Some blame Vladimir Putin for the murder of opposition campaigner Boris Nemtsov, while others blame Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov. However, the truth is much more complicated.

The unveiling of a monument to opposition campaigner Boris Nemtsov in a Moscow cemetery. Photo: Sputnik

One year ago, prominent opposition figure Boris Nemtsov was killed in the very center of Moscow just days before a scheduled protest meeting. A murder of such a scale, just steps away from the Kremlin, had never happened before in the history of post-Communist Russia. As a result, the death of Nemtsov provoked wide discussion in Russia and abroad over who was behind the murder - and why it happened in the first place.

One year later, attempts to solve this case are still inconclusive, but here are three possible scenarios for what actually happened.

Version #1: Kremlin’s order

It was obvious from the beginning that Russian President Vladimir Putin, seemingly the ultimate opponent of Nemtsov in the political arena, would be the most obvious suspect. However, despite having the label of an opposition figure, in recent years Nemtsov had not done anything of substantial value to pose a serious threat to the Kremlin.

Making allegations of corruption and highlighting the Kremlin’s involvement in the war in Ukraine does not feel like a real thing, especially in Russia, where then-Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov was caught up in a theft and corruption scheme on a multi-billion-dollar scale and ended up with amnesty. Remember – this is a country where Sergei Shoigu, Russia's current Defense Minister, after months of denying participation of Russian armed forces in Crimea, officially awarded particular military regiments for their active participation in this very affair.

Of course, there is nothing new to it, even by Western standards: European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s involvement in scandals related to corruption, spying and tax evasion did not become a major obstacle for his presidency of the European Commission, while the U.S. war on terror around the world sometimes fails to respect territorial sovereignty and international legislation.

But such revelations and allegations make even less sense in Russia, where the “shocking truth” changes nothing because the population has no leverage to change the situation inside the country and the Russian elites are not accountable before the population in any sense. “Criticizing the government” is a safe way to boost one’s public reputation inside Russia while, at the same time, not being held responsible for what actually happens later.

Also read: "What does the Nemtsov murder mean for Russia's political future?"

When it came down to real political activity, Nemtsov quickly backed down. Protests during the winter of 2011-2012 were the most resonant political protests in the history of post-Soviet Russia, because for the first time the sparse urban middle class went to protests in great numbers for clearly political reasons.

It is hard to imagine this now, but in December 2011 there was a real danger of political unrest and self-proclaimed leaders of this protest (a group which included Nemtsov) did everything in their power to make the protests as peaceful and as safe as possible, which eventually served the Kremlin’s cause and helped to channel protest energy in a safe direction.

Later, in January 2014, during clashes in Kiev, Nemtsov admitted on his Facebook page that in December 2011, he intentionally “pacified” the protests in Moscow in order to prevent bloodshed of the kind in Kiev. With no moral or political evaluation it would be fully justified to say that the very fact of using political violence helped the Maidan protesters to oust president Viktor Yanukovych – hence, it would be fair to say that Nemtsov did not want any real change or any real political action, which would significantly undermine the existing status quo. Then who and what he was?

He was part of the Fronde (a term from French history) – a member of the elite transitioning to the opposition just to increase his bargaining position. In the 1990s, he used to be a governor and a minister – the sort of person not to be dismissed easily. He continued to participate in public and political life, playing his role as opposition figure and becoming priceless in the times of crises like 2011, when the ghost of a Russian Maidan was more alive than ever before or after.

The same could be said for the current top opposition figure Mikhail Kasyanov, former Russian prime minister, who previously served under Putin. Or with opposition media figure Xenia Sobchak, Putin’s goddaughter, under whose father, St. Petersburg mayor Anatoly Sobchak, Putin worked in the 1990s. Everyone knows everyone and everyone owes something to everyone – this fictional division into “liberals” and “strongmen” does not work, as members of the elite change their affiliations and positioning regularly.

It is not obvious, but in fact Putin lost an effective player in the political system, one whose actions previously played in the Kremlin’s favor. So, whatever people could feel about Putin and his policies – he simply could not have been the beneficiary of Nemtsov’s killing.

