Known Knowns and the Nemtsov Murder

Nemtsov-deathI 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 have 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 has gotaway: what would be 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 thrown the gun and him 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.

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  1. I fail to understand why you find it so hard to accept that Nemtsov indeed could be under 24/7 surveillance. It’s not the mammoth task you indicate, given that one car could follow him or perhaps two, especially when it seemed likely he might have a meeting the FSB would like to record.

    And *on the eve of a huge opposition march* in which 30,000 or more people could be expected to participate, as indeed they had in the past, OF COURSE Nemtsov would be under surveillance! It’s a huge anti-government undertaking, and naturally the FSB would want to see if, according to their own conspiracy theories, Nemtsov was meeting with “Ukrainians, Georgians, CIA, State Department” etc. etc.

    I don’t see why there is so much skepticism about this. The idea that we “don’t know” this makes no sense. There’s a lot of things we “don’t know” about Russia, which is a closed society under control of a former KGB officer and his cronies who were also in the KGB to a large extent. So it’s reasonable to assume that on the eve of a march — 2 days away — he would be watched. He may have been watched as a matter of course every time his Ukrainian girlfriend came to see him because they may have suspected she was a courier (again, in their minds).

    The other thing that is definitely NOT established is that this is “not” the FSO security area. It’s more than likely that in fact it *is* because it is so close to Red Square and the Kremlin. And again, the fact of the matter is that this *is a secret*. It’s classified. There is no published map of the FSO protection area. And of course there wouldn’t be, as this is a highly-secured area. In fact all of downtown Moscow tends to have more patrols and even army presence, but certainly this bridge, this close would be.

    The fact that at a moment of a video of a few minutes length from a dashcam of this bridge you don’t happen to see a patrol car doesn’t mean a thing. They might come every 15 or 30 or 60 minutes. The fact is *you don’t know* because *it’s a secret, and they are secret police.* Again, I fail to see why the fact of secrecy and “not knowing” then defaults to “not likely” in a country where under Putin, not to mention under Yeltsin, civic figures have been assassinated in large numbers, and the masterminds or contractors of their killings have rarely been found.

    Then there’s the question of the date. The date is also the anniversary of the Reichstag fire, the classic “false flag” story of history, and Special Operations Force Day (and by the way the SOF is *not* “like* the US Special Forces at all). Perhaps a Chekist like Putin or one of Putin’s Chekist followers would add this signature. Like the Litvinenko poisoning, the purpose would likely be to demonstratively indicate that it is, indeed the state with the highest command that is behind the murder. Or do you think Litvinenko isn’t murdered by the Russian state?

    Indeed, yes, in this day and age, the agency following Nemtsov could save on personnel just by having a “find my phone” and Google maps open on their desktops. Then they could signal the snow plow or whatever elements of the murder seem to be relevant.

    Honestly, I wonder some times what Putin would have to do if he really wanted to make absolutely sure that everyone understood he did it, for the fear factor. Use polonium? or wouldn’t a hit on the bridge by the Kremlin be good enough?

  2. “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.”

    Putin’s remark as reported in the Guardian seems to support this:- “I mean the murder, the audacious murder of Boris Nemtsov right in the centre of the capital.”

  3. Mark, thank you for this piece. It seems that you have a bug in my head ;-). Can’t argue with any of your points, so I will stop the comment now.

  4. Would not the autopsy, indicating where the bullets landed, give some indication of the level of professionalism of the hitman? I know it was relatively close range, but if, say, they were all shots clustered close to the center of the torso, and all hit their target (as opposed to, say, only one of four being lethal, the others hitting limbs or grazing him), would this tell us something about the gunman?

    Are we likely to see detailed autopsy findings published?

  5. Thanks Mark, I completely agree that the question of how the murderers knew to catch Nemtsov on the bridge may prove decisive if this thing is ever properly investigated. There haven’t been many hits in such public spaces. Usually the assailants wait near the victim’s home. Occasionally (as with Paul Klebnikov) near the victim’s place of work. To follow someone from a restaurant and shoot them on the open street shows a remarkable degree of coordination. That it was a plot and not a target of opportunity seems clear from the facts that (1) the car came from behind (Nemstov is not THAT recognizable in the dark) and (2) there was a shooter and a driver. Another question for me pertains to the mysterious detention of the young lady who was with Nemtsov at the time of the attack. Why on earth was she held incommunicado for several days at a safe-house, instead of being treated more conventionally as either a witness or a suspect?

  6. Mark Galeotti

     /  March 4, 2015

    Catherine, this is the kind of stuff I’ve been working on for 25 years. I’ve talked to spooks, counterspooks and spookwatchers, active and retired, ours and theirs. I’ve read around, chewed over and written about it. When I am in Moscow (you spend much time there of late?), I’m looking for cameras, assessing police presences, logging which units they come from.

    For example, you say it’s easy to keep someone under 24/7 surveillance, that it is “not the mammoth task you indicate, given that one car could follow him”. Actually unless you are just mounting surveillance as intimidation, you have to assume the target might seek to evade it. And what does that “one car” do while he’s walking across the bridge? Drive behind him _at walking speed_? Be serious.

    Now, it’s entirely your prerogative to consider me ignorant of the topic. But I can’t help but notice that while I am simply trying to note the limits of our knowledge, you are expressing impatience with such niceties and asserting your opinions as objective fact: “OF COURSE Nemtsov would be under surveillance”, “certainly this bridge, this close would be [under FSO surveillance]”, etc. Believe what you will, and indeed as I say, it may indeed be that this was a government hit, but please don’t critique me just because I don’t automatically assume the same thing you do. If nothing else, that is a perfect example of the “death of neutrality” to which I referred.

    (Oh, and by the way, had you bothered checking you’d know that I have often and publicly said that I am sure the Litvinenko killing was a government hit.)

  7. Reblogged this on UNDER THE TOADSTOOL and commented:
    Nice analysis

  8. After so many political murders that are harmful to Putin’s reputation (yadayada) you would have thought that Putin gave an order that opposition politicians/journalist are untouchable. We can be pretty certain that this has not happen, right, Mark?

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