Identifying Nemtsov's Killers Brings No Closure to His Murder

Moscow has announced that two men from the North Caucasus killed the outspoken Putin critic. But who put them up to it?

Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

Just over a week after Boris Nemtsov, a Russian politician and outspoken activist, was assassinated in Moscow, the Russian government appears to have found his killers. The Federal Security Service announced on Saturday that it has detained Anzor Gubashev and Zaur Dadayev, two men from Russia's northern Caucasus region, under suspicion that they organized and carried out Nemtsov's murder. Neither man has been formally charged, but it isn't a surprise that Moscow apprehended them so quickly. The assassination occurred in one of the the country's most heavily surveilled districts, and security cameras captured clear images of the suspects.

The relative anonymity of the suspects raises doubts, however, that they acted on their own volition.  Neither man appeared to know Nemtsov; Zhanna Nemtsova, the victim's daughter, in turn has said she has no idea who they were. Instead, Nemtsov's murder follows the pattern of high-profile assassinations under the rule of Vladimir Putin, Russia's de facto ruler since 2000: The killers, when they're apprehended at all, are usually little more than hired hands. Last year, a Russian court convicted five men for carrying out the assassination of Anna Politkovskaya, a crusading journalist gunned down outside of her apartment building in 2006. The men went to jail—but the person responsible for ordering the hit remains unknown. Nemtsov's murder is also not the first time that men from the Caucasus—a region torn apart by violent conflict since the 1990s—have been involved.

Critics of Vladimir Putin have claimed that the president's authoritarian grip on Russia implicates his administration in the crime. Chess great Garry Kasparov, an outspoken critic of Putin's regime, wrote in the Guardian that he believed Nemtsov's murder could not have occurred without the involvement of Russia's security services. "Police states are very good at keeping a monopoly on violence, and Putin’s Russia is no exception," he wrote.

A closer look at the Caucasus, however, casts doubt on Kasparov's statement. In exchange for political loyalty, Putin has granted near-dictatorial power over Chechnya, a former breakaway republic adjacent to Georgia, to Ramzan Kadyrov, a man known for his violent suppression of any dissent. Kadyrov controls a 15,000-strong militia that, according to its leader, operates as a "special detachment" to the regular Russian military. Natalyia Estemirova, a journalist and human rights advocate, publicly accused Kadyrov's militia of atrocities in a series of articles. In 2009, Estemirova was abducted from her apartment and found murdered.

In the days since Nemtsov's murder, President Putin has labeled the crime "a disgrace to Russia" and has pledged to obtain justice. The arrest of Gubashev and Dedayev, however, is unlikely to satisfy skeptics that Putin will succeed—or that he can prevent it from happening again.