The Chechen Link to Russian Activist's Death

11 MINS READMar 17, 2015 | 09:08 GMT
Russian Activist's Death Could Have a Chechen Link
Russia's President Vladimir Putin (L) speaks with Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov during a meeting in April 2014.

Since the death of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, theories have arisen about possible perpetrators and motives, leading to speculation that Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov might have been involved. Much of that speculation stems from the identities of the perpetrators arrested by the Federal Security Services, or FSB, which seem to indicate that the state security agency wants Kadyrov gone. In the midst of this, however, Putin has rewarded the Chechen leader with a medal of honor, solidifying his support for Kadyrov and possibly a stance against the FSB. In light of Putin's recent multiday absence from the public and sudden reappearance, the intrigue surrounding the Kremlin is getting murkier.

Nemtsov was shot in the back four times on a bridge next to the Kremlin on Feb. 27, two days before he was set to participate in a rally protesting the current government. On March 8, FSB chief Alexander Bortnikov announced the arrest of two men (Zaur Dadaev and Anzor Gubashev, who are relatives) and the detainment of another three (Shagid Gubashev, Tamerlan Eskerkhanov and Khamzad Bakhayev). All of the suspects are from the Russian Caucasus. Police attempted to detain a sixth man in the Chechen capital of Grozny, but the suspect reportedly blew himself up as police approached.

Moscow's Basmanny district court said at Dadaev's arraignment that he had confessed to the assassination. The other four suspects have not confessed. On March 10, Dadaev supposedly retracted his confession, speaking with two members of Russia's Human Rights Council, Eva Merkacheva and Andrey Babushkin. Dadaev said he pleaded guilty because he was tortured and his family threatened. Russia's Investigative Committee, known to be heavily influenced by the FSB, accused Merkacheva and Babushkin of "interfering" with the investigation and said they could be charged with violating the law for visiting Dadaev.

According to Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin, there were five possible motives for the assassination: Nemtsov's stance on the terrorist attack against French weekly Charlie Hebdo, his position against the war in Ukraine, his political activities, business activities, or certain aspects of his personal life. The committee has kept every possibility open, but the Hebdo explanation is the least convincing. Moskovsky Komsomolets, a pro-Kremlin tabloid, reported on March 10 that surveillance camera footage shows suspects tailing Nemtsov from late 2014, before the Charlie Hebdo attack in January.

Dadaev's arrest suggests a different motive. He is a former deputy commander of Chechnya's "Sever" battalion, a notorious military group set up after the 2004 assassination of Akhmad Kadyrov (Ramzan's father) that consists of Kadyrov's most zealous loyalists. Human rights groups have accused the Sever (North) and its sister battalion, Yug (South), of operating as Ramzan's death squads. The commander of the Sever Battalion is Alibek Delimkhanov, brother of Russian Duma member Adam Delimkhanov, a cousin and close associate of Kadyrov.

Kadyrov immediately took to Instagram (his media outlet of choice) the day of arrests to proclaim that Dadaev is "a true patriot" who would never take action against Russia. Kadyrov went on to say that since Dadaev is deeply religious, Nemtsov might have been killed for condemning the Charlie Hebdo attack.

Kadyrov's defense of Dadaev has led to mass speculation that Kadyrov was involved in, or even ordered, the assassination. The Chechen president has spoken out against many opposition leaders, calling them his "personal enemy." Kadyrov even threatened opposition leader Mikhail Khodorkovsky (who fled to Switzerland from Russia in 2014), saying that many people in Switzerland would be willing to bring him to justice. There was little public animosity between Nemtsov and Kadyrov, though Kadyrov may still have seen him as an enemy. Rumors persist of some link between Kadyrov and the assassination; Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta quoted anonymous FSB officials as saying Kadyrov's cousin, the lawmaker Adam Delimkhanov, organized the hit.

