On September 15, Andrii Yusov, a spokesman for the Ukrainian military intelligence, told journalists that Ramzan Kadyrov, the governor of Chechnya, was in a coma. This statement sparked a flurry of sensationalised speculation about the Chechen leader’s condition. Some suggested he was in a hospital in Moscow, receiving treatment for kidney problems, others that he was suffering from the negative effects of drug addiction, and a minority even declared his death.
It was not the first time that rumours about Kadyrov’s health deteriorating have surfaced. Such speculation has been circulating for a few years now. The difference this time was that it attracted much more international attention, perhaps due to the key role the self-described “foot soldier” of President Vladimir Putin has played in the war in Ukraine, especially on the propaganda front.
There seem to be hopes in some quarters that in the event of Kadyrov’s debilitating illness or death, Chechnya, and by extension Russia, would be destabilised, which would help Ukraine win the war. But such a development is rather unlikely. In fact, the health condition of Chechnya’s leader does not matter much. That is because the regime in the Chechen Republic currently maintains a high level of resilience, both internally and in its relationship with Moscow.
A personalised, but stable regime
Kadyrov’s power hinges on two pillars: the lack of political rivals who can challenge his rule and his close ties to Putin. After taking over the reins of power from his father, Akhmat, who was assassinated in 2004, Kadyrov has systematically sought to eliminate anyone who could pose a threat to his position. Critics and rivals have been assassinated or have had to flee abroad, where they live in fear of being targeted.
Kadyrov has also secured his post by developing a personal connection with Putin. Commonly labelled as familial, nearly paternal, their relationship is closer than any other the Russian president has had with a regional leader.
In exchange for displaying blind loyalty to Putin, Kadyrov receives significant funds from the federal budget. Indeed, Chechnya is one of the most subsidised regions in Russia; by its leader’s own admission, it would not survive a month without funding from Moscow.
His illness or death, however, would not stem the flow of these funds, as the Kremlin perceives them as a way to buy stability and peace in the republic, which suffered through two wars in the 1990s.
Kadyrov is also not irreplaceable. While there is indeed a lot of personalisation of power in Chechnya, he alone does not represent the entirety of the regime. He sits atop the regime hierarchy, but he is not solely responsible for its function; there are a number of powerful men who manage various aspects of governance.
Chechnya’s Speaker of Parliament Magomed Daudov and Deputy Prime Minister Abuzaid Vismuradov handle internal affairs, particularly in relation to repressing the public and maintaining stability. Both men have reputations for extreme violence and have been connected to cases of torture. Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the pair have also overseen deployments of Chechen fighters to the battlefield.
Prime Minister Muslim Khuchiev manages conventional governance operations. He is a traditional bureaucrat, having occupied a variety of government positions. Khuchiev has also served as the acting head of Chechnya, standing in for Kadyrov on multiple occasions, including earlier this year, when he took leave.
Adam Delimkhanov, Kadyrov’s most trusted lieutenant and a member of the Russian Duma, controls the regime’s informal, frequently criminal, operations outside Chechnya. He has been responsible for stamping out opposition to Kadyrov among the Chechen diaspora and has been accused of organising several assassinations. He has also played a prominent public role in Russia’s military campaign in Ukraine, deploying into occupied territories with Chechen forces.
If Kadyrov were to be incapacitated or die, these powerful figures would be able to continue his regime’s operations, likely with one of them serving as the acting regional head.
Kadyrov is also grooming his eldest son, Akhmat, as his successor, although he remains roughly seven years away from meeting the legal age requirement to be a governor. In March, on the eve of his wedding, the younger Kadyrov met Putin in Moscow. This meeting was the clearest indicator of Akhmat’s standing and marked the beginning of a months-long flurry of official duties for the eldest Kadyrov son.
The Kremlin is likely to accept Akhmat as Ramzan’s successor not just because his father desires it, but because it maintains the current structure of relations. This keeps Chechnya as a political constant, rather than an unpredictable vassal region.
Whether Akhmat takes over from his father or there is a transitional figure that rules temporarily, like Daudov or Delimkhanov, the regime in Chechnya is poised to stay intact if Kadyrov is to leave the position of governor early.
No prospects for internal resistance
In the event of leadership change, stability in the North Caucasian republic is also guaranteed by its massive repressive apparatus, which swiftly roots out any form of opposition when it appears. As of late, Kadyrov’s regime has demonstrated an increasingly lower threshold for deploying force.
For example, in September last year, after Moscow announced partial mobilisation, Chechen women went out in Grozny to demonstrate against the decision. The protesters were taken to the Grozny mayor’s office by the security services and beaten, while their male relatives were forcibly deployed to the front in Ukraine.
In December, a fight between two security officials in the Chechen city of Urus-Martan was followed by a large-scale security campaign to detain residents who witnessed and recorded the incident on their phones. The authorities in Grozny were reportedly irritated that the locals were entertained by the altercation.
The regime’s heavy-handedness can be interpreted as a sign of its fundamental weakness, of its lack of popular legitimacy. Nevertheless, it is effective in wiping out protest and maintaining control and its ability to do so would not deteriorate if something were to happen to Kadyrov.
The Chechen public’s means to organise armed resistance are also limited. In the 1990s, Chechens fought for independence from Russia but were defeated in the second Russo-Chechen war. The local insurgency which persisted over the next decade was stemmed, with many fighters leaving the republic.
Today, the bulk of Chechen opposition forces have moved to Ukraine to continue their struggle against Russia. They have taken part in key battles, successfully defending Kyiv, liberating Izyum, and fighting around Bakhmut earlier this year. However, they have no clear path to return to their homeland.
Crossing overland from the Southern Caucasus appears not possible at the moment. Georgia remains unfriendly towards Chechens due to its fraught history of spillover conflict and a failed attempt to exploit fighters from the region. Azerbaijan likewise would not allow Chechen fighters to transit through its territory out of its own security considerations and reluctance to anger Moscow.
Any resistance that gets organised on the ground in Chechnya would face the major challenge of a limited arms supply. Some weapons caches from the 2000s’ insurgency remain hidden in the woods, but their number and usability are questionable. Kadyrov’s regime has cracked down on illegal weapons possession and gunsmiths. The war in Ukraine could increase the availability of weapons within Russia, but that would not be sufficient on its own to supply a substantial armed resistance force.
Kadyrov is also taking measures to prevent a new rebellion. He reduced the number of Chechen troops fighting in Ukraine within the first few months of the war and last summer ordered the security services to get better prepared for underground fighting. He, of course, can also rely on military backing from Moscow were there to be internal strife.
A debilitating illness or even death in the Chechen leadership would not diminish the regime’s capacity to stomp out any dissent or armed resistance. Kadyrov may have a unique relationship with Putin, but he is not irreplaceable. Whether his son becomes his successor or one of his trusted men steps in, the regime would continue to function with strong backing from Moscow and keep Chechen aspirations for freedom and independence at bay.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.