The poisoning of Apta Alautdinov should be considered part of the internal political confrontation in Russia. Traditional elite groups and power structures are trying to restrain non-traditional and non-systemic groups, which have recently strengthened their positions in light of the war in Ukraine and aggressive war propaganda in the Russian Federation.
Such “new power centers” include Chechen units loyal to Ramzan Kadyrov personally, Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner private military company mercenaries, and individual public and media figures such as Igor Girkin, Volodymyr Solovyov, and a number of so-called warlords.
The poisoning of one of the people closest to Kadyrov is a message to the head of Chechnya and other non-systemic groups with whom the Kremlin does not yet know what to do and into which structures to integrate them without creating a potential threat for itself. The central government is trying to maintain control over the processes, not lose its monopoly on violence, and not allow too frank “independence” in the power sector, which is now coming to the foreplanin light of the war in Ukraine.
On February 13, the head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, reported on social networks that his closest associate, friend, and assistant, commander of the Chechen special unit “Akhmat”, Major General Apty Alautdinov, was poisoned and was hospitalized, but is already “recovering”. He said there was no threat to his life.
The poisoning effectively marked a turning point in the relationship between the Russian central government and a variety of non-systemic military-political groups that have recently begun to show more independence on the battlefield and in the media space. This concerns primarily Yevgeny Prigozhin’s mercenaries from the private military company “Wagner”, which he actively promotes, even at the cost of a direct conflict with the military command of the Russian Federation, individual characters who have a large audience and influence on very patriotic citizens – Vladimir Solovyov, Igor Girkin, warlords, as well as regional heavyweights like Ramzan Kadyrov and his Chechen units.
All of the above-mentioned non-systemic groups during the war expanded their audience, strengthened their political positions, received a public platform for speeches, and became flagships in Moscow’s war propaganda to control domestic audiences. As it often happens in similar situations, such non-systemic but ambitious actors in certain circumstances can start to play their game, gather resources to create their political projects, and become more and more autonomous within the system, up to going beyond it.
This directly contradicts the interests of the Kremlin because it creates several risks:
- The state’s monopoly on violence is eroding. New players gather security forces around them, whose loyalty [to the central government] begins to crack.
- The attention of the internal audience becomes defocused. The more alternative centers of gravity, the more opinions and evaluations there are; thus, systemic propaganda weakens.
- A direct threat to political power. The center is discretized by the appearance of various alternative centers of power that can attract some of the flows, influence, and attention. And this is the way to create opposition and competitors.
The most striking manifestation of this crisis was the growing popularity of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s brand of “Wagnerians”. He advertises their actions at the front in every possible way. He even entered into an open public conflict with the Chief of the General Staff, Valery Gerasimov, and the Minister of Defense, Sergei Shoigu. Last year, when the Wagnerites killed their fighter Yevgeny Nuzhin with a sledgehammer, filmed it, and openly flaunted this fact, they undermined the official authorities’ position in the Russian Federation, how such incidents should be investigated.
That is why, since the beginning of the year, the Russian political leadership set out to suppress potential competitors and problematic figures with whom they did not know what to do. Last week Yevgeny Prigozhin was forced to announce the end of the recruitment of prisoners in Russian prisons to the ranks of his PMC. Frequent mentions of the mercenaries and Prigozhin himself started to disappear from the Russian media, and mainstream media began writing less about it and shooting fewer video stories. Prigozhin himself stopped sharply criticizing the military leadership of the Russian Federation. However, he still believes that “some losers who are not capable of anything are plotting to put an end to PMC “Wagner”. Finally, on February 13 (the same day when the Chechen general was poisoned), Prigozhin suddenly published a video showing that Dmitriy Yakushchenko – another alleged “deserter” who was killed with a sledgehammer the day before – was already alive and continues to fight in the ranks PMC “Wagner”, thus wholly surrendering back in history with its frank executions of people who were obviously not very liked by individual Russian elites.
The Chechen units participating in the war in Ukraine also have several important features that make them potentially dangerous for the Kremlin:
- They represent a very active mono-ethnic region that has an ambiguous relationship with the center at the cultural, political, social, and historical levels;
- They are gaining combat experience in Ukraine and may become a problem in the future, for example, if another conflict suddenly breaks out between Moscow and Chechnya;
- They are loyal not to Putin or the Kremlin but to Ramzan Kadyrov himself, a de facto autonomous ruler in his lands, dependent on the center but with his ambitions.
In this context, the poisoning of Apta Alautdinov looks like a planned operation by the Russian special services (or other power structures). However, it was hardly explicitly aimed at the murder of the Chechen commander but rather at intimidating Kadyrov and other non-systemic politicians who decided during the war to expand their influence. The Kremlin’s message is that Kadyrov, Prigozhin, and their fighters should stay within the existing military command system, the Kremlin-led information campaign, and not criticize the military command without orders from above. Recently, Kadyrov allowed himself to make a lot of odious statements, which often fell out of the general Kremlin mainstream. Prigozhin, in addition to his statements, apparently kept under control a number of well-known warlords who relayed exactly his messages. This prevented Moscow from forming a single, integral informational and political line.
A blow to Apta Alautdinov is a blow to Kadyrov’s closest entourage and, simultaneously, to his regional political ambitions. Last year, Alautdinov, who became one of the key commanders of Chechen units on the Ukrainian front, joined the leadership of the power structures of the so-called “LNR”, and soon after received the high position of the head of the Chechen Security Council. It can be assumed that through him, Kadyrov had the opportunity to expand his influence on the regions occupied by Russia, integrating his military units into local structures, which could conflict with the interests of the Kremlin or other pro-Kremlin groups that conduct their own policies in the occupied territories. But apart from Kadyrov, this is also a warning to everyone that “inviolability” has its limits and can be “revised”. It should be highlighted that this event looks more like an act of warning.
At the same time, it is not crucial whether the poisoning was coordinated with Putin. The struggle between the central power structures and non-systemic ones is already in an acute phase, so it is possible that similar incidents could have happened as a result of this conflict, which Putin does not always control. The loss of control over the processes is the main fear of Putin and his entourage. Therefore, he is still not ready to take radical steps against his potential rivals, who are also very useful in the current war.