MOSCOW -- Chechnya's strongman on Tuesday reaffirmed an unwavering loyalty to President Vladimir Putin after receiving a medal seen by some as a move to assuage the feisty Chechen leader after one of his officers was arrested as a suspect in the slaying of a Russian opposition figure.

Ramzan Kadyrov thanked Putin for awarding him the Order of Honor, one of Russia's highest decorations, saying that it would be "the lightest task" for him to sacrifice his life for the Russian leader. "We are infantrymen of the president of Russia!" he added.

Some observers say the arrest of five suspects accused of involvement in the Feb. 27 slaying of Putin's prominent critic, Boris Nemtsov, could strain the Kremlin's relations with Kadyrov, who has run Chechnya like his own fiefdom while relying on federal subsidies.

One of the suspects, Zaur Dadaev, was a senior officer in Chechnya's police force. Following his arrest, Kadyrov praised Dadaev as a brave soldier and a deeply religious man. The Chechen leader also hailed another suspect, who blew himself up with a grenade when police came to arrest him at his apartment in Chechnya's regional capital, Grozny.

Kadyrov's comments reflected a degree of defiance following the arrests, a rare occasion when federal law-enforcement agencies dared to prosecute those loyal to the Chechen strongman.

Oleg Orlov, the head of Memorial, a respected Russian human rights group, said the arrests and the subsequent award were a message to Kadyrov.

"They show Kadyrov that he's not quite his own boss, and some members of his entourage will be punished," Orlov told The Associated Press. "It's a signal: we will clean the field around you so that you know your place, but you are personally not in trouble yet."

Kadyrov has used generous Kremlin funding to rebuild Chechnya after two separatist wars and has relied on his feared security force of former rebels like himself to stabilize the North Caucasus province. International human rights groups have accused Kadyrov of rampant abuses, including arbitrary arrest, torture and extrajudicial killings.

The Kremlin has counted on Kadyrov to pacify Chechnya, turning a blind eye to his campaign to enforce Islamic rules, including mandatory headscarves for women. In the wake of attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris, Kadyrov called those who defended the French satirical magazine his "personal enemies" and staged a massive rally in Grozny to press the point.

Russia's top investigative agency has said that Nemtsov's criticism of the Charlie Hebdo attackers could have been a motive behind his killing. Echoing the claim, Kadyrov said on his Instagram account Saturday that Dadaev was shocked by Charlie's cartoons and commentaries in their support.

Some Russian opposition activists have remained skeptical about the official version, saying that while Nemtsov criticized the Charlie Hebdo attackers, he made no comments against Islam. Many continued to insist that his killing just outside the Kremlin was likely rooted in his criticism of Putin.