ANALYSIS by Susan Katz Keating
Now that Yevgeny Prigozhin has been permanently silenced, Moscow needs to deflect from his legacy with a fresh military grandstander delivering Kremlin-friendlier content – and has handed the mic to former Prigozhin rival Ramzan Kadyrov.
Kadyrov is a logical choice, if you are Vladimir Putin. Like Prigozhin, the Chechen warlord is a big personality who draws attention when he speaks. Unlike the former Wagner leader, though, Kadyrov is predictably loyal to the Kremlin and to Russia’s Ministry of Defense. Hence, he is allowed to take the stage.
Kadyrov has made opportune use of his new platform, announcing Kremlin-boosting battlefield victories and defeats. He wrote on Sunday that Russian forces repelled a Ukrainian attack in Donetsk; and said on Saturday that large numbers of Ukrainian forces were killed there in combat.
Kadryov additionally said that Ukrainian troops are giving up the fight.
“This situation is making many of them pause and think and make the only right choice to lay their arms down,” Kadyrov wrote on his Telegram channel. The comment was published by Russia’s state news agency, TASS, alongside a photo that made Kadyrov appear not so much respectable as less fanatical than usual.
READ MORE about Ramzan Kadyrov
Kadyrov is well versed in the dynamics of showmanship.
When Prigozhin in June launched his mad dash on Moscow, Kadyrov announced that he had sent his own bad boys to take on the Wagnerites. The fight seemed like an epic blood match in the making: men who tape prisoners to walls and smash their heads with sledgehammers versus the more traditional assassins and war criminals.
But Prigozhin aborted his rebellion, and the blood match never took place.
Realistically, what would have happened? How do the Chechen fighters compare to the Wagner team?
When the Wagner Group was banished to Belarus and Africa, speculation arose that the Kadyrovtsy would step into the void in Ukraine and Russia.
They tried, but ultimately fizzled out. Throughout Russia’s war on Ukraine, the Chechen unit has not lived up to its billing. The Kadyrovtsy failed in their first key assignments, to kill Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, and to capture the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol.
The Chechens performed so poorly that Kadyrov berated his commanders while also repositioning his forces.
“As a result, they are now better known for activities including desertion control, fighting over looted goods and sitting behind the action to preen for propaganda videos for Kadyrov’s Telegram channel,” according to analyst Harold Chambers.
The unit is known more for cruelty toward civilians inside occupied territories, according to Chambers.
Just as the Wagnerites took their ethos from Prigozhin, the Chechen unit draws its qualities from leader Kadyrov.
While Kadyrov appears to be cruel and bombastic, he also can be diplomatic. When addressing the Wagner Group’s aborted coup against Moscow, the Chechen strongman was both gracious and firm regarding Prigozhin.
“We’ve been friends for a long time,” Kadyrov wrote about Prigozhin on Telegram, adding that the Wagner leader was “distinguished from others by his responsiveness, unique communication skills and persistence.” But, Kadyrov wrote, he himself was prepared to send his own forces to “defend the homeland” against a Wagner mutiny.
Kadyrov has much on his plate. In terms of Ukraine, he likely will want to hold back his forces, military ineptitude notwithstanding, and preserve them to deal with potential unrest inside Chechnya.
That won’t stop him from stepping into the spotlight that shone so brightly on Prigozhin.
The move works well for Moscow.
The Kremlin, for now, could use a fresh character to shift attention away from Prigozhin, and take on the role of military grandstander. Kadyrov fits the bill nicely.
Susan Katz Keating is the publisher and editor in chief of Soldier of Fortune.