Chechens fighting for Ukraine see an opportunity to “liberate” their homeland

Speaking amid the artillery boom on the Ukrainian front, the masked soldier said his ultimate goal was to liberate a land further east: the Russian republic of Chechnya.

Maga, her nom de guerre, is part of a unit of Chechen fighters helping Ukraine fight Russian troops in eastern Ukraine. Many of his relatives also support the other side: powerful Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov calls himself Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “foot soldier” and sent members of his personal army to Ukraine to fight for the russians.

Kadyrov has also been outspoken in criticizing Russia’s performance in the conflict so far and said Moscow should consider using a low-yield nuclear weapon in Ukraine, ringing alarm bells in the West. For Chechens under Ukrainian military command, the hope is that a victory in the war could unleash a political crisis in Russia and with it the downfall of Kadyrov, whom some governments, including the United States, have accused of abuses against human rights.

Kadyrov has denied the charges. “We are not fighting just to fight,” said Maga, who declined to give his real name for security reasons.

“We want to achieve freedom and independence for our peoples,” he added, referring to the Chechens and other ethnic minorities in the Caucasus region. His unit is one of several battalions of ethnic Chechens that have joined forces with Kyiv, some of them since 2014 when Moscow-backed separatists seized territory in eastern Ukraine.

Most of the fighters are from Europe, where they or their relatives sought refuge during the two Chechen wars that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. The younger members are the sons of those who fought or died in the conflicts, Maga said, while the older ones have direct combat experience.

Unlike Kadyrov’s troops, who have posted videos of their exploits in Ukraine on social media, they are keeping a low profile, saying the brutal reputation in both Chechnya and Ukraine of the “Kadyrovites,” as they are known, has tarnished the image of the Chechens. Kadyrov says he ended the bloodshed that plagued Chechnya in the two decades after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, restoring loyal relations with the Kremlin, destroying militants and rebuilding the republic’s economy.

He did not immediately respond to questions for this article. STRONG THE POSITION OF KADYROV

Some experts say Kadyrov’s power has been cemented through a combination of violence, Kremlin patronage and propaganda. His father, Akhmad, was appointed by Putin to restore order after two wars ravaged the mountainous region.

Ramzan took office after his father’s assassination in 2004 to finish stamping out an Islamist insurgency and has closely linked modern Chechen culture to his personal leadership, Caucasus researcher Cerwyn Moore said. “It would take a lot to change that kind of dynamic,” said Moore, a senior professor of international relations at the University of Birmingham.

That has not extinguished hope among Kadyrov’s opponents, including Chechens fighting Russian forces in Ukraine, that the authoritarian “vertical power” Putin has built could crumble if Moscow loses in Ukraine. The Ukrainian authorities have tried to exploit those hopes. In September, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy called on non-ethnic Russians, specifically Caucasians, to refuse to join Putin’s army and “defend your freedom now in the streets and squares.”

In an elegantly produced video speech, he invoked the legacy of Caucasian folk hero Imam Shamil, a celebrated 19th-century resistance leader who fought against imperial Russia. Weeks later, Ukraine’s parliament voted to recognize what it called Russia’s occupation of the short-lived Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, which gained de facto independence from Moscow after the first Chechen war in the mid-1990s.

It is run by a government-in-exile whose head, Akhmed Zakayev, told Ukrainian media last month that he often visited Kyiv to meet with Ukrainian officials and considered Chechen units fighting for Ukraine to be a vanguard. “The armed forces of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria are renewing themselves here today,” he told the Ukrainian service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty on October 24.

According to Moore, Zakayev’s movement is “fragmented” and currently poses little threat to Kadyrov. But he added that the current war provided an opportunity for a younger generation, including those fighting in Ukraine, to explore their culture separately from the Chechen strongman.

“The fact that they are forging even a kind of semi-virtual sense of identity under the umbrella of the Ukrainian resistance to Russia is doing something quite powerful,” he said. That effort was aided by what another fighter in Maga’s unit, who identified himself as “Tor,” described as a Caucasian community in Russia that was technologically connected and politically curious.

For now, he said, many in the Caucasus region subscribe to the official position, widely reported in state media, that Russia is a bulwark against Western aggression. But he added that a new reckoning would come. “It’s inevitable,” Tor said, “like the sunrise tomorrow.”

(This story has not been edited by Devdiscourse staff and is automatically generated from a syndicated feed.)

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