In Late December of last year, Chechnya’s excitable leader Ramzan Kadyrov gave a fiery speech to thousands of his troops, pledging to be “Vladimir Putin’s combat infantry” and to perform tasks the Russian military could not fulfill. While never shy of publicity (see his Instagram) or incendiary statements and actions, stunts such as the speech before massed soldiers have brought Kadyrov under the increasingly bright spotlight of attention recently. Never far from intrigue and vocal support of his “hero” Vladimir Putin, Kadyrov has in recent months been linked to Nemtsov’s killing (analyzed by The Interpreter here), alleged to have sent Chechen “volunteers” to fight in Ukraine, given an order to “shoot to kill” any police from outside Chechnya, and the subject of a new documentary called “The Family” by Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia foundation about his rise as suzerain of Chechnya — a particularly bold move considering that critiques of Kadyrov have a habit of ending up shot and killed (and not just inside Russia).
All of this, along with the visible distaste of the Siloviki power structures to his seemingly inviolable governance of Chechnya, has brought an increasingly unwanted level of attention to the leader, leading to hushed (and not so hushed) whispers of Kadyrov’s ousting by Putin.
Yet Kadyrov is no mere regional governor or politician, he controls a very sizeable and loyal army, the Kadyrovtsy. Who are the Kadyrovtsy — who have attained an almost mystical fear over their prowess on the battlefield and who would act as Putin’s “combat infantry,” and why are they so crucial to — and effective at — keeping Ramzan in power?
Ramzan Kadyrov is a warlord in the truest sense. Kimberly Marten’s seminal work on Warlords describes a warlord’s rule as one based on force (militias beholden to them and not to the state) and personalistic patronage ties. Modern day warlords are engaged in self-interested activities, and use force to maintain a monopoly over economic activities in areas under their control. “Force and patronage reinforce one another.” Yet this “parasitic” relationship between govern and governed exists not in defiance of the state, but at its acquiescence. States engage and allow warlords in hopes of preventing or stabilizing an anarchic situation, “…in hopes of avoiding warfare or anarchy in areas that would otherwise be difficult to govern.” However, as Marten notes, this does not translate into long lasting, stable security arrangements.
Ramzan, almost comically, fits these descriptions of a modern day warlord (it is no surprise that Ramzan and Chechnya are used by Marten as case studies in her book). Yet Ramzan, like all warlords, “rule(s) from the barrel of a gun, not the boardroom or the ballot box.” Thus it is the Kadyrovtsy and the loyalty ties cultivated by Ramzan that makes him such a powerful and dangerous warlord. The Kadyrovtsy are crucial to not only protecting him from removal from the center, but also to enforce his control over the economic resources of the region (in this case primarily through federal subsidies and domestic extortion).
Ramzan, and his Kadyrovtsy, are the victors of a long standing struggle amongst local power brokers in Chechnya and the Kremlin to calm the restive region after its anarchic experience in the 1990’s. Local strongmen and former insurgents, (boeviki), starting with Ramzan’s father, Ahkmad (a Mufti and former insurgent who was killed in 2004), began to align with the federal authorities and compete for favor with the Russian authorities. Kadyrov granted amnesty to former insurgents who were growing wary of the increasing Islamic tone of the insurgency, and of the personal rivalries therein, and he extended the general benefit of protection for the boeviki and their families who would switch sides or lay down arms. This was the process of “Chechenization” that saw the federal government devolve increasing amounts of power and control over the republic to local power figures who were engaged in a competitive struggle for dominance, a dominance that also reflected competition between various Russian security services, with each organization supporting and protecting their own militia.
Yet, by 2008, the main competitors of coercive force in the republic were eliminated, reduced in size, or their leadership was either killed or exiled including:
- The Zapad battalion under Said-Magomed Kakiyev (Kakiyevtsy).
- The Vostok battalion under the Yamadayev clan which were nominally under the aegis of the 42nd Motor Rifle Division (which was reorganized into separate motor rifle divisions when federal army forces were removed from Chechnya) but which were controlled by the GRU.
- Earlier in 2005 Kadyrov had succeeded in eliminating another rival, Movladi Baysarov, and his “Gorets” force which was under the control of the FSB’s Operational Coordination Centre for the North Caucasus.
Gradually Ramzan, who was aligned with the MVD and who is himself a major general, has emerged as the victor of this decade long struggle, presiding over a vast patchwork of informal governance networks.
Exact numbers of the Kadyrovtsy are hard to come by, with estimates ranging from 10,000 to 80,000. Although not all are elite, a more manageable estimate puts their force around 20,000. They were originally created by Ramzan to protect his father and have gradually subsumed all other units and loyalties. The Kadyrovtsy have benefited not only from years of combat, but also federal largesse as the Kremlin funnels money to them in return for ensuring calm and fighting against the increasingly fractious Islamic insurgency in the region. And while they are part of the national MVD structure, they swear a personal oath of loyalty to Ramzan. The Kadyrovtsy are spread amongst various units: OMON, with around 300 members; Kadyrov’s personal protection unit, around 500; a spetsnaz regiment, 1800-2000; two special companies (former Vostok and Zapad), 3-500; Two sentry-patrol regiments, 2000; and various companies protecting Grozny and other sensitive locations, 500-1000; along with other units such as Grozny’s OMSN “Terek” (akin to American SWAT Teams). In addition there are the Sever battalion — based in Grozny under the command of Major General Anzor Magomadov, the unit that accused assassin of Boris Nemtsov, Zaur Dadayev, was a former officer — and Yug, under the command of Alimbek Delimkhanov and primarily based out of Vedeno, which are assigned to the 46th Independent Operational Brigade of Internal Troops (VV). One of the most infamous units is the Neftyany Polk (Neftepolk), or Oil Protection Regiment, that was nominally created to protect Chechnya’s oil infrastructure. Its former leader was Adam Delimkhanov, older brother to Alimbek and cousin to Ramzan who is accused of human rights violations and was subject to an Interpol warrant in connection with the 2009 killing of former Vostok commander Sulim Yamadayev in Dubai.
The Kadyrovtsy role in maintaining a simmering calm over Chechnya and Kadyrov’s iron grip on power has made them some of the most able, and available, irregular troops in the region. Their role during the 2008 war with Georgia (both Vostok and Zapad fought in the conflict before being disbanded), and the recent reconstitution of some former members of Vostok to reassert Moscow’s control over an increasingly fractious rebellion, demonstrate their value.
Yet their loyalties lie not to Moscow, but to Ramzan, and solidify his hold on coercive force in the republic. That was why Ramzan reacted so strongly, ordering his men to shoot any police from outside Chechnya, when officers from Stavropol and the Temporary Operational Group (based outside Grozny) attempted to apprehend a suspect in the killing of Boris Nemtsov. Forces loyal to the Kremlin and not Ramzan challenge his monopoly of control over the republic. Until recently Kadyrov and the Kadyrovtsy have been a stabilizing force in a region wracked by instability. However, those very same forces that have been a benefit to the Kremlin may actually pose a greater threat in the medium term. This is especially problematic for the next leadership of Russia, as Kadyrov and his men have pledged loyalty to Putin, not Moscow.