By Lili Bayer
At Geopolitical Futures, we often refer to Russia as a weak state. Moscow’s primary strategic challenge is maintaining Russia as a united entity, a difficult feat in a vast yet relatively sparsely populated country historically surrounded by rival powers. One of the regions where this challenge is most evident is Chechnya. On Feb. 27, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, a Kremlin ally, announced that he intends to resign. His announcement, however, was a political ploy: Kadyrov will likely serve another term as head of Chechnya. Yet, this development highlights a critical underlying challenge for Russia: the North Caucasus is a highly strategic and vulnerable region that Russian rulers for over 200 years have spent countless resources to subdue and defend. As Russia struggles with significant financial problems under the pressure of the exporters’ crisis, and as it remains involved in conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, the country cannot afford a renewed crisis in the North Caucasus. Therefore, the Kremlin’s reliance on local strongmen like Kadyrov will only grow as the central government weakens.
Historical Context: The Caucasus as a Buffer Area
For Russia, the Caucasus is a strategic buffer zone separating what Moscow considers its sphere of influence from potential rivals in the Middle East, Asia and the Black Sea region. Located between the shores of the Black Sea and Caspian Sea, the Caucasus is a mountainous region that has traditionally been the home of a large number of diverse clans and ethnic groups. Living in isolated mountain valleys, these clans often fought one another. For the Russian Empire, the Caucasus increasingly became a matter of national security in the 18th century, when Russia expanded southward. Moscow grew concerned about local nomadic groups conducting raids and rival powers — especially the Ottomans and Persians — expanding their influence in the region.
To understand Russia’s fraught relationship with the Caucasus, we need to go back to the greatest chronicler of the Russian experience, Leo Tolstoy. Tolstoy’s final work, “Hadji Murat,” was based in part on his personal memories of the brutal fighting in the Caucasus as a young man in the early 1850s. “Hadji Murat” is the story of a Chechen leader who falls out with a fellow Chechen warrior and defects to the Russians. But it is also about one man’s quest to save his family amid court politics, factional infighting and ultimately geopolitical forces that he cannot control.
In Tolstoy’s time, Russia’s strategy was to co-opt local leaders and subdue the region through alliances, or, when this tactic was ineffective, to exert brutal, overwhelming force. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Russian troops faced insurrections, destroyed villages and burned crops in an attempt to subordinate local clans to Russian rule.
The fall of the Soviet Union unleashed Russia’s centrifugal undercurrents. A weak government in Moscow could not fulfill Russia’s strategic goals, and was unable to keep control of the Caucasus. Chechnya declared independence in 1991, and the Russian government fought two costly wars to regain control of the area. It was only once Russia began regaining some of its strength that the Kremlin, using overwhelming force, largely subdued the region.
Current Challenges: A Fragile Alliance
Russia, however, cannot afford to be in a constant state of internal war at this time. The Kremlin today is employing alliance-building tactics similar to those of its imperial predecessors to secure control of the North Caucasus. Ramzan Kadyrov came to power due to his family’s alliance with the President Vladimir Putin. Putin appointed Ramzan’s father, Akhmad Kadyrov, director of the Provisional Administration of Chechnya in June 2000. As the journalist Anna Politkovskaya wrote in 2000, Akhmad was known as the “middleman Mufti” because he served as a link between Chechen bandits and high-level officials in Moscow. It mattered little that in the past Akhmad was in favor of declaring jihad on Russia. He controlled his own illegal armed group and could thus serve as a useful tool for Moscow in its attempts to co-opt or destroy other, rival Chechen groups. His son, who rose to power after Akhmad was killed in an attack by Islamist Chechens in 2004, further consolidated control and is now a key ally for the Kremlin.
Moscow’s victory in Chechnya and the rule of the Kadyrovs did not bring an end to militancy in the region, but these shifts did largely fulfill Russia’s strategic imperative of keeping the North Caucasus in Russia and ensuring that rival powers do not gain influence in the area. Officials are concerned about Russian citizens from the Caucasus who are currently fighting in Syria and Iraq returning home, as well as local militants pledging allegiance to the Islamic State. Nevertheless, the Islamic State does not pose a threat to Russia’s territorial control of the North Caucasus, and is thus a secondary threat for the Kremlin. Maintaining strong relationships with local powerful officials is the priority for Moscow.
However, Russia’s ongoing financial difficulties could jeopardize Moscow’s strategy in the North Caucasus and beyond. Under the unwritten terms of the alliance between the Kremlin and Kadyrov, Chechnya is run as a fiefdom, but is in large part financed by Moscow. Within Chechnya, Kadyrov rules as a dictator, ignoring Russian laws and controlling an army of about 30,000 men. While some of his troops are Russian government employees, in practice they are accountable to Kadyrov, not to Moscow. There are no rival politicians or political parties operating within Chechnya, and members of the Kadyrov family hold top leadership positions and enjoy easy access to resources. Despite his free hand within Chechnya, however, Kadyrov is still dependent on funding from Moscow.
Other than the central government, Chechnya has few avenues to secure financing for expenditures. Eighty-three percent of Chechnya’s budget reportedly comes from the government in Moscow. The Kadyrov local government, in turn, levies informal taxes on these subsidies: according to the Open Russia Foundation, civil servants are unofficially forced to pay 10 percent of their salaries to a fund controlled by the Kadyrov family. Moscow will likely attempt to prioritize funding for the region, but the Russian government is already making cuts in other strategically important areas, including defense procurement and funding for separatist entities allied with Russia. Kadyrov thus floated the idea of resigning not only to highlight that the Kremlin ultimately needs him, but potentially also as a reminder that Moscow, as a part of its strategy in the region, must continue sufficiently funding its allies in Chechnya.
The Caucasus remains a highly strategic area for Russia. Centuries ago, Russian rulers were concerned about the Ottomans and Persians in Russia’s southern flank, and today Russian strategists are worried about NATO influence in neighboring Georgia, the resurgence of Iran and Turkish intentions across the region. While some Russian government agencies are wary of Kadyrov’s power and illegal activities, Russia is weakening and the Putin regime is holding on to alliances in the North Caucasus as it attempts to maintain the unity of the Russian Federation. Moscow needs to nurture its relationship with local Chechen leaders through political and financial support, if it hopes to avoid conflict in the region.