Welcome to our column, Russia Update, where we will be closely following day-to-day developments in Russia, including the Russian government’s foreign and domestic policies.
The previous issue is here.
A car tied to the murder of Boris Nemtsov reportedly belongs to a government contractor.
– Alexey Navalny On the Murder of Boris Nemtsov
–Theories about Possible Perpetrators of the Murder of Boris Nemtsov
–Novaya Gazeta Releases Sensational Kremlin Memo: âIt is Seen as Correct to Initiate Annexation of Eastern Regions of Ukraine to Russiaâ
–Former Russian Intelligence Officers Behind Boisto âTrack IIâ Talks â and Now the Flawed Minsk Agreement.
See also our Russia This Week stories:
Ultranationalists Angry over âCapitulationâ of Minsk Agreement,
âAnti-Maidanâ Launched by Nationalists, Cossacks, Veterans, Bikers
The Guild War â How Should Journalists Treat Russian State Propagandists?
Please help The Interpreter to continue providing this valuable information service by making a donation towards our costsâ.
The Irish Examiner reports that a Russian long-range strategic bomber, with its transponder turned off, crossed several civilian air routes in February, endangering civilian airliners and delaying at least one flight. The Moscow Times reports:
According to the Irish Examiner, the Tu-95 ‘Bear’ long-range strategic bombers weaved through major civilian air routes on Feb. 18 about 40 kilometers off the Irish coast, crossing flight lanes used by incoming flights from North America.
The bombers cloaked their presence by switching off their transponders, which broadcast to air traffic controllers an aircraft’s type, altitude, location and other information.
The Irish Aviation Authority told the Examiner British authorities had notified them that the bombers were moving toward Irish air space and warned that steps should be taken to ensure the safety of civilian flights. One flight from Dublin airport had to be delayed to prevent a collision with the Russian aircraft, the paper said.
That flight is separate from the incident where two nuclear-capable bombers flew through the English Channel weeks earlier, causing similar uproar as the maneuver may have endangered both civilian air traffic and national security.
These incidents are part of a wider pattern of aggressive, and typically usually unannounced, military drills in international waters, international airspace, and near Russia’s borders.
Drills like this one:
The main difference here is that NATO schedules its drills ahead of time, ensuring that military training and demonstration missions do not endanger civilian air and sea traffic or provoke unintentional military confrontations.
But a new report suggests that despite NATO’s superior firepower, there is a growing gap between NATO and Russian military exercises.
The Atlantic Council reports that NATO’s military readiness may not be an adequate deterrent for future Russian aggression:
In the past two years, Russia’s major military exercises deployed a total of about 745,000 troops, while those of NATO countries involved a total of some 157,000. (Actually, only 72,000 troops took part in full NATO exercises; 85,000 participated in drills run by individual NATO member states.)
These very broad comparisons are reached simply by totaling the published numbers of participants in each event. (Clearly, some personnel may have been deployed, and thus counted here, in more than one exercise.)
“While exercises are not the sole indicator of military readiness and capability,” the numbers show “a troubling disparity in magnitude,” Atlantic Council Senior Fellow Ian Brzezinski and analyst Nicholas Varangis write. The disparity is especially notable amid the debates among transatlantic leaders and publics over how best to deal with Russia’s assault on Ukraine.
— James Miller
Mikhail Konev, aide to slain opposition leader Boris Nemtsov in Yaroslavl, where Nemtsov was a deputy in the local legislature, says police have searched Nemtsov’s apartment there, gordonua.com reported, citing TV Rain.
Konev was unable to tell reporters anything more because he says he had to sign a non-disclosure statement, although he said the search was lawful.
Konev was summoned as a person who had to be present during the search, as he worked for Nemtsov.
Anna Duritskaya, who was with NEmtsov when he was assassinated, has also signed a pledge not to disclose information from the investigation, says gordonua.com.
Nemtsov’s office in Yaroslavl was already searched on March 1.
One theory of a possible motive relates to an official that Nemtsov and his faction in the local legislature exposed in corruption, and eventually got fired.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
But from all indications the context for his remarks is not so much a call to punish the actual perpetrators of the murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov as to exploit the occasion to install further patrolling of city streets and empowerment of citizens’ auxiliary police.
Putin spoke today at an expanded meeting of the collegium or board of the Interior Ministry, which governs the police, the same meeting at which reportedly Kolokoltsev, the head of the ministry, announced his resignation.
