Widespread reports, not to mention video footage, confirm that North Caucasians are indeed fighting in Ukraine. Areas like Chechnya and Ingushetia, where Russia is arguably already at war, now link Moscow to the newer conflict in Donetsk and Luhansk. In other words, one of Russia's most violent areas is now feeding the bloodshed in Europe's newest war zone.
Chechen militants have reportedly joined pro-Russian separatist groups in Ukraine, most notably the Vostok battalion, whose name recycles the moniker of a battalion that fought Islamic extremists in Chechnya from 1999-2009. These are the “Kadyrovtsy,” well-trained irregular armed forces loyal to Chechnya's current leader, Ramzan Kadyrov.
Оперативная инфа. Оказывается, чеченцы, которые сидят в Славянске, Краматорске и за светились в Мариуполе – это кадыровский батальйон Восток
— Сергей Гармаш (@s_garmash) May 10, 2014
Strategic information. It appears the Chechens in Slavyansk, Kramatorsk, and who appeared in Mariupol are [part of] Kadyrov's Vostok battalion.
Kadyrov denies the presence of organized Chechen battalions in Ukraine, but he admits that some Chechens are on the ground there, fighting on their own, voluntarily. Earlier this summer, Kadyrov acknowledged that 14 Chechen combatants possibly died fighting in Ukraine this May.
As the evidence mounts that the real number of Chechens fighting in Ukraine is almost certainly much higher, the paradox of Chechens fighting for Russia is not lost on Russians online:
Чеченцы приехали на Донбасс защищать русских от украинцев. Даже Бог не знал, что такое возможно… Этот безумный, безумный, безумный мир!
— Иосиф Сталин (@StalinGulag) May 7, 2014
Chechens came to Donbass to protect Russians from Ukrainians. Even God wouldn’t have known this was possible. What a crazy, crazy world!
Chechens are not the only North Caucasians reported to be participating in the fighting; President of Ingushetia Yunus-Bek Yevkurov recently admitted that some of the new volunteer combatants in Ukraine are from his territory, and there are continued sightings of North Ossetian fighters.
It is not immediately clear if local branches of the security services, perhaps facing quotas, compelled soldiers in the North Caucasus to participate in Ukraine's war, or if these men traveled there on their own. The Web portal Kavkazcenter reported on volunteer recruitment centers that opened in Grozny and closed suddenly. In March this year, Oleg Leusenko published on LiveJournal a letter from a Chechen woman named Elmira, who claims that Chechen volunteers from Grozny are threatened and intimidated, if they refuse to fight in Ukraine. The Russian Council of Human Rights also says contract soldiers from Dagestan are active in Ukraine. According to the Council, militants are earning 250,000 rubles each—a hefty sum for people living in Russia's poorest republic.
Over the past several years, Russia has increased the number of local police and secret services in the region, meaning that Ukraine's newest arrivals likely have experience in irregular combat. Whether coerced or salaried, it's clear that Russia in Ukraine is now keen to use North Caucasians’ training and fighting acumen (especially in urban combat, which most ex-conscripts and volunteers lack). Indeed, the North Caucasians with military training now sighted in Ukraine are almost certainly from these irregular formations, as the ranks of Russia's formal military have surprisingly small numbers of ethnic minorities.
Not all Chechens are fighting against Kyiv, however. There is at least one group—a brigade named after the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria's first president, Dzhokhar Dudaev—made up of members from the Chechen diaspora in Europe, who have returned to resist Russia, says Mairbek Vatchagaev.
Many Ukrainians have displayed a remarkable ability to distinguish between Chechens as an entire ethnicity and the pro-Russian “Kadyrovtsy” now appearing in the East. Commenting a Facebook, for instance, one Ukrainian user wrote of the Dudaev battalion:
Это настоящие чеченцы, а не кадыровцы. Это как украинцы и сепаратисты.
These are real Chechens, not the Kadyrovtsy. That is like [the difference between] Ukrainians and separatists.
Movladi Udugov, a Chechen ideologue of the Caucasus Emirate, recently explained the concept of Kadyrovtsy in the context of the Ukrainian conflict, claiming that Kadyrov's men are not true Chechens:
Что касается кадыровцев, то это не наемники, а путинские собаки, русские марионетки без рода, без племени. В Чечне русские оккупанты называют их “разовыми”, потому что их используют как расходный материал в боях против муджахидов.
With regard to Kadyrovtsy, they are not mercenaries, they are Putin’s dogs—Russian marionettes without kin. In Chechnya, the Russian occupiers call on them for “one-time use,” because they use them like disposable material in their battles with the mujahideen.
Udugov may be onto something when he talks about Kadyrovtsy's “disposability” in Moscow's eyes. As the conflict in Eastern Ukraine has continued, scattered reports have emerged that some Chechens are abandoning the separatists in protest against poor treatment.
In the North Caucasus, the long-deteriorating security situation and repressive local regimes maintained by the Kremlin have long burdened the population. Sadly, the region's structural violence is now spreading beyond, into Ukraine, too.