ONE WAY to think about Russia today is not to focus solely on President Vladimir Putin but rather on his system. In the absence of democracy and rule of law, Mr. Putin’s realm is held together by powerful clans that depend on him and deliver what he needs. Some loyal businessmen and industrialists make up one part; the military and security services another; there are also bands of loyal politicians and bureaucrats. Among them all, hardly anyone holds a candle to Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of Chechnya and Mr. Putin’s most aggressive attack dog.
After Russian forces quelled a rebellion in Chechnya with excessive force and extensive abuse of human rights, Mr. Kadyrov was installed as the Kremlin’s overlord of the internal republic, and he has performed with a special devotion to brutality. Torture and illegal detention have been rampant. Mr. Kadyrov assembled his own formidable security forces. He calls himself “a patriot, a foot soldier of the president of Russia, Vladimir Putin.” Russian authorities have prosecuted Chechens with links to Mr. Kadyrov for the murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov last year, although they have not traced the crime to Mr. Kadyrov personally.
Now, the attack dog seems to be unleashed. Mr. Kadyrov has written an article published in the daily Izvestia that pours scorn on the “nonsystemic opposition” to Mr. Putin and suggests it be punished. The term “systemic opposition” in Russia usually refers to the toadies and sycophants who support Mr. Putin. Mr. Kadyrov’s sights are on everyone else who criticizes the president — and he named names, including prominent opposition figure Alexei Navalny and journalists for Echo of Moscow radio and Dozhd television, both progressive outlets. In the article, Mr. Kadyrov declares that “there is a very good psychiatric hospital” in Chechnya where “we will not be stingy with injections” to these critics. “When they are prescribed one injection, we can give two.” He says the opposition is a “pack of jackals,” “bunch of traitors,” “Western lackeys,” “enemies of the people,” “haters of Russia,” people who are trying “to destroy our country and undermine its constitutional order.” Stalin would recognize the language. Mr. Kadyrov’s chief of staff drove the point home with a photo posted on social media of the Chechen leader holding back a massive Caucasian Shepherd dog named Tarzan, saying the beast’s “teeth itch.”
This rhetoric is dangerous because it can arouse action. When Mr. Kadyrov says that critics of the Kremlin are engaging in a “punishable criminal offense,” what does he mean — and more seriously, what does he incite? Clearly, Mr. Kadyrov is jockeying for power, and the struggle is murky. But his words and deeds speak volumes about Mr. Putin’s rule. The Russian president seems to be unwilling or unable to restrain his attack dog, perhaps with the expectation that the threats will intimidate and frighten the opposition, just as Nemtsov’s murder did. Mr. Putin has created a state based on the rule of the wolves, and they are running ever-more wild.