Kadyrov and the National Guard

The creation of the National Guard may be part of the Kremlin’s attempt to bring the unruly Chechen leader—and his military—into line.

April 13, 2016

By Maria Snegovaya

Many observers conclude that Ramzan Kadyrov, leader of Russia’s Chechen Republic, has subordinated the Kremlin to his will. Some go so far as to say that Kadyrov may even become Russia’s future president. Kadyrov’s full control over the personnel and operational decisions of  Russian Interior Ministry special forces located within the Chechen Republic, aka the “Kadyrovtsy” – which include  former rebels from the Chechen-Russian wars  – is claimed to be the key source of his power. No other regional governor has so much discretion over the military units on his territory. This autonomy over elite military units grants Kadyrov special authority in Russian politics. For example, Kadyrov is alleged to have ordered Chechen special forces to fight against the Ukrainian army in support of Russian-backed rebels in Donbass.

Kadyrov’s unique mandate owes to his demonstrated ability to maintain stability in the volatile region. The Kremlin reinforced its bargain with the Chechen leader this March when it announced that Kadyrov, whose term is set to expire in early April, will be appointed Chechnya’s Acting Head by Putin prior to the September parliamentary elections. However, all is not well between Moscow and Grozny. Recent evidence suggests that Kadyrov has been increasingly attempting to assert his will on the federal (rather than the republican) level. Examples include Kadyrov’s open confrontation with Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) in April 2015 over responsibility for the murder of Boris Nemtsov, and his more recent threat to persecute Russia’s non-system opposition, who he labeled “enemies of the people.”

Prior to the announced reappointment, Kadyrov’s future appeared far less certain. Rumors circulated that Putin had become increasingly disappointed with Kadyrov, avoiding scheduling meetings with him (despite Kadyrov’s multiple requests), and was considering alternative candidates for his replacement. In an interview last month, Alexey Venediktov, the editor-in-chief of Echo of Moscow who has access to Kremlin officials, said that the reappointment of Kadyrov wasn’t a given. Others suggest that the name of a certain high-level GRU officer (Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate) was mentioned as a potential replacement candidate.

Russian opposition leader Ilya Yashin, who recently published a report on Kadyrov, claimed that according to his information “the Presidential Administration officials discussed with Kadyrov the possibility of his reappointment as a Deputy Prime Minister, the authorized representative in the North Caucasus. Although formally this office holds a higher status than Kadyrov’s current position, in fact it has almost no political authority.” Kadyrov was also allegedly offered the position of leading Russia’s Internal Troops, yet he persuaded Putin to reappoint him as head of the Chechen Republic.

Thus, Kadyrov’s position does not appear invincible. The Kremlin at least partly realizes the risks associated with Kadyrov consolidating a monopoly of power in Chechnya. The Kremlin-linked rumors claim that while Kadyrov has ultimately stayed in power, his reappointment may have come with a number of restricting checks on his authority. The recent announcement of the launch of Russia’s National Guard may be a key to the puzzle.

In a widely discussed recent interview, the lawyer Pyotr Zaikin, a former operational police officer who served in Dagestan and Chechnya in the 1990s, said the authority of all the military units of the Interior Ministry – including the Internal Troops, the Special Rapid Deployment Force, the anti-riot squad (OMON), and private security forces – will be unified under the head of the new National Guard in 2018. As a result, jurisdiction over the police and internal troops will move from the control of the Interior Ministry to the vertically integrated, military hierarchy of the National Guard. According to Zaikin, this reform might have tremendous political consequences for the Chechen Republic, as it will remove the most combat-ready military units from Kadyrov’s direct subordination and transfer them under the Commander-in-Chief of the National Guard’s authority, who answers directly to Putin. The reform will also allow for a large-scale restructuring of the Chechen special forces, removing the ex-combatants and suspected former terrorists, to minimize the potential dangers of their current ethnicity-based formations.

Kadyrov’s long-time friend and Putin’s ex-Chief of Security Viktor Zolotov was appointed as the Commander-in-Chief of the National Guard. Zolotov, who is connected to Kadyrov but is primarily loyal to Putin, might have served as a compromise figure. Indeed, some analysts are skeptical about the reforms’ capacity to fundamentally alter the nature of the Chechen special forces given Kadyrov’s proximity to the decision-makers.

Whether the Kremlin will be successful in its endeavor to put Kadyrov’s forces under control remains to be seen. However, the large-scale restructuring of Russia’s internal security services suggests that the Kremlin at least realizes the potential threats that could result from Kadyrov’s continued one-man authority over force in Chechnya.


Maria Snegovaya is a PhD candidate in Comparative Politics and Statistical Methods at Columbia University and a columnist for Vedomosti. Follow her on Twitter at @Msnegovaya.

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