BACKGROUND: Soon after the assassination of the Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov in February 2015, the situation became tense around Kadyrov. In March, Russian police arrested five Chechen suspects, while another reportedly killed himself with a hand grenade at the time of his arrest in Chechnya. All suspects appeared to have ties to the Russian military forces stationed on Chechen territory and are de-facto under Kadyrov’s personal control. Later, Ruslan Geremeev, a relative of several top officials in Chechnya and a member of the Chechen forces, was identified as a suspect of Nemtsov’s murder. However, the attempts of Russian investigators to question Geremeev failed. Geremeev was first kept under armed protection in the village of Jalka, near the city of Gudermes. Reports later surfaced that he had left Russia.
Russian police apparently had difficulties arresting the five suspects who are also in custody. One was arrested in the Moscow area, while all others were reportedly enticed into Ingushetia from neighboring Chechnya, including the primary suspect Zaur Dadaev. Even though Kadyrov formally did not prevent Russian police from entering Chechnya or openly obstructed justice, Russian police for some reason failed to operate on Chechen territory as expected. The strenuous efforts of Russian law enforcement agencies to prosecute suspects of Nemtsov’s murder raised questions about Moscow’s control over Chechnya. It appeared that Russia had gained little from its two wars in Chechnya, since Kadyrov easily defied Moscow’s control over the region.
On April 19, Russian police from the Stavropol region arrived in Grozny and apparently launched a manhunt, without notifying republican police, of Jambulat Dadaev (no relation to Nemtsov’s suspected murderer Zaur Dadaev). Stavropol police killed Dadaev, as he reportedly attempted to escape. Chechen witnesses claimed that the police killed an unarmed suspect when he surrendered himself. Dadaev was wanted for an attempt on the life of a Dagestani businessman, Magomed Tazirov, in the city of Stavropol. Tazirov survived the attack and reportedly hired Stavropol police to exert revenge on Dadaev. Tazirov’s exact role in the Stavropol police’s operation in Grozny remains unclear and his case may have been used as a pretext by the Russian security services.
The story would hardly have been noticed unless Kadyrov had reacted so harshly to Dadaev’s killing in Grozny. Kadyrov stated that Stavropol police broke the law, as they did not notify their Chechen colleagues about the special operation they were launching in the republic. Chechnya’s governor also objected to a suspect being killed rather than arrested and tried in court. Kadyrov finally lashed out at the Chechen police and demanded that they open fire at police from other Russian regions, if they act on Chechnya’s territory without a warrant from the Chechen government. Kadyrov also had a heated exchange with Russia’s Interior Ministry and Investigative Committee, accusing the former of lying and demanding an explanation from the latter on why the charges against the Stavropol police were dropped.
IMPLICATIONS: While the conflict between Kadyrov and Moscow superficially seems spontaneous, it is in reality highly likely that it was preplanned by the Russian government. It is unclear, for example, why Chechens close to Kadyrov would organize Nemtsov’s assassination unless someone had asked them to. Kadyrov’s own motivation for attacking Nemtsov is also not self-evident. Kadyrov had far more robust critics than Nemtsov among the Russian opposition.
After the exchanges with the Russian federal agencies, both Kadyrov and Moscow have scaled down their statements and have downplayed the importance of what they said. Some Russian observers therefore regarded the incident only as a way for Moscow to gradually reduce Kadyrov’s influence and signal that he must become more like a regular Russian governor, taking orders from Moscow and never obstructing the central authorities. The conflict is unlikely to end there, however, because Kadyrov has set a dangerous precedent for the governors of the neighboring regions. Dagestan’s governor, Ramazan Abdulatipov, has supported Kadyrov in his fight with Moscow, saying that the police must inform regional authorities about special operations carried out in the republics. If Kadyrov goes unpunished, his behavior may become the new norm in the North Caucasus to the detriment of Moscow. In turn, Kadyrov does not appear willing to back down. For example, he will likely not concede to unlimited execution style police operations in the republic by external law enforcement agencies. Kadyrov has effectively claimed a monopoly on violence within Chechnya’s borders and Moscow does not yet seem to have found a way around it.
The larger dilemma for Putin is that he is tied to the republic through his rise to the presidency. Putin’s consolidation of power and his popularity in Russia is directly connected to Russia’s conquest of Chechnya in 1999-2000 after a humiliating defeat in 1996 and the successful Chechenization of the Russian-Chechen conflict after the second Russian-Chechen war. Any changes in Chechnya’s status quo will likely affect Putin’s public standing in Russia, although it is hard to predict what the repercussions may be. In the case of another Russian-Chechen war, which some have predicted, the impression may be that Putin failed to deliver on political stability and security. Some Russian commentators have posited that a third Russian-Chechen war would distract the Russian public from the military and political fiasco in Ukraine and allow a face-saving exit strategy for president Putin. The Russian establishment and some Russian liberals from the opposition appear concerned about secession aspirations among Chechens as Moscow exhausts its resources.
The weakening of Russia’s central government is a real prospect, as the country experiences intense international pressure and is stuck in the stalemate of the Ukrainian conflict. Important international players and Russia’s neighbors have learned the hard way that a wealthy, nationalistic Russia is a dangerous, risk-acceptant international player and must be kept in check.
CONCLUSIONS: The crisis in the relations between Moscow and Grozny indicates that the Russian-Chechen conflict is far from over. Regardless of the outcome of the conflict, in which Kadyrov evidently has fewer chances of survival than the Russian leadership, the Russian-Chechen history of violence is likely to continue. Moscow’s increased pressure on Kadyrov indicates that the Russian government regards the situation in Chechnya to be safe enough to ignore the implications of Kadyrov’s removal. At the same time, Russian authorities regard Kadyrov as a liability in case Russia experiences a power breakdown, similar to that of the late USSR. Regime change in Moscow does not seem likely at present, but the country’s economic fortunes are uncertain and may eventually result in significant political shifts.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Valeriy Dzutsev is a Senior Non-Resident Fellow at Jamestown Foundation and Doctoral Student in Political Science at Arizona State University.
Image Attribution: Flickr User Nika