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Is Putin's elite security service feuding with his own puppet regime in Chechnya?

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, meets with Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who is rumored to be feuding with the leaders of Russia's FSB security service.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, meets with Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who is rumored to be feuding with the leaders of Russia's FSB security service.

If you spend time in Moscow talking to people involved in politics, you will inevitably hear a lot of rumors. But on a recent reporting trip there, one rumor came up over and over again: could tension between the ruler of Russia's semi-autonomous Chechnya region, Ramzan Kadyrov, and the FSB, the Russian federal security service that is the successor to the KGB, grow so severe that it would become an insurmountable problem for Russian President Vladimir Putin? Had it already?

Rumors about the Kadyrov-FSB split have been swirling for months. Versions of the story vary along a spectrum from conservative to outlandish: when Putin briefly disappeared from public life last March, some speculated that he had been the victim of a silent coup after the FSB's leadership had become so frustrated with the Chechen situation that they were trying to unseat Putin. (Putin resurfaced a few days later, suggesting this theory was unfounded.)

The fact that such rumors often escalate so quickly into wild conspiracy theories can make it difficult to take them seriously. But there is a kernel of truth to these rumors. And perhaps what matters most is the bigger fear underlying them: that Kadyrov’s power has gotten out of control, and that a clash between him and the Russian security services looks increasingly likely — and could even lead to another war in Chechnya.

Kadyrov’s growing power

Since Kadyrov took power in Chechnya in 2007, he's governed under an implicit bargain with Putin: as long as Kadyrov keeps Chechnya stable and peaceful, the Kremlin will allow him substantial autonomy — and will throw in handsome federal subsidies to sweeten the deal.

For years, that arrangement seemed to serve everyone's interests. Chechnya, though it had earlier fought two failed wars for independence, remained stable. Kadyrov regularly posted Instagram messages of adoration for President Putin. And Chechens, who remembered the brutal treatment they had experienced at the hands of Russian troops during the last war in Chechnya, enjoyed the protections Kadyrov offered them, along with whatever federal subsidies trickled down to ordinary people. (Although the arrangement offers Chechens no protection from Kadyrov himself, who is an often brutal autocrat.)

More recently, that arrangement has seemed far less stable. On April 23, Kadyrov posted a message on Instagram in which he appeared to instruct his top security officers to shoot federal agents who entered Chechnya: "I would like to officially state: Open fire if someone from Moscow or Stavropol — it doesn't matter where from — appears on your turf without your knowledge."

A few days earlier, Russian federal forces, along with police officers from the neighboring region of Stavropol Krai, had entered Chechnya and attempted to arrest Dzhambulat Dadayev, a wanted Chechen criminal. (Dadayev was killed during the operation.) Kadyrov had clearly been angered by an operation being carried out in Chechnya by non-Chechen forces. The order to "open fire" appears to have been a warning to other security officers who might dare to try such a thing again.

In other words, Kadyrov was demanding that his implicit independence from federal control be made explicit — and promising to enforce that new status quo with violence.

If it were just one isolated incident, Kadyrov's statement could perhaps be dismissed as posturing. It was, after all, delivered via Instagram, in a feed that regularly features him frolicking with kittens, horses, and C-list celebrities. But Kadyrov's other recent statements made it more difficult to ignore.

In March, after Chechen police officer Zaur Dadayev (no relation to Dzhambulat) was arrested on suspicion of murdering dissident Russian politician Boris Nemtsov, Kadyrov wrote on Instagram that he knew Dadayev as "a genuine Russian patriot" who was "one of the most fearless and courageous soldiers of the regiment." Perhaps, Kadyrov suggested, Dadayev had been angered by Nemtsov's support for the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists — a statement that seemed pointed considering Kadyrov's own criticism of the cartoons. In January, he had organized a large rally in Grozny to protest against Charlie Hebdo's work.

