Geopolitical Report ISSN 2785-2598 Volume 24 Issue 2
Author: Giuliano Bifolchi
Since the beginning of the Ukraine conflict, the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov has played a decisive and influential role in assisting the Russian military operations on the ground with his kadyrovtsy and Chechen troops and supporting the Kremlin’s ideological confrontation with the West.
Undeniable, international media started paying close attention to Chechnya since the kadyrovtsy arrived in Ukraine to fight against Kyiv forces, the Chechen battalions Dzhokhar Dudayev and Shaykh Mansur and the so-called “international legion” and support the Russian military operations in the Ukraine conflict.
On the one hand, the Chechen involvement in the Ukraine conflict depends on the fact that Ramzan Kadyrov is one of the closest allies and supporters of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Chechnya arises among the administrative entities and republics of the Russian Federation for its army and military training.
On the other hand, kadyrovtsy presence in Ukraine aims to counter the presence of Chechen fighters among the ranks of the Ukrainian army in the so-called Shaykh Mansur Battalion and Dzhokhar Dudayev Battalion, which belong to the past Chechen Republic of Ichkeria established after the First Chechen Conflict (1994-1996) and the local militancy during the Second Chechen Conflict (1999-2009). Indeed, according to Akhmed Zakayev, a former Deputy Prime Minister and Prime Minister of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, five Chechen battalions are fighting in Ukraine against the Russian military forces (Shaykh Mansur Battalion, Dzhokhar Dudayev Battalion, Roman Chelebidzhikhan Battalion, special forces battalion under the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defense, and a new Chechen battalion recently formed in September 2022).
Kadyrov’s communications and impact on social media
The Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov has always been highly active on social media, promoting his country, supporting Vladimir Putin, and commenting on the West and the condition of the Muslim umma (community) in the world.
Kadyrov has increased his popularity on the Telegram channel Kadyrov_95, exceeding 3 million subscribers. Among the latest post, there is the video which pictured 200 Chechen volunteers from Grozny before departing to Ukraine, attending the speeches of Chairman of the Parliament of the Chechen Republic Magomed Daudov, the Minister of Internal Affairs for the Chechen Republic Ruslan Alkhanov and Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs – Chief of Police of the Ministry of Internal Affairs for the Chechen Republic Aslan Iraskhanov. The video reached more than 1,1 million views and collected thousands of reactions.
Recently, on the occasion of Vladimir Putin’s 70th birthday, Ramzan Kadyrov and Chechen official channels, especially on Telegram, released several videos depicting the Chechen leader haranguing a crowd of 20 thousand soldiers in support of the Russian President against Ukraine. In his speech to the soldier, Ramzan Kadyrov called the 20 thousand soldiers “patriots” who fight against the “West, which wants to deliver the war in our land”.
Kadyrov stressed, “For more than 20 years, President Vladimir Putin has been defending the interests of Russia, strengthening our state, and forcing the whole world to reckon with our position. And today, we, the Chechens, owe him support more than anyone else. Thanks to his strong-willed decisions, our republic was restored.”.
In his rhetoric, Ramzan Kadyrov called Ukrainian soldiers and government officials “Nazis”, supporting the Kremlin’s thesis regarding the Zelensky government, and shaitan (an Arabic word which refers to demons and the devil or those spirits who incite humans to sin), using this Islamic terminology to influence the Muslim community since around 20 million of Muslims live in the Russian Federation.
From the recent videos recorded in Grozny to celebrate Vladimir Putin’s birthday, it is possible to underline the military personnel, hardware, and equipment that Chechnya might bring on the ground in Ukraine to help the Russian Federation to contrast Kyiv’s counter-offensive in Donbas.
Looking at the beginning of the Ukraine conflict, Chechen soldiers demonstrated their abilities and military training in several battles, especially around the Azovstal in the city of Mariupol. Therefore, thanks to the military success in Ukraine and related strategic communication, Ramzan Kadyrov has increased his popularity in Chechnya, the North Caucasus, and the Russian Federation elevating himself as the “defender of the fatherland” for the Chechens, the “Muslim champion” for the umma, and “a real patriot” for the Russians.
Kadyrov’s rising popularity might decisively impact regional and national dynamics. In a crisis period characterised by Western sanctions, military support to Ukraine, and little help from allies, the Chechen leader has emerged as a strong point and partner for the Kremlin. Indeed, Ramzan Kadyrov is the person who can deploy military forces on the ground and resolutely support the Russian operations to maintain control of Donbas, contrast the jihadist propaganda and western narrative aimed to influence North Caucasian ethnic minorities and Muslim believers, and promote Moscow’s foreign policy in the Arab-Muslim world, especially in the Gulf Arab countries.
On the other hand, should Kadyrov gain more and more popularity and, consequently, power at the military level, the Chechen leader could request the Kremlin more financial funding or local autonomy. In this context, considering that under Kadyrov’s rule, the Chechen republic has been involved in a process that academic scholars called the “Islamisation” or “re-Islamisation” of the Chechen society where shari’a (Islamic law) has become more important than the Russian federal law, a possible greater autonomy of Chechnya could increase Kadyrov’s importance in the North Caucasus, transforming Chechnya in the so-called “inner abroad“, and legitimise some of his territorial claims against neighbouring republics.
Furthermore, after Putin’s death, the Chechen leader could not recognise the future Russian President if this person will not have the same political and military weight as his predecessor. A possible future contrast between Ramzan Kadyrov and the Russian central authority might create friction that the Kremlin should manage to avoid the fragmentation of a strategic region such as the North Caucasus. In the future, it could become problematic for the Kremlin to challenge the authority and popularity of the Chechen leader, considering how these have grown in recent times thanks to his intelligent use of social media and the main communication channels and the military successes that the Chechen soldiers achieved in the Ukrainian conflict.