The West should keep an eye on the growing confrontation between Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov and Russia’s opposition. We may be witnessing the rise of a new political force in Russia. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, meets with head of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov at the Moscow Kremlin, December 10, 2015. Photo: Sputnik

For a very different take read: "What's really behind Ramzan Kadyrov's incendiary comments"

Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the Chechen Republic, has lately been one of the most visible media personalities in Russia and has even managed to outshine Russian President Vladimir Putin in some respects. Kadyrov is quite notorious, and his scandalous reputation is predominantly a consequence of his extreme remarks addressed to the Russian political opposition. The Chechen leader prefers social networks, his particular favorite being Instagram, for sharing his ideas with the general public.

Kadyrov's latest jabs at the liberal political opposition came in the form of an Instagram post on Jan. 31. It contained a short video that featured Mikhail Kasyanov and Vladimir Kara-Murza, leaders of the opposition People's Freedom Party "For Russia without Lawlessness and Corruption," shown through the aim of a sniper rifle. The caption read, "Those who did not understand before will understand now." (The post is currently unavailable after it was removed for violating Instagram’s terms of service.) 

The macabre image of opposition activists at the end of a rifle looks even more disturbing in the context of the murder of prominent opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, who was killed a little less than a year ago on Feb. 27 in Moscow. Investigators established that the crime was committed by Chechen police officers, but the search for the people who commissioned the murder did not get very far. A lot of Russians believe that Kadyrov himself was behind it.

The Russian Internet is filled with speculation about what caused Kadyrov’s unusually intense involvement in defaming members of the liberal opposition as "enemies of the people."

Popular opinion assumes the existence of a conflict between Kadyrov and law enforcement agencies, and the powerful FSB and Investigative Committee cannot find a way to deal with the young and energetic regional leader, who is unconditionally loyal to President Putin and ardently attacks his foes from the opposition. Putin allegedly approves of this behavior, so as Kadyrov issues threats against Russian liberals on Instagram, he becomes more invincible in his standoff against his own enemies in the federal agencies.

Recommended: "Troublesome Chechnya: A sign of Russia's stability or weakness?"

Another conjecture maintains that Moscow lost control over the unruly Kadyrov a long time ago, and although Putin would have liked nothing better than reining in the Chechen leader, the Russian President cannot do that for fear of reigniting the Chechen conflict that was so difficult and expensive to put to rest. Moreover, Kadyrov's threats towards the opposition benefit the Kremlin, at least indirectly, given the economic crisis and increasing protest sentiment within Russia.

Finally, some think that Kadyrov is not crossing Putin, but acting on his direct orders. Russia's political leadership cannot openly utilize scare tactics against their political opponents, so the "dirty work" is done by the Chechen leader as a person who instills fear and is known for his uncompromising attitude towards his enemies, some of whom have died under mysterious circumstances.

Does Kadyrov have national political ambitions?

For people outside Russia, this issue with Kadyrov does not appear to be particularly important and may only serve as another sketch in the overall portrait of Russia as a country where the rule of law gives way to crude force and opposition leaders are marginalized and face physical removal (if not worse). The problem, though, has another aspect that may quickly upgrade a minor Russian problem to an international threat.

According to popular opinion, Kadyrov may succeed Putin as the President of Russia, however improbable that may sound. Under current circumstances, Kadyrov's questionable reputation surprisingly does not hamper him, but instead helps him gain political points and win the support of a large number of Russians well beyond Chechnya.

A poll conducted by Levada Center in March 2015, a month after the murder of Nemtsov when the public was widely discussing the rumor that Kadyrov was involved, showed that his rating among Russians was at an impressive 55 percent. Ten years ago, he was trusted by only 33 percent of respondents. Russians believe that since then the head of Chechnya managed to set things right in the region entrusted to him. In 2015, only 12 percent of those polled stated that they disliked Kadyrov.  

Among other things, Kadyrov is known as a faithful supporter of traditional Islamic values. In Chechnya, he is building new mosques and implementing Sharia laws, but simultaneously does his best to denounce any displays of radical Islam. After the launch of the Russian Air Force operation in Syria, Kadyrov proclaimed his readiness to send Chechen regiments to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS), which is banned in Russia. 

These soldiers who are often referred to as Kadyrov's private army have been trained well. Just recently, Chechen "volunteers" actively participated in the war in Eastern Ukraine alongside Donbas separatists and, according to common belief, acted there as the "defenders of Russians against the Kiev junta.” 

Anti-American sentiment can fuel Kadyrov’s popularity 

Even though only 10 percent of the Russian population is Muslim, Kadyrov's religious affiliation might play to his advantage in his progress to the political Olympus. The Chechen leader is skillfully crafting his image as the supporter of traditional values as opposed to Western universalism and American cultural hegemony. That is precisely the ideology that has helped President Putin maintain his record-high political rating for so many years. 

The state propaganda tirelessly fuels anti-Americanism, and all representatives of the political establishment are trying to pitch in, but few can do it as sincerely and artlessly as Kadyrov. The current number of his Instagram followers is over 1.5 million.

Recommended: "What's next for Chechnya's Ramzan Kadyrov?"

Outside Chechnya, Kadyrov is particularly popular with those Russians who identify themselves as imperialists or Eurasianists. Unlike Russian nationalists, they think that Russia can fully show its might only as a multinational empire that would unite all territories that used to be part of the Russian Empire and the U.S.S.R. 

The Eurasianists' political idol is Joseph Stalin, an ethnic Georgian who ensured the Soviet Union's victory in the Great Patriotic War. The question becomes: If not Kadyrov, a native of the Caucasus, then who would build a new Russian Empire?

In spite of his criticism of ISIS, the Chechen leader often says and does things that are not that different from radicals' actions and utterances. Kadyrov's political and ideological ambitions now spread far beyond Chechnya.

Even though Kadyrov appears to be a political outsider, every year his image gets closer to Russian political mainstream tendencies. Western observers should start considering possible scenarios in case such a man becomes the President of a leading nuclear power.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.