In the course of his annual press conference on December 18, Russian President Vladimir Putin made clear his disapproval of the reprisals undertaken against the families of the fighters who attacked Grozny on December 4. Putin described as “understandable” what he termed Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov’s subsequent “emotional” demand that the family homes of the fighters responsible be burned to the ground and their relatives expelled from Chechnya.
At the same time, Putin said that even if the families in question were aware of the militants’ intentions, “that does not give anyone, including the leaders of the Chechen Republic, the right to engage in extra-judicial reprisals.”
“In Russia everyone must abide by the laws in force in our country. No one is considered guilty until he has been sentenced by a court,” Putin stressed.
Human rights activists calculate that eight dwellings in Gudermes, Yandy, Engelyurt, Alpatovo, and Katyr-Yurt were torched last week; not all belonged to the families of men killed during the December 4 attack. Kadyrov and other Chechen officials have also threatened and vilified Committee to Prevent Torture (KPP) head Igor Kalyapin, who called on Russian Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika and Investigative Committee head Aleksandr Bastrykin to rule on whether Kadyrov had exceeded his authority by issuing the order to burn militants’ families’ homes.
Putin also divulged that the law-enforcement agencies are conducting a “preliminary investigation” in order to establish the connection between Kadyrov’s outburst and the subsequent burning of the homes, and the identity of the masked men responsible.
Putin’s implicit criticism of Kadyrov is in stark contrast to his initial praise of the Chechen authorities’ response to the December 4 attack, during which, as Putin recalled at his press conference, 14 Chechen police officers were killed. Meeting with Kadyrov late on December 4, Putin assured him that “you have nothing to blush for.”
Putin’s remarks at the press conference will also inevitably reignite speculation as to whether Kadyrov’s days in power are numbered -- all the more so since during an interview with NTV earlier this week, Kadyrov himself twice mentioned that he might quit his current post. In the course of a diatribe against the Chechen insurgents who attacked Grozny, Kadyrov said he is “ready to write a letter of resignation and leave the post of republic head in order to do battle with these devils.”
Asked to comment on the stated intention of three Ukrainian parliamentarians to bring criminal charges against him for having threatened them, Kadyrov laughed off that possibility, adding that he “intends to ask the president to release me from post of republic head” in order to travel to Ukraine’s breakaway Donbas region to “defend the interest of the citizens who are waging war there, and to capture and destroy those devils, who have neither conscience or honor.”
It is not clear whether by that latter category Kadyrov meant only the Ukrainian lawmakers in question or also the Djokhar Dudayev peacekeeping battalion headed by former Chechen field commander Isa Munayev which is fighting alongside the Ukrainian armed forces.
It is conceivable that Kadyrov had been warned that he has incurred Putin’s displeasure, and rather than risk public disgrace by being formally dismissed offered to resign as a face-saving solution for both of them. Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov was quoted on December 17, however, as having told Interfax that Putin has not received a formal request from Kadyrov to be relieved from his post. That suggests Putin was intent on publicly upbraiding Kadyrov and reining him in, but is not (yet) thinking in terms of replacing him.
An article published three days ago in the Russian weekly “Versiya,” which on occasion floats trial balloons on behalf of government agencies, nonetheless suggests that Putin has an additional good reason to be angry with Kadyrov. The author, Ruslan Gorevoy, recalled that Kadyrov’s plenipotentiary in Kyiv, Ramzan Tsitsulayev, fled to Ukraine following a botched attempt by police last month to apprehend him in a sting operation on suspicion of involvement in an illegal cash withdrawals racket. Tsitsulayev, according to Gorevoy, subsequently mobilized a group of Chechens in Vynnytsya in early December a bid to gain control of financial assets belonging to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
Poroshenko and members of his immediate entourage reportedly have considerable financial interests in the Russian Federation which the Russian authorities have until now refrained from expropriating. Gorevoy predicted that Tsitsulayev’s gambit in Vynnytsya could trigger reprisals by Kyiv in the form of the confiscation of Russian-owned businesses on Ukrainian territory. If Putin is, as some analysts suggest, already concerned at the prospect of forfeiting the support of Russian oligarchs who are suffering under the brunt of international sanctions, the last thing he wants is to put them at risk of incurring the loss of assets in Ukraine.
-- Liz Fuller