It did not come as much of a surprise when the leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, acknowledged that pro-Russian Chechens were involved in the conflict in Ukraine. This was something that everybody knew, but no Russian official had previously confirmed. In an interview with the state news agency RIA Novosti, Kadyrov stated: “All Chechen volunteers who fought for the militia of Donbas have returned. There are no more Chechens there” (RIA Novosti, July 31). In his usual ironic way, Kadyrov said that if the Chechens were officially deployed in the conflict zone in Donbas with Russia’s backing, they would aim for Kyiv, rather than the peripheral city of Donetsk. Chechnya’s leader insisted that the Chechen participants of the conflict in Ukraine were volunteers (YouTube, May 26, 2014).
This might have been a plausible explanation had there not been multiple videos on the Internet showing Chechen fighters in Donetsk who hardly looked like volunteers. The equipment and military preparedness of the Chechen “volunteers” clearly indicated that they were members of the interior ministry and the defense ministry units stationed in Chechnya (Zn.ua, December 10, 2014). Kadyrov also noted that the Chechens were withdrawn from Donetsk to honor the truce. “When the truce was announced, we invited our volunteers back home—let them stay home,” he said. At some point, Moscow decided to withdraw some people from eastern Ukraine in order to avoid questions about the involvement of its military in the conflict in the neighboring state. The number of pro-Russian Chechens fighting in eastern Ukraine should not be exaggerated: there were most likely several dozen—at most, 100. That is approximately the number that can be seen in multiple YouTube videos (YouTube, December 14, 2014). It appears the kadyrovtsy were in the Donetsk area from the end of August 2014 until February 2015, when they were called home.
Kadyrov called the Chechens fighting on the Ukrainian side traitors, saying they were former Chechens who sold themselves to the Europeans. Europe armed them and sent them to fight in Ukraine, he said, adding that the pro-Ukrainian Chechens had spent much time in Europe, which perversely affected them, but that no one from Chechnya proper had gone to fight for Ukraine. The commander of the pro-Ukrainian Dzhokhar Dudaev battalion, Isa Munaev, was killed, and Adam Osmaev succeeded him (RIA Novosti, July 31).
According to Kadyrov, 150 people are currently fighting in the Dzhokhar Dudaev battalion, but the members of the battalion do not disclose such information. Chechnya’s governor failed to mention that as of today there are two Chechen battalions fighting in Ukraine on Kyiv’s side—the one named after the first president of the independent Ichkeria, and a second one named after Sheikh Mansur, the Chechen hero from the second half of 18th century. The first battalion is known because of Isa Munaev, who was killed near Donetsk. The second battalion is led by Muslim Cheberloevsky, a well-known commander in the first and the second Russian-Chechen wars.
The pro-Ukrainian Chechen units experienced difficulties at first, when they were accepting all willing individuals. The lack of a selection policy negatively affected discipline in the units. The Sheikh Mansur battalion eventually split off from the Dzhokhar Dudaev battalion. Membership in the new battalion is based on strong Islamic principles.
The Dzhokhar Dudaev battalion experienced problems after Osmaev succeeded Munaev. The authorities had accused Osmaev of plotting an attempt on the life of President Vladimir Putin (UNIAN, February 3). Some fighters were not prepared to recognize a young man without any fighting experience as their commander. However, Osmaev received a good education in the United Kingdom and was highly motivated to take revenge for spending years in detention on unfounded charges of organizing an attempt on Putin’s life. Several members of the battalion left the unit and Ukraine subsequently. Four months later, Osmaev managed to reorganize the unit and, together with Cheberloevsky, is defending an area near Donetsk. Both commanders confirmed their presence near the village of Shyrokyne, where fierce battles took place in June. Shyrokyne is a strategically important point for the defense of the Black Sea city port of Mariupol (YouTube, June 12). According to Cheberloevsky, the two Chechen battalions are based in four areas and holding back the separatists, who are supported by the Russian army.
The Ukrainian government has been unable to resolve the critically important issue of the status of foreigners fighting under the Ukrainian flag. The pro-Ukrainian Chechen units would have increased their numbers by several times if Chechens living in Europe had received reassurances that they would not be prosecuted for participating in the conflict on the Ukrainian side. This would also help redirect many young Chechens from volunteering in Syria to volunteering in Ukraine. The number of Chechens fighting on the Ukrainian side entirely depends on the official position of Kyiv.
Thus, with Chechens participating in the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, the Chechen conflict has spilled over from the borders of the North Caucasus and become an international issue in the battlefields of eastern Ukraine as well as the Middle East.