September 6, 2022
The Russo-Ukrainian War, now entering its seventh month, has dramatically altered the dynamics of intra-Chechen politics and, rather unexpectedly, brought the half-forgotten issue of Chechnya's difficult, often adversarial relations with Moscow to the fore. Even preceding the Kremlin's re-invasion of Ukraine in late February 2022, Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov had advocated for the war, backing Russian President Vladimir Putin's assertion that "modern Ukraine was entirely created by communist Russia" and insisting that the territories supposedly lost by Russia to independent Ukraine "will return to the fold" (T.me/RKadyrov, February 21). As the crisis unfolded, Kadyrov sent his forces to the front lines and turned his home territory into a training base for "volunteer battalions," much to the Kremlin's delight and Ukraine's anger and bewilderment.
The crisis that engulfed Ukraine half a year ago has also presented Kadyrov's numerous foes with new opportunities. Two Chechen battalions, both named after anti-Russian resistance figures, have already been battling against Russian-backed forces in southeastern Ukraine since the outbreak of the 2014 war in Donbas. Both volunteer groups, which are made up mostly of veterans of the Chechen wars, have repeatedly indicated that they view the conflict in Ukraine as an extension of their fight against Moscow's rule over their own homeland (see EDM, March 8). Since the re-invasion of Ukraine on February 24, two more Chechen fighting units have emerged. Each has its specific characteristics, and both closely coordinate their activities with the Ukrainian military.
The Separate Special-Purpose Battalion of the Chechen Republic's Armed Forces (OBON), which is fighting in Donetsk Oblast, is headed by Hadji-Murad Zumso, a Donbas war veteran with close ties to the Ukrainian army (YouTube, August 5). The group runs a low-cost but efficient information campaign in Chechnya and Russia via its boisterous but likable spokesman, Hussein Dzhambetov—whose call sign, incidentally, is Bandera, the far-right Ukrainian nationalist who collaborated with the Nazis during World War II. The success of these units can be seen in their growing presence in Ukrainian (YouTube, August 4) and international media (The Washington Post, July 12).
Unlike the OBON, the Khamzat Gelayev Joint Task Detachment, which bears the name of a prominent Chechen field commander killed in 2004, keeps quite a low profile. Chechen sources in Ukraine say the appointment (or confirmation) of the group's leader will be announced within the next few days.
Kadyrov routinely brands the Chechen nationals fighting alongside the Ukrainians as "cowards," "alcoholics" or "rats" that "do the bidding of their European masters" (T.me/RKadyrov, July 3, July 7). Feigning scorn and indifference, he has dismissed the deepening partnership as "cooperation of Chechen-speaking devils with Banderite henchmen" (T.me/RKadyrov, April 23).
It is, however, obvious to anyone who examines Kadyrov's social media even cursorily that his anxiety is growing. Three recent developments seem to have rattled Kadyrov in particular, as witnessed in the mounting pugnacity of his messages and the unseemly, largely pointless, threats to declare a blood feud against his enemies in Ukraine, including President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (T.me/RKadyrov, August 19).
Two months ago, a group of Verkhovna Rada (Ukraine's national parliament) deputies submitted a bill on the recognition of the breakaway Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, thus openly endorsing Chechnya's secession from Russia (Rada.gov.ua, July 11; see EDM, July 28). The Kremlin's reaction to this was relatively muted, with presidential press secretary Dmitry Peskov merely stating that "such an entity does not exist" (Rbc.ru, July 13). Kadyrov, however, quickly dedicated a lengthy Telegram post to the Ukrainian deputies' initiative, accusing them of "losing touch with reality" and "remembering Ichkeria's status" some 30 years after the fact (T.me/RKadyrov, August 12).
Another development that clearly unnerved Kadyrov was the Sheikh Mansur Battalion's announced plan to extend the fight to Chechnya (YouTube, July 16). The battalion's spokesman displayed a map on which the North Caucasus republic was divided into three fronts (northern, central and southern) and 16 sectors, claiming the group has begun gathering intelligence on the territory's security forces, bases and weaponry. Two days later, Kadyrov declared out of the blue that Chechnya needs its own air-defense systems. "One can expect anything from the enemy at any moment, so we need preemptive tactical measures," Kadyrov wrote, without specifying the threat's nature or origin (T.me/RKadyrov, July 18).
Some Russian (Novaya gazeta, July 20) and Ukrainian (Tsn.ua, July 21) commentators speculated that Kadyrov needs the system to intercept and destroy Russian missiles and military jets when he decides to abandon Putin and declare independence from Russia. Such projections are based primarily on the assumption that Kadyrov is a "dyed-in-the-wool" Chechen nationalist who will not hesitate to stab Russia in the back when the opportunity presents itself. Yet, evidence for this is scarce. Why would Kadyrov want to turn his back on Moscow, which elevated him to his current position, gave him power and riches and has protected him from his own people? A more plausible explanation is that he is beginning to realize that the war in Ukraine, for which he cheered with passionate enthusiasm at its outset, could eventually land on his own doorstep.
Finally, at least one of the newly created Chechen volunteer formations in Ukraine, the OBON, has pledged allegiance to the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, declaring itself "the armed wing" of the Ichkerian government. To add insult to injury, the battalion named Akhmed Zakayev, Kadyrov's long-time critic and adversary who leads the Chechen separatist government in exile, its commander-in-chief (YouTube, July 29). According to sources in Ukraine, the Khamzat Gelayev Detachment may soon follow suit once it resolves its organizational issues.
That is bad news for the Chechen strongman whose apparent mandate 15 years ago was to eradicate the separatists for the Kremlin. It is also a potential headache for Putin, whose ascent to power was closely linked to his decision to crush the Chechens' aspirations for freedom once and for all.
Although the draft bill does not oblige the Verkhovna Rada to deliver independence to Chechens and is likely to encounter challenges outside committee, it carries significant symbolic importance. Grozny (and Moscow) has every right to be concerned about Ukraine becoming a stronghold for the anti-Kadyrov opposition, with consequences that cannot yet be foreseen given the fluid situation and the small amount of information available. What is certain is that the Chechen opposition is arming itself, showing signs of putting differences aside to fight a common foe and increasing in numbers and strength.