Ramzan Kadyrov – Chechnya’s Feudal Lord

Ramzan Kadyrov

By Charles Davis.

Much has been mentioned in the past few months, regarding Chechnya’s part in military operations in Ukraine. Most recently, the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) asserted Chechen Akhmat (Spetsnaz) along with a Special Purpose Force Regiment were sent into the Donetsk region. [1] ISW suggests several possible reasons for Putin’s directing Ramzan Kadyrov to send forces to support this offensive and why Kadyrov may or may not be supportive. To understand where Kadyrov’s loyalties lie and ascertain his relationship with President Putin, we must review some significant events in Kadyrov’s rise to prominence.

On July 24, 2020 Sobesdnik, a popular Russian magazine, reported President Putin had awarded the rank of Major General in the National Guard Force to Ramzan Kadyrov. [2] Kadyrov was not an officer of any rank in the Russian military; he was and remains the current President of Chechnya, which is a federal subject of the Russian Federation. Kadyrov also maintains a highly negative profile within the US State Department. Just days before the announcement of his newest accolade, the United States placed him on restricted travel list, along with his wife and daughters. Kadyrov responded by posting a photo of himself with two AK-47s and a caption stating “[Mike] Pompeo, we accept the fight. Things are about to get more interesting.” [3]

Chechnya Locator Map

Map: Location of Chechnya with the Russian Federation. Danloud, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Estimating Putin’s motivations for this decision requires greater understanding of his relationship with Kadyrov and his desires for Chechnya.  Ramzan Akhmadovich Kadyrov is the son of former Chechen President Akhmad Kadyrov. The senior formed a militia (much like the mujahedeen of Afghanistan) during the First Chechen War, calling for Jihad against Russia. Akmad Kadyrov later supported Russia during the Second Chechen War and upon Russia’s victory was installed as the temporary leader by Vladimir Putin in 2000. [4] Akmad remained loyal to Russia and was officially elected to the position of President in 2003. In May 2004, when Akmad was assassinated in a bombing, Ramzan was twenty-seven years old and serving as the commander of the Kadyrovtsy (his father’s former militia group).

On the day of Akhmad’s death, Ramzan was flown to Moscow and received personal condolences from Putin, along with an appointment as the first Deputy Prime Minister. [5] In November 2005 he assumed the role of Acting Prime Minister and in March 2006 was officially installed as Prime Minister.  Throughout this period Ramzan retained the allegiance of and authority over an ever-growing Kadyrovtsy militia group.

One might liken Putin’s behavior to the Taliban’s acknowledgement of Jalaluddin Haqqani’s influence among the eastern provinces and the ultimate placement of his son Sirajuddin Haqqani as the Military Commander for Taliban. This comparison is strengthened by the fact that Putin is dealing with a Sunni Islamic state, heavily influenced by Sufism. Tribalism and patriarchal approaches are ingrained in the culture. Similar to the Afghan regional loyalties to their Mujahedeen heroes, Chechen loyalties are strong and lasting, developing through family and communal ties [6], especially in the mountainous northern regions of Chechnya.  

Putin and Kadyrov 2018

Photo: Image Credit Reliable henchman: Vladimir Putin with Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov in 2018. Image: kremlin.ru / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0.

Putin understands these similarities; leading him to invest in Kadyrov as a family dynasty best equipped to continue to provide Moscow with stability in Chechnya.   To this end, Putin removed Alu Alkhanov as President in February 2007 and promoted Ramzan from Prime Minister to acting President; ultimately securing parliamentary support and instatement as the President in March 2007. [7] This timing is not happenstance. Chechen law requires the President to be at least thirty years old. Ramzan turned thirty in October of 2006.

Hanna Zimnitskaya sheds some light on Putin’s personal thoughts/fears regarding the ongoing threat of insurgency from the region and what it would mean to the country. In his work “A State within a State: The Case of Chechnya” Zimnitskaya quotes Putin:

“If we don’t stop the extremists now, then some time later we’ll be faced with another Yugoslavia in the entire territory of Russia, the Yugoslavization of Russia…First Dagestan will be overrun. Then the entire Caucasus would separate; that’s clear.  Dagestan, Ingushetia, and then up the Volga River to Bashkorstan and Tatarstan. This means advancing right into the middle of the country.” [8]

Putin’s concerns are justified, especially when considering attacks like the October 23, 2002 seizing of a Moscow theater, taking up to 700 people hostage and resulting in the death of many of the 50 hostage takers along with 120 hostages. [9] The Beslan School siege serves as another example; with Chechen separatists taking ~1,000 hostages and resulting in the deaths of 340, many of them children. [10]

