The horrific murder of Russian opposition leader and former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov in the center of Moscow on Friday has, quite understandably, had a galvanizing effect on his friends and admirers in both the United States and Russia.
Writing shortly after the tragedy took place, former US Ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul wrote, “Nemtsov was a real patriot, who believed in the possibility of Russia’s greatness. I cry now both for his family and the country he so loved.” Similar tributes flooded in from across the blogosphere.
Yet perhaps the raw emotions of the moment are—as they have a habit of doing—paving the way for a rush to judgment. “There is only one conclusion,” wrote opposition leader Vladimir Milov. “The murder of Boris Nemtsov is connected to the authorities.”
Exiled Putin opponent Gary Kasparov appears to agree. Appearing on Meet the Press on Sunday, he suggested that Nemtsov was killed because he was just about to release a report detailing Russia’s involvement in the war in Ukraine that would, in his words, “prove another Kremlin lie.” The fact that Nemtsov was murdered in the heart of Moscow sends, according to Kasparov, “a chilling signal to everybody, it spreads fear and terror.… that is why I expect the regime to benefit from this murder.”
Another opposition leader and Nemtsov ally, Vladimir Ryzhkov, told the journalist Anna Nemtsova: “Now nobody who says Putin started the war in Ukraine can feel safe. The Kremlin unleashed a dragon, anybody condemned as ‘enemy of people’ or ‘the fifth column’ can get murdered in the street.” Senator John McCain echoed Ryzhkov’s sentiments, issuing a statement that said, in part, “regardless of who actually pulled the trigger, Boris is dead because of the environment of impunity that Vladimir Putin has created in Russia.”
Others believe Nemtsov’s role in planning a mass protest against the war in Ukraine may have moved Vladimir Putin to try to silence Nemtsov once and for all. Yet this line of reasoning is unconvincing given the fact that the regime had been the target of far larger demonstrations in December 2011 and February 2012. As one longtime Russia-watcher observed, it is the “new generation under the leadership of blogger Alexander Navalny” that commands the most support within the opposition movement, putting “to shame the discredited Liberals like Nemtsov with their paltry public support.” It seems implausible that Sunday’s planned march would have given the authorities sufficient motive to carry out this terrible crime.