Russia’s top domestic political story last month was the mystery swirling around Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov after it emerged that the 46-year-old feudal warlord, a key figure in the Putin system, has serious health problems. In mid-September, Chechen opposition Telegram channels even reported his death. In a bid to show those reports had been greatly exaggerated, Kadyrov hit the airwaves and set about stoking some political intrigue concerning his potential successor.
- Rumours about Kadyrov’s poor health have been around for a while — sources first told Novaya Gazeta about the Chechen leader's ailing condition a few years ago. In summer 2022, according to reports, his unspecified condition grew worse. By December, the rumors had grown so persistent that Kadyrov, seeking to dispel any concerns, decided to perform 35 push-ups on live TV. But the intrigue remained. In spring 2023, Kadyrov did not attend President Vladimir Putin’s address to the Federal Assembly, an event that the Russian elite is expected to show up for. At the time, German newspaper Bild cited opposition reports that he had serious kidney problems.
- Nobody knows the truth about Kadyrov’s condition. Sources of Novaya Gazeta’s Elena Milashina (one of the most credible reporters on Chechnya) described the disease as an one that is difficult to treat and, in 30% of cases, results in death. Without naming the actual condition, they said it can lead to kidney and lung failure (which would explain Kadyrov’s evident breathing difficulties). “The disease is accompanied by attacks of excruciating pain, which keep sufferers awake. Not even strong painkillers, typically given to late-stage cancer patients, can help,” Novaya Gazeta reported.
- In mid-September, Chechen Telegram channels (and then Ukrainian media) began reporting that Kadyrov’s health had deteriorated further yet again. Some reports suggested that he was at death’s door, others said he was in a coma or had in fact already died. The well-known anonymous Russian Telegram channel VChK-OGPU published photos of several expensive cars with Chechen number plates gathered outside the Moscow Central Clinical Hospital, the Kremlin’s trusted medical institution for the country’s elite. However, Kadyrov soon popped up alive on his Telegram channel, posting photos that suggested he was visiting a relative in the hospital. Nobody believed him. Alexei Venediktov, former editor-in-chief of the Ekho Moskvy radio station, reported that Kadyrov is suffering from kidney failure and was at the hospital for a round of dialysis.
- Periodic reports of a deterioration in Kadyrov’s condition are routinely accompanied by his own media machine starting to boost the public profile of his sons as potential successors. Since summer 2022, when Kadyrov’s condition allegedly began to decline, Chechen TV has regularly broadcast reports featuring his three sons – Akhmat (17), Zelimkhan (16) and Adam (15). In the fall, the Chechen leader released a video of them firing a machine gun, which he said was on the frontlines in Ukraine. The video also showed prisoners they had allegedly captured. During another alleged deterioration in Kadyrov’s illness in spring 2023, Putin publicly met his oldest son, Akhmat, for the first time.
- This time, Kadyrov’s youngest son Adam got the starring role. And even by Chechen standards, it took a pretty extreme form. A week after the first unsubstantiated reports of his death, Kadyrov published a clip of 15-year-old Adam beating a prisoner in a pre-trial detention center in Chechnya’s capital, Grozny. The prisoner, Nikita Zhuravel, was a young man who investigators said burned a copy of the Koran outside a local mosque in Volgograd and later told the FSB that he did so on orders from the Ukrainian security forces. The criminal case against Zhuravel was pointedly transferred to Chechnya for investigation.
- No Russian officials commented on or reacted to the video, which blatantly showed criminal behaviour. The reason soon became clear when a couple of days later, Putin welcomed Ramzan Kadyrov himself to the Kremlin in a televised meeting, indicating such actions are not a concern for the president.
What does it mean?
After Yevgeny Prigozhin’s uprising, Ramzan Kadyrov found himself in an unusually vulnerable position. Throughout 2022, Kadyrov had positioned himself as the owner of a private army comparable to the Wagner Group (although Wagner, unlike Kadyrov’s men, had an identifiable track record of military achievements). Along with Prigozhin, Kadyrov too had spoken out and complained about Russia’s military leadership and the performance of the country’s regular army in Ukraine.
In Feb. 2023, when the Wagner leadership irrevocably fell out with the defense ministry, Kadyrov understood that continuing to support Prigozhin could be dangerous. He started to unwind his alliance with the mercenary boss and turnedinto a critic of his former ally. Since the June uprising and Prigozhin’s death two months later, Kadyrov has remained in an awkward position – he is now the only high-profile figure leading a large paramilitary group, something that the Kremlin may feel differently about following the Prigozhin saga.
For now, having secured a public meeting with the president even against the background of the scandalous video featuring his son, Kadyrov has reinforced his status. As for his successors, Kadyrov does not seriously believe that any of his sons – none of whom have yet turned 18 – are ready to take over his role immediately upon his likely demise. Novaya Gazeta’s Milashina suggested that the PR campaign for Kadyrov’s kids is instead an attempt to protect them after their father’s death, showing that the Kremlin will guarantee their safety.
Why the world should care
This wave of events and reports leaves no doubt that Ramzan Kadyrov is seriously ill. And that should seriously worry the Kremlin. Chechnya is a hugely important region for Vladimir Putin: in the 1990s it was a symbol of violent separatism, and successfully quelling the separatist movement was a key foundation of Putin’s rise to power. Since then, his entire policy in Chechnya has been built on Kadyrov’s leadership. A change of power in the region could pose a challenge for Moscow.