New reports are surfacing about another influx of North Caucasian fighters arriving in eastern Ukraine, which began in 2014. In particular, Chechens fighting on the side of the pro-Russia separatists have received substantial media attention. In 2015, however, the Moscow-backed separatist leadership in eastern Ukraine said that all North Caucasians had left their territory. Nonetheless, Lifenews, a Russian news agency with ties to the country’s security services, recently reported that Muslims from the North Caucasus remain in the Donbas region and that the Muslim contingent inside the separatist forces is becoming more ethnically diverse. Lifenews claimed that up to 10,000 Muslims are living in the separatist-controlled areas of eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk province. Separatist authorities reportedly even made a curfew exemption for Muslims in the city of Donetsk during Ramadan. However, of the four separatist fighters featured in the Lifenews article, only one was local—an ethnic Lezgin who originally came from Dagestan but spent nearly three decades in Ukraine. The other three were another ethnic Dagestani—a Lak nicknamed Kuba; an ethnic Uzbek named Bakhadirchon; and an ethnic Bashkir named Khazar. Kuba reportedly worked as a contractor in Russia’s Far North, where people normally go to earn quick cash. Bakhadirchon used to be a guest worker in Russia, but preferred to fight for the “Russian World,” according to Lifenews. None of the mercenaries voiced a coherent ideological motive for why they went to fight in eastern Ukraine. The Muslims from Russia and Uzbekistan were apparently lured to eastern Ukraine by the chance to earn money; indeed, their expected pay is probably higher than they would receive as guest workers in Russia (Lifenews, July 21).
In an earlier interview for the Russian edition of Forbes, a well-known separatist commander, Alexander Khadakovsky, said that “the Chechens in Donbas are more a [recognizable] brand than a real force. Most of the time, locals mistake volunteer Ossetians for being Chechens. Ossetians do not mind be mistaken for Chechens, since the Chechens are a well-known brand.” According to Khadakovsky, compared to the involvement of hundreds of Ossetians on the separatist side, the participation of Chechens in the conflict in eastern Ukraine was relatively insignificant. At the same time, Khadakovsky admitted that the Chechens suffered serious losses during the fight for the Donetsk airport in May 2014. The Russian military’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) launched a special recruiting campaign among Chechen veterans in June 2014, but the campaign failed miserably to recruit Chechens for the conflict in Ukraine. Yet, some separatist groups in eastern Ukraine continued to pretend to be Muslim to use the Chechen brand to scare off Ukrainian government forces. Reportedly, the end of the Chechen presence in Donbas came when they snatched and tried to bury alive a separatist leader, Pavel Gubarev, who they suspected of denigrating Chechnya’s governor, Ramzan Kadyrov. In turn, Kadyrov said his countrymen did not receive proper care in eastern Ukraine and were thrown into the areas of the worst fighting, like the Donetsk airport, where many of them died in an aerial bombing (Forbes.ru, April 6).
Kadyrov has repeatedly said that he was prepared to travel to Ukraine to fight, but he apparently refused to supply his men as cannon fodder for the Russian army in eastern Ukraine. Moscow would have gladly expended Kadyrov’s forces in the fighting in eastern Ukraine, but Chechnya’s leader apparently saw through this trick and made sure that large-scale recruitment of Chechens stopped. An ideal situation for the Russian commanders in eastern Ukraine would have been to have North Caucasians and other unorganized ethnic minorities fight in the region. However, in most instances, the North Caucasians fight together, and they quickly become too influential and uncontrollable.
Khadakovsky said the North Caucasians “grew up under the conditions of nearly unending conflict and with a fairly overwhelmed psyche. Their special background made them a mass that is fairly hard to govern. Eventually, we reached the conclusion that it is hard to use them under the conditions of our war and they have to leave our territory for the time being. Practically all the Ossetians have left and, as far as I know, the same decision has been taken in regard to the Chechens” (Onkavkaz.com, July 23).
A recent report by The Guardian newspaper (July 24) suggested that about 300 Chechens fought in eastern Ukraine on the side of the pro-Russian separatists earlier in 2015, but that most have left, for reasons that remain unclear. One reason for the withdrawal of large ethnic groups from eastern Ukraine might be Moscow’s wish to make its involvement in Ukraine somewhat less visible. Apparently, it is easier for the Russian government to cover up the citizenship of anonymous Russian military forces fighting in Ukraine than the nationality of other recruits.