Putins political rival was stalked by spies for a year before being murdered

Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was shot and killed while walking with his girlfriend across a bridge in Moscow not far from the Kremlin in February 2015.

While an official investigation failed to identify the person behind the killing, research by investigative news agency Bellingcat points to Russian secret service agent Valery Sukharev as being the man responsible.

The FSB, Russia’s secret service, runs a database called Magistral which tracks the movements of all Russian citizens.

There’s evidence that Sukharev used Magistral to trail Nemtsov across Russia for at least a year – often arriving in destinations a few hours before his target by studying Nemtsov’s airline and train bookings.

But while Magistral enabled the FSB assassin to keep tabs on his prey, it also allows investigators to trace Sukharev’s own movements. Data leaks of Russian government systems like Magistral frequently come up for sale on the Dark Web.

"In a corrupt society like Russia, [Magistral] is a double-edged sword," says Christo Grozev, executive director of Bellingcat.

"And it allows people like us to actually go and tail these same spies, these same FSB officers."

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He explained to the BBC: "If you're an FSB officer, you would just be able to log into that database and see, for a particular person, all of the tickets that they're purchasing, have purchased, or are buying at this very moment”.

In 2017, five Chechnyans men were found guilty by a jury in a Moscow court for agreeing to kill Nemtsov in exchange for 15 million rubles (just under £200,000) but the person that paid them was never traced.

Sukharev has been linked to assassination attempts on at least two of Vladimir Putin’s other enemies.

Shortly after Nemtsov’s friend and colleague Vladimir Kara-Murza accused Putin of involvement in the Moscow bridge shooting, he was himself poisoned and only just escaped with his life.

And in 2020, leading Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny was poisoned using Novichok.

In both cases, Magistral data puts Sukharev close to the scene of the crime. While he isn’t believed to have been part of the hit squad that poisoned Navalny, he’s known to have exchanged well over 100 phone calls or texts with several members of that team, in the days before the assassination attempt, as well as with an FSB officer further up the chain of command.

The Kremlin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, insisted to the BBC that the Russian government had no involvement in the attacks: "All of this has nothing to do with the Russian government. It looks like another fabrication."

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