Vladimir Putin is everywhere in Chechnya. From the facades of the region’s schools and apartment blocks, the Russian President’s face gazes down like a watchful deity. Commuters throughout the region see him on the billboards and pylons that line the highways. At the local airport, visitors arriving on daily flights from Moscow see a giant portrait of Putin hanging right over the terminal gates, airbrushed to make him look as though he hasn’t aged since he conquered these highlands of southern Russia 15 years ago.
In 2000, the first year of Putin’s presidency, Chechnya was Russia’s most rebellious province, ruled by Islamist warlords who surrendered to Moscow only after Putin sent the air force to flatten its cities that year. Tens of thousands of civilians were killed in the process, while the heavily bombarded Chechen capital of Grozny was described in a U.N. report in 2003 as “the most destroyed city on earth.” Yet today Chechnya is the only place in Russia where Putin is so openly and publicly worshipped. The central drag in Grozny bears his name–the Avenue of V.V. Putin–and the local security forces, staffed mostly with former rebel fighters, now pledge to carry out his every command or martyr themselves in the attempt.
“We declare to the whole world that we are the foot soldiers of Vladimir Putin,” said the 38-year-old leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, at a recent military exercise in Grozny. “We will carry out any order he gives us in any part of the world.”
That oath of loyalty shows just how deeply Putin has transformed Chechnya. He has managed not only to subdue the Islamist rebels of this region but has also turned them into his most devoted cadres. They proved particularly useful to Putin last year amid the war in eastern Ukraine, helping pro-Russian separatists seize large chunks of the country’s territory. Now, as the U.S. and its allies continue to impose sanctions to punish Russia for those incursions, the armed forces in Chechnya have emerged as one of the most dangerous and unpredictable elements in Russia’s standoff with the West.
“They’re very useful to have around,” says one of Putin’s most experienced advisers, who spoke to TIME in Moscow on condition of anonymity. When the Kremlin is faced with a stubborn adversary, they give it a way of saying, “‘You don’t want to talk to us? Fine, then deal with these 10,000 thugs we have standing by. They’ll go over there and bust some heads. And maybe then we’ll talk,'” the adviser says.
Since the conflict in Ukraine began in the spring of 2014, the U.S. has deemed the threat from Chechnya great enough to warrant imposing sanctions against Kadyrov and his top lieutenants. The E.U., in explaining its own travel bans and asset freezes against Kadyrov, noted his threat last summer to send 74,000 of his fighters to wage war in Ukraine. For its part, the Ukrainian government launched a criminal probe against Kadyrov in December for ordering his troops to kidnap several Ukrainian lawmakers and bring them back to Chechnya. Those orders, according to Ukraine’s Interior Ministry, “demonstrate a real threat of murder or other harm to the members of parliament of Ukraine.” While mostly laughing off the sanctions against him, Kadyrov responded last summer by banning President Barack Obama and several top E.U. officials from entering Chechnya.
Many in the Kremlin have meanwhile been watching Kadyrov’s antics with growing alarm and have begun lobbying Putin to restrain him. Instead Putin seems to be giving Kadyrov ever more freedom to lash out at the Kremlin’s opponents at home and abroad, introducing a volatile force into Russian affairs that Putin may no longer be able to fully contain. “The fact is that Putin cannot remove Kadyrov now,” says Gleb Pavlovsky, who served as a Kremlin adviser during the first decade of Putin’s rule. “It would require a military campaign, and a major one.”
Putin remembers how messy such campaigns can be. In the early 1990s, Ukraine, Georgia and Armenia were among more than a dozen states to peacefully break away from Moscow. Boris Yeltsin, the first President of post-Soviet Russia, drew the line at Chechnya.
Since the days of Czar Peter the Great in the 18th century, the subjugation of the strategic region between the Black and Caspian Seas had been a point of pride for Russian rulers. Losing Chechnya could have set off a chain reaction of rebellion that would likely have brought an end to the Kremlin’s hold over the entire North Caucasus, the predominantly Muslim region of which Chechnya is a part. So in 1994 Yeltsin sent in Russian tanks to subdue the Chechen separatists–and watched in horror as the rebels massacred young Russian conscripts by the thousands. Yeltsin sued for peace in 1996, granting Chechnya de facto independence. But the lull in fighting would be brief.
By 1999, a few of Chechnya’s more radical warlords decided to stage an invasion of Russia’s Dagestan region, providing Moscow with another casus belli. Putin, then serving as Prime Minister, threw the full weight of the Russian air force against the Chechen guerrillas. The Chechens had no air defenses. So by the start of 2000, when Putin took over the Russian presidency, it was becoming clear to most of them that they could not win the war.
