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REPORT: Chechnya: Russia’s Black Hole, Putin’s Achilles’ Heel

by Gordon M. Hahn

Ramzan Kadyrov’s regime in Russia’s republic of Chechnya is by far the worst manifestation of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s soft authoritarian regime. Kadyrov’s regime breaches the porous wall between soft and everyday authoritarianism and then some. The tendency in Chechnya is towards totalitarianism. But the quasi-totalitarian and violent Kadyrov regime is more a manifestation of the North Caucasus’s violent culture than of Putin’s Russia. Like a block hole, Chechnya effects the space around it. Its renegade despot poses a grave threat to the stability of the Russian Federation and potentially to the survival of Putin and his regime.

Chechnya’s Hybrid Authoritarian-Totalitarian Regime

Recent charges made by the democratic opposition newspaper Novaya gazeta regarding Kadyrov’s close associates and officials abducting, torturing, and perhaps killing Chechen gays is the latest manifestation of the Chechen plague. If the details of the recent charges are off in terms of their veracity — and as yet there is no evidence that they are — the response of Chechen officials reveals that some of their essence is likely accurate. Channeling former Iranian president Mahmoud Akmadinejad, Kadyrov proudly explained Chechen dominant cultural strain in a widely reported quote in which he said that the newspaper’s allegations are false, since there are no gays in Chechnya and if there were then their relatives “would have sent them to where they would never return.” The same day in Grozny’s central mosque an emergency assembly of the leaders of Chechnya’s 24 Sufi Islamic ‘virds’ (subgroups of tariqats or brotherhoods), various Muslim theologists, and Chechen public opinion leaders. Official sources claimed 15,000 were in attendance in and around the mosque. Kadyrov advisor Adam Shakhidov, whose speech as well as the entire assembly’s proceedings were broadcast on Chechen television, accused Novaya gazeta‘s staff of slander and designated its members “enemies of our faith and our homeland.” The assembly adopted a resolution, the second point of which was what Novaya gazeta characterized as “an open and direct call to violence.” The point reads: “In view of the insult issued to the centuries-old foundations of Chechen society and the dignity of Chechen men, as well as our faith, we promise that retribution will reach the true instigators, wherever they may be with no statute of limitations”  (www.novayagazeta.ru/articles/2017/04/13/72146-zayavlenie-novoy-gazety-v-svyazi-s-otkrytymi-ugrozami-prozvuchavshimi-v-adres-redaktsii).

Chechnya’s chief mufti Salah-Haji Mezhiev confirmed the veracity of, and endorsed the resolution’s content as relayed above and that calls to take revenge were issued at the assembly, said not 15,000 but 20,000 attended, and promised that Novaya gazeta‘s journalists “even more now will pay for their publication about the persecution of gays in the republic.” In response to a journalist’s question during an RBC interview regarding Novaya gazeta‘s taking the assembly statement as a threat, the Chechen Islamic leader said: “I do not want to call them (Novaya gazeta‘s journalists) people. These creatures can take this resolution any way they want. I know one thing – they will pay for it” (www.rbc.ru/politics/14/04/2017/58f08dfd9a7947a07880a45f and echo.msk.ru/news/1963148-echo.html). In a later interview with ‘Moscow Speaks’ radio the Chechen Muslim cleric again called Novaya gazeta‘s journalists “creatures” who “Allah’s retribution will reach,” adding: They need to have been afraid when the spread unfounded slander” (http://echo.msk.ru/news/1963246-echo.html).

Moreover, these threats and alleged crimes are just the latest in a long series of crimes too closely associated with Kadyrov and, on a larger scale, Russia’s Chechens, to be discounted. Kadyrov has had Chechen political opponents assassinated both at home and abroad. The most prominent example of the latter is the 2009 killing in Dubai of Sulim Yamadaev, head of the powerful Yamadayev clan and a comrade of Ramzan and his father Akhmad during the first Chechen war. Kadyrov likely stands behind the murders of Novaya gazeta journalist Anna Politkovskaya and Russian liberal opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, among others. etc. (on the latter’s murder see the Chechen perpetrators’ confessions at http://www.novayagazeta.ru/articles/2017/04/19/72222-zaur-skazal-davayte-ne-budem-bolshe-otkladyvat-zdes-zhe-ubiem-ego?utm_source=push; http://www.novayagazeta.ru/articles/2017/04/19/72207-ya-ego-nachal-dogonyat-metrov-5-kogda-ostalos-proizvel-6-vystrelov-ili-ya-nahodilsya-doma-dadaev?utm_source=push; and http://polit.ru/article/2017/04/19/dadaev/). The perpetrators of these crimes have been captured, but their well-connected initiators have never been brought to justice either because the Kremlin is unable or unable and unwilling to challenge Kadyrov. 

Chechnya’s Violent Culture

These crimes are a direct consequence of not just Russian authoritarianism or the brutalization of the first two Chechen wars but of Chechen culture itself. Chechnya’s violent culture has a long pedigree rotted in the centuries-long isolation, and autonomy of mountain life of the Chechen ethnos. This became evident early on in Russia’s first contacts with the Caucasus mountain peoples. Proximity to Chechnya resulting from Imperial Russia’s creeping expansion south, left the southernmost Russian outposts vulnerable to Chechnya’s raiding culture, akin in ways to that of the Cossacks. Each spring Chechen warriors would descend from the Caucasus mountains and conduct raids, abductions, and theft in Russian settlements. During the mid- to late 19th century wars of resistance, the Chechens proved themselves to be perhaps the most ferocious Caucasus fighters, with the possible exception of the ethnic Avars and perhaps several other Dagestani ethnic groups. Soviet power largely subdued but did not extinguish Chechen culture still cacooned by the Caucasus landscape.

Kadyrov and His Fellow ‘Jigits’

That culture is built on a Chechens’ ancient culture of family and male honor or krovnaya mest’ or ‘blood revenge’  that requires male members of Chechen clans and families to exact revenge for wrongs, especially violence, committed against their own. Krovnaya mest’ and Chechnya’s raiding culture mixed with Soviet quasi-modernization and elements of post-Soviet Russian and global realities to produce a new Chechen militant culture. This explains the references in the April Chechen Sufi assembly’s resolution and the mufti Mezhiev’s statements to ‘Chechen men’, ‘retribution’, and the like.

By the late Soviet period, the Chechens had carved out a large niche in the Soviet gray and black markets. That autonomous space would expand and evolve into the Chechen mafia, proportionally the most powerful and violent ethnic mafia in post-Soviet Russian ‘wild east’ of 1990s. The leader of the Chechen mafia, Khozh-Akhmed Nukhaev, is the likely the ‘zakazchik’ (one who ordered) of the murder American journalist Paul Khlebnikov, who wrote a notable book on the Chechen mafia based on interviews with Nukhaev. That mafia and Nukhaev were part and parcel of the radical Chechen nationalist-separatist movement that emerged with the Soviet collapse and brought the first Chechen war (Gordon M. Hahn, The Caucasus Emirate: Global Jihadism in the Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond, McFarland, 2014, pp. 81 and 293, fn24). Contrary to picture provided by Western reporting on that war, the Chechens proportionally were no less violent and brutal in their warfighting than was the Russian army. The Chechens’ mass executions, torture and mutilation of the bodies of Russian prisoners as well as use of the local population as human shields in the face of Russian aerial bombing are a matter of record. If Dzhokhar Dudaev and his Chechen Republic of Ichkeriya (ChRI) rebels had the superior strength in numbers and fire power instead of the Russian army, the number of casualties in the first Chechen war would have been no fewer and likely have been far greater than they were.

After a military draw and political divisions in Moscow and Grozny led to the August 1996 Khasavyurt Peace Accord or ceasefire and the May 1997 Moscow Peace Treaty, a de facto independent Chechnya descended into a hell populated only by devils. The elements included mostly Chechen and Russian criminal elements, ultra-nationalist Chechens, and emerging jihadi elements increasingly associating themselves with Al Qa`ida (AQ) through the figures of the Jordanian Ibn al-Khattab and Chechen filed commander and ChRI ‘prime minister’ Shamil Basaev. By 1998 Khattab and Basaev had established a network of training camps funded by AQ, trained and equipped mujahedin from across the North Caucasus and from abroad, and hatched plans to invade the neighboring republic of Dagestan and a establish a Shariah-law based state there. This plan was carried out in July 1999, with more than a thousand jihadi warriors marching across the Chechen-Dagestani border. Although Russian security forces and Dagestani elements crushed the invasion, Moscow decided on newly-appointed prime minister Vladimir Putin’s initiative to extract the entire Chechen tumor from the Russian body politic. The second war had begun. A key policy accompanying the return to war was Putin’s Chechenization policy which relied on the Ramzan’s father, Akhmad, who defected from the ChRI at the beginning of the second war and struck a deal with Moscow in order to pre-empt the growing jihadi threat to the movement and region.

