Chechnya’s regional leader said on Wednesday that he hasn’t sent any troops to fight alongside pro-Russia insurgents in eastern Ukraine, but he says some Chechens may have gone there on their own.
In a statement posted on his Instagram, Ramzan Kadyrov said two-thirds of three million Chechens live outside the province in Russia’s North Caucasus mountains, so he “can’t and mustn’t know where each of them goes.”
Fighters who looked like residents of the Caucasus were seen among pro-Russia rebels in eastern Ukraine, where they have seized government buildings and fought with Ukrainian forces.
Ukraine and the West have accused Moscow of fomenting the unrest, but it has denied the claim.
In the most ferocious battle yet, rebels in Donetsk tried to take control of its airport on Monday, but were repelled by Ukrainian forces using combat jets and helicopter gunships and lost dozens of men. Some insurgents said up to 100 may have been killed.
Kadyrov, a former rebel who fought Russian forces in the first of two devastating separatist wars, switched sides during the second campaign when his father became the region’s pro-Russia leader.
Following his father’s death in a rebel bombing, Kadyrov stabilized the region relying on generous Kremlin funding and his ruthless paramilitary forces, which have been blamed for extrajudicial killings, torture and other abuses.
Kadyrov’s forces, known for their warrior spirit and deadly efficiency, helped Russia win a quick victory in a 2008 war with Georgia. The 37-year old leader has vowed an unswerving fealty to Russian President Vladimir Putin and hailed his policy in Ukraine.
Last week, Kadyrov negotiated the release of two Russian journalists arrested by Ukrainian forces and accused of assisting the rebels in the east, earning Putin’s praise.
The Chechen leader gave no details how he managed to have the journalists freed, but he has directed threats at the Ukrainian authorities.
“If the Ukrainian authorities want so much to see ‘Chechen units’ in Donetsk, why go to Donetsk if there is a good highway to Kiev?” he said in Wednesday’s statement.
However, he added that he fully supports Putin’s policy to help restore peace in Ukraine.
Russia, which annexed Crimea in March, has ignored the insurgents’ plea to join Russia following controversial independence referendums in the east.
The Kremlin also welcomed Ukraine’s presidential election on Sunday and said it was ready to work with the winner, billionaire candy magnate Petro Poroshenko, in an apparent bid to de-escalate the worst crisis in relations with the West since the Cold War and avoid a new round of Western sanctions.