MOSCOW — Not everyone who has a quarrel with Russian President Vladimir Putin dies in violent or suspicious circumstances – far from it. But enough loud critics of Putin’s policies have been murdered that Thursday’s daylight shooting of a Russian who sought asylum in Ukraine has led to speculation of Kremlin involvement.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called the shooting in Kiev of Denis Voronenkov, a former Russian Communist Party member who began sharply criticizing Putin after fleeing Russia in 2016, an “act of state terrorism by Russia.”
That drew a sharp rebuke from Putin’s spokesman, who called the accusation “absurd.” Throughout the years, the Kremlin has always dismissed the notion of political killings with scorn.
But Putin’s critics couldn’t help drawing parallels with the unexplained deaths of other Kremlin foes. “I have an impression – I hope it’s only an impression – that the practice of killing political opponents has started spreading in Russia,” said Gennady Gudkov, a former parliamentarian and ex-security services officer, to the Moscow Times.
Here are some outspoken critics of Putin who were killed or died mysteriously.
A prominent Kremlin critic and Russian opposition figure who has been in a coma since last week has been diagnosed with “acute poisoning by an undefined substance”, his wife has said.
Vladimir Kara-Murza, 35, who works for Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia foundation, had been in Russia to screen a documentary film about his friend Boris Nemtsov, the opposition leader and former deputy prime minister who was gunned down near the Kremlin in 2015.
A high-profile alliance between Russian President Vladimir Putin and the leader of the Chechnya region of Russia is starting to fray. And outspoken Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov, who was mysteriously gunned down in front of the Kremlin last month, reportedly knew all about it.
Critics of Putin say that over the past decade the Russian president has empowered 38-year-old Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the Chechen Republic, “to effectively create the Islamic republic that Chechen separatists had dreamed of — albeit one entirely reliant on Moscow for financial support,” The New York Times reported this week.
The Times notes that Putin has allowed Kadyrov to rule the region for eight years while “seemingly turning a blind eye to assassinations, torture and other human rights abuses.” And critics, including Nemtsov, were warning about what happens if the warlord turned strongman’s ambitions for power spin out of Putin’s control.
“I cannot understand what Putin expects when arming 20,000 Kadyrovtsy gathered today in the stadium in Grozny,” Nemtsov wrote in Facebook post in December. “What will happen next? The country is entering a crisis. There is not enough money for anything, including the support of regions.
“And the unspoken contract between Putin and Kadyrov — money in exchange for loyalty — ends. And where will 20,000 Kadyrovtsy go? What will they demand? How will they behave? When will they come to Moscow?”
It seems Nemtsov was on to something.
People initially suspected Kremlin involvement in Nemtsov’s murder, but now five Chechens have been arrested in connection with the killing, and fingers are starting to point at Kadyrov as the possible architect of the hit.
One of the suspects arrested is a former deputy commander from one of Kadyrov’s security battalions, which operate independently of federal authorities. Kadyrov praised the deputy as a “real Russian patriot” after he was arrested and implied that he wasn’t guilty of taking a hit out on Nemtsov.
Moreover, four people familiar with the matter told Bloomberg that Putin was furious when he learned about what had happened.
Putin is “dealing with a significant internal challenge: It’s extremely unlikely he ordered Nemtsov’s killing, but it was clearly an inside job,” Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, told Business Insider earlier this month. “Dealing with that is surely his top priority.”
Radio Free Europe noted that on March 16 — the day Putin reappeared from a mysterious 10-day absence from public view — a law enforcement official told Interfax that Nemtsov’s murder had been reclassified from a “contract killing” to a “hate crime.”
That designation all but squashes the investigation into who ordered the hit on Nemtsov. So while it’s possible that the Kremlin’s investigation might have ended up implicating Kadyrov in the murder, now it seems that possibility has been taken off the table.
In any case, Nemtsov supporters are now saying the investigation has “exposed a dangerous rift between the chiefs of the security services in Moscow and the brash Chechen leader,” The Times says.
