Even by the standards of Ramzan Kadyrov’s voluminous social media presence, the video he posted on Oct. 20 was bizarre and macabre. In the short clip, two of the Chechen dictator’s teenage sons, who he recently claimed to have sent to fight in Ukraine, escort three apparent Ukrainian prisoners of war, whom they present to their father as a “gift.” If what the video depicts is real, its very existence may be a war crime; the Geneva Conventions prohibit filming prisoners without their consent. It’s all the more disturbing given widespread allegations of torture of prisoners in Kadyrov’s custody.
But the stunt was in keeping with Kadyrov’s general approach to this conflict, which has been to treat it like a reality show in which he is one of the main characters. Sometimes, he has presented himself as a military commander, leading his personal militia onto the battlefield, or at least filming videos where it looks like he’s doing that. It was in this role that he recently made a rare admission of battlefield losses last week, acknowledging that 23 Chechen fighters had been killed by Ukrainian shelling near Kherson.
At other times, he’s been a kind of pundit, sharing his military and political analysis online.
This second role has been raising eyebrows lately. While Kadyrov describes himself as a “foot soldier” for Russian President Vladimir Putin and has never directly criticized the political patron to whom he owes his power and fortune, he has increasingly criticized the conduct of the war, occasionally calling out senior Russian military commanders and officials. This has raised questions about just how loyal this “foot soldier” is to the regime, and what he might do if the war continues to go badly and the political situation in Russia gets more unstable.
Moscow fought two brutal wars against Chechen separatists during the 1990s, and the history of violence between the Russian military and fighters in the restive North Caucasus region dates back to Czarist times. All of which makes it that much more remarkable that the warlord who rules Chechnya with an iron fist on the Kremlin’s behalf has become a significant figure in Russia as a whole.
From rebel fighter to Kremlin loyalist
By sending his young sons to fight in Ukraine, Kadyrov was carrying on a family tradition. In his early 20s, Kadyrov fought alongside his father, Akhmad, on the rebel side during Chechnya’s failed war of independence against Russia in the mid-1990s. The elder Kadyrov served as Chechnya’s chief mufti, or Muslim religious leader.
In 1999, Russia launched a second war against Chechen separatists under the leadership of its new prime minister and soon-to-be-president, Putin. This time, the Kadyrovs switched sides, fighting with the Russians against their former comrades. After Russia won the brutal war, Putin placed Chechnya under Moscow’s direct control and installed Akhmad Kadyrov to run the region. After his father was killed in a still-unsolved car bombing in 2004, Ramzan was given the title of deputy prime minister but was already widely seen as the region’s de facto ruler. In 2007, when Ramzan Kadyrov turned 30 years old, Putin made him president.
Though he rules on Putin’s behalf, Kadyrov has absolute power within Chechnya itself. Under his reign, the capital, Grozny, which was almost entirely destroyed by Russian bombardment during the two wars, has been rebuilt with glittering skyscrapers. Money from Moscow has poured into the region.
Kadyrov rules through repression and fear via a paramilitary organization known as the Kadyrovtsy, which is nominally part of Russia’s national guard but effectively acts as his private militia — as the name suggests. Opponents of his regime risk imprisonment and torture. In recent years, his government has carried out a vicious purge targeting gay men. Kadyrov and his security forces have been suspected of involvement in a number of high-profile assassinations in Russia, including the killings of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, the human rights campaigner Natalia Estemirova, and the former Russian prime minister turned opposition leader, Boris Nemtsov. (Kadyrov has denied involvement in all these cases, though he has admitted he knew one of the men jailed for Nemtsov’s murder.)
Kadyrov has also built a formidable cult of personality, in part by leveraging social media. He often shares photos of himself working out in the gym, posing with tigers, hanging out with visiting celebrities like Mike Tyson and Jean-Claude Van Damme, as well as posts threatening his political opponents. In 2016, he got into a public feud with the British comedian John Oliver, who had mocked Kadyrov on his HBO show. Kadyrov’s preferred outlet used to be Instagram, but his account has now been blocked in compliance with U.S. sanctions, and today his platform of choice is the Russian-developed, Dubai-based app Telegram, where he has more than 3 million followers and uses a picture of Putin as his avatar. Another favorite tactic of the Kadyrov regime is public humiliation: Public apologies by the president’s critics, often seemingly coerced through torture or threat of violence, are a common trope on television in the region.
Tough fighters or “TikTok troops”? The “Kadyrovtsy” go to war
The Kadyrovtsy have fought on Russia’s behalf before — notably in Georgia in 2008 and Syria in 2015. When Putin invaded Ukraine, Kadyrov boasted of having between 10,000 and 70,000 fighters ready to deploy to “the hottest hot spots in Ukraine” to bolster the main Russian force. This was probably a significant overstatement; Ukrainian intelligence estimated that about 1,200 Kadyrovtsy entered the country in February, though more likely joined them later. In early March, Ukrainian authorities claimed to have “neutralized” an assassination attempt against President Volodymyr Zelenskyy by Chechen special forces. That month, Kadyrov also posted a video of himself, clad in fatigues, with military commanders, claiming to be in Ukraine.
The Chechen troops have been mocked for seeming to spend more time posting videos on social media than they do actually fighting.
Sergey Sukhankin, a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation, told Grid, “According to the Russian side, they have played a major role in all the battles, including Mariupol. According to the Ukrainian side, they’re basically TikTok troops. I think the truth is probably somewhere in between.”
