Accessibility links

Breaking News

The Week In Russia: Boris Nemtsov And An 'Unjust War Of Aggression'

At a rally in Moscow nine years ago this month, opposition politician Boris Nemtsov spoke out clearly and adamantly against Moscow's aggression in Ukraine.
At a rally in Moscow nine years ago this month, opposition politician Boris Nemtsov spoke out clearly and adamantly against Moscow's aggression in Ukraine.

I'm Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

Welcome to The Week In Russia, in which I dissect the key developments in Russian politics and society over the previous week and look at what's ahead. To receive The Week In Russia newsletter in your inbox, click here.

Nine years ago, Boris Nemtsov spoke out against Russian aggression in Ukraine. Then he was killed -- and now, a year after Moscow launched its large-scale invasion, some of his closest allies are being jailed for their criticism of what one called a "criminal, unprovoked, and aggressive war."

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

A Killing Near The Kremlin

At a rally in Moscow nine years ago this month, opposition politician Boris Nemtsov spoke out clearly and adamantly against Moscow's aggression in Ukraine, where Russian forces had occupied Crimea and the Kremlin was fomenting discord in the Donbas.

Less than a year later, Nemtsov was dead -- gunned down on a bridge in the shadow of the Kremlin on February 27, 2015. He was 55.

Not long afterward, it emerged that Nemtsov had been matching his vocal criticism of Russia's actions in Ukraine with efforts to provide damning evidence: He and associates had been working on a report detailing evidence of the extent of Moscow's interference in the neighboring country, which -- like Russia -- became an independent nation with internationally accepted borders when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

With hindsight, it is reasonable to suspect -- as many do -- that Nemtsov was killed to silence perhaps the most prominent Russian critic of Moscow's growing interference in Ukraine. When he spoke at the rally on March 15, 2014, Russia was about to stage a plebiscite that it used -- despite broad international condemnation -- to justify its armed takeover of Crimea.

By the time of his assassination, the Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula was firmly in Moscow's grip and war between Kyiv's forces and Russian-backed separatists -- supported at crucial times by regular Russian troops sent across the border -- was raging in the Donbas, further northeast.

Today, such suspicions seem all the more reasonable in light of the large-scale invasion President Vladimir Putin launched on February 24, 2022.

There's no conclusive evidence that Nemtsov was killed because of his opposition to Russian aggression against Ukraine. That's in part because while five men from the Chechnya region were convicted in 2017, the person or people who ordered the crime have not been identified, let alone arrested or prosecuted -- with many observers suspecting a genuine investigation would likely lead to the Kremlin or the Kremlin-backed leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov.

In any case, though, some of Nemtsov's remarks at the rally now seem as prescient as they were passionate.

"I believe that we have no right to behave this way toward a friendly country," Nemtsov said. "It's despicable, it's impudent -- and most important, it is harmful for Russia."

Creating An Enemy

Putin would get "an enemy in the form of Ukraine," he said, and Russia would get a flood of body bags being shipped home to the families of soldiers thrown into battle.

"I have thought for a long time about what arguments Putin has for conducting himself this way -- any argument at all. The simplest answer: He is a sick person, a very mentally ill person," Nemtsov went on. "And then I thought, no, he is not just a sick person. He is also a cynical and despicable person. Using the operation for the occupation and annexation of Crimea, he wants to rule us forever, until Russia dies.... He has decided on open dictatorship."

"We should say no to war!" he thundered. "We should say enough of idiocy! We should say Russia and Ukraine without Putin! Russia and Ukraine without Putin!"

Tens of thousands of people attended the anti-war march and rally at which Nemtsov spoke -- the biggest opposition demonstration since the series of protests in 2011-12 sparked by anger over election fraud and Putin's decision to return to the presidency after a stint as prime minister.

