By Tom Mutch
April 9, 2023
The Daily Beast
Kramatorsk, Ukraine—The horrors of Ukraine are an eerily familiar sight for Maga, a 30-year-old Chechen fighter who spoke with The Daily Beast using his codename.
“The same torture, the same mass graves, the things the Russians are doing in Ukraine, they were doing back in Chechnya,” Maga told The Daily Beast from his unit’s hideout in eastern Ukraine last month. “They just come and destroy everyone who could be against their power.”
Having fought first to defend Kyiv—and then in the battles for the liberation of the Kharkiv region—Maga said the atrocities he has seen in Putin’s invasion match stories told by his relatives, who fought in the wars for Chechen independence from the Russian Federation in the 1990s.
While much of the world was shocked by the bloody atrocities committed by Putin’s forces in cities like Mariupol and Bucha, for many Chechens none of this came as a surprise.
Now, this shared trauma appears to have formed a bond between Chechens who have flocked to Ukraine to fight against Putin’s invasion and their new Ukrainian comrades, who have agreed that once the war is finished here, they will travel to fight for a free Chechnya.
“If I am alive, I will participate in the liberation of Chechnya,” said Alexander, a 43-year-old Ukrainian fighting with the Dzhokhar Dudayev battalion, who told The Daily Beast he was named after the first President of the independent Chechen Republic that was bombed into submission by Putin. “Why? Because for me they are brotherly people. I adopted a lot from them: the way they relate to life and death, the way they relate to the elders.” His beard, hair and clothing are cut in the local style—while he retains his Christian faith, he looks Chechen in all but name. Alexander and Maga’s battalion contain some of the around 1,000 Chechens fighting for Ukraine, seeing a direct line between Ukraine’s fight to liberate its territory and Chechnya’s struggle for independence. They invited The Daily Beast to visit their modest barracks in a small townhouse in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kramatorsk to tell their stories.
Members of the battalion spoke with The Daily Beast on condition that their last names be omitted and their faces not photographed. They have recently been fighting on the frontlines in Bakhmut, where they say that Russian tactics are just like those of the Soviets during World War II: “They throw and cover everything in meat and capture [territory] because they have a lot of this meat,” while caring nothing for the lives of their soldiers or Ukrainian civilians caught in the crossfire, one member said.
The group keeps a high-powered arsenal inside the townhouse, including 30- and 50-caliber machine guns, AK74 assault rifles, and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Outside, some men were cooking meat on a barbecue, smoking cigarettes, checking weapons and reloading. A well-groomed puppy scurried around the yard snapping at bits of dropped food. One soldier’s patch featured Ukrainian blue and yellow, followed by a verse from the Quran in Arabic (the vast majority of Chechens are Muslim).
The Ukrainian parliament has already adopted a resolution declaring Chechnya as an independent state that is occupied by Russia, and denounced what they called a genocide of the Chechen people. Maga said that they have many Ukrainian volunteers enlisting who wish to join to fight—not just in Ukraine, but inside the Russian Federation itself.
“Recruits come here all the time,” he said. “They go through training, and everyone is of course preparing to liberate Ichkeria [the local name for Chechnya] and other territories that are occupied, because there are also Tatarstan, Dagestan and Ingushetia.” This, he believes, will be the only way to stop Russian imperial power for good. “All gas and oil come not from Russian territory, but from all the occupied territories.”
Troops from these ethnic minority regions have made up the bulk of Russian cannon fodder in this war, with one BBC analysis estimating that men from the Muslim-majority region of Dagestan had died at 10 times the rate of those from Moscow. Some critics claim this is a direct result of a cynical strategy from Putin: avoiding domestic backlash by having ethnic minorities bear the brunt of the meat grinder. “The Russians won’t actually go and fight themselves,” Maga said.
Putin’s rise and grip on power owe much to the wars in Chechnya. The Chechens won the first war, fighting between 1994 and 1996 against overwhelming firepower and eventually wrecking the fragile legitimacy of the new democratic Russian state. In 1999, when Putin took over as prime minister, he unleashed a second war which crushed the fledgling Chechen Republic.
His tactics there presaged those that have horrified the world in Ukraine. He used Russia’s overwhelming advantage in artillery and aircraft to raze the Chechen capital city of Grozny to the ground. He would repeat this tactic several times in Ukraine—most notoriously in Mariupol, but also in Severodonetsk, Volnovakha, and Bakhmut.
Alexander admitted that even he used to find Russian propaganda persuasive. “We were constantly brainwashed that Chechens are our enemies. We were told that on TV all day long. But let’s just say, we didn’t have the sources [that would allow us] to assess it critically. We had only newspapers and TV, and you believed it!” He is extremely disheartened by his countrymen, and even family members who—despite access to the internet and social media—still believe Russian propaganda about the war in Ukraine.
“Why do the people who live across the border have all the tools now? Why can’t they take another [source of] information, read it, compare, and think, ‘Oh, but why are we doing it? What is the purpose of it all?,’” he said. “They got brainwashed that they are fighting some kind of mythical fascism and they are protecting their motherland. How can you protect your motherland while being on someone else’s territory?”
But the Chechens in Alexander’s unit are not the only ones fighting this war. Some 9,000 more, loyal to the Kremlin-installed Governor Ramzan Kadyrov, are fighting for Russia in Ukraine. They’ve become notorious not just for their brutality, but also for their tendency to post videos of their fighting on TikTok.
The Chechens fighting for Ukraine also want to clear the name of their nation. “These are not good people, Kadyrovites. There’s a Ukrainian word, nepotrib [trash]. It’s TikTok troops; they [also] have these barrier units—Stalin’s method—and no retreat, only forward,” Alexander said, referring to troops who are reportedly tasked with staying behind regular Russian soldiers to shoot any who try to retreat.
For Maga, the only thing that will bring freedom to Chechnya is not just defeat in the war in Ukraine, but the end of the wider Russian empire. “This is necessary for peace both inside and outside Russia’s borders,” he said. “Dudayev [former Chechen leader] said that if today you keep Chechnya as an internal problem of Russia—tomorrow Europe will be an internal problem of Russia.”
“Russia must be broken up, otherwise, there will be no peace for the future generation. That’s our goal—liberation of Chechnya and the whole Caucasus from Russian occupation because, without those lands, Russians won’t go fight themselves. Only when an empire is destroyed, will the people change.”
For Alexander, the key to Ukrainian success is the reason Chechens won their first war against Russia, namely their morale and belief in what they are fighting for.
“They [the Russians] don’t understand where they’ve come to. They don’t understand that their supposedly ‘world’s second army’ is worth nothing. Why? Because they don’t have that inner strength, they don’t have the motivation, they don’t understand what they are doing. They are just a flock of sheep,” he said. “I will [fight] to the end, as long as I can. Until victory.”