Putin and Akhmad Kadyrov (circa 2000)

In part due the Kadyrov clan’s defection, the second war led to the ChRI’s defeat on the traditional battlefield by 2001, scattering the ChRI forces. By mid-2002 they regrouped and turned to partisan warfare, but the jihadists had now gained the upper hand within the ChRI, subordinating the ChRI constitution to Shariah law. Although the jihadi elements made use of terrorist tactics, the turn to full blown terrorism was consolidated with the jihadi takeover of the ChRI. In 2007 Doku Abu Usman Umarov declared the ChRI a global jihadist organization, called the Imarat Kavkaz (Caucasus Emirate) or IK, targeting any countries fighting Muslims anywhere in the world. The same year Ramzan Kadyrov, sponsored by Putin, rose to the presidency of the Chechen Republic, and began using Moscow’s financial largesse and limited Islamization to rebuild the republic, in effect nation-build, and thus co-opt less Islamist, more ultra-nationalistic Chechen fighters back under the Russian fold. In particular, he formed numerous battalions placed nominally under either Russian GRU or MVD command but actually under Kadyrov’s control. Inter-teip tensions between these units and between some and more and (like the Yamadaev’s Vostok Battalion) less Kadyrov-loyal units would become a source of more conflict and violence in the republic.

By 2012 the IK was carrying out international operations with plots targeting Azerbaijan, Belgium and NATO, and other states and inspiring radicals like the Tsarnaev brothers to hit other targets in and outside Russia. As I documented in my work and books, several thousand jihadi attacks, including some 56 suicide bombings, were carried out or inspired by the IK in Russia, especially its North Caucasus, during the peak of the IK’s existence from 2007-2013. It is important to remember, however, that the IK was a multiethnic organization that by 2010 was being increasingly dominated by Dagestanis (Hahn, The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin, chapters 5 and 10).

In late 2012-early 2013 IK mujahedin began making their ‘hijra’ to make jihad in Syria and Iraq, and soon some began to drift from AQ-tied groups to the emerging Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh etc.) or IS. In 2015 the overwhelming majority of IK amirs and mujahedin switched their loyalty from AQ to the Islamic State (IS), taking the bayat loyalty oath to the IS ‘caliph’ al-Baghdadi, who in turn recongized their bayat an rebranded the IK to be called the Vilaiyat Kavkaz (Caucasus Governate) or VK of the Islamic State. The North Caucasus fighters, especially Chechens, have proven themselves to be some of the most ruthless mujahedin in Syria and Iraq, and many, like the infamous Georgian Chechen-Kist Tarkhan Batirashvili (Umar al-Shishani or Umar the Chechen), have risen high into the ranks of Syrian and Iraqi jihadi groups, including IS. The predominance of Chechens among the IK and other North Caucasus fighters in Syria and Iraq is explained by Kadyrov’s harsh regime and the resulting success in quashing the IK’s Chechen branch, the Nokchicho Vilaiyat.

On a somewhat lesser scale, a similar history to that laid out above and militant culture to that extant in Chechnya can be found in Ingushetiya, Dagestan and elsewhere in the North Caucasus declining along an east-west gradient. This is much like the east-west gradient of declining Europeanization from Russia running through eastern and central to western Europe. Even Caucasus historians, journalists, and political scientists recognize the importance of this factor.  Dagestani journalist Zaur Gaziyev notes: “Our culture is different. If we are slighted or wronged we don’t go and get drunk on vodka. We pick up a gun and go out to murder the one who wronged us” (Tom Parfitt, “The Deadliest Village in Russia – A Journey Through Russia’s Killing Zone, Part 8,” ForeignPolicy.com, 1 April 2011, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/04/01/the_deadliest_village_in_russia). Leader of the Kabardin nationalist movement ‘Khase’ Ibragim Yaganov notes: “If a Russian guy can hide from reality in a bottle of vodka, but we drink little.  What we do is immediately take up a weapon, and this protest is expressed in horrible and bloody forms” (Dar’ya Aslamova, “Boeviki v Priel’brus’e oblozhili biznesmenov dan’yu,” Komsomolskaya Pravda, 22 March 2011, http://www.kp.ru/daily/25655/818180/). Although Kabardin political scientist Timur Tenov claims that Kabardins “have gotten past this stage,” he says the following about Chechens: “In Chechnya they always respected brute physical force and bright personalities” (Dar’ya Aslamova, “V Priel’brus’e v razgar sezona boeviki oblozhili biznesmenov dan’yu,” Komsomolskaya Pravda, 23 March 2011, http://www.kp.ru/daily/25656/818814/).  

