Discover more from Diane Francis
July 3, 2023
Prigozhin isn’t the only renegade oligarch with a mercenary army that Vladimir Putin must deal with. The other is Ramzan Kadyrov, a Chechen warlord who labelled Prigozhin’s mutiny “a knife in the back” and offered to send his troops to help Putin "preserve Russia's units and defend its statehood". This show of undying loyalty may cost Putin or Russia dearly. Kadyrov is the ambitious and unsavory President of Chechnya, which declared independence in the 1990s but was devastated by the Kremlin’s armed forces in two civil wars. It is part of Moscow’s North Caucasus region, in southwest Russia, where millions of restive, Turkic minorities live who have been treated like second-class citizens and whose sons have been disproportionately killed as cannon fodder in its Ukrainian war. “Watch the Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov,” noted Stephen Kotkin, an American academic and Russian historian. “He professes absolute loyalty to Putin, but he could help spark a North Caucasus problem that could spread to the South Caucasus.”
The North Caucasus remains captive to Russia, but the South Caucasus left the Soviet Union after it fell apart in 1992 and includes Armenia, fossil-fuel rich Azerbaijan (formerly part of Iran), and the Republic of Georgia. The South has a population of 17.5 million and each of its three “free” countries has had to deal with interference over the years by Russia. In 2008, Russia snatched 20 per cent of Georgia after a brief war, and, more recently, Moscow has been obstructing oil and gas shipments from Azerbaijan to Europe, and been stirring up ethnic and territorial disputes between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Parts of the North Caucasus also attempted to leave Russia in 1992, but uprisings were brutally suppressed. However, as Russia weakens this region will be a prime candidate for departure and independence. Located between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea, the majority of its residents are non-Russian, secular Moslems, who were conquered in the 19th century and remain culturally distinct. They exist on the periphery, have resource wealth, and good economic prospects given their proximity and cultural links to countries in Europe, the Middle East, and Central Asia.
The population of North Caucasus is 22.6 million and its land base is the size of Japan’s. Only 28 per cent of its total population is Russian, according to the 2021 Census. The area contains rich deposits of oil, natural gas, and coal and its Kuban River region, a fertile black earth area, is one of the chief granaries of Russia. Wheat, sugar beets, tobacco, rice, sunflower seeds and cattle are grown there.
After the Soviet Union collapsed, the Chechen Republic fought for independence twice against Moscow. Ramzan Kadyrov’s father launched both rebellions, but his son is now in charge and controlled by the Kremlin. As a young man, he joined his father in the Chechen independence movement against Russia, but both eventually switched sides. In 2007, Ramzan became leader after his father was assassinated and ever since the family has become staggeringly wealthy, thanks to generous Moscow subsidies. Kadyrov now has his own mercenary force and is a Colonel General in the Russian military.
As Kotlin and others speculate, Kadyrov could stir up trouble in the region theoretically but non-Chechens are unlikely to follow him. He has an abysmal human rights record and is pro-Russian, which disqualifies him from leading any regional movement for independence. But others may emerge because the region’s people have been brutally suppressed and exploited for generations. Independence movements already exist in Circassia, Karachay-Balka Republic, Dagestan, and the Sakha Republic. But today, these are weak and leaderless following vicious crackdowns in the past. However, if the center doesn’t hold post-war in Moscow, all bets are off.
The war against Ukraine has upset those who live in Russia’s far-flung, impoverished regions. In the North Caucasus, for instance, there have been widespread protests against Russia’s aggressive military mobilization of their sons. Many Chechens and others also sympathize with Ukraine’s struggle against Russia, some even joining Ukraine’s armed forces to fight Russia. Stoking their resentment are revelations that the death rates of non-Slavic soldiers drafted into the Russian army are dramatically higher among Turkic youth and young Mongols from Russia’s Far Eastern regions than for Russian ethnic men who live in Moscow or St. Petersburg.
Ukraine has exploited this unrest wherever possible, and in 2022 the Ukrainian parliament declared the Chechen Republic as “temporarily occupied” by Russia. Last month, President Volodymyr Zelensky accused Russia of discrimination against all its Turkic and Moslem citizens in a speech before the prestigious Arab Federation.
Kadyrov and his Chechen mercenaries are reviled by many in Moscow. In March, Al Jazeera reported: “Just two days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine was launched, Kadyrov announced his forces were deployed to the battlefield. Since then, Chechnya’s leader has posted on social media regular updates and videos of Chechen soldiers allegedly participating in military and humanitarian activities on Ukrainian territory… Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said he had `no information’ about Kadyrov being in Ukraine.”
But to Putin, Kadyrov has been a useful thug. Chechen henchmen have tortured and killed Russian journalists and human rights activists over the years on behalf of the Kremlin. And Chechens have been implicated in several high profile assassinations, including the 2015 murder in front of the Kremlin of globally-admired opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. In 2017, the United States imposed sanctions on Kadyrov for terrorism.
Clearly, Kadyrov is a dangerous player and bears watching but is reportedly ill. Even so, he may spark change, and possibly violence, in the North Caucasus — not because he is a post-war liberator but because he’s another example of Russian brutality. This seething anger is why the region itself, not the Chechen leader, bears watching. Like Karelia, in Russia’s northwest, or Manchuria, in Russia’s southeast, the North Caucasus region will opt to leave once the Soviet Union dissolves. It is geopolitically and geo-economically significant, and will be courted and assisted by allies, neighboring nations, diasporas, and movements in Europe, the Middle East, and Central Asia.
The region’s independence, and that of other Turkic regions elsewhere in the Russian Federation, has been openly advocated for years by the Organization of Turkish States, headquartered in Istanbul. The Organization, which includes Central Asian nations, upset Moscow before the war when it declared that there were ten Turkic regions inside the Russian Federation that have a right to sovereignty. Its list included seven in the North Caucasus.
In the past, the creation of a Mountainous Republic of the North Caucasus has been proposed, but failed to materialize. This could happen if North and South Caucasus entities formed a viable, regional alliance with backing from Turkey, Central Asian nations, and/or the European Union. The time is certainly ripe. Putin has launched an unjust genocide against Ukraine that now devours Russia’s economy and future as a federation. And as Russia heads for the ditch, Russia’s Turkic people finally have a chance to find good leaders in order to liberate themselves.