Putin Has Outsmarted Russia’s Strongmen, For Now

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Russia's Vladimir Putin and Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov visit a mosque named after Kadyrov's father, Akhmad, in Grozny, Chechnya, on October 16, 2008. To embarrass Putin and Kadyrov, Russia's siloviki (or strongmen) disclosed the identity of Boris Nemtsov’s killer and his assistants, who went into hiding in Chechnya. Alexei Nikolsky/RIA Novosti/Pool/reuters

Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin has taken great pains not to reveal conflicts among the ruling elites. However, Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov’s murder last year, and the developments that followed, provided the world with a rare opportunity to get a glimpse of the proverbial bulldog fight under the carpet.

To explain the Byzantine nature of this story, one needs to go back to 1999, when an ailing President Boris Yeltsin appointed a new prime minister, Putin, who was previously unknown to the Russian public.  

Soon after his appointment, Putin launched a war against the rebellious separatist region of Chechnya and in a relatively short period of time defeated the rebels. This success gave Putin’s popularity a great boost, and when, on New Year’s Eve 2000, Yeltsin announced his resignation, Russians embraced their new president with gusto.  

However, it was easier to conquer feisty Chechnya than to keep it under control. To square the circle, Putin appointed as the region’s new governor a Chechen religious leader, Chief Mufti Akhmad Kadyrov, who had declared jihad against Russia back in the mid-1990s.  

After Kadyrov’s assassination in 2004, he was replaced by his flamboyant young son Ramzan, who was also a veteran of the Chechen war against Russia (and publicly bragged that he killed his first Russian when he was only 16).

This appointment of the junior Kadyrov, who turned Chechnya into his private fiefdom in exchange for his personal loyalty to Putin, upset many senior Russian officials. They were the so-called siloviki (literally, strongmen), who headed federal agencies and ministries with their own military/security forces, such as the Ministry of Defense; the Ministry of Interior Affairs; the Federal Security Service, or FSB (formerly the KGB); and the FSKN (Drug Enforcement Agency).  

There were a number of reasons for their discontent, but the following two were the main ones. Chechnya became a de facto independent country, rendering the siloviki's efforts in two Chechen wars futile. And the generous federal subsidies to Chechnya (some call it tributes) go straight into Kadyrov’s hands, depriving the siloviki of their share of the gravy train.  

Meanwhile, Kadyrov received a carte blanche for killing his rivals and critics in Chechnya, in Russia proper and abroad.

For his influence in Russian politics, as a thorn in Putin’s side, Nemtsov was of secondary importance to Kadyrov. However, his death appears to have served Putin’s interests.  

Still, Nemtsov’s Chechen killers most likely did not expect a thorough investigation and have been quite sloppy in leaving multiple fingerprints. However, the siloviki, though they had every reason to dislike the pro-Western liberal Nemtsov and welcome his death, promptly disclosed the identity of the killer and his assistants, who went into hiding in Chechnya. Clearly, it was a setup to get rid of Kadyrov by exposing his role in Nemtsov’s murder.  

What happened next provided fodder for wild speculation. First, General Sergei Ivanov, the chief of staff of the Presidential Executive Office and the siloviki’s natural leader, disappeared from public view for two weeks. Then it was Putin’s turn to disappear under the pretext of being sick.  

Former Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky even predicted the president’s prompt political demise. However, Putin reappeared at a meeting with the president of Kyrgyzstan. The latter devoted his remarks to assuring the audience that Putin was in good health. For a while, the president and his chief of staff were inseparable at every photo op.

For all practical purposes, rumors about the siloviki versus Kadyrov conspiracy subsided until two Russian opposition sources, Ilya Yashin and the Novaya Gazeta newspaper, a year after Nemtsov’s murder, published the name of a man who allegedly ordered Kadyrov to kill Nemtsov. It was Putin’s former chief bodyguard and, at the time, the first deputy minister of interior affairs, General Viktor Zolotov.  

His connection to Putin dates back to the time when both men worked in St. Petersburg. Zolotov is known for his personal loyalty to the president and is not viewed by the siloviki as a true member of their clan.  

A number of prominent Russian opposition activists immediately pointed out that Zolotov’s name was deliberately leaked to the opposition by the siloviki as an element of their continuing confrontation with Kadyrov and, to a certain extent, with Putin himself.  

The president responded with a broadside: On April 5, he created a new militarized agency, the National Guard, with 400,000 members (four times the size of the British army). It incorporated many of the best units, including air wings and armor, which used to be under the command of the siloviki.  

The National Guard’s commander in chief is Zolotov, who was promoted to the rank of four-star general and became a member of the Security Council. He reports directly to the president, and his agency’s task is to fight various enemies from within, including violent extremists and organized crime.

The latter sounds highly ironic, given the fact that back in the 1990s, Zolotov was a bodyguard for Roman Tsepov, known for his ties to the criminal world of St. Petersburg and whose poisoning was allegedly connected to the siloviki. 

Earlier, Putin had appointed Kadyrov, whose Chechen presidential term was supposed to expire on April 5, 2015, the acting leader of Chechnya. Most likely, Kadyrov is going to be re-elected in September’s regional elections.

The siloviki tried to use the Nemtsov tragedy as a tool to get rid of Kadyrov but failed completely: They lost a great deal of their clout to their competitor Zolotov, while Kadyrov preserved his control of Chechnya. However, they were not annihilated completely. It is too early to predict what their next step will be, but one can be assured that the show will be interesting.

Alexei Sobchenko is an independent analyst and a former U.S. Department of State employee.