The culture of violence in Chechnya and the rest of the Caucasus has allowed the former case to carve out a broad autonomy and in many ways again de facto independence for the Chechen Republic and even for Chechens across the Russian Federation well-connected in Grozny.

Chechen Autonomy

Putin’s reliance on the Kadyrov clans and its allies evolved into a scorpions’ embrace. From the Kadyrov’s defection and the ensconcing of Akhmad as Chechnya’s president in 2000, Moscow was forced again to tolerate considerable Chechen autonomy in return for ultimate Chechen subordination to Moscow and peace. Thus, Russian regime and state weakness offer considerable freedom to a modern version of Chechnya’s raiding culture, networked and thus able to act out not just in Chechnya or the Caucasus but across Russia through diaspora communities and criminal groups.

Since Ramzan’s rise to power in Grozny in 2007 after an interregnum in the wake of his father’s assassination by ChRI militants in May 2004, the Chechnya-Russian Federation relationship increasingly unstable and potentially attenuated. In 2007 I noted:

Kadyrov’s assumption of the Chechen presidency also has down sides for Moscow that are likely to become more clear in the mid- to long-term. His rise to power in the republic is a victory of indigenous Chechen forces over Moscow and the siloviki as well. Although at present this development seems to fit into the broader consensus that Chechnya should remain a part of Russia, there is no doubt that Moscow’s move is part of a steep price it must pay in order to re-establish order in the war-torn republic. That Moscow needed to turn to such an unruly and potentially troublesome partner like Kadyrov suggests the limits of Moscow’s capacity to integrate the North Caucasus into the Russian state. Many both in Russia and the West have chided Moscow for not clamping down on human rights violations in the North Caucasus, and Grozny’s bad boy Ramzan is rightly regarded as a rather odious figure for a G-8 member to be coddling. However, Chechnya is one of many regions in the world where one’s choice of democratic partners are few. The West in Iraq and Afghanistan also has allied with less than democratic elements, including some that only recently were counted among the enemy.

“More importantly, Moscow’s stake on Ramzan leaves Chechnya’s stability inordinately dependent on one rather unreliable man. Thus, Moscow’s effort to broaden its base of allies by forming battalions ostensibly loyal to it is understandable. However, it is reconstituting a set of competing, even mutually antagonistic armed groups not unlike that which helped lead to both the first and second wars. Moreover, the influx of former jihadists into pro-Moscow Chechen government and various Moscow- and/or Kadyrov-controlled security forces that resulted from the noted amnesty creates a condition of political meta-stability not stability. Remove Kadyrov or a disciplined Moscow from the mix, and Chechnya is likely to meltdown rapidly into more widespread violence.

“The present situation also increases the potential for opposition from one or more of Chechnya’s various teips and factions or a violent regime split in Groznyi. This could lead to the defection of one or another party/battalion to the jihadists, especially if Moscow was take one side over another in a confrontation between Kadyrov and opposition forces. Moreover, in the event Moscow crushes Kadyrov’s aspirations for a fairly autonomous Chechnya and a larger political role for himself in the North Caucasus, he could revive separatism himself. After all, his father, a pro-Moscow Chechen president himself, was also a former resistance fighter.

“It remains unclear whether in the wake of the Putin succession or under instability in Moscow caused by any change in Putin’s official status, Kadyrov will be able to maintain his dominant position on the Chechen political stage. What little support he has among Moscow’s siloviki is limited to perhaps a small circle of top leaders held together by Putin. Politicians with close ties to the siloviki have begun to openly challenge Kadyrov, questioning his rosy view of the state of affairs in Chechnya.

