The Kremlin’s High Risk Gamble

Kadyrov at the races in the UAE

Facebook recently blocked Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, the Head of the Russian republic of Chechnya. Widely considered to be Moscow’s puppet, Kadyrov has a social media presence beyond the caucuses and boasts of 3.2 million followers on Instagram.

Yes, life in Chechnya so far looks more like a life after a natural disaster.
– Vladimir Putin

The north Caucuses are home to the Republic of Adygea, Karachay–Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria, North Ossetia–Alania, Ingushetia, Chechnya, and the Republic of Dagestan. It is a region which is of immense geopolitical and strategic importance to Moscow.There are more than 50 ethnic groups living in this extremely diverse region. The predominant religion in the North Caucuses however is Sunni Islam.

After bringing the region under the control of the Russian empire in the 19th century, Moscow would soon be involved in frequent rebellions and uprisings. The caucuses assumed an almost legendary reputation for bloodshed and massacre, similar to the British experience in the North West Frontier. This atmosphere would prove to be an excellent backdrop for scores of Russian writers to write about grand adventures and extra ordinary escapades, similar in some way to the American West. The Chechens themselves in this narrative were nothing more than savages, which were to be in the words of Pushkin ‘civilized’.

I’d been to a number of war zones before in my life, but I had never been in one as terrifying as Chechnya. — Scott Anderson

This attitude would continue into the communist era. As with other ethnic minorities, Stalin’s forced resettlement and mass deportations would destroy entire communities. When the Soviet Union finally collapsed, the Chechen leader Dzhokhar Dudayev sought to take advantage of a weak and unstable Moscow to declare independence, just as various Central Asian states had successfully done.

Chechen rebels during the battle for Grozny

The north caucuses however were far too important for the Kremlin owing to their strategic and geopolitical significance. On 11 December 1994, the Russian army launched it’s offensive to take the Chechen capital Grozny. What followed was a colossal military disaster, one perhaps to rival the British at Galipolli. Dashing Yeltsin’s hopes of a quick ‘surgical strike’, what became known as the First Chechen War would last 1 year, 8 months, 2 weeks and 6 days. This would end with a peace treaty with the Chechens whereby Moscow withdrew all it’s troops from Chechnya by December 1996. The Union of the Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia claims 14,000 troops were killed in action.

Other places are also generators of far-flung violence beyond their own borders — Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are obvious examples — but none has as long a history of war, resistance, and terror as Chechnya. — Stephen Kinzer

This dramatic victory of an armed rebellion over a professional army reverberated in Islamist circles across the world. Foreign fighters and money started pouring in, along with a strict more extremist interpretation of Islam. Chechen fighters too began to travel as far as Palestine and Egypt bringing with them their experience and skill.

The result was that Islamist groups began to carry out spectacular attacks within Russia. The Russian people had to endure a string of blasts and hostage sieges. It was in this atmosphere that Vladimir Putin came to power, vowing to be exceptionally tough on terrorists.

When I visited Chechnya, I was taken aback at first because people would regularly make jokes about kidnapping me. — Anthony Marra

In August 1999, Chechen Islamist Shamil Basayev in association with the Saudi-born Ibn al-Khattab infiltrated Russia’s Dagestan region, declaring it an independent state and calling for a jihad until “all unbelievers had been driven out”. This would be the start of the Second Chechen war.

Paratroopers of the 106th airborne division, Second Chechen War

In October of that year Russian forces entered Chechnya again. This time however they were preceded by a massive air campaign. By February 2000, Russian troops were in control of the capital Grozny. In April 2002, Vladimir Putin declared that the war in Chechnya was over.Counter insurgency operations however would continue up to 2007.

Amidst the chaos that followed, a certain Ramzan Kadyrov, the second son of the new pro Russian president Akhmad Kadyrov, gained notoriety and fame. Both father and son had fought against the Russians in the First Chechen war and switched sides in early 1999. Thereafter Kadyrov led a pro Moscow militia with the help of the Russian intelligence service FSB. After his father’s assassination in 2004 he would become the deputy Prime Minister, finally becoming Prime Minister in 2006. Time and again Kadyrov would unflinchingly acclaim his support and admiration for Putin.

Putin is gorgeous. He thinks more about Chechnya than about any other republic [of the Russian Federation]. When my father was murdered, he [Putin] came and went to the cemetery in person. Putin has stopped the war. Putin should be made president for life. Strong rule is needed. Democracy is all but an American fabrication… Russians never obey their laws. Everyone was stealing, and only Khodorkovsky is in jail. — Ramzan Kadyrov

In February 2007 Putin cemented Kadyrov’s role and made him the Chechen President. On 18 September 2016, Kadyrov was re-elected with nearly 98% of the vote. Moscow has given him significant leeway in relation to domestic policy. In return he has achieved a remarkable level of stability and to an extent economic prosperity for the average Chechen. The Kremlin apparently is fine with a semi deranged lunatic as a defacto dictator as long as he keeps the jihadis in check.

The future however does not look good. Even though Kadyrov routinely posts selfies on instagram wearing Putin T shirts, the Kremlin is bound to notice that Kadyrov now has 500,000 followers on the Russian VK social network (Russia’s version of facebook). In January 2016 for instance posted a video of Russian opposition politicians Mikhail Kasyanov and Vladimir Vladimirovich Kara-Murza in the crosshairs of a gun on his Instagram blog. Threatening to kill opposition politicians is not that serious an offence in Putin’s Russia, but for a Chechen to do so certainly raised eyebrows. He also likewise threatened the Russian media not to print the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. In addition anyone who has seen Russia’s demographic trends will notice that Muslims now make up 10 to 15% of Russia’s population, many of them migrants from former Soviet states in Central Asia. That Kadyrov is developing such a following among them outside Chechnya is bound to raise concerns in Moscow.

Ramzan Kadyrov and Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed al Maktoum

The number of foreign fighters who went to syria and Iraq are also significant. In fact American special forces had consistently found chechen fighters in Iraq in small numbers throughout the surge. It is estimated that around 1,700 Russian nationals were fighting alongside militant groups in Iraq in 2015. Chechen fighters would gain a reputation for their fighting skills. Most notably Abu Omar al-Shishani would rise to become ISIS’s head of military operations. In an added twist Russia is allied with the Assad regime, which has waged a brutal war against an opposition that primarily consists of that country’s Sunni minority.

The Kremlin therefore is playing a high risk game in continuing it’s presence in the North Caucuses. Is the strategic advantage of maintaining the status quo worth it. The problem of radicalization among Chechen youth is unlikely to go away as long as they are deprived of basic fundamental rights and continue to live in a harsh police state. As the demographic trends show Russia’s own muslim population is only expected to increase. In such a future scenario a charismatic, strong Muslim leader with a huge social media presence might not be the outcome Moscow wants.

I’m sure corruption in Chechnya is minimal. — Vladimir Putin

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