Chechnya in jeopardy: what would death of Ramzan Kadyrov mean for Putin? (2024)

Reports that Chechnya's strongman leader Ramzan Kadyrov is terminally ill pose a serious problem for Vladimir Putin.

The Russian president is desperate to avoid instability in the North Caucasus region, which would force him to divert men, resources and attention away from Ukraine.

Rumours about the health of senior officials, including Putin himself, have been a common feature of Russian political life since the Soviet era, but sources ranging from Ukrainian intelligence to Russian insiders claim Kadyrov is in a "critical condition", said the Daily Beast, and could have just months to live. The Chechen leader has hardly been seen in public since suffering a serious health scare in September, after being diagnosed with pancreatic necrosis in 2019.

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Chechnya in jeopardy: what would death of Ramzan Kadyrov mean for Putin? (1)

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Kadyrov has ruled the Muslim-majority federal republic since 2007 and enjoys "wide leeway from Putin to run Chechnya as his personal fiefdom in return for ensuring the stability of the region", which fought two separatist wars with Moscow after the break-up of the Soviet Union, said Reuters.

The relationship between the two men is founded on a strong "patron-client relationship based on Kadyrov's personal devotion to Putin and the two leaders' mutual dependence", said academics Anya Free and Marat Iliyasov on The Conversation. As well as ceding near complete control of the territory to Kadyrov, Putin has provided huge economic subsidies to the region, which have enriched the Chechen leader and his inner circle.

Kadyrov is both "feared and venerated throughout Russia". And since the beginning of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, "his power and influence have increased significantly within the Russian political sphere, due to his contributions to the war effort, including the recruitment of volunteers".

The loss of the "Kremlin's loyal foot soldier" could "directly impact domestic support for the war", said the Daily Beast. As well as sending thousands of soldiers to fight for Russia in Ukraine, he has also been a "vocal champion of Putin within Russia, supporting the idea of limiting candidates in elections and vowing loyalty to the Russian president in the face of Wagner's march on Moscow" in June last year.

What next?

The Kremlin has launched a mass PR campaign to show Kadyrov in seemingly good health, "but the presidential administration now seems to be on the lookout for a successor", said Novaya Gazeta Europe.

Kadyrov succeeded his father to become Chechnya's leader and has been busy promoting his children in the hope of building a dynasty. He recently elevated his oldest son, 18-year-old Akhmat, to the role of minister for sport and youth. And in a statement released on Sunday, his second son, Adam, was named a trustee of the Russian University of Special Forces. In September, Adam, then 15, was shown in a social media video posted by his father punching and kicking a prisoner accused of burning the Koran, which drew criticism "even from pro-Kremlin hardliners", said Reuters.

The problem for Kadyrov is that the law stipulates that the head of the Chechen Republic must be at least 30 years old, which would rule out his sons, for now at least. Instead, Major General Apti Alaudinov, commander of the Chechen Akhmat mercenary units in Ukraine, and Kadyrov's cousin Adam Delimkhanov, Chechnya's representative to the Russian parliament, are touted as potential successors.

"This is why Kadyrov's likely death matters so much," said Mark Galeotti inThe Sunday Times. "If attempts to install a new leader cause splits in the Chechen elite, then this is likely to become not just a political but an armed dispute." As one Russian political commentator put it: "There are too many men with guns and grudges there to be able to assume that things won't turn bloody."

This poses a "terrible dilemma" for Putin, said Galeotti, "for whom it comes at the worst possible moment".

Were the region to descend into armed conflict, the Russian president would have to decide whether to divert troops from Ukraine to restore order or risk losing Chechnya altogether.

His brutal handling of the would-be breakaway territory 25 years ago made Putin's name and established him as a ruthless and uncompromising leader. A quarter of a century on, it could prove his undoing.

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Chechnya in jeopardy: what would death of Ramzan Kadyrov mean for Putin? (2024)
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