Both Ramzan Kadyrov’s image and the nature of his conflict with the federal siloviki—officials from the military, intelligence and law-enforcement sectors—demanded that his controversial recent statement be delivered with the artless sincerity that few people in Russian politics can get away with: Last month Kadyrov ordered Chechen security forces to shoot to kill if troops from other parts of Russia tried to carry out operations on the republic’s territory without its consent; while this reminded the country of Chechnya’s early-’90s separatism, it was, of course, both a cri de coeur and a vivid verbal raising of the stakes in Kadyrov’s game with Moscow.

No Middlemen

Kadyrov’s tendency to play this game could easily be interpreted as part of his style and temperament if it weren’t for the fact that the roots of the current conflict go back to those olden days when the very idea that Ramzan Kadyrov would inherit power from his father, Akhmad, struck Chechens as a bad joke. A cornerstone of the fragile peace achieved in Chechnya in the early 2000s was the privilege bestowed on Akhmad Kadyrov of answering directly and only to President Putin, bypassing all other officials and ministries, including the security agencies. That seemed logical: The elder Kadyrov had already handed the keys to Chechnya to the enemy; he could hardly afford to bow down before those who personified death, destruction and injustice in the republic—a collective Colonel Budanov of sorts. This is why the pictures adorning all of Chechnya to this day depict the late Kadyrov hugging the Russian president in a way no other regional leader hugs him.

Ramzan Kadyrov has perceived that exclusive relationship, and developed it, as the basis of his inheritance; Chechnya remained a front line in Russia’s eyes, so the Kremlin didn’t object, ignoring the mutterings of its generals. And they weren’t the only ones affected. Kadyrov made it clear to any state official who tried to pass himself off as a middleman that the latter was merely an errand boy for Putin. That was the only way to pull off Chechnya’s post-war miracles. Chechen authorities funded reconstruction with money from local businessmen, cutting costs wherever possible, but presented Moscow with budgets based on official prices—meaning several times higher than what actually got spent. Moscow understood these games perfectly well, but the most the Finance Ministry could do was to persuade the Kremlin to agree with Grozny on some sort of compromise, which was, of course, part of the above-described exclusive relationship from the very beginning.

At times, Kadyrov even used this same formula to pull Chechen human rights activists from federal military clutches, just because, as loathsome as they were, they were his own people and he would later settle accounts with them his own way. This, too, was both sincere, in that it gave him genuine pleasure, and politically calculated, because such moves reinforced his standing within the republic. The children of those who tried to put the war out of their minds wore t-shirts with his portrait, thinking they had lucked out immensely to have such a leader, thanks to whom, as one such young person told me, Chechnya has everything, including a soccer team, a volleyball team and “inshallah, there’ll be a hockey team too!”

This wonderland could keep going only with the continuing build-up of Kadyrov’s political pyramid scheme; he would have to answer for everything (to the one person who mattered) before someone managed to get between him and the Kremlin. Neither Chechnya nor the world was any longer surprised by anything he did, even by plans to send the first Chechen cosmonaut into space. If he built a mosque, it had to be the biggest in Europe; if he staged a march against the caricaturists at Charlie Hebdo, it had to be bigger than the Parisian march in support of them. This was the only way Chechnya’s everyday Islam could coexist with Moscow’s state-backed Christianity, the only way that namaz-performing Chechen guardsmen could fit into the smoke-filled landscapes of Novorossiya’s “Russian world.”

The foundation of the pyramid naturally spread beyond Chechnya’s political geography. In 2006, a former commander of one of Kadyrov’s battalions, Movladi Baisarov, was gunned down in Moscow. In their hunt for militants, Kadyrov’s troops didn’t notice boundaries: not Dagestan’s, not Ingushetia’s, not the Stavropol region’s. Time and time again Moscow put out the fires, quelling each conflict, but even a draw equaled a win for Kadyrov, who left Moscow without a seed of doubt that the exclusive relationship was still on.

The seeds of doubt, according to some explanations, got planted after the murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov.

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Planning their April operation in Chechnya’s capital, Grozny, must have been particularly tantalizing for the Stavropol police, since they were about to do the same thing on Kadyrov’s territory that he had done with impunity to everyone else. In fact, sources in Chechnya reported that the Kremlin’s willingness to pick up calls from Grozny at any time of day or night—somewhat mythologized to begin with—had started to wane some time ago. This became clear to well-informed people in Grozny in early June 2013 after the arrest of Said Amirov, the all-powerful mayor of Makhachkala, capital of neighboring Dagestan, which seemed like a sign that the Kremlin intends to gradually weed out excessively powerful local overlords.

