Since Russia first invaded Ukraine, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov has played a pivotal role in Vladimir Putin’s war efforts. He has been both a loyal cheerleader and a provider of troops, but he has also been critical of the president and his generals’ prosecution of the war, viciously and publicly laying into them when he feels that the Kremlin isn’t fighting ruthlessly enough. He has also claimed to have sent thousands of Chechen fighters into Ukraine and bragged on social media that his units captured key positions there, including in the city of Mariupol. At times, he has begged Putin to let his men “finish the job,” implying that Chechen soldiers are more ruthless and would subdue Ukraine quickly, unlike their feckless Russian counterparts.
Kadyrov has long exploited the myth of the Chechen warrior, made famous in the West by the Chechens’ fierce resistance to Russian colonization in the 18th century, and then by their fight for independence in the 1990s, brutally repressed by Putin in his rise to power. That myth is tinged with a lot of fear and racism, both in Russia and Ukraine, as well as in the West, but it is also one of the keys to Kadyrov’s hold on his throne. He took power as the head of the Chechen Republic in 2007, after two savage wars, the latter of which became a never-ending series of Russian counter-terrorism operations. Countless Chechens disappeared and it bred a Chechen insurgency that reached deep into Russia with terrorist attacks. Kadyrov, with the help of Kremlin money and firepower, was able to quell the restive republic, ruling it through sheer terror. Indeed, he has terrorized people both inside Chechnya (where any dissenters are hunted down with ghastly efficiency and punished, as are their relatives) and outside of it (the reach of the almighty F.S.B., for example, stops at the Chechen border).
But no dictatorship built on fear is really all that strong, and if the war in Ukraine is putting some cracks in the image of Putin, it hasn’t spared his viceroy, either. Last week, I spoke to a Chechen journalist, who I’ll refer to as Marina to protect her identity, about the situation in Chechnya and the rifts that the war has exposed. We also spoke about why so much of the fighting and dying in Putin’s pan-Slavic nationalist Ukrainian campaign is being done by ethnic minorities, and why, after months of silence, these minorities, from Dagestan to Yakutia, are finally rising up in protest.