Chechnya in the shadow of Russia’s Mideast strategies

Although Putin tries to keep Kadyrov on a leash, the Chechen leader is firmly cementing himself in to the Russian body politique

Dr. Theodore Karasik

Published: Updated:

There is no doubt that Chechnya, a Russian Federation republic in the Northern Caucasus, plays a key foreign policy role in the Kremlin’s strategy towards the Levant and the rest of the Near East. The alliance, if you will, between Russian President Vladimir Putin and the head of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov has evolved over the past few years into a net positive. Kadyrov rules Chechnya with Kremlin backing. Consequently, Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, plays an important role in connections with Islamic countries on behalf of Moscow.

Primarily, Kadyrov’s Chechnya is focusing on Syria for both political and historical reasons. From the late years of Imperial Russia through the Soviet Union, Chechens migrated to the Levant, including Syria, and consequently absorbed into those societies. Some of these Chechen descendants, noted for their warrior skills, serve in the highest levels of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s military and security organs.

The above fact translates into current Chechen foreign policy towards Syria. Earlier this month, Kadyrov appealed to the Russian president to send Chechen units to fight ISIS in Syria, adding that his fighters have sworn to fight terrorists till the end:

“This is not idle talk, I am asking for permission to go there and participate in special operations. Being a Muslim, a Chechen and a Russian patriot I want to say that in 1999 when our republic was overrun with these devils we swore on the Quran that we would fight them wherever they are.”

In a more recent interview, Kadyrov stated: “If we think that the Syrian issue will be resolved quickly and will not affect the security of our country, it is not true. I am sure they will show up. ISIS was created primarily against Russia.”

Chechen intervention in Syria?

It seems that Kadyrov is setting the ground work for Chechen intervention in Syria in order to protect the Russian motherland. This language plays well with Putin’s Kremlin in terms of loyalty.

Although Putin tries to keep Kadyrov on a leash, the Chechen leader is firmly cementing himself in to the Russian body politique

Theodore Karasik

Kadyrov noted that Chechen special forces units were at a very high level of combat readiness and promised that “as soon as the terrorists in Syria understand that we are heading there they will very quickly get out,” adding that terrorists have little experience of real warfare.

Kadyrov added an important point: “We know them because we have destroyed them here, we have fought them. And they also know us.” Consequently, there are plans afoot to send at least 1000 Chechen special operation forces to Syria when Putin and the Russian General Staff deem necessary to fight anti-Moscow anti-Grozny Chechens not only belonging to ISIS but also to al-Nusra and other smaller anti-Assad opposition forces.

It appears that Kadyrov is trying to be a broker on Muslim issues for the Kremlin to the outside world. The Chechen leader sees his role as all-encompassing by putting his mark on critical relations with senior Middle East leaders. It is noteworthy that Kadyrov meets with almost every senior Middle East leader either in their home countries or when those leaders visit Moscow, Sochi, St. Petersburg or Grozny. In the past year alone, Russian forums or sports events, act as opportunities for Putin and Kadyrov to meet Arab elites. Kadyrov is always in attendance and holding meetings with these notables. In a sense, Kadyrov acts as a Russian Muslim politician – a middleman – who Muslim leaders look to lobby “issues” to the Kremlin.

Besides the Syrian issue, Chechnya’s foreign security policy is beginning to be an important player in the Russo-Islamic outlook towards conflict from the Middle East to Afghanistan. During this month, Kadyrov and his close associates are using their platform to expand Chechnya’s role as a power broker that translates into potential gains for the Kremlin.

In early October, Afghan First Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum, who is an Afghan Uzbek militia leader, visited Moscow and Grozny. Dostum is looking for military and political aid from Russia not only because of the threat to Kabul from the Taliban but also ISIS, which has a presence in at least three-quarters of Afghanistan. Significantly, Dostum visited Kadyrov on the latter’s birthday. The two leaders, who in their own right have significant militia experience, discussed the fight against terrorism, especially against ISIS. Dostum noted that ISIS is trying to make Afghanistan into a bridgehead and that both Kabul and and Grozny have been waging a struggle with international terrorism. Kadyrov said that in order to prevent this threat, Kabul needs Russia's support, as in Syria. That statement is important indicator of the Chechen leader’s prowess. In a sense, Kadyrov is acting as a broker with the Kremlin to send Russian air support, weapons, ammunition.

Chechnya’s attention to Libya

Chechnya’s attention to Libya also merits examination. Also in October, Kadyrov received Libya’s Tripoli General National Congress (GNC) Prime Minister Khalifa Al-Ghawiel. Just prior to the visit to Grozny, Chechen politician Adam Delimkhanov, Kadyrov’s vizier, who is also a member of the Russian State Duma, reportedly went to Tripoli to negotiate the release of 12 Russian merchant sailors from the Mekhanik Chebotarev oil tanker held by the Tripoli government that was seized the previous month. Delimkhanov’s talks included discussions with GNC President Nouri Abu Sahmain and representatives from the Misrata business community. Only two sailors have been released because a deal, unknown in detail, has been struck.

From the Grozny/Moscow point of view, a “Russian Muslim” entry into Tripoli’s politics may pay off later, given that the Kremlin already supports Tobruk’s House of Representatives (HOR). The theory is that as Russia proceeds to eradicate extremists in Syria, those escaping may end up in Islamic State Vilayets in Libya. There, Russia will be able to work with both Libyan governments, and a unified Libyan government, if one exists, thereby helping –possibly—to build the Kremlin’s role in Libya’s future based on any perceived successes in Syria.

Clearly, Chechnya is playing a key role that will only likely to grow in other regional hot spots. Kadyrov’s role in Russian foreign policy brings a new vision to the Kremlin’s intentions in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

Although Putin tries to keep Kadyrov on a leash, the Chechen leader is firmly cementing himself in to the Russian body politique. This fact bodes well for Russia in using Kadyrov’s savvy ethos as a policy tool especially in Syria and beyond.

Dr. Theodore Karasik is a Gulf-based analyst of regional geo-political affairs. He received his Ph.D in History from UCLA in Los Angeles, California in four fields: Middle East, Russia, Caucasus, and a specialized sub-field in Cultural Anthropology focusing on tribes and clans.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.