Tuesday, August 30, 2016

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The Warlord Checkmates The Tsar

"I will always be grateful to Vladimir Vladimirovich for everything he has done for me and for my people," Ramzan Kadyrov (right) wrote recently.
"I will always be grateful to Vladimir Vladimirovich for everything he has done for me and for my people," Ramzan Kadyrov (right) wrote recently.

Has Ramzan Kadyrov successfully blackmailed the Kremlin?

In all the hoopla over Vladimir Putin resurfacing, a pretty important news item managed to slip below the radar.

On March 16, the same day the Kremlin leader appeared, Interfax quoted an unidentified law- enforcement official as saying that the assassination of Boris Nemtsov has been reclassified from a "contract killing" to a "hate crime."

The report is still unconfirmed. But if the official line becomes that this was not a contract killing, then there is no need to investigate who put out the contract.

There is no need to look beyond Zaur Dadayev and the others rounded up in connection with the hit. 

There is no need to ask any uncomfortable -- and destabilizing -- questions.

By targeting Dadayev --the former deputy commander of a paramilitary unit founded by Kadyrov -- the Federal Security Service (FSB) seemed to be ultimately targeting Kadyrov.

And now, it appears, that Kadyrov has successfully beaten back the FSB's assault.

It was amid this turmoil that Putin vanished from public view on March 5, just six days after Nemtsov was assassinated and three days before Dadayev was charged.

"Putin appeared, live and legitimate, at exactly the same moment when Interfax reported that the Nemtsov assassination wasn't a contract hit," political analyst Leonid Volkov wrote on Facebook

"Putin had to make a choice. Either feed Kadyrov to the FSB-men, or give up the FSB to Kadyrov. It's a difficult and unpleasant choice.... And he chose the one and only thing he could choose: Kadyrov."

A Tribute -- And A Threat

Over the 10 days, 21 hours, four minutes, and 20 seconds that Putin was holed up in an undisclosed location -- before turning up in St. Petersburg on March 16 for a meeting with Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev -- a lot of weird stuff happened.

Kadyrov publicly praised Dadayev, went to a shooting range to pop a few rounds, and posted the video on Instagram. The Chechen leader also posted a letter on Instagram expressing his enduring loyalty to Putin.

"I will always be grateful to Vladimir Vladimirovich for everything he has done for me and for my people," Kadyrov wrote.

"I will always be his faithful companion, regardless of whether he is president or not. To give one's life for such a person is an easy task."

But within the profession of loyalty, there was also a veiled threat -- one that was punctuated by the shooting range outing. I am loyal, Kadyrov seemed to be saying. But others may not be. And taking me down carries risks.

And somebody was apparently listening.

It's worth noting that over a nine-day period, Kadyrov has been given no fewer than three state awards.

On March 9, shortly after Dadayev was arrested and charged, he was given the Order of Merit, the state's highest honor. On March 16, the day Putin reappeared in public, he received a medal For Devotion and Duty from authorities in Russia-annexed Crimea. And on March 18, he was honored by the Federal Penitentiary Service. 

"Kadyrov is now the pillar, basis, and essence of Russian statehood. Even more so than all of the FSB combined," Volkov wrote on Facebook.

Connecting The Dots

Unpacking the Nemtsov assassination, the ensuing investigation, Kadyrov's emergence at the center of it, and the Chechen leader's battle with the FSB involves interpreting and connecting a lot of disparate data points.

"We're seeing rivets popping inside the Kremlin in a way we haven't seen before," longtime Kremlin-watcher Edward Lucas, author of The New Cold War, told Britain's itv.

Kadyrov is widely known to covet a high post in Moscow. And he is also believed to want his cousin and close associate, Adam Delimkhanov, to replace him in Chechnya.

The idea makes many in Russia's elite nervous -- not least of all, the FSB brass. Moreover, enmity between Kadyrov and the FSB goes way back.

In May 2007, shortly after Kadyrov was named Chechnya's leader, the local FSB refused to allow a group of his armed men into their headquarters. Kadyrov responded by having all the building's entrances and exits welded shut.The standoff was only resolved when Nikolai Patrushev, then the FSB director, intervened personally. 

