Can Putin survive a Chechen civil war? A bloody battle would distract Russia from Ukraine

Is Chechnya preparing for a bloody succession battle? According to reports, Ramzan Kadyrov, the ruthless leader of Russia’s Chechnya region, is suffering from a fatal pancreas condition. Although rumours about his health have cropped up repeatedly in recent years, this time things do not look good. Neither the Kremlin nor its counterpart in Grozny have been able to dispel the sense that Chechnya may be about to face a turning point — one that may provide an opportunity for Vladimir Putin’s opponents to get the better of Russia in Ukraine.

Chechnya has for two centuries been a thorn in imperial Moscow’s side. Over and over again, its people have revolted against the imposition of Christian Orthodox power and dragged Russia into protracted and bloody conflicts. The first of these post-Soviet conflicts, which ran from 1994 to 1996, saw Russian troops humiliated. Boris Yeltsin, who had staked his reputation on reasserting control over the region, saw his reputation permanently damaged. Worse, Russians themselves were humbled. A decade earlier, they had been vying for global supremacy with Washington. Now, they could not even win a war against a separatist rabble in their own backyard.

When in late 1999 Putin, then a young and straight-talking upstart, stormed into the halls of power, he promised to bring Chechnya back into the fold at any cost. Launching a new war, he sent his troops into the breakaway region with carte blanche to exterminate and destroy. Almost a decade of fighting left more than 50,000 civilians dead and Grozny razed. Widespread criminality — looting, rape and murder — by Russian troops at the front went mostly unpunished.

Into this maelstrom of violence stepped a young Ramzan Kadyrov, one of many former insurgents turned pro-Russian fighters. Appointed by Putin to lead the territory in 2007, his 17 years in power have been characterised by an awkward combination of Moscow-style autocracy, with various strongmen vying for favour while Kadyrov watches on, and regressive Islamism, designed through a combination of misogynism, traditionalist flourishes and militancy to appease and oppress the majority Muslim local population in equal measure.

But above all, Kadyrov has ruled in the same style as the Russian army conducted its invasion: with criminality and absolute violence. Kadyrov and his henchmen have personally been involved in torture and extrajudicial killings of political opponents and purported criminals. Brutal anti-gay purges have seen hundreds abducted, tortured and beaten — and several killed. Putin and his ally seemed to have found a solution to the age-old problem of Chechen insurgency: a flexible nationalism, ruthless violence and a mafia-like internal politics.

Imagining a post-Kadyrov Chechnya, pundits float bold hypotheses: could Kadyrov’s death provoke a bitter succession crisis that would spark another regional war? If Russian troops had to be deployed, would Putin’s reputation as the man who quelled the restive Chechens for good be ruined? Could rebellion in Chechnya even lead to a wave of revolts across the imperial peripheries, where Muslim minorities have not profited from the past two decades like their ethnic Russian peers and where local populations have borne much of the burden of fighting in Ukraine? If the wrong leader is imposed by Moscow, could demonstrations like those in Bashkortostan — another Muslim majority province where in January several thousand angry locals clashed with security services after a local activist was jailed — break out and perhaps spread? Both Kadyrov and Putin have plans in place to ensure that such disasters don’t unfold, but the situation is flammable.

Kadyrov himself seems intent on a dynastic succession. Two of his sons, the teenaged Adam and Akhmat, are being groomed for power. The 16-year-old Adam has been appointed supervisor Chechya’s Special Forces School, while his 18-year-old brother is the territory’s Minister for Youth and even attended a one-on-one meeting with Putin in 2023. The former shows the same penchant for violence as his father: Kadyrov announced he was “proud” when footage of Adam viciously beating a man who had burned a Koran went viral.

Yet neither of these stripling dauphins, who lack the support of either the public or a force of loyal foot-soldiers, would likely be able to keep control of Chechnya for long. A crowd of potential challengers, such as Kadyrov’s right-hand man Magomed Daudov, another Chechen War turncoat, and Apti Alaudinov, who commands a unit fighting in Ukraine and seems to be the Kremlin’s preferred choice, eagerly watches on. Each possesses far more significant support among Chechnya’s elites than the risible Kadyrov siblings. Should one or the other make a play for the top spot, it is hard to see the Kadyrov dynasty surviving.

Still, none of the challengers represent a separatist movement. Each has a vested interest in maintaining Putin’s support — and thus the inflow of money and, should any troubles arise, extra security services. Each would be able to rule in much the same vein as Kadyrov. Meanwhile, a fragmented separatist movement lacks the resources and manpower to mount a serious challenge. Significant opposition to Chechnya’s status as part of the Russian Federation does exist, and some Chechens are even fighting against Russia in Ukraine, but Chechnya is not the rebellious place it once was. Unlike other peripheral regions, it has not seen major protests as a result of the 2022 invasion of Ukraine. Even anti-Russian rebel leaders have suggested that Kadyrov’s death would not be a “game changer”.

The real danger for the Kremlin, then, is in Chechnya’s various power blocks engaging in an internal struggle so violent that it threatens regional stability. Unlike in the Nineties and 2000s, they would not fight for secession but for power. In a territory where mountainous and sparsely populated territory provides the perfect platform for guerilla warfare, and where performative masculine violence — showcased in regular mass demonstrations of Chechen military might — and traumatised veterans dominate political culture, such a conflict could easily spiral out of control. Perhaps the only way for Putin to restore order would be to deploy Russian troops en masse — and even then, judging by past wars, the conflict would not be resolved quickly.

That said, such a low-level conflict would not be regime ending. Putin’s propagandists would beat the patriotic drum, claiming that one or other (or all) sides were being funded by the usual enemies: the CIA, Islamic extremists, Ukraine. The conflict would be painted as just another example of how the West is trying to smash Russia apart — and thus proof that Putin remains the only man who knows how to face down this existential threat. It would fan the flames of anti-Muslim xenophobia, long nurtured by the Kremlin as a convenient means of rallying racial hatred for political ends and at a peak following the government’s handling of the Crocus City Hall terrorist attacks, rather than anti-Putin rebellion. Many Russians welcomed the sight of visibly brutalised Tajik Muslims appearing in court following the Crocus attacks; a wave of spontaneous victimisation of Central Asians has followed. In this febrile atmosphere, Chechens could easily receive the same sort of treatment.

In this case, Putin might emerge with his reputation intact or even enhanced. But a period of instability following Kadyrov’s death could also be a golden opportunity for Russia’s opponents to seriously weaken the Russian president. A military venture in Chechnya would hoover up significant money, manpower and materiel — all in short supply after two years of war in Ukraine. Just as the Russian army is gearing up for a big summer campaign to break through its stagnant position in eastern Ukraine, it could be drawn into a long and bloody war in Chechnya.

All Russia’s opponents need to do is fuel the ambitions of Kadyrov’s potential successors and encourage them to plot and commit violence against one another. Even providing arms to the handful of separatists operating in Chechnya or perhaps those fighting in Ukraine, if they were willing to return home to combat Putin, might be a viable option if it were to seriously disrupt Moscow’s war on Ukraine. Such a course of action would be cheap, has the potential to save Ukrainian lives, and might give Putin pause for thought as he weighs up his options vis-à-vis Kyiv. Kadyrov’s death might be the gifthorse a war-fatigued Western world is looking for.

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