Ramzan Kadyrov’s bold political moves, which are tolerated by the Kremlin, make some in the Russian speaking press refer to him as the successful Dudayev. However, this liberty that Moscow has granted to Kadyrov may in the long run destabilize the Russian Federation, in the same manner that the intra-Soviet land disputes destabilized the USSR.
One of the key internal contributing factors that destabilized the Soviet Union at the end of the 1980s was the territorial dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Karabakh.
What would happen to the US if Texas police started entering parts of Louisiana and Oklahoma and began incorporating parts of those states into Texas? That would be a direct challenge to the central government in the US and speed up the disintegration of the United States of America. This is essentially what is happening in the North Caucasus as the Chechen Republic is incorporating land from neighboring republics of Dagestan and Ingushetia into the Chechen Republic. While these acts of land incorporation are taking place in a smooth manner through a legal veneer of the Russian constitution, their political ramifications and at times implementations are turbulent.
After Moscow pacified the pro-independence movement in Chechnya between 2003-2004, the Russian-backed Chechen leadership was given wide autonomous powers. These wide-ranging powers served Russia’s long-term policy to pacify the aspirations of the Chechen society to gain independence from Russia. Moscow implemented the formula of a broad autonomy successfully and this discouraged many Chechens from pursuing full-fledged independence. Russia wisely utilized its federal state structure in the North Caucasus, in order to grant local communities wide ranging autonomy. This autonomy is mainly granted in the cultural, social, and petty local political levels.
The autonomy was not given by Moscow voluntarily. It was the two Chechen wars that forced Russia to update its federalist structures and utilize them. Essentially, a republic of just one million people pulled off an unbelievable feat through its sophisticated guerrilla warfare and socio-political mobilization, getting Russia to concede wide ranging powers to it. The current pro-Moscow Chechen leadership knows that Moscow needs the current Chechen setup in order to maintain stability and not allow NATO powers to instigate internal strife within Russia.
Kadyrov’s team knows well that if the situation in the North Caucasus begins to resemble the mid-1990s, it will receive wide ranging political, media, and financial support from the West in order to put pressure on Moscow for its actions in Ukraine and Syria.
The Kremlin recognizes that Kadyrov is their best option for maintaining the pro-independence narrative in Chechnya under Moscow’s management. It’s a win-win situation between Kadyrov and Moscow. Kadyrov fully realizes that Moscow will tolerate Chechen “nationalism” if it serves to stall the pro-independence movement in Chechnya. Thus, he is wisely extracting concessions.
Kadyrov’s land-swap with Ingushetia in 2018 and the annexation of territory of Dagestan on the outskirts of Kizlyar by force increased tensions between the republics of the North Caucasus. These local tensions were used by Kadyrov to position himself as the protector of Chechen interests within the Russian Federation, a move that has won some sympathy from the pro-independence minded Chechen diaspora.
While currently the positioning of Kadyrov as a Chechen leader who puts Chechnya first, suits Moscow’s regional policies, it is a dangerous gamble. Kadyrov’s territorial claims on neighboring republics are laying the grounds for regional tensions.
Most probably from Moscow’s perspective it is a positive development as it creates divisions among Muslims of the North Caucasus over petty land issues, thus preventing the formation of a united pro-independence movement. This is a smart strategy, but Moscow can easily lose control over this process. This strategy has too many unknown political variables.
One of the key unknown variables many in the Russian speaking media like to speculate about is whether at some point Kadyrov will push the limits and try to break away from Russia. This scenario is highly unlikely; however, it has one pre-condition: if Vladimir Putin and the system he has established in Russia remains in power. If Putin’s system outlasts his presidency, Kadyrov will not have any incentive to seek independence from Russia.
He has too many local and non-local enemies that he cannot fight alone. Kadyrov’s flamboyant politics in Russia irritated many seasoned Russian politicians who often for racist reasons do not like his prominence and influence in Russia. On an ideological level, the official Islamic institutions established in Chechnya are of Sufi leaning orientation and see the pro-independence movement to be too embedded with the salafi mindset.
On the other hand, if after Putin’s presidency an intra-factional conflict breaks out within the Russian political elite, Kadyrov may be used as a tool by a pro-Putin faction. It cannot be ruled out that the Russian political elite will attempt to use him as leverage against an anti-Putin establishment by nudging Kadyrov to talk about independence, if the system set up by Putin is replaced by an opposing faction. However, the possibility of this scenario is not great, but it is a possibility, nonetheless.
Hate him or love him, realistically speaking Kadyrov’s team and their policies managed to convince a significant portion of the Chechen population that the independence route is not worth the trouble. What Chechnya has today is an acceptable form of autonomy with a strong Islamic ethos. The Chechen interior ministry troops are essentially a Sufi oriented Islamic militia accepted by the Kremlin due to the political realities of the North Caucasus. There is some truth that Kadyrov did accomplish a lot of what Dudayev aimed to achieve, but within the parameters of the Russian Federation.
Nevertheless, by allowing Chechnya to irritate neighboring republics in the North Caucasus, Moscow is indirectly cultivating an environment for a local conflict in the North Caucasus that will undermine Moscow’s sovereignty in the region. Historically, the North Caucasus has always been the source of challenge to Russia’s territorial sovereignty. Adding additional potential elements of instability to an already volatile region is asking for trouble.
Taking into consideration Putin’s strong anti-NATO policies and the involvement of Chechens in NATO’s agenda in Syria and Ukraine, a future flare-up in the North Caucasus will have a far larger global dimension to it than the regional crisis of the 1990s.