Fall Guys

Putin’s Usual Suspects: The Bullshit Chechen-Charlie Hebdo Connection

Political farce reaches its zenith in Russia as Vladimir Putin fingers Chechen extremists for the murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov.

03.09.15 8:40 PM ET

On the night of February 27, 2014, two days before he was to lead a major anti-war march in Moscow, opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was gunned down on the Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge, just 300 feet from the Kremlin. He died within minutes as his distraught girlfriend of three years, Ukrainian model Anna Duritskaya, ran to get help from the driver of a snowplow, which had stopped as the murder unfolded.

Pictures of the stark scene—the defeated dissident lying dead in the rain against the backdrop of the Kremlin walls and St. Basil's Cathedral—were broadcast all over the world and struck fear into other opposition leaders and the independent journalists who covered them. Many instantly suspected the involvement of President Vladimir Putin, whose increasingly brutal rule has led to Western sanctions and more protest at home, particularly since the forcible annexation of Crimea and invasion of the Donbass.

Nemtsov, a former first deputy prime minister in the Yeltsin administration, had produced devastating critiques of Putin’s regime in the past, from the corrupt $51 billion Sochi Olympics to the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 by Russian-backed militants, and was preparing another report proving Russia’s military presence in Ukraine.

Putin responded quickly by calling the murder “a provocation” and implied the opposition wanted to produce a martyr to “destabilize” Russia. The destabilization never came. Instead of the anti-war march originally planned for March 1, activists and citizens who had never marched before turned out for an orderly funeral procession with at least 30,000 participants. But other than a few other pickets and wreath-laying, no unrest was sparked.

From the first day after the murder, Russian authorities followed Putin’s lead by offering up a host of wildly divergent whodunit theories, ranging from jealous lovers to the Ukrainian government, the CIA, and Nemtsov’s fellow opposition members.

Another theory was the “Chechen scenario.”

On February 28, Vladimir Markin, spokesman for Russia’s Investigative Committee, said Nemtsov could have been killed by Islamists who were angry at the Muhammad cartoons printed by the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, whose journalists had been brutally massacred by al Qaeda-linked terrorists in Paris on January 7. “There are reports that Nemtsov received threats due to his position over the shooting of Charlie Hebdo staff in Paris,” Markin said.

Yet Nemtsov himself never reported any threats related to the Hebdo affair. Nemtsov’s colleagues also found this explanation far-fetched, as the matter of the cartoons was never a central plaint for the opposition leader, whose few blog posts on the subject didn’t attract any attention at the time and seemed unlikely as an emotional motivation for a murder that took place six weeks later. 

However, that has hardly stopped Moscow from filling out the scenario. Soon, officials proclaimed that persons caught by videotape and traffic police monitors at the scene of Nemtsov’s murder were of “Caucasian” appearance, i.e. dark-haired and bearded. Half a dozen vehicles were examined for relevance to the murder, and several turned out to be registered in the Russian republic of Ingushetia, in the North Caucasus. Authorities then zeroed in on a silver Ukrainian-manufactured ZAZ Chance, in which they said they found biological materials, including hair that matched the suspects through DNA testing.

On March 7, the ninth day after the murder—a day marked with further memorials in the Russian Orthodox tradition—Aleksandr Bortnikov, the head of the FSB, announced that there were two suspects in the murder. The next day, March 8, three more suspects were announced.

The same day, five men were brought to Basmanny Court in Moscow. Two were arraigned and put in pretrial detention until April 28. Three others were declared suspects and put under arrest in jail pending investigation until May 7 and 8.

Zaur Dadayev, who was charged in the killing, was confirmed as the deputy commander of a regiment of the Sever [North] Battalion of the Interior Ministry of the Chechen Republic. But at the arraignment, Dadayev didn’t confirm this detail, even while pleading guilty. From his cage in the courtroom, he said, “I love the Prophet Muhammad,” indicating only that he was a devout Muslim and little else.

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Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov also acknowledged that Dadayev was in the Chechen Interior Ministry troops and said he was a staunch believer. Yet Kadyrov claimed that Dadayev had resigned from the police force. Kadyrov said he would investigate the conditions under which Dadayev had left the force.

