The Chechen Gambit

The Chechen Gambit

In a move that has sent shockwaves through the international media, the president of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, announced on Saturday that he intends to step down after his current term expires on April 5. Having ruled the turbulent Russian republic with an iron fist since 2007, Kadyrov said in an interview with a pro-Kremlin TV station that he had now accomplished his mission, and that the time had come for him to devote himself to his family and to Islamic studies.

Few in Russia expect him to follow through, and most pundits regard his declaration as yet another move in the increasingly high-stakes game of chicken he has been playing, for years, with the Kremlin. The end goal of Kadyrov’s strategy is not just to secure further remittances from Moscow but to reinforce the legitimacy of his rule by having Russian President Vladimir Putin personally announce that he wants him to remain in power.

As part of his gambit, the outspoken Chechen leader has amped up his incendiary rhetoric in recent months, drawing Moscow’s attention to his ability to both divide opinion and command significant public support. On January 12, he took to the website of the Chechen government to label the unofficial Russian opposition as “enemies of the people” and suggested they be tried to the “fullest extent for their subversive activities.” This brought an inevitable outcry from opposition leaders — which, in turn, prompted a mass demonstration in support of Kadyrov in Grozny, the Chechen capital.

A few weeks later he posted a video that showed former Russian prime minister and current opposition leader Mikhail Kasyanov meeting in Strasbourg with representatives of the Council of Europe to discuss the investigation into the high-profile murder of another well-known activist, Boris Nemtsov. The hidden-camera footage was digitally altered to look like it was taken through the crosshairs of a sniper rifle, and accompanied by a barely veiled threat: “Whoever doesn’t understand will understand.” Considering that the murder of Nemtsov has widely been linked to Kadyrov’s inner circle and has caused Putin considerable trouble, the move was clearly aimed at goading a reaction from Moscow.

The Kremlin at first remained unmoved by Kadyrov’s bravado — that is, until he disclosed on Russian television that Chechen special forces were fighting undercover against the Islamic State in Syria. If true, this would go against the many public declarations Putin has made, both to the Russian people and his foreign allies, that Russia would never engage in ground combat in Syria. Noticeably rattled, the Russian government was forced to issue a stern rebuttal, emphasizing that that the Ministry of Defense was the only source for official information on the matter.

Such behavior from any other Russian politician would border on suicide, but these tactics are nothing new for the Chechen tsar, who has consistently used the political capital he has amassed since assuming office to bargain for dividends from the Kremlin.

Kadyrov first came to prominence in 2004 after the assassination of his father, Akhmad Kadyrov, the then-leader of the Chechen Republic. Kadyrov senior had been a separatist militia commander in the first Chechen war for independence (1994-1996), before switching sides during the second campaign in 1999 and striking a deal with a rising political star, Vladimir Putin, who had just become prime minister. Putin enlisted Kadyrov senior’s help in cracking down on separatist forces in the region, and in return appointed him president of Chechnya in 2003. After the elder Kadyrov was assassinated by a bomb, 27-year old Ramzan was summoned to Moscow to receive Putin’s official condolences and to symbolically assume the reins of power. Their somber meeting in the Kremlin proved a memorable one, not least because Kadyrov broke official protocol by wearing a sky-blue track suit, characteristically setting the tone for the relationship in which the younger man would constantly test the limits of what was allowed.

He has since earned an extremely privileged position with Putin, largely due to his ruthless approach to wiping out the region’s separatist insurgency. In this he relied primarily on the assistance of his unofficial (formerly insurgent) militia, the kadyrovtsy, gradually edging federal troops out of his territory in the process. International and domestic human rights groups have decried the mass kidnappings, raids, and torture that have accompanied Kadyrov’s policies, but the Kremlin is overjoyed at his effectiveness in bringing quiet to the troublesome region.

In addition, Kadyrov consistently provided Putin and his party, United Russia, with a high turnout of supportive votes in general elections. In return, the Kremlin has flooded the region with money, including over 14 billion dollars in postwar reconstruction funds. In 2011 one of Russia’s leading economists, Natalia Zubarevich, referred to Chechnya as a “bottomless pit for federal subsidies.” Indeed, 83 percent of its 2015 budget is estimated to have come from federal funds.

Even so, the more Moscow depends on Kadyrov to control the region, the more it becomes a hostage to his growing ambition. Having consolidated power in Chechnya, Kadyrov informally turned the republic into an Islamic state within secular Russia. His government prescribes the observance of sharia law for all citizens, requires women to wear headscarves, and permits honor killings as part of traditional practice. He has also built a thirty-thousand-strong army, feared by many in Russia, that is loyal to him rather than to the Kremlin.

The late investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, whose 2006 murder is widely attributed to Kadyrov, once described him as a “little dragon” raised by the Kremlin. “Now they need to feed it,” she wrote, “otherwise it will spit fire.”

And the Chechen leader is certainly known for using open provocation to secure continued payoffs from Moscow. In 2014, when the Russian economy was hit by falling oil prices, rumors started swirling that the federal budget allocation for the region would be cut for the first time. Kadyrov started making announcements about preparing to send 70,000 volunteers to fight in Ukraine, at a time when Russia insisted that the Ukrainian war was a civil conflict without any Russian intervention. In the end, Chechnya was one of the few regions to receive a bump in its federal funding that year.

In recent months, Kadyrov’s strategy has won him ownership of Chechenneftekhimprom, a subsidiary of the state-owned oil company Rosneft that controls the region’s refining infrastructure, which he has sought for many years. But the leader appears to want still more, and his current round of inflammatory statements is said to stem from his effort to secure the construction of an oil refinery in Chechnya, as well as a guarantee that federal budget cuts, imposed as Russia’s economy reels from low oil prices and Western sanctions, will not affect federal support for his republic.

More than anything, however, Kadyrov appears to be maneuvering for reinstatement into the presidency by a direct request from Putin. This is why the Chechen leader announced his intention to step down last week, knowing all too well that Chechens would immediately vow to pour onto the streets of Grozny to beseech him to stay. Some of the most prominent cultural figures in the country have already joined an online plea for him to change his mind with the viral hashtag #Рамзаннеуходи (#RamzanDon’tGo). For the moment, however, he has told his fans to hold back, apparently in the expectation of an imminent Kremlin announcement in support of his continued rule.

And Putin is likely to give in, largely due to his awareness of the authority and respect Kadyrov commands in Chechnya and the rest of the largely Sunni North Caucasus. At a time when Russia is fighting a war as part of a Shia coalition alongside the official Syrian government, Iran, and Iraq, Putin is acutely aware of the delicate balance of public opinion of his Muslim Russian citizens. Over 2,400 Russians are said to have already joined the ranks of the Islamic State, and Putin is known to dread the prospect of another Islamist uprising inside Russia.

But there is another reason for Putin’s continued appeasement of Kadyrov. The Russian president simply cannot afford to acknowledge the extent to which his Chechen proxy has become unhinged, as this would mean that Putin’s own policy in the region has failed. Putin rose to power on a promise to bring the rebellious Chechens back into the Russian fold after the chaos of the 1990s, and his current strongman image is closely linked with his subsequent victory in the second Chechen war. For Putin, admitting that he has lost control over Kadyrov would be tantamount to political suicide.

Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov has responded to Kadyrov’s announcement, saying that the Kremlin has “yet to decide” on the fate of the head of Chechnya. In reality, however, Putin is trapped. There is no viable alternative to the prince in the tracksuit.

In the photo, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov smiles during a government-organized event marking Chechen language day in central Grozny on April 25, 2013.

Photo credit: REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov