Karma is a funny thing. It tends to bite you when you least expect it or when you can least afford it. This may be happening in Russia — specifically regarding Chechnya, the tiny Islamic region in the Caucasus.
Moscow fought two recent wars with the region. The first was fought incompetently to a draw under Boris Yeltsin. The second saw Russia prevail with overwhelming force. Vladimir Putin rose to power and popularity on the back of the second Chechen conflict. After blaming multiple apartment bombings in Moscow on Chechen terrorists, Mr. Putin brutally and effectively silenced the Chechen opposition. This beside the fact that the post-KGB forces, FSB operatives, were found wiring another apartment building for implosion and blamed it on a “training exercise.”
For two decades, since the end of the second Chechen War, Moscow has kept the lid on the festering desire for Chechen independence by relying on strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, son of the late President Akhmad Kadyrov, who has ruled the region with an iron fist, while at the same time enriching himself and his friends.
The problem now is Mr. Kadyrov has built up his own private army that is fiercely loyal to no one but him. Mikhail Khordorkovsky of Open Russia, living in exile in Switzerland after being released from prison by Mr. Putin during the Sochi amnesty, recently released a film about Mr. Kadyrov, alleging he is raping the country by demanding tribute from businesses and citizens alike, in addition to committing brutal human rights offenses against the population. After a man was recently killed in Chechnya by Russian security forces, Mr. Kadyrov was quoted as saying, “I declare to you that if anyone appears on your territory without your knowledge, it doesn’t matter whether they’re from Moscow or Stavropol, then shoot to kill. People need to reckon with us.” Needless to say, that didn’t go over very well in the Kremlin, which immediately called the statement “unacceptable,” and references to Mr. Kadyrov’s statements were deleted from the Chechen media.
Now stage left, enters the Islamic State. Moscow staunchly supports the Assad regime in Syria as a way to combat the Muslim jihadist movement in the Middle East from growing stronger. As ISIS continues to take territory in the face of a weak response from the United States, which conveniently pulled all of its troops out of Iraq, Russia’s soft underbelly is exposed. It is only a few hundred miles from the northeastern corner of Iraq, where ISIS currently controls the Iraqi city of Mosul, across Shia Iran and Azerbaijan to the border with Russia. If ISIS can link up with the Islamic separatists movement in the Caucasus region, then Russia would have a real problem on its hands.
But Mr. Kadyrov is loyal to Mr. Putin you say! Mr. Putin calls him his son! But is he? His father, before switching sides and joining the fight against the Sunni warring factions in their desire for independence from Russia, declared jihad against Russia and ordered every Chechen to kill at least 150 Russians when Moscow invaded during the failed first Chechen War. It must keep the Kremlin up at night worrying that Mr. Kadyrov, who could order his forces to kill Russian policemen, could also end up switching sides in a conflict if the opportunity came to secede from the Russian Federation and link up with other jihadis to expand his rule.
The Kremlin is stretched paying for Crimea and supporting the war in East Ukraine. Silencing Chechnya in a third conflict would be a costly endeavor in terms of blood and treasure. Perhaps this is why Moscow leaves Mr. Kadyrov to do as he pleases. Perhaps that is why the money keeps flowing from the federal budget into Mr. Kadyrov’s bank accounts. Chechen terrorists can be brutally effective as Russia found out with the September 2004 Beslan school massacre that saw hundreds of children and parents butchered. The conflict in Ukraine would seem like a cake walk in the face of an unruly Chechnya.