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On Ukraine's eastern front, Chechen fighters describe setbacks in the war with Russia (Nicolas Cleuet)

In Eastern Ukraine, Chechen Battalion Warns Russian Victory Would Bring War to Europe

Battle-hardened from the Chechen Wars, Sheikh Mansour Battalion fighters worry a lack of aid will make it impossible to recover territory from Russia.

Words: Joseph Roche
Pictures: Nicolas Cleuet
Date:

At a safe house in eastern Ukraine’s Chasiv Yar, Aslan Mohammed Ocherkhadzhiev, deep in prayer, remains unperturbed. For a brief moment, calm crosses his face, and he recites in Arabic: “In the name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.” 

His face, stern and contemplative, is softened by a long black beard that forms a point at its tip. He raises his arms toward the sky and reveals a maimed hand. The injury is a memory from another life, one where he was fighting Russians during the Second Chechen War in 2000, when he was 23 years old.

Outside the safe house, Ukrainian soldiers, their faces swollen from cold and fatigue, sneak along the destroyed buildings of Chasiv Yar, one of the last villages in the Bakhmut sector before the Russian frontlines. In the distance, artillery lands on both sides, trembling the earth.

In late December, the Commander of the Ground Forces, Ukrainian Colonel General Oleksandr Syrsky, reported on his Telegram channel that intense fighting was taking place all along the eastern front. The Ukrainian army, he wrote, from Kupiansk to Bakhmut and through Lyman, was struggling to resist wave after wave of Russian assaults.

Aslan Mohammed Ocherkhadzhiev admits Ukrainian forces have hit setbacks in recent months (Nicolas Cleuet)
Aslan Mohammed Ocherkhadzhiev admits Ukrainian forces have hit setbacks in recent months (Nicolas Cleuet)

A little more than six miles north of Chasiv Yar, at the cost of tens of thousands of lives, Russian forces had managed to break through Ukrainian positions in the Avdiivka sector after months of fighting. Russian soldiers had begun to encircle the city.

Aslan insists that the Ukrainian army continues to stand its ground today due to its determination and courage. While the deaths on both sides are classified as top secret, in August, the French newspaper Le Monde reported alarming figures for both camps. According to the article, Russia had suffered 120,000 deaths out of 300,000 casualties, while Ukraine had seen 70,000 deaths out of 200,000 casualties. 

Setbacks or not, Aslan insists that Ukraine will continue maintaining its position and inflicting heavy losses on the Russians. Still, without additional aid, Ukrainian forces have been unable to launch offensives to reclaim its territory. But if Russia wins in Ukraine, Aslan warns, it won’t stop there.

“Revenge”

The death toll has continued to swell, but the 43-year-old fighter says he has seen worse. A sniper during the Second Chechen War, he says he can recognize impending defeat. While he admits the situation remains complicated, he does not believe the Ukrainian army will collapse.

“I pray for victory. I believe in it 1,000%. I have no doubt. And when we have liberated Ukraine, we will go on to liberate Ichkeria,” he says, referring to the de facto, unrecognized Chechen Republic of Ichkeria that existed de facto from 1991 to 2000.

Exiled in Norway after spending several years in the dungeons of Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, Aslan came to fight in Ukraine in the summer of 2022. “I came here to get revenge on my old enemy,” he says.

UKR – Chassiv Yar, 5 km from the front, rear base of units engaged on the Bakhmut front. 16/12/23
UKR – Tchassiv Yar, à 5 km du front, base arrière des unités engagées sur le front de Bakhmut. 16/12/23
On Ukraine's eastern front, Chechen fighters in Chasiv Yar warn of risks posed by faltering western support. (Nicolas Cleuet)

He first served as an instructor for Ukrainian special forces before joining the Sheikh Mansour Battalion. Created in 2014 by Mousslim Tcheberloevsky, the Battalion is a unit of Chechen fighters mostly comprised of veterans of the Chechen wars. Today, Aslan is one of its commanders.

Outnumbered

In their safehouse near Chasiv Yar, Aslan receives us with Walid, one of his comrades-in-arms, also from Chechnya. Surrounded by military equipment, a prayer rug on the floor faces Mecca. On the wall, a Ukrainian flag and assault rifles are hung.

