Was Vladimir Putin the real target of Nemtsov’s assassination?

Last Friday, Boris Nemtsov, a leading opposition figure, became the latest in a “strikingly long” list of political assassinations in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, says The Guardian.

Victims include the journalist and human rights activist Anna Politkovskaya, Alexander Litvinenko (a Russian former secret service agent in exile in London) and Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who angered the regime by revealing large-scale frauds.

Nemtsov (one of Putin’s most “implacable, outspoken and influential opponents”, according to The Times) backed the 2011-2012 street demonstrations against Putin’s return to the Kremlin. He was due to lead an opposition march in Moscow last Sunday.

In the end, the march became his own memorial. He was allegedly about to produce documentary evidence of Putin’s military involvement in Ukraine, which the Kremlin has repeatedly denied. He had recently told a Russian newspaper that he feared Putin would kill him.

So did he? Putin denies it and has pledged to track down the killers, but the fact is “many of his most prominent critics have an unfortunate habit of dying”, says The Daily Telegraph. The Kremlin already seems to be “moving towards a cover-up”, says Luke Harding in The Guardian.

It claimed the CCTV cameras next to the spot where Nemtsov was murdered weren’t working. Yet the area, moments from the Kremlin, bristles with cameras. We will “probably never know” who killed him. It’s “possible the state ordered his murder; equally possible that shadowy nationalist forces were behind it”.

For the “rag bag” of militant Russian nationalists, “eliminating pro-Western voices” such as Nemtsov’s makes sense, says Mark Almond in The Daily Telegraph. He embodies what they hate. “The Kremlin has sponsored the nationalist tiger, but may not control it.” Quite, says Roger Boyes in The Times.

“There are only two reasons for dumping a high-profile corpse on the Kremlin’s doorstep.” Either, like a cat bringing home a dead mouse, you want the approval of the master, or you “want to show the Russian president that he is no longer in control”.

The second explanation is the most probable, and it suggests that a “shadowy” Moscow power struggle is underway. Putin may be denouncing anyone who questions the war in Ukraine as a traitor, but some nationalists “judge him in similar terms for trying to freeze the Ukraine conflict with a patchy ceasefire deal rather than fight a long campaign”. The real political target on Friday was the president. The result?

Putin will crack down on the opposition, and try to “weed out his critics in the security machine. And he will be even less willing to reach a proper reconciliation with the West”.

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