Amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a new war-within-a-war is unfolding.
This time, between countrymen: the Chechens sent by the republic’s pro-Russian leader, strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, and those fighting against him, on the side of Ukraine.
Chechnya itself serves as a microcosm of what Russian President Vladimir Putin would like to establish in Ukraine. An always-restive part of the Russian and then Soviet empires, Chechnya broke away from Moscow’s control in 1991, becoming a de facto independent state in the North Caucasus. The first attempt to reimpose federal control, in the form of the first Chechen war from 1994 to 1996, ended in humiliating failure for Russia: The Chechen fighters, despite being severely outgunned and outnumbered, scored a stunning victory and forced a Russian withdrawal. When Putin came to power in late 1999, he did not repeat the mistake. The Chechen capital Grozny was leveled, and key leaders were bribed to switch over to the Russian side with their troops. One of these, Akhmad Kadyrov, was installed as president. After his assassination in 2004, his brutal, uneducated son Ramzan was made the republic’s head. Kadyrov has since ruled Chechnya with an iron fist, ruthlessly crushing dissent with his own Moscow-funded militia, the Kadyrovtsy (from the Russian for “Kadyrov’s men”). Having fought in eastern Ukraine in 2014, these men are now back in greater numbers to bolster the Russian ranks in their invasion of the entire country.
It is unknown how many soldiers Kadyrov has sent to Ukraine, but the number is significant. Most reports indicate approximately 10,000 have been deployed; the highest figures range up to (a highly improbable) 70,000. More are being actively recruited, too: A source in Grozny provided a video on Feb. 25 that shows thousands of men being gathered and equipped for duty in Ukraine. Audio recordings of conversations between Kadyrov and other Russian officials reveal that the Chechen ruler was one of the few figures made aware of Putin’s plans for a full-scale invasion in the run-up to the event.
Already, Kadyrov’s forces have played a key role in the offensive. Chechen Rosgvardiya (National Guard) troops were spotted north of Kyiv on Feb. 27, trudging through the Chernobyl nuclear exclusion zone toward the Ukrainian capital. Other sources suggested their involvement in the assault on Kyiv’s western suburbs and the crucial Hostomel airport in fighting following the Russian paratrooper landing there on the first day of the war. Kadyrov’s top advisers are present in Ukraine, as shown by a photo of Daniil Martynov, a former officer of the elite special forces unit of Russia’s federal security services, FSB Alfa, who built and trained Kadyrov’s elite troops. Ukraine’s security chief, meanwhile, claimed that a team of elite Kadyrov forces sent to kill Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy had been “eliminated.” There is ample evidence to support this, as plainclothes Kadyrovtsy have been spotted using civilian vehicles to infiltrate the Ukrainian capital.
The heavy casualties sustained by Kadyrov’s forces reflect the scale of Russian losses in general. Ukraine claims 8,500 Russian troops have been killed to date, while Moscow itself admits nearly 500 deaths. In a Chechen-language audio recording circulating widely and provided to the author, a man in a military hospital in Crimea recounts the dozens of casualties his unit suffered following a strike by a Ukrainian TB-2 Bayraktar drone. “There are at least 70 of us, burned badly, many dead,” the man says in a weak voice. Another voice message describes three dozen Kadyrovtsy being killed or wounded in an ambush; the man recording says that “these must have been Chechens on the other side, since they [ambushed us] like in Grozny in ’95” (when Chechen separatist forces destroyed Russian columns invading the Chechen capital). Kadyrov himself has been forced to admit that two of his soldiers have been killed in Ukraine, a number that belies a far higher total. The tip of Russia’s spear, these units are paying the price.
But they are not the only Chechens in Ukraine. On the other side, anti-Russian Chechen units, including many veterans of the first and second Chechen wars, are fighting with Kadyrov’s loyalists.
