SHALI, Russia (Reuters) - At the barracks nestled in the Caucasus mountains, the Chechen military officer popped a chunk of moist, fatty mutton into his mouth and leaned across the table.
“We now have new weapons, new armored personnel carriers, sniper rifles and anti-mine equipment,” he said wiping the grease from his mouth with the back of his hand.
“The Russians have re-equipped and trained my men.”
This is the trade-off that has helped Russian President Vladimir Putin subdue a separatist insurgency in Chechnya that raged for more than a decade.
Moscow has armed and equipped a local army loyal to Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov, a former rebel leader, and given it the task of keeping control. The danger, say analysts, is that this force could turn against the Kremlin.
Government handlers supervise foreign journalists visiting Chechnya but Reuters gained a rare opportunity to go unsupervised to a base in the town of Shali where a unit of the paramilitary police, called the “Kadyrov regiment,” is based.
To one side of the barrack’s dining hall, four Chechen soldiers stood smiling.
They wore black bandannas and new camouflage uniforms, ammunition magazines filled their chest pouches and they cradled modern Kalashnikov automatic rifles with grenade-launchers fixed to the barrels.
The officer leant back in his chair. Deep lines creased his face and his pale blue eyes sparkled with pride.
“Look at these men,” he said waving his arm at the soldiers. “They’ve just come back from spending three days hiding in the snow. The Russians can’t do that.”
Outside in the courtyard of the barracks stood an armored personnel carrier -- another gift from the Russians.
Flying from its hatch was not the Russian flag, but the Chechen banner with a portrait of Kadyrov’s father, assassinated by rebels, superimposed on the cloth.
Analysts warn that by arming Kadyrov and his men, the Kremlin may have created something it can no longer control.
“Many in the Russian military and intelligence services believe the real enemy is not the remaining rebels but these Chechen military units,” Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent Moscow-based military analyst, said.
“These Chechen units are the best equipped and battle-ready in the Russian army,” Felgenhauer said.
Around 100,000 people have died in two wars in Chechnya since 1994. Both rebels and Russian soldiers have been accused of the rape, torture and murder of civilians. Chechnya was reduced to ruins, and in 2004 the United Nations described the capital Grozny as the world’s most destroyed city.
Now, rebel attacks are rare and in Grozny wrecked apartment buildings are being rebuilt and the roads paved. Flights from Moscow have resumed and the stadium has been refurbished.
Russian troops are still there but tend to stay in their bases, leaving Kadyrov’s forces to patrol and launch raids against rebels.
The crucial question is whether Kadyrov’s loyalty to the Kremlin will last.
He has a strong personal bond to Putin, but the Russian leader steps down in May and it is unclear if Kadyrov will transfer his allegiance to Dmitry Medvedev, Putin’s replacement, despite his pledge this month of 100 percent support to the president-elect.
Putin has said he will continue to play a major role in Russia as prime minister.
“We do not know what the relationship will be, Kadyrov’s relationship with Medvedev is very open to question right now,” said James Nixey, an analyst with the Russia and Eurasia program at Chatham House, a British-based think tank.
The stocky, bearded 31-year-old Kadyrov has the swagger and confidence of a leader with near absolute powers.
He lives in a medieval-style fortress with two stone lions guarding the entrance, drives himself around Chechnya in one of his western-made luxury cars, charms visiting journalists and berates Chechens he feels are not working hard enough.
He also promotes polygamy and pushes women to wear a headscarf, both in contravention of the Russian constitution.
Most Chechens swear fierce loyalty to Kadyrov, whom they credit with repairing the tattered republic. His portraits -- some with him standing next to his father, or with Putin -- are dotted around Chechnya’s towns.
A watery wintry sun melted the snow covering the streets outside the barracks in Shali. Inside the Chechen officer took another slurp of his tea.
“Do British army officers get paid as well as me?” he asked, saying he receives around $1,400 per month -- a fine salary in Russia and a fortune in Chechnya where unemployment is rampant.
“Have some more potatoes,” he said pushing a plate of fried potatoes -- crisp and smothered in oil -- across the table.
Another Chechen soldier walked in wearing an all black special forces uniform. He stopped and glanced at the foreigner and spoke firmly to the Chechen officer in Chechen.
“It’s probably time for you to go,” the officer then said.
Editing by Alastair Sharp