Ramzan Kadyrov, the strongman placed in control of Chechnya to maintain Moscow's rule after two bloody conflicts to quell separatism, has thrown down a gauntlet – and in doing so, hinted Russia may have really lost those wars after all.
In televised comments to Chechen law enforcement officers, Mr. Kadyrov said that any federal officers who appear on Chechen territory without permission should be shot.
"I am officially stating, if any [security officer], whether from Moscow or Stavropol, appears on your territory without your knowledge, shoot to kill. They have to take us into account," he said.
Kadyrov's order makes explicit a reality that has long been discussed on the margins in Moscow. Despite the strongman's nominally pro-Kremlin stance, effectively he rules a legal black hole in which neither the Russian Constitution nor federal law enforcement holds any sway.
"Chechnya is a territory where Kadyrov is absolute ruler and no one can do anything without his say so," says Nikolai Petrov, a professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. "It's long been known that Chechens acting under the protection of Kadyrov are able to operate even in Moscow with complete immunity."
The incident that prompted Kadyrov's outburst this week remains murky. Federal agents from the adjacent Stavropol region, bolstered by a police unit from Moscow, reportedly shot and killed a Chechen suspect, Dzhambulat Dadayev, on Chechen soil Sunday.
Whether a coincidence or not, the victim had the same (albeit common) family name as the prime suspect in the February murder of liberal politician Boris Nemtsov, near Red Square. Zaur Dadayev, a former top officer of Kadyrov's local armed forces, is regarded as the trigger man by Russian police. He is still in a Moscow prison although his lawyers say the confession he allegedly made was "coerced" and he has withdrawn it.
The Kremlin fought two wars to force Chechnya to remain part of Russia, and finally withdrew its forces in 2009, declaring the republic pacified. Under Kadyrov, the war-ravaged region has been almost entirely rebuilt, mainly thanks to generous subsidies from Moscow.
Kadyrov is a colorful personality, who has been known to discipline subordinates with a few rounds in a boxing ring, and keeps the world abreast of his antics with daily updates to his Instagram account.
But Kadyrov has imposed an iron-fisted personal rule that often defies basic Russian law, such as allowing polygamy, forcing Chechen women to adhere to an "Islamic" dress code, and destroying the family homes of suspected terrorists.
And his security forces are allowed to operate almost unchallenged by the Kremlin – to the chagrin of many in Russia's own law-enforcement agencies. The opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported an incident two years ago in which an elite unit of the Federal Security Service actually went on strike to protest the decision of higher-ups to release a group of Kadyrov-linked Chechens they had tracked down and arrested – in Moscow – on charges of kidnapping and extortion.
But Kadyrov's threat to kill federal officers who show up in Chechnya to enforce Russian law might be too much for even an indulgent Kremlin to swallow.
"The federal police created a precedent, by killing a criminal suspect in Chechnya while attempting to arrest him," says Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the independent Center for Political Technologies in Moscow.
"Now both sides are turning to [President Vladimir] Putin to resolve this. Federal security forces want Chechnya to be returned to being a normal subject of Russian law. Kadyrov wants to make it clear that he's been offended, and he wants Putin to restore things to their former state. So far, there is no word on what Putin will decide," he says.