Of the Chechens active on the Ukrainian side, two main units, formed in 2014 following the annexation of Crimea, are active. One, the Sheikh Mansur Battalion, is active primarily in southeast Ukraine, especially the city of Mariupol, where they were heavily engaged in fighting Russian-backed forces in 2014 and 2015. Recent photos show what is either a subgroup of Sheikh Mansur or a new Chechen formation entirely. A little over a dozen men, many of whom are visibly Chechen but reportedly include Crimean Tatars as well, stand arrayed on the tarmac, equipped with heavy weapons. Another photo shows one of the men wielding an NLAW anti-tank missile, of the type provided by the United Kingdom to Ukrainian forces. Evidently, these units are operating in close coordination with the Ukrainian military.
The other main Chechen formation in Ukraine, the Dzhokhar Dudayev Battalion (named after Chechnya’s first president in the 1990s), also recently announced its reactivation. In a recent video address, its leader Adam Osmaev delivers a message to the country. “I want to assure Ukrainians that real Chechens are defending Ukraine today,” he says. “These puppets [Kadyrovtsy] fighting for Russia are a shame to our whole nation — we consider them only traitors,” he adds. Osmaev, an eight-year veteran of the war in Donbas, has his own, deeply personal reasons for this fight: His wife, fellow Chechen resistance fighter Amina Okuyeva, was killed in a bomb attack outside Kyiv in 2017.
One fighter with the Sheikh Mansur Battalion described to New Lines what he sees as his duty to fight on Ukraine’s side. Muslim, 45, recounted his experience in an interview just prior to the war’s start.
“We fought in the first and second Chechen wars,” Muslim said of himself and his companions. “We already understand everything [Russia] is capable of, killing families, women and children. We know that the Kadyrovtsy are here, around 10,000 of them,” he said.
He did not mince words when asked to describe Kadyrov’s forces.
“They’re traitors,” he said. “No real Chechen could ever fight for Russia, for this country that has murdered us for 300 years. The majority [of Kadyrovtsy] are beaten, their families threatened, so that they have to serve. To serve Russia is against everything in nokhchalla [the traditional Chechen code of conduct],” Muslim said.
And the time to fight is now.
“We fought in 2014,” said Muslim. “When it starts again, we’ll head back to the front.”
These were not empty words. In an audio message on March 1, Muslim confirmed that he and other members of Sheikh Mansur were present on the front lines in Kyiv, fighting the Russian forces attempting to breach the capital.
As Russia’s tactics harden, there is plenty to suggest that Kadyrov’s Chechen forces will be at the forefront of the effort to suppress and secure Ukraine’s cities. With indiscriminate bombardment of population centers increasing and the morale of many Russian soldiers apparently flagging, the willingness of the Kadyrovtsy to commit brutal war crimes to break resistance is a key tool in the Kremlin’s arsenal. Kadyrov himself has argued for such an approach. In a message posted to his Telegram channel on Feb. 27, the Chechen leader argued that “the nationalist [in Ukraine] do not understand any language except force.” Admitting that Ukrainian forces were “armed to the teeth with new weapons and ammunition,” Kadyrov argued that it was time to stop “coddling” the enemy and instead “begin a large-scale operation in all directions” in the country. “We need to change our tactics, in order to better convince them,” Kadyrov said. “Putin must give the appropriate order so that we can finish with these Nazis.”
Meanwhile, the longer Kadyrov’s forces are away, and the more the domestic situation in Russia crumbles, the greater the risks for the dictator of Chechnya himself — of an uprising that many Chechens are certain is just a matter of time.
“No one will rebuke the Ukrainians if they lose to such an enemy as Russia,” said one local in Grozny, whose name cannot be used for security reasons. “But we hope for one thing. Ukraine’s population is 40 times that of Chechnya’s. We hope they will inflict 40 times more losses on Russia,” he said.
Muslim is similarly certain this war marks a turning point in his nation’s history.
“This invasion will be the beginning of the end of Russia,” he said. “Like the Soviet Union after Afghanistan, it will break up. Our people [Chechens] will rise up and tear down Kadyrov,” he added.
The Grozny local added one final, chilling note.
“We hope that the Ukrainians will kill as many Kadyrovtsy as possible,” he said. “Each one they kill will make it easier for us here when the time comes.”
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