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‘Kremlin’s dragon’: Ramzan Kadyrov and the Chechen forces’ role in Russia’s war against Ukraine

While forces under Chechnya's head Ramzan Kadyrov are fighting the war against Ukraine, a section of Chechens have taken up arms against Russia. Why are Chechens fighting on both sides?

Ramzan Kadyrov came to power as the Head of Chechnya in 2006 backed by Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Photo: Twitter/@KremlinRussia_E)

“A little dragon fostered by the Kremlin”; Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “foot soldier” — that’s how the world describes Ramzan Kadyrov, the Head of the Chechen Republic who recently shared a video of his forces purportedly in Mariupol – a besieged port city where Russians have been wreaking havoc by bombing civilian targets.

Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who covered the war and human rights violations in Chechnya extensively, once called Kadyrov “a little dragon fostered by the Kremlin.” “Now it has to feed it. Otherwise, it will spit fire,” she wrote after her meeting with the warlord in 2004. Kadyrov considered her an “enemy” and in 2006, Politkovskaya was found murdered.

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A staunch ally of Putin, he has been accused of “numerous gross violations of human rights dating back more than a decade, including torture and extrajudicial killings” by the United States, which imposed sanctions against Kadyrov in 2020.

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The Chechen leader has now joined Russia in its fight against Ukraine.

Interestingly, a section of Chechens is also fighting the war alongside Ukraine. To understand this divide, we take a look at the history of Chechnya and Kadyrov’s relationship with the Russian President.

A short history of Chechnya

Ramzan Kadyrov came to power as the Head of Chechnya – a Muslim-dominated country in North Caucasus — in 2006, backed by the Kremlin in times of intense turmoil stirred by anti-Russia separatists and militants.

Kadyrov’s father, Akhmat, was appointed as the head of the administration by Russia in 2000 as part of its ‘Chechenization’ policy through which Moscow handed over the pacification of Chechnya to pro-Russian indigenous leadership. This came a year after the then Prime Minister Putin sent troops to Chechnya claiming that Chechen Islamist militants were responsible for a series of terror attacks in Russia.

Chechnya’s independence from the Soviet Union has been widely contested with Russian forces invading the nation to crush the separatist movement in 1994. Parallelly, radical Islamists have also sought to control Chechen territory, influencing the separatist movement. Though Aslan Maskhadov, a rebel leader turned president, signed a peace agreement with Moscow in 1997, he was unable to control militancy. Russia declared the second invasion of Chechnya to curb the acts of terrorism in 1999. A year later, Moscow declared its rule in the country.

In 2003, a new referendum altered the Chechen Constitution, making it a part of the Russian Federation. Akhmat – who started out as a rebel in the first war and later switched sides – was elected President. However, in 2004, he was killed in a suicide bombing in the Chechen capital Grozny. Ramzan Kadyrov eventually came to power in 2006 and three years later, Russia declared an end to its operations against Chechen terrorists.

Russia has been pumping cash into Chechnya to sustain Kadyrov’s loyalty. According to a Financial Times report, from 2002 to 2012, most of Chechnya’s regional budget came through federal transfers – which went into post-war development and reconstruction of homes, hospitals and infrastructure. In 2012, Russia extended an economic program for the whole of North Caucasus instead of just Chechnya.

The human rights violations Kadyrov is accused of

Human rights groups have called out Chechen authorities for abductions, torture and punishments of their citizens. The Human Rights Watch has accused the Kadyrov-led government of rounding up members of the LGBTQI community, torturing and killing them. The New York Times called it an “anti-gay pogrom”. Quoting a survivor, the NYT reported that homosexuals were electrocuted and beaten in detention, while some of them were killed in custody or by their families once released.

Kadyrov is also suspected of carrying out extrajudicial killings of his ‘enemies’ and critics. The Yamadayev brothers, political rivals of Kadyrov; Umar Israilov, once his bodyguard; Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, a former Chechen separatist commander; and Natalia Estemirova, a journalist and human rights activist, are among the long list of people who have been allegedly killed at the behest of the Chechen leader. Israilov has reportedly accused Kadyrov of torturing suspected separatists and killing them.

Analysts have noted also similarities between the rise of Kadyrov and Putin, both assuming authoritarian control of their countries. Kadyrov has called himself “a patriot, a foot soldier of the president of Russia, Vladimir Putin,” in an article published in a pro-Kremlin newspaper.

Chechens fighting for and against Russia

In line with his loyalty to Putin, Kadyrov has sent thousands of Chechens to join Russian forces for the “demilitarisation” of Ukraine. He also claimed to have visited Ukraine to meet his soldiers on March 13, news agency Reuter reported.

Chechen forces were said to have been a part of the Russian offence at the Hostomel Airport. However, Ukraine has claimed that in retaliation, it destroyed the 41st motorized regiment of the Chechen national guard, killing their leader Magomed Tushayev.

According to an analysis by Political Science Professor, Aurélie Campana, published in The Conversation, Russia is using Chechens as a psychological weapon to intimidate the Ukrainian volunteer forces. Chechens are notorious for “the cruelty and abuse they administered in Chechnya itself, in the Donbass in 2014 where they intervened, and in Syria where some of their soldiers are still deployed,” Campana notes.

However, it’s not just the Ukrainians who might dislike the Chechen forces. A report by Spectator, a British magazine, states that Russian soldiers are also wary of their allies, a remnant of the conflict between Chechnya and Russia years before Kadyrov was instated to power.

Among Chechens, the conflict also led to anti-Russian sentiments. Those who fought against Russia in the first and second wars in Chechnya went on to join two battalions that backed Ukrainian forces during the annexation of Crimea in 2014. They have now reportedly joined Ukraine’s defence against the Russian invasion.

These volunteer battalions are named after Dzhokhar Dudayev – the first president of independent Chechnya — and Sheikh Mansur — a Chechen military commander. While the Dudayev battalion is led by Adam Osmayev, who was earlier charged with plotting to assassinate Putin, the Mansur battalion is led by an unnamed commander who claims to have coordinated the massive terrorist attacks on a Russian theatre and school, The Guardian reported in 2015.

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