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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Inside the Chechen units helping to fight Russia’s war

Children on a street of Grozny, Chechen Republic, Russia, on Dec. 9, 2023. Few traces of Grozny’s destruction remain. Today, new mosques and luxury boutiques stand amid the skyscrapers. (Nanna Heitmann/The New York Times)

By Nenna Heitmann and Neil Mac-Farquhar

A hulking military transport plane roared onto the tarmac at the main airfield in Grozny, the capital of the Chechen Republic in southeastern Russia, and a group of 120 volunteer fighters heading for Ukraine clambered aboard.

Dressed in camouflage, the newly minted troops had just completed at least 10 days of training in Gudermes, near Grozny, at the Special Forces University, which accepts men from across Russia for general military instruction.

Some of the trainees lacked any combat experience. Others were veterans returning to Ukraine for their second or third tour — including former mercenaries from the Wagner militia, disbanded in 2023 after a short-lived mutiny against the Kremlin.

Some Wagner fighters, chafing at the idea of working for the Russian Defense Ministry, instead transferred whole units to the Chechen-trained forces, known as Akhmat battalions, intended in part to absorb fighters from outside the Russian army. Wagner veterans were often first recruited from prison, including a lean man with a gold front tooth, identified only by his military call sign, “Jedi,” because of the potential for retribution.

“Go for your Fatherland? What kind of Fatherland? It kept me in prison all my life,” said Jedi, 39, a construction laborer who was convicted of robbery and fraud. In and out of jail since 14, he had six months left on a six-year sentence when he signed up.

“The volunteers go for the money,” he said. “I have yet to meet anyone here for the ideology.” He also wanted a clean slate, he said.

Fat signing bonuses plus payments of about $2,000 per month, at least double the average wage in Russia, have spurred recruitment.

The training near Grozny highlights the evolution of ethnic loyalties that is manifest in this war. Some of those now training there were last in Chechnya as young conscripts for the Russian army, fighting against Chechens who were part of the separatist movement.

The participation of some Chechens represents another inversion of history: After hundreds of years of enmity with Russia, Chechens were deploying to Ukraine to fight Moscow’s war.

The separatist movement of the 1990s culminated in two brutal wars against Moscow that lasted intermittently for more than a decade. The city of Grozny was flattened, and tens of thousands of Chechens died.

Ramzan Kadyrov, the authoritarian leader of Chechnya, has taken an aggressive stance toward Ukraine since Russia invaded the country in February 2022. Chechen forces have claimed an instrumental role in some key battles, including the siege of Mariupol early in the war.

But Kadyrov has faced accusations that he has refrained from sending his fighters full-bore into the fight, with Chechens dying in fewer numbers than soldiers from other minority areas. Sparing his fighters keeps intact his private militia, the core of the security forces that ensure his rule in Chechnya.

Instead, Kadyrov has tried to underscore his loyalty to President Vladimir Putin of Russia by pouring resources into this military training center. The regimen consists of live fire exercises with artillery, some mining and demining instruction and first aid.

The various Akhmat battalions were named, like so much in Chechnya, after Kadyrov’s father, Akhmat Kadyrov, who switched sides to join Moscow in the separatist struggle and was then assassinated in 2004.

Russia has recruited troops for its war effort wherever it could find them, seeking to minimize the need for a draft. In 2022, it lifted an almost blanket ban on Chechens serving in the Russian military, fallout from the separatist movement.

Of the group being dispatched to Ukraine in the fall from the tarmac in Grozny, many were in their 30s and 40s, and fewer than 10 were Chechens. Despite Jedi’s claims, money is not the sole motivation.

Some fled troubled domestic lives. Others wanted to escape daily drudgery. Some, of course, profess to be fighting out of patriotism. Many of the men agreed to talk on the condition that they be identified by only their first names or military call signs for fear of retribution.

Anatoly, 24, was among 10 men who volunteered together from a small farming village high in the mountains in the picturesque, south-central Altai region. “My father forced me to shovel snow, to work, to clear out the dung from the cows,” he said. “I ran away from this work to do something else. Every year is the same.” He admitted that the money was an incentive, too.

Another rural worker, a 45-year-old shepherd who uses the call sign “Masyanya,” traveled about 4,500 kilometers from the Republic of Khakassia for the training. “I’m going to defend my motherland, so the war doesn’t come here,” he said.

The contract with the Akhmat battalion lasts only four months, a big incentive when compared with the open-ended deployments for regular soldiers.

In the fall, Ramzan Kadyrov formed a new unit, the Sheikh Mansour battalion, named after an 18th-century imam who fought against the Russian Empire. The soldiers are all Chechens or from the small, neighboring republics in the mountainous Caucasus region, and are mostly in their 20s. Chechens fighting for Ukraine against Russia named their battalion after Sheikh Mansour first, and now Kadyrov is trying to reclaim the name.

Turpal, 20, was working as a security guard for a large supermarket chain in Moscow when he got permission from his father to sign up for the new unit, saying that he wanted to fight against “those devils who are in Ukraine who want to bring their perverted ideas here.”

As he left to go back to the training center after a weekend visiting his parents, he hugged his mother and shook hands with his father. “Russia has been fighting for all its existence,” said Mayrali, Turpal’s father. “You can’t beat it. It is better for Chechnya to be with Russia than to be against Russia.”

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han gu
han gu
20 jun

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