Monday, August 29, 2016

The Power Vertical

The Tao Of Ramzan

Like a cartoon villain -- except that he's real
Like a cartoon villain -- except that he's real
By Brian Whitmore

He's like a cartoon villain, except that he's real. 

He can be pretty amusing, except when he's terrifying. 

He's a bit of a clown and more than a bit childish, but he's also one of the most powerful men in Russia.

It's pretty much impossible to ignore Ramzan Kadyrov -- and he knows it.

And the rambunctious Chechen strongman seems to be getting more brazen by the day.

Kadyrov was at it again this week, posting a video on Instagram showing opposition figures Mikhail Kasyanov and Vladimir Kara-Murza in the crosshairs of a sniper's rifle.

This comes just weeks after he called Vladimir Putin's foes "enemies of the people" and suggested in an article in Izvestia that they be placed in a psychiatric hospital in Chechnya -- where he promised to double their injections.

And, of course, he's widely believed to be behind the assassinations of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, human rights activist Natalia Estimirova, and opposition leader Boris Nemtsov.

There is little consensus, but a lot of speculation, about whether Kadyrov's antics indicate that he's jumped the shark or is right on message, whether he's Putin's loose cannon or the Kremlin leader's loaded pistol.

And there is also little consensus about which is worse.

"So, if you’re worried that Ramzan is murdering with impunity and Putin can’t control him, consider the alternative: What if Ramzan is murdering with impunity and Putin does control him?" the British journalist Oliver Bullough, author of the book The Last Man In Russia And The Struggle To Save A Dying Nation, wrote in The Guardian.

Putin's Frankenstein Monster

When Kadyrov began burning down the homes of family members of suspected Islamic militants, which is prohibited by Russian law, Putin appeared to give his protege a rare rebuke.

"In Russia, everyone must obey the existing laws and nobody is considered guilty until this is proved by court," Putin said in his year-end press conference in December 2014, adding that "nobody has the right, including the head of Chechnya, to resort to extrajudicial reprisals."

In the following days, Kadyrov burned down still more homes -- and wasn't reprimanded again.

The incident seemed to suggest that Putin is simply unable -- or unwilling -- to control Kadyrov.


"I have no idea if it is fear or a man crush," Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University and an expert on Russia's security services, said on a recent Power Vertical Podcast.

The Kremlin leader does, indeed, appear to have a lot of affection for Kadyrov and has said he is like a son to him. But he also has reason to fear him.

Putin has essentially made a Faustian pact with Kadyrov. He's given him a license to kill -- and torture -- as many people in Chechnya as he pleases, and has bestowed lavish federal subsidies for him to use as he wishes, as long as the restive republic remains quiet and loyal.

And there is palpable fear in the Kremlin that if Kadyrov is removed, then Chechnya could again descend into chaos.

But over the past year, the bargain is now being put to the test, with Kadyrov taking his act beyond Chechnya to the streets of Moscow.

Putin's Willing Executioner

In the days following Nemtsov's assassination in Moscow, when suspicion -- and evidence -- appeared to be pointing to Kadyrov, Putin was reportedly refusing to speak to the Chechen leader.

"Orkhan Djemal, a journalist with extensive sources inside Chechnya, told me he had heard that for days Putin wouldn’t take Kadyrov’s calls, which caused Kadyrov to panic," Joshua Yaffa wrote in a recent article in The New Yorker.

This was during that bizarre week when Putin disappeared from public view, causing a minor panic in Moscow.

But apparently Putin and Kadyrov managed to kiss and make up. In fact, in the months following Nemtsov's killing, Kadyrov was given so many medals he needed a second chest to wear them all.

And despite the best efforts of investigators to pin the Nemtsov hit on Kadyrov's close associates, they were rebuked.

What this suggests, according to some Kremlin critics, is that Kadyrov hasn't gone rogue at all. Instead, he is Putin's willing executioner -- the leader of a death squad that can eliminate Putin's opponents with impunity, and with plausible deniability for the Kremlin.

Kadyrov, after all, is crazy, right? Nobody, not even Putin, can control him. In this way, Kadyrov is Putin's own personal boogeyman.

In his profile of Kadyrov in The New Yorker, Yaffa quotes Aleksei Venediktov, editor in chief of Echo Moskvy, as saying that for the Kremlin leader, Kadyrov is a way to show that "anytime he wants, like Freddy Krueger, he can put on a clawed glove, a glove covered in spikes, and use it as a weapon." 