The Possibility of Chechen Involvement

Comparing the Nemtsov killing with previous assassinations claimed by or thought to have been conducted by Chechens lends plausibility to the idea of a Chechen link to Nemtsov's death. Kadyrov assumed power in the Chechen Republic after his father's assassination. The power struggle that led up to his presidency coincided with several assassinations of critics or potential rivals both within Chechnya and abroad. Some of these killings bore broad similarities to the tactics used in the Nemtsov assassination.

Movladi Baisarov, who had become an outspoken critic of Kadyrov, was killed in Moscow in 2006 after gunmen shot him at point-blank range as he exited his car. Ruslan Yamadayev, one of Kadyrov's primary rivals for power in Chechnya, met a similar fate. As Yamadayev left a meeting in the Kremlin with then-Russian President Dmitri Medvedev in 2008, he was shot several times as he waited in his car on the Smolenskaya Embankment in central Moscow.

Investigators did not officially link these cases to Chechen interests, but the killings do serve as a broad indicator that what happened to Nemtsov was not necessarily unique in terms of tactics used against political opponents, even in the heart of Moscow. That said, many of the assassinations involving Kadyrov's rivals, both in Chechnya and in cities such as Moscow, Dubai and Vienna, are believed to have been carried out or arranged by Chechens in service of Chechen interests. Thus, it is entirely possible that Chechens murdered Nemtsov in central Moscow, if doing so would serve Chechen interests or if they had a specific motivation. However, the tactics used are not the sole province of Chechens. A professional assassination, it was simple and effective and left little in the way of clues to point to a specific perpetrator.

Kadyrov's Behavior

Kadyrov's behavior both publicly and on social media since the assassination, along with his defense of Dadaev, has fueled suspicions about his involvement. On March 4, the Chechen president posted a picture on Instagram of him and Russian President Vladimir Putin laughing and embracing. Kadyrov also heaped praise on the Russian leader, bashed the West's belief that sanctions would harm Russia, and said he would lay down his life for Putin.

A photo posted to Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov's Instagram account shows the Chechen leader (L) with Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Instagram @kadyrov_95)

The day after Bortinikov announced the arrests of the Chechens suspected of the Nemtsov murder, Kadyrov was in Moscow receiving from Putin one of Russia's highest awards, the Order of Honor, purportedly for his years of diligent professional and social work. The very public display of support from Putin, particularly the day after Kadyrov defended one of the arrested suspects, ignited a media storm. Russian and foreign media began speculating about whether, if Kadyrov was indeed behind the Nemtsov assassination, he did it for Putin, under Putin's orders or to impress the Russian president. Later that day, Kadyrov said on Instagram that he and his friends went to a shooting range, and he posted a video of him with his famous golden gun, supporting his tough-guy image just as he was named a hero of Russia.

A photo posted to Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov's Instagram account shows him at a firing range with his trademark gold pistol. (Instagram @kadyrov_95)

On March 11, Kadyrov attended a Russian Security Council meeting on extremism in the North Caucasus and reportedly met with Security Council chief Nikolai Patrushev on the sidelines. This meeting was particularly important for two reasons. First, the FSB and Kadyrov have not hidden their dislike for each other over the years, so a meeting of Kadyrov and the former FSB chief is always noteworthy. Second, the meeting came on the same day that rumors that Putin was either missing, ill or dead swirled out of Moscow. Some of the rumors surrounding Putin's mysterious absence pointed to a possible coup by the security forces, of which Patrushev would be a primary component, if not the leader.

That same day, Kadyrov posted a picture from October 2014 on Instagram showing him at a meeting between Putin and Emirati Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nuhayyan. Russian media speculated that the posting was meant to highlight Kadyrov's involvement in Russia's foreign policy and to show the Chechen leader as Putin's right hand.

A photo posted to Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov's Instagram account shows him at a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin and United Arab Emirates Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nuhayyan. (Instagram @kadyrov_95)

Rumored FSB-Kadyrov Feud

FSB chief Bortnikov's appearance on Russian Channel One television to announce the arrests of Nemtsov's killers and the fact that the suspects are Chechen — one with a personal link to Kadyrov — has reignited rumors that the FSB is targeting Kadyrov. Such an announcement would normally be handled by the Investigative Committee, not the FSB chief.

