Staunton, May 1 – Faced with growing speculation in Moscow that he has is becoming a liability for Vladimir Putin, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov has stepped up his diplomatic activity in the Middle East to buy himself insurance against the possibility that he will be dismissed, according to Russian experts.
At the same time, they suggest, Putin may be making use of Kadyrov in Syria not only as the conflict there changes from a primarily military one to a political one but also to redirect his protégé’s actions away from Russian domestic affairs where the Chechen leader doesn’t seem able to keep out of trouble and thus embarrass the Putin.
Kadyrov’s most recent entry into the Middle East involved the visit to Syria last week by the head of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate of Chechnya, Salakh Mezhiyev. The mufti was received by Bashar Asad, and the two agreed that Damascus would open a branch of its university in Grozny and that Russia would recognize Syrian diplomas.
The Kavkaz-Uzel news agency interviewed three experts on the meaning of this trip and other recent Kadyrov foreign policy forays including the dispatch of Chechen police and then a battalion of Chechen soldiers (kavkaz-uzel.eu/articles/301952/).
Aleksey Makarkin, the vice president of the Moscow Center for Political Research, says that “Ramzan Kadyrov is stressing that he can be useful to the federal center not only in the North Caucasus but also in the Middle East and in Syria in particular,” that he has personal ties with leaders there and that as a Muslim he enjoys special access.
The reason the latter is so important in the case of Syria is that “Asad is an Alawite,” the Moscow commentator says. Many Sunni theologians “don’t even consider the Alawites to be Muslims;” and consequently, Asad is grateful to Kadyrov for providing a patina of legitimacy on him among the Islamic community.
Makarkin adds that Kadyrov could only have made his gesture, however, if it had been fully coordinated with and approved by the Kremlin, which likely gave its blessing because Putin wants to stress that Moscow’s actions in the Middle East are not “a crusade of Christians against Muslims” but rather a counter-terrorist operation.
Akhmet Yarlykanov of the Moscow Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology agrees that Kadyrov in no way has been operating independently in this sphere. But the Chechen leader’s actions have increased his standing in Moscow because a Muslim talking to a Muslim in the Middle East helps promote Russian government goals.
And Denis Sokolov, a specialist on the region at RAMSCON, says that the Kremlin especially needs the kind of assistance Kadyrov can provide in this regard because the conflict in Syria is shifting from a primarily military to a primarily political one and the Kremlin has “no ‘human resources’ besides Kadyrov” to promote the latter.
At the same time, Sokolov continues, Putin is likely very interested in keeping Kadyrov busy in an area where he will spark less controversy than has been the case recently with the reports of anti-LGBT actions in Chechnya. In short, Kadyrov’s actions in Syria benefit both him and Putin – and that is the best reason for thinking that they are taking place now.