Inside the special relationship between Putin and the man responsible for a string of assassinations in Europe

insider@insider.com (Mitch Prothero)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) meets with Chechnya's leader Ramzan Kadyrov at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, in this December 10, 2015 file photo. REUTERS/Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik/Kremlin
Putin and Kadyrov.

Thomson Reuters

  • In the last eight years, a string of Chechen dissidents have been assassinated in Western Europe, and Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov doesn't seem to care that law enforcement authorities are aware of who is behind them.

  • His patron, Russian president Vladimir Putin, seems unflustered that Kadyrov is killing whomever he wants, sometimes without his knowledge.

  • Intelligence officials told Insider why Putin tolerates the killings.

  • Their answer: Putin can trust Kadyrov implicitly because of the power structure between them.

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In 2012, Russian diplomats approached German law enforcement with a list of 19 Chechens wanted by Russian authorities for a variety of crimes related to Chechen separatist movements and terrorism. Russia alleged they had been granted, or were being considered for, asylum in the West despite having criminal backgrounds forged amid the violence that has wracked the remote province.

The request for assistance by the Russians was rejected, according to the investigative website Bellingcat in a joint project with the German magazine Der Spiegel.

In the eight years since, five of the people on the list have been murdered.

They include Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, an ethnic Chechen from Georgia, who was shot to death in broad daylight while walking through a central Berlin park last August.

Late Saturday, Mamikhan Umarov was gunned down outside a shopping mall in Vienna, Austria. He was an outspoken opponent of the pro-Moscow Chechen regime of Ramzan Kadyrov. After a police chase that employed a helicopter, the alleged shooter, a Russian national believed to be of Chechen dissent, was arrested. 

Kadyrov doesn't care if Europe knows he is behind the assassinations

In the aftermath of the two Russian-Chechen wars of the 1990s, and the splintering of the Chechen independence movement, Russia installed Kadyrov, a pro-Moscow strongman, to keep a lid on the region. Fifteen years of violence and assassinations followed.

Now the killings are spilling into Europe. Kadyrov doesn't seem to care what European law enforcement agencies think about it. And Putin seems unflustered that Kadyrov is killing whoever he wants.

A French police official working on the case of Imran Aliev, an anti-Kadyrov blogger who had been living under police protection in Belgium before being stabbed to death in a hotel room in Lille, France, last February, said the problem has expanded from Eastern Europe and Turkey, where there are large political active diasporas, to Western Europe.
The official, who does not have permission to speak openly to the media, cites at least seven attacks in Istanbul since 2004. There have been another dozen in Ukraine. The source says they are "typical, these are the front lines of their conflict."

"What is becoming clear is that the rules have changed," the official said. "Kadyrov is sending people with hammers and knives after people with police protection in Western European countries. Does he care if we know it is him? No."

Why does Putin allow Kadyrov to kill whomever he wants?

In conversations with a dozen Russian experts — ranging from intelligence officers to law enforcement to think tanks — people tend to cite a version of the Thomas Becket story, in which King Henry II asked "Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?" 

Kadyrov serves a double function for Putin in this understanding. The murders of high-profile journalists and political opponents in Moscow, such as Boris Nemtsov in 2015 and Anna Politkovskaya in 2006, are commonly blamed on Kadyrov, as opposed to Putin. Thus, the president of Russia gets to enjoy knowing his opponents might end up being murdered without direct involvement himself.

"Something like Nemtsov, it really doesn't seem like Putin knew that it was being planned. Maybe he cared a little because there was signalling of some displeasure. But that's for show. He doesn't mind if his enemies are worried some Chechen guy might shoot them," according to a Central European counter-intelligence official who frequently monitors Russian operations. 

The official, who cannot be named because they work undercover, said there appears to be a deal where Kadyrov has a free hand to deal with Chechen rivals and dissidents anywhere in the world.

"As bad as the Russians can be, they do sincerely believe these guys are terrorists," the official said. "So if Kadyrov wants to send guys to kill terrorists with hammers — and the official Russian services don't get involved — they really don't see this as a problem."

'Kadyrov is the only man Putin can really trust'

In a 2015 interview, a Chechen fighter who had fought Kadyrov's men in both Chechnya and Georgia before fighting for jihadist groups in Syria, said that the relationship between Putin and Kadyrov is more symbiotic than is often realized in the West.

"Chechens are good at fighting and extorting other Chechens" said "Ramzan," who did not give a family name. "Putin knows that the Russians cannot control Chechnya themselves. They always need a Chechen to make fighting among the Chechens, to keep them busy with each other."

So Kadyrov becomes a proxy for Putin so long as he contains the unrest in Chechnya. But what Putin gets from this is overlooked, according to Ramzan.

"Kadyrov is the only man Putin can really trust," he said. "He [Kadyrov] can never replace Putin and without Putin he can be easily overthrown. So he can be trusted with things that Russians who might want power cannot."

"Like murders," he added. 

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