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Twenty years after Russia invaded Chechnya to crush a fledgling independence movement, the two sides are once again facing off. This time around, their battlefield is not the mountains of North Caucasus but the towns and villages of eastern Ukraine.
On one side are several hundred fighters dispatched by Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya’s leader and a staunch Moscow ally, to fight alongside pro-Russian separatists. Although Kadyrov has denied sending Chechen troops to Ukraine, there have been numerous sightings of heavily armed Chechen battalions motoring through the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Some fighters claimed that Kadyrov had personally ordered them to enter the fray.
On the other side is a loose battalion of Chechen volunteers, made up of combatants who continue to demand independence for Chechnya and who’ve now come to help Ukraine defend its own. Their presence, too, lacks formal approval—they are still waiting for Kiev’s full blessing and remain a somewhat autonomous force. Many of these combatants fought in the two Chechen conflicts in the 1990s, and the struggle to roll back Russia’s influence in Ukraine conjures up painful memories of their own longtime war with Moscow.
“Ukraine’s war is our war in so many ways,” the battalion’s commander, Adam Osmayev, told me in his headquarters in Lysychansk, a gray industrial city near the Luhansk frontline. “We’re fighting for the same thing, against the same enemy.” Fittingly, his unit is called the Dudayev Battalion—a tribute to Dzhokhar Dudayev, the Chechen separatist leader who fought Russian troops and served as the country’s first president in the early 1990s.
Thus far, these two groups have not faced each other directly on the battlefield. Kadyrov’s fighters were instrumental in the final assault on Donetsk Airport in January, having fought for months to capture the wrecked hulk of buildings that once made up the passenger terminals. For its part, the Dudayev Battalion has acted as a special operations unit charged with disrupting separatist communications and supply lines, using the small-fire group tactics perfected during intense urban battles in Chechnya. Even if their role remains modest in terms of numbers, however, the presence of these two opposing camps has turned the Ukraine conflict into a proxy war of sorts, further tangling the knot of competing interests and creating repercussions that might reach far beyond the region.
Although Chechnya and Ukraine are dissimilar in almost every other way—including religion, culture, and geography—they have two aspects in common: a history of Russian domination and a yearning for a separate identity. Each has a tortuous history of friendship and enmity with Moscow, and both have faced obstacles in asserting independent statehood.
That, of course, is where overt similarities end. Unlike Ukraine, Chechnya never gained international recognition as a separate state following the breakup of the Soviet Union. It did manage to experience two periods of de facto independence between Russia’s attempts to bring it to heel, achieving shaky autonomy first in 1991–94, under Dudayev, and then in 1996–99, after its military victory over Moscow. Both instances, however, devolved into lawless stretches of kidnappings, contract killings, and—in the period following the first war—rising Islamic extremism. Two gruesome drawn-out clashes with Russia claimed more than 200,000 lives and left Chechnya in ruins.
By the late 1990s, military and religious heavyweights within Chechnya, including Kadyrov’s father, Akhmad (who was then the grand mufti), had begun to question the legitimacy of the self-proclaimed Republic of Ichkeria and favor a pact with Russia. Chechnya’s weak institutions and its lack of experienced government hands made it poorly equipped to sustain itself, they reasoned, and so its future lay in joining its giant northern neighbor. Dozens of former rebel leaders cast their lot with Moscow, eventually swearing allegiance to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Their support was key in helping Moscow reassert full control over the region by 2002. In return, the republic’s new government got a free hand in ruling the territory—so long as it enforced order and security there—and received generous subsidies and financial aid. But the bargain came at a cost: sporadic resistance has continued through spectacularly cruel acts of terror on civilian targets, as Chechen rebels turned away from a movement of national liberation and embraced radical Islam. The key players in the original secular independence movement—the closest Chechnya has ever come to a legitimate, popularly elected government—either died in armed clashes or fled abroad.
