John Oliver, the host of the comedy show Last Week Tonight, aptly describes the tiny Caucasian republic of Chechnya as: “Russia’s Florida. In that it shares a border with Georgia and doesn’t appear to have any laws.”
And while the U.S public is mostly unfamiliar with the Russian state, Chechnya has been the subject of international scrutiny for nearly two decades. The epicenter of two catastrophic wars and a lengthy counterinsurgency campaign, Chechnya has spent the start of the new century battling fundamentalist Islamic terror, corruption, and crime.
But nearly eight years after Russia responded to the Chechen threat of terrorism and separatism with a series of brutal bombing campaigns, Chechnya and its neighbors are seeing unprecedented levels of peace. Suicide bombings and kidnappings, once a daily part of life in the North Caucasus, are at their lowest numbers since the onset of the first war in 1993. And modest economic prosperity, fueled by Russian investment, is beginning to be felt by ordinary people.
But the heavy-handed peace that Russia forged is tenuous at best.
As the Kremlin becomes increasingly preoccupied with its commitments in both Syria and Ukraine, Chechnya is drifting to Moscow’s periphery. With infrastructure investments being rerouted to pay for military operations and President Putin focused on bolstering the regime of Bashar al Assad, Chechnya has been left with less money and a looser leash on President Ramzan Kadyrov.
Pushing Chechnya to the geopolitical back burner is a dangerous mistake, but Russia’s missteps could be easily remedied.
After the death of Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov last February, Western officials were quick to point the blame at President Vladimir Putin — but few Russia experts believe the assassination was ordered by Putin himself. After a brief investigation, five Chechens were implicated in Nemtsov’s death, including Zaur Dadayev, a senior policeman whom Kadyrov called a “true Russian patriot” after the shooting.
Instead, experts believe that the hit was ordered by Kadyrov in an attempt to impress his boss and demonstrate unwavering loyalty. Shortly after Nemtsov’s death, Putin awarded Kadyrov a state medal, and almost a year later, Kadyrov posted a photo to his Instagram account of Kremlin opposition leaders Mikhail Kasyanov and Vladimir Kara-Murza in the crosshairs of a rifle.
Adding to the speculation, Kadyrov publicly showed his reluctance to run in this year’s Chechen presidential election for the first time ever, aggressively hinting at his desire to leave Grozny for a prominent role in the Kremlin instead.
He seized the election with a narrow 97 percent margin and unsurprisingly, Putin passed on bringing Kadyrov to Moscow — but he should embrace the opportunity.
In Chechnya, Kadyrov is a liability.
With his opulent palaces, brutal private security force (appropriately called the Kadyrovtsy), and penchant for unrestrained violence towards even the slightest perceived criticism, Kadyrov is drawing unnecessary attention to Putin’s own less-than-stellar human rights track record.
And as ISIS continues to freely recruit from Chechnya and its neighbors, bringing Kadyrov to Moscow as a special adviser could make use of his knowledge while simultaneously allowing Putin to install a less hostile leader in Grozny without insulting a loyal, albeit slightly over zealous, friend. Russia has a problem with radical Islam, which is why it needs someone like Kadyrov in Moscow.
While the U.S was reminded about the problems in Chechnya in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon Bombing, when it was revealed that the perpetrators were displaced Chechens from Kyrgyzstan, Russia has been dealing with the threat of Chechen terrorism for years.
The Beslan school siege where some 300 children were killed and the Moscow apartment bombings — which prompted Russian military action into the North Caucasus — serve as haunting reminders of the violence Russia has experienced in the last two decades.
And after the explosion of Metrojet Flight 9268 over Egypt and the attempted murder of two Moscow policemen by supporters of Abu bakr al-Baghdadi, it’s evident that Russia’s terrorism problem hasn’t gone away, and the country needs to secure its own backyard.
Ramzan Kadyrov has benefited from being relegated to a minor afterthought by the Russians while simultaneously having their unmitigated support. It’s allowed him to expand his private militia and run Chechnya more like a tribal warlord than President, amassing substantial personal power.
But securing a country through unchecked brute force isn’t a permanent solution and there is no contingency plan for what happens to Chechnya should Kadyrov be removed in one way or another. Kadyrov’s father, the President of Chechnya prior to Ramzan’s rule, was assassinated by a suicide bomb. If the status quo were to change or if Kadyrov loses support from Moscow, Chechnya’s unresolved conflicts could destroy Putin’s precarious peace.
Bringing Kadyrov to Moscow would certainly elevate his standing, but Putin can’t afford to alienate him and at the very least could benefit from his regional expertise. And by changing the leadership dynamics under his tight control, Putin could pre-empt the chaos that would come from Kadyrov’s eventual departure, beginning the gentle process of Russian-style democratization.
But Kadyrov’s lack of self-control is only part of the problem. To secure the region and prevent the spread of ISIS supported terrorism, Moscow should refocus its strategic operations in the North Caucasus and increase its military forces in Chechnya.
Residual Russian special forces, primarily focused on Chechnya’s border regions, put enough pressure on the region to squeeze Islamists into Syria and Iraq. Displaced Chechen jihadists have found substantial success in the ranks of ISIS, and with Russia showing no signs of slowing down operations in Syria, Putin could effectively kill two birds with one drone.
Chechnya’s peace largely also rests on its relative economic prosperity. With Russia pulling away from infrastructure investment projects, it runs the risk of bringing back a more traditional Caucasian industry- kidnapping and organized crime.
If oil and gas prices would begin to rise as a global glut abates, Moscow could take the opportunity to once again explore additional pipelines and energy infrastructure investments from neighboring Dagestan through Chechnya.
Located near the oil-rich Caspian Sea and hurting from the same war wounds as Chechnya, Dagestan’s poor economic situation and porous borders has been both a breeding ground and sanctuary for terrorists. Focusing on economic revitalization projects and Caspian oil exploration could ensure that Moscow’s hard-won peace wasn’t just built on sand.
Russia’s brutal success in Chechnya is best likened to the Calgacus quote about Roman military strategy: “They made a desert and called it peace.”
But the Kremlin’s expectation, to create new deserts in Syria and Ukraine without taking measures to create long-term stability in its own backyard, is misguided hubris.
Daria Judge is a graduate student in international affairs at George Washington University.