In a speech posted on kremlin.ru, Putin said (translation by The Interpreter):
The most serious attention must be devoted to high-profile crimes, including those with a political agenda. We must rid Russia finally of the shame and tragedies of what we and you lived through and saw recently. I mean the audacious murder of Boris Nemtsov, right in the center of the capital.
It must be noted that last year, the number of crimes that took place in public places has increased by 8.5%. We must immediately react to all the facts of such violations of the law, and a special emphasis should be made on preventive measures.
Now several words about the so-called street criminal world. Of course we must more actively deploy the voluntary people’s druzhiny [auxiliary police]. In many subjects of the Federation, these formations were already created and complement well the capabilities of the Interior Ministry agencies. We must disseminate the best practice, and clearly define the authorities of those people who conduct this work alongside the Interior Ministry agencies.
I will recall that last year the Federal Law on Participation of Citizens in Preservation of Public Order was passed. Now we must complete the passage of analogous regional legislative acts. The growth of crimes of an extremist tendency — almost by 15% — causes serious concern.
Extremists poison society by the toxin of militant nationalist, intolerance and aggression. What this can lead to we see very well on the example of the neighboring country, Ukraine.
Putin does not mean the “people’s republics” in the Donbass and the Russian-backed militants but right-wing groups in Ukraine, some of which have fighters in the Ukrainian armed forces and voluntary battalions, a subject always amplified by Russian propaganda
Clearly, Putin will exploit the murder of Nemtsov to institute further street patrols and enpower citizens’ volunteer policing groups, which were prevalent in the Soviet times, receded for a time, and now are being promoted again. The state-approved and funded Cossack groups and Anti-Maidan organization made up of Fighting Brotherhood, a state-funded organization of Afghan veterans, are just the kind of organizations from which the druzhinniki or volunteer patrolers can be drawn.
On the one hand Putin seems to want to convey a sense that the government is controlling extremism — which is very broadly defined in Russia — but on the other hand he wants to invoke the specter of it to justify further control:
Last year, in accordance with judicial decisions, eight organizations were pronounced extremist and closed. The criminal liability for calls to extremism and a number of specific criminal offenses in that area have now been strengthened, including for the financing for the extremist activity and organization of extremist groups. New articles against extremism have been included in the Code of Administrative Offenses.
Meanwhile, the actions of extremists are growing more sophisticated. We have encountered attempts to use the so-called “color technologies” [i.e. from color revolutions] from the organization of unlawful street actions to open propaganda of enmity and hatred on social networks. And the purpose of obvious — to provoke civil conflicts, and strike a blow at the constitutional foundations of our state, at the sovereignty of the country in the final analysis. We must instantly react to any signals on actions being prepared by extremists, and conduct the appropriate preventive measures, and preventive work, especially among youth.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
According to the source (translation by The Interpreter)
“This was expected in March already. Kolokoltsev will not leave immediately after the collegium, but most likely it will happen about two weeks later.”
Rumors of Kolokoltsev’s departure have been circulating since last fall, when the minister was said to submit his resignation. A source told Gazeta.ru that he really did write his resignation then, but some reason, possibly because of the leak of information about his departure, he did not leave at that time.
Putin was said to be pleased with the meeting, said the source, as the number of crimes have been reduced. He also praised the police for their professionalism during the Olympics in Sochi last year. Kolokoltsev reported at the meeting the there will be reductions in staff at the ministry.
A successor being discussed is Viktor Zolotov, commander-in-chief of the internal forces of the Interior Ministry and head of the presidential security service, a sub-division of the Federal Protection Service (FSO) from 2000 to 2013. The functions of the FSO were previous managed by the KGB’s 9th directorate. The new agency was created under the Yeltsin administration.
If true, the resignation and new appointment would follow a pattern of increasing personal control over the “power ministries” of the police, intelligence and army by Putin, who since 2013, has been installing more loyal security services, and also giving them large raises. As Yevgeniya Albats, editor of New Times wrote that year (translated by The Interpreter):
What if Putin sends a message across to both civil officials and oligarchs: here, these guys are the real power in the country. Well, there is nothing new about it. A lot has been written about the formation of a Russian militocracy, that is, a rule by people in military uniforms.
