When opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, the charismatic former deputy prime minister and exposer of Kremlin corruption in the Olympic Games, was assassinated last year, President Vladimir Putin was widely misreported as taking “personal control” of the investigation. In fact, as his spokesman Dmitry Peskov later explained, Putin had assigned the heads of Russia’s three top law-enforcement agencies themselves to take control of the sensational case involving one of Russia’s best known critics gunned down within steps of the Kremlin.
Since then, we’ve barely heard from the Investigative Committee, the Federal Security Service and the Interior Ministry in a year; nearly all press reports on the progress of the case come from staged leaks to the media, which are sometimes contradictory.
Within days of the killing, five Chechen suspects were apprehended, and one had blown himself up when police came to the door. Ruslan Geremeyev and Ruslan Mukhatdinov, two Chechen Internal Troops employees said to have organized the hit in a shady “tender” for murder among Chechen gunmen hanging around Moscow’s President Hotel, effortlessly escaped the country despite very belatedly being called for questioning.
If the Kremlin wanted to distract the opposition and the independent media’s attention away from Putin and his close aides and their possible motives and means for the murder, they couldn’t have thought of a better way to do it than by fingering the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov.
The opposition — including Nemtsov himself, an early critic of Kadyrov’s “personal army” in the Chechen Interior Ministry — already had enormous antagonism toward the strongman they believed was responsible for disappearances and murders of both his own associates and human rights critics like Natalya Estemirova. Popular blogger Oleg Kashin pointedly posted a poll asking readers to pick between the FSB and Kadyrov – if they had to – and overwhelmingly their choice was for the FSB as something resembling law and order more than the whims of a former partisan fighter now living like a king.
When Vladimir Markin, spokesman for the Investigative Committee, did finally speak on the Nemtsov case, it was only to claim paradoxically that Boris’ murder didn’t fit the definition of “assassination” for political reasons under Russian law, and the two suspected organizers had slipped away. Novaya Gazeta reported that the Investigative Committee’s head, Aleksandr Bastrykin, widely known for contriving cases against political opponents of the regime and threatening Novaya Gazeta‘s own editor with execution in the woods had failed to sign the orders to apprehend them.
Now the investigation has assembled 66 volumes of material evidence said to definitively link the Chechen suspects to the murder, and Kadyrov himself has had to somewhat walk back his former enthusiasm for the trigger man, Zaur Dadayev, who “neutralized” a lot of Chechen terrorists in his day before stalking Nemtsov.
Missing the obvious — Putin’s role in Nemtsov’s murder
The world, and even the more involved opposition, were mollified by the quick arrests and the Chechen vector and have stopped asking the obvious question: if Kadyrov really was involved ordering the murder, then it would have to be done with Putin’s consent, as Putin has continued to praise Kadyrov, shower awards on him, and describe him as an “effective” ruler. Putin blandly deflected indignant questions from reporters marveling at how he could stand by Kadyrov, even as the Chechen leader sanctioned violation of Russian law by issuing “shoot to kill” orders against any police from other republics who might make hot pursuit of a Chechen suspect back to his republic, and while he ordered the homes of relatives of terrorists to be burned.
Yet the questions asked repeatedly by former deputy energy minister Vladimir Milov, a close associate of Nemtsov in the opposition, remain. How could the FSB tails of Nemtsov – which have been caught on camera – not have stopped the murder? Nemtsov was in a zone protected by the prestigious Federal Protection Service which guards the top Kremlin leaders and Kremlin grounds, so how could the murder take place and the suspects escape? Viktor Zolotov, Putin’s personal bodyguard and later commander of the Internal Troops, is the suspects’ ultimate superior and he also sent his people to meet with Kadyrov’s men to “manage” the investigation, according to Novaya Gazeta.‘s investigation, so was this murder called in from the top?
Kadyrov claims the Kremlin – and himself – had no “need” to kill Nemtsov. His claim is echoed by Western analysts who counter that Putin would only worsen his reputation with such an obvious hit on a critic who was never likely to come anywhere near power again. Of course, with the London High Court’s ruling that Putin “likely” ordered the assassination of former spy Alexander Litvinenko with polonium, a high-risk murder with little political reward for the Kremlin, the possibility that Putin at least approved of Nemtsov’s assassination cannot be so easily dismissed.
What would Putin’s motive be? Nemtsov not only upstaged the President’s showcase of the Sochi Olympics by exposing all the graft and corruption surrounding it; he openly called for sanctions against Russia when Crimea was annexed and the Donbass was invaded. His report exposing actual Russian tanks and troops in Ukraine was not news, but his publication of it in a context where he could turn out tens of thousands of people to protest was indeed a significant challenge. It was on the eve of an anti-war march also protesting the handle of the mainly self-induced economic crisis that Boris Yefimovich was killed – becoming the first former Kremlin official to be assassinated in Moscow since the Stalin era.
Why should the world care if one more dissident is murdered in Russia, joining the queue of hundreds in the last decades? The targeting of Nemtsov successfully scattered the opposition’s most powerful voices – some fled the country, some were bogged down in fabricated criminal cases and some grew more cautious. The few who remain are subjected to incredibly intense pressure exemplified not only by Chechen policemen throwing cakes at former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov and disrupting Ilya Yashin’s press conference during the release of a report critical of Kadyrov, but a million people marching in Grozny with posters claiming Kasyanov and his colleagues are “traitors” and endless state media smearing and heckling. It’s already clear, due to this crackdown as well as further constraints passed by the State Duma on candidates, journalists and poll monitors, that the parliamentary elections later this year will not lead to any “incremental changes” to curb Putin’s autocracy. They will solidify it. Indeed, Putin may have feared that the brittleness of his authoritarian regime would shatter if Nemtsov and his friends got into the parliament.
When a civilian opposition cannot rein in the military – or indeed, even find out about army casualties because the information is classified – a country can become more bellicose with impunity. The relentless crackdown on Russia’s fragile civil society that began against the anti-Putin demonstrators of 2011 upset about election fraud has led inevitably to the invasion of Ukraine, the further subjugation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the intimidation of the European Union and the devastating bombing of the armed opponents of Assad as well as civilians. The assassination of Nemtsov was both a result and a further cause of the Kremlin’s ongoing aggression and the world should demand justice for the sake of its own freedom as well as Russia’s.