While Putin’s man in Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, has gained attention for his bombastic support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine — other Chechens are once again taking up arms against Russia.
On 25 February, the day after Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, Chechen head Ramzan Kadyrov gathered over 10,000 members of the Russian security forces in the centre of Grozny in a show of force.
‘We have gathered to secure our state and our people. Therefore, we once again gathered to show that we will support any decision of the Commander-in-Chief [Vladimir Putin]. We won't let you down. We will follow any order’, Kadyrov told state TV.
The next day, Kadyrov announced on Telegram that elements of the Russian National Guard (Rosgvardiya) from Chechnya were taking part in the war.
‘I officially declare that it is the Chechen fighters who serve on the path of the First President of the Chechen Republic, Hero of Russia, Akhmat-Khadzhi Kadyrov [Ramzan Kadyrov’s father], will pass through the hottest spots in Ukraine’, he said.
For Akhmed Gisaev, an exiled Chechen human rights activist now living in Norway, the use of Chechen soldiers was not militarily significant, but rather a tool for propaganda.
‘During the two Russian–Chechen wars, the Chechens secured a reputation as brave and desperate fighters, which Putin’s propagandists use to destroy the morale of Ukrainians, by forcibly sending Chechen soldiers of the Rosgvardiya to Ukraine.’
Gisaev also pointed out that talk of ‘Kadyrovtsy’ (a term to describe security forces under the command of Ramzan Kadyrov) in Ukraine was misleading.
In contrast, the Chechens fighting for Russia in Ukraine have been identified as members of the Russian National Guard, a paramilitary internal security force that reports directly to President Putin.
‘The so-called Kadyrovtsy, on whom the whole focus is concentrated, have no combat experience — they are simply glamorous and well-groomed policemen who walk in Prada boots and under no circumstances will they agree to soil their boots in the mud near Kyiv’, he said.
‘Real Chechens are defending Ukraine’
In fact, many of those who helped secure Chechens’ fierce reputation during the first (1994–1996), and second (1999–2009) Chechen wars are now fighting not for, but against Russia in Ukraine.
Two Chechen volunteer battalions have fought against Russian-backed separatists and regular Russian forces in the Donbas since 2014, the Sheikh Mansur and Dzhokhar Dudayev battalions. Most of their fighters fled Russia after the fall of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, the de facto independent government that controlled Chechnya between the two wars.
Since the invasion, a flurry of audio and video messages and social media posts have been released by the groups pledging support to the Ukrainians’ fight.
On 27 February Adam Osmayev, the commander of the Dzhokhar Dudayev Battalion, vowed to help Ukraine win.
‘I want to tell Ukrainians that real Chechens, today, are defending Ukraine’, Osmayev said. ‘We have fought, and will continue to fight for Ukraine until the very end.‘
‘Victory will be with us, God willing. We will celebrate victory in Moscow, in Chechnya, in Crimea, and in Sevastopol. God willing.’
In another address on 28 February, Osmayev appealed to Chechens fighting in the Russian National Guard to switch sides.
‘Because the whole civilised world helps Ukraine. Therefore, I also urge them to go over to the side of Ukraine, here, even among the command staff, generals, there are people of Chechen nationality, they will take care of you. I also urge all relatives and friends of these people to take their children away from here as soon as possible.’
‘It is generally unthinkable that Chechens, who were several times subjected to genocide from Russia, today fight on the side of Russia — this is unacceptable by any, religious, or by any concept’, he said.
And their number may be growing. On 26 February, Akhmed Zakayev, who served as Deputy Prime Minister in the government of Ichkeria before going on to head the government in exile for several years, said that Chechens from across Europe were prepared to go to fight for Ukraine.
‘Members of the State Committee for the De-occupation of Ichkeria have been approached by Chechens from several European countries who want to go to fight for the freedom of the Ukrainian people’, he said.
A spokesperson for the Assembly of Chechens of Europe also told OC Media that they had also been approached by Chechens wishing to fight for Ukraine. ‘Unfortunately, we do not deal with military affairs’, they said, adding that they had gathered humanitarian and financial assistance to be sent to the country.
A source with knowledge of the matter told OC Media that such North Caucasian volunteers were not limited to those from Chechnya. ‘All the countries of the Caucasus captured by Russia are now fighting here — be it Chechens, Ingush, Daghestanis, Ossetians’, they said.
‘Their homeland is occupied, but they have not laid down their arms and continue to resist.’
Akhmed Gisaev, who was himself an official in the Interior Ministry of Ichkeria, says the motivation for Chechens was clear.
‘Our freedom is violated by the Russian Federation and the criminal Russian leadership’, Gisaev said. ‘They are fighting because the Chechens are continuing the war against their Russian occupiers, and we have only one enemy — this is Russia. In Chechnya, in Ukraine — the enemy is Russia.’
‘There is not much difference [fighting] in Chechnya or in Ukraine.’
‘Everything in Ukraine is déjà vu for us’
Due to the highly authoritarian rule in Chechnya following the Chechen wars, even more so than in other regions of Russia, measuring public opinion is almost impossible.
However, the online responses to Chechens fighting in the war have been almost unanimous.
Telegram channels, social media groups, and even the comments sections under articles and videos produced by the state-run Grozny TV are full of messages of pride in the Chechens fighting for Ukraine.
Even Ramzan Kadyrov’s daughter, Ayshat Kadyrova, came out against the war.
‘Friends, no one is happy about this war. Let’s keep a human face in such a difficult time’, she wrote on her Instagram account.
Equally, there has been widespread condemnation of Chechens fighting on the side of Russia.
Such has been the strength of public opinion, that a number of messages have been spread from mothers of Chechen members of the Russian national guard, in which they attempt to justify their sons’ actions, arguing that they had no choice but to join up in order to feed their families.
A common theme among many of the messages online, and indeed from Chechens fighting for Ukraine, has been anger that Chechens are being associated with the actions of Russia.
‘We [Chechnya] are not involved in this. We should not be associated with this’, the spokesperson for the Assembly of Chechens of Europe said.
‘This [war] is against all moral principles, against our religion of Islam, against our customs, and against our good neighbourly relations with Ukrainians, which have always been good for decades.’
‘Both in the USSR and after, we had solidarity between the peoples who lived in this prison of peoples, in this empire. And each of us went through genocides, famines, and evictions.’
‘Everything we see in Ukraine is déjà vu for us. We went through the introduction of troops and bombing twice’, he said.
[Read also on OC Media: Opinion | Russia’s death train rolls through Chechnya and Ingushetia]
Responding to Kadyrov’s support for the war, Akhmed Gisaev said that Kadyrov was ‘not the choice of the Chechen people’.
[Read more on Gisaev’s story: Torture and survival in Chechnya]
‘He is the product of the Russian occupation of Chechnya and an instrument of occupation planted by force under the cover of 150,000 troops. The Chechen people had no choice. He was planted with the bayonets of Russian soldiers’, he said.
On 2 March, an appeal by a Chechen fighter of the Sheikh Mansur Battalion was widely circulated on social media.
‘I swear to you in the name of God that at least 90% of the population of Chechnya root for the Ukrainian people — who are being subjected to the same genocide as my people — with all their heart and soul’, he said.
‘Like all people in the world, I have been hearing the phrase that Chechnya, together with Russia and Belarus, attacked Ukraine and is trying to occupy it’, he said.
‘First of all, I want to ask a question to all the people on earth: what people in the history of mankind lost almost half of their entire population in the struggle for their freedom and independence? I will answer this question for you — this is my people, the Chechen people.’