Imagine a ruler who commands his own private army, with highly trained, personally loyal soldiers instructed to kill any outside military personnel on his territory on sight. This ruler has recently annexed part of his western neighbor’s territory and plans to do the same on his eastern frontier. He styles himself a leading global Islamic figure, hosting international religious conferences and forging security cooperation and military training agreements with wealthy Muslim autocracies. He expands his fiefdom’s ties with those of his neighbors that he cannot intimidate, even as his security forces regularly beat and assassinate his exiled opponents half a continent away.

You could be forgiven for thinking that this is a description of a historical leader—the medieval ruler of some small emirate in Anatolia or the Arabian Peninsula. At the least, you might assume that he governed an independent state. You almost certainly would not picture him as the ruler of a territory that sits within the contemporary Russian Federation.

But that is in fact the location of Chechnya and its mercurial tyrant, Ramzan Kadyrov. He was just 27 years old when his father was killed in a bomb blast in 2004, essentially bequeathing him the leadership of the North Caucasian republic. Since then, Kadyrov has reached well beyond the scope of his official position as the leader of one of Russia’s 85 provinces.

After two bloody conflicts with Russia that spanned a decade and a half and left tens of thousands dead, Chechnya lost its formal independence in 2000. But under Kadyrov’s rule, it now exercises more sovereignty than at any point in the past two decades—and looks likely to expand that sovereignty in the future. Kadyrov looks set to continue pushing the limits of his power outward. Russian President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, is showing an almost complete disregard for his prodigal son’s destabilizing actions in Russia’s most fragile region.

Under Kadyrov’s rule, Chechnya now exercises more sovereignty than at any point in the past two decades.

EXPANDING THE EMIRATE

Times have changed in the North Caucasus. Kadyrov was long seen as a severe and brutal ruler, but one who was content to lead his own small republic. Putin, the patron to whom Kadyrov professes undying loyalty, had an arrangement with the Chechen leader: Do what you will inside the confines of your borders, so long as you keep Chechnya under control. Given the scale of the North Caucasus insurgency, which killed at least 1,000 security personnel between 2009 and 2017, stability has been Moscow’s first priority in the region.

In the past few years, the insurgent threat has receded. The Russian federal government began a major counterinsurgency campaign before the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Russian security forces killed or captured nearly all of the insurgency’s leaders, while several thousand militants and would-be militants left the region to join the Islamic State (or ISIS) and other jihadist groups in Syria. At the same time, Kadyrov’s Chechen troops intensified their pressure on the Chechen segment of the insurgency, clearing militants out of the mountainous regions of the republic’s south. By 2017, Russian and Chechen security services had succeeded in effectively destroying the armed insurgent networks in the region. This battlefield success has allowed Kadyrov to pursue other priorities, such as enforcing his will on his neighbors.

In mid-2018, on the pretext of infrastructure development, Kadyrov began expanding the dilapidated mountain road into the republic of Ingushetia, Chechnya’s western neighbor in the Russian Federation. Soon thereafter, pictures emerged of Chechen officials, flanked by security forces, standing on Ingush land and proclaiming it as their own. The apparent annexation was formalized in late September, when Kadyrov signed an agreement with Ingushetia’s leader, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, handing almost 10 percent of Ingushetia’s territory over to Chechnya. It remains unclear exactly why Yevkurov agreed to this: it is likely he was pressured heavily by Kadyrov and did not expect anything approaching the scale of the demonstrations that followed. Yet the public backlash in Ingushetia was unprecedented, with tens of thousands protesting in the streets against the agreement. After Russia’s Constitutional Court approved the land transfer in early December, however, there was little that the Ingush could do.

Having successfully expanded to his west, Kadyrov turned east. In mid-November, Chechnya’s Parliament published a map showing the updated borders of the republic. The map included not only the new territory from Ingushetia but another unexpected alteration: parts of the republic of Dagestan (another autonomous region of Russia), which sits on Chechnya’s southeastern border, had been incorporated into Kadyrov’s realm. The map was quickly altered to fix the apparent error, but the error proved prophetic. On December 6, Kadyrov met with Dagestani leader Vladimir Vasilyev and discussed “defining the border” between their republics. Within weeks, Magomed Daudov, the Speaker of the Chechen Parliament and Kadyrov’s close ally, had been dispatched to Dagestan to discuss the issue, and the two republics had formed a joint committee for border delineation. Vasilyev, dispatched by Moscow to head the republic in late 2017, is not a native Dagestani and may have underestimated the volatility of land issues in the region. It remains unclear what Dagestani territory Kadyrov will acquire, but Dagestanis, like their Ingush counterparts, responded with immense anger to the news that their government might begin ceding territory to Chechnya.

BEYOND THE BORDERS

As he is expanding within the Russian Federation, Kadyrov is also improving ties with foreign partners. Chechnya has not been known for close relations with the South Caucasus, the region comprising Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. Chechen battalions fought with the Russians in the 2008 war between Georgia and Russia, and the republic has few ties with Azerbaijan, with which it shares little in common.

