20 years under Putin: a timeline

On April 1, a panel discussion on the current status of the investigation into Boris Nemtsov’s assassination took place at the Atlantic Council headquarters in Washington, D.C. A group of prominent panelists, including Vladimir Kara-Murza, David Kramer, John Herbst, and Carl Gershman, was joined by Boris Nemtsov’s daughter, Zhanna Nemtsova, to discuss the specifics of the case, the political situation in Russia, and the need for international oversight of the investigation. The event was co-hosted by the Atlantic Council, the National Endowment for Democracy, the McCain Institute for International Leadership, and the Institute of Modern Russia.


From left to right: Carl Gershman, Zhanna Nemtsova, Vladimir Kara-Murza, David Kramer, John Herbst. Photo: IMR.


One year after the public assassination of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, the head of Russia’s Investigative Committee, General Alexander Bastrykin, announced that the case has been “solved.” However, the legitimacy of the investigation has raised a lot of questions, as neither the organizers nor the masterminds of the most high-profile political assassination in Russia’s modern history have been named. As prosecutors prepare for a trial at the Moscow District Military Court, only the alleged perpetrators of the crime have been arrested, and despite the obvious links between the gunmen and Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin-appointed Chechen leader has not been formally questioned in regard to this case.

As the investigation stalls in Russia, Boris Nemtsov’s family and friends are trying to push back by bringing international attention to the case in order to put pressure on the Russian authorities and ensure that justice is administered. As part of this effort, Zhanna Nemtsova, Boris Nemtsov’s daughter and founder and president of the Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom, and Vladimir Kara-Murza, deputy leader of the People’s Freedom Party and a longtime colleague and friend of Nemtsov, organized a panel discussion on the investigation at the Atlantic Council, featuring prominent Russia experts David Kramer, senior director for human rights and democracy at the McCain Institute for International Leadership; John Herbst, director of the Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council; and Carl Gershman, president of the National Endowment for Democracy.

In his opening remarks, Gershman noted that “given [Boris Nemtsov’s] prominence as a Russian political leader, it’s deeply disturbing that the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation chaired by Alexander Bastrykin has consistently rejected requests … to qualify Nemtsov’s murder under Article 277 of the Criminal Code as ‘an attempt on the life of a public statesman.’”

Zhanna Nemtsova, who was forced to leave Russia last year due to threats and now lives in Germany, where she works for Deutsche Welle, noted that from the beginning she knew there would be no fair and objective investigation into her father’s murder in Russia. She detailed the current status of the investigation and listed the main obstacles hindering the process, starting with the Russian president himself, who publicly claimed he would personally oversee this investigation. However, Nemtsova claimed, judging by the results, he has in fact personally blocked its progress. Even the investigative team admitted that they couldn’t question one of the alleged organizers of the murder, Ruslan Geremeyev, a close ally of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, because Bastrykin refused to process their request, Nemtsova said. She believes that Russia’s high-ranking officials are providing a cover-up not only for Kadyrov, but for all of the people in his circle.

In his remarks, Vladimir Kara-Murza reminded attendees that Russia has not forgotten Boris Nemtsov, with thousands taking to the streets to march in his memory earlier this year. “But the people who call themselves the government of Russia behave in a different way,” he said: they claim that the murder has been solved (according to the official version, the mastermind of this high-profile political assassination was a Chechen driver, Ruslan Mukhutdinov) and have done everything in their power to eradicate the public memory of Nemtsov. Kara-Murza concluded that it’s clear that the investigation is not being conducted in good faith and is not free from political constraints.

Substituting an international investigation for the national investigation requires the consent of the national government, which is unlikely under the current regime. According to Kara-Murza, “the second best thing is trying to establish international oversight and international attention, so that [the regime] is not allowed to sweep it under the carpet. So a few weeks ago we urged the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe to issue a special report. We are urging the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly to do the same, and we would like to urge the United States government, in its bilateral contacts with Russian officials, to raise this issue consistently, publicly, and privately.” Kara-Murza also urged that the Russian individuals responsible for inciting hatred against opponents of the regime, which might have partially contributed to the murder of Nemtsov, a vocal Putin critic, be put on international travel blacklists.


Photo: IMR


The recent tensions between the West and Russia raised the question of whether it is possible for the United States to accept Putin as a strategic partner. According to Herbst, this issue requires a nuanced stance. He reminded the audience that Putin’s government was previously declared complicit in another murder—that of Alexander Litvinenko—but that the British authorities decided not to limit their relationship with Russia on the grounds that it was too important at the moment. As for the United States, Herbst thinks that it is possible for the two countries to pursue mutual interests, such as non-proliferation, but that they must put limits on other areas.

In his turn, David Kramer offered a more straightforward answer, stating that the United States will not have a strategic partnership with Russia as long as Putin is in the Kremlin. It is Putin’s regime, he said, “that kills its own people,” that took over the state TV, that went after the nation’s biggest oligarch; under this regime, journalists and activists are poisoned, harassed, intimidated, and jailed; and Putin has gone to war with Georgia, then Ukraine, and then Syria. Given all of this, Kramer asked what the tipping point should be for those who talk about a strategic partnership with Putin’s Russia. In his view, such a partnership is not going to happen, and therefore the West should lose its false hope of getting together and building a normal relationship with the Kremlin.