Boris Nemtsov: conspiracy theories begin to emerge

Was Nemtsov killed by Islamists, the West, Putin's opponents or the Russian president himself?

Russia's opposition supporters march in memory of murdered Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov
(Image credit: AFP/Getty Images)

In the West, the murder of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov may appear to be a relatively straightforward case of political assassination, but within Russia a broad range of theories have begun to emerge.

Nemtsov was gunned down in the shadow of the Kremlin by unknown assailants on February 27, two days before a planned protest march against the Russian government’s interventions in Ukraine.

Vladimir Putin immediately vowed to take "personal responsibility" for bringing those responsible for the murder to justice. But is the Russian president sincere in his pledge to track down the culprits or is the move a smokescreen to obscure the Kremlin's involvement in the crime?

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Here are some of the main theories on Nemtsov's death:


The killing of Boris Nemtsov in Moscow was well-planned, investigators said, but a number of clues were left at the crime scene including six 9-mm cartridges. Investigators are interviewing eyewitnesses and studying footage from CCTV cameras, the pro-government Russian news outlet Russia Today reports.

Vladimir Markin, a spokesman for the Investigative Committee said that one leading theory is that the murder could have been a retaliation by Islamists for Nemtsov's views on the attack on the offices of the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, in France. "There are reports that Nemtsov received threats due to his position over the shooting of Charlie Hebdo staff in Paris," Markin said.

Opponents of Putin

Markin also suggested that the assassination could be part of a broader effort to destabilise the Kremlin – and that Nemtsov could have been sacrificed by Putin's opponents in a bid to bring the president down.

"The murder could be a provocation to destabilise the political situation in the country. Nemtsov could have been chosen as a sort of 'sacral sacrifice' by those who don't hesitate to use any methods to reach their political goals," Markin suggested.


Another investigator, Igor Krasnov, has proposed that Nemtsov may have been murdered by right-wing nationalists. Krasnov oversaw a number of cases against nationalists who have been involved in politically motivated attacks, including the attempted murder of Russian politician and reformer Anatoly Chubais in 2005 and the murder of journalist Anastasia Baburova in 2009. After the killing of Baburova, two radical nationalists from the "Combat Organisation of Russian Nationalists" (BORN) were arrested and charged, the Russian news network reports. But according to investigators, nationalist groups have remained active and have been implicated in other high-profile attacks such as the murder of federal judge Eduard Chuvashov. The implication is that the Kremlin may be heading towards "fingering extremists in the ultranationalist movements", Interpreter Magazine suggests.

The West

In the days since Nemtsov's murder, a number of media commentators and pro-Kremlin activists have suggested that "the West" may be responsible for the crime, the BBC's Moscow correspondent Sarah Rainsford reports. The anchor of Russia's top TV news show News of the Week, Dmitry Kiselyov, stressed that Nemtsov was no threat to Putin politically, but suggests instead that the killing may have been a part of a Western plot to demonise Putin and destabilise Russia.

Kiselyov argues that this is why he was shot "so theatrically" beneath the Kremlin's walls. "His murder was meant to resonate. However cynical that sounds, world politicians could work with that," Kiselyov said. "It is a paradox: alive as an opposition politician, the West had no use for Nemtsov anymore, but dead he was far more interesting."

Putin himself

Critics of Vladimir Putin "have an uncanny habit of ending up dead", says The Guardian. While we may never know who killed Nemtsov for sure, a number of signs point to the one theory that is not being given in Moscow; the "blindingly obvious one": that he was murdered by Putin himself.

Nemtsov attacked the president for his interventions in Ukraine and was critical of the Kremlin’s mishandling of the economy. "All of this made Nemtsov especially vulnerable", The Guardian concludes.

The Daily Beast lays out a five point argument that points to the Kremlin as the most likely suspect in the crime, including evidence that Nemtsov was under government surveillance before the murder, the arrival of a "city vehicle" to block the view of security cameras and aid the killers' getaway, and the possibility that Nemtsov may have been ready to leak a report on Russia's involvement in Ukraine.

"Whatever person or group committed the murder of Nemtsov, one thing seems certain about their planning", the Daily Beast says. "They hoped that the indelible image broadcast by media all over the world of a Kremlin critic lying dead just outside the Kremlin’s walls – which he had never assailed in his lifetime – would serve as a powerful image to strike fear into the hearts of any other challengers".

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