Putin has given almost unconditional personal support and tremendous financial resources to Ramzan, in an effort to rebuild and stabilize Chechnya. Ramzan has led massive infrastructure developments in the country, which now boasts the largest mosque in the Russian Federation. When asked about his relationship with Ramzan, Putin stated: “I look upon him as a son, we have in recent years developed friendly, really friendly, personal relations and I am convinced, this has played a tremendously positive role in the life of the Chechen nation and for Russia.” [11]

Ramzan’s influence in the Caucasus is derived from his political ties and his hardline Islamic Law approach to issues he finds distasteful.  He is a demigod for many, including his Kadyrovtsy militia group, which is ~30,000 strong and accountable directly to him. [12] However, he is not without criticism at home and abroad. He is accused of human rights abuses, most recently directed against Chechnya’s homosexual population. Additionally, critics assert he directed numerous assassinations of those who challenge his methods. [13]

While accusations of human rights violations continue and are echoed by the United States, Ramzan endures and is effectively consolidating both military and religious power in the Northern Caucus Region. Ramzan has co-opted the Qadiriya (Sufi Muslim brotherhood), shifting their message to ant-extremism. [14] In his work “Ramzan Kadyrov: Insecure Strongman?” Martin Breitmaier alludes to Ramzan’s effectiveness as Russia’s ambassador to the Muslim nations. 

“Ramzan contributes to diplomacy between Russia and Muslim countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). In what is rather unusual for Russian regional politicians, the Chechen president has received or visited many senior political leaders of the MENA on behalf of Moscow (the Saudi king or Afghan vice president last year, for example). His role as one of Russia’s ‘Muslim ambassadors’ is especially important since several countries in the region view Russia in a negative light and the fate of Moscow’s key regional ally Bashar al-Assad remains uncertain.” [15]

Ramzan’s Chechen militia has garnered a reputation of effectiveness and brutality. As such, during the color-revolutions and anti-regime demonstrations in Moscow throughout 2011, elements of the Chechen Presidents personal bodyguard regiment were reportedly stationed in Moscow. Reports indicated the force would be used to dispel protestors near the Interior Ministry building. [16] Other reporting indicates elements of Ramzan’s militia are able to travel armed throughout Russia, with little to no restriction. [17]

In response to Ramzan’s consolidation of power throughout the Northern Caucuses, the Russian Federation attempted to purge his military power through a consolidation of his forces under the Russian National Guard (NG) or Rosgvardiya. This element of Russia’s military arm has only been fully operational since 2018 and is identified as a security agency structure. A recent product from the Foreign Military Studies Office at Ft. Leavenworth describes the structure and responsibilities:

“The main tasks include joint protection of law and order together with the police; the fight against terrorism and extremism; the protection of state establishments and special freight; the protection of the territorial defense of the country; and the assistance to border guards to protect the state border. Powers included the ability to arrest lawbreakers, enter residential premises to conduct searches or arrests, cordon off terrain or residential areas, and use physical force, along with special weapons and equipment.” [18]

The NG which reports directly to the Russian President includes, Special Purpose Mobility Unit, Special Rapid Response Unit, Extra-departmental Protection Service of the Chechen Ministry of the Interior and totals ~250,000. [19] The perceived attempt to purge or reduce Ramzan’s influence over military elements of his country may be inaccurate as his cousin Sharip Delimkhanov was selected as Chief of the Russian Guard Directorate for Chechnya. [20] The Jamestown foundation argues that Kadyrovsty militia ties to the NG are not likely to reduce Ramzan’s control or influence even as his forces change appearance and formal affiliation. [21]

Establishment of the NG and its heavy reliance on Kadyrovsty militia brings us to the most recent announcement and some insight as to why Ramzan Kadyrov is now not only the President of Chechnya but also one of the most senior officers within the Russian National Guard. It is possible Putin experienced some resistance to leaving Kadyrovsty under Kadyrov’s direct control. This would explain Delimkhanov’s selection as Chief of the Russian Guard Directorate for Chechnya.

