The leader of the Russian republic of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, recently authorized police to shoot to kill pro-Palestinian protesters who might take to the streets of Chechnya. The orders came in the wake of an antisemitic riot that broke out on Oct. 29, 2023, in the neighboring Russian republic of Dagestan.
It is not that Kadyrov doesn’t support the Palestinian cause; he does. Rather, the order demonstrates that he has a tight grip on the previously rebellious republic and is able to exert his omnipotent power — a power that extends far beyond the borders of Chechnya, a predominantly Muslim republic in the North Caucasus.
Kadyrov is both feared and venerated throughout Russia, and even more so since the beginning of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022. Since then, his power and influence have increased significantly within the Russian political sphere. This is due to his contributions to the war effort, including the recruitment of volunteers.
At the same time, he continually flouts the rule of law. In September 2023, for example, Kadyrov posted a video to his Telegram channel showing his 15-year-old son, Adam, beating Nikita Zhuravel, a 19-year-old imprisoned for allegedly burning the Quran in front of a mosque. Kadyrov praised Adam for possessing the “adult ideals of honor, dignity, and defense of his religion.” Russian federal authorities did not condemn the beating of the defenseless prisoner.
How did the leader of a small North Caucasian republic become such a feared figure in Russia?
As scholars of Russian history and Chechen politics, we argue that Kadyrov’s power and political legitimacy are based on brute force, lack of accountability, a personal relationship with Putin, and the use of Islam for political gain.
Ruthless Rise to Power
Ramzan Kadyrov’s late father, Akhmat Kadyrov, was a mufti, or Islamic legal scholar, in Chechnya in the 1990s. He and his son Ramzan were also staunch supporters of Chechen independence. However, Akhmat Kadyrov’s political and religious disagreement with the Chechen pro-independence government after the first Chechen war from 1994 to 1996 drew him into the orbit of Vladimir Putin.
Shortly after the beginning of the second Chechen war, which lasted from 1999 to 2009, Putin — who increased his power and popularity due to his aggressive role in the conflict — installed Akhmat as the leader of the republic.
When Akhmat was assassinated in 2004, Ramzan was 27 years old — three years too young to legally assume the role as leader in Chechnya. He used these years to consolidate his power and ensure his political ascension. To achieve this, he worked on eliminating his political rivals, including those who were once close to his father. Some were silenced, while others were exiled or murdered.
Ramzan was appointed to lead the republic in 2007 when he turned 30. At that time, Russia was conducting a counterterrorism operation in Chechnya using its federal forces. Kadyrov worked diligently to take control of all security-related matters in the republic and eventually succeeded in building a formidable armed force devoted to him personally.
Violent Suppression of Dissent
This highly professional paramilitary force, colloquially known as the “Kadyrovtsy,” is formally integrated into the interior ministry and national guard.
These troops serve as a private army that suppresses dissent within the republic and eliminates Kadyrov’s opponents beyond its borders. Members of Kadyrov’s inner circle have been linked to the assassinations of the Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, journalist Anna Politkovskaya, human rights activist Natalya Estemirova, and others. Kadyrov has denied any involvement.
Kadyrovtsy also fought in the Syrian civil war as part of Russia’s military support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. They have been present in Ukraine since the start of hostilities in the Donbas region in 2014 and assumed a larger role following the 2022 invasion. This has boosted Kadyrov’s position within the closest circle of Putin’s supporters.
Zealous Loyalty to Putin
Putin’s ascendance to power in 1999 marked the beginning of the end of the Chechen struggle for independence. Under Putin’s rule, however, Kadyrov and his associates have achieved an unprecedented level of autonomy in the increasingly centralized Russian state.
This autonomy is largely due to the personal relationship between Putin and Kadyrov. Soon after Akhmat Kadyrov’s death, Ramzan famously arrived at the Kremlin wearing a tracksuit, and Putin sincerely comforted the grief-stricken young man. That meeting laid the foundation for a strong patron-client relationship based on Kadyrov’s personal devotion to Putin and the two leaders’ mutual dependence.
In return for Kadyrov’s zealous loyalty and his largely successful efforts in suppressing the North Caucasian insurgency, Putin ceded nearly complete control of Chechnya. He also provided large economic subsidies to Chechnya, enabling Kadyrov to rebuild the republic destroyed by two wars. In the process, Kadyrov became a very wealthy man himself and enriched his close associates.
Islam as a Political Tool
Kadyrov grew up in a religious family that adhered to the North Caucasian traditional form of Islam called Sufism. Under Kadyrov, Sufism in Chechnya flourished and became the only acceptable form of Islam.
Within Chechnya, Kadyrov uses religion to galvanize supporters and demonstrate his political power. He promotes Islamic values by building mosques and religious schools. He also dictates religious public conduct for the population, including a strict dress code.
This public re-Islamization of the region after a long period of secular communist rule is convenient for Putin as well. It enables the Russian president to demonstrate respect for Islam and gain trust within the Muslim world.
Kadyrov, meanwhile, also uses Islam to boost his profile on the international stage and bolster his political standing in Russia. On October 25, 2023, during Israel’s bombardment of Gaza in the wake of Hamas’ attack on Israel, he expressed his full support for the Palestinian struggle and offered to send his “units” for a peacekeeping mission.
Kadyrov also argues that Chechen units in Ukraine are participating in a holy jihad against the “Western Satanist ideology.” He regularly posts videos from Chechen mosques where attendants pray for victory in Ukraine and the liberation of the Palestinians.
‘I Am the Boss!’
Kadyrov has managed to construct an increasingly hierarchical and oppressive political system, one that revolves around the cult of personality of his late father and Ramzan himself. He presides over Chechnya — which waged two wars against Russia in the past 30 years in pursuit of independence — with impunity.
“I am the boss! I am at the steering wheel!” Kadyrov boldly proclaimed in 2011, a mere four years after Putin installed him as the republic’s president. Since then, he has repeatedly defied human rights and the rule of law. His supporters have engaged in abductions, torture, and extortion of money from the Chechen population.
Russian law seems powerless to hold Kadyrov accountable, a fact the Chechen strongman underscored in 2015. In response to a covert operation by the Russian police in Chechnya, Kadyrov ordered Chechen law enforcement to shoot anyone — even federal forces — who entered the republic without prior notice.
In addition to his near-absolute power within Chechnya, Kadyrov wields unprecedented authority in Russia at large. Chechen security forces operate with apparent impunity, kidnapping people from across the Russian Federation. Victims include members of the LGBTQ community, whom Kadyrov deems “nonhuman” and “devils.”
At a time of rising instability within Russia, which is entangled in the disastrous war in Ukraine, Kadyrov maintains his strong grip on power in his republic. While other regional leaders are temporary managers, regularly replaced from Moscow, Kadyrov’s power is deeply entrenched.
Kadyrov sees any public display of discontent as a challenge to his authority, and he is ready to brutally suppress it, as he threatens to do with any pro-Palestinian protests. While he remains loyal to Putin, he has his own agenda and cannot afford to be seen as weak. His outrageous public breaches of the law, as well as societal and political norms, present a unique challenge — and, at times, liability — for the Putinist political system, of which Kadyrov is a pillar.
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