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A nation must think before it acts.
A series of bizarre theatrics involving Russian President Vladimir Putin’s close circles preceded his decision to invade Ukraine on February 24. In a recorded message broadcasted on February 21, members of the Security Council were visibly nervous. Even Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu looked unsettled when Putin raised the alert level of Russia’s strategic arsenal. These public reactions have confused Russia watchers, who had assumed that Putin’s actions came from him working more closely with the hawkish members of his inner circle. The decision to invade clearly caught them unprepared.
While Shoigu had one type of reaction, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov has once again taken on the role of Putin’s “footsoldier.” From day one, he has actively participated, committing a significant number of his personal army, the kadyrovtsy, to the war. Estimates range from a few hundred to a few thousand sent to Ukraine during the first days, with more committed as the war continues. Kadyrov’s chosen role as Putin’s enforcer in Ukraine is no surprise, as the Chechen ruler participated in Russia’s Syria campaign. But this large commitment is unprecedented. What is driving Kadyrov’s decision? Just as the Russian political command assumed that the invasion would be a low-risk operation, Kadyrov thought it would be a low-risk effort to accomplish several things, inside and outside of Chechnya.
At a first look, Chechnya was fairly stable before the invasion. The opposition operated mostly abroad, and there were few signs that the local armed insurgency would re-ignite. However, below the surface, the Chechen ruler faces many challenges, and a “short victorious war” could have served as a win for Kadyrov.
Chechnya’s economy is certainly in Kadyrov’s calculations. On February 28, Kadyrov met with Russia’s Ministers of Finance, Anton Siluanov, and Economic Development, Maxim Reshetnikov. The purpose of the meeting was not reported, but the circumstances suggest that it had to do with the war. Ever since the Kremlin put the Kadyrov family in power, Chechnya has been heavily dependent on federal transfers to finance its budget. These transfers have helped to finance Chechnya’s uneven reconstruction and Kadyrov’s despotic regime. In particular, the money finances Kadyrov’s private army and prevents the Chechen economy from collapsing, which could prompt rebellion against his rule. But there were signs that this arrangement was under strain even before the new round of sanctions were imposed against Russia for the invasion. The December Berkat market protest, against high rental prices for a stall in the market, may have jolted Grozny. Kadyrov’s despotic regime over Chechnya makes protests a rare occurrence as intimidation and persecution of activists make it impossible for civil society to speak up. Indeed, Kadyrov expressed concerns about the state of the Chechen economy in January, stressing that Chechnya’s economy could not go without federal support. So, it is possible that the meeting was to gain new subsidies in exchange for Chechnya’s participation in the war.
Beyond this economic dimension, Kadyrov is also playing in Russia’s palatial politics. Kadyrov has—for a long time—been unpopular among Moscow’s elites and other federal politicians. There have been rumors of them wanting him deposed for years. Putin has allegedly kept Kadyrov under his wing because he sees the Chechen warlord as the safest way to maintain stability. Now, by committing to Putin’s war, Kadyrov once again demonstrates his worth, gaining additional leverage in the process. This leverage is enhanced further by the fact that Putin’s close allies appear to have been tepid about the invasion; Kadyrov showed himself to be enthusiastic.
Finally, there is a military dimension to Kadyrov’s calculations. Veterans of the Chechen wars—that gave Chechens their international martial reputation—are growing old. The median age in Chechnya is just under 30 years, so aside from low-intensity fighting in Syria, the kadyrovtsy have seen intense combat only since the end of the high intensity phase of the Chechen insurgency in the 2000s. Entering the war in Ukraine renews the fighting skills of Kadyrov’s praetorian guard. Indeed, there are reports that the Russian armed forces have deployed the kadyrovtsy in areas where they work as a ruthless, unconstrained spear-tip, ready to shoot civilians when Russian troops are not.
Kadyrov is also pursuing goals concerning Ukraine. The Chechen ruler has been dogged for years by a revitalized, Ukraine-based diaspora resistance to his rule. In particular, two battalions fought against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine since 2014, the Sheikh Mansur battalion and the Dzhokar Dudayev battalion. These two volunteer formations have attracted many long-time opponents to Kadyrov’s rule, even some fighters loyal to the former Chechen Republic of Ichkeria. So, the Chechen ruler is seeking to defeat them in Ukraine. Early evidence suggests that Chechen deployments in Ukraine correspond to where some from these battalions operate, namely, in Kyiv, but also in other locations.
Kadyrov is also known to have a personal feud against Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Kadyrov has repeatedly asked him to apologize for posting a 2014 video showing the Chechen ruler crying. This feud may be driving some decisions on the ground. Reports have surfaced that Kadyrov’s men have been behind some of the recent assassination attempts against the Ukrainian leader. Participating in Zelenskyy’s deposition would allow Kadyrov to end the feud.
Finally, with his Ukraine operation, Kadyrov has put his martial reputation on the line. Ever since rising to power, Kadyrov has cultivated a reputation abroad of being a “soldier” and a defender of Islam. A notorious example were his criticisms of Moscow’s policy towards Myanmar in 2018, a rare event where a governor criticizes the federal authorities in matters of foreign affairs. In the current war, Kadyrov does not have a way to push the Islamic element of his brand, but he likely counted on the war adding to his martial reputation as the staged rallies in Grozny suggest.
It is too early to know for certain, but, at the moment, Kadyrov’s Ukraine gamble has turned out to be riskier than he—and Russia’s leadership—thought it would be. Some rumors have surfaced that a detachment of Kadyrov’s troops have been defeated by the Ichkerian opposition. Kadyrov’s troops have for years focused on terrorizing the Chechen population, so entering a fight against a capable adversary has proven difficult.
Nevertheless, Putin will no doubt appreciate Kadyrov’s continued loyalty and manpower. Russia’s armed forces remain formidable but have faced many problems to operate successfully in Ukraine, much less attain the political goals set out by the Kremlin. Kadyrov’s troops may not fare any better. Yet, their ruthlessness may be used by the Kremlin not for fighting but to repress any insurrection against Russian occupation. In addition, Kadyrov’s show of loyalty is valuable to the Kremlin on its own. As Russia has deployed approximately 70% of its armed forces in Ukraine, Moscow has fewer resources to address any large North Caucasus contingency. As Putin’s severe miscalculation of the war puts his leadership under doubt, Kadyrov’s support becomes even more valuable to him, regardless of the fate of the war.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.