Home News Inside the Chechen forces that helped Russia resist the war

Inside the Chechen forces that helped Russia resist the war

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Nanna Heitmann observed Russian military training in Chechnya before travelling to Bakhmut, Ukraine. Neil MacFarquhar reports from New York.

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

The recruits, dressed in camouflage uniforms, had just completed at least 10 days of training at the Guderme Special Forces University near Grozny, which accepts soldiers from all over Russia for general military instruction.

Some of the trainees lack any combat experience. Others are veterans returning to Ukraine for a second or third time, including former mercenaries from the Wagner militia, which disbanded after a brief mutiny against the Kremlin in 2023.

Some Wagner fighters soured on the idea of ​​working for the Russian Defense Ministry that entire units were transferred to a Chechen-trained unit, the Akhmat Battalion, designed in part to absorb fighters from outside the Russian military. Wagner veterans were often recruited first from prisons, including a skinny man with gold front teeth who identified himself only by his military call sign, “Jedi Knight,” because of the possibility of reprisals.

“Fighting for my country? What country? It put me behind bars for life,” said Jedi, a 39-year-old construction worker convicted of robbery and fraud. He had been in and out of prison since he was 14, and had six months left on his original six-year sentence when he signed up for the military.

“The volunteers come for the money,” he said. “I haven’t met anyone with this kind of ideology.” He added that he, too, wanted to start over.

Generous signing bonuses plus monthly compensation of about $2,000, at least twice the average salary in Russia, spurred recruitment.

The training near Grozny highlights the evolution of ethnic loyalties in this war. Some of those currently training there were young conscripts in the Russian army when they were last in Chechnya, fighting Chechens involved in a separatist movement.

The participation of some Chechens represents another inversion of history: After centuries of hostility with Russia, Chechens are being deployed to Ukraine to fight in Moscow’s war.

A separatist movement in the 1990s culminated in two brutal wars with Moscow that lasted on and off for more than a decade. The city of Grozny was razed to the ground and tens of thousands of Chechens were killed.

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

But Kadyrov has been accused of not sending his fighters to the battle, where fewer Chechen soldiers have died than soldiers from other ethnic minority regions, in order to protect his private militia, the core of the security forces that ensure his rule in Chechnya.

Instead, Kadyrov has sought to emphasize his loyalty to Russian President Vladimir Putin by pouring resources into the military training center, which includes live-fire artillery drills, some mining and mine-clearing instruction, and first aid.

Like many of Chechnya’s armed forces, the Akhmat battalions are named after Kadyrov’s father, Akhmat Kadyrov, who defected to Moscow’s separatist struggle and was assassinated in 2004.

Russia recruits soldiers from everywhere to reduce the need for conscription. In 2022, Russia lifted a near-total ban on Chechens serving in the Russian military, a fallout from the separatist movement.

Many of the men who set off from the Grozny tarmac for Ukraine last fall were in their 30s and 40s, and fewer than 10 were Chechens. Despite Jedi’s claims, money was not the only motive.

Some were fleeing troubled home lives. Others wanted to escape the daily humdrum. Some, of course, claimed they were fighting out of patriotism. Many agreed to be interviewed on the condition that only their first names or military call signs be used to avoid reprisals.

Anatoly, 24, is one of 10 volunteers from a small village in the picturesque south-central mountainous region of Altai. “My father forced me to shovel snow, work, clean cow dung,” he said. “I gave up this job to do something else. Every year it’s the same.” He admitted that money was also a motivating factor.

Another rural worker, a 45-year-old shepherd known by his call sign “Masyanya,” traveled about 4,500 kilometers from Khakassia to attend the training. “I want to defend my homeland so that war doesn’t come here,” he said.

Contracts with Battalion Ahmat last only four months, a big incentive compared to the indefinite deployments of regular soldiers.

Last fall, Kadyrov formed a new unit, the Sheikh Mansur Battalion, named after an 18th-century imam who fought the Russian Empire. The soldiers are all Chechens or from small neighboring republics in the Caucasus mountains, and most are in their 20s. The Chechens, who fight Russia on behalf of Ukraine, first named their battalion after Sheikh Mansur, and now Kadyrov is trying to reclaim the name.

Tulpal, 20, who was working as a security guard for a large Moscow supermarket chain, signed up for the new unit with his father’s permission, saying he wanted to fight “the devils in Ukraine who want to bring perverted ideas here.”

He left the training center after visiting his parents over the weekend, hugged his mother and shook hands with his father. “Russia is fighting for survival. You can’t beat it. For Chechnya, it’s better to be with Russia than against Russia,” said Tulpal’s father, Mailali.

Wagner’s veterans also served in the Sheikh Mansour Battalion. A 35-year-old fighter who uses the call sign “Dikiy” or “Wild” said he had served 18 months of a nearly 10-year sentence for murder when he joined the army. He fought in Ukraine for 11 months, was wounded three times, and still suffers from splitting headaches.

When he returned to Chechnya, he was frustrated to find he was making only $200 a month, so he returned to the battlefield. “I didn’t know how to do anything else,” he said.

The Akhmat troops are better equipped than regular troops; unlike some regular Russian soldiers, they do not need to buy their own basic equipment.

Jedi said that when he was first deployed to Ukraine with Wagner, some young Russian army men came to beg for supplies, fuel and bread. “In Ahmat, I didn’t even wash my socks. I wore them, threw them away, and wore them again,” he said. “The same thing with underwear and sheets. We had everything.”

Moscow subsidizes an estimated 80 percent of Chechnya’s budget, but it is unclear how much of that goes toward military training.

At the airport, before the troops set out, a senior officer lined up the recruits and wished them good luck. “Are you ready, soldiers?” he called. “Yes, sir,” they shouted in unison, followed by the Muslim chant “Allahu Akbar!” and the Chechen war cry “Ahmat-sira!”, or “Ahmat rules!”

After arriving in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, some of the soldiers were assigned the task of maintaining Russian control over Bakhmut, now an abandoned city after months of fierce fighting.

The streets were deserted, especially during the day, as Ukrainian drones circled overhead, searching for targets. In foggy weather, fighters could sometimes be seen walking among the ruins.

Traffic became heavy at night as wounded from fighting were evacuated from various parts of the Bakhmut region, with roads littered with burned-out cars and ambulances.

While the war raged relentlessly on the ground, the roar of artillery fire and the explosion of shells could not penetrate deep into the ground, where Ahmat’s troops had already captured a field hospital that Wagner had first established.

The Bakhmut region was once famous for its sparkling wine, and the hospital is located in a labyrinth of underground tunnels, with tens of thousands of bottles still stored in the walls. (Wagner and Ahmat’s ban on alcohol is widely respected.) Once a tourist attraction, the ancient decorations are still intact; dusty plaster statues of ancient gods tower over the wounded.

The cave was wide enough to accommodate at least two wagons abreast, and several times a day, vehicles carrying the wounded and dead passed through the dark, foggy maze. Soldiers jumped from the vehicles and quickly carried their often groaning comrades on stretchers to temporary stable points.

One of those surgeons is 34-year-old Bria, who has been working for Wagner since 2017, mostly in Africa. He said that when he traveled in Moscow, people there reacted to seeing him in camouflage like he had “dirt under his fingernails,” but in Chechnya he was treated with more respect.

As the losses mounted, Bria said he was desperate for Russian troops to move into Kiev. “I don’t need their negotiations,” he said, using an expletive. “I want Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin to do it, and we will hold out. We will get there.”

Anastasia Trofimova contributed reporting from Grozny and Bakhmut.

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