Ukraine Report Linked to Slaying of Putin Critic Boris Nemtsov Published

Authors detail what they say is Russian presence in Ukraine.

May 12, 2015, 9:55 AM

MOSCOW— -- Colleagues of the slain Russian opposition politician, Boris Nemtsov, have published a report they say details the participation of Russian troops in the war in Ukraine, which some believe may have been the reason for Nemtsov’s assassination.

Nemtsov, one of Russia’s most prominent critics of Vladimir Putin, was shot dead beneath the walls of the Kremlin in February. Among the motives considered most likely was Nemtsov’s work on the report published today, which he had been preparing when he was killed.

The 64-page report, titled “Putin. War.” compiles what its authors say is detailed evidence that Russian troops have been fighting in eastern Ukraine, contradicting claims by the Russian government that none of its forces are involved.

Russia has repeatedly rejected the idea that any of its forces have ever operated in eastern Ukraine alongside separatist rebels or that it has armed the rebels. President Vladimir Putin flatly denied the presence of Russian troops last month when asked directly on state television.

The report argues that, in fact, Russian military divisions have played a decisive role in the conflict, pushing back Ukrainian forces when they had appeared on the brink of routing the rebels. The authors calculate that at least 220 Russian soldiers have died in eastern Ukraine since 2014, fighting in an undeclared war.

Most of the information in the report was already known; it is largely a compilation of independent Russian media reports, recording the deaths of Russian troops in Ukraine, as well as photographs and witness statements.

Testimonies from relatives of dead soldiers have been trickling out for months. Reporters have repeatedly seen columns of heavy weapons crossing from Russia into Ukraine. The report says Nemtsov himself was approached by relatives of soldiers killed in Ukraine, who were denied compensation because officially their sons could not have been fighting.

PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a joint press conference with German Chancellor at the Kremlin in Moscow on May 10, 2015.
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a joint press conference with German Chancellor at the Kremlin in Moscow on May 10, 2015.
Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images

Rather than new information, the report is mostly intended as a thorough body of evidence to counteract state media claims here that the Russian military is not involved in the conflict. The majority of Russians believe the Kremlin argument that the Russian soldiers killed and captured in eastern Ukraine are volunteers, traveling there during their holidays.

“Our audience is not the Western public,” said Ilya Yashin, who presented the report today. It’s “those people who get their information from propaganda sources. Our aim is to open their eyes.”

Whether the evidence published today was enough to provoke Nemtsov’s killing is an open question. There have been attacks previously on those who have tried to report on the secret use of Russian troops: A local lawmaker was beaten up after he spoke up about the burial of two soldiers; a BBC crew was also assaulted when they tried to cover one of the burials. The report’s authors have struggled to find a printer willing to take them on, and the first print run is only 2,000 copies. Today, Yashin said the site hosting the report had suffered cyberattack.

PHOTO: Ukrainian servicemen take part in a military drill in the Zhytomyr region on April 9, 2015.
Ukrainian servicemen take part in a military drill in the Zhytomyr region on April 9, 2015.
Anatoli Stepanov/AFP/Getty Images

But Nemtsov’s colleagues say they cannot know what the real motive was.

“Nemtsov was a very inconvenient person for the powers-that-be,” Yashin told ABC in an interview last month. “What is certain is that it is a political murder. The issue of the motives behind the murder remains open.”

While possible motives remain highly speculative, the investigation into the killing has increasingly pointed toward Chechnya and senior officials related to its strongman president, Ramzan Kadyrov. Police have arrested five men. The man accused of shooting Nemtsov served in a paramilitary unit connected to Kadyrov.

Since the arrests, however, the investigation appears to have hit a dead-end. The man accused of shooting Nemtsov reportedly identified another Chechen, named Ruslan Geremeev, as having paid him and the others to do the hit. Federal police announced they were seeking to question Geremeev, who is related to two senior Chechen officials.

But, according to Russian media, when police attempted to reach him in his village in Chechnya, they were stopped by heavily armed men. Geremeev has since reportedly flown to Dubai.

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