By John Helmer, Moscow
When you have been the target of assassination by a powerful figure in Russia, as I have, and you survive the hit, as I did, you learn one thing or two things before; more in retrospect. One is that the Moscow police act quickly and competently, as they would elsewhere – so swiftly, in fact, that the powerful figure may not have the time to close down the investigation before the evidence can be saved. A second is that even hits ordered by powerful figures generate a trail of planning and positioning they didn’t intend to leave behind, pointing to their identity, and that in turn to their motive. A third is that in Moscow assassinations the place of ambush is always selected to raise the probability of success for the assassins, the hit, and the getaway – never the chances of survival for the victim. The fourth is that if the target is lucky, the assassination plan is interrupted by an unforeseeable mistake in placement or timing; a weapon fault; a passing witness; or a lucky circumstance.
On the physical evidence of what happened in the 30 minutes preceding the February 27 murder of Boris Nemtsov, the probability of his being attacked on Bolshoi Moskovoretsky Bridge was one in thirty-six (less than 3%). Nemtsov wasn’t just unlucky: his assassins were correspondingly fortunate, more than they could have planned.
Nemtsov wasn’t dressed for his ill-luck. Not a single western or Russian version of the evidence so far has noticed the clue that is starkly obvious from the photographic record. Nemtsov walked – repeat walked — into an ambush whose 325-second record can be studied here. The evidence has been viewed more than 306,000 times. From the photographs of his body on the pavement, and from the film clip of his entering Bosco Café it is certain Nemtsov was dressed in a pullover under a light jacket, jeans, and soft shoes. He wasn’t wearing a winter coat, hat, or gloves. No Muscovite would be without them for the 30 minutes required to walk through the city late on a winter’s night, at a temperature close to freezing, from GUM to Malaya Ordynka Street, No. 3, where Nemtsov lived. No photograph of passersby in the vicinity that night showed dress as light as Nemtsov’s.
Ask yourself why, if Nemtsov had reason to believe he was the target of assassination, as he claimed to the press, he would decide to expose himself unguarded in the precincts of the man Nemtsov claimed to be his mortal enemy. And even if you suppose Nemtsov was imprudent (brave, reckless) about that risk, ask why he would risk catching cold by walking instead of taking a taxi, as his mode of dress indicates he arranged for his arrival at the restaurant and intended for his trip home. Also, ask yourself why the media speculation and the editorials of those purporting to be Nemtsov’s friends have signally failed to notice the discrepancy between what Nemtsov was wearing, what his companion was wearing, and the meaning of the physical evidence.
The photographic record now available was generated in GUM’s First-Line passageway, outside Bosco Cafe, as Nemtsov arrived, then walked through the restaurant door; followed by his companion, Anna Duritskaya, a few seconds later. The clip runs for 38 seconds. Duritskaya was wearing winter costume – knee-length padded coat, calf-high fur boots, gloves.
The video clip of the assassination itself on the bridge runs for 5:25 minutes; it is more difficult to decipher. However, it is now clear that the attack took place from the footpath, while in the roadway the getaway car slowed down to let a snow-clearance truck pass by Nemtsov. At 23:31:15, when the truck screens Nemtsov from the camera, he is shot. The shooter is then visible between 23:31:15 and 19; he is running towards the car. At 23:31:20 the car appears to slow to a stop. Four to five seconds later, the exhaust plume shows acceleration away from the shooting position, the gunman on board.
The colour of the vehicle appears not to be white, as Duritskaya has reportedly claimed. The arrival of the police on the scene is at 23:42 – 11 minutes after the shots were fired.
The number of bullets fired has been variously reported as 6 to 8 from a Makarov semi-automatic pistol, which can be equipped with a magazine of 8, 10 or 12 rounds. Police forensics can establish how many shots can be fired from this weapon in 4 to 5 mini-seconds. The crime scene investigation should have counted how many cartridges were dropped on to the roadway and pavement, and how many bullet impacts were found. The location of the impacts, cartridges, and the autopsy evidence will confirm with accuracy whether the first shot was fired from in front of Nemtsov, then three from behind him on the pavement, or at an angle from the truck.
For the getaway driver and the shooter to be confident of making their escape, the problem of concealment should have been greater in their parking position, before the car started out towards the bridge, than after the attack as the car cleared the bridge and drove south along Bolshaya Ordynka. So far, such evidence as exists of the car making its preliminary way from the Lubyanka or Kitai-Gorod towards the bridge is undisclosed.
But go back to the clue Nemtsov himself provided. Tracking his position by telephone signal fix is so sophisticated these days – for government services and commercial killers, alike — his position can have been monitored to between 10 and 30 metres – lethal range. The technology cannot predict intention. Once he started out of the restaurant, Nemtsov had his choice of 8 exit doors on to three streets – Nikolskaya, Vetoshny, and Ilyinka. Once on the street, Nemtsov then had two options – left or right. On Ilyinka, the route Nemtsov chose, he turned right and headed towards, then across Red Square, in front of St. Basil’s Cathedral.
He then had the choice of taking a cab or walking across the bridge. Duritskaya has testified that there was a discussion on the point – she wanted to take a taxi, she claims, and Nemtsov wanted to walk. From the second Nemtsov started out the restaurant door, the probability he would make the fateful choice to walk across the bridge was 1 in 36.
With what probability can the attackers have anticipated Nemtsov’s move and with what confidence to position the assassin on the stairs, or in the passage under the bridge, or in the snow truck, in advance of Nemtsov’s arrival on foot? Is the probability more sure, from the assassins’ point of view, that they would have enough time to drive from their parked position to make the attack point and rendezvous with the shooter? Were the probabilities in the fluke range that Nemtsov could be gunned down with St. Basil’s and the Kremlin Wall visible in the background?
The grander the conspiracy theory of this murder, the further removed it becomes from the physical evidence Nemtsov himself provided — and from the probabilities of the assassination plot, as the record shows it turned out.