As their commanders began to turn on one another, Putin stepped in with an offer for the religious leader of Chechnya, a moderate mufti named Akhmad Kadyrov: either Kadyrov could watch the continued annihilation of his people, or he could switch sides and help Russia defeat the more radical elements of the insurgency. Kadyrov accepted the deal.
It proved a fatal decision. During a military parade at a stadium in Grozny in 2004, assassins detonated a massive bomb beneath Kadyrov’s seat, killing him and more than a dozen others. His son Ramzan, who was then only 27, flew straight to Moscow and tearfully received Putin’s blessing to take over.
With ample funding and support from the Kremlin (and, at least at first, close oversight from the Russian security services), Ramzan Kadyrov’s first order of business was to assemble a team of loyal troops who would answer only to him. That required persuading more separatists to switch sides. “We would explain to these people, ‘All right, you’re hiding in the forest, and sooner or later you will be killed,'” says Major General Apti Alaudinov, who was then in charge of getting rebel fighters to abandon their main redoubt in southern Chechnya. “‘Many years from now, your tribe will say that it went extinct because of you. Do you want that?'” Many of the remaining insurgents came around to this reasoning; those who did not were hunted down and usually killed.
By 2009, when Russia lifted martial law in Chechnya and allowed the locals to police the region themselves, most of the insurgents had taken the deal Putin had once offered to Kadyrov’s father. It had taken a decade, but Putin had completed the process of making faithful servants of some of his most determined enemies. They would soon prove crucial foot soldiers in another of his wars.
A few days shy of New Year’s Eve last year, Alaudinov issued a directive to the thousands of men under his command: show up the following morning, Dec. 28, at a soccer stadium in the center of Grozny. The orders included instructions to bring rations, body armor, warm clothes and all the weapons they could carry. “We made them believe they would be shipped straight out that day,” says the commander.
The newscasts on Russian television that evening showed Kadyrov addressing his troops in the stadium. In his speech, he acknowledged that the Russian military has plenty of battleships, warplanes and nuclear weapons with which to defend the motherland from a foreign aggressor. “But some missions can only be achieved by volunteers,” he said. “And we intend to achieve them.” The soldiers then joined him in chants of “Allahu akbar!”–“God is great!”
Their commanders asked all the troops there that day–more than 15,000 total–whether they were prepared to go on leave from active duty before being sent to fight. Alaudinov says this was a test of will, a way to gauge the fighters’ readiness to go on a covert deployment to Ukraine. Instead of sending active-duty personnel to that conflict, a deployment that would mark a formal (and illegal) Russian invasion of its neighbor, the military has repeatedly asked soldiers to go on leave before entering the war zone, according to Russian troops who have been captured by Ukrainian forces over the past year.
As a result, Putin has been able to deny that any intervention in Ukraine has occurred, claiming instead that the Russian troops killed and captured there are all just volunteers. “It didn’t bother me,” says one Chechen officer who followed this peculiar route last year to eastern Ukraine. “Whatever it takes to carry out the orders,” he says, speaking in Grozny on condition of anonymity. He returned home last summer from fighting in Ukraine, he adds.
Now in his mid-20s, the officer has spent his formative years living under Kadyrov’s regime, surrounded by its propaganda. Its message can seem schizophrenic at times, stitching together conservative Islam and devotion to Putin. But by dint of its pervasiveness it has been surprisingly effective. “In every hallway of every school, one wall is painted with the Kremlin turrets while the opposite wall shows the watchtowers and mosques of Chechnya,” says Abdulla Istamulov, an adviser to the Chechen leadership who helped develop the re-education program and has overseen its implementation since 2012.
The message of unity between Chechnya and Russia, and of devotion toward both, is hammered home in the region’s boxing and martial-arts clubs, where it is customary for Chechen boys to begin training before they hit puberty. Lechi Kurbanov, a world champion in karate who trains the children of the local elite, including Kadyrov’s three sons, says 4 out of 5 of his best students, on average, go on to serve in some branch of the armed forces. “Discipline is in our blood,” he says. “We can do anything if our leader puts us on the path to do it.”
