One of Ramzan Kadyrov's staunchest critics says the Chechen leader remains one of the most powerful men in Russia despite mounting criticism over his ruthless tactics.
According to Akhmed Zakayev, the exiled head of the Chechen separatist government, Kadyrov has accumulated so much clout that Russian President Vladimir Putin himself -- the man who brought him to power in 2007 -- may have trouble sidelining him if he tried. Kadyrov has recently provoked outrage after threatening Russian opposition leaders.
"Any attempt to remove Kadyrov by decree or to appoint another leader of the [Chechen] republic would spark uproar in Kadyrov's ranks," Zakayev tells RFE/RL. "In order to remove him, security forces would need to conduct operational measures within his close circle. If they don't, the reaction will be very negative and Putin won't be able to get rid of him with a simple decree or a stroke of the pen."
Zakayev, who was granted political asylum in Britain in 2003, predicts that Kadyrov will stay in power long after his current term as head of the predominantly Muslim North Caucasus republic ends in early April.
So far, neither the Kremlin nor Kadyrov have made any statements confirming whether he intends to continue in his leadership post.
'No Exit Strategies'
Zakayev tells RFE/RL that Kadyrov will never leave the political arena of his own will.
He says the conflict in Syria has wiped out all of his exit strategies and that the Chechen strongman has "nowhere to go" if he ever falls out of favor with his benefactor Putin.
"Three, four, five months ago, there were still places he could leave for: Turkey, Sunni states, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates," he says. "He has now lost these possibilities because he supported the conflict in Syria together with Putin and backed and sided with the Shi'a to defend [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad. By doing this, he has blocked the escape routes that he had spent several years preparing."
So far, Zakayev says the string of scandals that have hit Kadyrov in recent months has not eroded his support base.
Regardless of his despotic rule, he says many ordinary Chechens still support him.
"It's simply because they credit Kadyrov with ending the ethnic cleansing, the mass killings, and the disappearances that took place in Chechnya at the hands of Russian forces," he says. "But Kadyrov has now reserved himself the exclusive right to pardon, punish, hang, or shoot people."
Kadyrov has persecuted and shamed his critics in Chechnya with particular zeal in recent months, and also threatened the families of Chechens abroad who have dared protest his rule.
Last year, he was embroiled in a teen marriage scandal that saw an underage Chechen schoolgirl reportedly forced to wed a police chief and ally of Kadyrov who was already married and three times her age.
Kadyrov, who has encouraged polygamy in Chechnya, personally attended the wedding ceremony in March 2015, sparking dismay in Russia and beyond.
The Chechen leader has also come under fire for his aggressive campaign against Russian opposition leaders, whom he recently branded "enemies of the people" and said should be tried as "traitors."
Those comments provoked calls for Kadyrov's resignation from Russian opposition politicians and activists.
In January, Russian rights defenders again sounded the alarm after he released a video online showing a sniper targeting prominent opposition activists Mikhail Kasyanov -- who is also a former prime minister -- and Vladimir Kara-Murza.
Citing sources in Russian power structures, Zakayev claims that Putin turned to Kadyrov for help "neutralizing" the opposition's most prominent leaders as early as December 2011, when an unprecedented wave of antigovernment protests swept Moscow.
According to him, Putin traveled to Chechnya at this time and spent two days in talks with Kadyrov. The aim of this meeting, he says, was to ensure the transfer of Chechen fighters to Moscow to help crush the rebellion.
After receiving this tip-off, Zakayev says he swiftly met with opposition leaders Boris Nemtsov and Garry Kasparov "in a European capital" to warn them of the danger.
Kasparov eventually left Russia in 2013, saying he faced retaliation from authorities and would therefore continue his democracy advocacy from abroad.
Nemtsov was gunned down in February 2015 just steps away from the Kremlin, a brazen murder that prosecutors have since pinned on a group of Chechen men, including an associate of Kadyrov.
Putin has said he has taken "personal control" of the investigation, but Nemtsov's supporters blame the Russian president for the murder.
Zakayev claims that Putin waited until 2015, when Russia's actions in Ukraine had already badly soured his ties with the West, to have the veteran opposition leader killed.
"At the time, Putin was flirting with the West. He was trying to enter the elite international club, which in the end didn't accept him," he says. "When Crimea's [annexation] was rejected [by the international community], when military operations began in eastern Ukraine, when the West started slapping harsh sanctions on Russia, Putin no longer had any reason to look back."
Zakayev, however, warns that Chechnya's apparent calm after two devastating wars between Moscow and Chechen separatists hides deepening public frustration, and that many Chechens would welcome Kadyrov's departure.
In addition, he says Kadyrov also has powerful enemies in the Russia's Federal Security Service and in the GRU, Russia's military intelligence agency, waiting for an opportunity to unseat him.
"Chechnya is just biding its time," he says. "Chechen has not been pacified. Chechnya has never been as militarily strong as now. The slightest political shifts in Russia will be echoed in Chechnya."
Reported by Natalya Golitsyna in St. Petersburg; written by Claire Bigg in Prague