Kadyrov’s loyalty to the Kremlin has won him unflagging support from Moscow, even as his impulsivity caused great consternation among Russia’s security services. Fighters of his personal army—known as Kadyrovtsi—swear allegiance to their commander in chief, and Kadyrov has not hesitated to deploy them in conflict zones to curry favor with Putin. In December, Kadyrov proclaimed that he was “ready to resign and fight” in eastern Ukraine himself to support the Russian cause. Although few Chechen combatants fighting on the pro-Russian side have been willing to speak openly about their motivation or previous combat experience, some have said that their sole purpose in being there was to serve Kadyrov.
Meanwhile, in Chechnya itself, Kadyrov’s eight-year rule has been marred by widespread human rights abuses. His powerful 20,000-strong Interior Ministry force of former rebel fighters turned personal bodyguards spreads fear among the population. Together with Russian special operations units, Kadyrov’s security forces have systematically hunted down the remaining rebel elements that continued to fight from their mountain bases in Chechnya and Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge.
As a result, thousands of Chechens were forced into self-imposed exile in Europe and Turkey, where some tried to rebuild their lives while others took up other causes—often more radical ones. Today, the diaspora is fractured and politically marginalized. A deep sense of frustration and disillusionment felt by young exiles drives many to militant Islamism; scores have wound up in the Middle East, fighting alongside violent jihadist groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).
The anti-Moscow protests that flared up in Kiev in 2013–14 reinvigorated parts of the Chechen liberation movement. Russia’s aggressive response to the demonstrations sparked a sense of solidarity and drove many Chechens to join ranks with the protesters last year. Ichkerian flags—emblazoned with the national symbol of a lone wolf—flew alongside countless other colors from across the former Soviet bloc, as ethnic Chechens joined Azerbaijanis, Belarusians, Crimean Tatars, Georgians, and other nationalities that took part.
After the Russian-Ukrainian confrontation turned violent, some of these diaspora members were only too glad to take up arms. Last spring, Isa Munayev founded the Dudayev Battalion. Munayev was a brigadier general and military commandant of Grozny during Chechnya’s wars with Russia and had since been living in Denmark. His new battalion quickly filled with other Chechen exiles who streamed in from Europe, many of them with years of experience fighting Russia. The war has taken a toll on their ranks: Munayev himself was killed by artillery fire in February while he was carrying out an operation at a strategic staging point used by pro-Moscow separatists during their assault on the village of Debaltseve.
Osmayev, the new commander who spoke with me in Luhansk a month ago, expressed dismay with how Russian influence has changed Chechnya. “What Putin and Kadyrov have done to Chechen society is incredible. It is completely alien to our culture,” he said. “It’s ridiculous that our people go off to fight and die in some far-off war in the Middle East.” Osmayev insisted that his fighters represent a challenge not only to Russia but also to radical Islamist movements, standing for everything that extremist organizations such as ISIS hate.
Most important, he said, the war was “a fight for the democratic futures of our two countries”—both Chechnya and Ukraine. He maintained that hundreds of Chechens stood ready to join on the Ukrainian side—if only Kiev would give them legal guarantees that they would not face prosecution as terrorists for doing so. Osmayev hopes to lure scores of Chechens away from joining extremist groups in Syria and Iraq and instead bring them to Ukraine with the opportunity to fight their old foe directly. For the time being, he is busy preparing his unit for a spring offensive by pro-Russian separatists; he has no hope that the fragile cease-fire currently in force will hold in the long term.
Osmayev claims that he is not aiming to become the face of a revived Chechen independence movement. And most likely he won’t have this kind of opportunity. The prospect of revitalizing a secular liberation front remains nearly nonexistent under Kadyrov, whose close relationship with Putin and powerful fighting force guarantee a strong Russian hold over the republic for the foreseeable future. But for Osmayev and his supporters, even the slim prospect of a revived liberation movement in Chechnya is worth waging a war hundreds of miles away.