THE AFTERMATH of the murder of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov has been chilling even by the sinister standards of Vladimir Putin. Ten days after the gangland-style hit on a bridge near the Kremlin, police arrested and charged several ethnic Chechens, including one who was said to have confessed. That man, Zaur Dadaev, turns out to be the former deputy commander of an elite police squad controlled by the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, a fierce Putin loyalist. Mr. Kadyrov quickly praised the suspect as “a real patriot of Russia.” Mr. Putin, meanwhile, chose Monday to present Mr. Kadyrov with an Order of Honor, along with Andrei Lugovoi, the leading suspect in the 2006 London murder of another Kremlin critic.
If this all seems rather unsubtle, then that may be the point. Mr. Kadyrov, whom the Russian leader installed as Chechnya’s absolute ruler and who in turn serves as a Kremlin attack dog, has been a suspect in the unsolved assassinations of other Putin opponents, including of journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was gunned down on Mr. Putin’s birthday in 2006. In each instance Mr. Putin has shielded and defended Mr. Kadyrov. In the Politkovskaya case, several Chechens were arrested and eventually convicted of the killing in questionable trials that never explained who had ordered the murder.
The suspects in the Nemtsov killing also look like fall guys. According to a member of the Kremlin’s official human rights advisory council, three of the five suspects arrested were probably tortured; a sixth was reported to have blown himself up with a hand grenade. Those abused include Mr. Dadaev, who reportedly retracted what he said was a forced confession.
While his former foot soldier languishes in Moscow’s Lefortovo prison, Mr. Kadyrov has been offering a far-fetched theory for why he might have acted: Mr. Nemtsov, he says, gave offense with statements condemning the killing in Paris of journalists working for the magazine Charlie Hebdo. Mr. Dadaev, he claimed, is “a deeply religious person” who “was shaken” by this.
To believe this is to ignore Mr. Nemtsov’s far larger profile as an adversary of Mr. Putin and the deep connections between Mr. Kadyrov and the Putin regime. Just a few weeks ago, the Chechen leader staged a rally of his gunmen in Grozny’s soccer stadium; according to an account in Time magazine, Mr. Kadyrov declared: “We will gladly fulfill any order, in any spot of the world where our president tells us to go.” Brian Whitmore of Radio Free Europe reported that a contingent of Mr. Kadyrov’s thugs played a prominent role in a recent Kremlin-orchestrated rally against last year’s “Maidan” revolution in Ukraine. They carried signs saying, “Putin and Kadyrov will prevent Maidan in Russia,” along with photographs of Mr. Nemtsov, who had denounced Mr. Putin’s Ukraine adventures.
Of course, there is no proof that either Mr. Kadyrov or Mr. Putin were involved in Mr. Nemtsov’s murder, and there may never be. But Russians following the case have gotten a clear message. Anyone who opposes the Putin regime, no matter how prominent, can be killed — and those responsible are more likely to receive a Kremlin medal than a court summons.