Kadyrov’s Game: Why US sanctions on the Chechen dictator will not impact his combat sports aspirations

On December 21, 2017, the U.S Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced that Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov would be sanctioned under the Magnitsky Act for human rights abuses ranging from “torture” to “extrajudicial killings.” Kadyrov was one of five men recently added to the…

By: Karim Zidan | 6 years
Kadyrov’s Game: Why US sanctions on the Chechen dictator will not impact his combat sports aspirations
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

On December 21, 2017, the U.S Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced that Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov would be sanctioned under the Magnitsky Act for human rights abuses ranging from “torture” to “extrajudicial killings.”

Kadyrov was one of five men recently added to the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012 (the Magnitsky Act). The decision to punish Kadyrov by adding him to a list with 48 other Russian citizens allegedly involved in human rights abuses will subject the strongman leader to travel restrictions and financial limitations.

“Treasury remains committed to holding accountable those involved in the Sergei Magnitsky affair, including those with a role in the criminal conspiracy and fraud scheme that he uncovered,” said OFAC Director John E. Smith. “We will continue to use the Magnitsky Act to aggressively target gross violators of human rights in Russia, including individuals responsible for extrajudicial killings, torture, and other despicable acts.”

As a result of this newly imposed punishment, the 41-year-old dictator has been blocked from his social media pages on Facebook and Instagram. His banishment from both entities marked the first time Facebook banned someone sanctioned under the Magnitsky Act. The OFAC does not explicitly limit the use of social media accounts, instead focusing on restricting international banking and property interests abroad. However, Kadyrov, who used his Instagram to threaten opposition leaders, spread propaganda, and bolster his personal image to millions of followers, was viewed as a legitimate target by Facebook.

The decision to limit Kadyrov’s social media raises various questions about the Chechen dictator’s influence abroad following the imposed sanctions, primarily whether the Magnitsky Act impact his ability to communicate with the millions of followers he had cultivated, and whether the sanctions will influence his aspirations in combat sports across Europe and North America. This article will attempt to analyze the extent of the sanctions, and whether their limited power is enough to hinder Kadyrov’s goal of sports diplomacy.

The Limited Power of Sanctions

In 2012, the United States passed the Magnitsky Act to punish the Russian citizens involved in the death of Sergei Magnitsky, the Russian attorney-auditor for whom the law is named. Magnitsky exposed a large tax fraud scheme that involved various officials from the Russian Interior Ministry while performing audit work. He was arrested in 2008 after testifying in a complaint and died the following year in pre-trial detention.

The decision to pass the Masgnitsky Act was to “target those responsible for gross violations of internationally recognized human rights committed against individuals seeking to either expose illegal activity by Russian government officials….” Three of the other men who were added to the list along with Kadyrov were placed on it for their involvement in Magnitsky’s death.

According to the OFAC, Ramzan Kadyrov was added to the list established by the Magnitsky Act due to his role in “extrajudicial killing, torture, or other gross violations of internationally recognized human rights…” The statement went on to explain that “Kadyrov oversees an administration involved in disappearances and extra-judicial killings. One of Kadyrov’s political opponents was believed to have been murdered at Kadyrov’s direction, after making allegations of torture and ill-treatment taking place in Chechnya, including alleged torture carried out by Kadyrov personally.”

Before his Facebook and Instagram ban was imposed, Kadyrov informed his four million followers that he the sanctions would have no impact on him.

”The U.S. Treasury has nothing better to do, just like a cat who itches in one place,” said Kadyrov. “And so, I was banned from entering America. And am I going to apply for a visa, do I have assets in U.S. banks? I said it before, but again I will repeat it for the especially forgetful that I would not have gone to the U.S.A. if all the foreign currency reserves of the country were promised to me as a prize.”

While Kadyrov’s statement was meant to mock the sanctions placed on him, it also held some truth. The Chechen dictator does not do business in the United States and based on his statements, it seems likely that he does not have financial assets in any American banks or property in North America. The sanctions imposed by the US Treasury apply to property interests and other financial assets, which appears to have a limited effect on Kadyrov. A spokesperson for the US Treasury informed BloodyElbow.com that “Any property or interests in property of Kadyrov within U.S. jurisdiction are blocked, and transactions by U.S. persons involving the designated persons are generally prohibited.”