“What Kadyrov might do should a decision be taken to remove him from office is anyone’s guess, but Kadyrov’s fortunes are likely to be worse once out of office. Thus, he could very well opt to hold on to power at any cost, with unpredictable consequences for the Chechen republic and the staggering but still standing Caucasus jihad” (Gordon M. Hahn, “The Jihadi Insurgency and the Russian Counterinsurgency in the North Caucasus,” Post-Soviet Affairs, Vol. 24, No. 1, January-February 2008), pp. 1-39, at pp. 34-36).

Ramzan Kadyrov

The Chechnya-Russian Federation relationship is now very attenuated, constituting a de facto, rather than de jure ‘federacy’. The latter typically consists of a unique degree of autonomy based on a constitutional or other legal basis for one region in a federation. The former, de facto Russian-Chechen federacy is extra-constitutional, with Chechnya ‘within’ or, more accurately, aside or associated with the Russian Federation. Numerous political analysts of various stripes in their attitudes toward the Russian regime have noted the unique autonomy Chechnya enjoys within the Russian Federation. Some refer to Chechnya’s “extraterritorial status” (http://carnegie.ru/2016/10/27/chechnya-s-new-contract-with-kremlin-pub-64955). Ekho Moskvy commentator and opposition journalist Yuliya Latynina recently noted: “A ruler (Putin) who in the international field conducts himself like a hooligan, but meanwhile in this country this ruler from weakness or total corruption (we do not know and it does not even matter) does not possess complete authority or even a monopoly on the use of force and that is the first foundation of authority” (http://echo.msk.ru/programs/code/1963208-echo/). One year ago I noted: “The Kremlin had little choice to at least contain Kadyrov’s ambitions in this way, if it cannot risk attempting to remove him, given Kadyrov’s audacity, volatility, unpredictability, likely crimes, and yet stabilizing role not only in Chechnya but in many ways across much of the North Caucasus” (https://gordonhahn.com/2016/04/14/putins-golden-ticket-the-new-national-guard/).

Indeed, it needs to be emphasized that the Western media characterization of Putin as an all-powerful despot is wide off the mark. As I have noted repeatedly in the past, Putin runs a soft authoritarian regime and a weak state and he sits as riding on a tiger from which if he falls will devour him. Putin is as much a product, arbiter, even prisoner rather than master of ‘his’ system. He is by far the most powerful but not all-powerful operator within “Putin’s Russia” – a weakly democratic, oligarch-infested hybrid Russian regime he inherited from Boris Yeltsin and the Soviet totalitarian legacy. Thus, Putin has had to balance rather than eliminate tendencies, weakening then strengthening one or another political orientation or bureaucratic-business clan in alternation. Thus, Putin’s survival in power is dependent both on: (1) controlling and balancing various elite factions – from liberal to ultra-nationalist – to retain their support, (doing so by a mix of authoritarian and occasionally democratic methods) (2) popular support in polling exercises masquerading as fully free and fair elections, and (3) and considerable though not full compliance with Russia’s constitution which retains some ‘stickiness’ and thus regime stability. In Chechnya, balancing and controlling includes allowing extra-constitutional, illegal autonomy and practices.

Thus, Kadyrov has considerably Islamized Chechnya further than it might have otherwise in order to coopt Islam from the jihadi insurgency and strengthen popular loyalty to his authority. In addition to building the largest mosque ‘in Europe’, Chechnya hosts one of Russia’s major Islamic universities. In Kadyrov’s Chechnya there are major elements of Shariah law such as deep interconnections between the republic’s state apparatus and Chechnya’s Sufi Islamic brotherhoods especially, the Qadyrriya  or Kadyrriya (hence the Kadyrovs) tariqat, obligatory celebration of Muslim holidays as state holidays, and the requirement that women to wear head scarves in state institutions, etc. These directly contradict the Russian constitution’s separation of state and religion.

