Chechnya once resisted Russia. Now, its leader is Putin's brutal ally in Ukraine
In the 1990s and 2000s, people in Chechnya described Russia's two separate wars there as a nightmare that terrorized citizens and left the capital of Grozny in ruins.
"The ground was literally charred. There were very few buildings in the center of Grozny still standing," said Maura Reynolds, the then Moscow correspondent for the L.A. Times. "All the trees were burned, you know, had lost all their branches and leaves. Even though it was spring, there was no green. There was no sign of life."
The messaging Russia used to justify the invasion of the small Muslim republic was about "bandits and terrorists," Reynolds said, "just like you hear Russian officials, including Putin, now talk about Nazis [in Ukraine]."
One prominent Chechen figure during this period, Akhmad Kadyrov, initially resisted Russian forces. But as Russia took control of what is now the Chechen Republic of Russia, he flipped, and ultimately became the leader of Chechnya in the early 2000s, aligned with Russian President Vladimir Putin. But Kadyrov was assassinated in 2004 by Chechens who opposed him.
Today, his son Ramzan Kadyrov is in charge. Like his father, Ramzan Kadyrov is a key ally of Putin, and he's played a role in Russia's war in Ukraine as his fighters – known as the Kadyrovtsy – have taken part in the battle.
Ramzan Kadyrov's stake in the war in Ukraine
Even before the war in Ukraine, the younger Kadyrov was sometimes referred to as the brutal puppet or attack dog of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"Kadyrov earned this reputation through his absolutely brutal and feudalistic-type tight hold grip over Chechnya, where he has been the leader basically since the assassination of his father," said Rachel Denber, the deputy director for the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch.
Kadyrov's rule includes public policies and attempts to control the private life of civilians through his security services that are widely feared and linked to enforced disappearances, summary executions and house burnings, Denber said. He has been sanctioned by the U.S. for human rights abuses that include the persecution and torture of LGBTQ people.
"These days, Kadyrov exercises control through his brutal sort of praetorian guard and also through extensive surveillance of online chat groups and the like," Denber said. "Also by filtering out people who are believed to express even the most mild criticism of him or government policies."
Kadyrov's involvement in Ukraine does not come as a surprise as Chechen forces have previously aided the Russian leadership. But their impact is not entirely clear, with reports they have suffered heavy casualties, including a key commander, according to The Guardian. Kadyrov has claimed to be in Ukraine, including outside Kyiv, but that has not been confirmed.
Though Kadyrov is one of Putin's top allies, the relationship is complicated. Kadyrov sees Putin as a kind of patron, Denber said. This goes back to the early 2000s, when the elder Kadyrov tied Chechnya's fate to Russia.
So when it comes time to help Russia by providing fighters, Ramzan Kadyrov is given a chance to show the Chechen power and then be owed something in return, Denber said.
Cultivating his social media image
During his rule, Kadyrov has also created a larger-than-life profile for himself with his use of social media. His outspoken behavior allowed him to develop "a cult around himself," Denber said.
Instagram was Ramzan's preferred platform for years, and when he was active on it, Denber said "he allowed himself to say the most outrageous, flamboyant and inflammatory things."
Today, Kadyrov has taken to using Telegram, where he shares voice memos and other messages that vary between rants about what needs to be done, to messages appealing to Putin, or posts that contradict reports about casualties his troops have sustained.
His posts have not gone unnoticed, regularly amassing more than a million views. He has also drawn attention to himself by engaging in online spats with the likes of billionaire Elon Musk, who is in the process of buying Twitter.
Kadyrov went after Musk in March following a tweet in which Musk challenged Putin to "single combat" over the invasion of Ukraine. Kadyrov responded on Telegram, saying there was no way Musk could take on Putin, and the Chechen leader invited Musk to train at some Chechen centers.
All of the messages and posts are about self-promotion, Denber said.
"I think he wants to be as visible as possible," Denber said. "You self-aggrandize so that the boss notices you, but you also self-aggrandize, you know, so the local folks also notice [and] see you in a particular way."
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