- By Elias GrollElias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy, covering cyberspace and its conflicts and controversies. He has written for the magazine since 2012 and is a graduate of Harvard University., Reid StandishReid Standish is associate editor, digital, at Foreign Policy. Reid writes on Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia and is the newsroom’s digital point person. He has lived in and reported from Finland, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Ukraine, where he covered everything from Santa Claus to drug trafficking. A native of British Columbia, he holds a B.A. in international studies from Simon Fraser University and an M.A. from the University of Glasgow.
Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, 55, a leading critic of President Vladimir Putin, was shot dead in central Moscow early Saturday, according to Russian media reports. He was reportedly shot four times in the chest, while walking home near the Kremlin, by several assailants who opened fire on Nemtsov and a woman with him.
A former deputy prime minister, Nemtsov had in recent days been promoting an opposition rally planned for Sunday. Hours before his death, he appeared on the radio station Echo Moskvy urging listeners to attend the march.
The Russian Interior Ministry confirmed the murder of a man in Moscow with documents matching his name, the Russian news agency Interfax reported. Writing on Twitter, Ilya Yashin, another opposition activist and a Nemtsov associate, confirmed his death: “Nemtsov has been shot. He is dead.”
Немцова застрелили. Он мертв.
— Илья Яшин (@IlyaYashin) February 27, 2015
According to the Associated Press, citing the Russian Interior Ministry, Nemtsov was shot from a passing car as he was crossing a bridge. The Kremlin said in the early hours of Saturday morning, Moscow time, that Putin will personally supervise the investigation, according to the AP. Putin said through a spokesman that Nemtsov’s murder “has all the hallmarks of a contract killing and is of a purely provocational nature.”
Nemtsov was a vocal critic of recent Russian actions in Ukraine — including the annexation of Crimea and support for rebels in eastern Ukraine. The rally Sunday was billed as an anti-war protest against Russia’s involvement there and increased military expenditures as Russia’s economy continues to suffer under the weight of falling oil prices and Western sanctions.
Yashin told Russian newspaper Kommersant that at the time of his murder Nemtsov was preparing a report on the participation of Russian soldiers in Ukraine, a topic that Nemtsov frequently wrote about on social media and a blog affiliated with Echo Moskvy.
In the aftermath of Nemtsov’s killing, an organizer of the Sunday protest told TASS, the state-owned news agency, that plans for the rally may be altered. “We need to hold some other kind of action perhaps a minutes silence in the centre of Moscow, and postpone the demonstration to some other date,” said Leonid Volkov, the organizer.
In a statement, President Barack Obama condemned Nemtsov’s murder and called on the Russian government to carry out “a prompt, impartial, and transparent investigation.”
“Nemtsov was a tireless advocate for his country, seeking for his fellow Russian citizens the rights to which all people are entitled,” Obama said.
Putin’s government has in recent years cracked down on the country’s opposition; with several of its prominent leaders either in jail, in exile, or dead, Nemtsov was one of the last of Putin’s notable critics within Russia’s borders.
“Three years ago, we were an opposition. Now we are no more than dissidents,” Nemtsov told the Financial Times earlier this month. “The task is to organize a real opposition again.”
In 2012, Nemtsov spoke to Foreign Policy, calling for sanctions against officials in Putin’s government for human rights violations.
That year, Putin warned during a speech that a leader of the opposition might be targeted for assassination. “They are looking for a so-called sacrificial victim among some prominent figures,” Putin said. “They will knock him off, I beg your pardon, and then blame the authorities for that.”
At the time, Nemtsov replied that it was Putin’s responsibility to forestall such an outcome. “If the head of the federal government, who controls all intelligence agencies, makes a public statement that he has information about such a provocation and such a crime, he must do everything to prevent it and not just publicly scare Russians,” he told Interfax, according to the Washington Post.
DMITRY SEREBRYAKOV/AFP/Getty Images