‘The FSB hate Ramzan’
“The F.S.B. [the post-Soviet successor to the KGB] hate Ramzan because they are unable to control him,” Alexey Malashenko, an expert on the Caucasus at the Carnegie Moscow Center, told The Times. “He does whatever he wants, including in Moscow. Nobody can arrest members of his team if there is no agreement with Putin.”
Some experts think that Nemtsov’s murder fits this context.
“Putin had to make a choice. Either feed Kadyrov to the FSB-men, or give up the FSB to Kadyrov,” political analyst Leonid Volkov wrote on Facebook. “It’s a difficult and unpleasant choice … And he chose the one and only thing he could choose: Kadyrov.”
An unnamed source close to the Kremlin told Bloomberg of another theory about Nemtsov’s murder: that rogue FSB agents killed Nemtsov in the hopes of implicating Kadyrov, whose increasingly audacious actions have become a pain for officials in Moscow.
“Putin has become a hostage to his own policy of radicalizing supporters so they can spring to action whenever he needs them,” Alexander Baunov, a senior associate at the Carnegie Moscow Center, told Bloomberg. “His authoritarianism is sliding into decentralized terror. His backers think he’s much more radical than he really is and are acting without clear orders.”
By giving Kadyrov the power to kill extremists in Chechnya in order to stabilize the region — as well as cover to assassinate perceived critics in the capital — Putin may have inadvertently created a monster that the Kremlin can’t contain.
Nemtsov’s supporters say Russian propaganda implicity encourages violence against Putin critics, according to Bloomberg. The Kremlin reportedly approved a rally in Moscow during which tens of thousands of people demanded that Putin’s critics be “purged.”
What happens next?
It’s unclear whether there will be ramifications for whoever ordered the hit on Nemtsov. Or how the murder is rattling the Kremlin.
While Putin was absent from public view, Kadyrov reaffirmed his undying loyalty to the leader in an Instagram post, writing: “I will always be his faithful companion, regardless of whether he is president or not. To give one’s life for such a person is an easy task.”
Radio Free Europe points out that this could have been a veiled threat: “I am loyal, Kadyrov seemed to be saying. But others may not be. And taking me down carries risks.”
In a rare newspaper interview ahead of his state visit to Italy, Vladimir Putin has claimed he never makes mistakes because God “built his life so he’d have nothing to regret”.
The Russian president was due to meet Italy’s Matteo Renzi at the Expo 2015 world fair in Milan on Wednesday, where he is expected to discuss the prospect of easing economic sanctions imposed by the West over the Ukraine crisis.
Renzi was among the G7 leaders who pledged at the group’s Bavaria summit to step up restrictions on Russian trade if violence in the contested Donbass region continues.
Father says Kara-Murza diagnosed with kidney failure after being admitted to hospital in Moscow on Tuesday evening. A Russian opposition activist has been taken to hospital in Moscow after a sudden illness.
Vladimir Kara-Murza, who works for the Open Russia movement founded by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oligarch and Putin critic who now lives in Zurich, was admitted after a sharp drop in blood pressure and loss of consciousness.
Doctors initially thought he could have been poisoned, Vadim Prokhorov, a lawyer for the RPR Parnas opposition party, told the newspaper Kommersant. Kara-Murza is a member of the political council of the party, which had been led by Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov until his death in February.
“The deputy head doctor of the hospital came out and told us that everything was fine with his heart, his lungs, his stomach, etc. It all had to do with his kidneys,” he said. “It could have been spoiled yogurt or something else.”
Although Kara-Murza’s father ruled out deliberate poisoning, colleagues had expressed doubts about the sudden illness, which comes after the killing of Nemtsov and reported pressure on opposition activists.
Open Russia project coordinator Maria Baronova told the Guardian his illness was suspicious and said “various activities surrounding public people from Open Russia look strange”, but declined to elaborate.