However, when asked whether the sanctions would impact Kadyrov’s interests in international sports, the spokesperson was non-committal.

“We do not have any additional information to share at this time on specific assets or financial associates that could be impacted by these actions or prohibitions.”

In its revised guidelines, the OFAC advises U.S. persons to “act with caution when considering a transaction with a non-blocked entity in which one or more blocked persons has a significant ownership interest that is less than 50 percent or which one or more blocked persons may control by means other than a majority ownership interest. Such entities may be the subject of future designation or enforcement action by OFAC. Furthermore, a U.S. person may not procure goods, services, or technology from, or engage in transactions with, a blocked person directly or indirectly (including through a third- party intermediary).”

UFC’s Concerning Silence

The UFC currently engages five fighters affiliated with Akhmat MMA, the fight club founded and funded by Kadyrov himself. Two of those fighters are Chechen natives (Magomed Bibulatov, Abdul-Kerim Edilov); two are of Dagestani origins (Magomed Ankalaev and Ruslan Magomedov), while the remaining fighter is a former UFC champion from Brazil (Fabricio Werdum). Four of those fighters were signed prior to the well-publicized reports which revealed that Kadyrov’s government had sanctioned the torture and extrajudicial killings of gay men in 2017. However, Ankalaev was signed to the promotion six months following the reports, which emphasized the UFC’s obvious disinterest in distancing themselves from a dictator.

While BloodyElbow has reached out to the UFC on various occasions to request statements regarding their ongoing relationship with Kadyrov’s fight club, the promotion continues to remain silent on this particular topic. Even when HBO Real Sports documented the Chechen dictator’s influence in MMA and its potential as a farming system for his private army, the promotion refused to respond to HBO’s request for comment.

The last statement offered by the UFC with regards to Kadyrov happened in 2015, when Dave Sholler, then head of Public Relations, commented on Werdum’s association with Kadyrov.

”It is important to note that UFC fighters operate as independent business partners, not employees, and that subject to their contractual commitments to UFC they are free to conduct business and to participate in activities as they choose,” the UFC told Karim Zidan in a statement to Sports on Earth. “We do expect, however, all fighters to be mindful that their actions reflect well on themselves, the sport and the UFC organization.”

Given the profound silence from the UFC, it doesn’t appear that the promotion is publicly stepping away from its highly controversial relationship with Kadyrov’s fight club. According to sources close to the situation, the UFC is close to signing another fighter affiliated to Kadyrov — a champion from his World Fighting Championships of Akhmat (WFCA) promotion — which would bring the total to six fighters with ties to the Chechen dictator in the UFC.

While the US sanctions were imposed on Kadyrov to separate the Chechen dictator from his potential interests on US soil, as well as limit his influence abroad, the vast majority of its limitations are of a superficial nature. Even Facebook’s decision to block his social media accounts was taken by the private corporation, not the US Treasury. Therefore, if the sanctions are to have any impact on the dictator’s combat sports interests, the UFC will have to take the initiative for itself.

Update: Former UFC lightweight champion Frankie Edgar has confirmed that the UFC has officially signed Said Nurmagomedov, a former WFCA champion who is affiliated to Kadyrov. The UFC now has six fighters affiliated to the Chechen dictator on their roster.

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About the author
Karim Zidan
Karim Zidan

Karim Zidan is a investigative reporter and feature writer focusing on the intersection of sports and politics. He has written for BloodyElbow since 2014 and has served as an associate editor since 2016. He also writes for The New York Times and The Guardian. Karim has been invited to speak about his work at numerous universities, including Princeton, and was a panelist at the South by Southwest (SXSW) film festival and the Oslo Freedom Forum. He also participated in the United Nations counter-terrorism conference in 2021. His reporting on Ramzan Kadyrov’s involvement in MMA, much of which was done for Bloody Elbow, has led to numerous award nominations, and was the basis of an award-winning HBO Real Sports documentary.

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