Let the conspiracy theories begin: Who killed Boris Nemtsov?

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Marco Werman: So, a little more now about these conspiracy theories. Mark Galeotti is a professor at New York University, he studies the Russian security services. Galeotti told me he’s not sure those who suspect Kremlin involvement in the Nemtsov murder have enough to go on.


Mark Galeotti: Honestly, I find it quite difficult to believe that there was actually any kind of deliberate plan or whatever. Nemtsov was not a threat to Putin; it’s actually quite an embarrassment to Putin to have a hit quite so close to the Kremlin. After all, this was a president who prided himself on making his streets safe.


Werman: How can you be so sure? There have been other suspicious cases not solved, murders, in Russia and Nemtsov himself in earlier interviews expressed concern that Putin would take his life for questioning the government’s moves in Ukraine.


Galeotti: Obviously it’s impossible to know. Yes, this really speaks to the fact that what we’re really looking at in Russia is such an opaque system that we overlay our own prejudices and assumptions on it. The “cost,” shall we say, of assassinating him, and especially in such a way and in such a place and at such a time--we saw that it actually probably increased dramatically the size of the protests, seem to far outweigh the advantages. Okay, there’s always a limit to ascribing entirely logical/rational reasoning, but certainly in the past this has not been the way that the Kremlin has been dealing with its opposition. It trumps up legal cases, it puts them in prison, it keeps them under house arrest, but on the whole we don’t tend to see blood on the streets.


Werman: You talk about the kind of opaque quality of the Kremlin--what does his death and the conspiracy-laden responses toward it say about Putin’s government?


Galeotti: In this respect, actually the government is a victim of its own policies. It says that this is a country now in which, first of all, there is really little room for neutrality. The government has built up this kind of propaganda environment in which if you’re not 100% for Putin and for his policies, you’re somehow a traitor. But it also means that anyone who is at all suspicious of the government actually tends to assume there’s always going to be some conspiracy or some dark secret, and this is why, in a way, regardless of the outcome of the investigation, even if they come up with someone who is a perfectly credible shooter tomorrow, people will think “Oh, that’s just a scapegoat,” if they’re that way minded. Again, this reflects, in some ways, what the Kremlin has done. When you bombard people with propaganda, some of it’s so laughable that everyone knows that it’s propaganda, then people just assume that the state is lying to them. When, at the same time, you’re busy suggesting that there’s umpteenth conspiracies and Machiavellian plans against Russia, people assume that’s the way it works. I think at the moment in Russia today, I was most recently there in December and it was very evident talking to ordinary Russians, they have this sense that the whole world is shaped by plots and deep designs, and therefore everyone is always looking for a deeper secret rather than sometimes the truth is simpler than people think.


Werman: That’s interesting because you also have Kremlin backers saying Nemtsov’s death was orchestrated by the West to foment unrest. So, is all this a cautionary tale about interpreting facts based upon what we think about Russia and Putin, which often is propaganda.


Galeotti: Yeah, it is. But on the other hand, again, the propaganda tells us something. The very fact that the Kremlin spin merchants are precisely pushing out such arrant nonsense as that it was the West, it was the CIA because it “wasn’t a good enough agent” or else that it was actual other opposition leaders who wanted a martyr, this kind of thing--thoroughly laughable if it wasn’t so depressing--that tells us something about the Kremlin. It tells us something about the extent to which they’re trying to blacken everyone else’s name. So, although on the one hand you have Putin sending a telegram of condolences to Nemtsov’s mother, saying that absolutely all efforts will be directed into finding the perpetrator of this killing, when at the same time they’re clearly trying to use it for propaganda value, it’s no wonder that people think “Well, hang on a minute, this is not a Kremlin that we can really trust.”


Werman: What do you think happened to Boris Nemtsov?


Galeotti: I think we’ll actually end up finding that it was some ultra nationalist who decided that Nemtsov, who was afterall an outspoken, almost quite playboy-ish figure, very critical of the Kremlin, very critical of the war in Ukraine, and Jewish, which also raises red flags from the point of view of the ultra nationalists, who decided that basically he needed to be killed and who, because of this whole toxic atmosphere of propaganda around, almost felt that the Kremlin was giving them a nod and a wink and saying “Look, it’s time to clear out the trash,” as they would see people like Nemtsov.


Werman: Mark Galeotti studies the Russian security services. He’s a professor at NYU. Thanks very much Mark.


Galeotti: My pleasure.