Apart from the region’s fight clubs, Kadyrov has built five boarding schools where boys–usually ages 9 to 12–spend two or three years memorizing the Quran. If the boys pass the entrance exams, their secular education is interrupted for this period. “What we instill here is a type of culture,” says Said-Hussein Said-Ibrahimi, an instructor at the boarding school in Grozny. “Our boys are more upright, more solemn. You can see the difference in how they carry themselves.” Many graduates, he says, end up serving in the local security forces.
The system offers Kadyrov a large pool of potential recruits who have been reared on principles of fealty and self-sacrifice. Intertwined with both is the Chechen tradition of prowess at war. “The Chechens were raised as warriors since the dawn of time,” says Salah Mezhiev, the mufti of Chechnya, who oversees religious life throughout the region. “And that’s a heritage we carry from birth.”
So when the troops gathered at that stadium in December, Alaudinov was not surprised when practically all of them volunteered for a foreign deployment in any part of the world. “What we showed to all the people of Russia and the world is that we will back Kadyrov and Putin under any circumstances,” says the general. “We are even prepared to die, because to us death is nothing as long as you die with honor.”
That fierceness has, in the past few months, begun to unnerve some of the Chechens’ supposed overseers in Moscow. Some Kremlin officials are increasingly concerned that Kadyrov’s forces may consider themselves no longer beholden to the capital. The most alarming incident for Russia’s federal officers came in early March, when they arrested a man named Zaur Dadaev, the deputy commander of an elite Chechen battalion, and charged him with the murder of Boris Nemtsov, one of Putin’s fiercest critics. Nemtsov, a prominent leader of the opposition in Moscow, was shot in the back right near the Kremlin as he walked home with his girlfriend on Feb. 27. Though Chechen hit men have been accused of killing Putin’s critics before–most famously after the murders of journalist Anna Politkovskaya in 2006 and activist Natalia Estemirova in 2009–this was the highest-profile killing of a dissident during Putin’s tenure and marked the first time a senior Chechen officer has been charged with such a crime. (Dadaev has denied the murder charges.) But right after Dadaev’s arrest, Kadyrov praised the alleged assassin for his patriotism, saying Dadaev would “never take a single step against Russia.”
Many opposition figures then began fearing for their lives. “We knew they were working from a hit list,” says Alexei Venediktov, the editor of a Moscow radio station that is often critical of Putin’s policies. He says he received a warning from a source in the Russian security services to get out of town while police searched for Chechen assassins in the capital. “It was horrifying,” says Venediktov. “With that murder, the state lost its monopoly on the use of violence.”
Then came another indication that Putin may have created a monster he cannot fully control. On April 19, Russian officers entered Chechnya from the nearby region of Stavropol to arrest a suspected criminal. A gunfight broke out during the operation between the Russian security forces and the suspect, and the suspect wound up dead. Kadyrov was furious. At an emergency meeting a few days later, the Chechen leader ordered his officers to open fire on any Russian security agents who set foot in Chechnya without his permission. “I officially declare that if they show up on our territory without your knowledge–regardless if they come from Moscow or Stavropol–shoot to kill,” he said.
These orders exposed the depth of Putin’s dilemma in Chechnya. Here was a local official, formally no more senior than the governors of other Russian regions, empowering his personal army to kill federal officers on sight. At risk of looking weak, Putin seemed sure to put Kadyrov in his place for that outburst. But he did the opposite. The officers who had carried out the operation in Chechnya were put under investigation, while Kadyrov did not get so much as a reprimand.
After the incident, Russian political analyst Alexander Shpunt noted that the Chechen leader appears to have “assumed the role of Putin’s bulldog” and has been kept on a long leash. In recent years Putin has looked the other way as Kadyrov has imposed elements of Islamic law, restricting the sale of alcohol, permitting cases of polygamy and ordering Chechen women to “dress modestly.” Kadyrov’s taste for extravagant toys–among them a stable of racehorses and a private zoo–has never resulted in an official probe into the sources of his wealth, which he often claims to have received “from Allah.” Shpunt, director of the Institute of Tools for Political Analysis, a private think tank in Moscow, wrote in a recent analysis that under Kadyrov “Chechnya has gotten a privileged status thanks to his privileged relations with Putin.”
That status seems to rely on Kadyrov’s usefulness as an intimidator. “Everyone is afraid of him,” says Pavlovsky, the former Kremlin adviser. “He has demonstrated that he is willing to use force at home and abroad. For Putin that’s a very powerful resource.” At home that resource has cowed the opposition to the increasingly authoritarian Russian President. Abroad it has kept Russia’s enemies guessing about where the Chechen fighters could turn up next.
This appears in the June 29, 2015 issue of TIME.