Kadyrov and Putin on the background of Grozny’s Central Mosque

Kadyrov’s Chechnya also maintains considerable control over several of the siloviki in the region, which are supposed to be federally run state organs, thereby compromising one of the essential elements of statehood and stateness – Latynina’s (actually Max Weber’s) requisite monopoly on the use of force and organs of coercion. Two years ago Kadyrov organized a mass meeting of the armed units, including his presidential guards and even MVD Internal troops, in Chechnya in Grozny’s central stadium. Some 10,000 well-armed troops filled the stadium’s stands and hailed Kadyrov in a fascist-like demonstration of brute armed power and allegiance to Kadyrov — one likely not lost on Moscow. In addition to the battallions of former ChRI fighters and Kadyrov’s presidential guards, Kadyrov controls or is able to intimidate several federal power ministries located in the region, especially the MVD. Some, like Russian Committee Against Torture head Alexander Kalyapin, have argued that he even controls the FSB in Chechnya (www.cacianalyst.org/publications/analytical-articles/item/12815-moscow-signals-intention-to-establish-greater-control-over-chechnya.html). His control over the MVD is less ambiguous and persists in defiance of Putin’s alleged ‘executive vertical’ policy and efforts to return the Chechen branch to federal jurisdiction, including last year’s formation of the National Guard (NG), which appeared to be an effort on the Kremlin’s part to restore its control over the MVD’s Internal Troops (VV) in the region (https://gordonhahn.com/2016/11/22/putins-surprise-the-resurrection-of-sergei-kirienko-complete-version-parts-1-and-2/).

Kadyrov with Siloviki Heads in Grozny, Chechnya

Moreover, Kadyrov has been able to wrest economic and financial concessions from Moscow that have come at the expense of the federal budget, key state enterprises other regions in the federation. First, Moscow spent billions of dollars to rebuild Chechnya’s capitol Grozny and other cities destroyed during the first and second wars, including financing much of the construction of Grozny’s Central Mosque, the largest ‘in Europe.’ Second, Kadyrov recently may have finally won concessions from Moscow in oil related industries that he has been trying to secure since he came to power since early 2008 (https://gordonhahn.com/2017/04/22/kremlin-stringing-kadyrov-along-on-oil/).

Chechnya’s federacy and privileges have been a longstanding focus of envy on the part of other Russian regions, which creates tensions across the federation. In 2008 Kadyrov blocked federal plans to build a refinery in the North Caucasus republic of Kabardino-Balkariya (KBR), to the KBR’s consternation. If realized the KBR project would have made that propsed by Kadyrov superfluous (www.rferl.org/a/1079730.html). In 2016, following the Chechenneftkhimprom decision, Krasnoyarsk Krai parliament deputy chair Aleksei Kleshko called for following Kadyrov’s example and demanding transfer of federal oil industry enterprises to the Siberian krai (www.ng.ru/regions/2015-12-29/5_chechna.html). More destabilizing would be any Kadyrov plans to reintegrate Ingushetiya with Chechnya, something some of his actions have suggested. Beyond the federation, Kadyrov, from his rise to the presidency, has carried something of an independent foreign policy (see Hahn, “The Jihadi Insurgency and the Russian Counterinsurgency in the North Caucasus,” pp. 29-30).

Given Moscow’s weakness in the face of its largely still, nascent Chechen threat, it is then more comprehensible that Novaya gazeta editor-in-chief Dmitrii Muratov’s call for the Russian authorities to investigate the Chechens’ illegal calls to violence – remember Moscow’s laws can send a person to prison simply for a political cartoon that insults a person or group, no less a call to violence – was met with a weak statement by Putin’s spokesman Dmitrii Peskov. He managed to utter only that the Kremlin was “following events” and is “against” any non-judicial redress of alleged slander, no less “actions that could comprise a threat to the security and lives of journalists.” Novaya gazeta then appealed to the Kremlin – through a court – to act on the Investigative Committee’s continuing lack of response to the Chechen threats. However, neither Putin nor his spokesman have condemned the threats, no less the Chechens who issued them (echo.msk.ru/news/1963096-echo.html and http://www.novayagazeta.ru/news/2017/04/14/130725-v-kremle?utm_source=push).

