Chechen ‘civil war’ unfolds in Ukraine
The war in Ukraine is attracting thousands of fighters from multiple countries. The phenomenon began in 2014, with the start of the Donbass conflict. The Ukrainian army, ill-prepared for war, then relied on volunteer battalions, made up of foreigners and nationals alike. Against the Ukrainian forces, the militias of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics also drew fighters hailing from Russia and other European countries.
Much talk has emerged about far-right fighters enrolled from the outset in both warring sides. Less attention, however, has been paid to the participation of actors who are a priori alien to the conflict. Among them, Chechens who are somewhat projecting their conflict onto Ukraine: fighters from the North Caucasian republic are now enlisted on both sides. We have spoken to Marta Ter, a Catalan researcher and analyst specialising in Russia and more specifically in the North Caucasus region, for a deeper insight.
Why are Chechens fighting in Ukraine? Those on the Russian side have been sent in by Chechen president and dictator Ramzan Kadyrov, a Putin loyalist. We will come back to this later. The others —those on the Ukrainian side— are indeed fighting Putin’s and Kadyrov’s forces “because it is more dangerous for them to fight in the mountains of Chechnya than in Ukraine. Kadyrov has implemented such brutal anti-terrorist policies that it is easier to fight against Russia in Ukraine than in the Caucasus,” explains Marta Ter. “In the Chechen mountains, the Russian-Chechen conflict ended up becoming a holy war: the insurgency that in the 1990s was secular and fought for an independent Chechnya gradually turned into an armed jihad that sought the establishment of an Islamic state in the entire North Caucasus. Now, among those fighting in Ukraine, we see a return to the values of the first insurgency, i.e. they are not fighting in the name of jihad, but rather as a national liberation struggle to free Ukraine from the Russian yoke.”
The Russo-Chechen conflict actually began in the 18th century and continues to this day. The 1990s saw two wars that pitted the Russian army against the forces of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria —the Chechen state which, under the leadership of presidents Dzhokhar Dudayev and Aslan Maskhadov, was de facto independent during the last decade of the 20th century.
The first of these two wars took place from 1994 to 1996. It left tens of thousands killed and ended up with Russian forces withdrawing from Chechnya. The second, 1999-2000, took a similar toll in lives but culminated very differently: the Russian army conquered Chechnya, the Republic of Ichkeria collapsed, and Vladimir Putin, who had just become Russia’s new president, cemented his power. The Chechen movement that remained in the mountains became increasingly islamised until it abandoned the goal of an independent, secular Chechnya for a new horizon: an Islamic state encompassing the entire North Caucasus.
“It is true that the Chechen fighters who have gone to fight in Ukraine are Muslims,” says Ter, as it is that, as we will see, there are some jihadis among them, “but most of them are Chechen nationalists. Their participation in the conflict should be understood as revenge against Russia, their struggle not being focused on the religious element. Chechens who did want to fight Russia in the name of jihad moved to Syria, not Ukraine.”
Chechen battalions fighting Russian forces
On the Ukrainian side, two battalions largely made up of veterans of the first and second Chechen wars can be currently found. Both have been active since 2014. Until 2017, there was talk of between 300 and 500 Chechens fighting alongside the Ukrainians. Current figures are difficult to verify.
The first of the two groups is the Dzhokhar Dudayev Battalion, named after the first president of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria. The battalion’s founder was Isa Munayev, former commander of the Grozny defence in the 1999-2000 war, who later went into exile in Denmark.
In 2014, Munayev left the Nordic country to gather other war veterans eager to resume the struggle against Russia, now in Ukraine. Journalist Marcin Mamon visited him twice in 2014 and 2015 and wrote this article in The Intercept about the battalion, which not being “strictly Muslim,” included Chechens “who have fought on the side of the Islamic State in Syria” as well as “many Ukrainians,” Crimean Tatars, Azeris, and people of other nationalities. “[They] all are fighting against what they perceive to be a common enemy: Russian aggression.”
“I spoke to Munayev,” explains Marta Ter, “and his whole speech was against Russia: ‘I lost my family to the Russian occupiers. I fought them for 12 years. Now I will fight them again’, he told me. He said he had combat experience and he knew how Russian forces work. He had a very Soviet mentality, not an Islamist one. And he talked about fighting Russian imperialism, he never mentioned Islam.”
Munayev was killed in 2015 in the battle of Debaltseve against the forces of the Donbass republics. He was replaced at the head of the battalion by a UK-educated Chechen, Adam Osmayev, who in 2012 had been arrested in Ukraine —at the time under pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych— on charges of preparing a plot to assassinate Putin on the orders of Doku Umarov, leader of the North Caucasus Islamist insurgency. Osmayev was released from prison in 2014, after the fall of Yanukovych, and subsequently joined the Dzhokhar Dudayev Battalion.
Osmayev has survived several assassination attempts in Ukraine. In one of them, in 2017 near Kyiv, his wife, Amina Okuyeva —a Ukrainian who grew up between Grozny and Moscow and who married successively three Chechen fighters opposed to Putin, the last of the three Osmayev— was killed. Okuyeva had also participated in the war against the Donetsk and Luhansk republics in 2014, and had been press secretary of the Dudayev Battalion. The Ukrainian authorities said that the Russian secret services, or Chechens in the Kremlin’s pay, had carried out the attack.
A few days after the 2022 Russian invasion began, Osmayev called on Chechens to support the Ukrainian resistance, and vowed to fight Russia again.
