On February 25, the day after the start of the Russian offensive in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin appealed to Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov for support. 10,000 soldiers gathered in Grozny, the capital, to listen to the speech of their leader, before reaching Ukrainian territory. Determined and trained, the Chechens can be a significant strike force for the Kremlin. They also show complete devotion to Vladimir Putin. Geographer Jean Radvanyi, professor emeritus at Inalco and specialist in Russia and the Caucasus, tells us more about the implications of this operation and relations between the Kremlin and Chechnya.
Marianne:How do you describe relations between Russia and Chechnya? And how much freedom does Kadyrov enjoy vis-à-vis the Kremlin?
John Radvanyi: Ramzan Kadyrov managed to achieve exceptional status in Russia. Concretely, in his Republic, he does what he wants. It has created a situation of lawlessness or rather of exception. In Chechnya, he has a free hand and can decide whether or not to apply the laws of the Federation. He established a kind of Sharia, Islamic law, where women must be veiled. There is a whole series of rules, which do not correspond to Russian federal laws. In addition, there is control, surveillance of the population, on Chechen soil, and also for emigrants.
“Kadyrov proposed to Putin to be a sort of armed wing in the service of the Russian army, to send Chechen groups to take part in operations, sometimes ahead of the Russian army. This voluntarism was accepted in the Donbass. Other times, he was advised to keep quiet. »
Chechen communities are very close-knit. All you need are informers, emissaries – in the different countries where there are Chechens – who are responsible for monitoring members of the community. We know that in several countries, the procedure was pushed to the point of the assassination of Chechens who were in the opposition, who did not obey the recommendations.
What is the counterpart of this wide room for manoeuvre?
In exchange for this freedom, there is Chechnya’s unwavering support for Vladimir Putin, including outside Russia. On several occasions, Kadyrov participated in operations led by Russia, notably in Syria, to help the regime of Bashar Al Assad. He proposed to Vladimir Putin to be a sort of armed wing in the service of the Russian army, to send Chechen groups to take part in operations, sometimes ahead of the Russian army. This voluntarism was accepted in the Donbass in 2014. Other times, he was advised to keep quiet, when he had for example suggested that Chechens intervene in troubled places in the Caucasus or in the Volga region, in the 2010s.
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In Chechnya, the Islam it imposes is traditional and very orthodox with elements of the Sharia, but it is different from the radical Islamism in Syria and Iraq. More broadly, the Russians used Kadyrov father and son to prevent Daesh-type groups from gaining the upper hand in Chechnya.
So Vladimir Putin didn’t need to test Chechnya’s loyalty by calling on it as reinforcements in Ukraine?
Vladimir Putin is sure of Ramzan Kadyrov’s loyalty. Afterwards, there may be a desire to demonstrate in the eyes of the world on his part. Indeed, the Chechen soldiers are very efficient, trained, organized and well armed. They are the special forces equivalent of any good army in the world.
Do the soldiers sent officiate by land or also by air? What is their official status?
A priori, they are ground troops but they can absolutely be parachuted into Ukraine by the Russian air force since they have the full support of the Russian army. They act in his name. They are considered an army shock group and are integrated into one of its operations. In general, the Russian army uses the most effective groups militarily. Like all Caucasians, Chechens have a military tradition. This has always been part of their practices. A bit like the Cossacks. They are educated groups in a context where strength matters and is part of education. It is a historical reality.
Besides his freedom in the management of Chechnya, what other interest can Kadyrov have in going to Ukraine?
For several years, Kadyrov has tried to give himself the posture of a Muslim leader who has an important international activity. He has developed a status as a leader of Russia – and not a Russian leader – active internationally and above all recognized as such. As such, he often travels to the countries of the Gulf, to Arabia, where he represents an official Russian figure, turned towards the Islamic world.
In the Caucasus, the Republic of Tatarstan, populated by Muslims of Turkish origin, has ambivalent relations with Russia. Do the Chechens, because of their religion, maintain relations with this Republic? Do you believe that the war in Ukraine can strengthen the ties between Chechnya, Tatarstan and the Crimean Tatars, to the detriment of Vladimir Putin?
No, already Crimean Tatars are not the same as Tatarstan. Those in Crimea were part of the Ottoman Empire; those of the Volga of the Russian Empire, and their languages differ a little. Moreover, there are no real ties between Chechnya and Tatarstan. They are two different worlds. Tatarstan is careful to retain some autonomy. Its politics and Islam are more moderate. In the 1990s, the Tatars got a number of prerogatives from Boris Yeltsin but they were gradually whittled away by Vladimir Putin. However, Tatarstan seeks to maintain a margin of autonomy. It has nothing to do with what Kadyrov did, who wants to influence the Caucasus. You can’t say they’re allies.