Wednesday, 15 October 2014

The Sundry Motivations of Caucasians in Ukraine

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By Emil Souleimanov (10/15/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)

One attribute of the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas area has been numerous speculations on the involvement of foreign fighters on both sides to conflict. Amid the diverse body of volunteers and mercenaries involved in the war, Chechens and other North Caucasians have received particular attention due to their fame as fierce warriors, and because their involvement in the conflict on the side of pro-Russian forces has constituted solid evidence of Moscow’s military engagement in the war. Yet the fact that Caucasian volunteers participate also on the Ukrainian side, and the ambivalence toward the conflict locally in the North Caucasus, demonstrate the diversity of motives and incentives inducing Caucasians to fight in Ukraine.

BACKGROUND: News that Chechens were involved in the Ukraine crisis spread already in March, when a range of news agencies and locals reported of “Caucasian-looking” units deployed in some areas of the Crimean peninsula. Some sources in Crimea spotted Chechens in the eastern Crimean city of Feodosia, identified by their fatigues, equipment, and behavior as members of kadyrovtsy units. Since then, local sources have reported of Chechens in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk on various occasions throughout mid-summer. Video footage from a Donetsk street was released displaying individuals speaking Russian with a heavy Chechen accent.

Soon thereafter, it was speculated that dozens belonging to Chechen-manned units were killed during a failed siege of the local airport. Sources in Chechnya and Dagestan reported that bodies of local men were transported to their homeland for burial. Throughout the conflict, Chechnya’s president Ramzan Kadyrov has made controversial statements. On the one hand, he refused to acknowledge the involvement of Chechens in the clashes, boasting on one occasion that if Chechens had been involved, they would have long taken Kyiv. He has also admitted that he is in no position to make sure there were no Chechen volunteers whatsoever in the eastern Ukraine clashes. On the other hand, Kadyrov has on various occasions explicitly stated his readiness to order the intervention of Chechen units in the Ukraine war against “fascists” should Putin call upon them (see the 06/04/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst.

IMPLICATIONS: Journalists in Chechnya and Dagestan have reported on local men being forced to “volunteer” in the Donbas war. According to a local source, Dagestani soldiers in the Buynaksk garrison of the Russian army have been compelled to join pro-Russian units in eastern Ukraine; those refusing were routinely accused of treason and cowardice and often discharged. Similar situations allegedly took place in other areas of Dagestan, usually confined to the military garrisons stationed in the republic. In the patriarchal Dagestani society, implications of such refusal would put immense social pressure on Dagestani conscripts and officers, many of whom chose to follow the informal instructions and deploy to battlefields in eastern Ukraine. Yet others have withstood the pressure and refused to “volunteer” to a distant war.

According to Paul Goble, similar mechanisms have been at work in Chechnya, where recruitment offices were set in some areas of the republic. In the Chechen context, a member of the Chechen law enforcement in general and a kadyrovets in particular would, if discarded from military service for whatever reason, become excluded from the protection of his comrades-in-arms. In turn, this would dramatically increase the risk of becoming a target for his or his family’s enemies in blood feud. Given that many kadyrovtsy have been involved in extrajudicial killings, humiliation, and injuring of their fellow countrymen suspected of providing support to insurgents or because they were relatives of insurgents, this has raised the pressure on would-be volunteers to obey instructions.

A range of sources indicate that dozens of South and North Ossetians have also volunteered to the war. While many North Ossetians appear to have joined due to their feeling of loyalty toward Moscow, South Ossetians may have volunteered in order repay Russia’s support during the 2008 Russo-Georgian war. Some North Caucasian fighters have revealed in interviews their incentive to become recognized as true Russian patriots in Russian public opinion. Data is scarce regarding the natives of the Northwest Caucasian republics in the Donbas war. We also lack information regarding the extent to which the “forced” volunteers have been promised soldier’s pay for their participation in the hostilities in eastern Ukraine.   

