Send Chechens, Guns, and Money

Ramzan Kadyrov’s Imperial Ambitions

Ramzan Kadyrov at a Chechen cultural celebration in Grozny, May 2013. Maxim Shemetov / Reuters

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

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