Boris Nemtsov, my longtime friend and colleague in the Russian opposition, was murdered in the middle of Moscow on Friday night. Four bullets in the back ended his life in sight of the Kremlin, where he once worked as Boris Yeltsin ’s deputy prime minister. Photos showed a cleaning crew scrubbing his blood off the pavement within hours of the murder, so it is not difficult to imagine the quality of the investigation to come.
Vladimir Putin actually started, and ended, the inquiry while Boris’s body was still warm by calling the murder a “provocation,” the term of art for suggesting that the Russian president’s enemies are murdering one another to bring shame upon the shameless. He then brazenly sent his condolences to Boris’s mother, who had often warned her fearless son that his actions could get him killed in Putin’s Russia.
Hours after Boris’s death, news reports said that police were raiding his home and confiscating papers and computers. President Putin’s enemies are often victims and his victims are always suspects.
Boris was a passionate critic of Mr. Putin’s war in Ukraine and was finishing a report on the presence of Russian soldiers in the ravaged Donbas region, a matter that the Kremlin has spared no effort to cover up. But the question “Did Putin give the order?” rings as hollow today as when journalist Anna Politkovskaya was gunned down in 2006, the same year that Putin critic Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned in London—or when a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet was shot down over eastern Ukraine last year.
Certainly the arrogance of the assassins is a notable clue. They could have chosen many dark and out-of-the-way places along the same route Boris took but instead sent a message by selecting a prominent and heavily surveilled spot. Opposition leaders are always watched closely by Russia’s security services before public rallies—Boris had been planning a protest against the Ukraine war on Sunday—so how could these trained bloodhounds not notice that someone else was following him? Regardless of whether President Putin gave the order, there is no doubt that he is directly responsible for creating the conditions in which these outrages occur with such terrible frequency.
The early themes in Mr. Putin’s reign—restoring the national pride and structure that were lost with the fall of the Soviet Union—have been replaced with a toxic mix of nationalism, belligerence and hatred. By 2014 the increasingly depleted opposition movement, long treated with contempt and ridicule, had been rebranded in the Kremlin-dominated media as dangerous fifth columnists, or “national traitors,” in the vile language lifted directly from Nazi propaganda.
Mr. Putin openly shifted his support to the most repressive, reactionary and bloodthirsty elements in the regime. Among them are chief prosecutor Alexander Bastrykin, who last week declared that the Russian constitution was “standing in the way of protecting the state’s interests.” In this environment, blood becomes the coin of the realm, the way to show loyalty to the regime. This is what President Putin has wrought to keep his grip on power, a culture of death and fear that spans all 11 Russian time zones and is now being exported to eastern Ukraine.
Boris Nemtsov was a tireless fighter and one of the most skilled critics of the Putin government, a role that was by no means his only possible destiny. A successful mayor in Nizhny-Novgorod and a capable cabinet member and parliamentarian, he could have led a comfortable life in government as a token liberal voice of reform. But Boris was unqualified to work for the Putin regime. He had principles, you see, and could not bear to watch our country slide back into the totalitarian depths.
And so Boris launched his big body, big voice and big heart into the uphill battle to keep democracy alive in Russia. We worked together after he was kicked out of Parliament in 2004, and by 2007 we were close allies in the opposition movement. He was devoted to documenting the crimes and corruption of Mr. Putin and his cronies, hoping that they would one day face a justice that seemed further away all the time.
Boris and I began to quarrel after Mr. Putin returned as president in 2012. To me, the Putin return signaled the end of any realistic hopes for a peaceful political path to regime change. But Boris was always optimistic. He would tell me I was too rash, that “you have to live a long time to see change in Russia.” Now he will never see it.
We cannot know exactly what horror will come next, only that there will be another and another while President Putin remains in power. The only way his rule will end is if the Russian people and the elites understand that they have no future as long as he is there. Right now, no matter how they really feel about Mr. Putin and their lives, they see him as invincible and unmovable. They see him getting his way in Ukraine, taking territory and waging war. They see him talking tough and making deals with Angela Merkel and François Hollande. They see his enemies dead in the streets of Moscow.
Statements of condemnation and concern over the Nemtsov murder quickly poured forth from the same Western leaders who have done so much to appease the Kremlin in recent days, weeks and years. If these leaders truly wish to honor my fearless friend, they should declare their support for the many tens of thousands of marchers who turned Sunday’s protest rally into a funeral procession. Western leaders should declare in the strongest terms that Russia will be treated like the criminal rogue regime it is for as long as Mr. Putin is in power. Call off the sham negotiations. Sell weapons to Ukraine that will put an unbearable political price on Mr. Putin’s aggression. Tell Russian oligarchs, every one of them, that there is no place their money will be safe in the West as long as they serve the Putin regime.
The response so far hasn’t been encouraging. Given President Putin’s sordid record, calls from Western leaders for him to “administer justice” could almost be considered sarcastic. Western media inexplicably continue to air, unchallenged, statements by his cadre of propagandists. Many reports credulously cite Mr. Putin’s high approval rating at home, as if such a concept has any meaning in a police state. Meanwhile, the Russian media churn out preposterous and insulting conspiracy theories about the death of a man they had called an enemy of the state.
We may never know who killed Boris Nemtsov, but we do know that the sooner President Putin is gone, the better the chances are that the chaos and violence Boris feared can be avoided.
Mr. Kasparov is the chairman of the New York-based Human Rights Foundation. His book on Vladimir Putin, “Winter Is Coming,” will be published by Public Affairs in the fall.
[ This article originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal on March 1, 2015 ]