MOSCOW -- Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman has played down Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov's statements threatening Kremlin critics, issuing what Russian government opponents called a dangerous endorsement.
Dmitry Peskov's remarks on January 20, the first Kremlin comment since Kadyrov and his allies launched a barrage of hostile rhetoric targeting Russian liberals last week, suggested that Putin was unlikely to rein in the regional leader who critics say enjoys impunity for his words and actions.
Putin has remained silent amid a growing controversy over statements, articles, and Internet posts that liberal opposition politicians, activists, and journalists say constitute threats to their lives -- and critics of Kadyrov say are bringing shame upon Russia.
On January 15, Kadyrov called opponents of Putin "enemies of the people" and U.S. stooges who should be prosecuted. In an article in the prominent newspaper Izvestia on January 19, he said they were "jackals" who must be punished in order to "save" Russia.
Casting himself as a "foot soldier of Vladimir Putin," Kadyrov also lashed out at Internet TV station Dozhd and Ekho Moskvy radio -- one of a series of statements by the Chechen head and his entourage that have prompted a presenter at the station to appeal to Putin to protect media outlets under threat.
And an ally who is speaker of Chechnya's parliament posted a photo of Kadyrov with an angry dog straining on its leash and said its "fangs are itching" to get at opposition figures.
In comments to the Interfax news agency, Peskov warned against "aggravating" the situation and said that Kadyrov was only talking about what he called "nonsystemic" opposition figures who are "outside the legitimate political arena" and are prepared to break the law to achieve their goals.
It is "necessary to calmly read what has been said," Peskov was quoted as saying.
He said he had not read statements concerning Dozhd and Ekho Moskvy.
Far from reassuring Kadyrov's targets, the Kremlin spokesman's remarks had the opposite effect.
Ilya Yashin, an opposition leader who has been singled out by Kadyrov, protested that Peskov's statement sends a signal of tacit approval and would embolden the Chechen strongman.
He rejected Peskov's suggestion that Kadyrov's words could not be seen as a threat to opposition figures who abide by the law.
"It's obvious that Ramzan Kadyrov's statements are not addressed to those who break the law, but in general to critics of the existing regime," Interfax quoted Yashin as saying. "The Kremlin understands perfectly well what he meant. The president is expressing support for the head of Chechnya through his press secretary, which will lead to harsher words and action by Kadyrov."
Critics of Kadyrov accuse him of overseeing widespread human rights abuses in Chechnya, and suspect he has had opponents killed both inside Russia and abroad, which he denies. Relatives of Boris Nemtsov, an opposition leader and Putin foe who was shot dead on a bridge near the Kremlin in February 2015, want Kadyrov questioned over the assassination.
Opposition figures such as former tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who spent a decade in prison and now lives in Europe, suspect Putin is encouraging Kadyrov to threaten the opposition because he is worried that a deepening economic crisis will erode political support ahead of parliamentary elections in September.
Likening Kadyrov to Putin's "house pet" in a blog post on January 19, Khodorkovsky wrote: "Keep your dangerous pets in their cage or prepare for the consequences."
Kadyrov has shown no sign of backing off.
Late on January 19, Adam Delimkhanov -- a Russian parliament deputy and close Kadyrov ally -- posted a video of himself and other men standing on the next bridge over from the one where Nemtsov was killed, chanting "Kadyrov is the rock of Russia, Allah Akhbar!"
The authorities in Chechnya, the North Caucasus region Kadyrov has headed since 2007, are planning a demonstration of support for him on January 22 in Grozny, the capital.
A year ago, Kadyrov held a rally attended by hundreds of thousands of Chechens at which speakers criticized caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad and vilified the West. The rally was one of several reflections of what critics of Putin say is a xenophobic atmosphere that was whipped up by the Kremlin and permeated Russia ahead of Nemtov's killing.