CIA Veterans Finger Putin in Nemtsov Assassination

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It was a professional job, they say, Soviet-style. Anton Golubev/Reuters

Four shots, expertly placed. A perfectly timed getaway car. Nearby security cameras turned off “for repair.”

The murder of prominent Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, say CIA veterans, many with long experience in Moscow, was obviously a professional job, inspired, if not explicitly ordered, by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Putin’s allies and Russian-controlled media, rejecting any state hand in the affair, have floated a variety of alternate villains responsible for the murder of Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister and an outspoken critic of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. They range from fellow reformers who wanted to create “a martyr” to personal rivals to “fascists” in Ukraine.

CIA veterans with long experience with Russia were having none of it. Nearly all spoke only on terms of anonymity to discuss such sensitive issues.

“Clearly the Putin government either ordered this, or accepted it, as in the case of Thomas Becket – ‘Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?’” says one former top CIA operative, alluding to the plea attributed to Henry II, England’s 12th-century monarch, for someone to kill the archbishop of Canterbury.

The absence of any nearby close-circuit video recordings of Nemtsov’s murder, which occurred just a few hundreds yards outside a Kremlin wall just after midnight on Friday, Feb. 28, also suggests official complicity in the crime, he and other CIA veterans say.

Government-controlled media has said that all the nearby security cameras were turned off for repairs or pointed the wrong way when Nemtsov was killed by a lone gunman, who then jumped into a passing car and sped off.

Only a grainy, long distance video of the murder, taken from a close circuit security camera far across the Moscow river has surfaced, on city-owned Channel 3. The scene was further obscured by a snow-removal truck that stopped near the 55-year-old Nemtsov, who was walking across the Great Moskvoretsky Bridge with his 23-year-old girlfriend, Ukrainian model Anna Duritskaya. She was not injured in the shooting.

The  area is usually swarming with military and police personnel, says former Deputy CIA Director John McLaughlin. “This part of Moscow, the vicinity of Red Square, is undoubtedly crawling with security personnel, so it's hard to believe that this single grainy video is the primary piece of forensic data available to the authorities,” he says.

The Russians also possess cutting-edge facial recognition technology—the better to identify anti-government protesters, who are under constant surveillance, one of the former operative says. “If I were to hazard a guess, the Putin government figured that no one would believe that no video records existed—so they pawned off this low quality one as the only one available but not good enough for identification purposes.”

“[T]here must be hundreds of CCTV cameras covering every yard of Kremlin perimeter,” says another former CIA operative, who had extensive experience dodging Russian counterspies during the Putin era. “There are probably multiple control rooms covering different sectors. It's preposterous that all of them would be off for repairs at the same time.”

Colin Thompson, a top, Cold War-era CIA Russian expert, agrees with the the cover-up narrative. “The Russian government probably is suppressing any film it has of the incident and can argue that the films are potential evidence and thus not releasable to the public,” he tells Newsweek. “Unfortunately, [it’s] a legitimate position. Not that Putin needs one.”  A CIA spokesman declined "any guidance or comment” on the Nemtsov affair.

“The grainy footage of what they say is the moment of the attack,” one of the former operatives adds, “is interesting.

“Several pundits pointed out that the snow-removal truck with the flashing light blocked the view of the camera across the river. I sort of think it would be hard to figure out the exact angle to block a single camera. My speculation”—and only speculation, he underscores—“is the truck instead provided general screening from the street; it would additionally serve to distract Nemtsov and his girlfriend; and, importantly, create a lot of engine noise to mask the footfalls of the shooter, who I understand was waiting in a stairway. There could have been a guy in the truck who additionally verified that it was Nemtsov and gave a go signal to the shooter.”

The former operative concludes, “Good timing all around.  Funny [how] the truck took off after Nemtsov was down.”

“They were obvious experts,” concurs a former CIA operative who still teaches counter-surveillance techniques to Moscow-bound agency officers. “An amateur,” he says, would have sprayed the couple with submachine gun fire.

“What were they doing walking home like that?” wonders one of the former CIA operatives. “The girl was lucky to survive. Was she really his girlfriend?  Maybe she was a sparrow”—a spy trained to seduce targets. “All speculation on my part,” he adds.

“It is quite possible more footage will appear,” says Jack Devine, a former longtime CIA clandestine services officer. But it’s not likely to come from official channels, says Milt Bearden, who directed the CIA’s clandestine operations against the Soviet Union between 1989 and 1992, “unless it supports a story they’re putting out. Better get used to the video we have.”

Undoubtedly, “the grainy video” will be endlessly studied and picked apart in the ensuing weeks and months—maybe even years, especially if no other video or other evidence surfaces. It is, Bearden says, “a sort of Moscow version of the Zapruder film.”