Caucasians Have Mixed Attitudes Toward Volunteers Fighting in Eastern Ukraine

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 15 Issue: 11

On June 5, Ingushetia’s governor, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, estimated the number of ethnic Ingush who have fought on the side of pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine to be between 20 to 25 persons. According to Yevkurov, four of the Ingush volunteers were killed in hostilities in eastern Ukraine. He further suggested that the Ingush fighters went to Ukraine not from Ingushetia, but from other parts of Russia. Many young Ingush men, according to Yevkurov, have said they are going to Ukraine to help brotherly people. “I ask them, why and with what purpose they are going there and explain to them that Ukrainians should be given the opportunity to settle their problems themselves,” Yevkurov said (http://www.interfax-russia.ru/South/news.asp?id=507299&sec=1671).

The reports of Ingush “volunteers” taking part in skirmishes in eastern Ukraine are just the latest concerning the Caucasians’ involvement in the conflict on Russia’s side. The first such reports were about Chechen involvement:  an estimated 35–45 Chechens killed in eastern Ukraine were reportedly returned to Chechnya on May 28–29 and quietly buried (http://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/243495/). Later Chechnya’s ruler, Ramzan Kadyrov, said only 14 volunteers from Chechnya had been fighting in Ukraine, and that one them was killed. Kadyrov rejected claims that he had sent his countrymen to fight in Ukraine but boasted of “74,000 Chechens who are prepared to go to Ukraine to impose order” (http://youtu.be/h08Wjjia6xQ). Meanwhile, evidence surfaced that dozens of Russian citizens were killed in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk region this past May (http://www.echomsk.spb.ru/blogs/EchoSPB/21562.php).

Given persisting Russian-Chechen tensions, it is not surprising that few Chechens, apart from the republic’s leaders, have sympathies for the mercenaries fighting Ukrainians. Pro-independence Chechens are strongly opposed to Chechen participation in the hostilities in Ukraine, calling on the Ukrainian authorities to re-label the Chechen mercenaries as “Russian militants, given the fact that they represent the Russian state and Russia’s military forces.” Supporting the Ukrainians in their efforts to withstand Russian pressure and brewing hostilities, the Chechen group Free Caucasus stated: “The true Chechens and Caucasians understand that freedom of Ukraine is freedom for all oppressed peoples of the world and bearing that in mind, freedom-loving Chechens will always be on the side of their brothers, the Ukrainians” (http://chechenews.com/world-news/breaking/18361-1.html).

Many Chechens from Chechnya proper are directly or indirectly opposed to their countrymen’s participation in the hostilities in Ukraine. Khasan, a Grozny imam who did not want to give his full name, told Kavkazsky Uzel in regard to the issue of blood feud rules: “I have heard some talks about friends of those who were killed in Ukraine, that they would take revenge. This is a self-deception. No one forced them to go to Ukraine or to Syria and take part in the military activities. Defending the religion, fighting the invaders, are entirely different things than fighting for money” (http://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/243650/).

The participation of Caucasians in clashes in eastern Ukraine is not limited to Chechens and Ingush. North Ossetian Cossacks (ethnic Ossetians who call themselves Cossacks) openly announced they were hiring “volunteers” to fight in eastern Ukraine. The announcement was published on a popular North Ossetian website, Region15.ru, on June 4, but it was removed as of June 6. The Cossacks reassured potential applicants that the government supported their appeal and there was nothing to be afraid of. North Ossetian officials avoid giving much information about their attitudes toward the conflict in Ukraine and the involvement of Ossetians in it. At the same time they confirm that North Ossetians are fighting in Ukraine (http://region15.ru/news/2014/05/14/13-51/).

South Ossetians who fought in the 2008 Russian-Georgian war have also surfaced in Ukraine. Russian journalists reported they found a group of South Ossetians fighting in Ukraine who base their opposition to the Ukrainian authorities on the ideology of Sergey Kurginyan, which journalists dubbed “USSR 2.0.” In May, Alan Kotaev, a former candidate for South Ossetia’s presidency, announced in Tskhinvali a signup campaign for volunteers to go to Ukraine to fight Ukrainian government forces (http://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/243603/).

The group of South Ossetian volunteers, estimated to be around a 100 persons, was supposed to travel to Ukraine via Russia. South Ossetia’s de-facto authorities, however, have maintained silence on the issue for some time (http://www.ekhokavkaza.com/content/article/25390828.html). Yet, on May 21, South Ossetian officials stated that no residents of the republic were fighting as volunteers in “any of the hot spots on the planet” (http://cominf.org/en/node/1166501908).

On May 23, South Ossetia’s president, Leonid Tibilov, has warned against populist calls to go to Ukraine to fight. Tibilov cleverly sided with Russia, but at the same time stated that the participation of South Ossetian volunteers in the Ukrainian fighting would give Russia’s enemies a reason to accuse it of interference in Ukraine’s internal affairs (http://cominf.org/node/1166501934).

Given the Kremlin authorities’ tight control over Russian society, the volunteer campaign in Russia is apparently not a spontaneous effort, but appears to be organized on a large-scale by the Russian government. Naturally, there is also the desire by President Vladimir Putin’s supporters in the regions to demonstrate their zeal in helping their boss. Moscow’s rationale for the volunteer campaign is that it can claim that the Russian army is not involved in the conflict in Ukraine. At the same time, government casualties can be easily concealed from the widespread population, since volunteers are not part of the official government structures and can be ignored. If conscript soldiers are not dispatched to fight and die in Ukraine, significant opposition to Russian involvement in Ukraine is unlikely to emerge as well, which is convenient for Moscow in its efforts to wage a new form of hybrid warfare against the new government in Kyiv.