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A Kremlin Conspiracy Gone Wrong?

Nemtsov Memorial.jpg
A memorial for slain opposition leader Boris Nemtsov at the site of his February 27 shooting in Moscow

Last week, when Russian authorities rounded up five Chechen suspects in the assassination of leading opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, it appeared the Kremlin was following a predictable path. After offering numerous far-fetched hypotheses about who committed the murder and why, the Russian Investigative Committee settled on the same explanation it has put forth in numerous past political murders, including that of Anna Politkovskaya: the Chechens did it.

According to the usual pattern, the suspects would then be expected to confess, a motive would be concocted—in this case, that Nemtsov had made statements against Russian Islamists—and the crime would be declared solved. But hardly anyone in Russia seems to believe that this is why Nemtsov was killed, or indeed, that these suspects, if they were the killers, acted on their own. Instead, the arrests have led to new speculation about the Kremlin’s involvement in the murder. They also appear to be causing an internal struggle within the government itself—a struggle that could help explain President Vladimir Putin’s absence from public view for over a week.

Russian authorities have accused one of the five Chechens, Zaur Dadayev, of organizing the crime, but even if he did, it is unlikely that he would have decided to do so on his own. Dadayev was a deputy commander of the crack “North” battalion, which is based in the Chechen capital of Grozny and is under the patronage of the authoritarian Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, a close Putin loyalist. Many commentators think that Dadayev would not have undertaken such a bold assassination—in the center of Moscow just minutes from the Kremlin—without Kadyrov’s explicit orders.

But the chain of command would have to go higher than the Chechen president. Although Kadyrov runs Chechnya like a fiefdom, and has for years cracked down on his enemies with impunity, even reportedly using death squads against them, his powers have clear limits in the Russian capital. On Friday, I spoke with Akhmed Zakaev, head of the Chechen government in exile, who is based in London, and he stressed that Kadyrov would never embark on a mission to kill such a prominent figure as Boris Nemtsov without Putin’s approval. Kadyrov, he said, “can do what he wants in Chechnya, but not in Moscow or Russia. It is most likely that Nemtsov was assassinated because it was Putin’s wish.”

Yet even if Zakaev is right, it is hard to explain why Putin would then go out of his way to praise Kadyrov in public. On March 9, just two days after the arrests of Dadayev and the other four Chechens was made public, the Kremlin announced that it had awarded Kadyrov a medal of honor for his service to the Russian state. (Amazingly, at the same time, Putin also conferred a medal of honor on Andrei Lugovoy, the prime suspect in the fatal 2006 poisoning in London of Alexander Litvinenko, an ex-KGB officer who was an outspoken enemy of Putin. As it happens, a British public inquiry into the Litvinenko murder is now taking place, in which Lugovoy’s name has been coming up almost daily.)

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov immediately dismissed the timing of the two awards as a coincidence. But to many observers it looked like Putin was implicitly endorsing those who may have been responsible for the killings of Litvinenko and Nemtsov. To make matters worse for Putin, on Friday Kadyrov affirmed his admiration for Dadayev—and his lethal fighting skills—on instagram: “He is a real warrior and patriot. In one battle alone…he destroyed eight of the most dangerous terrorists.” Kadyrov added that he himself was completely devoted to President Putin and was ready until the end of his days to fight against Russia’s “enemies.”

In fact, Kadyrov’s reckless sponsorship of murders of Chechens abroad who are perceived to be enemies of Moscow has long troubled Russia’s main security agency, the FSB, according to several Russian sources, and the rapid arrest of Kadyrov’s associate in the Nemtsov case may have in part been an attempt to rein in his lawlessness. But Putin apparently owes a great deal to Kadyrov. Zakaev told me that Putin probably gave Kadyrov the medal of honor days after the Chechen arrests as a way to send a message to Russia’s security officials that “Kadyrov is not to be touched.”

In the meantime information has continued to emerge that undermines the official story that Dadayev was the mastermind of Nemtsov’s murder. According to the initial reports by the Investigative Committee, Dadayev confessed to the crime. But on March 11 a journalist for Moskovskii Komsomolets and several human rights activists managed to get into Moscow’s Lefortovo Prison, where Dadayev and two other suspects had been held since March 5. Dadayev told them that he had spent two days in shackles with a hood over his head, waiting for his appearance in court so he could proclaim his innocence. He claimed that he had been denied a lawyer, coerced into a false confession by investigators, and beaten and tortured, along with the two others who were in Lefortovo. The activists visiting the prison reported that there was clear evidence the men had been physically abused. Russian authorities claim the prison visit was a breach of protocol and have threatened the human rights activists with criminal prosecution.