On April 19th Putin met with Kadyrov and discussed both the issue of gays being repressed in Chechnya and issues outstanding between the republic and RosNeft. Kadyrov assured him there was no such repression of gay people in Chechnya, and the two reportedly agreed on this issue and on RosNeft’s need to make major investments in Chechenya. Kadyrov then pulled back on the Chechen threats, saying there is no threat to Novaya gazeta journalists emanating from Chechnya. Days later Kremlin spokesman Peskov added that the intelligence and law enforcement sources support Kadyrov’s claim (https://tvrain.ru/news/kremlin-433152/). But by April 25th the Investigative Committee had begun operational work in Chechnya supposedly intended to get to the bottom of the situation (www.novayagazeta.ru/articles/2017/04/24/72263-v-chechne-idut-profilakticheskie-raboty).


A key reason for the authorities’ weak response in response to the alleged repressions and threats is the Russian state’s weakness, plagued by corruption and criminality both in Moscow and the regions, especially Chechen, that predates but also persists under Putin’s rule. The Kremlin is in fear of Kadyrov, who can blow up Chechnya at any moment he chooses, setting off another bloody Russo-Chechen war. Kadyrov has reason to believe he can only go so far before potentially provoking the Kremlin’s wrath. The Kremlin and Kadyrov are thus trapped in a scorpions’ embrace.

The regime is stuck to, and with Kadyrov. Putin not only had little to choice but to appoint Kadyrov after jihadists assassinated his father, Akhmad, then president of Chechnya He has handed state awards to Kadyrov and publicly socialized with him in a rather chummy manner. Just two weeks ago, in response to a recent Financial Times article that claimed that Kadyrov was in a tense conflict with RosNeft chief Igor Sechin, the two issued a joint statement denying the allegations and promising a law suit for slander.

Most worrying is Putin’s inability or unwillingness to rein in Kadyrov. Perhaps Putin has no problem with Kadyrov settling scores with weak enemies, but this is unlikely. Kadyrov has created unnecessary problems. Unfortunately, the dilemma and trade off between those problems and another Chechen or even Caucasus war appears to inspire inaction on the regime’s part. An internal Kremlin dispute over how to deal with the renegade could occur, perhaps has occurred or is already occurring. Such a dispute could be fatal to the regime, prompting a debilitating split or even a hardline coup against Putin in the face of any serious opposition threat that might someday emerge in society. As I introduced another article three months ago: “Putin and Kadyrov are in a scorpions’ embrace. Kadyrov needs Putin, who gave the former the power he has today. Putin needs to keep Kadyrov close or he can turn Chechnya and perhaps other parts of the North Caucasus against Moscow. In a very real sense, Putin has created a monster and probably had no other choice, given Chechnya’s highly conflictive political culture” (https://gordonhahn.com/2016/02/05/kadyrov-and-moscow-2007/).

Krovnaya mest’ and Chechens’ violent culture is a key part of the Chechen indeed Russian picture. But it is never mentioned in the U.S. writing on the jihadi, nationalist and criminal violence in the North Caucasus. In the Washington consensus’s view, Chechens — whether jihadists, ultra-nationalists (there are few democrats among Chechens or other North Caucasians) — have no agency, unless they are ultra-nationalist Islamists playing ball with Putin, who bears , albeit, some but limited responsibility for events in and emanating from Chechnya. It is important to recall, as I have mentioned elsewhere, that the U.S. and the West have had o make deals with local devils in tackling jihadism and dictators like Sadaam Hussein abroad. Putin is even more pressed to cut such deals with his devils at home. However, the fact that Putin’s Kadyrov problem comes at home rather than abroad makes Chechnya Russia’s black hole and Putin’s Achilles’ heel.

Ramzan’s father reportedly said once that Chechnya had tried to gain its independence by force for three hundred years, and it was now time to try to achieve that aim by peaceful means. Kadyrov may be following that strategy, but, paraphrasing ‘Pirates of the Carribean hero Jack Sparrow, that strategy might just be a guideline and one certainly not inviolable.


About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Analyst and Advisory Board Member at Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation (Chicago), http://www.geostrategicforecasting.com; member of the Executive Advisory Board at the American Institute of Geostrategy (AIGEO) (Los Angeles), http://www.aigeo.org; Contributing Expert for Russia Direct, russia-direct.org; Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California; and an Analyst and Consultant for Russia – Other Points of View (San Mateo, California), www.russiaotherpointsofview.com.

Dr. Hahn is the author of the forthcoming book from McFarland Publishers Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the ‘New Cold War. Previously, he has authored three well-received books: The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction Publishers, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.

Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution.

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