Chechens Fight With Ukrainians Against Russia

A rare inside look at the Dzhokhar Dudayev Battalion shows how their long struggle against Moscow is intensifying

Chechens Fight With Ukrainians Against Russia
Members of the Dzhokhar Dudayev Chechen volunteer battalion undergo training in the Kyiv region on Aug. 27, 2022, amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. (Genya Savilov/AFP via Getty Images)

Fighting in Ukraine, Muslim Madiyev finds a kind of cosmic justice. A Chechen who has spent decades waging war against Moscow, he wants to liberate Ukraine from the very same oppressor.

Chechen fighters have been a fixture of Ukraine’s defense since the first volunteers arrived in 2014, shortly after Moscow seized Crimea and supported a pro-Russian rebellion in the east of the country. Their numbers have increased over the course of the war, swelling since February last year, when Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. For Madiyev, deputy commander of the Dzhokhar Dudayev Battalion, one of five Chechen battalions fighting there, war in Ukraine is part of “reinstating the lawful authority of the Chechen people and state,” he told New Lines in a series of messages sent from an unidentified location in Ukraine.

The renewed fighting in Ukraine has given new life to Chechens’ long struggle against Russia. Breaking away from Russia in 1991, the newly declared Chechen Republic of Ichkeria — the historical name for Russia’s southern region of Chechnya, and the one favored by pro-independence fighters — fought two wars against Russia. In 1999, then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin launched a brutal campaign to retake the region. Using indiscriminate violence, the future Russian president reconquered Chechnya and installed the Kadyrov family as the region’s rulers the following year.

Russia’s victory did not halt the Chechen struggle for freedom. Chechens have continued to fight against Russia, first in Chechnya itself, then in both Syria and Ukraine. It is in Ukraine that Chechens seeking freedom have squared off against the Kadyrov family’s Chechen troops.

At least 1,000 Chechen soldiers are now fighting in Ukraine, for Ukraine, united by their common enemy. Most are veterans of the two wars for independence against Russia. Four of the five Chechen battalions are part of Ukraine’s Armed Forces. The fifth, the Sheikh Mansur Battalion, remains a volunteer unit.

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has led to prominent Chechen commanders and political elites becoming extremely active. Commanders in every unit, including Madiyev, have noted increased recruitment numbers, with one senior commander characterizing Ukraine as the staging ground for Chechens’ independence-seeking force.

But this reinvigoration has also carried over to squabbles among the political elite-in-exile, who mostly live in Western capitals, where they debate issues ranging from who possesses the legitimate authority to lead the diaspora to what form an independent Chechnya’s future government should take if they manage to defeat Russia and overthrow the Kremlin-backed Kadyrov administration.

The current fighting allows for the perpetuation of the Ichkerian legacy. A determination to end Russia’s imperial aggression, however, is not the only battle. The Chechen cause is still plagued by infighting, with some feuds persisting from the early 2000s. New Lines discussed this multi-layered legacy with Madiyev, who is also head of the Dzhokhar Dudayev Battalion’s elite Adam Group.

Madiyev’s fight against Russia has now lasted almost three decades.

“I deployed to defend our state against Russia in 1994,” said the veteran fighter, aged 62. Madiyev was a vice chairman of independent Chechnya’s security council during the presidency of Aslan Maskhadov. Madiyev would proceed to fight alongside such people as Ruslan Gelayev and Doku Umarov, popular resistance figures who earned notorious reputations internationally for their ruthless tactics. Both were killed by Russian forces. Madiyev continued to fight Russia in Chechnya into the 2000s. While he did not disclose his location during this time, it is widely understood that he, like many other militants, “took to the mountains” to continue the fight, lying in wait until they could strike.

When combat started in Ukraine in 2014, Madiyev arrived to aid the Ukrainian military. The Dzhokhar Dudayev Battalion is named for the first president of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, who asserted Chechen independence in 1991 amid the breakup of the Soviet Union. Originally, the battalion was ethnically Chechen, but it has evolved with the war in Ukraine. It is now primarily made up of Chechens, Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians, though it also includes soldiers of other ethnicities and nationalities, including Azerbaijanis. According to Madiyev, since the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine more than a year ago, “the number of the battalion’s fighters continues to increase.” Such growth has been facilitated by the unit’s change in status this past year, from a volunteer battalion to an official member of Ukraine’s armed forces, as part of the International Legion of Territorial Defence of Ukraine.

