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‘We’re fighting for a free future’: the Chechen battalions siding with Kyiv | Ukraine

For all their efforts fighting for Ukraine in the eastern town of Bakhmut, if Dzhokhar Dudayev’s battalion of Chechen volunteers were a football club, it would be Millwall. Nobody likes us, their fans sing, and “we don’t care,” Thor, 38, laughs.

“Once I heard from a Ukrainian: ‘You can do whatever you want here in Ukraine, but you will still remain, in our opinion, terrorists and bandits,’” says a private Chechen who asked to be called only by his call sign. “And I said, ‘You know what [is] the difference between me and you, or between my nation and yours? We don’t care what the Ukrainians think of us, we don’t care what the Americans, Russians or the British think of us. In truth, we don’t care what the Chechens think of us.” Yeah. We have to do what we have to do, you see.”

The notorious Chechen militia of Ramzan Kadyrov, backed by the Kremlin, is a well-known organization. They are disparagingly referred to as the TikTok army for their penchant for on-camera military spectacles for social media posting. Their main claim to fame is to terrorize civilians abroad and at home, where Kadyrov rules, through brutality and fear.

Vladimir Putin and Ramzan Kadyrov.
Vladimir Putin and Ramzan Kadyrov. Photo: Sputnik/Reuters

Perhaps less well-known are the three Chechen battalions on the Ukrainian side, fighting on the most grueling and bloody fronts, in contrast to Kadyrov’s troops, who appear to have been pushed back.

Dzhokhar Dudayev’s battalion is one of those fighting alongside Volodymyr Zelensky’s Ukrainian forces, which have been fighting ever since Russia first invaded eastern Ukraine and illegally annexed Crimea in 2014. Named after the first post-Soviet president of independent Chechnya, known as the Republic of Ichkeria. it was created as a “peacekeeping battalion – so rest in peace, Russians,” Thor says.

Many of their fighters are first- or second-generation Chechen émigrés who fled the tyrannical rule of Kadyrov when he became Putin’s man in the wake of Moscow’s post-Soviet Chechen wars to destroy independence.

The Chechens say they are fighting for Ukraine because this is the best chance to free these peoples from what they call the “Russian yoke”. Those who have lived in Ukraine for a while add that the country also offers them the freedom to practice their Muslim faith.

The perception of Chechens inside Ukraine is “very bad,” Thor says, poisoned by the reputation of the Kadyrov regime and propaganda whipped up by Moscow, including about the perceived threat of “radical Islamism” they allegedly pose. “For more than 30 years, there has been ongoing propaganda against us. [They say] we are barbarians, we are animals, we are predators, we cannot speak normally.”

The battalion operates under the command of the Ukrainian army, but they do not receive any funds from the defense budget. His club in the basement of a Kyiv building is littered with pickled vegetables, bulletproof vests, a machine gun and even a Starlink satellite dish. They are constantly looking for additional donations. A sombrero hanging from a coat hook is an anomalous sight. “We have a Mexican donor,” Thor says. “He’s been here a couple of times, he’s donated two cars.”

Fragment of a badge with the inscription
A fragment of a badge with the inscription “Adam is the battalion of Dzhokhar Dudayev.” Photograph: Ed Ram/The Guardian

There is one more feature. The battalion commander is Adam Osmaev, 41, a former student of Wycliffe College, a prestigious public school in the Cotswolds, and a former economics student at the University of Buckingham.

Born in the Chechen capital Grozny, Osmaev is the son of a high-ranking official in Chechnya’s Soviet oil industry. Osmaev was sent to England at the age of 13. He dropped out of university to join the fight against Russia when the war broke out in Chechnya in 1999.

Today, for obvious reasons, he keeps a low profile. In October 2017, Osmayev was wounded and his wife, a battalion sniper, was killed when suspected Russian intelligence officers opened fire on them with a Kalashnikov assault rifle as they drove back to their home outside Kyiv.

“He is a very nice person and professional,” Thor says. “He is really professional. A very purposeful guy who fights for the independence of Ukraine, who still has a firm conviction that sooner or later Chechnya will become independent. We know that he is a very fair person, calm and quiet. Real officer.

The track record of the battalion since February 24 is certainly impressive. They conducted sabotage and reconnaissance activities in northern Kyiv in March, when the Russians tried to storm the Ukrainian capital before taking part in the liberation of the city of Izyum in the northeast of the country. “We were very proud to play a small role, to give our 50 cents,” Thor says.

For the last two weeks they have been in Bakhmut, in the east of the Donetsk region. The fighting is going on house by house, says the senior sergeant, who goes by the call sign Maga. “No defensive positions [for the Ukrainians] because there are these five-story buildings, and the Russians destroyed them one by one,” he adds. “The Russians have a lot of heavy artillery, and the Ukrainian army does not have enough to hold all these positions. Not enough mortars to hold back the Russians. The Russian tactic is to destroy everything, leave only ruins, and then the infantry will come. This is the tactic they used in Chechnya.”

On Sunday, Russia claimed another village in the Bakhmut region had been captured as its forces attempted to encircle the town.

The disappointment, Chechens say, is that the West has not yet realized the need to properly arm the Ukrainians. It is alleged that the provision of American jet systems “Himars” made it possible to liberate the south of the Kherson region at the end of last year. The slowness of the German government in discussing the supply of Leopard 2 tanks, according to Tor, was a “crime”. “Just give Ukraine weapons and they will do the rest and save the day without having to shed your blood.”

Thor (right) leans on a tripod for a machine gun, and Maga (left) holds a Starlink dish at a Chechen base in Kyiv.
Thor (right) leans on a machine gun tripod and Maga (left) holds a Starlink dish at a Chechen base in Kyiv. Photograph: Ed Ram/The Guardian

As for fighting for a country that doesn’t have a lot of confidence in you, Thor believes that perceptions are changing. “It’s the old generation, and it’s the same in Chechnya where we have people who still believe in communism, who still think we should be Russian,” he says.

“We are fighting for the future, and we are fighting for a free future for us, for Ukraine and for the younger generation. For us, this younger generation is more important than the old Soviet generation. We cannot count on the opinion of the victims of Russian propaganda, and we must say that we are not very concerned about this.”

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