End Capital Punishment: The Short-sightedness of Magnitsky Act Sanctions on Kadyrov

By Misha Tseitlin

After the death of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi under dubious circumstances that mirror human rights abuses and the eventual death of Sergei Magnitsky in Russia, the lack of an international response has prompted calls for sanctions—often grounded in the justification of the Global Magnitsky Act. However, while many are ready to jump on this new crisis and leverage existing tools, they are quick to ignore the impacts of past policy uses, especially within Europe. With the help of American firms like McKinsey, authoritarian governments like Russia have managed to dodge sanctions while protecting the assets of the state and allies of key government figures. This itself should be enough to inspire doubts onto this sanctions policy—however, even in cases of effective imposition, domestic political trends tend to render effects counterproductive.

See Ramzan Kadyrov, who last December joined the ranks of Kim Jong Un, Nicolas Maduro, and others, who are all subjected to US sanctions. The Treasury Department sanctioned him under the Magnitsky Act, originally passed by Obama in 2012 to condone the death in custody of Russian whistle-blower Sergei Magnitsky. In doing so, they have confirmed what ordinary Russians have long known: Kadyrov, the Head of Chechnya, was linked to Putin’s overreach in the cases of his enemies. Unfortunately, Russians also know the entrenchment of the status quo precludes any meaningful change, having witnessed the result of past US sanctions on Russian officials.

Indeed, the decision was not met with apologies or negotiations, as is the expectation, but rather anti-American posts on Kadyrov’s social media accounts which have given a voice to anti-interventionist messages in other issues like the Iranian protests. In all, he has closely followed the Castro playbook, upping rally-around-the-flag propaganda in response to sanctions. More importantly, though some of the Chechen leader’s luxury assets are tied up in Western institutions, much is already invested into Kadyrov’s some dozen racing-breed horses, luxury cars, or extravagant residences. If at all cash-strapped, all he must do is wait for the next batch of subsidies from Russia, the region’s sole source of economic sustenance since the start of the century. This tool is weak in a practical sense, driving away an individual with diverse interests in Putin’s Russia with mildly punitive measures.

The argument that remains is a moral one. Kadyrov’s Chechnya has been accused of everything from torturing and imprisoning its gay citizens to exacting retribution on the families of suspected terrorists. This, of course, leaves out the countless cases of suspected murder for countless Putin and Kadyrov critics like Anna Politkovskaya, Boris Nemtsov, and Umar Israilov. For many the US continues to and ought to both represent and enforce a standard of acceptable behaviour from other nations as the global hegemon, and for this it leveraged its sanctions against the immoral behaviour of Kadyrov and officials like him in Russia.

However, it is important to remember the US’s selective enforcement of such measures. Allies like Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia are all generally accepted to be perpetrators of human rights abuses, but the US opts to look the other way in exchange for help on anti-terror efforts across the world. Even in neighbouring Mexico plagued by corruption, American sanctions have yet to be levied because the benefits of cooperation outweigh the impact of weak-handed punishment. In Chechnya, this ought to be the case too, not because human rights concerns are unimportant or fabricated, but because the benefits of cooperation could have either one two effects: an emboldening of the Russian opposition and a weakness in United Russia’s grasp or a greater effectiveness of sanctions if implemented after some time of détente, making it likely that they would touch more assets.

Now the common response to this would advocate for the US to support a more palatable and authentically pro-West opposition to Putin without the need to stomach anything suboptimal. However, the infeasibility of this option speaks to the sorry state of the Russian opposition. With the death of Boris Nemtsov, the most likely anti-Putin figure is one Alexei Navalny—social media populist who is staunchly nationalist, and though more palatable now, rose up through right-wing groups and has expressed sentiments that make Russian liberals wary. Even former staunchly leftist figures in Russia like Alexei Venediktov, have come out in support of aggressively nationalist positions, leaving little organic momentum for a movement.

Given that no acceptable opposition currently exists, the US would have to engineer opponents it sees as acceptable. However, this trend towards nationalism against the opposition is linked to nationalist leanings of the Russian populace, who would immediately disqualify and candidate seemingly propped-up or brought up by Western power. Thus, the US has a dilemma: there’s no one to work with and likely will not be for some time.

This is where Chechnya comes in. Kadyrov’s alignment with the Russian regime comes from his father’s defection to align with Russians during the Second Chechen War. First his father controlled the republic until his death in 2004, and when he came of legal age in 2007, Kadyrov took the mantle. Due to Russia’s economic monopoly over the region’s livelihood, ties between Russia proper and Chechnya have deepened politically and economically over years. However, socially the two still remain distinct, with practically no Russians in Chechnya and Chechens seen as other in other parts of the Federation. Indeed, though Chechnya is one of 22 republics in Russia, it enjoys de-facto legal status unshared by any other.

Kadyrov has created a region with extraterritoriality, meaning Russian laws are unenforced and Russian troops are even banned from the republic under threat of death. Such a violent fissure is unlike someone many Western pundits claim is Putin’s strongest ally. Instead, Kadyrov is an ambitious leader who got to his position by playing the political game, and one that he will gladly continue to play. Treating him like an ideologue by slapping largely ineffective sanctions both eliminates the ability to engage in dialogue and solidifies Putin’s support over some of his most discontent citizens.

The US and Russia have always had a tense relationship, but Chechnya has always been distinct. In 1991, Dzhokhar Dudayev reached out to the US to aid his quest for Chechen independence—styled after an American secular democracy. Though the situation today has complicated, dealings with Russia have been at a standstill for over a decade. The US should not be in the business of making enemies, instead trying to find partners on the ground anywhere it seeks engagement. As Putin’s time as Russia’s official head comes to an end in 2024—any outcome, whether it be the installation of a loyalist in the Presidency and a power transfer or a the less likely reclaiming of the presidency in 2028 for the then-75-year-old Putin will be met with opposition for Kadyrov, who has run Chechnya for more than a decade with relative impunity and a deference to Putin’s cult of personality. Thus, a currently-stable situation presents future opportunities for US leadership, who should be less hasty with imposition of sanctions and punitive policy on potential future allies.

Leveraging the Magnitsky Act makes a statement, but its impact stops there. Now is a good a time as any to open up the toolkit a little wider and discover more meaningful options, not only looking towards Russia but other nations as well. A blind imposition of generic tools without looking at domestic political trends is not just useless but could instead be counterproductive, empowering Russia’s Putin, Saudi Arabia’s Muhammed Bin Salman, their awkward middleman—Chechnya’s Ramzan Kadyrov.