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The Kadyrov conundrum How Chechnya’s ruler maintains power while feuding with Russia’s security apparatus and flirting with a revolutionary legacy

Source: Meduza

By Harold Chambers (@chambersharold8)

The common consensus about Ramzan Kadyrov since his ascendance to the top of Chechnya’s political ranks has been that everything he is and has result from his uncommon relationship with President Vladimir Putin — one marked by Kadyrov’s tightly bound personal loyalty and the leeway Putin grants him. Some observers have even described it as a quasi-familial relationship, portraying Kadyrov Jr. as looking for a fatherlike figure in the Russian president, following the assassination of his actual father, Akhmat Kadyrov, in 2004. The fixation on this paternalistic dynamic, while an informative framing at times, fails to depict the entire nature of their relationship. After all, if this were the only dynamic at play, Kadyrov would not have the freedom to speak and act as he does with the impunity he clearly enjoys, making statements that would otherwise provoke an “undesirable” designation from the authorities.

In a guest essay for Meduza, political and security analyst Harold Chambers explains the logic behind the provocative rhetorical conflicts in which Chechnya’s governor is so often embroiled.

The conundrum

The Kadyrov conundrum’s origins lie not with Ramzan’s rise to power but his father Akhmat’s transformation from an Ichkerian religious leader who declared jihad against Russia into Putin’s man in Chechnya. This history is key to understanding the political predicament that Ramzan Kadyrov presents today for the Kremlin.

The Second Chechen War provided Putin, who was prime minister at the time, with the opportunity to go from a near nobody politically to the most powerful man in Russia. In 1999, he uttered his now famous words about “killing [Chechens] in outhouses.” This militaristic attitude, full of renewed vigor, set Putin apart from both the outgoing Boris Yeltsin and other rivals for the presidency. Due to the apartment bombings that prompted Putin’s threat (regardless of who was truly behind them), Russians welcomed the promise to wipe out the militants ruthlessly. Putin’s command over the invasion, however, was not just a chance to follow through on his words but to succeed where Yeltsin had been humiliated completely just a few years earlier, losing militarily to the small Chechen independence army.

As such, Putin’s war in Chechnya was not just about proving the worth of his words but that he could succeed when Yeltsin had failed. Victory in the Second Chechen War accelerated Putin’s rise to power and formed the foundation of his legitimacy. The man whose defection was instrumental to this victory was Akhmat Kadyrov.

As the head of Chechnya, Akhmat Kadyrov still had rivals, but the appointment put him in a position to assert his family as the most important in the region. Patrons in Russia’s federal security services sponsored each of the federalist Chechen warlords: besides the Kadyrovs, there were the Yamadayev brothers, Said-Magomed Kakiyev, and Movladi Baysarov. After Kadyrov Sr. was assassinated, the balance of this patronage network shifted substantially. Unlike the other warlords, Kadyrov Jr.’s patron was Putin himself. By relation, this guaranteed his position at the top of the Chechen Republic’s hierarchy, allowing him to begin targeting the other warlords, who were the closest thing to being his rivals.

In 2007, Ramzan Kadyrov officially became the most powerful political figure in Chechnya. With his ascension now formalized, he began eliminating his rivals in earnest, embarking on a multi-year campaign extending far beyond both Chechnya’s and Russia’s borders. What this power consolidation drive meant at the federal level was that Ramzan Kadyrov became the sole guarantor of stability in Chechnya. Just as Putin was and is solely responsible for Kadyrov’s position, now too was Kadyrov uniquely responsible for maintaining a lynchpin of Putin’s legitimacy. Chechnya’s governor is hardly the only one propping up the regime’s validity, of course, but he alone holds control over such an integral piece of it.

The other consequence of Kadyrov eliminating his rivals is that senior officials in Russia’s security apparatus — the siloviki, who previously had their respective clients in Chechnya, each with a share of power in the region — were now client-less. This is one of the main reasons for the longstanding feud between the Chechen governor and leaders of Russia’s federal security services.

The role that the “Kadyrov conundrum” plays in the Chechen governor’s federal political activities is evident in recent, ongoing events, like his statements about the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria and his apparent partnership with Evgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner Group paramilitary cartel.

