A Chechen War by Proxy

Two Old Rivals Fight on—In Ukraine

Members of the Dudayev Battalion in the Luhansk region, February 2015. Olya Engalycheva

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.

Members of the pro-Russian Chechen combat unit named Death Battalion in the Donetsk region, December 2014. Maxim Shemetov / Reuters

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.

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