What the Putin-Kadyrov alliance tells us about Russia
15th September 2023
In many ways, Chechnya is an outlier within the Russian Federation. Of all the federative regions and republics that make up the vast Russian expanse, it was the only one that sought and, for a short while achieved, independence (albeit de facto) following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The recent rumors about the health of Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya’s strongman and enthusiastic participant in the Russian invasion of Ukraine, are a reminder of the murky state of things in Russia, where criminality and statehood have cross-pollinated to the point of being hard to tell apart.
Yet more importantly, Chechnya was Vladimir Putin’s “small victorious war” that burnished his reputation. Prime Minister at the time, Putin restored Russian authority in the tiny North Caucasus republic in 1999 pursuing the same brutal tactics he is now applying, magnified many times over, in Ukraine. The heavy-handed response by the Kremlin went down well with the Russians, who at the time had been suffering for almost a decade an economy in shambles under the increasingly erratic President Boris Yeltsin. Putin’s reputation soared. In a way, it was Chechnya that made him who he is today.
And that only happened in the Second Chechen War, which Putin waged in 1999, following a couple of terrorist bombings of apartment buildings in Moscow. That lent the pretext for Putin to respond en force and order massive retaliation against Chechnya, except that it was never proved that the terrorist attacks in Moscow were carried out by Chechens. True, many terrorist and hostage-taking incidents involved Chechens in those years, yet they always claimed responsibility for them.
The war officially was going to last until 2009, when the government declared it was over.
What the Second Chechen War served for was for a change of guard in that unruly corner of the Caucasus.
Enter the Kadyrovs. Russia appointed Akhmat Kadyrov the leader of the republic in 2003. Formerly a separatist leader and the mufti of Chechnya, he switched sides during the Second Chechen War, but was assassinated in May 2004, following which his son, the now notorious Ramzan, took over from his father, at the tender age of 27. Putin acquiesced to Ramzan’s request to lead “anti-terrorist operations” in Chechnya, which served as guise to become the de-facto leader of the statelet.
Both Putin and Kadyrov are unembarrassed to frame their relationship in father-son terms. It only goes on to confirm the extent of the patronage system that underpins the Kremlin’s relationship with subordinate regional leaders as well as those of republics it considers within its sphere of influence, like Ukraine and other former Soviet republics. Those who violate the terms of this political clientelism à la soviétique will not go unpunished. Sooner or later, war and brutalities will creep up their borders.
What is interesting is that the patronage system espoused by Putin marries well the one that prevailed in Chechnya even in pre-Soviet times, shaped by the Gazavat, the fierce resistance to the occupation by the Russian empire in the 1860s, led by Daghestani leader Imam Shamil. As we have said before, behind every strong man there is a weak state. With the demise of Ramzan Kadyrov, one wonders how long will it take for his Praetorian guard of Kadyrovtsy to disband and, with it, any vestiges of authority in always restive Chechnya.