More from Harold Chambers

The post-Kadyrov mirage North Caucasus analyst Harold Chambers connects rumors about Chechnya’s dictator getting a new job to a years-long conflict between Grozny and Russia’s security elites

More from Harold Chambers

The post-Kadyrov mirage North Caucasus analyst Harold Chambers connects rumors about Chechnya’s dictator getting a new job to a years-long conflict between Grozny and Russia’s security elites

The Prigozhin affair

In the wake of Russia’s trouble-strewn mobilization effort last autumn, Kadyrov began promoting the idea that state employees with “good physical fitness and weapons skills” (in other words, members of the Federal Security Service, Foreign Intelligence Service, Federal Investigative Committee, and so on) should be sent to the front, instead of men who have never touched a firearm. At the time, this comment appeared to be motivated by self-preservation, given that Kadyrov had recently canceled Chechnya’s public mobilization drive following local protests

A week later, Kadyrov posted a scathing indictment of Colonel-General Aleksandr Lapin’s performance near Liman in the Donetsk region. Unexpectedly, Evgeny Prigozhin suddenly endorsed both Kadyrov’s mobilization idea and his critique of Lapin.

After this initial agreement, the Kadyrov–Prigozhin relationship began to resemble an alliance, rather than mere cooperation by happenstance. In late October, it was Kadyrov’s turn to support Prigozhin’s criticism of the Russian Armed Forces, still focusing on General Lapin. Later, when Russia retreated from Kherson, Prigozhin backed the decision with Kadyrov’s concurrence (the Chechen governor even told his lieutenants to support the withdrawal).

After the new year, Prigozhin sided with Kadyrov in his dispute with generals over rules pertaining to beards in the military. Most recently, the Wagner head visited a hospital in Moscow to meet with Apti Alaudinov, who commands Kadyrov’s “Akhmat” spetsnaz volunteer force and serves as deputy commander of self-declared Donetsk republic’s Second Army. Alaudinov is currently recovering from being poisoned in an attempted assassination. Prigozhin brought along Wagner’s infamous sledgehammer, in the wake of another barbaric execution video’s release.

Prigozhin’s recent rhetoric and his meeting with Alaudinov, like Alaudinov himself, illustrate how the informal security forces fighting for Russia in Ukraine — namely, Wagner Group, the kadyrovtsy (especially the “Akhmat” group), and the militias of the self-declared Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics — have grown closer since the February 2022 invasion.

The Kadyrov–Prigozhin partnership is logical; they both command the two largest informal security forces engaged in Ukraine. Kadyrov is permanently isolated from Russia’s official security elites, meaning that he must turn to the shadows to find allies. Evgeny Prigozhin certainly fits this description. In fact, the Wagner Group chief shares other commonalities with Kadyrov — chiefly, Putin’s personal patronage. A recent profile of Prigozhin published in The Guardian illustrates how the man often still identified as “Putin’s chef” has angered, among others, many of Russia’s business elites. Considering Prigozhin’s status, the list of disgruntled oligarchs likely includes many who also resent Kadyrov. This abundance of potential adversaries also contributes to the logic of their partnership.

That Kadyrov and Prigozhin generally cooperate today, however, does not mean they will side together on everything. On February 19, for example, Kadyrov announced his intention to create his own private military company (PMC), based on the Akhmat special forces, in order to “compete” with Prigozhin. The scheme appears to be Kadyrov’s plan to legitimize the continued existence of the Akhmat volunteer force in the Ukraine War’s aftermath, potentially co-opting the Luhansk and Donetsk militias in the process. An Akhmat PMC could also help compensate for the kadyrovtsy’s substantial battlefield casualties and the control Kadyrov has lost under the Defense Ministry’s command structure, where there can be more resistance to his personal authority over units.

Admittedly, in the context of the announcement, “competing” with Prigozhin comes across more as a friendly jab than a serious challenge. At the same time, though, it’s worth remembering that Kadyrov’s counterterrorism police were the extra-military solution in Syria before Wagner Group became dominant, so there might be some lingering bitterness.

The ongoing cooperation between the two men in their criticism of the military looks like a confrontation between formal and informal sectors of Russia’s security apparatus. In the end, this divide doesn’t appear to be anything more dramatic than other intra-elite squabbles, which, of course, require Putin’s arbitration. While the Kadyrov–Prigozhin pact was certainly borne of convenience, it shows signs of long-term potentiality, due to the two men’s dearth of potential allies — especially anyone who could contribute meaningfully within the partnership. But the full extent of its constancy and depth remains unclear.

