What's Driving Chechen Fighters To The Frontlines Of Ukraine
Thousands of foreign soldiers are fighting alongside Ukraine. German daily Die Welt met a Chechen battalion to find out why they are fighting.
KRAMATORSK — The house is full of soldiers. On the floor, there are wooden boxes filled with mountains of cartridges and ammunition belts for heavy machine guns. Dozens of hand grenades are lying around. Hanging on the wall are two anti-tank weapons.
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"These are from Spain," says the commanding officer, introducing himself as Maga. "Short for Make America Great Again," he adds with a laugh.
Only 29 years old, Maga is in charge of the Dudayev Chechen battalion, which has taken up quarters somewhere on the outskirts of the city of Kramatorsk in eastern Ukraine.
The commander appears calm and confident in the midst of the hustle and bustle of final preparations for the new mission in Bakhmut, only about 30 kilometers away. The Ukrainian army command has ordered the Chechen special forces unit to reinforce the town in the Donbas, which has been embattled for months.
Bakhmut, which used to have 70,000 inhabitants, is to be kept at all costs. It is already surrounded on three sides by Russian troops and can only be reached via a paved road and several tracks through the terrain. Day after day, artillery shells rain down on Ukrainian positions and the Russian infantry keeps launching new attacks.
"We were in Bakhmut for months, and now we're just resting," Maga tells me, then shows video of a past operation by his snipers. "They simulated an attack from this building, which is now no longer standing," the tall, bearded man explains.
Price of information
He then points to the screen of his cell phone. The Dudayev Battalion, named after Chechnya's first president, conducts reconnaissance operations and diversionary tactics.
"We conduct mock offensives, spy on positions, transmit coordinates and prepare the most up-to-date situation report of the front," Maga explains, sitting on a thin mattress on the ground. "We are often only 100 meters away from the enemy in the process, but we try to avoid confrontations." Reliable information is more important in that case than a few dead Russians, the commander adds.
In Ukraine, thousands of foreigners are fighting against the Russian invasion. They come from Poland, Belarus, Georgia and Russia. But there are also many British, Americans and some Germans among them. They have all joined the Ukrainians out of solidarity, but also to stop Russian hegemony once and for all.
A special score to settle
Of all the foreign fighters, however, the Chechens have a very special score to settle. Russia has killed thousands of their compatriots and driven many into exile. In 1994 and 1999, Moscow's troops waged two bloody campaigns in Chechnya.
In the end, the Kremlin installed a puppet regime that has been headed by Ramzan Kadyrov, president since 2007. The 46-year-old allows himself to be worshiped like a saint, but rules like a despot. Kadyrov has declared Russia's so-called "special operation" in Ukraine a "holy war" and sent thousands of his soldiers to support Moscow.
Ukraine is the place where they can directly fight Russia.
"We are fighting for the freedom of Ukraine, because without freedom there is no future for anyone," Maga repeats a few times. He apparently wants to clear up any possible misunderstandings.
He and his men could be accused of waging a war within a war and fighting on their own account against their arch-enemy. After all, Ukraine is the place where they can directly fight Russia and Chechnya's current ruler Kadyrov.
"We have been in Ukraine since 2014, when Russia occupied Crimea and parts of the Donbas," Maga retorts. "Just think about the massacres in Bucha and Izyum. This is the same trail of death that Russia left behind in Chechnya."
This is unacceptable as a human being, the young commander adds emphatically. "This kind of crime must be resisted, no matter where and by whom it is committed." For Maga, resisting injustice is a duty. "You see, in our battalion there are Muslims, Christians and Jews fighting together for freedom," the officer says to underscore his moral approach.
The pro-Ukrainian Chechen group Dzhokhar Dudayev Battalion captured a Russian tank in Kharkiv
Chechen unit on top of hit list
Maga puts on a mask for a photo. Neither he nor his soldiers want to reveal their identities. The Chechen unit is at the top of the hit list — both for Russia and for Kadyrov's people. "For Putin and Kadyrov, it would be a great triumph to wipe us out," Maga says with a grin. "But we are taking every precaution to ensure that this does not happen."
On the battlefield, the men of the Dudayev battalion have killed many Russian soldiers. But direct confrontations with Kadyrov's forces have been rare. "They fought on the front lines in Kyiv and then not anymore," Maga reports with a snide grin.
The Russian army leadership quickly realized that Kadyrov's people were neither capable of holding positions nor of capturing those of the enemy, the Chechen claims. "For a long time, we haven't seen them on the front lines," Maga says. "They have retreated to the third line and are doing police work, their main task being to catch deserters." Indeed, over the course of the past several months, there have been repeated reports of Kadyrov's men securing the front and executing deserters.
Dudayev's battalion is not the only unit made up of Chechens deployed in support of Ukraine. The Sheikh Mansur Battalion, named after an 18th-century Chechen military commander, has also been fighting Russia in Ukraine since 2014. Currently, the unit is stationed in Bakhmut. It is composed of veterans of the first and second Chechen wars, as well as younger fighters from Ukraine and other countries.
Syrian fighters supporting Ukraine
In October, volunteers from northern Syria joined the Mansur battalion. Among them is Abdul-Hakim al-Shishani, the leader of a Chechen militia from Idlib. This Syrian province remains under control of rebels from the radical Islamist Hayat Tahrit al-Sham (HTS). As Die Welt was able to learn in Idlib, HTS facilitated the departure of the approximately 70 volunteers because they were happy to get rid of members of a rival group.
But before leaving Idlib, al-Shishani is said to have affirmed that he did not want to wage a holy war in Ukraine. He was only concerned with fighting Russia and killing as many of its soldiers as possible.
It's as nonsensical as the Kremlin calling Ukrainians 'Nazis.'
The Kremlin intervened militarily in Syria to keep the allied regime of Bashar al-Assad in power in Damascus. Russian warplanes continue to bomb residential areas, hospitals and schools in the last remaining rebel-held territory in the country's northwest.
"Of course we are in contact with Mansur Battalion," Maga says. "Why wouldn't we be?" After all, he says, it is a Chechen unit fighting for Ukraine's freedom. He can only shake his head at the fact that the media talk about them as evil Islamists. This is just as nonsensical as the Kremlin calling Ukrainians 'Nazis,' he says. "You are the fascists and we are the terrorists, I say to Ukrainian comrades in the army, and then we all laugh."
Maga, who has none of the usual posturing of an Islamist, then leads the way through the kitchen, which is crowded with soldiers, out to the front yard of the house. Outside the heavy iron gate of the driveway, he talks about the next operation in Bakhmut.
"Of course we can hold the city and win the war, too," he says calmly and with conviction, his hands in the pockets of his uniform jacket. "The big question is only when new weapons and ammunition will arrive from the West."