Six weeks after the assassination of prominent Russian opposition figure Boris Nemtsov near the Kremlin in Moscow, authorities have failed to present a coherent explanation for the crime. As one observer has pointed out: “It looks like the Kremlin has quickly cooled to the investigation. It is understandable since in [President Vladimir] Putin’s eyes, the crime has been solved and he already knows who organized the murder, when and why. For him, the case has been closed and that means we are unlikely to know the truth soon” (Slon.ru, April 7).
Shortly after Nemtsov was killed, on February 27, numerous leaks started to emerge in the media that pointed to the involvement Chechen officials in the murder. Five Chechens were arrested and one allegedly killed himself by detonating a grenade when the police tried to arrest him in Chechnya. At least three of the suspects had served in police and interior ministry militarized units in Chechnya, both of which are under the personal control of the republic’s strongman, Ramzan Kadyrov. According to an extensive investigative report by the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, Nemtsov’s killing created a crisis in the Russian government, with Kadyrov clashing with the Federal Security Service (FSB) over the incident. The FSB was increasingly frustrated with the growing power and impunity of Kadyrov and his forces. While the security situation in Chechnya was still precarious, the security services tolerated Kadyrov’s “excesses,” but as soon as the situation in the republic calmed down, they started to push back. Novaya Gazeta hinted that Kadyrov was involved in attempts on the lives of, among others, Saigidpasha Umakhanov, the mayor of Khasavyurt, Dagestan and Isa Yamadaev of the Yamadaev clan, which had been at loggerheads with Kadyrov and others. Novaya Gazeta said that Putin was facing the stark choice of picking between Kadyrov and the FSB (Novaya Gazeta, March 10).
The struggle between Kadyrov and the Russian security services has been unusually public, with Russian media reporting on the alleged confession of one of the suspects, and on ties between the suspects and people in Kadyrov’s inner circle. Kadyrov, for his part, defended the suspects via Instagram and accused the “enemies of Russia” of being behind Nemtsov’s killing. The defense of the suspects sometimes took grotesque forms. The commander of a squadron in Chechnya’s Sever (North) battalion, Ruslan Geremeyev, remained out of reach of Russian investigators in the heavily guarded Chechen village of Zhalka. The detained suspects reportedly mentioned Geremeyev’s name while under interrogation and the authorities also want to interrogate Geremeyev. According to reports, Geremeyev was even briefly arrested in Chechnya on March 8, but he then disappeared and was inaccessible to investigators until at least March 25. Multiple sources reported that Ruslan Geremeyev had close family links to State Duma Deputy Adam Delimkhanov, Kadyrov’s cousin and close associate (Rosbalt, March 25).
Kadyrov and his entourage have been quite successful in shielding people from the Russian investigators, while the latter have been willing to leak information about these efforts. The investigators reportedly eventually managed to question Geremeyev, but it is unclear whether they could follow up with an arrest if needed (Rbc.ru, March 27). On April 11, the well-known Russian journalist Yulia Latynina refuted the authorities’ claims that they had questioned Geremeyev. According to Latynina, the giant Russian propaganda machine, built to prevent a “color revolution” in Russia, is currently fighting the investigation of Nemtsov’s murder and a high-profile Moscow official like Vladislav Surkov could be behind the campaign (Ekho Moskvy, April 11).
An investigative report by Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper indicated that the authorities were able to arrest four of the five suspects currently in custody only after they crossed over from Chechnya into Ingushetia. The newspaper also reported that the primary suspect, Zaurbek Dadaev, was not a mere member of the Sever battalion, but served as the head of Adam Delimkhanov’s bodyguard detail in Moscow. Kadyrov claimed that, at the time of Nemtsov’s murder, Dadaev was no longer a member of the armed forces. However, Dadaev was unlikely to have left the service until the very moment of Nemtsov’s murder, according to Komsomolskaya Pravda, because both of the reasons given for his putative departure from service—he himself said it was because his house was destroyed, while Kadyrov said Dadaev left the service because his mother was ill and needed to be taken care of—turned out to be false. Kosomolskaya Pravda’s reporter Uliana Skobeida also showed that nearly all the popular official versions of what moved Dadaev to kill Nemtsov were false. Concluding the article, she wrote: “It is now up to the Investigative Committee to question the individuals that people in our investigation and the suspects pointed to. Everybody should be equal before law. If Chechnya is Russia, of course.” An indicator of how good Skobeida’s reporting was is perhaps the fact that the rest of the Russian media practically ignored the sensational material put together by the journalist, including a photograph of Adam Delimkhanov’s massive house in Dzhalka which, the newspaper noted in its caption, looked more like an “airport terminal” (Komsomolskaya Pravda, April 2).
Shortly after the Chechen servicemen were implicated in the murder of Nemtsov, Kadyrov and his entourage reportedly took a long holiday in Dubai “to stay out of public attention for a while” (The Daily Beast, April 9). Still, the question remains who killed Boris Nemtsov, and why; neither Kadyrov nor the Russian investigators appear to be willing to back down. Kadyrov does not seem to be in a position to give up the key suspects, who are his subordinates, while Moscow is not closing down its investigation of the Chechen suspects.
Kadyrov must have received some reassurances from his bosses in Moscow, as he recently started posing once again in photographs with top Russian officials in his frequently used Instagram account (Instagram, April 7). The overarching question, however, remains: even if Kadyrov was behind Nemtsov’s murder, why did he do it? It is unlikely that Kadyrov acted on his own initiative without at least some priming by the Russian security services or other top Russian officials.