However, the authors tried not to mention that what happened in Russia in the mid-2000s, was a de facto military (or rather, KGB) coup, and that people in uniforms occupied key positions in the administration, but not always and not necessarily visible. However, the third Putin presidency seems to set the record: the President himself, the head of his administration, a number of assistants and chiefs of the Presidential Administration departments, the Investigative Committee deputy chiefs, the General Prosecutor’s Office, and the most ministers – all came from the KGB.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
REN TV, a private TV channel owned by New Media Group is generally pro-Kremlin and is said to be partly owned through President Vladimir Putin’s childhood friends, the Rotenberg brothers.
The source inside the Investigative Committee’s group probing the murder said images were taken from a surveillance program used by Moscow traffic police called Potok [Flow], as well as videotapes from surveillance cameras.
They have also used this system to find all the drivers who passed through the area during the murder of Nemtsov, in order to confiscate their dashcams, if they had them. An investigator told REN-TV (translation by The Interpreter):
These activities enabled us to receive several images. They are only in the possession of the officers of the group which brought in specialists from the Center to Combat Extremism, the most experienced detectives of the Moscow Criminal Investigation, and officers of the FSB [Federal Security Service] (FSB) and SKR (Investigative Committee). A minimum of two people have been caught by the camera. From the footage we can already say that these people most likely are natives of the south regions of Russia.
By this, the police are saying they are Caucasians, i.e. Chechens, Dagestanis or others who live in the south of Russia.
The Center to Combat Extremism is under the Interior Ministry and
usually investigates cases involving Islamist and ultrarightist
terrorism and murders in Russia.
FSB chief Aleksandr Bortnikov said that the investigation already had some suspects. To be sure, he also said there are always suspects, commented REN-TV.
President Putin announced shortly after Nemtsov’s murder that he was assigning the investigation to a group headed by seasoned special cases investigator Maj. Gen Igor Krasnov, known for his investigation of ultranationalist murder cases. The group was to include the Investigative Committee, the Interior Ministry, i.e. the regular police and the Federal Security Service (FSB). Now we see to this group has been added the Center to Combat Extremism.
Contrary to some early reports, Putin did not say he was taking personal responsible for the investigation, and this was made clear by further explanations from Dmitry Peskov, Kremlin spokesman.
We have several questions about this latest report. REN-TV says there are images taken both from dashcams and cameras. Does that mean now that the claim made by the Federal Protective Service (FSO), responsible for guarding this highly-secure area around the Kremlin, that the cameras “weren’t working” or were “under repair” that day was a lie? Or does it mean that in fact these cameras don’t belong to the FSO, but are the responsibility of the City of Moscow, which said their cameras were working? REN-TV’s source doesn’t identify the camera’s provenance.
As for Potok, this program was dubbed “outmoded” in 2010 in a report by news.ru, and Moscow Region, the administrative body responsible for Moscow’s suburbs, changed from Potok to another system called Avtouragan. Would Moscow do any less? Possibly Moscow is using an updated Potok program called Potok-PDD or maybe the source is using the name of an older program generically.
The reason to bring up the issue of the cameras and the traffic surveillance programs is that these indicate possible discrepancies or holes in the story, which might be fabricated.
And of course, with the inevitable “Caucasian footprint” having been found so quickly — Chechens and other Caucasians are often scapegoats for crimes — it bears taking with a grain of salt.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
The driver, Dmitry Karmaza, said he was just using the company car to unofficially earn some fares on the side, a very common practice in Russia.
about 23:30 or 23:40, well somewhere around that time, I was driving in
the second lane from the right at about 70 kilometers per hour. I
noticed that a patrol car was parked on the bridge, and a man lay on the
The video then jumps and evidently
the driver was asked a question about what he was doing in a company car
that belonged to a government firm serving the Ministry of Finance.
I was using the time to pick up a little cash.
drove on to Bolotnaya, then, from Bolotnaya on to the Embankment, and
near the Udarnik Movie Theater I saw a passenger hailing a cab. I took
the fair beyond the Bolshoi Theater.
On LifeNews‘ web site, there is additional quotations from the driver’s interview.
Then I went across Lyubyanka Square
and once again ended up on the bridge — for the third time that night
— and I saw the patrol car and the dead person.
The road was
clear, there was no traffic, there were no suspicious persons or parked
cars, and I didn’t hear bangs or sounds like shoots.
that after police announced they were looking for a Ford, his partner
was arrested even though it was not his shift that night. He was
questioned and released. Karmaza himself said he is still awaiting
questioning by investigators. Even so, his bosses have required that he
write a statement about what he was using the car for, and his routes
the night of February 27-28.
