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Is a new armed uprising on the horizon in Chechnya?

8 August 2022
A still from a video supposedly recorded in Chechnya declaring a new Chechen resistance movement.

A group of Chechen fighters in Ukraine have declared their intention to start a new uprising to break Chechnya from Russian rule. But while some opposition movements claim to have imminent plans to go on the attack, whether these words can turn into action is far from certain.

Two figures in combat gear and black masks with rifles slung across their shoulders are setting fire to a flag of the Russian Republic of Chechnya. As the flag burns on the ground, a heavily altered voice declares that: ‘We, the sons of Ichkeria, refuse to live under the flag of the occupant’. 

The unidentified men unfurl the dark green, white, and red flag of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, the de facto independent Chechen state that existed between the two Chechen wars. With matching emblems on their combat vests, they declare jihad on the head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, and his ‘godless regime’ and ‘call all free Ichkerians… to engage in resistance at all levels.’’

The masked ‘sons of Ichkeria’ also claimed that there were ‘supporters of the sons of Ichkeria amongst [Kadyrov’s] entourage’, and that ‘the dirtiest parts of [his] worthless life’ would soon be made public. 

‘Kadyrov, the time that you were afraid of has come. Freedom to Ichkeria!’, they proclaim.

This call to arms was published on social media by an anonymous organisation shortly after an announcement that the Sheikh Mansur Battalion was preparing to begin armed conflict for the ‘de-occupation and independence of Ichkeria’.

The volunteer battalion, created by Chechens exiled following the Second Chechen War, has fought alongside Ukrainian troops against Russian forces since 2014.

[Read on OC Media: ‘We have only one enemy — this is Russia’: the Chechens taking up arms for Ukraine]

The spokesperson for the battalion, Islam Belokiyev, announced the new offensive in a video published from Ukraine on 16 July.

Belokiyev said that alongside their battalion’s ‘political work’ with Ukrainian and Western officials they were ‘conducting military training, the purpose of which is the de-occupation, decolonisation, and subsequent denuclearisation of the Russian Empire’.

The speaker of the battalion suggested that now was a good time to create a new military front in Chechnya.

‘Right now, Russia is very weak and has stretched its forces […] so we are closely monitoring the situation in Ukraine with the aim of rocking the Caucasian front. We will act when and where we want to.’

Belokiyev told OC Media that they understood that Russian forces were ‘incomparable’ to them in terms of their technical capabilities, but said the battalion was developing a plan, setting up squads, and mastering the rules of modern military operations.

He said that a plan codenamed ‘Lightning in the Mountains’ had been in development since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

He added that they had learnt much from the First Chechen War, ‘which pushed [Chechens] to the brink of extinction as an ethnic group’. 

‘The Russians made the mistake of underestimating us in the First Chechen War, and we must not repeat their mistake’, he added.

‘It will start not with war, but with peaceful protests’

Despite the apparent confidence of the Sheikh Mansour Battalion, others are less optimistic that armed resistance is possible at this time.

Dzhambulat Suleymanov is the founder of Bart Marsho, a diaspora organisation supporting Chechens in Europe. He told OC Media that a renewed resistance movement would require the right conditions and external support, and that, at present, Chechnya was not ready.

Suleymanov said that while ‘many want to hear’ that the time was now right, and that there was broad intention to resume the fight for Chechen independence, the ‘opportunity’ that the Chechens needed had not yet presented itself. 

According to Suleymanov, the return of a significant movement for Chechen independence could be expected only with the ‘collapse of Russia’, suggesting a scenario similar to that following the collapse of the USSR.

‘It will start not with war, but with peaceful protests’, he said.

He also said it was unreasonable to expect ‘a small nation’ such as Chechnya to single-handedly take on the Russian Federation, adding that Chechens ‘are not suicidal’. 

‘Unfavourable to the point of impossibility’

Mark Youngman, a terrorism and security researcher at the University of Portsmouth who has written extensively on Chechnya, agrees. According to Youngman, a resumption of armed conflict is unlikely to take place imminently, due to the ‘repressive potential’ of both the Russian federal government and the Russian authorities in Chechnya.

He said that despite Belokiyev’s claims, recent events in Ukraine ‘have not changed this situation in any way’.

‘The conditions for armed struggle in the North Caucasus have been unfavourable to the point of impossibility for a number of years, and that was an important factor in people deciding to fight in Syria and […] Ukraine: easier to get to, easier to fight, better chances of survival.’

‘Those who want to fight Russia or Kadyrov are more likely to see Ukraine as a viable arena for waging that struggle than they are to fight in Chechnya itself.’

In his video address, Belokiyev claimed that ‘the people are now at breaking point’ as a result of ‘the injustice of those in power’. 

However, despite the significant pressures that Chechens face, Youngman doubts that there is currently the support or infrastructure in place for an armed uprising.

‘There are no recognised rebel leaders or infrastructure on the ground any more, and all of the “rebel” attacks since [2016] have been self-organised, self-starter groups with very limited capacity’. 

According to Youngman, while recent attacks have been ‘jihadist’ in nature, jihadism is unpopular with the majority of Chechens. Despite this unpopularity, he said that future armed resistance will almost certainly be based on jihadist ideology, as it would be far easier to mobilise an active and extant movement than to build a new one. 

‘Armed resistance in the North Caucasus goes through peaks and troughs; it’s definitely in a trough, and honestly, I’d be quite surprised if it emerged from it in the next couple of years’, he said.

A looming threat, not a plan of action

Despite the scepticism of an imminent uprising, there remains a belief among many Chechens that in the long-run, a new struggle for independence is inevitable.

Two days after Belokiyev’s declaration, Kadyrov suggested that there was a need for a fortification of Chechnya, calling for air defence systems to be deployed to the Chechen mountains, on the southern borders of Russia. 

‘Anything can be expected from the enemy at any moment, so we need pre-emptive tactical measures,’ the head of Chechnya wrote in his Telegram channel. 

Suleymanov clarified the cultural context in which Belokiyev’s statement should be understood. 

It should not be seen as a declaration of war, suggested Suleymanov, but rather as analogous to the start of a blood feud between warring families. 

In that framework, the announcement does not necessarily suggest that an attack is imminent, but that those on the receiving end ‘understand that they cannot avoid disaster from the moment the blood feud is announced’. 

The announcement was a ‘moral blow’, he said but ‘people should not expect war tomorrow, and the euphoria in the Caucasus should pass’. 

Nonetheless, he said that eventually, ‘everything is so confused there that there will be civil and interethnic wars — that’s my forecast’. 

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