On Thursday, five Chechen men were found guilty for the February 2015 murder of Boris Nemtsov.
Nemtsov, a Russian political activist and noted critic of President Vladimir Putin, was gunned down as he walked along a Moscow bridge.
The early evidence strongly indicated a professional outlet was responsible. Referencing CCTV footage — which the plotters likely did not know was in operation — I explained how "It's only when a government vehicle conceals Nemtsov from other drivers and the camera that the murderers strike. After executing Nemtsov, the shooter runs to a getaway car that has timed its approach to coincide with the attack. The team escapes and Nemtsov bleeds out.
This isn't the work of a few thugs. The clinical timing (synchronized staging, concealment, execution, escape) and the selected location (a bridge that offers no spot where Nemtsov could take cover) strongly suggest the culprits had military and intelligence training."
But the real evidence of a broader conspiracy here is the Chechen connection. The plot's convicted operational controller, Zaur Dadayev, is a former deputy commander of a Chechen paramilitary unit under Ramzan Kadyrov. And Kadyrov is Putin's chosen man in Chechnya. In return for his keeping the Chechen peace, Putin lets Kadyrov revel in a life of instagram cats, luxury and criminality. Kadyrov's enemies disappear and his paramilitaries kill with impunity.
But Chechnya's feudal political culture means that when it comes to killing notables like Nemtsov, men like Zaur Dadayev do not act without orders. And in Dadayev's case, the higher-up is Kadyrov.
Now this is where things get murky.
Because President Putin is very happy to pretend that Kadyrov acts independently. That allows Putin a perception of separation from Kadyrov's frequent excesses. But it also gives Putin a deniable actor: someone who can do dirty deeds on his behalf. This understanding becomes especially useful in the context of the Nemtsov killing.
After all, it is widely accepted — even by the Russian government — that Nemtsov's assassination was orchestrated by others beyond the specific attack cell. And because of Dadayev's pre-existing relationship with Kadyrov, and Kadyrov's track record of eliminating political opponents, the Chechen leader is seen as a likely suspect.
But hold that thought for a second.
Because Putin clearly wants to foster the belief that Kadyrov might be responsible. Immediately after Thursday's verdict was announced, Putin's loyal press secretary, Dmitry Peskov told Kommersant newspaper that "it is necessary to find and bring to justice not only the perpetrators, but also [those behind] such killings."
Peskov — and thus Putin — know that this statement will draw attention towards Kadyrov. Again, they want us to believe that Kadyrov is a force onto his own: someone who cannot be restrained from unpredictable activities. They want us to believe that the Kadyrov-Putin relationship is one of fealty, but qualified fealty: that Kadyrov sometimes exceeds his delegated authority from Moscow.
But this is KGB fiction.
The Kadyrov-Putin relationship isn't that tense or complicated. In the end, Kadyrov is Putin's guy. The Chechen knows who is boss. And when it comes to assassinations in Moscow, where Kadyrov is given some freedom, he is not so stupid as to conduct major murders without Putin's acceptance.
And that brings us back to Nemtsov. Because there's no question that as much as Nemtsov was an annoyance to Kadyrov, he was far more of a problem for Putin.
Nemtsov frequently drew attention to Putin's corruption — something the Russian leader is deeply sensitive about — and often challenged the Kremlin status quo. And as a noted Putin antagonist, Nemtsov would have been kept under close watch by the FSB (Russia's domestic intelligence service). It is unlikely that they would have missed a Chechen kill team engaged in close target surveillance. Unless, that is, they wanted to.
That speaks to the Russian deep state.
At his heart, Putin is a spymaster. And one the most enduring elements of espionage is the "cutout": an individual or group who acts on behalf of another individual or group so as to provide deniability. In the end, that's what Kadyrov gives Putin: deniability in the dark arts.
I believe Putin killed Nemtsov but had Kadyrov run the show. And now that the attention is shifting to Kadyrov, neither Putin nor the Chechen leader mind. Kadyrov will go on doing what he does, safe in the knowledge that he is useful to his boss. And Putin will pretend he had nothing to do with the assassination, confident that he'll never be linked conclusively to the killing.
In Putin's Russia, the truth is subjective.
As Nemtsov's family lawyer noted, "It's the biggest crime of the century and yet they haven't identified the real organizers or those who ordered it."