And there are strong indications that the FSB is trying to take both Kadyrov and Delimkhanov down.

Like in the Nemtsov assassination, the FSB also took the lead role in investigating the attempted assassination of Saigidpasha Umakhanov, a foe of Kadyrov's and the mayor of Khasavyurt, Daghestan's third-largest city.

In February, just weeks before Nemtsov was gunned down, a court in Daghestan sentenced two Chechens to long prison sentences for plotting Umakhanov's killing. In a recent report Novaya Gazeta quoted FSB officials as saying the assassination plot was ordered and masterminded by none other than Delimkhanov. 

Another report by Novaya Gazeta quoted unidentified law enforcement officials as saying the real organizer of the Nemtsov assassination was a Chechen security officer, also with close ties to Kadyrov, identified only as "Major Ruslan." 

Subsequent press reports have claimed that the mysterious Major Ruslan was Ruslan Geremeyev -- who is Delimkhanov's nephew.

Late Putinism

Will the assault on Kadyrov now ebb? And if it does, will he continue to become more powerful and more brazen?

Or will the FSB regroup and renew its assault? One hint that this might be the case came in a report in RBK on March 17.

Citing unidentified law enforcement officials, it claimed that Dadayev and Geremeyev planned Nemtsov's assassination in a Moscow cafe. According to the report, Geremeyev paid Dadayev 5 million rubles ($83,000) and provided him weapons. 

So we still seem to be in a battle of leaks, each with conflicting accounts of whether this was a hate crime that stops with Dadayev or whether it is a contract killing that leads from Dadayev to Geremeyev to Delimkhanov -- and ultimately to Kadyrov.

Neither narrative is great for the regime.

"If Kadyrov were indeed freelancing into political assassinations in Moscow and were allowed to walk away unpunished, he would be taking Putin and the entire Russian leadership hostage, which might be precisely his plan," political analyst Vladimir Frolov wrote in The Moscow Times. Frolov adds that a "full investigation and arrests of co-conspirators risk destabilization in Chechnya escalating into war." 

Either way, an increasing number of Kremlin-watchers are coming to the conclusion that the period beginning on February 27 with Nemtsov's assassination and continuing through Putin's odd vanishing act marks the dawn of late Putinism -- the twilight of the regime in its current form.

"Has the Russian regime's agony begun," asks a recent article by the prominent Russian political analyst Lilia Shevtsova in The American Interest. 

Shevtsova notes that Putin's "steely-eyed resolve" is gone, he "is losing control," and "can’t give his entourage clear orders." Nemtsov's assassination, she adds, has "shattered the mirrored window concealing the Kremlin; now everyone can see the mess within."

-- Brian Whitmore

Tags: Vladimir Putin,Ramzan Kadyrov,Nemtsov assassination

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: kyniskos from: Norway
March 18, 2015 21:06
Is it possible to find out if FSB had a hand in the opposition demonstration after Nemtsovs death? Thinking of the vast numbers, good organisation and all the russian (as rus opposite chechen) flags. Such a thing would certainly have Putin in a huff. Anyways I don't think comtinously large demonstrations in the streets is a sign of a society where everything is fine.

by: peter green from: nyc
March 19, 2015 02:05
brian why would the chechens kill nemtsov?
In Response

by: Alex from: VA
March 19, 2015 19:55
Peter, "Kadyrov's cronies" is not the same thing as "the Chechens." Kadyrov is Putin's man in Chechnya, ensuring that the people are on their knees and unable to stand up for independence from Moscow. His motivations are similar to Putin's: personal power above national (or regional) prosperity.

by: Catherine Fitzpatrick from: New York
March 19, 2015 05:46
The evidence for tying together the Nemtsov killing and the Delimkhanov and Geremeyev families is slim to none other than to say "they're related so they must be guilty." It's not Adam who leads the Sever unit; Adam Delimkhanov is the senator in the Federation Council. It's Aslambek Delimkhanov who is leader of Sever. There isn't any evidence tying him to the murder other than that he and Zaur Dadayev left for Moscow at the same time, and Aslambek then came back to Chechnya on February 28 after the murder. What is his motive? Surely it's not Charlie Hebdo and even the "let's discredit Putin" gambit, unless there is a weird play whereby first Putin is discredited, then hardliners move in to replace him because he's not hardline enough, then Kadyrov gets a spot in the government? Really?

