The Power Vertical is a column and podcast by RFE/RL’s Brian Whitmore.
He’s like a cartoon villain, except that he’s real.
He can be pretty amusing, except when he’s terrifying.
He’s a bit of a clown and more than a bit childish, but he’s also one of the most powerful men in Russia.
It’s pretty much impossible to ignore Ramzan Kadyrov — and he knows it.
And the rambunctious Chechen strongman seems to be getting more brazen by the day.
Kadyrov was at it again this week, posting a video on Instagram showing opposition figures Mikhail Kasyanov and Vladimir Kara-Murza in the crosshairs of a sniper’s rifle.
This comes just weeks after he called Vladimir Putin’s foes “enemies of the people” and suggested in an article in Izvestia that they be placed in a psychiatric hospital in Chechnya — where he promised to double their injections.
And, of course, he’s widely believed to be behind the assassinations of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, human rights activist Natalia Estimirova, and opposition leader Boris Nemtsov.
There is little consensus, but a lot of speculation, about whether Kadyrov’s antics indicate that he’s jumped the shark or is right on message, whether he’s Putin’s loose cannon or the Kremlin leader’s loaded pistol.
And there is also little consensus about which is worse.
“So, if you’re worried that Ramzan is murdering with impunity and Putin can’t control him, consider the alternative: What if Ramzan is murdering with impunity and Putin does control him?” the British journalist Oliver Bullough, author of the book The Last Man In Russia And The Struggle To Save A Dying Nation, wrote in The Guardian.
Putin’s Frankenstein Monster
When Kadyrov began burning down the homes of family members of suspected Islamic militants, which is prohibited by Russian law, Putin appeared to give his protege a rare rebuke.
“In Russia, everyone must obey the existing laws and nobody is considered guilty until this is proved by court,” Putin said in his year-end press conference in December 2014, adding that “nobody has the right, including the head of Chechnya, to resort to extrajudicial reprisals.”
In the following days, Kadyrov burned down still more homes — and wasn’t reprimanded again.
The incident seemed to suggest that Putin is simply unable — or unwilling — to control Kadyrov.
“I have no idea if it is fear or a man crush,” Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University and an expert on Russia’s security services, said on a recent Power Vertical Podcast.
The Kremlin leader does, indeed, appear to have a lot of affection for Kadyrov and has said he is like a son to him. But he also has reason to fear him.
Putin has essentially made a Faustian pact with Kadyrov. He’s given him a license to kill — and torture — as many people in Chechnya as he pleases, and has bestowed lavish federal subsidies for him to use as he wishes, as long as the restive republic remains quiet and loyal.
And there is palpable fear in the Kremlin that if Kadyrov is removed, then Chechnya could again descend into chaos.
But over the past year, the bargain is now being put to the test, with Kadyrov taking his act beyond Chechnya to the streets of Moscow.
Putin’s Willing Executioner
In the days following Nemtsov’s assassination in Moscow, when suspicion — and evidence — appeared to be pointing to Kadyrov, Putin was reportedly refusing to speak to the Chechen leader.
“Orkhan Djemal, a journalist with extensive sources inside Chechnya, told me he had heard that for days Putin wouldn’t take Kadyrov’s calls, which caused Kadyrov to panic,” Joshua Yaffa wrote in a recent article in The New Yorker.
This was during that bizarre week when Putin disappeared from public view, causing a minor panic in Moscow.
But apparently Putin and Kadyrov managed to kiss and make up. In fact, in the months following Nemtsov’s killing, Kadyrov was given so many medals he needed a second chest to wear them all.
And despite the best efforts of investigators to pin the Nemtsov hit on Kadyrov’s close associates, they were rebuked.
What this suggests, according to some Kremlin critics, is that Kadyrov hasn’t gone rogue at all. Instead, he is Putin’s willing executioner — the leader of a death squad that can eliminate Putin’s opponents with impunity, and with plausible deniability for the Kremlin.
Kadyrov, after all, is crazy, right? Nobody, not even Putin, can control him. In this way, Kadyrov is Putin’s own personal boogeyman.
In his profile of Kadyrov in The New Yorker, Yaffa quotes Aleksei Venediktov, editor in chief of Echo Moskvy, as saying that for the Kremlin leader, Kadyrov is a way to show that “anytime he wants, like Freddy Krueger, he can put on a clawed glove, a glove covered in spikes, and use it as a weapon.”
Weeks before Kadyrov started openly threatening the Russian opposition,Putin agreed to turn over ownership of Chechenneftekhimprom, the subsidiary of the state-owned oil giant Rosneft that controls Chechnya’s refining infrastructure, to the republic.
But Kadyrov reportedly wants more — specifically, the construction of a new oil refinery in his Chechnya.
“It is important to follow the oil,” Karen Dawisha, director of the Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies at the University of Miami, Ohio, and author of the book Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia? said on The Power Vertical Podcast.
Moreover, Kadyrov’s latest antics come at a time when low oil prices are forcing Russia to dramatically cut its budget — something that could cause a lot of pain in Chechnya.
And they could be a not-so-subtle hint that Kadyrov is willing and able to make trouble if his share of the pie is cut.
“Things are bad, they’re going to get worse, and there are going to be some very tough choices about where the money is going,” Bullough said on the podcast. “And frankly, the only reason Chechnya was pacified was because they gave Kadyrov a blank slate to kill as many people as he wanted and gave him as much money as he wanted. And if suddenly the money isn’t available, then we’re in uncharted territory.”
Of course, Kadyrov the Frankenstein monster, Kadyrov the Kremlin’s boogeyman and willing executioner, and Kadyrov the extortionist are not mutually exclusive.
In fact, he’s probably all of the above.
And, according to Moscow-based political analyst Nikolai Petrov, he may have made himself an indispensable part of Russia’s political system — regardless of who is in the Kremlin.
“Kadyrov has the potential to be a tsar-maker,” Petrov told The New Yorker’s Yaffa. “Not because he has more men at his disposal than, for example, the minister of defense, but because his men — tens of thousands of them — will carry out his orders without thinking twice. If the minister of defense tells his troops to storm the Kremlin, he can’t be sure that all of them will actually do it. But Kadyrov can.”
NOTE TO READERS: Be sure to tune in to this week’s Power Vertical Podcast, where I will further discuss the Kadyrov phenomenon with Mark Galeotti and Oliver Bullough.