“The situation for the Ukrainian army is bad,” Aslan finally admits, “but to be honest, it’s also very bad on the Russian side.”

Walid agrees. Less imposing than Aslan, Walid, with a disheveled beard and long black hair unfurling down his shoulders, tries to downplay the difficulties on the front. “The situation is much better than when we fought the Russians in Chechnya,” he says. “They use exactly the same techniques and strategies, the only difference is that today, in Ukraine, we are better trained and organized. But, most importantly, we still have the support of the West for now.”

While both armies are in a dire state, Aslan admits that Russian forces still have the upper hand. After a long pause, he explains that the Russian army has more manpower, allowing it to send soldiers into Ukrainian positions as cannon fodder.

Walid and Aslan say Russian soldiers are sent in such a way that it’s almost impossible for them to retreat, and when they do, they are shot by their superiors.

“They throw themselves at our positions like meat, and we don’t have enough ammunition, shells, or men to stop them, so we are forced to gradually withdraw,” Aslan says. “It’s the only strategy they have found to nibble away at our positions, but it works.”

Lacking Ammunition, Shells and Artillery

But neither Walid nor Aslan seem defeated. Considered one of the best units in the Ukrainian army, their battalion’s soldiers are typically sent to the worst places on the front.

Engaged in the Battle of Bakhmut, Sheikh Mansour successfully held the Ivaniske Road, one of the supply routes to the city of Bakhmut, once a top priority for the Russian army.

Aslan takes pride in it. “Even though we have had many losses since the beginning of the war,” he explains, “we successfully accomplished all our missions.”

For his part, Walid attributes their success to the fact that they all have a strong military background and have mostly fought Russian forces in Chechnya before. “We know them, we don’t underestimate them, but we don’t overestimate them either,” he says. “We know what they are capable of.”

Many of the fighters, organized into tactical groups, have known each other since before the war, are well-trained, and well-equipped, allowing them to operate together smoothly and decisively.

Aslan and Walid do not complain about their situation and thank external donations, especially from the Chechen diaspora, which enables them to buy necessary equipment.

Still, Aslan worries about the state of the Ukrainian army. “They lack ammunition, shells, artillery, aviation, anti-aircraft defense systems, and equipment of all kinds,” he says. “Ukraine is retreating because it lacks ammunition.”

Setbacks

He also expresses outrage at the reluctance of Europe and the United States. In recent months, support for Ukraine among its allies has remained strong, but there have been notable setbacks. On Dec. 6, the US Congress failed to advance a significant package of over $106 billion for Ukraine and Israel, which included more than $61 billion in aid funding for Ukraine. 

Aslan rests in his rear base before returning to the Bakhmut front. (Nicolas Cleuet)
Aslan rests in his rear base before returning to the Bakhmut front. (Nicolas Cleuet)

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic on Dec. 15, European Union leaders faced challenges in convincing Hungary to lift its veto on a new €50 billion (around $54.7 billion) aid package for Ukraine. 

While these setbacks are primarily driven by respective domestic politics and political maneuvering, Ukraine worries about the potential of withering support.

“These are rich and powerful countries, and they haven’t even sent Ukraine 10% of what it needed to fight,” Aslan says, anger in his voice. “They haven’t given us enough to break the Russian defenses.”

The way he sees it, the Ukrainian army continues to hold on today because of its determination and courage. If this war is a struggle for the liberation of Ukraine and Ichkeria, he argues, it is also a battle for Europe and its values.

But if allies fail to deliver support, Aslan and Walid insist, Ukraine might not be able to do much more than hold its positions.

“Russia is at the doors of Europe, and it won’t hesitate to attack,” Aslan says. “I’m not exaggerating when I say that the future of Europe today is being decided in Ukraine. I repeat, if Ukraine loses it, then war will come to Europe.”

A French-language version of this article was originally published at Le Figaro. It was republished here with permission of the author.

Joseph Roche

oseph Roche is an independent journalist covering Ukraine and the Middle East. A former analyst at Oxford Analytica, he holds a master's degree in international relations from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva.

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