A clear-cut motive has to be found for "why Delimkhanov" and "why Geremeyev" and a tie to Nemtsov or some scenario -- so far Novaya Gazeta and RBC.ru, the main papers promoting this idea, don't really do more than sketch it out.

I don't buy the line that Ramzan wants to come to Moscow. He has plenty of power and influence in Chechnya and he's a homeboy, he is better in his natural element where he has all these people at his beck and call and immersion in his culture and religion. All of that would be lost if he went to Moscow -- where there is already Khasbulatov and Surkov and plenty of others who would know the routines better than he does.

The lawyer of the newest suspect, Khamzat Bakhayev, said he had no information about the change of charges to a "hate crime" instead of a mercenary motive, and this has flip-flopped.

In Response

by: Max from: London
March 19, 2015 12:21
Kadyrov was one of the most vocal advocates of war in Ukraine. Indeed many Chechens had been sighted there and killed fighting for the separatists.

Nemtsov could have caught them in the crossfire of his expose piece implicating Russia in the war. Lets face it... Chechen "volunteers" makes even less sense than Russian ones. The proof of their presence beyond reasonable doubt would be a far more blatant indication of official Russian involvement that highlighting dead ethnic Russians.
In Response

by: Catherine Fitzpatrick from: New York
March 19, 2015 17:15
Yes, indeed, Kadyrov is an ardent supporter of the war and perhaps he sees it as a venue to elevate himself to greater things (although I don't see him as a figure that can be elevated to Moscow at all given the high level of ethnic Russian nationalism now).

In the first battle of the Donetsk Airport, a number of Chechens were said to have been killed;this was reported by a source for Caucasian Knot. And I don't doubt that among the 40 there might have been, except when we followed up, we found one was actually ethnic Russia and it was very hard to prove.

Later, there was numerous examples from YouTube and VKontakte of Chechens and others from the North Caucasus. Even Kadyrov himself, who first denied it even after the Donetsk Airport battle, began to say that maybe there were a few volunteers, and in any event he was prepared to send "tens of thousands". So obviously, he did.

The question is how to prove it "beyond a reasonable doubt." The Soldiers' Mothers of St. Petersburg have a well-researched case of about 10 Chechen men who are missing and presumed killed in action, which has been publicized by independent media and presented multiple times including in a publicized meeting with the Defense Ministry. But they never got an answer.

The group of soldiers Nemtsov was said to be in touch with and whose relatives had come to him weren't Caucasians, however, but paratroopers from Ivanovo.

It's my impression from reading what his friends said that it wasn't that Nemtsov was going to publicize information that wasn't already found by multiple independent sources in Russia and Ukraine. Rather, he was going to put it all together compellingly, in the way he did with the Sochi Olympics story, and the MH17 story he did with Martynyuk, a video which got 1.2 million views.

I think actually from the Moscow-centric perspective, an ethnic Russian would probably be more politically dangerous than non-Russian republics. After all, a young Buryat tank driver who was terribly burnt in the battle of Debaltsevo was visited even by Joseph Kobzon but it doesn't seem not seem to be major state news. Novaya Gazeta got more than 1 million views on their story in which it is clearly stated that this man was drafted in the regular army, but then they convinced him to sign a contract to be a volunteer, thereby giving them "plausible deniability."

I don't have a problem with accepting a scenario whereby Kadyrov, for his own reasons attacks the liberal opposition in Moscow, or where Kadyrov's men, as contract killers perform this job cynically for gain. But all of this might distract from another troubling and still plausible scenario which is that the order comes from Putin or someone very close to him or the FSB itself. Many in the West still want to cling to Putin as "stability" in case there's "something worse" and this flies in the face of their ardent hopes.

