20 years under Putin: a timeline

Even though suspects in the murder of Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov have been arrested, speculations on who is the mastermind behind the crime continue to swirl. According to Donald Jensen, resident fellow of the Center for Transatlantic Relations, there are clear signs of disintegration among Russia’s elites, as new, more radical armed groups seek their place in the system.


In recent months the Kremlin has openly patronized reactionary biker gangs, pro-government extremists, and terrorists groups. Alexander Zaldostanov (right), leader of Nochniye Volki (the Night Wolves) biker group, also known as Khirurg (the Surgeon), has recently called Vladimir Putin “Russia’s savior” and promised to eliminate the “fifth column.” Photo: RIA Novosti


On March 8, two Chechens, a police officer and a security guard, were formally charged in a Moscow’s Basmanny District Court in connection with the shooting of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov a week earlier. Three others were jailed as accomplices pending further investigation. A sixth man reportedly blew himself up with a hand grenade on Saturday night as police were closing in on his apartment in Grozny. A judge said the suspected policeman, Zaur Dadayev, confessed to involvement in the killing. The second suspect, Anzor Gubashev, pleaded not guilty. Despite these arrests, so far neither the court nor Russian law enforcement agencies have presented a coherent picture of the Nemtsov Affair that would explain the roles allegedly played by the suspects or their possible motives.

The main question Russians want answered is who ordered the assassination. Several versions of the murder have been circulating. Opposition leaders have accused the government of complicity, which it denied. Kremlin officials initially framed the assassination as a “provocation” to discredit Vladimir Putin and foment social discord. Before the arrests, Russia’s powerful Investigations Committee (SK) said it was looking into possible connections between Nemtsov’s death and Islamic extremism, the war in Ukraine, and Nemtsov’s varied personal and business relationships. The SK also said it would consider the possibility that Nemtsov was a “sacrificial victim,” implying that one of Nemtsov’s allies had killed him to smear the Kremlin. The chances for ever having a definitive answer to what happened are slim: in a series of high-profile killings over the past two decades (though none recently), regime critics were often the victims, but killers have rarely been identified.

The location of the murder, its timing, and its broader political context demonstrate that the hatred and violence Russia exported to Ukraine last year have returned home. Russian state propaganda has portrayed Kiev’s Maidan as a “fascist coup” and the freely elected Ukrainian government as a “junta” backed by Russia’s Western enemies. Kremlin-controlled media have called on Russian patriots to fight the enemy at home, identifying pro-Western liberals such as Nemtsov as traitors who constitute a “fifth column.” Six days before Nemtsov’s slaying, the Kremlin organized an “anti-Maidan” protest, the latest manifestation of a long, official campaign of intolerance and intimidation that drew thousands of people to Moscow. Once in the capital, marchers denounced Ukraine, the West, and liberals like Nemtsov.

As Putin maneuvers between domestic opposition and foreign pressure, he has opened the door to new, violent forces: the Kadyrov militia; fighters returning from Donbass; and the Combat Organization of Russian Nationalists (BORN), a terrorist organization specializing in political murders that was created and financed by Putin political strategist Vladislav Surkov. In recent months the Kremlin has openly patronized, “seeded and financed” reactionary biker gangs, pro-government extremists, and terrorists groups. Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov, who blamed the shooting on Islamic extremists angered by Nemtsov’s condemnation of the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris, leads a well-trained private army. He was installed by Putin to keep his home region under his thumb and has sworn an oath to defend the Russian president personally. Kadyrov’s men, numbering about 15,000, roam far beyond the North Caucasus and patrol Moscow with weapons and special security passes.

This system began to degenerate and evolve away from its usual correlation of forces when the conflict in Ukraine began last year. While society at large consolidated behind Putin’s war, disintegration sharply increased within the power system.

Putin may have ordered the killing personally, as some liberals have alleged. But Nemtsov was no threat to the regime. If Putin wanted to intimidate the opposition, there were better targets. The tragedy also happened at a time when Putin was cynically trying to project an image of international reasonableness to woo European Union members wavering on whether to prolong sanctions, and when a ceasefire in Ukraine seemed to be taking hold. But in the current frenzied climate of lawlessness, other explanations even more portentous for the future of the regime are possible.

First, Nemtsov could have been killed by trigger-happy extremists who believed they were advancing Russia’s interests by whacking an “enemy of the state.” Their motives for killing Nemtsov could be to derail the Minsk agreements, provoke more confrontation with the United States and Europe, or force Putin to be more aggressive in eastern Ukraine. In recent months, Putin has been increasingly criticized by “patriotic” forces for being too moderate. There is a significant amount of support for these groups among the siloviki.

Second, the shooting might have been carried out directly by mid- or lower-level officials. Russia’s domestic opposition and Western critics tend to see Putin and “the Kremlin” as one and the same, but this is not always the case. “The Kremlin” is far broader than Putin. It is a huge conglomerate of overlapping political and economic interests competing for influence and access to the president. Putin has the final word on important decisions, but initiatives can come from the center of this universe—Putin and his immediate lieutenants—or its periphery. Sometimes this conglomerate is beyond the control of Putin and his immediate entourage, who can also be hostages of these forces.

This system began to degenerate and evolve away from its usual correlation of forces when the conflict in Ukraine began last year. While society at large consolidated behind Putin’s war, disintegration sharply increased within the power system. The so-called liberal oligarchs lost influence and money due to sanctions and lower oil prices. The military and siloviki grew more important. New, armed groups such as BORN, unhappy with the pace of Putin’s counterrevolutionary movement (and in some cases with Putin himself), sought their place in the system.

For now, the Kremlin is predictably using Nemtsov’s death for its own purposes. Regime critics were outraged on March 9 when Putin gave an award to Ramzan Kadyrov a day after the Chechen strongman hailed Zaur Dadayev, one of the accused killers, as “a true patriot.” A Kremlin spokesman said the timing of the award was long-planned. Critics also saw the award as a sign of official endorsement of Kadyrov’s claim that Nemtsov’s accused killer was motivated by anger at the opposition leader’s defense of the French cartoonists. “Our worst fears are being realized,” Nemtsov’s ally Ilya Yashin wrote. “A scapegoat will be held responsible for the crime and those who really ordered it—within the government—will remain free.” But it also seems that some entities close to the Kremlin are ashamed by the absurdity and boldness of Nemtsov’s assassination: Kremlin-controlled television channels did not air a single report about Putin decorating Kadyrov, despite their penchant for boosting everything the Kremlin leader does.

No matter who killed Nemtsov, Russia’s elites are no doubt wondering if the same thing could happen to them. Putin’s presence at the top of the pyramid of power has long seemed to guarantee their physical safety, their property, and their freedom. This has been a major reason that Putin has remained in power. The elites know they cannot stand up to the siloviki and groups such as BORN. But it is delusional to believe that these extremists, who bore the responsibility for a dirty war and who provided propaganda and organizational support for that conflict, can be easily managed. They want not only their share of power but also to see the realization of their dreams. In their opinion, all of Russia should become Donbass. Anyone who is against this is their opponent.