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Chechnya once resisted Russia. Now, its leader is Putin's close ally


RAMZAN KADYROV: (Non-English language spoken).


That is the voice of the Chechen Republic's leader and notorious Kremlin ally Ramzan Kadyrov. In a video posted the day after Russia invaded Ukraine, he promised Chechen fighters would occupy Ukraine's hot spots.


SHAPIRO: This is despite the fact that Kadyrov's own father, less than a generation ago, fought against Russia's wars on their home.

To better understand the role of Kadyrov and this Muslim majority republic in the ongoing war, I spoke to Rachel Denber. She's deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia division for Human Rights Watch. It's good to have you here.

RACHEL DENBER: Good to be here - thank you so much for having me.

SHAPIRO: Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov has been described as brutal, Putin's puppet, his attack dog. The U.S. has sanctioned him for human rights abuses, including persecution and torture of LGBT people. So in the years leading up to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, what earned Kadyrov this reputation?

DENBER: Kadyrov earned this reputation through his absolutely brutal and feudalistic tight-hold grip over Chechnya, where he has been the leader, basically, since the assassination of his father, who was the leader of Chechnya in 2004. His fearsome security services are responsible for great numbers of enforced disappearances, summary executions, house burning. These days, Kadyrov exercises control through his brutal praetorian guard and also through extensive surveillance.

SHAPIRO: And can you paint a picture for us of the man himself? I mean, you've described a really iron-fisted rule, but the man himself, Ramzan, is almost a larger-than-life figure.

DENBER: He has developed a cult around himself for a number of years. He was quite active on Instagram, where he allowed himself to say the most outrageous, flamboyant and inflammatory things. He sees Putin as kind of his patron. But I think it's also a complicated relationship because, you know, the Kremlin believes that Ramzan keeps a lid on any kind of dissent through these absolutely brutal methods of enforced disappearance, killings and the like. Torture quelled the Islamist insurgency that had continued after the second Chechen war had ended. So I think that the Kremlin felt that Ramzan kept a lid on insurgency. So Ramzan pretty much has carte blanche to do whatever he wants.

SHAPIRO: But what might surprise people here is that Ramzan's father was, at one point, fighting against the Russians and was considered a Chechen nationalist. And so how did leadership go from trying to fight for independence to fighting on Russia's behalf against Ukraine?

DENBER: Well, that's right. Ramzan's father, Akhmad Kadyrov, was aligned with the anti-Russian forces in Chechnya and eventually changed sides. And when papa changed sides, obviously Ramzan changed sides, and they tied their fate to the Kremlin. For what reasons? I know - it's really hard to say. They acquired a tremendous power in Chechnya by doing so.

SHAPIRO: And so when you look at the role of Chechen forces - who are actually known as Kadyrovtsy, they're that loyal to the leader - when you look at their role in Ukraine, is this simply doing a favor for a patron, Vladimir Putin, or is there more going on here?

DENBER: I think that it's showing their power because if they throw their force behind Russia's forces in Ukraine, then they're owed something, aren't they? But it's also - I think it's also important to underscore that Kadyrov is Putin's most loyal and most enthusiastic subordinate. Having said that, it is a very complicated relationship because I think that there are many in the security services who are not great fans of Ramzan Kadyrov, but they tolerate him because they know that because Kadyrov has total control over, you know, his own security services and the like in Chechnya, if they remove him, who knows what he might do?

SHAPIRO: That is Rachel Denber, deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia division for Human Rights Watch. Thank you for speaking with us.

DENBER: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.