At this point, the claim by Russian state media that a government car could be related to Nemtsov’s murder, published earlier today, seems to be falling apart — if the driver is to be believed — as he appeared three times on the surveillance camera only because he was moonlighting, looking for fares. He does not appear to have driven the getaway car.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Tonya Samsonova, a blogger for the radio station and news site Ekho Moskvy has published a dash cam recording that appears to be taken three minutes after the assassination of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov.
The Interpreter has translated her post:
I was given the recording from a dashboard camera of a car traveling along the Vasilyevsky Spusk (St. Basil’s Descent) and the Moskvoretsky Bridge three minutes after the murder of Boris Nemtsov.
The tape was run from 23:34.
The murder, according to the videotape from TV Tsentr occurred at 23:31.
This video was turned over to the Investigative Committee.
I will not conduct an analysis of this video ,but I consider it necessary to publish it, and do so with the consent of the owner.
Bulgarian media owner and blogger Christo Grozev has done some analysis of this video and the original one made available from TV Tsentr’s weather camera.
It’s not clear yet what, if any, information this dashcam can provide as a clue to the identity of the perpetrators of the murder.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
A video message has been uploaded to YouTube and VKontakte, the most popular Russian social network claiming to be from the murderers of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov.
The video claims to be from Rusich, a unit of Russian citizens and
Russians native to Ukraine fighting in the Donbass whose leader, Aleksey
Milchakov, has been notorious for particular sadism and blamed for
atrocities. Milchakov was one of the few surviving members of Batman’s
Battalion who were killed along with their leader, Aleksandr “Batman”
Bednov on January 2, 2015. He is believed to have returned to Russia after the
assassination of Bednov.
Milchakov, accompanied by a fellow fighter nicknamed “Slavyan”
[Slav] immediately appeared on LifeNews and denounced the video as a fake and said he and his
unit had nothing to do with the murder.
The Interpreter has translated the message from the masked men claiming to be from Rusich who have distorted their voices:
We, partisans of Novorossiya, from DShRG [sabotage storm intelligence
group] Rusich are making the following statement. On the eve of the
anti-Russian march on March 1, despite the dishonesty of the Moscow
authorities who enabled this unconscionable conducting of this march we,
the military council of Novorossiya we have made a decision to execute
the order regarding the American traitor Nemtsov who for his whole life
sold our country and our people, a monster who supported the Bandera
henchmen who have destroyed our people in the Donbass. This is our first
demonstrative act. If the traitors of Russia don’t come to their senses
and don’t stop their anti-people activity, we will execute the order on
them as well. Our cause is just.
The message is interesting in that it comes not from the “militias”
or fighters from the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” or
“Lugansk People’s Republic” but from the shaky entity that is supposed
to unite them, “Novorossiya,” which is the name both of the movement of
both the DNR and LNR but also an aspiration realm claimed by
ultranationalists in Russia and Russians in Ukraine and elsewhere, to be
made up of parts of Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova.
But Milchakov disavowed the video in a statement for LifeNews,
a pro-government TV channel close to intelligence and law-enforcement.
He said that he believed that the video was prepared by the pro-Kiev
Azov Battalion’s Misanthrope Division, although there was nothing to
support this claim, either.
Bloggers are analyzing the video now.
It seems to us that the speakers in the video neither look like Milchakov nor sound like him. The speaker in the video has the Russian accent typical of those native to the Donbass. Milchakov is from Russia.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Ilya Yashin, chairman of the Moscow section of the RPR-PARNAS opposition party of which Boris Nemtsov was co-chairman says he plans to publish the report his friend was working on when he died, according to The Times of London.
Russian opposition activists plan to publish significant elements of a report detailing military involvement in Ukraine that was being prepared by Boris Nemtsov before he was shot dead in Moscow.
Police investigating the opposition leader’s mafia-style killing on a bridge near the Kremlin searched his flat at the weekend and seized a computer believed to have contained the only copy of the report.
Ilya Yashin, another prominent member of the opposition, has told The Times that evidence collated by Mr Nemstov — including details obtained from parents of serving Russian soldiers who have died on Ukrainian soil — had been safeguarded.
