'TikTok warriors': What are Chechen fighters doing in Ukraine?

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By Joshua Askew
The Dzhokhar Dudayev Chechen volunteer battalion hold the flag of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria during a training session in the Kyiv region on August 27, 2022
The Dzhokhar Dudayev Chechen volunteer battalion hold the flag of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria during a training session in the Kyiv region on August 27, 2022   -   Copyright  GENYA SAVILOV/AFP or licensors

Chechens are among a few ethnic groups battling on both sides of the war in Ukraine. 

Those fighting alongside Ukrainian troops include Russian President Vladimir Putin's oldest and fiercest enemies -- veterans of the wars in their homeland and separatists wanted by Moscow. Some on Kyiv's side since the initial stages of the war in 2014. 

At the same time, Russia has used Chechens loyal to the Kremlin to discipline and reportedly even execute dissenting soldiers, as well as intimidate civilians in Ukraine. 

But what are Chechens doing in Ukraine? Why are they there? And what effect are they having on -- and off -- the battlefield? 

Why are Chechen soldiers fighting for Russia in Ukraine?

Chechnya is a restive part of southern Russia in the Caucus region. After the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, its primarily Muslim population tried to break away and establish their own state. This led to two horrific wars during the 90s, which ended in Moscow establishing control over Chechnya.

Chechens waging war for Russia in Ukraine today, say experts, are those who teamed up with Moscow to break the rebellion of their own people during the Second Chechen War from 1999 to 2009.

Since then, they've acted as the security forces of the semi-autonomous Chechen Republic, maintaining an iron grip on the population and suppressing separatist rebels and some Islamists, who may try to challenge Moscow once again. 

“They have been co-opted by the Russian regime,” says Jean-Francois Ratelle, an Assistant Professor at the University of Ottawa, who specialises in the Chechen conflict. “They have been given weapons, jobs, and billions of dollars from the state.”

Chechen men fighting under Russia’s flag are known as the Kadyrovtsy or Kadyrovites, after the father of the leader of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, often referred to as “Putin’s mad dog”.

Ramzan inherited the position from his father, Akhmad Kadyrov, a turncoat who originally declared jihad against Moscow during the First Chechen War.

By the time of the second Chechen conflict in 1999, both Akhmad and Ramzan -- who served as his father's personal driver and bodyguard -- defected to the Russian side.

The militia has been supported by the Russian main security service, FSB, ever since.

“They are like his personal army,” Harold Chambers, a North Caucasus analyst, told Euronews, pointing out that a “big reason” why they are in Ukraine is because Kadyrov -- a staunch advocate of the war -- wants to curry favour with the Russian president.

In October, Kadyrov claimed to have sent his three sons, aged 14, 15 and 16, to fight with Russian forces on the front lines in Ukraine. 

What effect have Chechens had on the battlefield?

Thousands of Chechen foot soldiers poured into Ukraine during the very first days of the war, which began on 24 February 2022. 

Estimates of their number vary, but there are thought to be around 9,000 Chechens on the Russian side, with more than 21,000 having cycled through the conflict.

Well-versed in counter-insurgency operations at home, they have participated in urban fighting in Maripol, Sievierodonetsk and the wider Donbas region in southeastern Ukraine. 

But Ratelle was sceptical about their significance on the battlefield, likening them to a disposable private army.

“These are not elite troops,” he said. “They were most likely used as a grunt force… It's always easier for a Chechen to be killed in a war than an ethnic Russian.”

“They were treated like cannon fodder for a while”.

Putin’s “partial mobilisation” of 300,000 troops, announced in September, has disproportionately targeted ethnic minority populations or migrants from Central Asia, many coming from impoverished communities.

AP/Copyright 2022 The AP. All rights reserved
Ramzan Kadyrov, leader of the Russian province of Chechnya gestures speaking to about 10,000 troops in Chechnya's regional capital of Grozny, Russia, Tuesday, March 29, 2022.AP/Copyright 2022 The AP. All rights reserved

Soldiers from Muslim-majority regions in Russia, like Dagestan, have died at a rate 10 times higher than those from Moscow, according to the BBC's Russian Service. 