Opposition journalist Alexander Ryklin wrote on Facebook on Wednesday that he had just spoken with Kara-Murza and that the doctors “suspect poisoning”.
Kara-Murza’s father previously told Kommersant that his son’s condition could be explained by an allergy or a high-stress lifestyle “with irregular meals, little sleep”.
Kara-Murza had been at the offices of the Russian Legal Information Agency, a state-owned legal news agency, on Tuesday when he fell ill and was taken away by ambulance, his father said.
Anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny, who was given two suspended sentences on what many see as politically motivated charges, said on Twitter that he had seen Kara-Murza a few days ago, adding:
“He didn’t complain about his health and was entirely energetic [like usual].”
Russian police raided the Open Russia offices in April. According to a copy of their search warrant later, police suspected the organisation of printing leaflets to be handed out at a planned opposition rally that called for “extremist activities”.
Two days ago there was a screening in Moscow of a 26-minute film Open Russia film, entitled Family. It alleges that Chechnya’s president Ramzan Kadyrov is guilty of widespread human rights abuses, presides over a personal army of 80,000 fighters and skims off money from the federal budget.
At the time of his death, Nemtsov was planning a dossier exposing Vladimir Putin’s secret war in the east of Ukraine. The 65-page report entitled Putin and the War was completed by Nemtsov’s friends.
It alleges that Russian troops have taken part in the conflict – with at least 220 killed – and that Russia has covertly supplied the rebels with military hardware, intelligence and training. Putin denies Russian forces have been involved in the war.
Kara-Murza lives in Moscow and New York, where his three children are based. His previous projects have included a documentary likening Russia’s opposition to Putin with Soviet dissidents who protested in the 1960s.
Kara-Murza took Vladimir Bukovsky, a prominent enemy of the KGB who spent 12 years in Soviet labour camps and psychiatric facilities, to New York last year.
Men with guns are everywhere in Grozny. They stand on street corners, hang out in hotel lobbies and swagger through shopping malls, Uzis hanging from the waist.
They are Kadyrovtsy, the fighters who became policemen after Ramzan Kadyrov, their militia leader, became head of the Chechen Republic under a deal with Vladimir Putin, the Russian president.
The Kadyrovtsys’ distinctive tight black uniform with a Chechen flag patch on the right arm and a Russian one on the left reflect how many Russians regard today’s Chechnya: a rival power base to parts of the Russian security state.
Tensions between Moscow and Grozny came to the fore after the murder in February of Boris Nemtsov, the opposition politician, for which three former Chechen security officials were arrested.
This week, after security forces from the neighbouring Stavropol region shot dead a Chechen man in Grozny, Mr Kadyrov felt compelled to remind Moscow who was boss in Chechnya.
Mr Kadyrov instructed his security officials: “If someone appears on our territory without your knowledge — no matter if a Muscovite or someone from Stavropol — I order you to shoot to kill.”
The Chechen government insists the Stavropol officials had come as paid assassins and lacked documents for a legal operation. But Mr Kadyrov’s aggressive response raises a bigger political question: his regime may have stabilised war-torn Chechnya, but could it now weaken the Russian state as a whole?
“Kadyrov has tried to build a state within the state for a long time,” says Ekaterina Sokiryanskaya, a Caucasus expert at International Crisis Group. “He only listens to Putin, and nobody else.”
While other republics in the North Caucasus exchange intelligence on the Islamist insurgency with which the restive region struggles, the Chechen arm of Russia’s Federal Security Bureau, the successor to the KGB, refuses to do so.
“It shares what it feels like sharing with Moscow, and lets the centre decide what it sends back down south,” says Mark Galeotti, an expert on the Russian security services at New York University and author of a book on the Chechen wars.
Chechnya’s warlord rulers have clashed over their claim to special status with other parts of the security apparatus before. So far, they have had their way.
In 2013, Mr Putin replaced his top investigator in Chechnya after only seven months on the job following a run-in with Chechen officials.