Version #2: Chechen connection

The arrest of the alleged perpetrators, all of them Chechen nationals and with links to the Chechen security apparatus, made a lot of people in Russia think that Ramzan Kadyrov, the president of Chechnya, was the man behind the plot. When Kadyrov spoke on the issue and defended one of the suspects, calling him “a true patriot,” these suspicions solidified.

There were other indirect signs as well, such as a short, but highly tense relationship between Nemtsov and Kadyrov: in his autobiography (available on his personal website), Nemtsov recalls December 2002 (when Kadyrov’s father Akhmad was the president of the then war-torn republic), when he advocated against building strong presidential power in Chechnya and was approached by Ramzan who told him that, “You should get killed for that kind of speech.”

Before and after Kadyrov’s rise to power, Nemtsov heavily criticized the system of power built in Chechnya, which did not make Chechnya an integral part of Russia, as Kadyrov became more and more autonomous, while being accountable only to Putin. However, criticism of Kadyrov never was the main focus of Nemtsov’s activity.

The Ukrainian crisis encouraged Kadyrov to express his loyalty to Putin – the list of actions included public oath of loyalty directly to Putin by 20,000 armed Chechen policemen. Many think that killing Nemtsov could have been something like an “expression of loyalty,” an act committed to reassure the sovereign of one’s personal devotion. Yet, it does not add up.

Long before the war in Ukraine, Kadyrov had been expanding his power in Russia, openly ignoring and insulting the all-mighty Russian state security apparatus while enjoying generous subsidies from Moscow. Nemtsov did not present absolutely any threat to Kadyrov’s position and wealth, and killing him made no sense at all. In 2013, Kadyrov’s possible successor Adam Delimkhanov was beaten by a Russian deputy in the parliament (showing a golden gun in the process) for asking questions over the facts of the Chechen government training its own special forces. What threat could Nemtsov’s accusations bear for him?

The fact that Kadyrov spoke out in defense of the suspect proves nothing – Kadyrov is building a reputation as the leader of the whole Chechen political nation inside Russia and abroad, speaking out in defense of all diaspora members, in whatever they might be implicated.

Also read: "Where to look for the killers of Boris Nemtsov?"

If the suspected Chechens would be found guilty in Nemtsov’s death, it still won’t implicate Kadyrov as the person behind the plot, as Chechnya is a region, where one could easily find a perpetrator for a criminal act – and still Kadyrov would have to defend this person in public, as his reputation in Chechen society will force him to move in that direction, though hurting his image in the rest of Russia.

However, the connection to Chechnya makes sense in a broader context, brought on by war in Ukraine.

Version #3: Really speculative theories 

Before suspects were found, one of the popular versions was that Nemtsov was killed by Russian nationalists who fought as volunteers in Donbas.  Another theory, spread by Kremlin loyalists, was that the killing was committed by Ukrainian sympathizers to destabilize Russia by creating a “martyr.”

In Russia after March 2014, the overall weight of the security apparatus has increased inside the structure of Putin’s “politburo.” A survey of the Russian elites shows an increased demand for nationalism and even more virulent anti-Americanism.

Some in Russia see the Minsk agreements as a capitulation by pro-Russian forces. The killing of Nemtsov, a member of the “liberal” part of the elite, could have been a symbolic gesture, meant to direct the Kremlin towards more hawkish policies in Ukraine and abroad.

Hiring Chechens (and thereby framing Kadyrov) fits this version – Kadyrov has a big history of clashes with the Federal Security Service (FSB) and other representatives of the “siloviki” class, was heavily involved in the show trials of Russian military officers in Chechnya (like the Budanov case) and, overall, had very few sympathizers in this sector of the Russian political elite. Framing him was an additional aim, as the “siloviki” can’t like Putin having an additional support group that is independent of them.

Recommended: "How the Nemtsov Affair could reverberate in the North Caucasus"

All these theories seem very speculative, but, unfortunately, many studies regarding the Kremlin are based on speculation, as there is absolutely no transparency in the Kremlin affairs. So, political scientists working in this field have to wander in the area of gossip, unverified facts and guesses. But all these explanations are better than none. At least, they might shed light on the situation, but it remains to be seen if they can contribute to finding the truth.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.