Chechen involvement in the murder of the prominent Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, on February 27, was considered one of the most probable versions of what happened from the outset of the official investigation. However, the arrest of Chechen suspects by the Russian Drug Control Agency (Gosnarkokontrol) in Ingushetia (Rusplt.ru, March 13) added more uncertainty to the story. Three Russian federal agencies are dealing with the Chechen suspects—the Investigative Committee, the Federal Security Service (FSB) and the Ministry of Interior. The Chechen suspects include members of armed units under the command of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov as well as a member of the pro-Ukrainian Jokhar Dudaev battalion, which is fighting against the Russians in Ukraine’s Donetsk region (Tvrain.ru, March 8).
The Federal Drug Control Agency, however, withdrew from the investigation, seemingly forgetting that it had arrested the main suspect, Zaur Dadaev, in Ingushetia. Investigators are disinclined to consider the questions of Dadaev’s sister, who is asking why nobody is talking about the commander of the Sever battalion, Alibek Delimkhanov, given that Dadaev is the unit’s deputy commander. According to Dadaev’s sister, the battalion’s commander accompanied him to Moscow and back (Novayagazeta.ru, March 13). Alibek Delimkhanov is the brother of State Duma deputy Adam Delimkhanov and a cousin of Ramzan Kadyrov (Openrussia.org, March 9). Had Dadaev actually killed Nemtsov near the windows of the Russian president’s office in the Kremlin, he would have been setting up his commander, Ramzan Kadyrov, and President Vladimir Putin himself, which casts doubt on the veracity of these claims. The arrests of the Chechens are most likely a sign of a campaign being waged against Kadyrov at the federal level.
Kadyrov posted twice about the incident on his Instagram account, praising Dadaev, his subordinate from the Sever battalion of the interior ministry, (Instagram, March 13), and signaling that he was not giving up on his man. Moreover, Kadyrov accused Russian media of a conspiracy against him. He mentioned pressure by the Russians, although he, again, also accused the West of involvement. Meanwhile, the FSB started to flood the media with information about foreign plots. Chechens living outside Russia were once more seen as best suited for this role, in particular Adam Osmaev, who was arrested in Odessa, Ukraine, several years ago and accused of a conspiracy to assassinate President Vladimir Putin (Lenta.ru, accessed March 19). Last February, Osmaev became the head of the pro-Ukrainian Jokhar Dudaev battalion, replacing General Isa Munaev who was killed near Debaltseve in eastern Ukraine (News.liga.net, February 3).
Russian officials started to investigate the involvement of Ukraine in the killing of Nemtsov, supposedly with the aim of destabilizing Russia and undermining the credibility of the Russian authorities (Izvestia, March 3). National Anticorruption Committee chairman Kirill Kabanov, Russian State Duma Committee for Security member Ilya Kostunov and other Russian officials began to discuss Ukraine’s role in the crime, suggesting that the United States was also involved. The tabloid Moskovsky Komsomolets, which has millions of readers, cited an anonymous FSB officer who said that the brazen assassination of the prominent politician was tied to Ukraine and, in particular, to Adam Osmaev (Mk.ru, March 13). This Ukrainian connection is strange since to the main suspect in the killing, Zaur Dadaev, in the past sent members of his own unit into Ukraine to kill Chechen commanders of pro-Ukrainian forces, such as Osmaev. Indeed, it is well known that members of Dadaev’s Sever battalion fought alongside the Russia-backed separatist forces in eastern Ukraine, posing as “volunteers.”
Osmaev, meanwhile, denied involvement in Nemtsov’s killing, telling the Russian TV channel Dozhd he had good relations with the politician and was saddened by the news of his death (Tvrain.ru, March 14). Osmaev’s wife, Amina Okueva, echoed her husband, saying that the servicemen under his command had no relation to the crime. Okueva is the Jokhar Dudaev battalion’s spokesperson. “We respected Boris Nemtsov and express our condolences to all free people of Russia,” Okueva said (Newsru.com, March 14). Olga Shorina, the executive director of the Russian opposition party RPR-PARNAS, of which Nemtsov was one of the leaders, likewise called the idea of a Ukrainian connection to the attack ”utter nonsense” (Echo.msk.ru, March 14).
Why would Adam Osmaev want to kill one of the handful of Russian supporters of Ukraine, who openly declared his sympathies for Kyiv? Why did Russia’s FSB leak such a weak storyline? This is most likely explained by the complete disorganization of the government agencies dealing with this issue because of internal rivalries in Moscow.
Much will depend on who Vladimir Putin will support in the coming days. If Ramzan Kadyrov feels the Russian president’s support for him is unwavering, the Chechen leader’s influence will rise from that of a regional politician to that of a national figure. If Putin’s support is minimal, then it will be a signal for other government agencies of Russia to attack Kadyrov’s government.
In any case, whether Nemtsov’s killing is blamed on Chechens abroad or on Chechens inside Russia, the Chechen trail in Nemtsov’s murder protects Putin’s image from possible damage. Fifteen years after the start of the second Russian-Chechen war, those who were punished back then are now shielding Vladimir Putin from criticism. The strength of the union between Putin and Kadyrov will be tested in the immediate future.