The Kadyrov Factor: Why Putin Must Keep a Close Eye on His Chechen Strongman

In April 2015, Chechnya's leader Ramzan Kadyrov announced that Chechen security forces had the right to fire on any Russian military units operating in Chechnya without his permission. Kadyrov's assertive declaration grabbed the attention of the Kremlin and fuelled speculation that Putin's relationship with Kadyrov was souring. Rumors of possible Chechen involvement in the murder of Boris Nemtsov further bolstered these claims and prompted fears that Putin had lost control over his proxy in Chechnya.

While an open conflict between both leaders has been averted, a further deterioration of relations between Putin and Kadyrov could adversely impact Putin's regime security and geopolitical ambitions in two main ways. First, Putin regards his use of Kadyrov as a Russian proxy as a form of indirect imperialism that is transferrable to other CIS countries, like Ukraine and Moldova. Second, Putin's Chechnya policy has provoked discord amongst Kremlin elites, especially within the FSB, that Putin cannot easily repress.

Kadyrov's Prominent Role in Putin's Imperial Project Vladimir Putin appointed Kadyrov as Chechen president in 2007 because he wanted a reliable proxy to repress the threat posed by Islamist militants in Chechnya. Kadyrov possessed a fully formed militia, known as the Kadyrovtsy, which assisted Russian efforts to consolidate control over the North Caucasus. Kadyrov's ability to combine brutal repression with the co-option of the Qadiriya (a leading Sufi Muslim sect) made him a vital component of Putin's imperial grand design in the CIS region.

Kadyrov's success in achieving the Kremlin's objectives and his sustained loyalty to the Putin regime caused Putin to believe that Kadyrov's appointment was a model decision replicable in other CIS countries. Even though Putin cannot appoint leaders on his own volition outside Russia's borders, he has still actively searched for opportunities to create new Kadyrovs in other countries when pro-Russian leaders rose to power.

In my recent interview with Taras Kuzio, a leading expert on contemporary Ukrainian politics and foreign policy, Kuzio compared Putin's control over Kadyrov to his dominance over former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych.

Kuzio said: "Putin believed Yanukovych was a Ukrainian Kadyrov, someone who could be easily bought off. He successfully pressured Yanukovych to accede to demands that would be degrading for any Ukrainian president to implement. Yanukovych allowed Putin to infiltrate the Ukrainian intelligence and security services, to the point that the SBU headquarters in Kyiv were emptied, with all of their computers and data files taken away as soon as Yanukovych fell from power."

The notion that Putin's successful partnership with Kadyrov is a reliably transferrable model is flawed in two crucial respects. First, a deeper analysis of foreign policy trends in the CIS region indicates that most pro-Russian leaders were not as willing as Yanukovych to make large-scale concessions to Putin.

Kuzio regards Moldova, which was governed by a pro-Russian Communist Party-led regime for much of its independent life as a state, as an example of Putin's limited ability to enforce concessions from Kremlin-aligned leaders. Putin believed that the political weakness of Romanian nationalists in Moldova provided an opening for him to place Moldova firmly in Moscow's orbit. This plan was swiftly foiled. Moldova's scathing rejection of Putin's 2003 proposal to resolve the Transnistria conflict, and 2006 trade dispute with Russia over wine exports, provides compelling evidence that pro-Russian CIS leaders are generally not as pliable as Yanukovych was in Ukraine.

Second, Putin overestimated the extent of Kadyrov's loyalty to the Kremlin. Guardian journalist Shaun Walker recently argued that Kadyrov's allegiance to Putin is matched more by his rhetoric than by his actions.

Kadyrov's fiery cries of "Long live our great motherland Russia and long live our national leader Vladimir Putin" belie his unwillingness to be subservient to Putin. There is compelling evidence that Kadyrov's support for Putin is not based on personal loyalty, even though Putin's promotion of Kadyrov was partially shaped by Putin's relationship with his deceased father.

Instead, Kadyrov's pro-Putin stance is based on his ability to blackmail the Kremlin into helping him consolidate his personal authority over Chechnya in exchange for cooperation with Russia in confronting security threats in the North Caucasus.

Kadyrov has institutionalized corruption in Chechnya, which has hindered economic development, but Russian government funding has continued unabated. Russian patronage has ironically expanded Kadyrov's capacity to confront Putin, by allowing Chechnya to develop a formidable military force. Walker believes that Kadyrov's more frequent displays of Chechen military personnel in recent months, is a subtle way to warn Russia of the potential costs of infringing on Chechnya's autonomy.

Despite Kadyrov's corruption and the limited desire of many Russian-allied leaders to completely tow the Kremlin line, Russia's ongoing military campaign in the Donbas and military agreement with Abkhazia, indicate that Putin is still trying to create new Kadyrovs wherever he can. Therefore, if Kadyrov were to betray Putin, he would discredit one of Putin's key strategies to enforce Russian hegemony in the CIS region.

Why Putin Risks Elite Discord over Kadyrov

Many Russian political elites have opposed Putin's unconditional support for Kadyrov. Thomas de Waal, in a recent op-ed for the Moscow Times, attributed this opposition to Chechen warlords' history of betraying Russian interests. This is especially relevant as Kadyrov's father was a staunch opponent of Russia's 1994-1996 War with Chechnya. Russian elites are also alarmed by the dominance of local Chechen security personnel within the autonomous region's FSB units.

Kadyrov's public resistance to Putin's attempts to blame Chechens for the murder of Boris Nemtsov raised further doubts about Putin's Chechnya policy. Many analysts regard the blame-game between the FSB and Kadyrov over Nemtsov's murder as proof that Putin's authoritarian control over the Russian government has its limits.

Eurasia expert Paul Goble argues that Putin could allow for internal disagreements between the FSB leadership and Kadyrov, as private dissent would increase Putin's relative power over both factions. If this disagreement were to descend into a public rift, Putin could become more vulnerable.

In the event of a public dispute, Putin would also face considerable public pressure to change his Chechnya policy. An Echo radio station poll conducted in Moscow asking whether listeners would support the FSB or Kadyrov in the event of a public feud showed that 58 percent of Moscow residents backed the FSB with only 6 percent standing up for Kadyrov.

In light of these factors, Putin's support for Kadyrov should be conditional. However, Russia's reliance on the Chechen leader to provide security in the North Caucasus and to restrict ISIS's growth in that region makes it very difficult for Putin to change his Chechnya policy. Therefore, until Putin can find a way to place Kadyrov firmly under his iron-fist once again, his hegemonic ambitions in the CIS and control over wayward-thinking FSB elites hang in the balance.