Back then, however, Moscow’s Caucasus offensive did not move forward—neither into Chechnya nor anywhere else. And only after Nemtsov’s killing, on February 27, did the frontline in the standoff between Kadyrov and his numerous opponents abruptly start shifting, not in Kadyrov’s favor. The crowning episode in the federal elite’s attack on Kadyrov was a program about him on state-run Channel One television in late April, which dredged up the Baisarov killing. And, of course, said the report, “everything had been agreed upon with the Chechen police.” This claim was quickly followed by innuendo: Sometimes there’s no need to get agreement, especially when “there is information that law-enforcement bodies in a constituent territory of the [Russian] Federation could create obstacles to conducting an investigation.” (Federal authorities have been unable to get access to Ruslan Geremeyev, a senior officer in Chechnya’s police force suspected of links to Nemtsov’s murder.)

By giving his shoot-to-kill order Kadyrov tried once again to raise the stakes, expecting to force Moscow into a choice it wasn’t ready to make.

The war between Chechnya and federal troops is over. The armed rebel underground can merely send out reminders that it exists, sometimes powerful ones, like last December when it managed to engage in a many-hours-long gunfight in downtown Grozny. This type of thing knocks Kadyrov off-balance, but it’s not war. Chechnya has been rebuilt, both economically and politically; there’s no reason to ask for more money.

Kadyrov tried to bring another familiar issue to a head by announcing his willingness to step down, which some saw as a loaded threat. But the Kremlin seems to have taken this too in stride, with the composure of an experienced employer smiling at the simple bluff of a worker trying to win himself a promotion or a raise. We won’t give you anything more, but we won’t take anything away either.

Trolling OK’d at the Highest Level

Regardless of the Kremlin’s take on the so-called Chechen trail in Nemtsov’s killing, the Interior Ministry and Investigative Committee seem to have gotten a signal from behind the Kremlin wall: If anyone wants to troll Mr. Untouchable, there won’t be any objections this time around.

But the signal is unlikely to mean much more than that. And it’s not that the tensions between Kadyrov and the siloviki have been exaggerated; it’s just that the conflict has a somewhat different storyline than assumed. This is not an attack on Kadyrov with the aim of unseating him (as was the case with former Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov); it is an attempt—and likely a successful one—to reformat and modernize the authorities’ approach to Chechnya. The contract with Kadyrov is not being annulled; it is just being rewritten before its next extension.

For the Kremlin, Chechnya is no longer an issue of life or death. It’s not even the frontline in the battle for Russia or against global terror. There’s no more need to work miracles and, hence, no more need to go to great expense to give special privileges to a miracle worker. Moreover, it’s safe to assume that the Kremlin understands there is no real danger emanating from an offended Kadyrov and no threat of a new round of Dudayev-style independence in Chechnya. If Kadyrov were to split from Moscow, no one would support him—neither those who have always fought against the militants, nor the former militants who traded in their rebel fatigues for police uniforms. And he definitely won’t get any support from the militants still up in the forest.

Some years ago, when getting rid of Luzhkov, Moscow exposed as myth the idea that a political structure built around a single person is doomed to crumble. Chechnya, of course, is a special case. One option would be to look for a replacement for Kadyrov, but why bother when there’s no emergency afoot? Kadyrov suits the Kremlin fine. He is genuinely willing to be Putin’s foot soldier, as he once said. All that’s needed is a skilled reworking of his contract.

This does not mean fully annulling the old one. That would still be too provocative—publicly forcing Kadyrov to bow his head before Moscow’s men in uniform. And the latter, it stands to reason, aren’t expecting such a move. They will be satisfied to get the chance to deliver at least one slap in the face in return for all the ones rained down on them. But if the siloviki are in for a mere boost in morale, relations between Kadyrov and the Kremlin are seeing a concrete precedent: The relationship has been changed fundamentally, with no need to resume special military operations on Chechen territory. It’s enough that everyone will know this kind of shift has happened once: That means that the Kadyrov “before” and the Kadyrov “after” are two very different political personalities.

In a practical sense, it is unlikely that any middlemen will crop up between Kadyrov and Putin in the near term. But the clause saying they are out of the question seems to be getting struck from the contract. Kadyrov won’t be staring up in awe at the head of the Investigative Committee, Alexander Bastrykin, and no one is seriously expecting to appoint a top cop or prosecutor in Chechnya without Kadyrov’s approval. But now Kadyrov will have to justify his unequivocal “no’s” with arguments weightier than reminders of his erstwhile exclusivity. Authorities may now get to question Geremeyev, but they’re not likely to question Kadyrov. At the same time, Kadyrov will probably have to give up his hopes of expanding his power, even in a hypothetical Checheno-Ingushetia—a hope he’s expressed in recent years.

Barring anything unexpected, the acute phase of Kadyrov’s conflict with the siloviki seems to have passed. The head of Dagestan, Ramazan Abdulatipov, has already expressed his support for Kadyrov. He may have his own reasons (he knows what it is to see close allies arrested without being consulted), but a man with his experience at court surely knows when expressing solidarity is a bad idea and when it’s all right.

Vadim Dubnov is an independent journalist specializing in the Caucasus region.

This publication originally appeared in Russian.

  • Vadim Dubnov