As Russia launched its massive re-invasion of neighboring Ukraine in late February, scores of propagandists, journalists and officials—in Russia, Ukraine and even abroad—seized on an old, familiar trope: the Chechen, a fearless and ruthless force, far deadlier than any other foe. Watching the agitprop on both sides pair inflammatory texts with visuals to sloganeering effect, one could be forgiven for thinking that the Chechens form both the vanguard and crème de la crème of the invading army (YouTube, February 26) and, simultaneously, a big chunk of its casualties (Suspilne.media, Interfax-Ukraine, February 27)—depending on what source one tunes in to. The “red-bearded tough-guy” cliché goes back to Afghanistan and the Middle East, among other places, where local commanders would routinely trot out easy and comforting tales of competent and unstoppable Chechens within the ranks of their enemies to explain their own military failures. Every war needs its heroes and villains, but the Chechens appear to embody both concurrently.
A closer analysis, however, reveals significant flaws in that social-media-ready narrative. In fact, only three Chechen tactical formations are reported to have been deployed to Ukraine: the Akhmad Kadyrov Special Motorized Regiment of Russia’s National Guard (see EDM, February 14), Rosgvardia’s 249th Separate Special Motorized Battalion Yug (“South”) (Novayagazeta, February 25; TASS, February 26), and the Defense Ministry’s Special Battalion Vostok (“East”) (Moskovsky Komsomolets, February 26).
While figures are flexible and can vary by assignment, Russian regiments typically comprise 500–2,500 service members, while a battalion is a combat unit of 145–500 soldiers (Omon-mvd.ru, March 2018; Army-blog.ru, June 7, 2016). Thus, the number of Chechen service members deployed to the war zone cannot possibly be greater than 3,500; and in reality, it is much smaller. The Akhmad Kadyrov regiment—formerly Special Motorized Battalion Sever (“North”)—is generally believed to be 700-strong. While in its heyday, the Yug battalion numbered no more than 500 troops (Chechenskoye Obschestvo, February 3, 2007; EDM, February 14). As for Vostok, it was officially disbanded in 2008, after a protracted power struggle between its former commander, Sulim Yamadayev, and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov (Akhmad Kadyrov’s son). It was, however, never truly broken up, its remnants having been incorporated into the 42nd Guards Motor Rifle Division of the Russian Armed Forces, which makes it well-nigh impossible to estimate its true size. In any event, it seems safe to assume that there are fewer than 2,000 Chechen Rosgvardia and Ground Forces personnel currently operating in Ukraine, which limits the role such a force can play in furthering any military objective. The Akhmad Kadyrov regiment and the Yug battalion have been constantly on the move, following the infantry troops and only rarely engaging Ukrainian forces. Their primary function so far has been to take over and secure strategic sites, including at least one nuclear power station (Ukrinform, March 4; YouTube, February 27, March 3, March 5, March 5). True, Kadyrov earlier claimed he could dispatch anywhere between 10,000 and 70,000 Chechen “volunteers” to Ukraine to reinforce the occupation force (see EDM, March 3), but that may be a tall order considering the unpopularity of the war in general and Chechens’ collective wariness toward any Russian war effort in particular.
Additionally, the loyalty of Kadyrov’s forces to Moscow should never be taken for granted. In 2010, Russian Interior Ministry Special Forces accused the then-Sever battalion of opening fire on Russian spetsnaz and aiding an insurgency group (Moskovsky Komsomolets, July 14, 2010). The Kadyrov government vehemently denied the allegation (Yuga.ru, July 15, 2010), but it neither placed the battalion under investigation nor launched a defamation case, as was promised. Most of Kadyrov’s associates are former separatist fighters who changed sides for a variety of reasons. A lot of them lost family members to Russian attacks, and some of their close relatives are still missing. Early on, Moscow determined that the only way to build long-term allegiances to Russia among the kadyrovtsy was with money—money for Ramzan Kadyrov but also money for all the resources he needed to succeed: for reconstruction, mosques and religious schools, infrastructure projects, new facilities, as well as for his commanders, subordinates and private army. The kadyrovtsy consider President Vladimir Putin their meal ticket. When the money runs out, likely so will their loyalty. That is why Kadyrov promised generous monetary rewards to his fighters as an incentive for tracking down “Ukrainian nationalist commanders” (T.me/RKadyrov_95, March 3).
In the meantime, evidence continues to mount of the presence on the side of the Ukrainian government troops of anti-Russian Chechen fighters. Those fighters appear to be mainly from two volunteer battalions, one named after the 1990s independence leader Dzhokhar Dudayev (YouTube, February 27), and the other after Sheikh Mansur (YouTube, March 6), an 18th-century Chechen spiritual and resistance figure. The two battalions are made up primarily of veterans of one or both of Chechnya’s modern-day wars against Russia, but they also include Ukrainians and volunteers from Georgia, Azerbaijan and elsewhere in Russia. The Chechen fighters in these units belong to the old school of the Chechen insurgency—secularists who base their claim for independence on history and culture rather than religious grievances. Most are harsh critics of both the pro-Moscow regime in Grozny and the Caucasus Emirate, a fragmented pan-Caucasus organization that hijacked the pro-independence Chechen resistance in 2007. But interestingly, the Chechen wing of the Caucasus Emirate, too, has expressed its support “for the Ukrainian people in their struggle” (YouTube, February 28). The amir of Vilayat Nokhchicho, Abu Hamza (Ahmad Umarov), compared the Russian military to the Mongol Horde that “brought war to the Ukrainian soil.” He did not, however, indicate whether the Emirate is planning to dispatch volunteers to Ukraine, unlike his ideological opponent Akhmed Zakayev, the exiled head of the Chechen separatist government, who announced his readiness to establish volunteer detachments of Chechens residing in Europe to fight alongside the Ukrainian forces. For that, “the governments of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria and Ukraine must sign a military cooperation agreement. It is a necessary procedure for our volunteers to be protected by the Geneva Conventions,” Zakayev said (YouTube, February 26).
The reference to the Geneva Conventions in Zakayev’s statement is not incidental. During the two recent Russo-Chechen wars, Russia refused to categorize Chechen fighters as combatants and never afforded them protection under the terms of international humanitarian law. That legacy means there is unlikely to be a shortage of Chechen volunteers eager to take up arms against the enemy again; but the Ukrainian government needs to take steps to ensure these people are properly protected. As Chechens on both sides are integrated into the bigger fight, we may well witness one of this war’s messier dimensions: the intra-Chechen conflict.