Rival Chechen fighters wage war on Ukraine’s battlefields

Kneeling in a patch of yellow wildflowers, a Chechen soldier carefully straps an explosive device to the bottom of a small drone. Seconds later, he is freed. It explodes next to two old window mannequins set up 200 meters (yards away), one with a Russian-style military hat on his head.

After this training and others outside the Ukrainian capital, the Chechen soldiers, wearing matching camouflage shoes and protective gear, will head to the front lines in Ukraine, vowing to continue the fight against Russia that raged for years in their homeland of the North Caucasus.

Fighters from Chechnya, the war-torn republic in southern Russia, are participating on both sides of the conflict in Ukraine.

The pro-Kyiv volunteers are loyal to Dzhokhar Dudayev, the late Chechen leader who led the republic’s campaign for independence from Russia. They form the ‘Dudayev Battalion’ and are sworn enemies of Chechen forces who support Russian President Vladimir Putin and have joined Russia in the months-long siege of the key Ukrainian port of Mariupol and other trouble spots in the east and southern Ukraine.

A group of Chechen newcomers, many of whom live in western Europe, were forming up at a makeshift firing range outside Kyiv before heading east. During a training session on Saturday, the new recruits — all Muslim men — shouted “Allahu akbar!” (“God is great!”), holding their guns aloft before being presented with military ID cards that are issued to volunteers.

Ukrainian officials say the Chechen battalion currently numbers several hundred people who fight alongside the country’s army but are not officially under national command.

Instructors teach new battalion members the basics of combat, including how to use a weapon, take up a firing position, and how to work as a team. Trainers include veterans of the Chechnya wars that ended in 2009, some joined in Ukraine after fighting against Russian-backed separatists began in Ukraine in 2014.

Tor, a volunteer who only asked to be identified by his battlefield nickname, said he saw no difference between the two conflicts.

“People have to understand that we have no choice,” he said in English with his face covered. “If they (the Russian forces) win this war, they will continue. They never stop. I do not know. The Baltic countries will be next, or Georgia or Kazakhstan. Putin says openly, absolutely, that he wants to rebuild the Soviet empire.

Russia launched two wars to prevent Chechnya, a predominantly Muslim province, from gaining independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The first conflict erupted in 1994.

The Second Chechen War began in 1999 and culminated in a siege by Russian troops of Grozny, the Chechen capital, which was devastated by heavy Russian bombardment. After years of fighting an insurgency, Russian officials declared the conflict in Chechnya over in 2017.

Muslim Madiev, a veteran fighter in the Chechen conflicts, identified himself as an adviser to the volunteer battalion in Ukraine. He joined the soldiers on Saturday for shooting practice, aiming at a plastic bottle held on a stick. Bullet casings flew from his automatic rifle onto a field already littered with bullets, shotgun shells and cardboard target sheets.

“We are going to win this war. The whole world is already defending us,” he says in Russian.

“We were the only ones fighting for ourselves (in Chechnya). No one was with us. But now the whole world is behind Ukraine. We have to win, we have to win,” he said.

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Christi C. Elwood