A Wild Card Called Kadyrov

 

Medvedev’s April 16 announcement that counterterrorism operations in Chechnya are over apparently came a bit too soon.

 

Counterterrorism operations went back into effect just six days later in the Chechen districts of Itum-Kalinsky, Vedeno, and Shatoi, plus a few parts of Shali, all “with the aim of neutralizing the actions of illegal armed formations,” according to Gazeta. Their reinstatement followed no less than four attacks in Grozny on Friday, April 16 – the very day of Medvedev’s glowing announcement:  

 

1)      two explosive devices detonated outside Grozny’s Belimhanova sports stadium, injuring a police officer as well as Grozny’s military commander, Igor Makeev.

2)      Another explosion on Dagestan Street, also near the Belimhanova sports stadium.

3)      A firefight, in the woods outside the town of Sogunty Nozhai-Yurt, between Russian police and armed militants.

4)      A gunshot on the outskirts of the town of Elistanzhi Vedeno; this one took the life of a contract soldier.  

 

Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya’s Kremlin-backed warlord-in-chief, is doing his best to pass these incidents off as nothing to be alarmed about.

“Normal seasonal activity,” he told Gazeta. “Militants stepped up a conflict between federal forces in Chechnya and the authorities of the republic.”

 

Normal seasonal activity? But I thought the war was over. There shouldn’t be any “normal seasonal activity” or “traditionally active militias.” There is no question in my mind that the situation on the ground is a lot uglier than Medvedev and Kadyrov are letting on.

 

Medvedev is, I’d guess, just in too much of a hurry to give his citizens some good news. Given the growing public displeasure over the economy and the rise in Russian unemployment past the 10% mark, that’s predictable politician behavior.

 

Kadyrov, however, is a bit more interesting a subject of speculation. As far as I see it, he’s got a great many of motives for glossing over Chechnya’s ongoing strife. Oil is a big one. Chechnya produces about 2 million tons of oil a year, with the fighting, but it averaged between 4 million and 5 million tons a year throughout the early 1990s, before the fighting. In peaceful 1971, it topped a total 21 million tons 

 

Right now, the little oil industry that Chechnya does have is heavily reliant on the assistance of Russian oil firm Russneft, who controls the extraction, export, and refining of Chechnya’s oil and has systematically opposed Kadyrov’s attempts to secure total control. Kadyrov would surely love to restore Chechnya’s oil capacity and see it become an oil power in its own right. But that can only happen if he can convince investors that the place is safe enough for them to risk their money on it.

 

Then of course, there are the massive inflows of cash from Moscow to fund reconstruction in Grozny and its environs. Neighborhoods are starting to come back to life  and major construction porjects are well underway—like this mosque: 

  

the new downtown Grozny

the new downtown Grozny

 

 

 

 

Positive reports from ground zero will ensure that the money keeps coming.

 

But perhaps Kadyrov aspires to be more than president of an autonomous Russian province. Perhaps he would like to be leader of an independent nation. Consider that Kadyrov was himself a rebel leader once, until he switched sides circa 2000.

 

What would it take to woo him back? Enter the third motivator for his bullish reporting.

 

As Russia’s right-hand man in the war-torn province, Kadyrov has been consolidating enormous power. Perhaps more power than Russia would like. BBC caught a whiff of where this was going as far back as 2004: By localising the conflict in Chechnya, the Kremlin has devolved enormous personal power to Ramzan Kadyrov. He is careful often to declare his absolute loyalty to his mentors in the Kremlin. But at the same time he runs Chechnya like a virtual independent fiefdom. Some in Moscow wonder how long that loyalty will last.

 

BBC may be onto something. The time may come when, with Chechnya’s infrastructure restored to health and its fighting forces in tiptop shape, this warlord-for-hire might decide he has gotten all he needs from his Russian masters and throw off Moscow altogether.

 

Putin is eagle-eying this situation, no doubt, and weighing his options. I wouldn’t be surprised if Kadyrov turns up dead of “mysterious circumstances” in another year or two.  

 

Otherwise, Putin—and we along with him—might see a whole new war break out, one far worse than those that came before. This scenario seems to me particularly realistic, given the mess in Georgia, where Saakashvili is nursing some heavy-duty grudges against Russia over the loss of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

 

Assuming Saakashvili is still in power a year from now (and I assume that he will be), and assuming he has the good sense not to declare another war against Russia (and I hope that is so, but I have my doubts), might he decide against taking the Russians on in direct combat and settle for just making their lives very miserable by funding and arming the next wave of Chechen unrest, which will come not from bands of guerrillas in the mountains but from the professional fighting forces of Kadyrov himself? Could Saakashvili and Kadyrov form a mutual alliance? If the adage about the enemy of my enemy being my friend is true, then this is all within the realm of possibility. 

 

 

 

 

 

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