Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov reportedly has been flown to Moscow for corona-treatment in one of the best hospitals of the capital. What is the Kremlin to do when he would succumb to COVID-19? Putin pays him off for keeping peace in the belligerent republic of Chechnya, so he seems indispensable. Our columnist Mark Galeotti on the prospects of the possible disappearance of Putin's own warlord.
Ramzan Kadyrov in april visited corona hospital in Grozny (picture presidential site Chechnya)
How many people in Russia could genuinely be described as politically indispensable? Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin gets covid-19? His first deputy, Andrei Belousov steps in. There’s Vladimir Putin, of course. There are some with such distinctive mixes of skills or status or personal connections – think [minister of Defense] Sergei Shoigu, Evgeny Prigozhin [Kremlin cook, organizer of social media desinfo campaigns or mercenary armies], Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin that, were they suddenly to depart the scene, would certainly leave a void of some sort or another. Even so, they are not indispensable.
The only other man who appears to merit that description, at least in the Kremlin’s eyes, has just been hospitalised with covid-19: Ramzan Kadyrov.
On 21 May, the Chechen warlord-viceroy was flown to Moscow and then taken from Vnukovo airport by characteristically extensive blue-light motorcade – including a strong of Mercedes G-Wagons packed with his own security people – to hospital.
Violence is no antiviral
There is a savage irony to this. At first, like so many authoritarians, Kadyrov treated coronavirus lightly, but as he came to appreciate the danger, he pivoted to a characteristically maximalist approach. The republic’s borders were closed to the rest of Russia on 5 April, a curfew and lockdown was enforced with heavy-handed policing, and he even talked of imposing the death penalty on quarantine-breakers.
True to form, Kadyrov sought to control and suppress criticism and public complaint. When some began complaining of the extended closure of hairdressers, he appeared on social media – his main outlet of strategic communications – in a video with his skull shaven, saying that this was his response, following in the path of 'our ancestors'.
More seriously, when Elena Milashina, the fearless Novaya Gazeta journalist, reported that Chechens had stopped reporting coronavirus symptoms for fear of being labelled 'terrorists' – a serious obstacle to efforts to monitor and control the virus’s spread – he threatened to have her killed. Kadyrov seems to have believed that coronavirus, like all his challenges, could be threatened, beaten and blustered away.
For all that, he himself seems to have looked to protecting himself, and when seen making visits to hospitals, he was fully encased in a hazmat suit and respirator. Nonetheless, according to unconfirmed reports, Kadyrov began experiencing flu-like symptoms a few days ago, then experienced a sudden deterioration and lung damage. At this point, he was airlifted to Moscow by private charter jet.
Informally Chechen leader since the death of his father in a terrorist attack in 2004, but formally so from 2007, he has closed his fist on the republic with a distinctive blend of folksy populism, Islamist zeal, and brutal repression. His security forces, the so-called ‘Kadyrovtsy’, are formally part of the wider Russian police service or National Guard, but in practice are his own private army.
Indeed, Chechnya itself is now really an independent fiefdom, albeit one for which Moscow pays – more than 80% of the republican budget comes directly or indirectly from federal subsidies – within which Kadyrov’s writ is unchallenged. It is a regime imposed by often the most blatant intimidation and violence, from the public apologies forced on brave or foolish critics, through to a litany of kidnappings and extrajudicial murders.
After complaints about the closure of hairdressers Kadyrov shaved his head (picture Instagram Kadyrov)
Nor are these confined to Chechnya. Kadyrov has been accused of a string of murders in Russia, Turkey and beyond – as well as being widely assumed either to have instigated the murder of former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov in 2015, or at the very least having retrospectively blessed it and shielded its prime movers.
None of this makes him popular in Moscow. Kadyrov is considered brutish and unpredictable, a self-indulgent man-child with murderers and torturers at his beck and call. The continued flow of money to fund vanity projects in Grozny, the international irritations caused by his antics, the way he has suborned local branches of the security community, the murder of Nemtsov, all of these are constant complaints.
