A month and a half has passed since Boris Nemtsov, the Russian political activist who rose to prominence as a dynamic young reformer in the 1990s and later became one of the fiercest critics of Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian rule, was shot dead a few blocks from the Kremlin. The shocking murder, which quickly raised questions about the Putin regime’s culpability, has largely faded from the headlines in the Western press. But in Russia, it has become the center of a real-life crime thriller that hints at conflicts within the power structure—and a battleground of quiet but steadfast resistance to the state.
In the first days after Nemtsov’s murder on February 27, many commentators in the West and in Russia speculated it would remain officially unsolved. Yet the very next week, on March 7 and 8, the authorities announced the arrests of five suspects, initially detained in Chechnya and brought to Moscow; a sixth man, cornered in his apartment, either blew himself up with a hand grenade (the official version) or was killed by the police. The Russian media promptly reported that alleged ringleader Zaur Dadayev had confessed and that his stated motive was Nemtsov’s support for Charlie Hebdo, the French magazine whose editor was murdered, along with 11 others, by Islamists in January for publishing cartoons depicting Muhammad. Later reports said that Dadayev admitted he was promised a payment of 5 million rubles, or about $90,000. Four days after his arrest, Dadayev retracted his confession, claiming he was tortured and threatened; he reportedly confessed again, but proclaimed his innocence in an April 1 court appearance.
One obvious possibility is that Dadayev and his alleged accomplices are designated fall guys—convenient because both the “Chechen connection” and the “Islamic extremism” angle take the focus off Nemtsov’s role as a Kremlin foe. Yet Dadayev makes an odd scapegoat, considering that a trail from him leads to Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov, the former separatist warlord turned Putin’s man in Chechnya.
Until recently, 30-year-old Dadayev was a lieutenant in the elite Sever (North) battalion of Chechen special forces, regarded as Kadyrov’s personal army; he had been on leave since January and requested a discharge the day after Nemtsov’s death. His immediate superior, Major Ruslan Geremeyev, served directly under battalion chief Alibek Delimkhanov, whose older brother Adam, a deputy premier of Chechnya, has been described by the Chechen pro-separatist website Kavkaz-Center.com as “Kadyrov’s personal executioner.” Wanted by Interpol for the 2009 murder of Chechen military leader and Kadyrov rival Sulim Yamadayev in Dubai, Adam Delimkhanov is also linked to two assassinations of high-profile Kadyrov foes in Moscow. KavkazCenter.com, citing sources inside Chechnya, named him the man behind Nemtsov’s murder several days before the first arrests in the case.
The link is Geremeyev, connected to the Delimkhanovs not only by military service but by kinship—he’s their nephew. Witnesses say that he frequently traveled to Moscow with Dadayev; one of his relatives owns the Moscow apartment where Dadayev stayed and allegedly met with his accomplices. Yet the federal Investigative Committee, which is handling the Nemtsov murder case, has been stymied in its attempts to question Geremeyev. According to news reports, he lay low in his home village in Chechnya under heavy guard by local troops, and later fled to either Dubai or Turkey. The only possible explanation is that he was being protected by Chechen leadership.
Meanwhile, Kadyrov responded to Dadayev’s arrest with a statement praising him as a valiant soldier and a “true patriot of Russia.” He also asserted that even if Dadayev is guilty, he would never have taken any action against Russia’s interests—which can be read as tacit approval of the murder.
Was Nemtsov killed on Kadyrov’s orders? That is the most popular unofficial theory in Russia. It is certainly more credible than a mini-jihad over Nemtsov’s fairly low-key Facebook comments on Charlie Hebdo. (Dadayev’s family says he was not particularly devout and never voiced any anger about the Muhammad cartoons; moreover, investigators believe Dadayev and his accomplices had been watching Nemtsov since September, long before the Paris attack.) But the idea that the “Chechen trail” leads no further than Chechnya seems dubious for many reasons, from Kadyrov’s posture as Putin’s super-loyal vassal to evidence suggesting the complicity of federal security agencies.