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The Kremlin's tactics

Fiona Clark, MoscowJanuary 24, 2016

To catch a killer is one thing, but proving who masterminded an assassination is quite another. Fiona Clark looks at some of the parallels between the deaths of Aleksandr Litvinenko and Boris Nemtsov.

Image: Reuters/T. Melville

Aleksandr Litvinenko's death was an "act of nuclear terrorism" on the streets of London which should not go unpunished according to the QC representing his widow, Marina, at the inquiry into his death. The murder of a UK citizen on UK territory by - to use Russia's favorite term these days, - 'foreign agents' is not acceptable and the UK's opposition has joined Marina and her supporters in calling for Britain to take a tough stand. It's unlikely, however, that that will happen.

The inquiry into Litvinenko's murder by polonium poisoning in 2006 has concluded that the assassination could not have been carried out without the 'probable' orders of the Russian security service, the FSB, and the 'probable' knowledge of President Vladimir Putin. While the findings of the inquiry have been labelled 'explosive' by the UK press, this ‘probable' link is hardly surprising - proof, on the other hand, would have been.

What also didn't come as a surprise was the announcement on January 21 in Moscow that the murder of opposition leader Boris Nemstov had been solved. According to the head of Russia's Investigative Committee Alexander Bastrykin, the assassination of a Russian citizen on the streets of Moscow almost a year ago was carried out by four suspects, all from Chechnya, on the orders of a Chechen military officer called Ruslan Mukhutdinov, the news agency Interfax reported.

Just like Litvinenko's murder, it's unlikely that a theatrical operation of this magnitude involving the use of carefully choreographed trucks to cover cameras on a bridge right outside the Kremlin, would have been carried out without the knowledge of those higher up the tree including the region's leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, or the FSB and its leadership and perhaps even beyond. That's certainly what Nemtsov's family's lawyer, Vadim Prokhorov, believes. He maintains the assassination was ordered by people with a much higher profile, Interfax reports.

a sign among flowers
Nemtsov's murder and the subsequent punishment - or rather lack thereof - has parallels to the Litvinenko caseImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Release the hounds

But proving that would be nigh on impossible - not to mention dangerous. Over the last few weeks Kadyrov has called those who oppose Putin "traitors" and "enemies of the people" who should be tried for subversion. His colleague tweeted a picture of Kadyrov with a snarling dog alongside a threatening message to those they see as subversive. They include members of what Kadyrov calls "non-systemic" opposition groups - that is those who are not in recognized political parties - who he believes are undermining political stability in Russia. How he determines what constitutes subversion is not clear.

And the Kremlin doesn't seem to have a problem with Kadyrov releasing his hounds. Kremlin spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, told the press that it was ok because he was only threatening those who weren't involved in real political groups - opposition figures who are "outside the legitimate political arena" and are prepared to break the law to achieve their goals.

But as opposition figure Ilya Yashin, Nemstov's former colleague, pointed out, this is hardly a condemnation - more like tacit approval that would only spur Kadyrov on.

But Kadyrov can pretty much do what he likes, it seems, as the Kremlin can't do without him. The self-styled foot soldier and protector of all things Russian rules Chechnya with an iron fist and without that there is a fear in Moscow that the Muslim region would descend into turmoil and become a breeding ground for separatists or terrorist groups like "Islamic State" (IS). So leeway is granted.

Kadyrov turns up the heat

Over the last week or so Kadyrov has threatened the editor-in-chief of the radio station, Echo of Moscow, for running a poll on the depiction of Mohammed in cartoons. He's allegedly been involved in the tapping of a politician's phone in order to record him and create a fake apology that was aired on Chechen TV for comments the politician had made calling Kadyrov "a disgrace to Russia." And he seems to have successfully extracted an apology via a Facebook video from another politician who'd previously said the Chechen leader had brought "shame" on Russia. And no one in the corridors of power seems to think this is inappropriate - or if they do, they certainly aren't taking any action.

a man walking past troops Copyright: imago/ITAR-TASS/Y. Afonina
Kadyrov can pretty much do what he likes - with Putin's tacit approvalImage: imago/ITAR-TASS/Y. Afonina

And Putin is in a similarly luxurious position when it comes to any further strong actions against him in relation to Litvinenko. While the UK says it will deal sternly with Russia and interact only when it's strictly necessary, there are bigger fish to fry. Russia is integral in the fight against IS in Syria, its cooperation is needed when dealing with North Korea, and, as economies struggle across Europe, it's hard to forget that the buying power of 140 million people to the east would go a considerable way toward easing their eonomic woes. Before the sanctions were imposed over Crimea, Russian imports from the EU had surpassed €103 billion annually.

So there may be a lot of tongue clicking and finger wagging as a result of the Litvinenko report in the UK, and relations between the two countries will remain frosty, but it's unlikely that anything substantial will happen - especially when there's no real proof. But, if it makes you feel better, a poll on Echo of Moscow found more than 90 percent of those who phoned in thought that one of the murder suspects, Andrei Lugovoi, was guilty. At least that might keep Kadyrov busy as he tracks down all of those subversive callers.