The possible desire of the authorities to suppress the report is cited as one of the possible motives behind the murder of Nemtsov. While it’s always possible that Nemtsov obtained some government document, this doesn’t seem likely, however, as the information about Russian soldiers was known and available in a variety of reports in the national and local press in Russia, as well as from NGOs such as the Soldiers’ Mothers of St. Petersburg and Open Russia. Nemtsov spoke of the report in an interview on the radio station Ekho Moskvy right before he was killed.
Commenting on Nemtsov’s death, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said:
“Boris declared that he must published convincing proof of the involvement of Russian armed forces in Ukraine. Someone very much feared him. Boris wasn’t afraid, but the henchmen were afraid. They killed him.”
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
TASS, a government wire service, has reported that a car found that was seen on a weather camera at the time of the murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov is related to a company that provides services for the government:
A car sought in connection with the killing of Russian opposition
leader Boris Nemtsov belongs to a federal state unitary enterprise
(FSUE) providing services to the Finance Ministry, Goznak, the Russian
state body that prints banknotes, and other agencies, the Finance
Ministry said on Wednesday.
“The Ford car we are talking about does not belong to the Finance
Ministry,” the ministry’s press service told TASS. “This is a vehicle of
an in-house security service, an independent FSUE providing services to
the Finance Ministry, Goznak and other bodies.”
The “federal state unitary enterprise” is the term used in Russian law to describe government-created companies that provide services. They have a special status under the law and are not part of the state budget. They do not own their own assets and provide services such as transportation or printing to various state bodies. The law regarding such corporations was signed by President Vladimir Putin in 2002.
The Ford in question is not the same car as the ZAZ Chance which investigators also said could be involved in the murder.
The tying of a car related to a government company opens up the possibility of government involvement in the assassination:
The “rogue security agents” is a theory often advanced in recent Russian history, for example, about the 1999 apartment bombings in Moscow. The thinking is that either the president or top officials will want the plausible deniability of crimes committed by agents that don’t appear to be under their control, or there really are elements of the security forces not under their control.
There’s another possibility, which is that the “rogue agents” aren’t killing an opposition leader for their own reasons, e.g. that they are hardliners who believe the “fifth column” has had too much influence, but more calculating “rogues” who want to discredit Putin so that they can topple him. Putin and other top Kremlin spokesmen have advanced the notion that the opposition would be willing to kill one of their own as a “sacrificial victim” to create unrest.
But the same theory could also apply to the leaders themselves or their subordinates, and perhaps that’s why they often project it.
In Ukraine in September 2000 after Putin was inaugurated in May 2000, the beheaded body of critical journalist Georgiy Gongadze was found. Then-president Leonid Kuchma was widely believed responsible for ordering his assassination or at least knowing about it. Socialist Party opposition leader Oleksandr Moroz publicly accused Kuchma of the murder, ultimately citing tapes made by Kuchma’s body guard at the time, Mykola Melnychenko in what became known as the “cassette scandal.” Although a deputy prosecutor said he had enough evidence to try Kuchma, he did not resign until 2005, and even then was granted immunity from prosecution. His prime minister, Viktor Yanukovych went on to become president.
Could such a scenario play out in Russia, either because forces within the security apparatus attempt to topple Putin, for whom they might blame the economic crisis, or because Putin could have actually clandestinely ordered the murder, and security agents find out and expose him?
Obviously, it’s too early to tell where this might go, but the fact that the investigation has moved very quickly to find a car and tie it to the government is likely not accidental. Putin has total control over these agencies and may be enacting a scenario. It would be unlikely that the highly-politicized Investigative Committee which has faithfully served Putin’s agenda in fabricating criminal cases against the opposition now for several years will suddenly acquire independence and come up with findings that incriminate him or his close associates.
It’s helpful to remember that since the Brezhnev era, Soviet leaders have tended to die of natural causes in office. After the death of Stalin in 1953, which some believe was achieved through poisoning, his successor, Nikita Khrushchev finally emerged on top after a power struggle and remained until 1964, when conspirators, led by Brezhnev, the First Deputy Premier Alexander Shelepin, and KGB Chairman Vladimir Semichastny deposed him in October 1964.
After that, the only leader to be threatened by a coup was Mikhail Gorbachev, who was first confronted by coup plotters from the KGB and military who held him against his will, and then, because elements of the military and government refused to join the hardliners, was ultimately defeated by a liberal reformer, Boris Yeltsin when the USSR was formally dismantled.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick