Is the new National Guard a way of clipping Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov’s wings, as has been suggested? Probably not, but it may shed some light on the way his relationship with the Kremlin is managed.
The unexpected announcement of the creation of a new National Guard (NG) out of the assorted public order and militarized security forces inevitably concentrated attention on whether the Kremlin truly anticipates mass disorder or elite conspiracies. After all, whatever may be claimed about the force’s potential role fighting organized crime and terrorism, this is just so much rationalization. If anything, by separating the investigative organs of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) from the door-kicking SOBR SWAT teams, now part of the NG, it gets in the way. Already the police are trying to work out quite who is in charge if they want to call on the SOBR for an operation, and can the NG decline, and do they have to pay for their services? Of such practical and bureaucratic minutiae, after all, life is made.
Instead, this is clearly a Praetorian force of security troops under, in Viktor Zolotov, a man who appears at one strong on personal loyalty to Putin and weak on scruples. After all, even allowing for narrative hyperbole, this does appear to be a man able to talk about who ‘needs killing’ in Russia, and his appointment presumably reflects in part a concern that Interior Minister Kolokoltsev may be a little too hesitant if the orders come in to crack some skulls in the name of the Kremlin.
This dimension of the news has been rightly widely discussed, and is hard to question. It is, after all, especially concerning above all for what it may tell us about the mood of ‘the Kremlin’—in other words that small, unclear circle of people around Putin, from whom policies emerge like summer lightning on a clear day: unexpected, dramatic, shocking.
An interesting additional question, though, was raised by Novaya Gazeta, under the headline ‘How Putin Liquidated Kadyrov’s Army.’ The article suggests that the creation of the NG pulls Kadyrov’s fangs by depriving him of the ‘Kadyrovtsy,’ the Chechen security forces formally under the MVD’s control but in practice reporting to him, commanded by his chosen henchmen, and packed with his loyalists.
The suggestion is not only that these units will genuinely come under the central NG command, but also that the envisaged attestation process will also see a purge of ex-rebels who (like Kadyrov himself) changed sides and who may be deemed less than wholly committed to Moscow’s rule. Meanwhile, a rotation of forces will dilute the Chechen predominance of the republic’s security forces and new, non-Chechen commanders come onto the scene.
A lovely picture, not least because the ‘Kadyrovtsy’ are the absolute bedrock of Ramzan’s power, and without them—without the assumed, even if ridiculous threat of their storming the Kremlin walls if he willed it—his power base and his prospects are equally limited. After all, he has strikingly few friends in Moscow and many implacable enemies, including Interior Minister Kolokoltsev, FSB Director Bortnikov, Investigations Committee head Bastrykin, Defense Minister Shoigu, and so it goes… This is a formidable array of people to have keen on seeing your scalp displayed over the Spassky Tower. Even if Kadyrov doesn’t appreciate that he needs to watch his back—and, to borrow Obama’s take on Putin, he’s not entirely stupid—he has allies like Chechen senator Adam Delimkhanov with longer political antennae to remind him.
Just as before the ‘Kadyrovtsy’ were formally part of the MVD’s forces but in practice ignored Moscow’s wishes, what is to stop him from doing the same now, especially after he has won his recent game of chicken with the Kremlin? Having secured the official sanction for his re-election and a pledge of continued federal budget support, why should be compromise?
Besides which, he has an interesting relationship with Zolotov, about the only mover and shaker within the security elite seemingly with time for him. From instagrammed photos together to warm words from Kadyrov on Zolotov’s promotion, the impression is that the outsider warlord-president and the outsider bodyguard-general have bonded. Most strikingly, Zolotov was conspicuously absent in the period after the assassination of Boris Nemtsov by ‘Kadyrovtsy,’ even missing a meeting of the MVD kollegium, its formal management session. He appears to have been the interlocutor trying to resolve the complex political crisis created by the murder of an internationally-known public figure literally by the Kremlin walls, seemingly on Kadyrov’s orders or at least with his retrospective sanction.
Now it may be that the hope is that Zolotov is the one person who can persuade Kadyrov to give up his independent days, truly to transition from warlord to politician. However, Kadyrov is unlikely not to have realized just how vicious Russian politics can be—not least as one of the more prominent practitioners of that viciousness—and that the real transition might be to convict or corpse. A few soft words and the promise of another medal or two are hardly likely to convince him.
Instead, Zolotov is likely all the more clearly to emerge as the main connection between Chechnya and Moscow, at once Putin’s ambassador to Grozny and Kadyrov’s advocate in the Kremlin. To this end, we can expect soon to see Zolotov visiting Chechnya and received with pomp, circumstance, and all the trappings of subordination: snappy salutes, a parade, oaths and toasts to the new head of the natsgvardiya. Then he will return home and everything will stay the same. Kadyrov may adopt a slightly lower profile, especially as he no longer needs to play the brat, having accomplished what he had wanted by becoming an inconvenience to Moscow. But in essence, Zolotov’s rise is likely also to signal that Kadyrov’s krysha, the protection he gets from the Kremlin, is safe, sound, and here as long as Putin is still in power.