On Jun. 29, Chechen Head of State Ramzan Kadyrov sent a message of resilience to his millions of Telegram followers: “the real power of Russia does not lie in weapons or technology, but lies in its valiant and selfless sons, ready to defend their Fatherland to the last breath.”
An estimated 8,000 of these valiant and selfless sons are Chechen men, an ethnic minority group hailing from Russia’s Northern Caucasus. Many are blackmailed or coerced to enlist, while others comprise Kadyrov’s elite private military. Despite these differences, all Chechens share a common history marked by Russia’s colonial oppression and violence.
Since Kadyrov’s ascent to the presidency in 2007, the Chechen government has gradually fortified its friendship with the Kremlin by quashing its internal opposition movements. Still, the legacy of Russian intervention in Chechnya continues to inspire outrage, leading Chechens in the diaspora to join arms with Ukrainian soldiers in a kindred fight against Russian domination. To make sense of these differing alliances, we turn toward Chechnya’s complex history and current leadership.
THE OTHERIZATION OF CHECHEN IDENTITY
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rhetoric around Russia’s escalated war against Ukraine incorporates a tried and tested tactic to antagonize the Ukrainian people that has long historical roots. Much like Putin’s present crusade to “denazify” Ukraine, in 1944 Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin accused the entire Chechen population of colluding with Nazi Germany. Chechen soldiers fighting on behalf of the Soviet Union’s Red Army were stripped of their awards and branded as traitors. In a move that the European Parliament would later classify as genocide, Stalin then expelled one million Chechens from their native homeland.
Even after Stalin’s successor Nikita Krushchev sanctioned the Chechen’s return to the Soviet Union, the manufactured stereotypes of their untrustworthy and dangerous character persisted. The subsequent decades of virulent discrimination inspired the formation of Chechen separatist movements in the 1990s. But then-president Boris Yeltsin refused Chechen separatists’ call for independence. It was around this time that Ukraine, meanwhile, successfully seceded from the newly established Russian Federation.
For many Chechens, Putin’s war in Ukraine evokes memories of the past.
By demonizing the Chechen people in the leadup to and during the first Chechen war in 1994, Yeltsin sought to rally a fragmented Russian population around a common enemy. By the conclusion of the first Chechen war in 1996, both the Russian and Chechen sides incurred massive losses of up to 100,000 casualties. In 1999, hostilities resumed in the second Chechen War, while the Kremlin began its hunt for Yeltsin’s successor. As prime minister at the time, Vladimir Putin’s inflammatory anti-Chechen rhetoric and publicized trips to the frontlines made him a household name. By ramping up the public’s anti-Chechen fears, Putin galvanized an exhausted public after the previous failed military campaign.
While Stalin set in motion the Russian public’s distrust of the Chechen people, Putin took the Kremlin’s strategic myth-building and disinformation campaigns a step further. Promising to “wipe them out in the outhouse,” Putin’s escalated rhetoric against the accused Chechen terrorists yielded tremendous results, culminating in a remarkable 72% approval rating in 1999 that showed Putin could win a presidential election. Meanwhile, Russian soldiers brutalized the local Chechen population, pushing separatist factions further and further towards radicalized and violent opposition.
The Kremlin’s portrayal of Chechens as dangerous terrorists eventually reached western shores. In 2016, this fear-mongering led the Wall Street Journal to incorrectly report on the presence of Chechen fighters in al Qaeda. With the Kremlin’s decades of anti-Chechen propaganda, and the West’s legitimization of these tales, we arrive at the stereotype of a Chechen soldier: a brutal, radicalized, and bloodthirsty warrior.
KADYROV’S RISE TO POWER
Enter Ramzan Kadyrov, the nicknamed “Chechen Putin.” Kadyrov’s rise to power began with the Second Chechen War in 1999 when he abandoned the separatist cause for Chechen independence. While collaborating with the Russian Armed Forces, Kadyrov took control of his father’s ruthless private militia, known as the Kadyrovtsy. After his father’s still unresolved assassination in 2004, the young and power-hungry Kadyrov was appointed Chechnya’s deputy prime minister.
So long as Kadyrov’s militia worked toward Russian interests, Putin turned a blind eye to allegations of kidnappings, torture, assassinations, and the relentless persecution of LGBTQ+ Chechens. In exchange for his unyielding loyalty, Putin made Kadyrov Chechnya’s president in 2007.
With Chechnya under Kadyrov and Putin’s control, public rhetoric from the political elite reversed. Putin conscripted former Chechen insurgents and Kadyrovtsy fighters into Russia’s “death battalion” during Putin’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine. Russia’s fearmongering of Chechen terrorism and religious extremism dissipated, and Chechen soldiers were instead applauded for their valiant, and well-advertised efforts in Putin’s military operation in Donbas and Crimea.
With Putin’s renewed hostility, Chechen fighters have returned to Ukraine, and alongside them, the legends of their brutality as seasoned fighters. Social media plays a critical role in legitimizing these tales, with intimidating and rugged Chechen men posing for Tik Tok videos, and brandishing portraits of their ruthless warlord.
Although Kadyrov circulates videos of Chechen men eagerly lining up to volunteer in Putin’s ethno-nationalist fight against the Nazis of Ukraine, claims of their voluntary enlistment are doubtful. Numerous reports reveal that several “volunteers” were threatened into signing military contracts. Their refusal to do so could result in an indefinite stay in secret prisons or torture of their family members. The Chechen Human Rights Foundation (Vayfond) verified these claims, adding that even those with disabilities have been forced to enlist. These threats and intimidation tactics challenge Kadyrov’s preferred narrative that a Muslim minority group hailing from the Northern Caucasus would willingly enlist in mass droves to liberate the Slavic Ukrainians from “Nazi” leadership.
Beyond their built-up reputation, analysts are increasingly questioning whether Chechen military prowess extends beyond a phone screen. Nevertheless, Kadyrov supplies a new batch of Chechen volunteers weekly, and last month proclaimed his “thanks to the outstanding teaching staff of the Russian University of Special Forces,” asserting that “the volunteers are well-prepared for solving operational tasks promptly and skillfully.”
Military expert Vasily Dandykin explained that one week of training, even at the renowned Russian University of Special Forces, could not possibly prepare 200 volunteers for combat in Ukraine. Even Igor Strelkov, a known Russian nationalist and former Minister of Defense of the Donetsk People’s Republic is exasperated by the Chechen’s role on the periphery of the Russian invasion. According to Strelkov, the nicknamed Chechen “Tik Tok” troops are simply meant to “pose in the face of victory.”
CHECHENS ARE REUNITED ON THE BATTLEFIELD
For many Chechens, Putin’s war in Ukraine evokes memories of the past. They remember the violence perpetrated against innocent civilians and the destruction of their beloved homeland.
Consequently, hundreds of Chechens across Europe have joined with the Ukrainian Armed Forces, fighting in the Sheikh Mansur and Dzhodkhar Dudayev Battalion. The latter is a nostalgic call back to the former leader of the Chechen resistance, who once pronounced “For every Chechen ear we must take ten Russian ears.”
For Kadyrov, these opposing Chechens are nothing but traitors, terrorists, and murderers. Meanwhile, he denies the war crimes of his Kadyrovtsy, fighting to protect Putin’s Russian World while oppressing the remaining Chechen population.
On the surface, the collaboration between Chechen and Russian forces appears strange. But a myriad of circumstances informs the decision of Chechen men to enlist.
It is true that many Chechens willingly fight with the brutal Kadyrovtsy.
It is true that others face horrific threats to their family’s well-being.
It is true that there is financial gain in enlisting.
These truths should not enable Western media to buy into the myth that Chechens are innately bloodthirsty, violent warriors. After all, this generalized narrative emerges from Russian propaganda, and now serves the purpose of intimidating Ukrainians.
Manon Fuchs is a junior at Duke University studying Russian and Public Policy and is a research assistant at USIP’s Center for Russia and Europe.