Chechnya's strongman keeps brazenly defying the Kremlin. Can he be tamed?

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov prays as he visits a rebuilt district in the capital Grozny.
Credit: Stringer

KYIV, Ukraine — He’s a statesman. He’s an athlete. He’s a family man — and a man of God.

Most of all, Ramzan Kadyrov is the iron-fisted head of Russia's Chechen Republic — and a growing headache for the Kremlin.

Russian President Vladimir Putin tapped Kadyrov to run Chechnya in 2007. A strong hand is what Moscow thought it needed there, after years of war and a simmering Islamic insurgency. They gave him loads of cash to sort things out.

Though always brash, Kadyrov has become increasingly brazen. Analysts say that poses a potential threat to Moscow, even outside the volatile Caucasus region.

Kadyrov has long professed his unending loyalty to Putin, who has personally bestowed several state awards on the leader for keeping things in check — more or less — down south.

Like Putin, Kadyrov has crafted a very public image as an active and hands-on ruler.

Lately, that’s apparently meant playing the leading role in an upcoming action film.

He has meticulously documented his own brand of state-building, thanks mostly to Instagram.

But Kadyrov’s often outlandish exterior masks a despotic streak.

He has regularly been accused of egregious human rights abuses — torture, kidnappings, killings — and crushing dissent in Chechnya, ostensibly in the name of cracking down on radicalism.

That sows fear among locals, who think twice before speaking out, rights activists say.

“Their point is not to ask questions about their neighbor who disappeared in a strange way,” said Grigory Shvedov, the editor of Caucasian Knot, an online news outlet.

So far, Moscow has tolerated Kadyrov's heavy-handed ways.

But it’s unclear how long that free pass will last, given some of his recent stunts.

In April, Kadyrov ordered local security forces to fire on any Russian federal troops who might arrive in Chechnya unannounced. That came after a special operation by non-local police that left a Chechen man dead.

He has spent years cultivating a vast and loyal police force, an asset critics say has helped him turn the republic into his personal fiefdom.

Then there was his open support in mid-May for an allegedly forced wedding between a 17-year-old Chechen girl and a juiced-in police chief about three times her age (who, some reports suggest, might’ve already had a wife). That didn’t reflect too well on Russia, where both polygamy and underage marriage are banned by federal law.

Before that, Kadyrov publicly defended the prime suspect in the shocking February murder of prominent opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, which security officials quickly sought to pin on a group of Chechens. It was a move one analyst said was “seen in Moscow as utter disloyalty to the Kremlin.”

Between promoting his own peculiar vision of Islam and apparently flouting federal authority whenever he sees fit, some suggest Kadyrov poses a growing, unpredictable liability to the Kremlin and its rigid vertical of power.

Russian security analyst Mark Galeotti says Kadyrov will likely become “more confident, more brash, more challenging” as time goes on.

Doing nothing could be dangerous.

“Eventually, the Kremlin may be forced to act,” Galeotti wrote last month, “but the longer it waits, the harder it may be nearly to engineer regime change in Chechnya, and the weaker the Kremlin looks in its dealings with local elites.”

There are signs that some in Moscow — particularly the security services, which have long been ill-at-ease with the Chechen leader — are gunning for Kadyrov. Just last week, investigators reportedly issued a warrant to question a top Chechen police official in the Nemtsov murder case.

Then again, Galeotti and others believe Putin's personal say — and the persistent fear of instability in the Caucasus — is still what counts most in keeping Kadyrov in place.

So whether anyone will actually dare to strong-arm the strongman himself is, for now at least, unclear.

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