Recently Stephen Sestanovich observed that whenever Putin faces a crisis he blames America and other governments for it. The latest example of this Putin tactic of misdirection and evasion is his claim that the US and other intelligence agencies actually conspired with Islamic terrorists to detach the North Caucasus from Russia. Although this charge will undoubtedly play well in the state-controlled media environment of Russia, its absurdity is self-evident. But it reflects the newest and most serous challenge to Putin, namely Ramzan Kadyrov’s defiance of the Russian state and its security structures. It is now evident that Boris Nemtsov’s murder has multiple Chechen fingerprints on it. But when Russian authorities came to arrest Ruslan Geremeev, a former Russian MVD and military officer and current member of Kadyrov’s troops, for this assassination Kadyrov told his forces that if Russians come to Chechnya again they should shoot to kill.
Thus Kadyrov has become Putin’s Frankenstein, a Putin-created monster who commands, in true warlord style, some 30-40,000 men and whose writ is law in Chechnya. At least two immediate crises are thereby triggered. First, once the state begins to lose the monopoly over the “legal” use of violence it is on a trajectory to dissolution and internal war. Under Putin Moscow has created multiple militaries, many of whom serve in the Army, MVD, FSB, or other paramilitary formations. But they are loyal to Putin. Kadyrov’s forces, despite his protestations of loyalty to Putin, are loyal to him alone, and Kadyrov’s real goal is essentially an independent or at least autonomous Chechnya under his control. He also is apparently trying to parlay his military power into gaining control of major economic assets in Russia as well to consolidate his position. Thus his defiance signals the arrival of a genuine crisis of the state in Russia.
Moreover, in the context of the eternal strife among the competing elite factions in Russia it is clear that the Kadyrovtsy could become a weapon in those domestic political struggles. It is already clear that the Silovye Struktury (structures of power or force) in Russia bitterly resent the usurpation of their presumed mandate and authority by Kadyrov. But until now Putin has protected him because his entire Chechen policy depends on Kadyrov to keep that territory stable. And if Putin’s Chechen policy fails, the basis of his legitimacy suffers a major blow and the long-lasting turmoil in the North Caucasus- the second crisis — automatically grows.
The second crisis is the North Caucasus, and here Putin’s lies concerning Western efforts to detach it are of importance. Readers should remember, as did Sestanovich, that Putin employed the same trope in 2004 to deflect attention from the Beslan disaster brought on by his own MVD forces. Since then although Kadyrov and Putin have “pacified’ Chechnya the war has spread to the rest of the North Caucasus where the Jihadist insurgents now claim increasing adherence to ISIS. There is the real danger that any effort to strike at Kadyrov — the need for which is becoming increasingly essential if Putin’s state project is to survive — will trigger a much greater conflagration through the North Caucasus.
Russian authorities claim that they had begun to get a grip on the situation in the North Caucasus during 2014 and that the incidence of violence had declined. This is also partly due to he fact that insurgents have moved in large numbers to Syria and Iraq where the bigger action and ISIS’ headquarters are located. Nevertheless, it remains the case that the local and central governments have still not come up with an answer to the problems of the North Caucasus and that this area has been engulfed in conflict for over twenty years. And now there is a largely independent Muslim force, albeit one loyal to Kadyrov, as a “wild card” in Chechnya.
Since Putin’s state can only survive now through the mobilization of hatred and a warlike atmosphere, if not actual war, to secure its geopolitical goals, the appearance of this quasi-independent force heightens the danger to both Russians and to Russia’s neighbors and significantly raises the chances for large-scale internal violence in Russia. It also causes problems for Putin in Ukraine should Kadyrov’s followers there break with the Russian offensive although we cannot determine how many of his forces are currently in Ukraine.
Thus Kadyrov’s challenge demonstrates some of the inherent pathologies and limitations of the Putin model. Although Kadyrov represents the latest example of the Russian state’s historic ability to co-opt rebel or potential rebel elites into the state, it is apparently no longer possible to accomplish this without generating as a result a potentially mortal threat to the stability if not integrity of the state. The limitations of the Tsarist or neo-patrimonial model wherein such co-optation has occurred suggests that the lure of Muslim extremism is now greater for Russia’s Muslims than the attraction of wealth and power in the Russian state. Indeed, the phenomenon of Slavic Russians converting to Islam and joining Jihadi movements, including those in the North Caucasus, further suggests the eroding viability of the traditional historical model and the so called Russian idea. And if the co-optation paradigm of the past cannot work all that is left to keep the restive North Caucasus in the state is unrelieved force and Moscow no longer has sufficient force at its disposal, given its demographics crises, faltering economy, and the presence of the Kadyrovtsy.
At the same time the dangers of Putin’s ever-growing reliance upon the Silovye Struktury and coercion at home are now increasingly visible to all because that force may rebound upon Rusisa and the Putin elite. However Putin ultimately deals with this challenge he has now made clear that the threat of the state’s disintegration is omnipresent and that it can only be pushed away by the specter of visible strife and mass mobilization against fictitious enemies. Bread and circuses (even if they are violent circuses of hatred) only works over time if there is bread. But as even bread is becoming increasingly problematic can the Russian state survive strictly by means of violence and plunder?