Anzor Gubashev did not plead guilty. Shagid Gubashev, his brother, said he was not involved. Two others, Khamzad Bakhayev and Tamerlan Eskherkhanov, were detained in the Odintsovsky district in the Moscow region and said they had nothing to do with the murder. A sixth suspect, Beslan Shavanov, 30, blew himself up with a hand grenade when police came to his door in Grozny to arrest him.

Just as there were manifold theories about who killed Nemtsov, there are as many reasons to disbelieve the Chechen scenario—at least as far as it’s been depicted by the authorities.

First, Nemtsov’s friends and colleagues have confirmed that he was under constant surveillance. His assistant, Olga Shorina, said that a few days before he was killed, they had discussed his report on Russia’s military presence in Ukraine, including a visit by the relatives of paratroopers missing in Ukraine, and he had turned to handwritten notes to foil the bugs he was certain were in the woodwork. On the eve of a large anti-war march, it seemed certain that Nemtsov would have been under physical as well as electronic surveillance, especially when he met his companion, Duritskaya, a citizen of Ukraine who frequently traveled from Kiev to Moscow. FSB agents would be looking for signs of “foreign agent” status and “help from abroad,” as they had done vigorously with past cases of large protest marches.

Proof that Nemtsov was under surveillance came with the publication of leaked cellphone calls in the past, intended to discredit him, and footage of his meetings on state TV. Michael McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, claimed on Twitter that he had personally seen cars speed after Nemtsov following visits with him.  

If Nemtsov were under such tight FSB surveillance, could the murderers have been able to approach and kill him without some intervention to prevent it? If anything, several analysts of the murder ask whether regular patrols and traffic police were suspended to enable the murder to occur.

Ilya Yashin, Nemtsov’s fellow member in the political party RPR-Parnas, said that when another activist unfurled a Ukrainian flag in 2013 from another bridge near the Kremlin, it took mere seconds for cops to arrest him. When Nemtsov was shot dead on a bridge right next to the Kremlin walls, police took 10 minutes to arrive at the scene.

The scenes visible on the original videotape from the weather camera owned and operated by TV Tsentr, the Moscow city administration’s TV station, remain a valuable counterpoint to the official narrative, which claims to be build on other video surveillance not publicly revealed.

State media from the outset talked about men “coming up the stairs” or “shooting out of the white car”— said to be a “Chechen trademark” for drive-by killings. Yet the TV Tsentr video shows that there were no men at the stairway throughout the shooting. The video also shows that the bullets were not coming out of the white car, which pulled up to the scene shortly after Nemtsov was shot. Indeed, a figure is seen running from a snowplow or street-cleaning machine that blocks the camera from a clear view of the murder; possibly the person had been riding on the back of it.

Later, the driver of the snowplow was interrogated and said he saw nothing. Duritskaya, who has signed a pledge not to disclose information from the investigation under Russian law, also says she didn’t see anything because the killers were behind her.

But no one knows what could be on at least 18 other cameras visible on lampposts in the area—or even who controls them. First, the Federal Protective Service (FSO), a powerful security agency assigned to protect the president and other top officials as well as the Kremlin grounds, said the cameras were “under repair” and not working; then it alleged that the cameras didn’t belong to the FSO and that the area was outside the agency’s zone of responsibility. The Moscow city administration contradicted this line by insisting that its cameras were indeed functioning on the night of the assassination. But no footage from these cameras has been released to the media, except very short clips of what was said to be the getaway car in which the Chechens were later allegedly found.

A source in the official investigation told RosBalt.ru that Zaur Dadayev allegedly confessed that he was motivated to kill Nemtsov due to his “negative statements” about Muslims. Nemtsov’s friends were skeptical of this story because the topic of Islam was not a central one for Nemtsov, who was mainly preoccupied with government corruption in Russia, the economic crisis, and the war in Ukraine.

A close examination of the half-dozens posts Nemtsov did write on the Hebdo affair on Facebook from January 7-15 show that he was mainly concerned with contrasting the unencumbered freedom of Parisians to stage large demonstrations against terrorism, unhindered by police, with the immediate arrest of a lone picketer with a “Je Suis Charlie” poster who tried to demonstrate near the Kremlin.

Nemtsov wrote four times about the demonstrator, Vladimir Ionov, age 75, eerily noting that he was arrested quickly in the very FSO zone where Nemtsov was later to be killed. Nemtsov called the FSO agents “stupid” for not realizing that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was himself taking part in a solidarity demonstration in Paris where everyone was carrying “Je Suis Charlie” signs.

