Why the World Should Be Worried About Chechnya

On the day after Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, thousands of fighters in full battle dress rallied in Grozny, the capital of the southern Russian province of Chechnya. Wearing a self-styled uniform and carrying a pistol in a holster, Chechnya’s Kremlin-backed leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, hailed the start of the so-called special military operation and pledged to send Chechen volunteers into battle on Putin’s orders.

“I am sure they will prove themselves worthy and that, in the coming days, we will celebrate the liberation of millions of people from violence and killing,” Kadyrov said.

As Putin’s blitzkrieg to seize Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, faltered, turning into a slog to hang onto occupied territory, Kadyrov has emerged as one of the most vocal proponents of the Kremlin’s pitiless war. Although Russian military commanders avoid the limelight and regular soldiers are prohibited from using smartphones, Kadyrov, a general officer in Russia’s National Guard, obsessively shares videos, audio messages, and commentary on his Telegram account, which has more than 3 million followers. (When the United States sanctioned Kadyrov for human rights abuses in 2017, he was kicked off Facebook and Instagram.) Kadyrov has boasted of Chechen fighters’ prowess in crucial battles, called for the use of tactical nuclear weapons against Ukraine, and recently posted a video of him receiving—with a smirk—an award for holding the world record in most personal sanctions for one person: 15 sanctions.

On the surface, Kadyrov sends the message that Chechnya, once Russia’s most rebellious region that paid so dearly for its attempt to secede in the 1990s, is now its most loyal. But it would be a mistake to see Kadyrov’s public displays of fealty as a sign of Russia’s successful pacification of Chechnya. In fact, the outsize role Kadyrov has come to play only highlights the fragility of the multiethnic federation Russia purports to be.

Chechnya, like most of Russia’s 80-odd regions, is dependent on the Kremlin’s largesse in redistributing oil and gas revenues. “Like in the Middle Ages, Kadyrov is a vassal of Putin personally, not of Russia,” said Nikolai Petrov, a senior research fellow with Chatham House in London. But the more manpower and money Putin expends on the war in Ukraine, the looser his grip on Russia’s far-flung provinces becomes. If Putin’s empire-building project fails, Chechnya — a tiny territory that accounts for 1 percent of Russia’s population — could once again become a source of instability for the Russian state.

“The disintegration of Russia is inevitable,” said Zarina Sautieva, a public policy fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington and a human rights defender from Ingushetia, a Russian province that borders Chechnya. “I don’t think Russia can hold together, but it’s not clear if this is a matter of months or years.”

In Ukraine, the Kremlin has relied disproportionately on troops from impoverished regions with Indigenous ethnic minorities: from the North Caucasus, where Chechnya is located, to provinces such as Buryatia and Tuva, which border Mongolia. When Putin announced a “partial mobilization” in September, protests broke out in Dagestan, which neighbors Chechnya, and Yakutia, in northeastern Siberia, forcing regional leaders to promise to send home men who had been called up “by mistake.”

As long as it keeps funding the regions, Sautieva said, the Kremlin can tamp down demonstrations. “But if social welfare payments stop and more bodies come back, people will rise up, not only in the Caucasus,” she added.

That’s not to say Russia’s regions, especially those in the restless North Caucasus, are about to break with Moscow. The Russian president’s vaunted “power vertical” holds regional leaders on a tight leash by keeping them dependent on financial and political support. Putin came to power, after all, by prosecuting a brutal war to crush Chechnya’s aspirations for independence. He installed Akhmad Kadyrov, Ramzan’s father, as the head of Chechnya’s puppet regime and promoted Ramzan after Akhmad was assassinated in 2004. And he has lavished the younger Kadyrov with petrodollars, tolerating his excesses in return for unquestioning loyalty.

“Russia’s colonial regime has stabilized in the North Caucasus,” said Denis Sokolov, a Russian expert on the North Caucasus. “The regional elites have become part of the system and see their future together with the regime.” Maybe, Sokolov said, they fear separatism even more than Moscow does. As a result, “it would be premature to talk about outright separatism. Of course, people are thinking about it in the Caucasus, the Urals-Volga region, and Buryatia. But they have no political or military organization. That can change very fast.”

Putin’s fateful decision to draft ordinary Russians for his war in Ukraine has renewed interest in regional autonomy, not just along ethnic lines. “The situation has been brought to a head by mobilization,” Sokolov said. “Mobilization equals death, and people will resist it.”

Using his Telegram account as a megaphone and his Chechen warriors—the Kadyrovtsy—as a prop and cudgel, Kadyrov has carved out a unique place for himself as both Russia’s most high-profile governor and military leader. “Today, we see two regimes in Russia: Putin’s and Kadyrov’s,” Petrov said.

The Chechen strongman likes to remind Putin of his loyalty. In September, a month before his 46th birthday, Kadyrov posted a video of himself sitting in a gilded palace, reflecting on getting older and suggesting that after 15 years in power, it was time for him to step down. Three days later, he retracted his statement, saying the Chechen people had entrusted him with his position and that he could only resign after asking them—and Putin.

Kadyrov constantly tests the boundaries of his own authority. Aware of popular discontent with the mobilization announcement, he announced Russia already had enough uniformed men in law enforcement to “take down any Western army.” The call-up, Kadyrov maintained, was needed simply to give reservists a refresher course. He has also lambasted the Russian military leadership for failures on the battlefield and railed against the release of high-profile Ukrainian prisoners of war in a prisoner exchange that was almost certainly approved by Putin. Instead of being reprimanded, Kadyrov announced on his birthday, Oct. 5, that Putin had just made him a colonel general—Kadyrov’s second promotion since the start of the invasion.

The very personal nature of Kadyrov’s relationship with Putin suggests that Kadyrov’s allegiance to the Kremlin is conditional on Putin remaining in power. Russia’s future could hinge on what Kadyrov will do when his patron is gone.

“If chaos should break out in the Kremlin, Kadyrov will be the first to declare independence,” Sautieva said. Petrov, on the other hand, argues that Kadyrov likely has much bigger ambitions. Kadyrov’s powerful allies in Moscow include Viktor Zolotov, a former Putin bodyguard who now heads the National Guard. Even if the federal authorities have a numerical advantage over Kadyrov, Petrov said, they may not be able to react as decisively as he can in a chaotic transition period.

“If Putin leaves power, Kadyrov could become a kingmaker—or even a pretender to the throne,” Petrov said. Although Kadyrov’s chances of seizing power are not high, Petrov said, they are not negligible given the absence of functioning government institutions and possible disagreements inside the Russian establishment.

Yet Petrov cautioned that the main risk to Russia’s unity comes not from the regions themselves but from decisions made for them in the Kremlin. When the central government runs out of money because of the war and international sanctions, it will be forced to consider new models of cohabitation.

“The economic basis that supports a super centralized, super unitary state has been completely undermined,” Petrov said. “Big transformations are inevitable: hard or soft federalization, regionalization all the way to collapse.” Putin’s successor may well be more concerned with keeping Russia together than in conquering new territories.

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