Reading the Ukrainian media earlier this year gave one the impression that Ukraine was fighting not Russia, but Chechnya (vesti.ru, May 28). Few doubted that Chechens were fighting on the Russian side in eastern Ukraine, but their numbers were greatly exaggerated. The deployment of Russian military units from Chechnya in Ukraine (kavkazcenter.com, August 8) was perceived as the deployment of Chechen military units even though the percentage of ethnic Chechens in those units barely reached 1 percent of their total. Those forces also sometimes were referred to as “kadyrovtsy,” but that was also incorrect, since the units sent to Ukraine were from the defense ministry, not the interior ministry, where the kadyrovtsy actually serve.
The issue of Chechens fighting in the Ukrainian war evolved in an unexpected way when a Chechen armed group started to fight under the Ukrainian flag. The commander of the group, Isa Munaev, was quite clear from the very beginning about his motives for fighting against the Russians in Ukraine. “The fight of the Ukrainian people against imperial Russia is part of our common struggle for the decolonization of the Caucasus; we decided to express our support,” Munaev said (golosichkerii.com, March 20). In addition, he said that the handful of Ukrainians who gave their lives for the freedom of Ichkeria in the first Russian-Chechen war in 1994–1996 meant that Chechens were obligated to return the favor (YouTube, October 5).
Munaev’s group is made up of people who fought at the beginning of the second Russian-Chechen war and ended up in European countries for various reasons (pravda.com.ua, September 8). The chance to strike against Russia seems to attract former combatants of the Russian-Chechen war. Moreover, joining the war in Ukraine is seen as a counterbalance to those who would like to travel to fight in Syria, which, until recently, was the only outlet for those Chechens who fled to Western Europe as refugees after the second Russo-Chechen war (1999) and acquired a new status in those countries, but continued to detest Russia’s colonial policy in the North Caucasus. For those Chechens wanting to fight, the advantage is quite obvious: in Ukraine, unlike in Syria, they can strike the Russian army and Russian interests directly.
For a long time, Ukrainian authorities hesitated to accept offers of assistance from Chechen volunteers. The status of the Chechen volunteers in a military operation was initially unclear and that is why the Chechen battalion could not move to the frontline in Donetsk to face the Russian army there. However, the Ukrainian authorities realized that they could resolve the issue through issuing the Chechens Ukrainian IDs. That solution was proposed by Interior Minister Arsen Avakov (gordonua.com, October 31).
Ukrainian military officials then took the important step of inviting Isa Munaev, a former Chechen commander who fought under former Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov in both Chechen wars and had developed a reputation for being a good tactical commander in fighting Russian special forces. Munaev arrived in Ukraine and began sharing his experience of fighting the Russian army in Chechnya in 1990s and at the start of 2000s (nohchipress.info, August 25). Not surprisingly, such a friendly attitude on the part of the Ukrainian authorities consequently resulted in an increase in the number of Chechen volunteers coming from European countries. Eventually, the Chechen commander was able to form a second Chechen volunteer battalion in Ukraine named after Sheikh Mansur. Munaev appointed one of his close associates, Muslim Cheberloevsky, who actively participated in both Russian-Chechen wars, as commander of the second battalion (golosichkerii.com, October 25). Thus, as of today, there are two battalions of volunteers made up of Chechen residents from Western Europe. The Chechens are on the frontline, living in tents and fighting under the flags of Ichkeria and Ukraine against the Russia-backed separatist forces that have challenged the authorities in Kyiv (YouTube, November 4).
Isa Munaev’s activism has raised concerns in Ramzan Kadryov’s Chechnya. In response to his statements about defending Ukraine, some Chechens in Chechnya started saying that people who challenge Russia must face retribution. A group of Chechen volunteers from Chechnya was soon dispatched to Ukraine to punish Munaev. The head of Kadyrov’s personal guards, Abuzaida Vismuradov (a.k.a. Patriot), published several videos of Chechen volunteers determined to take revenge on Munaev. “Apti, Timur, Vakha arrived here and brought a Chechen volunteer battalion with them,” Vismuradov said. “They will look for Isa Munaev and people like him. I want to say that his interview will not go unpunished” (vestikavkaza.ru, October 30).
Increasingly, it appears that an intra-Chechen conflict is taking place within the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Munaev has sought to avoid such a turn and has warned that the Russians want to give the impression that an intra-Chechen conflict was taking place prior to Moscow’s involvement in Chechnya and that the Kremlin had managed to end the infighting between Chechens (golosichkerii.com, October 31). Munaev warned that his men will treat all those who are fighting under the Russian flag as part of the Russian military regardless of their ethnicity.
The fact that an entire special operation was launched to discredit Munaev (daymohk.net, October 25) indicates that he poses a particular threat to Moscow, which would like to get rid of him. The result of Moscow’s efforts, however, is that more people within the Chechen diaspora trust him and are prepared to join him and fight for Ukraine’s freedom—even those who did not know him as a Chechen war combatant.
Thus, after Syria, the Chechens are ready to establish themselves as a military force on the Ukrainian front as well. The possibility to damage Russia there will motivate the Chechens even more than the opportunity to fight for the caliphate back in Syria. By going to Ukraine, Chechens move closer to their homeland in the Caucasus, which makes Russia’s activities to intercept them much harder than catching those few Chechens who dare to return home from Syria. A new wave of militarized Chechens is forming near Russia; and as the conflict in Ukraine continues, more and more Chechens will likely relocate to Ukraine and take up the Ukrainian cause and receive vital military training, not to mention battlefield experience there.