This growth included the development of at least one specialized unit within the battalion, a rather prominent, diversionary-reconnaissance unit called the Adam Group, named for the biblical first man on earth. In October 2022, eight months after the Russian invasion, Akhyad Idigov, co-chair of the Presidium of the Ichkerian Government, one of three organizations contesting leadership of the Chechen diaspora as the Ichkerian government-in-exile, announced that Madiyev had been appointed the unit’s leader. The elite group has a vibrant presence on the Telegram Messenger service, depicting its exploits. Some of these have been well publicized, such as its being one of the first units to reach Izyum during its liberation late last summer. As a diversionary-reconnaissance unit, however, many of its activities are not public, as it operates on the edge of and behind Russian lines. Slowly, Adam Group’s presence in the Kyiv region during the opening days of Russia’s invasion was made public, if only in small ways.

In February of this year, the Telegram channel representing Idigov’s government posted a recruitment call to join the jamaat (literally “community”) of Muslim Madiyev. The message called on Chechens in Europe and the Middle East to “come to Ukraine to join our ranks of the jamaat” to fight in Ukraine in preparation for returning the fight to Chechnya. Madiyev said these members of the diaspora have “replenished” the ranks of the Dzhokhar Dudayev Battalion.

Several days later, a Telegram channel claiming to represent Madiyev’s “Jamaat Ichkeria” repeated the presidium’s post. Madiyev would neither confirm nor deny whether this jamaat was part of the Dzhokhar Dudayev Battalion, saying instead that “it is not supposed to be possible.” He elaborated by saying that only the battalion’s commanders, including him, operate the selection process for new members. He would not condemn the jamaat’s work, however. “Some representatives of the jamaats, speaking on social media in support of us, are rooting for their homeland and want to provide us with all possible help.”

Regardless of whether these jamaats are officially associated with the units and commanders they are promoting, they play an important role in spreading recruitment efforts, just as they did during Chechnya’s own independence fight. They also demonstrate the resolute support of the Chechen diaspora for Ukraine’s defense. Madiyev credits the jamaats for their attempts to “bring motivated youths into the ranks of the Ichkerian Army, the foundations of which we are laying in Ukraine.”

The jamaat structure has its roots in the post-Soviet conflict in Chechnya and the wider North Caucasus region. During the 1990s, bands of resistance fighters were organized around these close-knit groups, frequently building on foundations of religious ideology and creating personal loyalties to commanders. These types of units became especially prevalent after Russia’s 1999 invasion, such as Ramzan Akhmadov’s “Urus-Martan Jamaat” and Abu Hamza’s “Jamaat Nokhchiicho,” which was also called “Vilayat Nokhchiicho.” Jamaats also operated in Syria, with two Chechen examples being Muslim al-Shishani’s Junud al-Sham and Abdul-Hakim al-Shishani’s Ajnad al-Kavkaz. Abdul-Hakim and other former jamaat members now fight in Ukraine.

Madiyev’s comments shed light on these divisions, plus the gap in understanding that exists between Chechen military commanders and leading political figures. As mentioned above, three organizations claim to have inherited the authority of Ichkeria’s government, after it was dissolved by Doku Umarov in 2007 so that he could launch the “Caucasus Emirate,” a jihadist organization that wants to create an independent, Shariah-ruled state across the North Caucasus. The three claimants, existing only in the diaspora, are jockeying for authority in Chechnya should they ever overthrow Russia and Kadyrov, who they consider a traitor to the Chechen nation and a puppet of Putin’s. All three currently sponsor units fighting in Ukraine. The most internationally active is Akhmed Zakayev’s Cabinet of Ministers, of which he is the declared acting prime minister. Zakayev’s network of representatives are the most geographically dispersed, and he and his team are the most engaged with international actors. The U.K.-based Zakayev oversees the Separate Special Purpose Battalion (OBON), one of the five Chechen battalions in Ukraine. The members of the OBON themselves hold various ideologies when it comes to Chechen nationalism; the commonality is their support for Zakayev.

The second claimant to the Ichkerian title is Zhaloudi Saralyapov’s Strasbourg-based Ichkerian Parliament, which serves mostly as a forum for anti-Zakayev figures like Tumso Abdurakhmanov, Dzhambulat Suleimanov and Sheikh Mansur Battalion Commander Muslim Cheberloyevskii. Saralyapov, for his part, has also attempted to court the favor of Dzhokhar Dudayev Battalion Commander Adam Osmayev, a Grozny-born, British-educated 41-year-old who keeps an extremely low profile today.

Anti-Zakayev sentiments are driven by a variety of grievances, pertaining in general to conflicting visions as to Chechnya’s future and who should lead.

Finally, there is the Presidium of the Ichkerian Government, composed of a small collection of individuals with ties to the administration of Dzhokhar Dudayev himself. This is where the loyalties of Madiyev and the other battalion leadership lie. Madiyev said the political leadership is headed by Idigov, Alla Dudayeva and others. Idigov was the speaker of Parliament during Dudayev’s administration from 1993 to 1997. Dudayeva is the widow of the founder of independent Chechnya. Such historical ties help explain the current factionalization of pro-independence Chechens.

