Sergei Karpukhin - Reuters - Moscow Times
Following the February 27th murder of Russian opposition activist Boris Nemtsov within sight of the Kremlin, a public display of whodunit has shone a spotlight on many aspects of the power structure of the modern Russian state. Despite his persona as an iron-tight autocrat, President Vladimir Putin has carefully manipulated a complex web of personal relationships, institutional loyalties, and bureaucratic structures to accomplish his objectives. Comprehending these political dynamics and potential sources of instability are useful in predicting the future of Russian foreign and security policy. Additionally, with figures such as Vladimir Zhirinovsky running around the legislature of the second-most nuclear capable state in the world, the stakes could not be higher.
Shortly after the murder of Nemtsov, five north Caucasian-origin Russian nationals were arrested and appeared before a judge who accused the group of plotting and carrying out the murder. While the details of their activities were initially only vaguely described, Russian state media and the Chechen president, Ramzan Kadyrov, clumsily pushed the narrative that the prime suspect, Zaur Dadaiev, was motivated by Nemtsov’s statements of support for Charlie Hebdo in the aftermath of the Paris attacks by Islamic extremists. Dadaiev, a ten-year veteran of Kadyrov’s interior ministry, claimed that he was forced to confess under torture and currently professes his innocence. As many Russia-watchers would agree, finding concrete truth about internal political struggles is a tall order that can take decades to fulfill. However, the Chechen connection highlights an intriguing trend in how President Putin seems to have hedged his bets and looked outside the traditional Russian security structure to underwrite his own power.
Ramzan Kadyrov (left) and President Putin - AP - Jamestown
Kadyrov has an intriguing past himself. He succeeded his father in 2006 after the Russian military crackdowns in Chechnya as an eccentric (just check out his instagramming habits) former-warlord who professes complete fealty to Moscow, and President Putin himself. He has ensured stability in Chechnya through a combination of intimidation, political assassinations and other human rights abuses. It's fair to describe Putin and Kadyrov’s relationship as mutually beneficial. In the arrangement, Putin garnered long-desired stability in a region of the north Caucasus, and Kadyrov obtained great personal wealth, as well as the ability to run his fiefdom as he pleases without too much policy interference from Moscow.
Theories abound regarding the relationship between Putin, Kadyrov (along with his Kadyrovtsy, a 5,000-strong internal security force), and the FSB. Russian media speculated on scenarios on the murder that ranged from an attempt by Kadyrov to garner goodwill from Putin by eliminating an (albeit distant) political rival, to an orchestrated FSB plot to frame Kadyrov and to drive a wedge between the two leaders. However, Kadyrov’s acceptance of the prestigious “Order of Honor” from Putin in March solidified the view that Kadyrov was untouchable and under Putin’s personal protection. The rule of law and the prevention of unapproved violent actions are important to the FSB and the Russian security system as a whole. Additionally, as reported by the Moscow Times, a pro-government paper stated that the accused had been following Nemtsov for months, which would nullify any motive regarding the Charlie Hebdo statements.
Looking ahead, it’s likely that observers will witness those accused of the assassination to go to prison for life, unlikely to be heard from again. Like many journalist and activist murders in Russia, the case will be closed and any larger conspiracy will fade into time. Sustainable political freedom and stability in Russia will continue to be evasive in this climate. As recently-exiled Ilya Ponomarev, the lone dissenter in the state Duma on the Crimean annexation vote, asked in the New York Times, the question for reformers is, “Is it better to stay and fight from a prison cell, or to change things by applying pressure from the outside?" Unfortunately, I would add a third location, the grave.