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Geopolitics

Could Ramzan Kadyrov Be Putin's Successor?

The Chechen strongman is reaching outside his native territory to affirm his power, and test his ambitions. At 69, Vladimir Putin shows no signs of settling down, but he won’t live forever.

Photo of Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov sitting at a desk with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a meeting in in Moscow

Kadyrov and Putin meeting in Moscow

Anna Akage

-Analysis-

Among Vladimir Putin’s infamous neighborhood friends, Ramzan Kadyrov holds a special place.

Some compare the Chechen strongman to Alexander Lukashenko, who has led an authoritarian regime in Belarus for more than 25 years. Though on occasion the 67-year-old Lukashenko has challenged the Kremlin on certain domestic and regional questions, his role — and limits to his power — are ultimately set by Putin. Nobody was surprised, in fact, when Lukashenko quickly fell into line to join forces with Russian troops at the Belarus border with Ukraine, as part of what may be an imminent invasion.

All is not so simple with Kadyrov. The 45-year-old is the unchallenged and ever-unpredictable ruler of the Republic of Chechnya. Though Chechnya is part of the Russian Federation, and was the source of two bloody separatist wars since the end of the Soviet Union, Kadyrov today enjoys near absolute latitude to run his territory as he sees fit, which is increasingly more brutal and utterly intolerant of opposition voices.


And it is this mix of cold-bloodedness, ambition and positioning himself in Putin’s shadow, that has prompted some to begin whispering that Kadyrov could become Russia’s next ruler.

Iron fist, expanding reach

Such speculation of Kadyrov’s future have amplified in the Russian media since the crackdown last month on the family of Saidi Yangulbayev, a former member of the Chechen Supreme Court. Chechen police traveled to Nizhny Novgorod in Russian territory to apprehend Yangulbayev's wife to bring her back to Chechnya. Meanwhile, the rest of the family — husband, daughter and sons — fled abroad fearing for their lives. Chechen fighters and Kadyrov personally declared blood vengeance on Yangulbayev's entire family in response to the human rights activities of Yangulbayev's eldest sons and criticism of the Kadyrov regime.

Kadyrov has shown his willingness to expand his territorial powers.

The fact that the Kremlin turned a blind eye to what happened, despite the fact that the kidnapping took place on the Russian territory, is perhaps the most blatant exhibition of Kadyrov’s sway throughout the Russian Federation. In the days following the kidnapping and the escalation of the military crisis on the Ukrainian-Russian border, Kadyrov's name began to get more Russian media attention — and he issued several statements of his own, directed at the Ukrainian president, and to Russian journalists investigating human rights abuses in Chechnya (particularly those of the LGBTQ community).In early February a Novaya Gazeta journalist, whom Kadyrov had declared a terrorist and an enemy of Chechnya, had to leave Russia.

A recent piece in Novaya Gazeta's blog about Chechen-Russian relations stated: "There's a gradual transition underway to the Russian Federation being taken over by the Chechen Republic.” This statement is ironic in tone but contains truth in substance. By conducting an operation with impunity on Russian territory to seize a civilian, Kadyrov has not only shown his willingness and desire to expand his territorial powers but has also claimed the right to violence on Russian territory. And this right, as we know, is meant to be solely the privilege of Vladimir Putin, which lies at the heart of his rule.
Bird's eye view of \u200bChechnya's capital Grozny

In Chechnya's capital Grozny

Ignat Kushanrev

Father’s son

Kadyrov has been acquiring this power since 2005 when he took over Chechnya after his father’s death. During the first Chechen war (1994 - 1996), he had fought together with his father on the side of Chechen separatists against the Russian army. But in 1999 they both left for Russia because of the growing Wahhabist movement in Chechnya. In the second Chechen war (1999 - 2000), he was already responsible for conducting special operations of the Russian army on the territory of Chechnya.

Kadyrov is now the absolute ruler of the republic. Behind him stands all the law enforcement agencies and the special unit of Chechen fighters that he personally assembled. It is impossible to even compare Lukashenko's autocracy and his measures for retaining power with the terror that Kadyrov is waging in Chechnya: this is the military power of a dictator backed by friendship with the Russian president, but that doesn’t depend on the Kremlin.

Moreover, Russian-Chechen relations are based on the understanding that it is Kadyrov who guarantees peace, and for Russian citizens peace with Chechnya is more important than peace in Belarus or even Ukraine. For Russians, the war in Chechnya is comparable in its gravity and losses only to the war in Afghanistan a generation earlier.

Kadyrov is in many ways suitable for the continuation of Russia's policy, post-Putin.

The chatter about succession is also simply a reminder that Putin is not immortal after all, he is already 69, and those who are interested in preserving the current division of power and businesses are certainly thinking about who will come after him.

Standing up to America

Late last month, against the background of all the events taking place around Russia and Ukraine, Kadyrov decided to address the possibility of his future presidency in Russia, Kadyrov writing in his Telegram channel. "I always say that I don't see myself in any federal post, not as president, not as a minister, and so on. My place is here, in the Chechen Republic, and I'm not going anywhere from here!". But his denial is also an acknowledgment that it is a real question.

Kadyrov is in many ways suitable for the continuation of Russia's policy, post-Putin. He declares that he not only actions in the interests of the Chechen Republic, but for the whole of the Russian Federation. His attitude towards the opposition is ruthless, a true believer in a dictatorship. He also believes that Ukraine is Russian land and should be part of the federation.

"I believed and believe that just as in the case of terrorism in Syria, Russia must protect its interests before it has to defend them on its own territory,” Kadyrov said. “If there are no people in Ukraine who can stand up to America, we should help them.”

In the absence of a clear successor within Russia proper itself, Kadyrov's future candidacy doesn't look so far-fetched in our crazy reality. Still, the destiny of all is now largely hingeing on Ukraine. Putin chooses to keep a respectful distance from Kadyrov, not patronizing him, letting him do as he likes. And that already says a lot.

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