Russia Attempts to Draft Chechens into the Army

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 9 Issue: 14

Twice each year, all Chechen mothers with sons aged 18 to 27 start worrying about their children’s future as news of the draft into the Russian army begins to circulate. Every spring and fall Chechnya’s Military Commissar Sedim Tsunaev starts talking about the need for voluntary service in the Russian Army. However, the Chechen populace, which still faces war-like conditions, believes that their children are being recruited to face a certain death: almost all Russian regions today have army officers who have served in Chechnya, lost friends or were themselves wounded or broken by what they saw there during the last nine years. The army recruitment initiative dates back to 2002, when President Vladimir Putin decided that the war was over and Chechens therefore should be required to perform military service in the ranks of the same army that kept fighting in Chechnya. The government thought it could control the anti-Chechen sentiments fermenting within the army, but failed to realize that the young Chechen recruits drafted from the armed conflict zone in Chechnya would not behave like other conscripts. They made the Russians understand that in addition to combat operations, the war was also a battle of wills, which the conscripts fought by resisting everything required of them by the Russian army officers.

The first post-USSR attempt to organize a Russian army draft in Chechnya took place in 1995, when the government decided to show that the federal troops had complete control of the republic. However, Shamil Basaev’s operation in Budyonnovsk foiled these plans, and the issue became moot.

After the second Chechen campaign in the fall of 2001 it was decided to reinstate the practice of recruiting young Chechens into the Russian army. In truth, instead of the targeted number of several thousand conscripts, the draft netted only a few hundred Chechens, who were lured by promises of a bright future in sports and hefty (by Chechen standards) paychecks for each month of military service (Izvestia, November 23, 2001). A majority of Chechen recruits were sent to serve in the districts near the city of Moscow to provide them with an opportunity to contact prominent Chechen businessmen and politicians if need be. The latter consideration was not completely unwarranted – at the time the new conscripts took their oath, a group of 18 Chechen soldiers refused to swear loyalty to the Russian army. The scandal became public after the oath debacle was followed by the large-scale scuffles within the army unit, and the army brass was forced to appeal to the Chechen community in Moscow for assistance. Later it became known that the army command, driven by the fear of Chechen outrage, allowed them, for the first time since the period of the Tsarist army, to perform five daily prayers. Each Chechen was issued a personal prayer mat, the division’s mess meals never featured pork and the Chechen recruits were allowed to have tea instead of fruit compote and athletic practice instead of military drills (Novoye Vremya, January 28, 2002).

Therefore, when the group of 18 conscripts decided to return home to Chechnya, no one tried too hard to stop them because it was thought to be better for the army to keep the numbers of Chechens in each individual army unit as low as possible (Izvestia, January 9, 2002). The fact that these recruits came from the Nadterechny district of Chechnya, which was untouched by the armed conflict and historically considered to be more loyal to the Russian state, did nothing to change the situation: the Nadterechny draftees shattered the illusory hopes of Russian politicians who wanted to use their example to show that the draft covered the entire territory of Chechnya.

Further developments put the government in an uncomfortable position, with no way out in sight. Not to draft Chechens would have been incompatible with the official party line that the Chechen war was over, while proceeding with the draft would have led to trouble with rebellious Chechen youths that would have been impossible to conceal from the mass media.

This is the reason why the army recruitment campaign in Chechnya is replayed every six months and accompanied by highly public events to call up the Chechen youth into the army. However, at the very last moment, the republic fails to receive any requests for Chechen conscripts from army units stationed elsewhere in Russia as no one is willing to deal with the highly politicized Chechen issue.

No draft took place between 2002 and 2004; thereafter, it was decided that Chechen army recruits would serve in Chechnya’s military commandant offices but that new conscripts would not participate in any combat operations conducted by the army or the police – that is, their role was mostly to provide support services to the home front inside Chechnya. However, this position put the leadership of pro-Moscow Chechnya at odds with Russian law, which by that time had banned new recruits from serving in Chechnya (www.utro.ru/articles/2004/08/17/341159.shtml). It was then decided that following a brief training period, Chechen draftees would be offered military service contracts for a term of 12 to 18 months, making them de facto mercenaries instead of new recruits (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, October 4, 2006). Therefore, the Chechen military commissar was forced to make apologetic statements that the army recruitment campaign in Chechnya was not completed for reasons that were purely technical – although it was not difficult to understand that the real reasons were political rather than technical (Strana.ru, October 25, 2005) – notwithstanding the government-led propaganda campaign in Chechnya that had been claiming until the very last moment that Chechens would indeed be drafted. That is, the Chechen leadership was the last to find out from their Russian colleagues that the Chechens would once again be excluded from conscription (www.grani.ru/War/Draft/p.87141.html).

Between 2006 and 2007, conscripts who volunteered to serve in the Chechen units of the Russian army under the command of Magomed Kakiev and Sulim Yamadaev were listed as new recruits of the Russian army (Kavkaz-memo.ru, October 11, 2007). However, this group numbered only in the dozens, while the Russian army recruitment goals called for drafting over 6,000 conscription-age Chechen recruits.

In 2007 Russia made another attempt to stage a large-scale army recruitment campaign in Chechnya. This was met with public resistance that took the form of street protests and garnered the support of Nurdi Nukhazhiev, the so-called human rights ombudsman of the Chechen Republic, who claimed it was too early to send Chechen Russian army conscripts to serve outside of Chechnya (Kavkaz-memo.ru, May 23, 2007). A major motivation of the protest was to keep Chechen draftees away from remote Russian regions in order to protect them from the likely hostility of the many Russian officers who were veterans of the Chechen war (Kavkaz-memo.ru, April 24, 2007).

As far as the next draft season, Chechen military commissar Selim Tsuev was again not prepared to answer definitively whether the Chechen conscripts will be sent to serve elsewhere in Russia, although he did allow that while no requests for Chechen conscripts were pending today, they could arrive at any time (http://www.yuga.ru/news/119772).

Therefore, every attempt to draft Chechens into the army over the last eight years has failed, and the likelihood that the Russian army recruitment targets will be met this time around is no higher than before.