Why Putin can’t afford to lose Ramzan Kadyrov

The Chechen warlord’s rumoured illness could have serious implications for Russia and Ukraine.

Mary Dejevsky

Topics World

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Rumours have circulated for a while about the health, physical and mental, of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov. But the latest bout of speculation, set running last week by a report in Russia’s exiled Novaya Gazeta, seems more credible than many. It states that 47-year-old Kadyrov has been suffering from the potentially fatal condition of pancreatic necrosis and recently suffered a sharp turn for the worse. The Kremlin, the report continues, is looking for a successor to ensure continued stability in the region.

Providing more details about Kadyrov’s declining health, Novaya Gazeta cites an anonymous source at the elite Moscow presidential hospital, who claims that Kadyrov was treated there last autumn after overdosing on sleeping pills. There were also sightings of senior Chechen officials apparently visiting him.

By way of a denial, the Chechen leader’s office promptly released a video showing Kadyrov in the gym, doing press ups, lifting weights and wrestling. ‘A busy day ended with exercise and positivity’, an accompanying script said. ‘Remember that taking care of your health is an investment in your future.’

Speculating about the health of leaders is hardly without precedent, whether in Russia or in many other countries. But it takes on particular significance where the succession may be in question. President Vladimir Putin’s demise has been forecast on many occasions, with eagle-eyed observers watching for the tiniest indicator of ill-health. Such rumours may be merely malicious. Sometimes they may be intended to signal that the object of the rumours may have fallen out of favour. But sometimes they may be true.

It is certainly plausible that Kadyrov really is ill. There have been times over the past year when he has appeared under the weather. It is also hard to believe that the Kremlin would be wishing Kadyrov ill at this particular point. There are those in the Chechen Republic who might welcome his end, but Putin is very unlikely to be among them.

Kadyrov is an unappealing character. He has exerted near-unchallenged power since becoming Chechen president in 2007, after inheriting the job (following an interregnum when he was too young) from his father, Akhmad, who was assassinated in 2004. Over the years, his rule has become a byword for ruthlessness, corruption and rights abuses.

I was in a group that met Kadyrov in the early years of peace after Chechnya’s two brutal independence wars against Russia in the 1990s and 2000s. He appeared unprepossessing, uncouth and alternately distracted and aggressive – part child and part thug. He resides amid tight security on an estate outside the Chechen capital, Grozny. The extensive grounds included – and probably still include – a private zoo.

Having fought alongside his father in the 1990s and again in the 2000s, Kadyrov is essentially a child of the Chechen wars. He may also be seen as the chief beneficiary of 15 years of peace, even as he has cultivated an image of himself as a fearsome Chechen warrior.

But it is not Kadyrov’s personality that has recommended him to Putin. It is the unstinting loyalty he has demonstrated since they both came to power. That, and his proven ability to keep a historically unruly region largely subdued, however unsavoury his methods. Disappearances and torture are reported to be routine.

Keeping Chechnya pacified has cost Moscow huge sums, provoking envious complaints from other parts of Russia. While they were tightening their belts, investment was flooding into Chechnya, providing new housing, new schools and a huge new mosque in Grozny. The mosque is named after Kadyrov’s late father, Akhmad, Chechnya’s one-time chief mufti. In 2010, Kadyrov introduced Sharia law.

Kadyrov’s ability to keep the peace is one reason why any doubts about his health cannot but cause concern in the Kremlin. However distasteful a character Kadyrov may be, he would be hard to replace. Kadyrov has the lineage and the cruel edge to keep the republic under his thumb. Chechnya may still be costing Moscow a mint, but Kadyrov keeps order. The region certainly no longer poses a security risk to Russia, or its neighbours, in the way that it used to less than two decades ago.

This was always important, but it is doubly important now, with Russia engaged in all-out war with Ukraine. Since the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Chechnya has been a useful source of combat troops and reservists for Russia’s war effort. There are some parts of Russia, including certain ethnic-minority regions, where conscription has caused more resentment than in others. These regions feel that their young men have been disproportionately targeted for the draft. This may well be the case, but it is also true that these regions tend to be poorer with fewer prospects. This makes a contract with the regular Russian forces a more attractive proposition than it might be in other parts of the country. This applies, in part, to Chechnya, too.

But there are other reasons why Chechnya is particularly appealing to Russian army recruiters. These include the region’s warrior tradition, its reserve of experienced troops and the prospect of diverting younger Chechens from pursuing grievances at home.

For this to work for Russia, Chechnya needs to be stable and have a pro-Moscow leader. Otherwise things could go very wrong indeed. There’s always the risk of new unrest in Chechnya that could quickly spread to already fragile neighbouring parts of Russia, where militant Islam is becoming a force. There’s also the risk of Chechen troops returning disillusioned from Ukraine and being open to recruitment by Moscow’s opponents. Indeed, some believe that the Chechen wars are not over, but in abeyance. They claim that Chechens will sooner or later renew their quest for full independence from Russia. This could happen quickly in the event of a sudden leadership vacuum.

To avoid unrest and worse in Chechnya, Moscow will want a successor to Kadyrov to be in place in good time. It would have to be someone who has the authority, or brutality, to lay down the law in Chechnya. It probably also needs to be someone who has the blessing of Kadyrov. This would rule out any hope for political change in Chechnya, at least in the short term

The name mooted at the moment is that of General Apti Alaudinov, the commander of the Chechen army in Ukraine. It is not at all clear, however, whether Chechens would welcome him as leader, whether, as a military man, he would have the broader qualities needed to preside over Chechnya, or how the next generation of Kadyrovs might react. Although Kadyrov’s older offspring are still in their teens, he has already named one of his sons, 15-year-old Adam, head of his security.

In any non-democratic regime, succession is always high risk. In Chechnya, for reasons of recent history, geography and politics, that risk is multiplied many times over. What happens in Chechnya could have significant ramifications for Russia and its war in Ukraine.

Mary Dejevsky is a writer and broadcaster. She was Moscow correspondent for The Times between 1988 and 1992. She has also been a correspondent from Paris, Washington and China.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics World


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