Issued by CEMO Center - Paris
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Chechens avenge family lost in wars against Moscow

Monday 23/January/2023 - 02:52 PM
The Reference

The cities of Bakhmut and Grozny were in the same country not so long ago, a 600-mile road journey apart.

The route that the men in front of me have taken from Chechnya to Ukraine since the fall of the Soviet Union has been longer, taken in half of Europe, and several decades.

Hundreds of Chechens who fled the violent rule of Ramzan Kadyrov, their Kremlin-backed leader, are now fighting with the Ukrainian army, taking the chance to avenge family and friends lost in wars against Moscow in their youth.

They are at the front of the battle for Bakhmut, in Ukraine’s east, where younger, inexperienced Ukrainian volunteers rely on their fighting record and knowledge of the enemy.

Issa “Vedeno” took up arms against the Russians in 1994 and was injured fighting them in 2000. Now grey, last week he was carrying his gun on the front line in Opytne, just south of Bakhmut, fighting off Russia’s Wagner mercenaries.

In the years in between, he lived in Azerbaijan and Poland, working as a car mechanic.

Sabah fought the Russians until defeat in the second Chechen war in 2005. Now after years in Austria training as a computer programmer and learning German, he is back in combat, recruited to the Sheikh Mansur battalion, a unit composed mainly of Chechen but also Dagestani and other ethnic minorities from the Russian Federation.

“We are used for special operations,” Sabah said. “Of course, we have this experience of guerrilla warfare, so we can work anywhere.”

We met away from the front, after they were rotated off the line. “Dobre” and “No Fingers”, a Dagestani and Chechen respectively from Ukraine’s foreign legion, we met in Bakhmut itself.

“No Fingers” is in fact missing only four fingers, lost while preparing explosives in an earlier round of the Ukraine war. He has been fighting for Kyiv the longest, since 2014 — like the others, he asked not to be fully identified for the sake of family still in Russia.

Dobre and “No Fingers” had just come back from a mission to rescue a Ukrainian officer and five of his men who had become trapped in a house in Zabakhmutva, on the eastern fringes of the town.

They stormed in and cleared the Russians pinning down the squad from the house opposite, they said, killing all of them, then dragging the Ukrainians free.

If they fight like they have nothing left to lose, that is perhaps the reality. Issa is called Vedeno because that is the town in Chechnya from which he comes. It was once the capital of a briefly independent Chechen state, after the Russian revolution, and was the scene of bitter fighting in the post-Soviet Chechen wars, culminating in its bombing and storming by Russian forces in 2001.

 “My two brothers were killed fighting in the war,” Issa said. “My father, mother and sister were all killed by Russian bombing.”

Sabah told a similar story: his father, brother and sister were all killed by Russian forces. He and two brothers managed to escape. “We have a big family,” he said. “But 70 per cent of them are dead.”

The Chechen rebellion was finally put down after Kadyrov’s late father, Akhmad, an opposition leader, switched sides. He was assassinated but his son took over. He has enforced his own rule and that of President Putin ever since.

The rebels fled across Europe. Some lived peaceful lives for years, like Issa and Sabah. Some followed Kadyrov into Russian ranks. Many of those are now fighting in their own force for Moscow, on the other side from their former comrades.

The numbers are not evenly matched. Kadyrov has sent in a large part of his personal army, with more than 20,000 of his troops estimated to have fought in Ukraine at some point, and about 8,000 to 10,000 in the country at the height of their involvement in the early days of the invasion.

The two main units on the Ukrainian side, the Sheikh Mansur and the Dzhokhar Dudayev battalions, muster several hundred people between them, with some Chechens also fighting in the formal Ukrainian military.

The Chechen resistance had an Islamist streak that became more radical as time went on. Several former fighters ended up in Syria fighting with Islamic State, the al-Qaeda offshoot the Nusra Front, or other rebel groups.

The most controversial fighter now on the Ukrainian side is Abdul Hakim al-Shishani, real name Rustam Azhiyev, who led an Islamist group that was briefly allied to the Nusra Front in the rebel-held Syrian province of Idlib.

His arrival in Ukraine has led Russian propaganda channels to denounce the “jihadists” fighting in the Ukrainian cause.

However he fell out with the Nusra Front after refusing to follow its ideological line. Azhiyev was given refuge in Turkey, where he was said to have been the target of a 2021 assassination plot directed from Russia, perhaps personally by Kadyrov.

He appears to be working in Ukraine with the support of Kyiv, and to have arrived in Bakhmut this month.

That is good enough for “Dobre”. “He must be a good fighter,” he said. “As for the rest, we will let him be judged by his deeds.”

The Chechens know they have a reputation as hardline and militant, and argue against it. “Umar”, a special forces soldier from the Sheikh Mansur battalion, said the group had strict entry controls and weeded out extremists, criminals and those with associations with “undesirable” groups.

“We are a pure battalion,” he said. “We don’t let just anyone join us.”

The Sheikh Mansur battalion was founded in 2014 at the outset of the first stage of the war. Since last year it has seen action around Kyiv and then in Sievierodonetsk, before moving to the Bakhmut front.

The presence of Chechens on both sides of this war is an indication that while pacified, Chechnya is still living with its own bitter conflict. It also casts a light on Putin’s nervousness that defeat in Ukraine will lead to further separatist efforts back in the Russian “Federation”.

One belief the pro-Ukrainian Chechens share is that if they defeat Putin in Ukraine, they might one day win independence for their own republic.

The other is a conviction that they have been ill-treated by the West, suspicious of their religion.

“The western world has only now seen the face of our enemy,” Sabah said. “They see the thousands who have died in Ukraine but did they not see the hundreds of thousands killed in Chechnya, in Georgia, in Syria? Was that not enough to see who the real terrorist was?”

Umar added: “If we had been helped as Ukraine has now been helped, Russia would not be here right now.”