The founder of a Muslim journalist association in Russia, Orkhan Dzhemal, said Bortnikov was targeting Kadyrov and attempting to erode the ties between Putin and Kadyrov. Reports of intensifying struggles between Kadyrov and the FSB (particularly Bortnikov, Patrushev and Kremlin chief of staff Sergei Ivanov) rose across Russian media, which has for years accepted that the FSB and Kadyrov have had a feud. Whether or not Kadyrov was behind the assassination, the FSB has made a point to link the two. 

In the mid-2000s, a series of reportedly FSB-employed assets in Chechnya were assassinated, including former special operations commander Movladi Baisarov, with speculation that Kadyrov's factions were behind the killings. In 2008, there was a rumored plot by Kadyrov's forces to assassinate Patrushev. The FSB's influence within Chechnya reportedly has dwindled in recent years as Kadyrov has entrenched his own brigades throughout the Chechen security system. In June 2014, Kadyrov announced that he was setting up a center in Chechnya to train his troops to the standards of Russia's Interior Ministry, the FSB, and other security agencies. Kadyrov hired a former FSB major, Daniil Martynov, who was part of an FSB special operations unit known as Alfa and had served as the president's personal bodyguard. Martynov's comrade in Alfa, Sergei Goncharov, said the FSB had not sanctioned the move.

There have also been growing concerns throughout Russia's security apparatus over the lack of influence over Chechnya's battalions and Kadyrov's intentions. Members of Russia's Duma have even called for a hearing to discuss the matter. In December 2014, Kadyrov gathered some 20,000 of his troops, fully armed and wearing backpacks, in a sports stadium. Kadyrov told the troops they could resign and volunteer to go to fight in Ukraine, but that he was waiting for Putin's order. He ended the speech by rallying the soldiers, chanting, "Long live our national leader of Russia Vladimir Putin!" Kadyrov's flattery of Putin has led to speculation that the Chechen president is vying for a federal position in Moscow.

The issue now is whether the struggle between Kadyrov and the FSB is truly heating back up — and where Putin stands within the fray. The series of events indicates that something is brewing. First, Nemtsov was assassinated, and the FSB arrested Kadyrov-linked Chechens for the crime. Kadyrov defended one of the suspects, sparking media rumors of his involvement in the killing. The following day, Putin gave Kadyrov a federal medal. Later, Kadyrov and Patrushev met.

There are countless explanations for what is taking place. Putin's honoring Kadyrov just as the Chechen leader re-entered the FSB's sights is a key development. It is possible that Putin wanted to make sure the FSB knows that Kadyrov is a loyalist and cannot be removed from his position in Chechnya for fear of destabilization. And it is possible that during their meeting, Patrushev wanted to ensure that Kadyrov knows his place.

Adding to the confusion is Putin's disappearance from the public eye for days and his cancellation of many meetings. In addition, Kadyrov's only other ally in the Kremlin, Putin's adviser Vladislav Surkov, left Russia for a sudden vacation with his family in Hong Kong on the very day the media noticed Putin's disappearance. Putin reappeared in public March 16 for a meeting with Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev in St. Petersburg. Putin's public absence led to a flurry of media speculation that he was ill, dead or missing — or that a coup was underway behind the scenes.

During Putin's absence from the public, Kadyrov continued his unwavering support for the Russian leader, releasing a long diatribe on Instagram stating his full commitment to Putin and his readiness to fight Russia's enemies. He added that he owes his life to Putin and is "committed to him as a man," whatever his political position. Thus, wherever Putin was or whoever was in charge during his disappearance, Kadyrov was tying himself to Putin on a personal level.

The possibility that Russia's premier security agency, the FSB, and one of Russia's most powerful and unwieldy figures, Kadyrov, are sparring would be a matter for Putin to resolve. Whether or not Putin's absence was related to this confrontation, the inconsistencies in the Kremlin's explanations of Putin's absence seem to indicate that the FSB was a factor somehow

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