It is also worth noting, Putin appointed Viktor Zolotov as Director of the NG. The National Defense Academy of Latvia’s Strategic Research Department suggests: 

“The nomination of Viktor Zolotov as NG commander and the replacement of important persons could be a part of “another trend in recent appointments, with Mr. Putin naming former bodyguards and intelligence agents to important political posts, such as regional governors” as it ensures their “unquestioning loyalty.” [22]

Zolotov has served Putin since the 1990s, first as a personal bodyguard then as commander of the Presidential Security services. [23] Zolotov has a notable relationship with Ramzan. Both attended as part of Putin’s official party during a state dinner of the Syrian Arab Republic in May 2010. Additionally, the Nemtsov foundation and the Atlantic Council suggest both Zolotov and Ramzan Kadyrov were complicit in coordinating for the assassination of prominent political activist Boris Nemtsov in 2015. [24] This implication may reinforce Latvia’s assessment that Putin is ensuring his NG serves with unquestioning loyalty.

Ramzan’s reach into emigrated populations of Chechens in Poland, France, and Austria is of significant importance as is the security of the Northern Caucuses and oil pipelines running from the south. Additionally, the soft power influence Ramzan wields within the Islamic countries opens doors for Putin in a difficult region. Lastly, Putin has been a constant supporter of Ramzan and has strong personal ties to the leader, which is openly apparent to Putin’s cabinet and staff. Who else would he want under direct control of his 250 thousand strong security force in the event critics or the Russian people gain tractions in attempts to push him out of office?

From a strategic perspective, it will be important to monitor how Putin deploys the Russian National Guard and the level of involvement Ramzan Kadyrov maintains in operations and decision-making. As we have seen throughout Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Putin has relied heavily on the protections of his inner circle. The relationship he has cultivated with Kadyrov has paid dividends and his decision to assign Kadyrov military rank and a place within the National Guard has also provided Putin with options as his both his traditional military leadership and Wagner remain at odds with one another.

[1] https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-offensive-campaign-assessment-may-31-2023

[2] https://sobesednik.ru/politika/20200724-gudkov-putin-dal-indulgenciyu

[3] https://meduza.io/en/feature/2020/07/24/the-u-s-sanctioned-ramzan-kadyrov-s-family-members-and-he-isn-t-taking-it-well

[4] http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/787811.stm

[5] https://frontline.thehindu.com/world-affairs/article30222673.ece

[6] https://moderndiplomacy.eu/2020/05/17/chechnya-the-ethno-political-flashpoint-plaguing-a-former-super-power/

[7] https://web.archive.org/web/20080308153448/http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,252203,00.html

[8] https://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1014&context=intlstudies_honors

[9] https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/hostage-crisis-in-moscow-theater

[10] https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/chechen-separatists-storm-russian-school

[11] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HEl4Mt1CtkQ

[12] https://www.ifri.org/sites/default/files/atoms/files/rnv99_m._laruelle_kadyrovism_en_2017.pdf

[13] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-31794742

[14] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-31794742

[15] https://www.iss.europa.eu/sites/default/files/EUISSFiles/Alert%2010%20Kadyrov.pdf

[16] https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/slavic-review/article/inside-russias-imperial-relations-the-social-constitution-of-putinkadyrov-patronage/FA38D6E2093711CD76250D5152FF7CED/core-reader

[17] https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2013/03/24/fsb-officers-go-on-strike-after-release-of-chechen-cops-report-says-a22672

[18] https://community.apan.org/wg/tradoc-g2/fmso/m/fmso-books/197266

[19] https://www.ifri.org/sites/default/files/atoms/files/rnv99_m._laruelle_kadyrovism_en_2017.pdf

[20] https://community.apan.org/wg/tradoc-g2/fmso/m/fmso-books/197266

[21] https://jamestown.org/program/creation-of-russian-national-guard-could-affect-kremlin-policies-in-the-north-caucasus-2/

[22] https://www.baltdefcol.org/files/files/publications/RussianNationalGuard.pdf

[23] http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-35975840

[24] https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/ukrainealert/who-wanted-boris-nemtsov-dead-new-book-offers-new-look-at-evidence/  https://nemtsovfund.org/en/our-projects/investigation-into-boris-nemtsov-s-murder/


Top photo: Kremlin.ru, CC BY 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

About Charles Davis 6 Articles
CW4 Charles Davis serves on the faculty of the U.S. Army Warrant Officer Career College. He currently instructs International Strategic Studies at all levels of Warrant Officer Education. CW4 Davis is a graduate of the U.S. Army War College Strategic Broadening Program and holds a Master’s Degree with Honors in Intelligence Studies from American Military University.  CW4 Davis is also a recipient of the Military Intelligence Corps Knowlton Award. The opinions and views of the author are his own, and do not represent those of the Department of the Army or the Department of Defense.