Nonetheless, North Caucasians have not only figured in the service of pro-Russian forces. Some have joined to the ranks of Ukrainian forces, and given the lack of leverage on the Ukrainian side, this has taken place on voluntary grounds. Kyiv’s lack of financial resources also suggest that it could not afford to pay mercenaries, and the North Caucasians fighting on behalf of the Ukrainian military are indeed volunteers. Perhaps the most well-known case is the so-called Jokhar Dudayev International Peacekeeping Battalion, a force manned by dozens of predominantly North Caucasian volunteers that was formed shortly before the active clashes in the Donbas area waned. This unit is commanded by Isa Munayev, a nearly 50-year old brigadier general of the Chechen Army and the military commandant of Grozny, who following the seizure of the Chechen capital city by Russian troops in 2000 migrated to Europe.

According to some reports, this battalion is manned by a relatively large number of Chechens, mostly from émigré communities based in Austria, France, Germany and some other EU countries. In contrast to those with a strong Islamic background who have travelled to Syria, the Chechen youngsters in Munayev’s unit are loyal to the idea of a Chechen nation-state, as suggested by the Ichkerian flags waved over the battalion’s camps featuring a wolf, the Chechens’ totem animal and Ichkeria’s national emblem. Munayev and his comrades-in-arms have often referred to the North Caucasian peoples’ fight for independence from Moscow, reminding of the UNA-UNSO units, manned by Ukrainian nationalists, which took part in the First Chechen War of 1994-1996 as an incentive for them to aid Ukrainian patriots by voluntarily involvement in the war effort. Aside from Chechens, according to some sources, Dagestanis, Crimean Tatars, Ukrainians, Circassians, Azerbaijanis, Georgians, and others form the backbone of this battalion.

Aside from this unit, a number of Caucasians have formed part of the Donbas battalion, one of the Ukrainian military’s volunteer units that took intense part in the fighting and suffered most casualties. In this unit, around a dozen Georgians participated, followed by Azerbaijanis, Crimean Tatars, Belarusians, and even a few Russians. Yet no Chechens or North Caucasians whatsoever appear to have taken part in this unit.

CONCLUSIONS: Nearly every past military conflict has attracted foreign fighters who sought to join belligerents on the ground due to noble ideals or financial incentives. The Donbas war is no different. Still, the participation of North Caucasians in the war has a number of important implications. First, if the war continues after the current break, more North Caucasians would likely be ordered to join the ranks of pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine, and consequent casualties among them would likely spark widespread public discontent and possibly also anti-regime protests among North Caucasians back home. When it became known that dozens, if not hundreds of Russian soldiers had secretly died in Ukraine, this caused public outrage across Russia and most likely contributed to curbing Moscow’s expansionist appetite in eastern Ukraine.

Second, even though some North Caucasians might be fascinated by the current turn of Russian nationalism and xenophobia away from them in the direction of Ukrainians, their involvement in the Ukraine war will hardly alleviate the deep anti-Caucasian sentiments embedded in the Russian society for decades. The refusal of many North Caucasians to participate in Donbas hostilities has demonstrated that their sympathies in the military confrontation are not necessarily on the Russian side. Sporadic interviews with Chechens, Dagestanis and others reveal that – perhaps with the exception of Ossetians – the majority do not consider the Russo-Ukrainian confrontation to be their war.

Third, notwithstanding immense pressure exerted upon Chechens within Chechnya, the Donbas war has remained deeply unpopular among the Chechen youth. Importantly, even though the Chechen resistance has weakened somewhat in the recent years and Kadyrov has used the Russo-Ukrainian crisis to manifest his unlimited personal loyalty to Vladimir Putin and Russia’s interests, Kadyrov still needs the fighting-fit Chechen units, particularly kadyrovtsy troops, to be stationed within Chechnya to hedge against the permanent threat of Chechen insurgents who may strike virtually any time.

AUTHORS’ BIO: Emil Aslan Souleimanov is Associate Professor with the Department of Russian and East European Studies, Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic. He is the author of Understanding Ethnopolitical Conflict: Karabakh, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia Wars Reconsidered (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) and An Endless War: The Russian-Chechen Conflict in Perspective (Peter Lang, 2007). He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

(Image Attribution: Wikimedia Commons)

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The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst is a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, a Joint Transatlantic Research and Policy Center affiliated with the American Foreign Policy Council, Washington DC., and the Institute for Security and Development Policy, Stockholm. For 15 years, the Analyst has brought cutting edge analysis of the region geared toward a practitioner audience.


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