The Extortionist

Weeks before Kadyrov started openly threatening the Russian opposition, Putin agreed to turn over ownership of Chechenneftekhimprom, the subsidiary of the state-owned oil giant Rosneft that controls Chechnya's refining infrastructure, to the republic.

But Kadyrov reportedly wants more -- specifically, the construction of a new oil refinery in his Chechnya. 

"It is important to follow the oil," Karen Dawisha, director of the Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies at the University of Miami, Ohio, and author of the book Putin's Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia? said on The Power Vertical Podcast.

Moreover, Kadyrov's latest antics come at a time when low oil prices are forcing Russia to dramatically cut its budget -- something that could cause a lot of pain in Chechnya. 

And they could be a not-so-subtle hint that Kadyrov is willing and able to make trouble if his share of the pie is cut.

"Things are bad, they're going to get worse, and there are going to be some very tough choices about where the money is going," Bullough said on the podcast. "And frankly, the only reason Chechnya was pacified was because they gave Kadyrov a blank slate to kill as many people as he wanted and gave him as much money as he wanted. And if suddenly the money isn't available, then we're in uncharted territory."

Of course, Kadyrov the Frankenstein monster, Kadyrov the Kremlin's boogeyman and willing executioner, and Kadyrov the extortionist are not mutually exclusive. 

In fact, he's probably all of the above. 

And, according to Moscow-based political analyst Nikolai Petrov, he may have made himself an indispensable part of Russia's political system -- regardless of who is in the Kremlin.

"Kadyrov has the potential to be a tsar-maker," Petrov told The New Yorker's Yaffa"Not because he has more men at his disposal than, for example, the minister of defense, but because his men -- tens of thousands of them -- will carry out his orders without thinking twice. If the minister of defense tells his troops to storm the Kremlin, he can’t be sure that all of them will actually do it. But Kadyrov can."

NOTE TO READERS: Be sure to tune in to this week's Power Vertical Podcast, where I will further discuss the Kadyrov phenomenon with Mark Galeotti and Oliver Bullough.

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: Yoshua
February 04, 2016 18:07
A dictatorship needs to be ruled by a portion of terror to keep the subjects and the dissidents in fear. The Kremlin seems to have outsourced the terror of the NKVD and KGB to Kadyrov and his army.

The global economy is going down the tubes so we will soon see more dictatorships around the world.

There is no economy without energy. The global breakeven price for oil is $50 dollars per barrel, but most oil producing nations needs $100 per barrel to avoid civil unrest. The global economy on the other hand can not grow with oil prices at $100 per barrel without QE and ZIRP which have been used to inflate the global $220 trillion debt bubble to keep the economy going. With the end of QE3 and the hard landing of China the oil price has crashed down to $30 per barrel. The IMF and WB are now looking at bail-outs of oil producers around the world to keep the global economy alive a little bit longer.

In a world without oil the electrical grid would come down and our nuclear plants would start to melt. At some point the Western democracies must start to consider the option of military dictatorship to secure the stability of our societies.

That's just my opinion.
In Response

by: Neil Nelson from: UT, USA
February 05, 2016 15:14
Doom and gloom. It must be hard getting up in the morning.

For those of us who have recently gone to the gas station to fill up our cars, we are thinking "All right! I've got more money to spend on other things. Life is good!".

Lower oil prices, on balance, provide an upward boost to the world economy because we are spending more on everything else. Labour is now rewarded where in the past that money was going to oil producers and with the large portion of everything else depending on the price of oil.

The downside for low oil prices is instability in the nations depending on oil revenues. And perhaps some greater authoritarianism can be expected there, but that is not the EU, China, India, the US, the very large majority of the world's population who may actually have less political strife because of less economic strife.

But beyond this, if you take a look at the world's population growth rates over the last century you will see a quick upturn around 1950 when the counter-growth factors were beginning to be removed such as disease. We now have advanced nuclear energy projects including fusion being developed and energy is becoming a declining concern. Our fundamental problem is that humanity is consuming the Earth's resources faster than the Earth can sustain. We will not see that crisis for a few decades but should be thinking about it now.
In Response

by: Yoshua
February 05, 2016 19:06
It is impossible to obtain perfect knowledge of reality. You see the bright sun, I see the dark night (when I wake up), we might both be right... to some degree.

by: Larry Hedrick from: Washington, DC
February 06, 2016 04:50
Kadyrov is another egregious rogue posing as a model Muslim. No wonder people, especially in the West, are so confused about the nature of Islam. In spite of much time spent in studying the religion in its many contemporary guises, I remain confused myself.

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About This Blog

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or