In one post on January 9, reprinted on the website of the radio station Ekho Moskvy, Nemtsov wrote that at various times in history, religion has been responsible for killing people. Islam is a “young religion,” he said, somewhere in a period comparable to Christianity in the 14th and 15th centuries, when the Spanish Inquisition was actively burning heretics at the stake. Nemtsov’s post got only 2,100 views and was hardly noticed or commented on at the time, as the larger story then in Russia was the decision by Alexei Venediktov, editor in chief of Ekho Moskvy, to publish the Hebdo cartoons.

That editorial decision triggered a denunciation from Kadyrov, who personally threatened Venediktov and former oligarch and political prisoner Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who had said journalists should publish the cartoons out of solidarity. (Full disclosure: I work for The Interpreter, a project funded by the Khodorkovsky family.) Nemtsov commented that people who were Kadyrov’s personal enemies often wound up dead and that Khodorkovsky should get a bodyguard. Nemtsov also slammed the officially recognized Council of Muftis of Russia, which condemned the Paris terrorist attack yet also spoke of the “sin of provocation” of the Hebdo cartoonists—a position that Nemtsov said enabled the justification of murder.

But neither the muftis nor Kadyrov, who went on to organize a million-Muslim march in Grozny, ever reacted to Nemtsov at the time. They also failed to invoke any connection between Hebdo and his murder in the week after it happened. In fact, Kadyrov took to Instagram, his favorite medium of communication, to accuse “Western intelligence services” of Nemtsov’s killing.

Indeed, the tenuous theory of the case would mean that the purported Chechen killers would have first had to take notice of Nemtsov’s Hebdo posts against a backdrop of much more prominent figures in Russia showing solidarity with the slain French journalists—and then become so angry at his thin gruel blog comments about the lack of freedom to demonstrate in Russia that they’d hatch a plot to kill him six weeks later.

One person who believes that Kadyrov could possibly be responsible for Nemtsov’s murder is Nemtsov’s close associate and fellow opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Navalny has written that Putin is ultimately behind the murder one way or another but that he might have angled for “plausible deniability” by looking the other way while Kadyrov’s enforcers carried out the assassination.

On March 3, before any Chechen suspects were arrested, Navalny pointed out that Kadyrov had gathered tens of thousands of Chechen Interior Ministry troops in a stadium on December 27, 2014, and once again sworn allegiance to Putin. In a skewed, propagandistic version of history—entirely leaving out the Kremlin’s role in the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s and its propping up of Bashar al-Assad in Syria—Kadyrov claimed that Osama bin Laden and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi were creations of the CIA and that therefore al Qaeda and ISIS now had to be fought because they were enemies of Russia and were attracting Islamist recruits in Russia.

Kadyrov invoked his father, Akhmad Kadyrov, the first president of Chechnya, who was assassinated in 2004 and had previously founded the Special Operations Brigade, calling it “Putin’s infantry”; Ramzan Kadyrov asserted its power by saying these troops were ready to fulfill orders from Putin at any time.

Navalny called this an “unlawful armed formation”—the term also used for Chechen militants opposed to Moscow—because the Interior Ministry is under the command of Moscow and Kadyrov seemed to be elevating a local branch of the ministry to a higher purpose. This move was also noticed by veteran Russia analyst Paul Goble, who said the “janissary-like forces” could be “available for irregular warfare or active measures [in which] Moscow may want to maintain plausible deniability of its own direct involvement.”   ‬

Not coincidentally, Chechens found to be “volunteering” in southeastern Ukraine on the side of the Russian-backed separatists turned out to be trained policemen from Kadyrov’s Interior Ministry, hardened in battle with insurgents in their republic. That was discovered as scores of Chechens were killed in battle, including at the Donetsk Airport. Chechens were so angered at losing so many men in these battles that they reportedly mutinied and killed a Russian officer at the airport.

Putin didn’t react to the call for recognition of Kadyrov’s shock troops in December, but he was confronted at his year-end press conference by Ksenia Sobchak, a talk-show host who is the daughter of the late St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, a man who had once been Putin’s boss and mentor. Ksenia Sobchak asked about Putin’s tolerance of Kadyrov’s order to burn down the homes of relatives of terrorists who had occupied the press building in Grozny in December.

