War in Ukraine: Kadyrov’s Disinformation Dispatch
The Chechen leader's facade is faltering; Ramadov Kadyrov, the strong man leader of Chechnya has been slowly exposed as a Kremlin propaganda tool. Kadyrov is a staunch ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin and has long been painted as a powerful figure with a ferocious military behind him. Frequent threats to his opponents, televised public shaming, forced disappearances, and his iron grip on the communications infrastructure have created an environment of intimidation in Chechnya with little room to push against disinformation. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the warlord reportedly led his Kadyrovites, a Chechen paramilitary organisation, into battle. Open-source intelligence (OSINT) communities have cast significant doubt on the narratives painted by propaganda, so who really are Kadyrov and his Kadyrovites?
A Chechen crackdown
Just like the motherland, Chechnya uses propaganda and disinformation to maintain a central grip on power. Authorities in Chechnya have been fast to react to opposition groups and narratives, by using Telegram channels and TV broadcasts to spread disinformation, counter-narratives, and spread rumours about those who oppose Kadyrov. Some who circulate stories that aren’t approved by Kadyrov’s government have been forced to publicly apologise to him, and others have disappeared. Chechen authorities use Telegram channels to undermine the credibility of opposition voices by monitoring them and responding with disinformation and propaganda. Kadyrov was sanctioned by the US which led to his very popular Instagram account being blocked in late 2017, prompting a switch to Telegram and VK. Chechen media monitors are told which reports they need to crush and are given free rein to create rebuttal videos to undermine any negative stories about Kadyrov or his government. This includes his labelling of the human rights related Telegram channel “1Adat” as an extremist organisation. Most information about the Chechen Republic that reaches outside ears comes through layers of filters, censors, and propaganda, as fear of retribution permeates daily life in Chechnya.
No deterring disinformation
It is increasingly difficult for journalists to work in Chechnya, with most Chechens refusing to talk to reporters unless they compliment Kadyrov and his leadership. It is not uncommon for journalists to receive death threats or be detained during an investigation. In 2016, Russian reports and foreign correspondents were attacked and the bus was set on fire. Kadyrov has frequently threatened journalists, not an idle threat from a man who has ordered kidnappings, torture, and assassinations.
In the depths of Telegram, Kadyrov’s disinformation campaigns are carefully cultivated and controlled. His personal love of Telegram may be connected to the fact that channels are effectively controlled communities in which he has final say over any communication. It creates an insular box where the narrative can be controlled and disseminated. This control has not made Kadyrov impervious however. Sloppiness in choice of background, geolocations, and opening links sent to him are all ways that his location has been pinpointed as Grozny, not the frontlines in Ukraine like he claims.
Real warriors don't look like warriors
One day into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Russian defence military confirmed that Chechen soldiers would join the war. A propaganda video showed up to 10,000 troops and the national guard ready to join the invasion. Some propaganda Telegram channels claimed that as many as 70,000 Chechens would make their way to Ukraine. Videos claiming to show these troops on the frontlines were widely circulated, but within hours many had been debunked by OSINT analysts, who pinpointed the filming locations and account geolocations as Grozny, Chechnya’s capital. Additionally, many of those featured in his images were in fact household staff and family members merely posing as soldiers.
Chechen soldiers are heavily equipped, but this doesn't mean that they are militarily effective. Propaganda has played a significant role in the reputation that Kadyrovites have, and while some certainly are Soviet veterans, this does not necessarily translate to efficacy on the ground today. Kadyrov’s propaganda machine has published videos detailing “missions” undertaken by these troops which show them shooting out traffic lights and conducting operations in empty buildings with clean uniforms, suggesting that they are falsified videos most likely staged outside of Ukraine. Kadyrov himself has posted updates of his own exploits in Ukraine, including praying before a fight in Mariupol and capturing a Ukrainian vehicle. These photo updates were quickly tracked to have actually been taken in Russia, including one right outside the Presidential Palace in Grozny.
His brutal warlord persona is coming into conflict with the reality of his inaction and largely ceremonial military forces. While Chechens are present in the invasion of Ukraine, and have committed atrocities and have been linked to atrocities in places such as Mariupol, Kadyrov himself appears to remain absent, and the numbers of fighters he claimed is nowhere near the reality on the ground.
Written by Perri Grace
Edited by Owen Swift