The Kremlin clampdown on dissent that came in response to that challenge intensified after Putin took office in May 2012. The state turned the screws even tighter in 2021, targeting opposition leader Aleksei Navalny and others, and took further steps to crush dissent when it launched the large-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Navalny, who barely survived a nerve-agent poisoning in 2020 that he blames on Putin, is serving a lengthy prison term on charges he says are fabricated. Ahead of the anniversary of the invasion, he issued a 15-point statement condemning the "unjust war of aggression" that he said Putin "unleashed...under ridiculous pretexts."

'Nothing To Discuss'

Navalny called for a Russian withdrawal from all of Ukraine and respect for its borders as "internationally recognized and defined in 1991," writing: "Russia also recognized these borders back then, and it must recognize them today as well. There is nothing to discuss here."

He echoed some of the arguments Nemtsov made nine years ago, writing that the "real reasons for this war are the political and economic problems within Russia, Putin's desire to hold on to power at any cost, and his obsession with his own historical legacy."

Months after Nemtsov's killing, his friend and fellow opposition politician Ilya Yashin presented the report on Russian involvement in the Donbas war, which had been completed by allies of the slain former regional governor and first deputy prime minister.

Yashin, a local lawmaker who was chairman of his Moscow district council in 2017-21, was sentenced to 8 1/2 years in prison in December over criticism of what he has called Russia's "monstrous war" in Ukraine, after being convicted under a law signed by Putin days after the invasion.

The charge stemmed from YouTube posts in which Yashin spoke about the killings of civilians in Bucha, a city outside Kyiv where survivors, rights activists, and Ukrainian authorities say Russian forces committed atrocities before withdrawing following Russia's failure to capture the capital.

Another close Nemtsov associate who is now behind bars is Vladimir Kara-Murza, who has been jailed in Moscow since April 2022 and faces up to 24 years in prison on charges of treason and other crimes. He and allies and Western governments have denounced the charges, saying they are politically motivated.

'A Straitjacket Of False Unanimity'

At an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) meeting in Vienna on March 2, U.S. Ambassador Michael Carpenter read out a letter from Kara-Murza, whom he called one of "a number of brave Russian citizens within Russia" who "spoke the truth to a brutally oppressive regime that they knew would severely punish them for daring to challenge its lies and propaganda."

In the handwritten letter, Kara-Murza condemned what he called Putin's "criminal, unprovoked, and aggressive war against Ukraine" as well as the clampdown on dissent in Russia, writing: "Just as the goal of Putin's war on Ukraine was to subdue a proud and sovereign nation, the goal of his internal war was to impose a straitjacket of false unanimity on Russian society."

"Today is a very dark time -- for Ukraine, for Russia and for the whole of this organization. But Soviet dissidents liked to say that 'night is darkest before the dawn' and history proved them right," he wrote. "Let us keep faith in a better tomorrow, a time when Russia can have a democratically elected government that will live in peace both with its own citizens and with its neighbors."

That's it from me this week.

If you want to know more, catch up on my podcast The Week Ahead In Russia, out every Monday, here on our site or wherever you get your podcasts (Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts).


Steve Gutterman

RFE/RL intern Ella Jaffe contributed to this report
  • 16x9 Image

    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

If you are in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine and hold a Russian passport or are a stateless person residing permanently in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine, please note that you could face fines or imprisonment for sharing, liking, commenting on, or saving our content, or for contacting us.

To find out more, click here.

About This Newsletter

Week In Russia
Steve Gutterman

The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward. It's written by Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

To receive The Week In Russia in your inbox, click here.

And be sure not to miss Steve's The Week Ahead In Russia podcast. It's posted here every Monday or you can subscribe on iTunes or on Google Podcasts.

Blog Archive

The Week In Russia

If you're interested in Russia, you'll love Steve Gutterman's The Week In Russia.

The editor of RFE/RL's Russia Desk dissects some of the key developments over the previous week and offers some of the takeaways going forward.

Every Friday, direct to your in-box. Here are earlier editions.

Please submit your e-mail address below. The newsletter is, and always will be, free of charge.

You can find our privacy policy and terms of use here.