But Putin and his cronies really have more reason to get rid of someone who loudly criticized the $51 billion Olympics and many other obvious corrupt deals and the ruination of the economy, let alone the war on Ukraine -- which he was about to protest with a big march.

Plus, if Putin "gave up the FSB to Kadyrov," why is the Investigative Committee going to question Ruslan Geremeyev now, and why did Kadyrov even jail him?

by: tinydancer from: sundown
March 19, 2015 20:02
One has to understand the history of the relationship between Putin and Kadyrov.

To say that they worship the quicksand each other walks on is an understatement. They admire and respect each other and Kadyrov's fealty to Putin is unwavering.

Putin has rewarded Kadyrov mightily for eliminating Putin's headache called the Chechen rebellion.

Just last year this was recorded.

"Extraordinary footage filmed late last year shows Ramzan Kadyrov addressing a stadium in Grozny filled with thousands of armed Chechen police and special forces members dressed in camouflage standing to attention around the stadium. Kadyrov gives a long speech saying the men have pledged loyalty to Russia, and President Vladimir Putin personally, and ends by shouting: “Long live our great motherland, Russia!

Long live our national leader, Vladimir Putin! Allahu Akbar!”

Kadyrov, a former militant, has won huge concessions from Moscow to rule Chechnya as he pleases, essentially turning it into his own fiefdom, where dissent is not tolerated and elements of Islamic law are in place.

The unwritten deal is that Kadyrov promises nominal loyalty to Moscow of a region the Kremlin fought two bitter wars to bring under its control, while in return Moscow gives him a free hand to do as he wishes.

In Response

by: Catherine Fitzpatrick from: New York
March 19, 2015 21:45
And? All this is known, and yes, Kadyrov pledges his undying loyalty to Putin and just did so again this week in gushing terms. But these are the honorifics of the culture. Do you really think that if Putin were overthrown, visibly or invisibly, and Kadyrov saw which way the wind was blowing, that he wouldn't figure out how to pledge undying loyalty to the new guy?

Kadyrov got yet another award -- this time from the FSIN -- this week. The FSIN is what captured the suspects, as it happened. Is this placating Kadyrov so he doesn't object to the suspects being caught? Or will we see these suspects quietly let go, guilty or not? We just don't know, but the theory that the are bound together in a checkmate is only true until somebody else knocks the pieces off the chess table.

Once again: Ruslan Geremeyev is under arrest. If Kadyrov is so beholden to this family -- and Putin is, too -- how come their family member is in jail? Or will he be let go quietly too and compensated? Again, we don't know.

As for the Delimkhanov mastermind theory for yet another case involving an enemy of Kadyrov, again, the motive for caring about Nemtsov enough to kill him isn't clear and the payment just too trifling.

The Investigative Committee's Bastrykin tried to clean up the "excesses" of Kadyrov's men kidnapping and murdering people -- and couldn't. Special cases investigator Bobrov who was sent from Moscow to do this had to leave to "spend more time with his family."

If the theory is that the FSB can do a better job with clean-ups and the sentencing of Umakhanov is proof, I think we also have to look at the fact that Kadyrov, who has reliably been reported to order a lot of people imprisoned or killed in his life, might find certain people expendable and the real story here is what Kadyrov is willing to feed to whom. Is he willing to feed Ruslan to the FSB? Or to put it another way, are Adam Delikhanov or Suleyman Geremeyev willing to feed Ruslan to the FSB to keep things as they are? An animal in a trap will chew off its own paw.

We may be able to tell more when/if these suspects are let go or not and whether anything more credible that cash in cafes and Charlie Hebdo is presented. The story may never get past the cash in the cafe as it never did for a dozen other cases of high-profile targets said to be killed by Chechens.

In Response

by: tinydancer from: sundown manitoba
March 20, 2015 14:16
Quite simply put Catherine, I'm personally running with your "let go quietly and be compensated" scenario.

As you point out all we can do is sit back and watch the show. And a fascinating show it will be.

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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