BACKGROUND: In fact, kadyrovtsy were deployed to Ukraine even before the fighting in the country’s east started a few weeks ago. According to various sources, Chechen units were part of the Russian troops that took control of Crimea's strategic crossroads in March. Back then, kadyrovtsy were predominantly stationed in the eastern Crimean town of Feodosia, with some detachments being spotted in various other locations across the peninsula. Yet, owing to the non-violent occupation of Crimea, Chechen units saw no combat in March and the recent fighting in the Donetsk province was a milestone in this regard. Allegations that Chechens are involved in clashes in eastern Ukraine have recurred frequently, though they were never confirmed by independent sources. Yet the involvement of Chechens in the Donetsk province became obvious a few days ago. Firstly, Ukrainian authorities claimed to have destroyed a group comprising dozens of Chechens in fierce clashes around Donetsk International Airport on May 27. Soon, various sources in Chechnya began informing that dozens of corpses of kadyrovtsy were being transported to the republic. According to the Caucasus Knot, only in the period of May 28-29, between 35 and 45 dead Chechens who reportedly participated in the fighting in Eastern Ukraine were brought to their native towns and villages and buried without much publicity.
Chechnya’s President Ramzan Kadyrov’s behavior deserves particular attention. He has on several occasions distanced himself from news that Chechens are involved in the Ukraine crisis, but has nevertheless repeatedly asserted that should the circumstances necessitate it and Putin give an explicit order, Chechens would readily volunteer to Ukraine to fight “fascists and banderovites.” In a manner typical of him, Kadyrov has boasted that should the Chechens have been deployed in the Ukraine crisis, they would have “long conquered Kyiv.”
Some sources suggest that Chechen authorities have exerted immense pressure on Chechen youngsters within Chechnya and in cities of Russia proper to volunteer to Ukraine. Chechen authorities have allegedly gone so far as to open recruitment centers in Grozny, Achkhoy-Martyan, Znamenskoye, and Gudermes, while those resisting recruitment have been deemed “cowards.” Caucasian Knot also quotes a local source according to which, in order to encourage recruitment to the Ukraine battlefield, which is rather unpopular among Chechens, authorities promise around US$350 a day to any Chechen volunteering to the Ukraine conflict. Still, upon to the arrival of dozens of bodies of slain Chechens in the republic, Kadyrov has somewhat modified his rhetoric, mentioning on May 31 that 14 natives of Chechnya were deployed to Ukraine, of whom one was killed and four injured. Nonetheless, Kadyrov maintained that rumors of kadyrovtsy units being deployed to Ukraine are “absolutely untrue,” and that armed Chechens located in the republic are mere volunteers.
IMPLICATONS: The deployment of Chechen units in the Eastern Ukraine clashes has engendered both discomfort and concern among Ukrainian authorities and troops. Understandably, this deployment is a strong indicator of Moscow’s direct involvement in Ukraine’s internal conflict. The assertions of some commentators pointing to the “uncontrollability” of kadyrovtsy are naive at the best. In fact, the kadyrovtsy are strictly subordinated to the Chechen authorities in general and to Kadyrov in particular. Secondly, due to their reputation as fierce and ruthless warriors, the deployment of Chechen units is having a strong psychological impact on and beyond the battlefield, while their extensive experience of fighting small wars is in stark contrast to the hitherto unconvincing performance of the inexperienced Ukrainian troops. The kadyrovtsy constitute a significant force of around seven thousand and if deployed in eastern Ukrainian battlefields in large numbers, they could significantly influence the course and outcome of the ongoing conflict.
Depending on the kadyrovtsy’s performance in the Ukraine conflict, the Kremlin may increasingly seek to deploy them in the most controversial operations both within and outside Chechnya and the North Caucasus. Moscow is apparently distancing itself from straightforward interventions outside Russia’s borders. Instead opting for “masked occupation” techniques, the deployment an experienced, reputed, devoted, yet presumably “informal” paramilitary-style force in the form of kadyrovtsy is well suited to the Kremlin’s strategy and rhetoric.
By using the kadyrovtsy, the Kremlin can claim it has nothing to do with their deployment, pointing to their “uncontrollable” volunteering to conflict zones. The Kremlin can assert that Kadyrov as a local strongman and the head of a “subject of the Federation” has his own agenda for which it should not – and cannot – be held accountable. Accordingly, Moscow can downplay controversial operations in the conflict zones – including the intimidation and blackmail of the internal opposition, journalists, and international observers, practices in which the kadyrovtsy have rich experience – as the “autonomous” activities of Chechen volunteers.
Instead, Moscow can point to the “cultural peculiarities” of the “Chechen way of warfare,” an argument episodically utilized by pro-Moscow observers and officials to explain the massive use of violence by kadyrovtsy against the relatives of local insurgents. While Russian secret services have frequently used these intimidation-based strategies in both Crimea and eastern Ukraine to silence internal opposition to the Russian occupation, the fact that “Chechen butchers” are deployed in the fighting might render their psychological impact even stronger. Symptomatic in this regards is Slovyansk’s self-styled pro-Russian mayor Vyacheslav Ponomaryov’s recent assertion that the Chechens, “non-Slavic resistance fighters” who have “ignored [his order] not to go anywhere for a week,” are to be blamed for the recent disappearance of the OSCE monitors in the Luhansk province.
The deployment of kadyrovtsy units is also an important explanation for the significant autonomy that Putin has allowed Kadyrov in Chechnya and the North Caucasus; for Moscow’s tolerance if not encouragement of Kadyrov’s often extravagant and ill-bred behavior; and for Kadyrov’s remaining in his Grozny office against all odds. Kadyrov can be considered as a paramilitary version of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who figures as Putin’s evil alter ego in that he explicitly voices what many Kremlin hawks think but hesitate to say openly. In contrast to Zhirinovsky and his rhetoric, Kadyrov appears to be a “man of deeds.” The mere threat that the Kremlin might deploy Kadyrov and his armed associates in the service of their Moscow overlords can serve to intimidate potential opposition to Putin in the North Caucasus as well as in Russia proper and beyond.
CONCLUSIONS: It would be naive to think that Kadyrov pursues his own policy in Ukraine. After devastating counterinsurgency campaigns that have left thousands of fellow Chechens injured, humiliated, and dead, and their houses burned, Kadyrov has acquired scores of enemies in blood feud in Chechnya. While the insurgency movement has dwindled to dozens, in large part due to Kadyrov’s cruel yet effective policy of liquidating insurgents’ relatives and supporters, much larger numbers of ordinary Chechens have postponed retaliation for better times. Should Kadyrov be ousted – and lose the backing of both Moscow and his kadyrovtsy units – then his days, as well as those of his close relatives, would most likely be numbered.
After the liquidation of most of the Yamadayev brothers several years ago, the disbanding of the Yamadayevs’ Vostok battalion, which seems to form the cornerstone of the kadyrovtsy units now deployed in eastern Ukraine, showed the relative ease by which yamadayevtsy incarnated into kadyrovtsy. This move demonstrated the troops’ main desire to save their own lives as well as those of their family members.
Kadyrov, vitally, needs to show his unwavering support for Putin, advocating the deployment of kadyrovtsy in zones of ongoing and prospective conflicts as a sign of his loyalty and devotion. The Kremlin appears increasingly eager to take advantage of this support and defiance stemming from among Crimea’s Tatar community presently appears to be the closest candidate for new deployments of kadyrovtsy.