An ‘ardent Ichkerian’

On January 26, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki declared that “Chechnya deserves independence.” On social media, Kadyrov fired back, demanding, “Where were you when we fought for Ichkeria?” The Chechen governor even called himself an “ardent Ichkerian.”

These bizarre comments are hardly the first time Kadyrov has laid claim to the Ichkerian identity, which is explicitly and inherently connected to Chechen independence. Kadyrov Jr. has gone to great lengths trying to incorporate Ichkeria’s memory into the personality cult surrounding his father. Tumso Abdurakhmanov — the Chechen dissident who became internationally famous for fending off his would-be assassin, and whose current fate is still unclear — had a blood feud declared against him for calling Akhmat Kadyrov a “traitor.”

But Kadyrov has also banned symbols associated with Ichkeria. During the September anti-mobilization protest in Grozny, for example, a woman who sang the Ichkerian national anthem was later forced on television to declare herself mentally unsound.

The manipulation and selective utilization of Ichkeria’s legacy serves multiple purposes for Kadyrov. He seeks public legitimacy by tying himself to the popular Ichkerian ideology and also hopes to neutralize Ichkeria’s legacy by coopting it through his brutal regime. Suffice it to say, these are poorly conceived strategies. Both Kadyrov’s public legitimization and the neutralization of Ichkerian ideology theoretically fall within the bounds of his agreement to maintain stability in Chechnya for Putin, thus fulfilling his end of their bargain. His comments at the end of January, however, are more provocative than he has previously asserted himself in public.

The remarks also have context beyond the manipulation of Chechen history.

Kadyrov’s self-declaration as an Ichkerian was one in a string of inflammatory comments. Throughout January, he verbally sparred with Russia’s military leadership over allowing beards, rebuked Mateusz Morawiecki about failing to support Chechen independence in the past, and said those in Russia who forbid public displays of Islam are “Ukrainian fascists.” Throughout the invasion, Kadyrov’s provocations singling out federal officials (especially those who are more nationalistic) have come as he promotes a “multiconfessional and multinational” Russia.

Considering the bargain that both keeps Kadyrov in power and ensures major frictions within Russia’s security world, this pattern of inflammatory comments indicates the great leeway granted to the Chechen governor. It also demonstrates how Kadyrov tries to balance between his various identities — as a Russian citizen, Chechen, and Muslim — but ultimately lacks in-group status. As an ex-separatist, Ramzan Kadyrov has never been truly accepted among the federal elite; as a defector, he has been rejected by his own people; and unlike his father, he is not a religious scholar, so all he has in common with the Gulf monarchies he seeks to replicate is his lifestyle and penchant for human rights abuses.

This isolation is part of the conundrum at the heart of the Kadyrov regime.

Kadyrov’s future

The fact that Ramzan Kadyrov has established a status quo in which there is no viable successor to govern Chechnya means that he will have difficulty changing roles. Despite teases of his resignation or even becoming Russia’s president, he is unlikely ever to leave Chechnya, even in a hypothetical post-Putin Russia. Kadyrov’s modus operandi has always been to hoard as much power and influence as possible, all from the safety of his fortified fiefdom.

Lately, some analysts argue that subordinates are working to undermine Kadyrov or that he’s even fallen from grace with Putin. Besides hearsay and speculation, no evidence supports either argument. Kadyrov’s victories early in the invasion remain relatively intact, for now, and administrative personnel dynamics have been moving apace. His network of operatives remains strong inside Chechnya and in its limited expansion throughout Russia; it is still too weak, however, to reach higher levels of governance.

Eventually, Kadyrov’s proclivity for making powerful enemies and violating federal narratives may catch up with him, but there are no indications when this might occur, if it happens at all. Whatever the rumors, Kadyrov’s unique position as Vladimir Putin’s sole provider of stability in Chechnya all but guarantees his continued status so long as Putin governs. In fact, he’ll likely retain substantial bargaining power in any post-Putin Russia.

Harold Chambers is a political and security analyst focused on the North Caucasus.

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