Certainly, the Chechens have suffered losses, including in an Oct. 24 Ukrainian strike near Kherson that killed between 30 and 100 of them. Chechen fighters are also believed to have been among the troops operating in the town of Bucha, near Kyiv, where hundreds of Ukrainian civilians were massacred during the Russian retreat from the town in late March.
While the Kadyrovtsy certainly have a record of human rights abuses, Zarina Sautieva, a researcher and human rights defender from Ingushetia, a republic that borders Chechnya, said their presence could also serve to give the regular Russian military some plausible deniability for its own atrocities.
“I saw Russian liberals posting a lot of messages about how it’s not possible that it was Russians who did this and trying to blame Chechens. But these are the usual methods that the Russian army uses in all wars, including in the wars in Chechnya,” Sautieva, a fellow at the Wilson Center, told Grid.
So, who are these Chechen fighters?
“We actually know a fair amount about them because they’ve posted so many images on social media,” Cerwyn Moore, a lecturer on international relations and expert on the North Caucasus at the University of Birmingham, told Grid. “These are not crack troops, the top-end Chechen units. Those have been retained in Chechnya itself. What they have been doing is trying recruit people who need to pay off debts or releasing people from prisons. They play a very small role on the battlefield, but what they do have is the ability to project themselves as these fierce warriors.”
While Kadyrov supported Putin’s mobilization order in September, he claimed that it did not apply to Chechnya because the region had already exceeded its recruitment targets by “254 percent.” Moore said this claim is unlikely: “Kadyrov has made these statements about mobilizing people, but he hasn’t actually managed to effectively mobilize too many from Chechnya itself. Many of the Chechen people realize the dangers and don’t want to be mobilized.” It’s hard to know how much actual support there is in Chechnya for the war against Ukraine. A small group of women held an anti-war rally in Grozny on Sept. 21, all of whom were arrested. Kadyrov threatened to send their husbands to the front lines.
There are also at least two battalions of anti-Kadyrov Chechens, many of whom fled Russia in the early 2000s, who are fighting on the Ukrainian side in the war. They see the conflict as an extension of their own battle against the Kremlin and Kadyrov.
Sautieva said the scenes of devastation in Ukraine have been particularly painful for those who lived through the recent wars in the North Caucasus. “When I see those pictures from Ukraine, I have flashbacks to what happened in our region,” she said. “It really resonates.”
Blogger in chief
Since the beginning of the war, Kadyrov has put up hundreds of posts on his Telegram channel, all but a small handful of them about Ukraine. Often he has amplified the Kremlin’s messaging, describing the war as a struggle against the “Nazis” ruling from Kyiv. More recently, he has appealed to Russia’s Muslim population to join a “great jihad” against the Ukrainians.
But as the war effort has bogged down and Russian losses have piled up, Kadyrov has also taken to criticizing those leading the “special military operation,” though never Putin himself. He has also called for more aggressive measures. On March 4, he posted a rambling late-night voice message appealing to Putin directly: “Comrade president, comrade supreme commander in chief, I have told you more than once that I am your infantryman. I am ready to give my life for you. But I cannot bear to see how our fighters for the defense ministry, national guard and other structures are dying. I appeal to you to close your eyes to everything, and to give the order to put an end to it all in one or two days.”
In September, Kadyrov criticized the Russian military’s performance after a series of setbacks, theorizing that Putin might not be getting accurate information about the battlefield. “If today or tomorrow no changes in strategy are made,” he wrote, “I will be forced to speak with the leadership of the defense ministry and the leadership of the country to explain the real situation on the ground to them.” A few weeks later, he upped the ante with a post that called Colonel-General Alexander Lapin, commander of the Russian forces in the town of Lyman, a “mediocrity” who should be stripped of his medals and demoted to private. In the same post, he called for Russia to use low-yield nuclear weapons in Ukraine.
If Putin is unhappy with this messaging, he hasn’t shown it. In October, Kadyrov announced that the president had promoted him to the military rank of colonel general. And last week, Russia’s state media reported that Lapin had been relieved of his command.
“It’s quite interesting that he’s allowed to make these challenging statements,” said Moore. “I don’t think it is a challenge to Putin himself. I think Kadyrov recognizes that he owes all his power and influence to Putin. But there are clearly challenges happening within the Kremlin, and Kadyrov is sensible enough to know where to position himself in those machinations.”
Some experts have suggested that hard-liners like Kadyrov serve a useful function for Putin, allowing him to test the reaction to certain potentially controversial policies before he implements them.
In any event, Kadyrov’s hard-line message seems to be getting through. When Russian forces responded to the bombing of the Kerch Strait Bridge in Crimea in October with a missile barrage targeting Ukrainian cities and infrastructure, Kadyrov declared himself “100 percent satisfied with the special military operation.”
Kadyrov’s name has sometimes been mentioned in speculation about a potential Kremlin coup. While experts generally don’t believe there’s any evidence he’s working against Putin, some do believe he has larger political ambitions. He has already been working in recent years to extend his influence over the rest of the North Caucasus and portray himself as leader of Russia’s Muslim population. Could a position in Moscow be next?
“He is quite popular, not only among Muslims in Russia, but also among ethnic Russians. Many people are saying that he is the kind of leader Russia needs,” Sukhankin said. “I’m not saying he has plans to become president of the Russian Federation, but he may be looking for something more ambitious than just ruling Chechnya.”
Sautieva suspects that Kadyrov’s loyalty to Moscow, as opposed to Putin himself, may have limits. “If something happens in the Kremlin and Putin goes, Kadyrov will be the first one to start calling for independence [for Chechnya],” she said.
It wouldn’t be the first time this foot soldier has switched sides.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.