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27 June 2023

How Ramzan Kadyrov became Putin’s white knight

The Chechen governor remains loyal to the Russian president.

By Harold Chambers

As Yevgeny Prigozhin conducted an armed rebellion against Russia’s military leadership over the weekend, one question lingered for Vladimir Putin. Prigozhin’s Wagner Group seized military buildings and security service bases in Rostov. It captured positions in Voronezh and shot down military aircraft. By nightfall, Wagner soldiers were closing in on Moscow. Who would Putin turn to?

He did not deploy the Armed Forces. Instead, he turned to the Kadyrovtsy, the army of the Chechen governor Ramzan Kadyrov. While nominally included in the hierarchies of the Russian National Guard (Rosgvardia) and the Ministry of Defence (MoD), the Kadyrovtsy are under the direct control of Kadyrov.

Of special note in that army is the Akhmat group, which until recently was a volunteer unit. On 12 June, top commanders of the Kadyrov regime and the Russian Armed Forces announced that the Akhmat group had complied with the order for volunteers to sign contracts with the MoD. This directive was opposed by Wagner Group and has been suggested as a possible reason for Prigozhin’s rebellion. That Kadyrov, despite his desire to turn the Akhmat group into his own private military company, allowed it to sign those contracts suggests the MoD initiative had Putin’s support.

The details of which Kadyrovtsy units were deployed where last weekend came from the state-run news agency Groznyi-Inform. Its reporting, confirmed by regime officials, contradicts rumours spread online by those that like laughing at Kadyrov’s troops for never doing anything. (Satirising Kadyrov and his fighters for inactivity has been a minor international pastime ever since Russia invaded Ukraine last year.) While mocking the Kadyrovtsy can be amusing, they do represent an influential political actor and so their actions should be the subject of serious analysis.

As the Wagner rebellion gathered speed on Saturday (24 June), false narratives online claimed that the Akhmat group was stuck in traffic and did not reach Moscow until evening, after the rebellion had turned around and returned to base.

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But the Akhmat group never went to Moscow. Under the command of Apti Alaudinov, it left their base in Marynivka, Donetsk and travelled to Rostov in the company of the MoD battalion North-Akhmat. Other videos of the Kadyrovtsy in the outskirts of Rostov, in Chaltyr and Aksay, respectively, suggest there were two columns, one from the north in Donetsk and one from the south in Chechnya. Evidence for this assessment comes from how sightings in the two suburbs occurred at approximately the same time, either side of central Rostov. They did not seem to arrive in the city until roughly 7pm.

In one video from Groznyi-Inform, members of, among others, the Kadyrovtsy’s Yug Battalion can be seen loading on to Rosgvardia plane RF-76802. Another clip in the video report depicts a convoy driving, but the licence plates on passing cars clearly establishes the location somewhere in Donetsk, meaning the Rostov-bound group is depicted, not the Moscow-bound contingent.

[See also: Russia’s plan to blow up Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant “drafted and approved”]

The accompanying post reports that a few thousand members of four Rosgvardia units flew to Moscow: the 94th and 96th regiments and the Sever and Yug battalions. Another sighting of the Kadyrovtsy in the town of Kolomna, 100 kilometres outside Moscow, depicts them disembarking from large buses which had not appeared in any other video from Chechnya or the road to Rostov. Additionally, no heavy equipment appears in the bus video.

These sightings further support the suggestion that they flew to Moscow before being driven down to Kolomna. A video of the Yug Battalion from 24 June can be approximately geolocated to 55.07504322442239, 38.831264232957196 on the town’s October Revolution Street, near the confluence of the Oka and Moskva rivers. Judging by the reflection of the sun off the monastery in the background, it is clearly very late in the day. Sunset in Kolomna last Saturday was a little after 9pm. The timing of the video does not, however, convey when the Kadyrovtsy arrived, merely when they recorded it.

One of the questions surrounding the weekend’s events is why the Kadyrovtsy, of all possible units, were deployed to suppress Prigozhin’s uprising. There are three scenarios that could explain why.

First, Kadyrov sought to take advantage of all the attention surrounding Saturday’s rebellion. The Chechen governor is publicity-obsessed and typically chases any opportunity he can spin in his favour. Portraying his forces as the “protectors of the motherland” has been a cornerstone of his rhetoric throughout the war. That specific phrase frequently appeared in messages from Kadyrov regime officials. Deploying to suppress the Wagner rebellion allowed him to pick up this narrative again.

A second potential scenario: Putin asked Kadyrov to intervene because the Russian president believes that the Kadyrovtsy are an effective fighting force. In this war, Putin has trusted the Chechen governor with extremely privileged information. Kadyrov was reportedly one of the first officials privy to the true invasion plans, being first tasked with capturing Volodymyr Zelensky and other Ukrainian leaders, and second seizing Mariupol. There is little indication that Putin’s faith in Kadyrov has waned over the course of the conflict – in part because the Chechen governor orients much of his propaganda around an audience of one: the Russian president.

Thirdly, it is possible that Putin or senior defence officials requested the Kadyrovtsy deploy as a demonstration of loyalty. For months, the Chechen governor excoriated senior Russian military leaders, often teaming up with Prigozhin to do so. MoD officials may have wanted Kadyrov to demonstrate that he would toe the line once more – having already ordered the Akhmat group to sign the contracts. Condemning and squaring off against his former partner-in-critique provided a perfect opportunity.

Regardless of the true explanation for the Kadyrovtsy’s deployments against Wagner, it is all but certain that the MoD will try to hold Kadyrov’s forces in line. Whether it can do that is unclear – Kadyrov has long feuded with senior Russian officials in the military and security services, and has instead operated his forces almost anywhere he pleases. For now, though, it appears Putin is maintaining the Kadyrov-MoD peace. If only, he must be thinking, he could have done likewise with the Wagner Group.

[See also: Ukraine reveals the rise of the non-aligned state]

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