Nemtsov was killed, a spokesman for Putin announced that the killing was a “100 percent provocation” designed to make Russia look bad. This version was later dropped in favor of the version that the killers, none of whom are religious, killed Nemtsov over a blog post regarding the murder of the staff members of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo. The prosecution finally settled on the version that the defendants killed Nemtsov for money, but who paid them was never established.
On December 6, 2016, Zaurbek Sadakhanov, who represented Khamzat Bakhaev, accused of aiding Dadaev, asked the court for permission to interrogate Putin. The tolerated opposition newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, reported Sadakhanov’s request but said he made it “jokingly.” In fact, Sadakhanov was completely serious.
The reaction was not long in coming. A week later, Sadakhanov was accosted outside a metro station by an unknown person who threatened to kill him. On January 13, 2017, the tires of his car were slashed. On February 14–15, someone broke the windows of his car and stole the hard disc containing 66 volumes documenting the case. Finally, on July 26, 2017, Sadakhanov was beaten and kicked by several persons who said, “Who are you to demand that they interrogate the president?” In the aftermath, Sadakhanov fled Russia. I met him in a secret location. Murzin has also left Russia for his own safety.
Kadyrov is linked to torture and numerous extra-judicial killings, including that of Natalya Estemirova, a human-rights monitor who was abducted and murdered in Grozny. There is no evidence, however, that Kadyrov is responsible for the murder of Nemtsov. If the conviction without evidence of the five accused Chechens is now followed by prolonged efforts in the European Court of Human Rights to identify Kadyrov as the mastermind, the real result will almost certainly be to bury the evidence that it is the FSO, directly controlled by Putin, and not Kadyrov that is responsible for the murder.
It is not unusual in the U.S. to accuse Putin of murder. He has in recent months been described as a “murderer” by Hillary Clinton, John McCain, and Marco Rubio. But such an accusation unsupported by evidence is less than worthless. It will not have the slightest effect on Putin’s ability to continue to terrorize his own citizens.
The U.S. cannot put the Russian leaders on trial. But it has the ability and the responsibility to evaluate the evidence in serious crimes and raise the issues publicly. Such actions not only establish a realistic context for relations with Russia, they also offer a modicum of protection for those who share democratic values in Russia. Ultimately, they are the best hope for Russia’s future.