The causes of these political divides are relatively easy to identify, though not to overcome, being rooted in changes in historical and generational dynamics. Throughout Chechnya’s post-Soviet struggle for independence, different perspectives on the role of religion — almost all of the region’s 1.4 million inhabitants are Sunni Muslims — in the political system destabilized the unity of the state. More conservative and fundamentalist actors gradually forced then-President Maskhadov to concede policies in their favor or face revolt. The debate over democracy or Shariah as a political foundation eventually led rebel leader Umarov to dissolve the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria in order to establish the Caucasus Emirate, which openly endorsed Islamist and jihadist policies. This being a highly contentious decision that seemingly abandoned the Ichkerian project, some ambitious former officials considered a power vacuum to have formed. Thus, Zakayev, Saralyapov and Idigov staked their claims.

At the same time, a new generation of activists was emerging, holding what could be considered middle-ground ideals, combining the traditional secular nationalism with more conservative perspectives on Islam. Members of this generation all now reside in exile. The new generation possess a certain disdain for those of the older generation, who, they believe, have lazed about inactively. This dissatisfaction, predominantly aimed at Zakayev, stems from the fact that the new generation arose in response to contemporary problems under the oppressive rule of Ramzan Kadyrov, rather than during the post-Soviet independence struggle.

Disputes among factional leaders have, at times, become sensational. Tensions came to a head in November last year, when Idigov rhetorically attacked his rivals, Zakayev and Saralyapov, then targeted younger activists for attempting to reconcile Zakayev, Saralyapov and Idigov, rather than choosing a side in the legitimacy debate. Shortly after, Madiyev accused Zakayev of issuing denunciations of the Dzhokhar Dudayev Battalion in an attempt to destroy it. The month closed with rival conferences to promote the independence cause, hosted by the younger generation and Zakayev, respectively.

Yet Chechen political factionalization goes beyond claims of governmental legitimacy and authority, extending to the battlefield. Political figures assert that the units they sponsor are the true Ichkerian armed forces. However, virtually all Chechen militants since the 1990s have staked some claim to be fighters of and for Ichkeria, and they have generally not disputed one another’s claims.

For instance, in July last year, Zakayev announced the reconstitution of the Armed Forces of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria as part of his effort to revive the Chechen resistance under his leadership. Such claims, however, do not sit well with opposing factions. “We have no kind of connection with the so-called Zakayevite armed forces of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria,” said Madiyev, stating that this was “because this company has no right to do this; they illegally position themselves in that role.” Madiyev then shared an article from the site of the self-proclaimed Ichkeria government, written by Idigov, titled, “How the Chechen Republic Was Created.” The piece takes a legal approach to describe the history of independent Chechnya. It supports his claim as the legitimate inheritor of Ichkeria’s authority after the creation of the Caucasus Emirate.

Political divides, while preventing consensus among activists, have not prevented unity among Chechen fighters. The soldiers’ bottom-line objective of defeating Russia and freeing Chechnya has overridden any ideological and factional differences among them concerning the future politics of independent Chechnya.

For example, the recruitment call on the Jamaat Ichkeria Telegram channel was re-posted by channels connected with other factions, including those aligned with Saralyapov and other independent ones.

This inter-factional solidarity demonstrates the respect Chechen political figures hold for Madiyev and the Dzhokhar Dudayev Battalion. This is not the case, however, when it comes to the military side of Zakayev’s faction.

Collaboration between units has gradually increased in frequency and import over the past year, peaking during the current battle for Bakhmut, a city in the Donetsk region that has become the focus of the conflict. Despite soldiers’ willingness to work together, politicians are still not doing so.

The first evidence of such military cooperation was when the Sheikh Mansur Battalion again demonstrated its willingness to cross political divides, conducting a joint training exercise with Zakayev’s OBON in early September. Inter-unit cooperation remained publicly absent until the coming of the new year brought with it the onset of Ukraine’s attempt to take back Bakhmut.

In a way, the defense of Bakhmut serves as a metaphor for Chechen resistance: persistent and fully committed, with Russian victory likely to be impermanent. Every publicized Chechen unit is present in the city, battling over every inch for the past couple months. Although the Russian forces currently have the upper hand, their victory is far from certain, and it is questionable how long they could hold the city should they take it. “In and around Bakhmut fierce fighting occurs,” Madiyev said. “Ukrainian and Chechen fighters repel the superior forces of the occupant, holding positions for a very long time.”

As the Chechens await victory in Bakhmut, so too do they await victory in their Chechen homeland.

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