While the exact number of Chechen war dead is unknown, much like the wider casualty figures on both sides of the conflict, Chambers says they have “sustained heavy losses”.

Still, Chechen fighters serve other important roles in the war, often doing Moscow's dirty work. 

Chechens have reportedly been used to enforce discipline on disgruntled Russian soldiers, even executing deserters and those who try to defect to the Ukrainian side.

“They are given missions where you can violate the laws of war,” Ratelle told Euronews. "They have a tendency to act like criminals more than soldiers.”

He pointed out that Chechen foot soldiers are implicated in torture, looting, and have even confronted the Russian army at times during the 11-month-long invasion. 

Kremlin's 'elite fighters' propaganda

Deploying brutal and battle-hardened Chechens in Ukraine also was an attempt at psychological warfare, trying to strike fear into the Ukrainian population.

They were unleashed on Kyiv during the early days of the war as Russia pushed to seize the capital and decapitate Ukraine.

“There was a lot of propaganda,” said Ratelle. “Russia tried to spread the idea that they were elite fighters coming to destroy Ukraine”.

But this “propaganda effect” was largely hollow, he told Euronews, adding that it largely disappeared after the initial assault on Kyiv faltered and then collapsed in spring.

“They are known more as Instagram fighters then rampaging special forces. They are better at social media than fighting.”

And, at times, these clicks, likes and follows have come at a deadly cost.

“Because of how much they post on social media,” Chambers said there had been “absolutely horrendous operational security issues", allowing Ukrainian forces to locate and bomb Russian bases, killing their troops.

A post by one of Kadyrov's sons on Telegram while he was touring Ukraine (pictured below) allegedly helped Kyiv with a missile strike months later, according to Chambers. 

Who are the Chechens fighting for Ukraine? And why are they there?

But Russia is not the only side using Chechens on the battlefield.

While their numbers are a lot less, estimated at around 200 fighters, analysts say Chechens have joined Ukrainian forces and are battling it out in Ukraine -- sometimes engaging in skirmishes with other Chechens on the Russian side.

“You have a melting pot of different kinds of people and ideologies,” said Ratelle. “There are the anti-Russian Chechens, veterans from the Chechen wars, and exiles from Western Europe and Turkey.”

Many of them moved to Ukraine to fight Russia in 2014, when Moscow illegally seized Crimea, an event which kick-started hostilities.

“They perceive the fight against Russia as something transnational,” said Ratelle. “They believe an imperialist Russia is acting in the same way it did in Chechnya in the 1990s as it is in Ukraine right now.”

Russia’s military campaign in Chechnya during the 1990s was marked by inconceivable levels of death and destruction, relentless bombing of civilian areas, and almost daily reports of wartime atrocities, which experts claim bear an “uncanny” resemblance to Ukraine.

Defeating Russia has a political purpose for the Chechen fighters, tied extricable to the fate of their homeland.

“The first step in their minds is to defeat Russia and take Chechnya back once again,” explained Chambers. 

“They want to free Chechnya from Russian rule”.

'A couple of dozen' radical Islamists

A small number of those fighting for Ukraine come from radical Jihadist groups who fought alongside the so-called Islamic State in Syria.

“We’re talking about a couple of dozen maximum”, said Ratelle. “Ukraine for a while has been a safe haven for many [Chechen Islamists].”

Asked by Euronews if it was possible weaponry supplied by the West could end up in the hands of radical Jihadist groups, both experts said they could not rule out the possibility, though added the risk was low.

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
Civilians walk past a destroyed street in central Grozny on Dec. 26, 1994.Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP

“There was no evidence weapons were getting outside of Ukraine, and British and American governments are tracking them,” Ratelle said. 

“It's not a red flag to stop supporting Ukraine”.

The West has supplied billions of euros of sophisticated anti-aircraft, anti-tank weaponry, alongside tanks and small arms, to Ukraine since the outbreak of war. 

Much of this is heavy materiel, which cannot be easily transferred, or is single-use and will likely be depleted by the conflict.

“Russia has been hitting this nail a lot on social media, that [Ukraine and the West] will support all kinds of terrorist organisations and other groups in the future. But so far, it stays in the realm of misinformation.”