It would be going too far to read those statements as an admission by Kadyrov that he was somehow involved in Nemtsov's killing (something a number of people we spoke to in Moscow took as an article of faith). But he certainly wasn't trying to distance himself from the accused killers, either. And given that Nemtsov's murder proved embarrassing to the Kremlin, it is hard not to see Kadyrov's statement as another gesture of defiance of federal control.

Perhaps more disturbingly, we also repeatedly heard there is a growing belief that Kadyrov is extending his protection of Chechens within Chechnya to also cover ethnic Chechens who engage in criminal activity in other parts of Russia.

When we met with Alexander Verkhovsky, the director of the Sova Center, a research institution that studies extremism, he explained that there is a growing fear that Chechen police are becoming an organized-crime network with a reach far beyond Chechnya. If people who are police officers in Chechnya show up with machine guns to steal from a business in another part of Russia, Verkhovsky explained, "what can be done? The owner may try to call the police. [But] local police usually just cannot fight them. They are too weak to fight Kadyrov." The owner could try to appeal to the FSB for help, but even that might not work.

In other words, Kadyrov's power is perceived as so great, even outside of Chechnya, that even the FSB cannot necessarily stop criminals if they are acting under his protection. It is not surprising that the FSB would find that intolerable.

Could efforts to bring Kadyrov under control lead to war?

How long can Kadyrov continue to pick fights with the federal security services? At some point, will his demonstrations of loyalty to Putin no longer be enough? If his new defiance brings long-simmering conflict between Kadyrov and the FSB to a head, it is not difficult to imagine a worst-case outcome, one that people we spoke to referenced several times: another war in Chechnya.

There is a widespread belief in Russia that the FSB — and perhaps other federal security agencies, as well — have long been dissatisfied with Kadyrov's independence and are now running out of patience. Russian analyst Andrei Piontkovsky told us he believes the security agencies feel they were "deprived of victory" in Chechnya when Putin made the agreement with Kadyrov that ended the war, and that they are now challenging him "practically publicly" via strategic leaks to the Russian media about his activities.

Verkhovsky agreed that "of course" there is a conflict between the FSB and Kadyrov. Now, he said, the FSB is trying to prevent Kadyrov from expanding his criminal operations beyond the borders of Chechnya.

Russia being Russia, there is no way to know for sure if those concerns are correct. But if they are, then it seems likely the tensions will escalate further, given Kadyrov's apparent defiance of federal authority.

If that happens, the results could be disastrous. Verkhovsky said that experts on the Caucasus privately agree that they see little chance of avoiding a new Chechen war: "It's difficult to predict what will be the configuration, but the tension is so big and measures which we have taken are so ineffective that it has to turn into a larger clash."

If war does break out, Verkhovsky worried, it will likely be much worse than the last conflict in Chechnya, because the Chechen security forces are now better-armed and better-trained. Both sides would almost certainly suffer terrible casualties.

That could pose problems for Putin beyond even enduring the casualties and costs of another Chechen war. Stability is the fundamental promise of his regime. It does not offer freedom or democracy, but it does ensure that Russia is free from the economic and political turmoil of the 1990s. If war breaks out, that could threaten his popularity, and lead to further political upheaval that goes far beyond Chechnya.

Indeed, even if Putin can avert an all-out war, he may still have a problem: the FSB's growing dissatisfaction could undermine elite support for his regime. Many of the top officials in Putin's inner circle are the so-called "Siloviki" — men with strong ties to the security services. And as Russia expert Mark Galeotti explained to me several months ago, the most likely end to Putin's presidency isn't protests in the street; it's that elites will someday decide he can't protect their interests, and will shift their allegiance to a new candidate who seems like a more stable prospect. It's not clear that Putin can afford to lose the security services' support if he wants to keep the presidency. That is the kernel of reason behind the rumors of a "coup" last March: a split between Putin and the FSB could jeopardize Putin's presidency.

That is why the people we spoke to in Moscow find the rumors of the Kadyrov-FSB dispute so frightening: although it's impossible to know for certain whether the rumors are true, if they are, the consequences could be severe. For ordinary Russians, who have no choice but to wait and see how things play out, that is a frightening prospect.