“Who gave her the microphone?” Putin joked, and then dodged Sobchak’s questions, saying that while burning down homes was against the law, Kadyrov’s anger could be understood because his own relative was among the 14 policemen killed in the shootout, in which 11 terrorists were killed. The terrorists were said to be from the Caucasus Emirate, which took responsibility for the attack.

After Putin’s encounter with Sobchak, not only did Kadyrov’s lieutenants keep burning down Chechen homes, but the offices of human-rights lawyers who complained about the practice were also torched and Sobchak herself received death threats, as well as hecklers picketing outside her home and a libel lawsuit from the government of Chechnya. At Nemtsov’s funeral on March 4, she said, an unidentified man approached her three times to threaten, “You’re next.”

Throughout Putin’s rule, dozens of prominent critics have been assassinated, often after they expressed opposition to his brutal handling of wars and terrorist attacks, in which law-enforcement officers often ended up killing more victims than terrorists. In most cases, the masterminds behind the killing of Putin’s critics are never found. Yet in many cases, Chechen suspects are conveniently found to act as Russia’s scapegoats for crime in general and for the murder of opposition leaders in particular.

In the case of Paul Klebnikov, the Forbes editor slain in Moscow in 2004 after publishing books on oligarch Boris Berezovsky and the Chechen field commander Khozh-Akhmed Nukhayev, authorities wound up accusing the very subject of Klebnikov’s book of the murder but then acquitted him along with two suspects—a rare occurrence in Russia. Later, one defendant was convicted on unrelated charges and two others had their acquittals overturned by the Russian Supreme Court, allowing them to be re-prosecuted, but then they could not be located and the case stalled.

In the case of Novaya Gazeta investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya, who filed critical pieces about the Chechen war, she was personally the subject of a death threat from first an assistant of Kadyrov, then Kadyrov himself, who said she was “an enemy to be shot.” She was shot dead on Putin’s birthday, October 7, in 2006. Law enforcers then came up with three Chechen suspects who were also acquitted. In May 2014, five suspects, including the same three acquitted Chechens, were tried and sentenced for her murder, although the contractor who ordered and paid for the murder was never found.

Nataliya Estimirova, a human-rights advocate in Chechnya, was abducted and murdered in 2009, but the killers were never found and one suspect was later said to be killed in an airstrike. In each of these cases, Russian officials claimed that the exiled oligarch Berezovsky was the real murderer of people whose cause he in fact had been supporting against Putin, though there was no evidence for the claim. That follows a frequent disinformation tactic used by the Russian government each time a critic is assassinated: A “false flag” operation of the kind common in the KGB’s history could only explain the crime, as it was meant to “discredit” the Russian government.

It’s important to remember that the “Chechen Scenario” has been a common theme throughout Putin’s rule—in fact, he owes his rule to it. He came to power 15 years ago under a cloud of suspicion about the mysterious explosions of apartment buildings in Moscow and provincial cities in September 1999—all said to be perpetrated by Chechen terrorists but which occurred immediately after Putin moved from the job of FSB chief to acting prime minister. To this day, many Russian human-rights activists and Western journalists, such as David Satter, are convinced that these apartment bombings were carried out by the FSB as a false flag attacks designed to increase support for the Second Chechen War, of which Putin was the principal architect.

The former KGB lieutenant colonel’s popularity soared as a result of the war, and President Boris Yeltsin named him his successor; Putin was elected president in 2000, then spent the next several years “pacifying” Chechnya with scorched-earth military campaigns. He further consolidated his power after the Beslan school massacre in 2004, whereupon he ordered the elimination of direct elections for Russian regional governors. Then, in 2007, Putin installed Kadyrov as warlord “president” of Chechnya. Since then, thousands of people have disappeared, been found dead, or been arrested and tortured in Chechnya.

Now Zaur Dadayev, a man whom Kadyrov has himself identified as a trusted and decorated soldier in his special brigade “available for any assignment given the order,” is said to be both the perpetrator and organizer of the murder. Dadayev is said to be tied directly to the murder through surveillance camera and DNA evidence. The others arrested are Chechens who are always the usual suspects rounded up in such cases. Will Putin overlook once again the involvement of Kadyrov in a high-profile murder in Russia? Or will he continue to tolerate Kadyrov as an enforcer who gives the Russian president “plausible deniability” in these cases?