Can Putin Manage Two Russian Titans?

Two powerful men are taking bold steps to shape the Russian Federation. The actions of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov and Igor Sechin, chief of oil giant Rosneft, are resonating through not only the Kremlin but Russian society in general. As well as influencing the country’s security, financial and energy sectors, both men are in a position to test Russian President Vladimir Putin’s resolve. The coming days will reveal whether Putin can continue to arbitrate between these giant personalities, and whether to do so will damage his grip on power.

Controversy never seems to be far away from Ramzan Kadyrov. No stranger to provocative stunts, the Chechen leader sparked furious debate earlier this month by threatening to brand those who oppose Putin’s rule as “enemies of the people” and “traitors.” He then proposed a return to the days of Soviet show trials, reserved for those who dare speak out against “the people.” Kadyrov then accused members of Russia’s extra-parliamentary opposition of being on the payroll of Western intelligence agencies. What then ensued was the kind of tit-for-tat social media war that Kadyrov is known for, with various Russian politicians and public figures expressing outrage. Many accused Kadryov of extremist behavior and making illegal statements.

Not one to be deterred, Kadyrov staged a major rally in Grozny over the weekend in which (he claims) nearly a million Chechens came out in support of both Putin and Kadyrov. This is not the first time the Chechen president has pulled together such rallies in support of Putin, though on this occasion the official purpose of the rally was to support Kadyrov in equal measure. Supporters from nearby Dagestan attempted to make the pilgrimage to Grozny but fell afoul of internal security forces, suggesting a growing nervousness in the region over Kadyrov’s power. Adding to the hype, when Putin was interviewed on Monday at a public event, the Russian President called Kadyrov one of the “most effective” leaders in the country. This is just the latest in a series of highly public endorsements made by the Russian president about the Chechen leader.

There is much debate throughout Russia as to whether Kadyrov is the country’s new political firebrand. He is often portrayed as an instigator, sparking controversy and fuelling disputes on hot-button issues. Such a role has traditionally been filled by Liberal Democratic Party Chief Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin. With Kadyrov proving irrepressible, rumors are flooding the Russian media and political pundits that he is attempting to launch himself into a federal position. If true, this would be fairly contentious move for a former Chechen rebel, especially at a time when Russian nationalism is also on the rise.

Despite Kadyrov’s provocations, Putin continues to stand behind the incendiary Chechen. This is a continuation of the trend seen over the last two years, when Kadyrov struggled with Russia’s domestic intelligence service, the FSB, and was linked to the death of prominent opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. Despite his aggressive persona, Kadyrov’s approval rating among Russians rose during the 2014 Ukraine crisis. This was in part a response to the major display he made of Chechen forces being prepared to fight if necessary. However, a Levada poll published Thursday reveals that Russians are growing increasingly concerned about Kadyrov and his outlandish antics. “Respect” for the leader fell from 35 percent to 17 percent over 2015. This could prove problematic for Kadyrov, harkening back to 2011 when mass protests erupted over the Kremlin’s support for Chechnya, and Kadyrov in particular.

But Putin has multiple reasons to keep Kadyrov close. Not only did Kadyrov bring stability to the troubled Chechen region, he commands 40,000 fighting personnel.  He also provides an additional counterweight to the FSB and is unwaveringly loyal to Putin on a personal level. Putin’s assurance of Kadyrov’s allegiance is more important now than ever; the Russian leader is growing increasingly unsure of who within the Kremlin elite is still beholden to him. As a result, Putin has elevated many loyalists to positions of power, bringing them closer into the fold to secure the Russian president’s authority. The danger comes from association if things go wrong and there is a Kremlin backlash against the brash outsider.

The Case of Sechin

Although Kadyrov’s loyalty to Putin is loudly and publically assured, the same cannot be said for another key member of the Kremlin elite. Oil tycoon Igor Sechin has been accused by many within the government of looking out for his — and Rosneft’s — interests over those of the Russian state. And as oil prices continue to remain low and government demands stack up, Rosneft has found itself in an increasingly difficult spot. Now it appears that Sechin’s obedience is being tested once more.

This week, Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak held a series of critical meetings with the heads of Russia’s energy firms. These meetings came as the Russian government decided on a cluster of anti-crisis measures to help bail out the weakening Russian economy. In response to Russia’s tightening belt, the energy administration is discussing a series of controversial issues: Namely, whether to raise taxes on energy firms, whether to privatize shares of the energy giants, and whether to cut oil production. On the last issue, Novak stated after high-level meetings that Russia would hold negotiations with the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries in February to possibly coordinate production cuts — a meeting OPEC has denied agreeing to.

Conspicuously missing from all these energy talks was the country’s principal oil baron, Igor Sechin. Sechin decided to skip the meetings this week, though he has been vociferous on the issues at stake. He is firmly opposed to any new taxes on his oil giant, Rosneft, for obvious reasons. Sechin is also against the Kremlin’s financial proposals to plug the Russian budget with funds raised by privatizing a slice of his company. Furthermore, Sechin has long expressed his refusal to cut production unless OPEC — specifically Saudi Arabia — cuts production first. In a public statement from last year Sechin said that Russia “would not blink first” when it came to oil. In addition, Sechin has outwardly blamed OPEC for the crash in oil prices over the past year. A leak from this week’s energy meetings reported that no decision on any issue was made because of Sechin’s absence.

The failure of the Rosneft chief to show up has invited speculation. He was known to be in Moscow this week and even held a private meeting with Alexei Miller, head of Russia’s natural gas giant, Gazprom. Sechin and Miller — along with their respective companies — have long been rivals in the energy sector. A private meeting between the pair just after Miller sat in on the Energy Ministry talks is curious, especially as both companies feel battered by the government at this time. If both heavyweights decide to team up, then there could be a serious counter to the government’s plans for the energy industry.

Sechin has long been considered the one politician other than Putin who is “too big to fall.” Sechin is not only the largest oil baron, but is one of the most powerful within the former FSB circle — with allies that stretch across the spectrum of Kremlin elites. When Putin ousted the powerful chief of Russian Railways, Vladimir Yakunin, last year, many considered the move to be Putin’s signal to Sechin to fall in line.

Clearly Sechin did not get the message. His increasing defiance could be a real test for Putin, and it will be revealing to see whether Russia’s strongman can rein in his Kremlin elite. Kadyrov, on the other hand, is loyal to a fault. While this is reassuring, it could risk eroding popularity among the broader populace and lead the Kremlin (and Russians) to question Putin’s judgment and choice of friends.

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