Recently, however, Kadyrov has moved closer to both. A December 2 report on Chechen state TV showed construction work on the small mountain road leading to the Chechnya-Georgia frontier, announcing that the long-closed border crossing there was set to reopen “soon.” (During the 1990s, the road had been independent Chechnya’s only ground link to the non-Russian world.) Georgia’s special envoy for relations with Russia said his country had heard nothing about a reopened border crossing. But there are evidently more links between Grozny and Tbilisi than either side is letting on. In January 2018, Grozny’s then Mayor Muslim Khuchiev was discovered in Georgia on an unannounced visit. (Khuchiev’s trip had not been publicized, and when confronted by reporters, he claimed he was simply on vacation.) Kadyrov has also personally visited Azerbaijan, where he met with President Ilham Aliyev in Baku on November 28 to discuss greater cooperation.

Kadyrov has made his biggest strides among the Arab states. The Chechen strongman has forged close friendships in recent years with leaders such as Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, the de facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Kadyrov also has strong relations with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Bahraini royals, and the leaders of Jordan. These relationships are likely to deepen. This summer, Chechnya will open one of the largest special forces training schools in the world. The school’s instructors, aside from longtime head of Chechen spetsnaz training Daniil Martynov, who has few if any remaining ties to the Russian military, will be drawn entirely from the Chechen rather than the Russian armed forces. Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE all intend to begin training elite counterterrorism forces at the Chechen facility. Although the school will officially be named the Russian Spetsnaz University, it appears to have very little to do with Russia at all.

Kadyrov at a Victory Day parade in Grozny, May 2018.
Said Tsarnaev / Reuters

GIVE US THE MONEY, BUT DON'T INTERFERE

Territorial expansion, autonomous foreign relations, and an independent military are all strikingly unusual attributes for a provincial subdivision of a larger state. For these reasons, analysts such as Ekaterina Sokirianskaia have previously described Chechnya as Russia’s “inner abroad” and “a state within a state.” But these terms may not go far enough in describing the breadth of Kadyrov’s independence.

At present, there is only one element strongly linking Chechnya with Russia, and that is money. Chechen authorities receive roughly 85 percent of their state budget in the form of federal transfer payments from Moscow. The bulk of these funds is pilfered by Chechen officials or lavished on grandiose prestige projects. Yet with each new federal budget, Kadyrov has demanded additional financing and made veiled threats about what could happen to regional stability if he isn’t furnished with more Russian cash. The Kremlin has traditionally acquiesced to his requests and has in the past walked back plans to reduce Chechnya’s funding. This occurred very publicly in 2016, when Kadyrov greeted a proposed decrease in transfers with incredulity, declaring the move “unacceptable” for a region that “is just getting back on its feet.”  His most recent call for subsidies, on December 13, succinctly described his preferred path forward: “We would achieve more if you gave us the necessary resources. And even more if you would not interfere.”

A few weeks after Kadyrov’s statement, a Chechen court went even further. On January 12, a court in Grozny annulled a whopping nine billion rubles’ worth ($135 million) of debts to the Russian state oil giant Gazprom. Chechen authorities claimed this had been the result of citizens’ spending, yet Chechen citizens insisted that the debts belonged not to them but to their government, noting that they had been forcibly deprived of parts of their salaries to pay a similar debt a short while earlier. Gazprom officials announced their intention to contest the decision, while other Russian provincial leaders, irate at Kadyrov’s apparent lack of accountability, declared that they should be allowed to follow suit and cancel their own debts. It seems likely the funds intended for the gas needs of Chechnya’s citizens went instead to a vanity project such as the Akhmat Tower, a planned 102-story skyscraper with an estimated price tag of $1 billion.

A DANGEROUS GAME

One of the most interesting facets of Kadyrov’s expansionism has been the near total lack of an official response from the Kremlin. Regarding the Ingushetia crisis, only one comment from Putin has reached the public. Even this was secondhand, coming from a description by Yevkurov of a conversation between himself and Putin, in which the latter urged him to resolve the matter via “democratic methods” and not force. It is unclear what “democratic methods” Putin was referring to: Ingush activists have demanded a public referendum on the land transfer—a demand that Yevkurov has steadfastly refused to meet. There have been no recent Kremlin statements regarding Chechnya or Kadyrov’s actions at all.

The Kremlin’s official silence means there is little observers can do but speculate as to the true present state of relations between Moscow and Grozny. But the absence of any public reprimand of Kadyrov’s actions suggests that Putin considers them unlikely to pose any real threat to regional stability. In the past, when Kadyrov’s excesses were confined to Chechnya itself, such a view may have been more understandable, albeit shortsighted and unethical. Now, with the Chechen leader extending his writ beyond the borders of his republic, the absence of any open pushback from Moscow—and the tacit approval this would seem to indicate—is much more fraught.

Land disputes, from demands to create a unified Circassian republic to nationalist-secessionist movements in Dagestan, are perhaps the single most volatile issue in the North Caucasus, where borders have been constantly redrawn over the past century. The Russian Constitutional Court’s official sanctioning of Kadyrov’s land acquisition from Ingushetia has now set a precedent for border revisionism—something that was long avoided, and for good reason. In fact, a panel of Russian experts on the North Caucasus recently predicted that Kadyrov’s unaccountable behavior increases the risk of sharpening popular grievances and reigniting the region’s insurgency. As the Chechen leader continues to pursue his aggressive regional policies and independent foreign relations, he risks pushing the North Caucasus, a region currently enjoying a tentative peace after decades of fighting, back toward a dangerous destabilization.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • NEIL HAUER is an independent security analyst focused on Syria, Russia, and the Caucasus.
  • More By Neil Hauer