Also, the head of the Kadyrov’s North Battalion let it be known after Dadayev’s arrest that Dadayev had been dismissed from service on February 28, the day after the shooting. This suggests that the Investigative Committee had either worked incredibly fast to solve the crime, or, more likely, that they knew in advance that Dadayev would be implicated. Then, on March 11, sources in the law enforcement agencies told the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta that the mastermind of the Nemtsov murder was not Dadayev but a member of his regiment named “Ruslan.” And on Saturday, Ekho Moskvy cited an anonymous FSB source claiming that a Chechen fighter who is now in Ukraine, Adam Osmayev, was the one who ordered the crime.

Of course it is entirely possible that some of the accused did in fact carry out the murder, but the idea that these men decided to kill Nemtsov on their own is far-fetched. The circumstances of the killing—the timing, the location, and the precision of the shots, which killed Nemtsov from behind and did not hit his companion—indicates a highly professional, carefully prepared undertaking that required sophisticated surveillance of Nemtsov to determine his intended route home that evening. It seems very unlikely that this could have been accomplished without the involvement of some part of the security services, probably the Federal Protective Service (FSO), which is directly subordinate to Putin and operates surveillance cameras in the exact area where Nemtsov was shot.

Above all, the suggestion by Kadyrov that the killers were incensed by statements Nemtsov had made against radical Islam after the terrorist attacks in Paris in January makes little sense. As Ruslan Khasbulatov, a Chechen who was a leading national politician in the early Yeltsin years, said recently:

Nemtsov never expressed anti-Chechen views. On the contrary, during the first Chechen War, Nemtsov collected almost a million signatures against the war in the Nizhegorod region where he was governor—which caused Yeltsin great displeasure.

In early 2001, when Nemtsov was deputy speaker of the State Duma, he came up with a detailed plan, never adopted, for governing Chechnya that would have ended the conflict there and paved the way for Chechnya to become a parliamentary republic.

Far more plausible, as I have pointed out, is the theory that Putin wanted Nemtsov out of the picture because of his increasingly harsh, unremitting campaign against the Kremlin for its military involvement in the Ukrainian crisis. As many observers have noted, Nemtsov was about to publish a damning report on Russia’s Ukraine campaign, called “Putin: The War.” This week, Nemtsov’s long-time aide Olga Shorina explained to me by telephone from Moscow that immediately after Nemtsov’s murder the security services raided his apartment and removed his computer and papers relating to the report—apparently in an effort to keep the report from getting out.

According to Shorina, however, Nemtsov had taken the precaution of placing much of the documentation for the report elsewhere. She and Ilya Yashin, co-leader of Nemtsov’s opposition party, are now putting together the information, she said, and with the help of outside experts, doing further reporting that Nemtsov had planned. Shorina and Yashina hope to finish the report and publish a million copies in April. When I asked Shorina if Russian authorities might try to obstruct publication, she replied with a laugh: “Well, they could try but I don’t see how they could do it. And in any case, the report will be based entirely on open sources.” She added that Boris was not a purveyor of secrets: “Everything he said and wrote was out in the open.”

Tragically, it was precisely this openness that made Nemtsov such an enemy to the Kremlin. Nemtsov made no secret of the fact that he lobbied western governments to impose sanctions against Kremlin officials and institutions because of the war in Ukraine. Vladimir Milov, Nemtsov’s longtime colleague and fellow oppositionist, who coauthored earlier investigations of the Kremlin with Nemtsov, said on his blog this week:

The top Russian leadership considered Nemtsov ‘personally responsible’ for the sanctions and for suggesting which sanctions (blocking access to credit above all) would be the most effective. In a sense this could be revenge, similar to [the case of] Litvinenko. Nemtsov was not just considered a politician, playing this or that role in Russia, but the person, in the Kremlin’s opinion, ‘guilty’ for the difficult situation the Putin establishment found itself in because of sanctions.

Whatever the hostility the Kremlin seems to have felt toward Nemtsov, it appears that some in Putin’s circle, including officials in the FSB, think that this time Putin has gone too far. Zakaev, the exiled Chechen leader, told me: “Putin has to either give up Kadyrov or take full responsibility for Nemtsov’s murder. Throughout Putin’s time in power, this is the first time we see such a huge disagreement within Putin’s team.”

At the very least, the shocking murder of Boris Nemtsov and the clumsy way the investigation has been conducted have created a serious credibility problem for Putin. Democratic oppositionist Alexey Navalny has said that the only thing that could refute his theory that the murder of Nemtsov was ordered by the Russian president would be a completely transparent, thorough investigation. But the more conflicting accounts that emerge—and the longer Putin remains out of public view—the less transparent the case becomes.