Has Ramzan Kadyrov successfully blackmailed the Kremlin?
In all the hoopla over Vladimir Putin resurfacing, a pretty important news item managed to slip below the radar.
On March 16, the same day the Kremlin leader appeared, Interfax quoted an unidentified law- enforcement official as saying that the assassination of Boris Nemtsov has been reclassified from a "contract killing" to a "hate crime."
The report is still unconfirmed. But if the official line becomes that this was not a contract killing, then there is no need to investigate who put out the contract.
There is no need to look beyond Zaur Dadayev and the others rounded up in connection with the hit.
There is no need to ask any uncomfortable -- and destabilizing -- questions.
By targeting Dadayev --the former deputy commander of a paramilitary unit founded by Kadyrov -- the Federal Security Service (FSB) seemed to be ultimately targeting Kadyrov.
And now, it appears, that Kadyrov has successfully beaten back the FSB's assault.
It was amid this turmoil that Putin vanished from public view on March 5, just six days after Nemtsov was assassinated and three days before Dadayev was charged.
"Putin appeared, live and legitimate, at exactly the same moment when Interfax reported that the Nemtsov assassination wasn't a contract hit," political analyst Leonid Volkov wrote on Facebook.
"Putin had to make a choice. Either feed Kadyrov to the FSB-men, or give up the FSB to Kadyrov. It's a difficult and unpleasant choice.... And he chose the one and only thing he could choose: Kadyrov."
A Tribute -- And A Threat
Over the 10 days, 21 hours, four minutes, and 20 seconds that Putin was holed up in an undisclosed location -- before turning up in St. Petersburg on March 16 for a meeting with Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev -- a lot of weird stuff happened.
Kadyrov publicly praised Dadayev, went to a shooting range to pop a few rounds, and posted the video on Instagram. The Chechen leader also posted a letter on Instagram expressing his enduring loyalty to Putin.
"I will always be grateful to Vladimir Vladimirovich for everything he has done for me and for my people," Kadyrov wrote.
"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."
But within the profession of loyalty, there was also a veiled threat -- one that was punctuated by the shooting range outing. I am loyal, Kadyrov seemed to be saying. But others may not be. And taking me down carries risks.
And somebody was apparently listening.
It's worth noting that over a nine-day period, Kadyrov has been given no fewer than three state awards.
On March 9, shortly after Dadayev was arrested and charged, he was given the Order of Merit, the state's highest honor. On March 16, the day Putin reappeared in public, he received a medal For Devotion and Duty from authorities in Russia-annexed Crimea. And on March 18, he was honored by the Federal Penitentiary Service.
"Kadyrov is now the pillar, basis, and essence of Russian statehood. Even more so than all of the FSB combined," Volkov wrote on Facebook.
Connecting The Dots
Unpacking the Nemtsov assassination, the ensuing investigation, Kadyrov's emergence at the center of it, and the Chechen leader's battle with the FSB involves interpreting and connecting a lot of disparate data points.
"We're seeing rivets popping inside the Kremlin in a way we haven't seen before," longtime Kremlin-watcher Edward Lucas, author of The New Cold War, told Britain's itv.
Kadyrov is widely known to covet a high post in Moscow. And he is also believed to want his cousin and close associate, Adam Delimkhanov, to replace him in Chechnya.
The idea makes many in Russia's elite nervous -- not least of all, the FSB brass. Moreover, enmity between Kadyrov and the FSB goes way back.
In May 2007, shortly after Kadyrov was named Chechnya's leader, the local FSB refused to allow a group of his armed men into their headquarters. Kadyrov responded by having all the building's entrances and exits welded shut.The standoff was only resolved when Nikolai Patrushev, then the FSB director, intervened personally.
And there are strong indications that the FSB is trying to take both Kadyrov and Delimkhanov down.
Like in the Nemtsov assassination, the FSB also took the lead role in investigating the attempted assassination of Saigidpasha Umakhanov, a foe of Kadyrov's and the mayor of Khasavyurt, Daghestan's third-largest city.
In February, just weeks before Nemtsov was gunned down, a court in Daghestan sentenced two Chechens to long prison sentences for plotting Umakhanov's killing. In a recent report Novaya Gazeta quoted FSB officials as saying the assassination plot was ordered and masterminded by none other than Delimkhanov.
Another report by Novaya Gazeta quoted unidentified law enforcement officials as saying the real organizer of the Nemtsov assassination was a Chechen security officer, also with close ties to Kadyrov, identified only as "Major Ruslan."
Subsequent press reports have claimed that the mysterious Major Ruslan was Ruslan Geremeyev -- who is Delimkhanov's nephew.
Will the assault on Kadyrov now ebb? And if it does, will he continue to become more powerful and more brazen?
Or will the FSB regroup and renew its assault? One hint that this might be the case came in a report in RBK on March 17.
Citing unidentified law enforcement officials, it claimed that Dadayev and Geremeyev planned Nemtsov's assassination in a Moscow cafe. According to the report, Geremeyev paid Dadayev 5 million rubles ($83,000) and provided him weapons.
So we still seem to be in a battle of leaks, each with conflicting accounts of whether this was a hate crime that stops with Dadayev or whether it is a contract killing that leads from Dadayev to Geremeyev to Delimkhanov -- and ultimately to Kadyrov.
Neither narrative is great for the regime.
"If Kadyrov were indeed freelancing into political assassinations in Moscow and were allowed to walk away unpunished, he would be taking Putin and the entire Russian leadership hostage, which might be precisely his plan," political analyst Vladimir Frolov wrote in The Moscow Times. Frolov adds that a "full investigation and arrests of co-conspirators risk destabilization in Chechnya escalating into war."
Either way, an increasing number of Kremlin-watchers are coming to the conclusion that the period beginning on February 27 with Nemtsov's assassination and continuing through Putin's odd vanishing act marks the dawn of late Putinism -- the twilight of the regime in its current form.
"Has the Russian regime's agony begun," asks a recent article by the prominent Russian political analyst Lilia Shevtsova in The American Interest.
Shevtsova notes that Putin's "steely-eyed resolve" is gone, he "is losing control," and "can’t give his entourage clear orders." Nemtsov's assassination, she adds, has "shattered the mirrored window concealing the Kremlin; now everyone can see the mess within."
-- Brian Whitmore