Kyiv: Just two days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine was launched, Ramzan Kadyrov, president of Russia’s Chechen Republic, announced his forces were deployed to the battlefield.
Since then, Chechnya’s leader has posted on social media regular updates and videos of Chechen soldiers allegedly participating in military and humanitarian activities on Ukrainian territory.
On March 14, he uploaded a video of himself in a room full of soldiers, saying he was with Chechen forces near the capital, Kyiv. The claim was not independently verified and Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said he had “no information” about Kadyrov being in Ukraine.
This was not the first time Chechen forces have been deployed to conflicts the Russian army has participated in. They also took part in the 2008 war in Georgia, the first phase of the conflict in Ukraine in 2014-15, and the Syrian war.
Observers, however, say despite their reputation as fierce fighters, Chechen forces sent to Ukraine have not played a significant role on the battlefield. Their presence has been perceived as a public relations exercise, one that reflects both Kadyrov’s own political posturing and the Kremlin’s propaganda needs.
Who is Ramzan Kadyrov?
Kadyrov came to power in 2007, three years after his father, former Chechen President Akhmad Kadyrov, was assassinated. The two fought in the First Chechen War (1994-96) on the side of pro-independence forces but in the Second Chechen War (1999-2000) switched sides and helped the Russian army defeat them. As a result, Chechnya lost its short-lived independence and became one of the regions of the Russian Federation.
Since coming to power, Kadyrov has stamped out political opposition and curbed human rights and freedoms. He has been accused of ordering torture and extrajudicial killings. A string of assassinations of Russian journalists and human rights activists have been linked to Chechnya, including the killing of Anna Politkovskaya in 2006 and Nataliya Estemirova in 2009, both of whom had criticised Kadyrov.
A number of his Chechen critics who had sought asylum abroad have also been attacked and some killed, including Sulim Yamadayev, a former Chechen military commander, and Kadyrov’s former bodyguard Umar Israilov.
In 2017, the United States imposed sanctions on the Chechen president over his human rights record. The Treasury Department also linked him to the 2015 assassination of Boris Nemtsov, a prominent opposition leader and critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Kadyrov’s heavy-handed repression in Chechnya has drawn little reaction from Moscow. According to Russian journalist and political commentator Konstantin von Eggert, this is because of the political arrangement Putin struck with Kadyrov.
Throughout his 15-year tenure as Chechnya’s president, Kadyrov has presented himself as a guarantor of peace, cracking down on separatists and launching “anti-terrorism” operations. He has also regularly demonstrated his devotion to Putin in his rhetoric and political activity.
In return, the Chechen Republic has enjoyed significant subsidies from the Russian federal government, going as high as 87 per cent of its budget, which have not been reduced even when austerity measures were imposed in the past.
Federal funds have also regularly gone into the Akhmad Kadyrov Fund, along with mandatory monthly contributions from the salaries of Chechen state and private company employees. The fund, which has been sanctioned by the US Treasury, is seen as Kadyrov’s financial tool and has been used for a variety of personal projects, including allegedly paying Western actors to attend his birthday.
The deployment of Chechen troops to Ukraine has been yet another act of loyalty from Kadyrov towards the Kremlin.
Kadyrov has claimed that Chechen volunteers ready to go to Ukraine are in the tens of thousands. A report from Russian state broadcaster RT reported some 12,000 Chechen troops were prepared to deploy to Ukraine, but there has been no confirmation of how many are actually on the ground. They just stand behind the front line and do ‘pretty videos’, shouting ‘Akhmat – Strength!’ and ‘Allahu Akbar!’
Other Chechen forces have joined the Ukrainian side. They are part of the Dzhokhar Dudayev and Sheikh Mansur volunteer battalions, which were also engaged in fighting in eastern Ukraine in 2014-15. They are made up of Chechens who openly oppose Kadyrov.
The Dzhokhar Dudayev battalion is likely deployed to fight in the east, while Sheikh Mansur fighters are part of the forces protecting Kyiv.