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(Newsweek) Yevgeny Prigozhin won global notoriety last month by brazenly marching his paramilitary forces toward Moscow—before abruptly turning back. For millions of TV viewers transfixed by the almost-coup, Prigozhin, head of the Wagner Group mercenary forces, would still appear to be Russian President Vladimir Putin‘s most powerful internal rival.

But Putin faces an unexpected threat from another warlord.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky suggested last week that it would be no surprise if the leader of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, marched on the Kremlin. Just the day before, the former head of Ukraine’s Foreign Intelligence, Nikolay Malomuzh, said that Kadyrov has prepared everything necessary for his tiny republic to secede from Russia.

Zelensky is wrong and Malomuzh is right.

Kadyrov has been slowly working toward self-determination over the past decade, not toward toppling his benefactor Putin. Kadyrov does not have sufficient allies in Moscow and would not garner the support he would need to march on the Kremlin. He is also disliked by ordinary Russians, making it unlikely that, even if he was able to seize power, he would be able keep it for long.

But outright mutiny is not the only threat that Kadyrov presents Moscow. He may also be interested in making Chechnya an independent nation. Just by seceding from the Russian Federation, the young and brutal leader could begin a domino effect that a Putin, who already has enough on his plate, would be hard pressed to stop. At the very least, Kadyrov could bring along Caucasus republics such as Ingushetia and Dagestan with him. Both of those have been home to armed revolts against the Russian state before.

From there, it’s impossible to tell what might unravel next.

Until now, Putin has kept Kadyrov on his side through a mutually beneficial understanding: if Kadyrov stays loyal and keeps the region quiet, he can govern autonomously, infinitely helped by Russian treasure. It was a hard-won pact. The deal is the result of two brutal conflicts, an Islamist insurgency, and a war on organized crime.

As of 2020, Moscow officially funded 48 percent of Chechnya’s budget, although some experts say the real number may be more than 80 percent. Speaking out of school last year on Telegram, Kadyrov announced that Russia gives Chechnya $4.1 billion a year.

In essence, Putin pays Kadyrov to rule the region however he wants. It’s a good deal for Kadyrov, whose government is a nepotistic, kleptocratic personality cult of a dictatorship where torture and forced disappearances are rampant. The Kremlin’s subsidies also empower his opulent lifestyle, including million-dollar watches and near-billion-dollar mansions. Kadyrov plays his part by keeping separatism and banditry in check.

For almost 20 years, Kadyrov and Putin have kept their sides of the bargain. Kadyrov has been one of Putin’s staunchest allies in the Ukraine war and calls himself “Putin’s foot soldier” in service of the “strongest and most influential politician on earth.” Projected strength is the glue that holds Kadyrov and Putin together.

But Prigozhin’s march through Russia and Putin’s weak response revealed the type of vulnerability that is extremely dangerous for an authoritarian regime. If Putin’s authority weakens further, Kadyrov might decide to get out while the getting is good, declaring independence before a power vacuum emerges like that formed after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Kadyrov would have to do something to keep his own people in check. Without Moscow’s billions, it’s unlikely that popular support would get him very far, insofar as he’s unlikely to have much. He could buy himself legitimacy among Chechen nationalists by declaring the republic’s independence from Russia—maybe. They’d have to forgive him his prior relationship with Putin. It’s at least as likely that he would go down in history as the lackey of a deposed dictator.

Putin may be in luck in that Kadyrov may be unable to take any such steps. He is rumored to be suffering from a serious kidney condition. Although he has denied being ill, recent photos and videos show he has gained weight and looks unnaturally puffy. Last March, the German publication Bild reported he is seeing a kidney specialist from the United Arab Emirates.

But Kadyrov himself may not need to be the one to pull the trigger of renewed separatism in Russia. He has already created the conditions for it. He has removed almost all federal troops from the region, relying on his private security forces—nicknamed Kadyrovites—to maintain order. According to Malomuzh, Kadyrov has 60,000 trained loyal Kadyrovites. Whoever inherits these troops would be a powerful force in the region.

Moscow is taking the threat of a potential mutiny by Kadyrov very seriously. Prigozhin’s Wagner fighters showed Putin the dangers of domestic oligarchs with powerful private armies. A Russian source close to the Kremlin anonymously told Newsweek that a battleship with Kalibr missiles patrolling the Caspian Sea is ready to fire at Chechnya if Kadyrov makes the wrong move.

During Prigozhin’s march towards Moscow, the usually boisterous Kadyrov was uncharacteristically quiet. According to some Russia watchers, he was biding his time to see what would happen. It was only after the dust settled that he condemned Prigozhin’s mutiny as a “vile betrayal.”

Of course, if Prigozhin had successfully carried out a coup, he would be faced by the same issues with Kadyrov that Putin now has, and be faced with the same devilish choice: Pay up or watch the nation unravel.

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About the Author

Joseph Epstein
Joseph Epstein is EMET’s Legislative Fellow. Prior to EMET, Joseph worked in Business Intelligence and Due Diligence for Kroll and Vcheck Global. He has additionally worked as a journalist, analyst, and consultant covering security and migration issues in the former Soviet Union, the Middle East, and Central Africa. From 2017 to 2019, he served as a Lone Soldier in the Israeli Border Police. A graduate of Columbia University, where he studied Political Science and Soviet Studies, Joseph is fluent in Russian and Hebrew.

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