“So, if you’re worried that Ramzan is murdering with impunity and Putin can’t control him, consider the alternative: What if Ramzan is murdering with impunity and Putin does control him?” the British journalist Oliver Bullough, author of the book The Last Man In Russia and the Struggle to Save a Dying Nation, wrote in The Guardian.
When Kadyrov began burning down the homes of family members of suspected Islamic militants, which is prohibited by Russian law, Putin appeared to give his protege a rare rebuke.
“In Russia, everyone must obey the existing laws and nobody is considered guilty until this is proved by court,” Putin said in his year-end press conference in December 2014, adding that “nobody has the right, including the head of Chechnya, to resort to extrajudicial reprisals.”
In the following days, Kadyrov burned down still more homes—and wasn’t reprimanded again. The incident seemed to suggest that Putin is simply unable—or unwilling—to control Kadyrov. Why?
“I have no idea if it is fear or a man crush,” Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University and an expert on Russia’s security services, said.
The Kremlin leader does, indeed, appear to have a lot of affection for Kadyrov and has said he is like a son to him. But he also has reason to fear him.
Putin has essentially made a Faustian pact with Kadyrov. He’s given him a license to kill—and torture—as many people in Chechnya as he pleases, and has bestowed lavish federal subsidies for him to use as he wishes, as long as the restive republic remains quiet and loyal. And there is palpable fear in the Kremlin that if Kadyrov is removed, then Chechnya could again descend into chaos. But over the past year, the bargain is now being put to the test, with Kadyrov taking his act beyond Chechnya to the streets of Moscow.
In the days following Nemtsov’s assassination in Moscow, when suspicion—and evidence—appeared to be pointing to Kadyrov, Putin was reportedly refusing to speak to the Chechen leader.
“Orkhan Djemal, a journalist with extensive sources inside Chechnya, told me he had heard that for days Putin wouldn’t take Kadyrov’s calls, which caused Kadyrov to panic,” Joshua Yaffa wrote in a recent article in The New Yorker.
This was during that bizarre week when Putin disappeared from public view, causing a minor panic in Moscow. But apparently Putin and Kadyrov managed to kiss and make up. In fact, in the months following Nemtsov’s killing, Kadyrov was given so many medals he would have needed a second chest to wear them all. And despite the best efforts of investigators to pin the Nemtsov hit on Kadyrov's close associates, they were rebuked.
What this suggests, according to some Kremlin critics, is that Kadyrov hasn’t gone rogue at all. Instead, he is Putin’s willing executioner—the leader of a death squad that can eliminate Putin’s opponents with impunity, and with plausible deniability for the Kremlin.