Sergei Bobrov, a highly decorated general at the Federal Investigative Committee, had pressed on with an investigation into the murder of three women in the Chechen village of Geldagan even after his staff received threatening phone calls telling them to stop.
Two people from Geldagan said their village belonged to the area of influence of Magomed Daudov, a former fighter under Mr Kadyrov’s father and now the republic’s prime minister. “No investigator can build a case without asking him what to do,” said one of the two.
The same year Mr Bobrov was forced out, the Federal Investigative Committee released several Chechen men with links to Mr Kadyrov whom the FSB had detained on charges of extorting, kidnapping and torturing other Chechens in Moscow.
In Chechnya, some believe that Mr Kadyrov ordered Mr Nemtsov’s murder just steps from the Kremlin walls because he thought this would be a service to his political overlord.
“That man is getting really worried what will happen to him if Putin is no longer there,” said a government critic in Grozny who asked not to be named for fear of retribution. “With the criticism from the west, the economic crisis and rumours about disagreements in Putin’s circle, he realised that Putin will not be there for ever. Once Putin is gone, he loses everything.”
Others see the Nemtsov murder as a result of infighting. In Grozny, speculation is rife whether Mr Daudov or Adam Delimkhanov, a Duma member and brother of the commander of interior ministry troops in Chechnya, have ambitions to replace Mr Kadyrov.
True or not, these theories point to the precarious nature and the built-in risks of Mr Putin’s solution for Chechnya. But the Russian president does not appear to share such concerns.
He considers Chechnya a model that can be applied elsewhere. Last November, he suggested to Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, that Ukraine pacify its eastern Donbass region by buying it off with money and autonomy as he had done in Chechnya.
That is more than an abstract idea. Moscow is bringing other parts of the North Caucasus in line with some of Chechnya’s draconian practices. In 2013, Mr Putin replaced the head of Dagestan, who had tried to counter the creeping Islamist insurgency through dialogue with Salafi Muslims.
Since then, Dagestan has cracked down on Salafism as Chechnya has. Dagestan authorities have also started using Mr Kadyrov’s practice of punishing insurgents’ families by destroying their houses and expelling them.
Vladislav Surkov, a Kremlin adviser on Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Ukraine for Mr Putin, this year negotiated treaties for a far-reaching integration of the two Georgian breakaway regions with Russia in exchange for more economic aid.
As far as Mr Kadyrov is concerned, the deal is very clear. “If you entrusted this region to me, I must ensure security [here]. If not, please be so good and fire me.”
Cancellation of engagements this week had sparked speculation that president was unwell
Russian state television aired what it said was footage of Vladimir Putin working at his residence outside Moscow on Friday, a first appearance since he dropped out of sight days ago, triggering rumours that he was ill or had been sidelined by internal conflict.
In the footage, Putin was shown in his office at his Novo-Ogaryovo residence, where he conducts many of his meetings, sitting across a table from the supreme court head, Vyacheslav Lebedev, and talking about plans to reform the judicial system.
Dressed in grey suit and a blue patterned tie, he looked no different than usual. In the brief footage, he was shown nodding and smiling as Lebedev spoke, and could be heard saying a few words about the court system.
A planned visit by Putin to the Kazakh capital this week was cancelled with no official explanation, and a meeting in Moscow with a delegation from the Georgian separatist region of South Ossetia was also called off.
On Thursday the Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin, 62, was in good health and working as usual. However, the cancellation of engagements sparked feverish speculation on social media – though most Russian mainstream organisations, which are deferential to the Kremlin, steered clear of the issue.
The rumours fed into an atmosphere among Moscow’s political classes that was already more than usually febrile because of the conflict in Ukraine and last month’s killing of the opposition figure Boris Nemtsov.
There was no hard evidence that Putin was ill or that there was any crisis inside the Kremlin. Markets were unruffled by the rumours. The rouble strengthened slightly on Monday after the central bank cut rates by one percentage point, slightly less than some analysts had expected.