The second of the Chechen groups on the Ukrainian front lines is the Sheikh Mansur Battalion, named after the imam who led the Chechen and Circassian resistance against Russian imperial expansion under Catherine the Great in the 18th century. According to Marcin Mamon, the Sheikh Mansur Battalion is a splinter of the Dzhokhar Dudayev Battalion. Sheikh Mansur fighters were active on the Mariupol front lines fighting against the forces of the Donetsk People’s Republic in 2014. As The Guardian journalist Shaun Walker wrote after interviewing the group’s commander, a man introduced exclusively by the name “Muslim”, the Sheikh Mansur Battalion shared a base with Right Sector, or Pravyi Sektor, a Ukrainian far-right paramilitary organisation.
Ukrainian police announced in 2019 that the Sheikh Mansur Battalion had voluntarily surrendered weapons, although members of the group claimed they were being chased by the authorities on the grounds they were mercenaries.
As the 2022 Russian invasion unfolded, the battalion revived. A New Lines Magazine article by journalist Neil Hauer placed the Sheikh Mansur Battalion in the defence of Kiiv on 1 March. The article again quoted Commander Muslim as saying that battalion members had regrouped to fight Russia, “the country that has murdered us for 300 years.” News site Kavkaz Realiirecently interviewed Commander Muslim Cheberloyevsky —likely to be the same “Muslim” on the New Lines Magazine and The Guardian articles— who claims that his battalion’s fight is “against Putin” in a war he sees as crucial. According to Cheberloyevsky, Ukraine’s defeat would mean “the fall of all the republics of the former USSR.” On the contrary, a Ukrainian victory would mark “the beginning of the liberation of our Caucasus and all the peoples oppressed by Russia.”
According to Kavkaz Realii, a third battalion of Chechen volunteers is now being formed in Lviv, a city in western Ukraine. Its fighters come from several EU countries.
Meanwhile, Al-Monitor reports that some Chechen jihadists in Syria are considering joining the pro-Ukrainian ranks, “very upset” by Kadyrov’s involvement in support of the invasion.
Kadyrov’s men in Ukraine
Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, as mentioned above, has also sent men to Ukraine, in support of Russian forces. Those men are known as the Kadyrovtsy, or Kadyrovites (“Kadyrov’s followers” in Russian), the personal guard of this dictator accused of numerous human rights violations in Chechnya. According to an authoritative 2016 report by Russian opposition activist Ilya Yashin, this guard is said to consist of some 30,000 men. It has become “the [Chechen] republic’s principal security force,” writes researcher Munira Mustaffa, “with Putin’s approval. They operate outside Russia’s normal military command structure.”
Vladimir Putin and Ramzan Kadyrov, in 2018. / Photo: Kremlin.ru.
Despite their reputation as fierce fighters (“They have even won international competitions of elite forces,” explains Ter), the beginning of the invasion dealt a serious blow to the Kadyrovtsy. “In the first few days,” the researcher says, “one of the battalions sent by Kadyrov to Ukraine suffered a total defeat, and one of their commanders, Magomed Tushayev, was killed. It was quite astonishing and quick. Recently, a document written by an FSB agent has been leaked in which he explains that Russian intelligence passed information to the Ukrainians to kill them. This letter should be verified, but if its contents could be true, it is in fact a reflection of a years-long internal struggle in Russia between the FSB and Kadyrov. To what extent can this poison the various security forces within Russia?”.
The Ukrainian authorities have also accused the Kadyrovtsy of a foiled attempt to assassinate Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Similarly to what we have just explained, the Ukrainians have argued that the information that helped prevent the assassination came from the FSB. Meanwhile, Kadyrov continues to encourage Putin to escalate his offensive against Ukraine and immediately occupy Kyiv and Kharkiv.
“Kadyrov is doing all this because of his need to secure Putin’s favour and show loyalty to him,” Ter says. The Russian president “also has an interest in Chechens going to the front lines. If there are many casualties among Russian soldiers, the families can tell the press, or report it to the Soldiers’ Mothers’ Committee: even in an average city, it can become a secret in the public domain —at least, it has been like that until now. But Chechnya is a black hole. If a lot of corpses arrive, no one will go there to investigate: what happens there, stays there. Already in 2014, burials of fighters were being done in secret. For Putin, it is very different to have 10,000 casualties of people from Russian cities than from Chechnya. This also reflects a certain racism in Russian society: there have always been first- and second-class citizens, those from the Caucasus falling into the second category.”
Implications for Chechnya
Will this Ukraine-fought Chechen civil war have consequences in Chechnya? A priori, Kadyrov’s control of the North Caucasus republic is absolute. Moreover, in recent years, the Islamic insurgency “has been decapitated and there are hardly any operational groups: only very sporadic violent episodes, with practically no capacity to do anything,” explains Ter. “Russia, moreover, took advantage of the Syrian war and allowed many Islamists to move there, so that they were shaken out of its territory. And those who stayed splintered into different groups.”
Does sending Kadyrovtsy to Ukraine mean that the Chechen dictator is now unprotected? “I do not think so. I think he will only fall if Putin falls too. Then he could follow suit. But this is a moment of great uncertainty,” says Ter, who warns that Russia could be making “the same miscalculation” as in the first Chechen war. “Then, as now, they did not count on the resistance of the people. In both cases, they have sent young soldiers who are poorly armed and ill-prepared, unmotivated... and who are likely to face a very complex urban struggle. In the first days, when it seemed that Russian tanks were entering Kyiv, some Chechens gave advice to the Ukrainians through social networks on how to ambush them, based on their experience in Grozny, a city that ended up becoming a cemetery for tanks.”
The researcher also notes that, “for many Chechens in exile, the current events are the first in the last 20 years that allow them to see a window of opportunity for the fall of Kadyrov. These are people who know that otherwise they will never be able to return to Chechnya.”