Nonetheless, despite periodic attempts to try to persuade Putin to remove Kadyrov, or at least clip his wings, the consensus within Moscow is that ultimately, he is a necessary evil. Their greatest terror, after all, is of a third Chechen war, and one fought against a Chechnya not only possessing of its own tough, well-equipped paramilitary army, but also the capacity to launch terrorist attacks across the rest of Russia.
No Plan B…
One of Kadyrov’s tactics to bring pressure to bear on Moscow has precisely been to threaten to step down. Moscow, fearing that it had no viable alternatives, especially with a former dictator to whom most of the Chechen elites were sworn and beholden lurking in the sidelines, backed down every time.
Twice, Kadyrov has temporarily transferred his power to a surrogate while he was recovering from medical procedures, in 2019 and 2020, but as of writing, this has yet to be done now.
No doubt, Kadyrov is getting the best treatment, and as a physically-active 43-year-old, his chances of survival are very good, even if this is an unpredictable and unpleasant virus. Nonetheless, it does raise the question of quite what might happen were he to die or simply be sufficiently incapacitated that he could no longer fulfil his old role.
None of the three senior figures currently in the administration could easily step into his shoes.
The chairman of the Chechen parliament is Magomed Daudov, nicknamed 'Lord', a police colonel and Hero of Russia, has so far had few opportunities to show any aptitude as a statesman.
If Daudov is Kadyrov’s strong right fist, then Adam Delimkhanov is his left. A cousin of Kadyrov’s, and State Duma deputy, Delimkhanov has also been accused of involvement in abuses, and he is the subject of an Interpol 'red notice' warrant.
The irony is that the figure with the most power on paper has the least in practice. Prime minister Muslim Khuchiev by contrast, a former journalist and mayor of Grozny, is more of a technocratic administrator.
All key figures in Chechnya have been hand-picked by Kadyrov, disproportionately from his own clan, and they retain their positions through frequent and even competitive public displays of loyalty, which also extends to punishing any who would criticise the boss. They all enjoy privileges and impunity to a far greater degree even than elsewhere in Russia.
This may sound very unpromising from the point of view of finding a suitable candidate able to control the country and above all a fractious, deeply corrupt and well-armed elite, whether to succeed a dead or incapacitated Kadyrov or else as part of a Moscow-instigated regime change project. Certainly this appears to be a key factor in Putin’s repeated decision to stick with Kadyrov, over and above his apparent regard for an even more over-the-top macho figure who so forcefully asserts his personal loyalty to the president while metaphorically picking his pocket. Especially now, with the country grappling with pandemic, forces committed in Syria and Ukraine, and a constitutional vote in the offing, this is hardly the time to invite Russians to contemplate the possibility of another Chechen war.
…unless Moscow is willing to believe in it
Of course, it may be that mortality will leave the Kremlin no option. In any case, though, the irony is that Kadyrov is probably more replaceable than the Russians believe. The elite he has gathered – many, like himself and Daudov, have already changed sides in the past to join the winning team. More to the point, they have become accustomed to their comfortable existence, one that depends on Moscow’s largesse.
Russians, raised on a diet of nineteenth-century literary representations that portray the Chechen as an indomitable foe, a masterful bandit-warrior, and a zealous upholder of his oath and his kin-bonds, have managed to convince themselves that the Chechen elite would prefer death to dishonour. Faced with the promise of continued autonomy and subsidies if they accepted a new leader, and war or at least penury if they do not, the truth is that they would probably accede.
That, after all, is Moscow’s dilemma. It could avoid war by continuing to pay for peace, but its chances of being able to scale down the subsidies substantially and avoid trouble in Chechnya appear slender.
So while this would seem to offer an opportunity nearly to supplant a wilful, expensive and essentially self-interested client is Putin, at a time like this, likely to take a chance? Not if he can possibly avoid it.