Staunton, January 19 – Ramzan Kadyrov’s increasingly outrageous statements confront Vladimir Putin with what for him is a Hobson’s choice: if he sacks Kadyrov, he will undermine his longstanding approach to the North Caucasus and quite possibly lead to a situation in which Moscow could no longer hold it.
But if the Kremlin leader doesn’t, he will show himself to be one of two things, either of which could prove politically fatal and even more serious: He could show himself to be dependent on or even in agreement with one of the most vicious and murderous figures of Russia and thus he would lead ever more people to conclude that he and Kadyrov are partners.
That in turn would not only reopen the question of the role of the Kremlin and Putin personally for a series of murders and other crimes that Moscow has sought to blame on the Chechens, but it would call into question much of the broad but shallow support Putin now enjoys across the Russian population.
And what makes this situation especially dangerous now is that Putin’s preferred modus operandi when he feels himself cornered is to engage in a new act of aggression both to distract attention and to mobilize support. Consequently, what some are now calling “the Kadyrov question” is far larger than many think.
Among the many articles that have appeared in recent days about this issue, two are especially instructive. In a comment on Ekho Moskvy, Duma deputy Dmitry Gudkov argues that “the Chechen problem” has now reached the “all-Russian level” and that Putin has only three options on how to deal with it (echo.msk.ru/blog/dgudkov/1695800-echo/).
In the first option, Putin and his team can “support Kadyrov, a steep that will open the way to very horrific things above all in the elites. This will be not only a shock on the ratings of the powers that be. It will be a signal that killing, frightening and terrorizing is something anyone can fall victim to at any time.”
“Yesterday, it was in Chechnya; today in Krasnoyarsk; and tomorrow from Kaliningrad to Sakhalin,” Gudkov says.
Putin’s second option is to set the stage for the removal of Kadyrov. “One shouldn’t think that this is impossible” given the Kremlin leader’s ability to remove even those regional heads most thought were untouchable. “That is all the more so in Chechnya” given that there is “’a middle class’” there that would be opposed to Kadyrov’s departure.
And in the third option, Putin remains silent, “the ostrich option.” Gudkov says he doesn’t believe this is likely because Putin today is “certain of his strength and hardly seriously fears the opposition.” But that only puts off the problem; it is no solution given that Kadyrov has shown himself not to be subject to any efforts at reeducation.
In an article in “Yezhednevny zhurnal,” Moscow commentator Aleksandr Ryklin sees a similar range of options for the Kremlin leader. But he addresses why he thinks neither the first nor the second is all that likely but why the third may ultimately prove to be even worse over time (ej.ru/?a=note&id=29207).
Rykhlin says that whether or not he wants to remove Kadyrov, Putin “today does not have sufficient political resources” to take that step, “not because the president of Russia is as many assert smaller and smaller but because the head of Chechnya is larger and larger” in the Russian political pantheon.
The departure of Kadyrov, he points out, “would mean the failure of all Russian policy in the North Caucasus,” a policy of loyalty and freedom of action in exchange for massive Russian subsidies, and that in turn almost certainly would lead to “unpredictable consequences,” including new challenges to Moscow’s control of the region.
But if Putin doesn’t remove Kadyrov either because he doesn’t want to or can’t, then civil society in Russia must “recognize an extremely dangerous reality: in Russia, under the cover of law act a well-preapred and armed to the teeth group of people who in certain circumstances won’t limit themselves to rhetoric and will move from words to deeds.”
“Imagine,” he says, the following scenario. “In Grozny, criminal cases are begun against five or six representatives of ‘the fifth column.’ Let us say, people accused of extremism. And then the Chechen siloviki will bring them from elsewhere into their own republic to conduct ‘investigations.’”
“Does this scenario seem unrealistic?” Ryklin asks rhetorically. If you think so, he continues, “you are mistaken. This is completely probable; it is our immediate future.”