The presence of pro-Moscow Chechen forces in Syria has gathered widespread attention in recent months. What motivates their deployment to the country? What role do they play in Moscow's wider foreign policy strategy? This new Leksika series will attempt to answer these questions.
Part I of this series covered the high-profile deployment of Chechen military personnel to Syria in late 2016, and their possible role in the long-term strategy of the Kremlin. Part II offered a more in-depth examination of Russian cultural diplomacy efforts in Syria, with a specific eye on the central role played by Chechen institutions. Part III will build on both of these, offering updates on the previous themes and providing concrete examples of the Kadyrov Model’s effectiveness.
A New Year’s Gift
On 30 December 2018, perhaps as a way of celebrating the New Year, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov announced the repatriation of thirty Russian children from Iraq. Brought to the country by their jihadist parents, the children hailed from various regions of Russia, but with Dagestan being home to the majority. It is believed that as many as seventy Russian women and one hundred children remain in Iraqi prisons, awaiting sentencing over their involvement with ISIL. Though some in Russia certainly view them as willing collaborators, their homecoming can be seen as a diplomatic achievement for Grozny – another point for Kadyrov in the intra-Islamic struggle for control of the narrative in the North Caucasus.
Their return was a solid conclusion to a successful 2018 for the Chechen leader, who was busy on several diplomatic fronts on behalf of the Kremlin. As described by Neil Hauer for The Defense Post:
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov has been perhaps the single most visible Russian official in the Middle East, having developed personal friendships with numerous Arab rulers. Kadyrov has been closely involved with Syria in recent years, spearheading the repatriation of Russian-speaking Islamic State detainees and deploying his soldiers as military police. His role in Libya has recently picked up as well, with his close ally Lev Dengov recently appointed to head a new section of Russian interests there…
…Chechnya’s leader gets on with his Gulf counterparts equally well. He has made two tours of the region in the past four months alone. In August, he made the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, stopping in Jeddah along the way, where he met Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz. A trip in November brought him to Bahrain, where he met Prince Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa, commander of Bahrain’s Royal Guard, and visited a military base to observe training exercises. He then stopped in Dubai for the Formula One Grand Prix, where he again met MBS, as well as Turkish chef Nusret Gokce, better known as ‘Salt Bae,’ who fed Kadyrov meat from a skewer in his restaurant. He also held talks with Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and de facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates.
2019 is promising to be equally eventful for Russia’s most visible official. He recently announced plans to personally visit Syria in the near future (though no specific date has yet been listed) and can be expected to continue his contacts with Gulf leaders. Though Kadyrov’s showmanship may strike outside observers as cavalier, his presence does yield tangible results for foreign officials in the form of arms sales, Russian security advisors, and attention in the Kremlin.
Perhaps Chechnya’s most influential tool for the new year will closer to home however - the newly-announced Russian Spetsnaz University.
Military Training as a Soft (?) Power Tool
Set to be fully operational by this summer, Daniil Martynov, head of training for Chechen security forces, stated that foreign clients can begin training at the new facilities almost immediately. China, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and others have all expressed interest in attending – showing the extent to which Chechen expertise is valued even among nations that are often at odds. It has since been announced that Jordan is also considering such a move, going so far as to send a delegation to Chechnya this past September.
The skill of Kadyrov’s security forces was first made known, at least in a Middle Eastern context, during the 2015 Special Forces Competition. Hosted by Jordan, the Chechen-Russian team won both the tournament and an impressive reputation. When the Spetsnaz University was announced at the Army-2017 Military Expo in Moscow, this earlier display was a major selling point. Combined with their now-extensive experience as military police (and possibly as direct-combat units) in Syria, it is probably no exaggeration to say that Kadyrov’s men have earned something of a celebrity status in Middle Eastern military circles. This type of military-to-military diplomacy renders the Kadyrovtsy an increasingly important tool in Russia’s international relations toolkit, but they are hardly alone.
The expanding footprint of Russian private military companies (PMCs) across Africa and beyond, also noted by Hauer, offers the Kremlin another asset to use in their soft(?) power efforts. Since 2017 the most prominent example of this has been the Wagner Group. As previously covered by Leksika, they have an extensive track-record, with suspected operations in eastern Ukraine, Syria, Tajikistan, Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, and, most recently, Sudan.
Though there has been an explosion of interest in Russian PMCs over the course of 2018, most analysts seem to view them either in a vacuum, or strictly in the context of Russian operations in Syria. Taking a broader view however will demonstrate how PMCs are but one means of promoting Russian state and economic interests in global hotspots. Take Africa for example. Russia is busily pursuing arms exports, mining rights, and other business interests across the continent. “Loaning” military trainers and security personnel are part of larger political and economic influence efforts.
Also largely missing from the existing literature are the internal rivalries within the Russian defense sector.
When in Rome, Do as the Romans
Though both Russian PMCs and Kadyrov’s men are pursuing Kremlin foreign policy objectives, there is hardly harmony between them. For example, Wagner explicitly prohibits Chechens from joining their organization, and Kadyrov rules with a degree of autonomy and religious discretion unimaginable elsewhere in Russia. It is not coincidental therefore that the two forces are seldom deployed to the same fronts. The Kremlin has employed an interesting multi-pronged approach, which could be seen as a proliferation of Grozny-like “Patronage Politics. ”
Kadyrov’s forces interface with Muslim (or Muslim-majority) nations, while Slavic PMCs such as Wagner work in areas that may not have the same sensibilities. Though this is an over-simplification, Russia’s use of different forces in different areas demonstrates an impressive degree of soft-power nuance and local-area knowledge. If you want to make friends and win allies – you send representatives they can more easily relate to, who have a set of common (or at least similar) traditions and values.
Though such nuance is well-deployed internationally, back at home Kadyrov has shown no such touch.
“Sunzha Nash(a)” – The Kadyrov-Ingush Land Dispute
In October 2018, Ramzan Kadyrov announced plans to modify the border between the Chechen and Ingush Republics. Though the move was met with widespread protests in Ingushetia, the Kremlin backed the land swap, made official on 6 December 2018 by Constitutional Court recognition. This decision led to fears of a similar move in historically-Vainakh (an ethno-linguistic group encompassing both Chechens and Ingush) regions of Dagestan, though it remains to be seen if any such actions will actually be taken.
These developments will be covered more extensively in Part IV, but for now they can be taken as a clear indication of how much the Kremlin values the Kadyrov clan’s operations in Chechnya and beyond. Their security value at home and diplomatic utility abroad clearly makes them worth the headache. Kadyrov’s insistence on political autonomy, ruling by Islamic jurisprudence rather than the Russian constitution, and putting his personal clansmen in positions of power (as excellently profiled by BBC Russian) are all outweighed by his government’s usefulness for the Kremlin. Domestic backlash and some judicial resistance notwithstanding, this calculation is not likely to change.
To be continued in Part IV…
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons