by Lidia Mikhalchenko / Caucasus
For many of the Chechen opposition members and separatists abroad who have come from across Europe to join a volunteer battalion in Ukraine, battling Russia has become a way of life. Decades — even centuries — of Moscow’s often-armed interference in Chechnya have made the Ukraine conflict all too personal.
The volunteers warn that if Ukraine is not defended, the “Russian bear” will not stop there.
The volunteer unit, which calls itself the Separate Special-Purpose Battalion of the Ministry of Defense of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria — or OBON for short — serves as part of the Foreign Legion of Territorial Defense of Ukraine and most of its members fought against Russia in the first and second Chechen wars (1994-96 and 1999-2009, respectively). OBON was part of the Ukrainian forces’ successful counteroffensive in the south of the country, including the liberation of the key city of Kherson earlier this month.
RFE/RL’s North Caucasus Service met up with OBON volunteers on the front line to discuss the war.
Akhmed, who requested that his real name not be used, has lived in Europe for more than 10 years. A year ago, he moved to Mykolayiv in southern Ukraine to join a Chechen volunteer battalion that was already forming. When Russia launched its all-out invasion of Ukraine in late February, he was ready to fight. Moscow has been an adversary for almost three decades.
“I’ve been fighting the Russians since 1995 [in the First Chechen War],” he said. “In 1997, I served as a platoon commander in the Chechen National Guard, in the army of Ichkeria.”
The army was full of infighting and politics, he said, and so he left for Russia.
He never felt safe. He tried to start up a dairy plant and a casino in the Rostov region and studied to be a security specialist but everything failed, he said, because his Soviet-style passport flagged him as a Chechen.
When the Second Chechen War began in 1999, Akhmed said, “everything was completely closed to us. In Rostov, they started putting us in jail, saying all Chechens are bandits. I moved to St. Petersburg, but soon I couldn’t leave the house. Caucasians were either attacked by skinheads or detained by police.”
Faced with what he describes as constant persecution by the security forces, he fled Russia for Germany, which granted him refugee status.
When asked his reasons for coming to Ukraine, he said, “I came to Ukraine because my brothers are fighting here.”
On October 18, the Ukrainian parliament adopted a resolution recognizing Chechnya as a territory temporarily occupied by Russia and condemned the “genocide of the Chechen people.” All 287 deputies present voted in favor of the resolution.
This month, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy officially responded to a petition to recognize the independence of Ichkeria, which had collected more than 25,000 signatures and thus legally required consideration by the head of state. Zelenskiy recommended that the Foreign Ministry look into the issue.
Earlier this year, speaking at an extraordinary meeting of the UN Security Council on April 5, Zelenskiy said that Russia denied the rights of “more than a dozen peoples on two continents to self-determination and independent state life.”
The Kremlin is pursuing a policy of “destruction of ethnic and religious diversity,” he added.
‘The World Turned A Blind Eye’
Khusein Dzhambetov, a native of Urus-Martan in Chechnya, is now the commander of the OBON sabotage reconnaissance group. He’s been fighting Russians since he was 13, when he joined the First Chechen War.
“We were the ones called militants, but we were fighting against ‘orcs,’ invaders, and occupiers. It was the army of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria. I also took part in the second war and was engaged in sabotage. When there’s a war, you immediately get combat experience,” he recalled.
Dzhambetov says that during the Chechen wars, the world turned a blind eye to what was happening — ultimately because Russia controlled considerable fossil resources.
“No one wanted to face up to Russia back then,” he said. “But now, the whole world supports Ukraine. That’s because everyone knows for sure: If they don’t support it, the crazy Russian bear will come to them tomorrow… to France, to Poland, to the Czech Republic. The Russian bear doesn’t leave; he has to be driven out with a stick.”
