It was a curious cargo for a Russian military aircraft: No bombs, no munitions, no troops, only women and children. The aircraft landed in Grozny, the capital of Russia’s Chechnya region, last October. The passengers were relatives of radicalized Russian nationals fighting for Islamic State, held captive in Iraqi prisons after being abandoned on the territory of the embattled and crumbling Caliphate.
Their return home was made possible by charismatic Chechen leader Ramzan Akhmadovich Kadyrov, who personally negotiated their release with Iraqi authorities. More recently, Kadyrov has announced that DNA harvesting will be carried out across Chechnya to identify over a hundred Russian children who, according to the data of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, are still left on the territory of Syria and Iraq.
“If we do not make sure that our citizens can return to their normal lives, our enemies can use them against our own country,” Kadyrov said.
Kadyrov’s interventions in the Syrian conflict are understandable given the large number of Chechen fighters believed to have joined the ranks of ISIS since 2013, and who still pose a threat to his rule over the Russian Muslim republic. But Chechen involvement in the conflict goes deeper than this. Chechen money is funding the rebuilding of a mosque in Aleppo, and enabling humanitarian help for Syrian refugees.
These non-military operations in the battle against Isis – a ruthless, destructive and ideologically complex battle that Moscow, along with Tehran, is fighting in alliance with Damascus – are just a few examples of how Kadyrov is promoting Chechnya as Russia’s bridge to the Muslim world.
Barrel-chested, with a ginger beard and a guttural voice, Ramzan Kadyrov has been running the autonomous republic of Chechnya for more than ten years, after being appointed directly by Vladimir Putin in the aftermath of two bloody separatist conflicts.
Kadyrov is a hard-playing survivor of one of the most dangerous polities on earth
Best known in the West for his anti-gay policies, Kadyrov is a hard-playing survivor of one of the most dangerous polities on earth. During the first Chechen war, Kadyrov and his father Akhmad, an imam, fought a jihad against Moscow. In the second Chechen conflict, the family and their militia switched sides and fought alongside Russian federal forces. Akhmad became Chechen president, but was assassinated in 2004. In 2007, Ramzan was appointed by Putin.
Thanks to generous subsidies from Moscow, Kadyrov has rebuilt the devastated region virtually from scratch. Grozny, which looked like Stalingrad in the aftermath of the fighting, now looks more like a Middle Eastern emirate, complete with a flagship central mosque.
In doing this, Kadyrov has established a strongman rule based on Islamic principles. In return, he has pledged absolute loyalty to Putin, with whom he shares a taste for the macho publicity stunt. He has been filmed firing weapons, inspecting special forces, riding stallions, performing traditional dances – even courting visiting Hollywood stars, such as thriller maestro Jean-Claude Van Damme.
Beyond buttressing his personality-based rule, he has been busy promoting Chechnya, in the heart of the volatile Caucasus, as the most reliable stronghold on Russia’s southern borders.
“We are Vladimir Putin’s combat infantry, ready to perform any kind of duty at his command,” Kadyrov said in a fiery speech before massed battalions of Chechen troops.
Russia’s intervention in the Syrian conflict provided the ideal opportunity for Kadyrov to prove his loyalty. Chechen military police units were deployed to Syria in December 2016, amid much fanfare from Russian state media, while Kadyrov’s spies infiltrated the ranks of Islamic State.
The Chechen leader’s aim in Syria is not just defeating terrorists on the battleground; it is also about winning the ideological war. Actively leveraging broadcast and social media, Kadyrov is promoting Islam as a positive force, distancing it from the radical ideologies that generated a storm of global terrorism after the Mujahideen found themselves under-employed in the wake of Russia’s Afghan defeat and withdrawal in 1989.
The Chechen leader’s aim in Syria is not just defeating terrorists on the battleground; it is also about winning the ideological war
“The love and goodness of Islam triumphed over those who use it to hide lies and madness,” said Chechen Minister of Information Dzhambulat Umarov, as he celebrated the return home of Russian citizens from Syria.
Kadyrov’s growing profile across the Muslim world is reflected in his frequent visits to the royal families of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Emirates, widely documented on his social media accounts, where he refers to the Gulf royals as his “dear brothers”. A Chechen delegation attended the first official visit of the Saudi king to Russia in October last year.
Sources close to the Kremlin say that without Kadyrov’s ties to the Al Saud family, it would have been difficult to organize meetings and secure over two billion dollars of Saudi investment in Russian projects.
Kadyrov’s semi-official diplomacy seems designed to project the image of Russia as “a reliable partner of the Muslim world”. “The fact that Ramzan Akhmadovich has warm, brotherly relations with the leaders of Middle Eastern countries is fully in the interests of the Russian Federation,” said Kadyrov’s press secretary, Islam Karimov, in an interview with the BBC.
Some sources reckon that Kadyrov is a useful counterweight to Russia’s “official” foreign policy as he is permitted to express points of view that Moscow’s Foreign Ministry cannot embrace for diplomatic reasons. “There are issues which official diplomacy cannot solve,” said Ziyad Sabsabi, Kadyrov’s representative in the Middle East. “Ramzan Akhmadovich is taking care of these very delicate issues.”
Commenting on US President Donald Trump’s decision to acknowledge Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Kadyrov condemned Israel for its spilling of Arab blood, stating: “The Arab world will never come to terms with de facto US control over Jerusalem.”
Others say that Arab leaders use Kadyrov’s privileged relations with Putin to lobby for their interests in Moscow.
Others say that Arab leaders use Kadyrov’s privileged relations with Putin to lobby for their interests in Moscow
Kadyrov’s role in the Middle East goes beyond diplomacy, extending to commerce and investment. Some Russian pundits believe that the flow of state subsidies from the federal budget is not enough to fund Kadyrov’s ambitious projects and Russian private businesses are reluctant to operate in a region where laws scarcely apply.
Hence, Kadyrov’s personal ties with Arab leaders look to be Chechnya’s key source of investments. The International University of Grozny and the Grozny Shopping Mall are just two of Kadyrov’s ambitious infrastructure projects funded with Arab money. And in May, the Emirates-funded Zayed Fund for Innovation and Entrepreneurship opened in Grozny, providing US$50 million to help develop small businesses across the republic.
Most recently, a new luxury hotel was inaugurated in Grozny – just in time to welcome the Egyptian football team, which will base itself in Chechnya throughout its run at the World Cup. Taking pictures with Egyptian striker Mohamed Salah, arguably the most popular footballer in the Muslim word, was Kadyrov’s PR goal of the year.
But Kadyrov’s multi-track engagements with the Arab world are not entirely free of complications. The Kremlin’s active support of the Syrian government is not viewed favorably by the Saudis, who have been backing the anti-Assad opposition since the start of the conflict.
Moreover, Chechen religious authorities last year condemned Salafism, a brand of Islam that many scholars say is one of the foundations of Saudi Wahabiism, as a form of heresy. That decision almost cost Kadyrov the favor of the Saudi king, who declined to meet the Chechen leader on his last visit to the kingdom, sending a lower-ranked prince in his place.
This indicates that, despite enjoying a unique degree of autonomy within the Russian Federation, Kadyrov’s initiatives in the Middle East remain beholden to his master in the Kremlin. The Chechen leader understands very clearly that there are lines he cannot cross if he wishes to preserve Putin’s favor.