In 2003, Russia added Dzhambetov to the federal wanted list for involvement in alleged extremist and terrorist activities. He escaped to Europe and went on to gain Belgian citizenship. When war broke out in Ukraine, he left his family and his job in the halal-meat business and called on an old acquaintance, Khadzhi-Murad Zumso, with whom he had fought in the Second Chechen War, when they were both 17. Zumso was a commander of OBON and has been fighting in Ukraine since 2015.
Dzhambetov said he gave Zumso a pledge, and an ultimatum: “I swear allegiance to you and will be on the path of liberation of any oppressed people. Today it is Ukrainians; tomorrow, it may be our Chechen people. If you don’t take me with you, you will answer to God.”
‘Fight Like Our Forefathers’
When he crossed the border, Dzhambetov says, Zumso met him and welcomed him into OBON.
Of his life with the volunteer unit, Dzhambetov said, “I don’t need much myself — the daily allowance of stew is enough. And if there’s any condensed milk left, then I’m grateful. We will fight like our fathers and forefathers [in Chechnya].
“I have been waiting for years for the moment when the whole world will feel the claws of the rabid Russian bear. Today, we tell the whole world that we are fighters of Ichkeria and that we are protecting our brother Ukrainians.”
OBON took part in the liberation of part of the Kherson region, and according to villagers on the front line, the Chechens were the first to enter from the Ukrainian side, crossing the Inhulets River.
Ivan (not his real name), the elderly owner of a house where OBON fighters sheltered, spoke highly of his unexpected, but welcome, guests. Before the liberation of the village, Ivan says, his house was occupied by Kadyrovtsy — fighters sent by Chechen leader Ramzan Kadryov to fight on Russia’s side in Ukraine — as well as Daghestanis, Buryats, Yakuts, and ethnic Russians.
“While the Kadyrovtsy and other Russians lived in my house, I had no right to come here,” he said, adding there were simmering tensions between the two groups. “Now, I have excellent relations with the Chechen defenders of Ukraine. People know and love them here.”
‘A Common Enemy’
Chechen public figure Anzor Maskhadov, the son of the former president of the unrecognized state of Ichkeria, has visited Kyiv multiple times since February. As one of the most prominent representatives of Chechnya’s separatist government, he’s held meetings at the Foreign Ministry and the parliament with politicians, officials, and deputies. He met with fighters from the volunteer battalions, such as those named after Sheikh Mansur and Dzhokhar Dudayev, as well as Chechens fighting in other units of the Ukrainian armed forces.
“What’s happening to Ukraine happened to us,” Maskhadov said. “This is why the Chechens have such motivation: Ukraine is fighting against a common enemy. I have always been against Chechens fighting, for example, in Syria or other countries. But in Ukraine, it is clear: There is a large-scale war with the occupier.”
A majority of Chechen society back home supports the defense of Ukraine, he claims.
“They are fed up with this regime at home,” he said. “When I talk to people there, they say they want…some kind of outside force — be it supporters of Ichkeria from Europe or others — to cleanse our land from traitors to our people.”
Dzhambulat Suleymanov, head of the Chechen diaspora organization Bart Marsho, who lives in exile in Paris, says he believes Chechen society as a whole is against the war in Ukraine; people don’t want Kadryov sending young men to be slaughtered.
“The reaction of people there — I have my own sources — is completely negative. I have information that even Kadryov’s mother is against his active participation in the war,” he said, saying Kadryov reportedly had an argument with his mother over the war and that she moved out of the house he had built for her.
Kadryov is “just an infantryman,” according to Dzhambetov, the OBON commander, while “the main enemy of the civilized world is [Russian President Vladimir] Putin.”
Each of the Chechens who have come to Ukraine to fight has a huge personal motivation to win this war, Suleymanov added: “These are convinced people who are ready to fight against Russia in any corner of the world. This our historical enemy, who only recently killed our relatives and friends.”
Lidia Mikhalchenko is a correspondent for Caucasus.Realities, a regional news outlet of RFE/RL’s North Caucasus Service.