Who are the Chechen fighters and why are they feared in Ukraine?

Chechen soldiers have gained a reputation as fierce warriors in two wars against Russia.

In early March, it emerged that Russia had contracted the Chechen Kadyrov militia to conduct specific operations in Ukraine.

Russia's deployment of the militia has also been viewed as a form of psychological warfare, designed to instil fear into the minds of both the Ukrainian armed forces and the civilian population – given the brutality associated with the Kadyrov militia in past conflicts.

Fighting for their survival

To answer the question about the reputation of the Chechen fighters, "you do need to go back several hundred years", said Professor Tracey German from the British defence and security think tank RUSI.

"The Chechens, along with the English, have a long history of conflict, of fighting, particularly with the Russians.

"The war of the 19th Century that the Chechens fought against subjugation by the Russian empire, was one of the longest guerrilla wars of the 19th Century."

Guerrilla warfare is waged by civilians that are not members of a traditional military unit, such as a nation's standing army or police force.

Guerrilla combatants in most cases are fighting to overthrow or weaken a ruling government or regime.

The professor added that their fight is referred to a lot in their history: "They are a proud nation and a nation that has had to fight for its survival for many, many decades.

"The reputation, currently, of Chechen fighters goes back to the two wars that were fought in Chechnya, which is a constituent part of the Russian Federation, it's important to stress that. 

"In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the first war that began in '94, when President Yeltsin sent in Russian troops to restore, as he put it, sovereignty, and to protect the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation because Chechnya had declared itself to be independent. 

"There was a long brutal war, from 1994 to 1996, where we saw the Russian armed forces humiliated, actually, by this small Chechen armed forces.

"A second conflict that was then fought from 1999; Russia labelled that a counter-terrorism operation, which it concluded in 2009."

Image ID 2J5A1NP Chechen special forces unit led by Russia's State Duma member Adam Delimkhanov 21042022 CREDIT REUTERS,Chingis Kondarov, Alamy Stock Photo
Fighters of the Chechen special forces unit, led by Russia's State Duma member Adam Delimkhanov, walk near the administration building of Azovstal Iron and Steel Works during Ukraine-Russia conflict (Picture: Reuters/ Chingis Kondarov/ Alamy Stock Photo).

Professor German highlighted that there is a long history of Chechens "fighting for what they perceive to be for their survival".

However, more recently "it has become more complicated", with Chechnyan fighters "who feel it has been about fighting for national survival".

She notes that "we've also seen the arrival into that area, into the North Caucasus of foreign fighters, foreign ideologies. 

"We've seen fighters from the North Caucasus heading out to fight in Syria."

She believes that a major reason that the Chechnyans have this strong reputation is that "they're perceived to be battle-hardened". 

"Particularly in terms of urban combat, guerrilla urban combat, in particular. They had this reputation for inflicting defeat on the Russian armed forces."

Prof German says this is interesting when you see them fighting in Ukraine, because "we see Kadirov, the current leader of Chechnya, and a very close ally of President Putin, the troops under his command are fighting as part of the Russian national guard – for Russia, fighting on the side of Russia."

Russian backing

The Chechen deployment supporting the Russian's side is for a few reasons. For one the Russians have faced a huge lack of manpower.

Another is the reputation that comes with the fighters that the Chechens have cultivated.

With their perception of tough fighters, the Russians could see that employing the Chechens could give some sort of psychological pressure on the Ukrainians.

A reason why Ramzan Kadyrov is representing the pro-Moscow camp and helping out Putin is because of money. Chechnya is reportedly dependent on money coming from the Russian budget.

A large majority of the Chechen Republic's budget is made up of direct money coming from Moscow so Kadyrov is very dependent economically on Moscow to run his republic.

"I swear to the almighty Allah, we won’t be able to last three months — not even a month" without Russia's financial backing, Kadyrov said.

"We won't survive without Russia," he added in a live social media stream shared by the state-run RIA Novosti news agency.

Image ID 2J7GN05 Head of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov attends a military parade on Victory Day 09052022 Credit REUTERS,Alamy Stock Photo.jpg
Head of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov here attending a military parade on Victory Day, marks the 77th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in the Second World War (Picture: Reuters/ Alamy Stock Photo).

The resilience of Ukraine

Many thought that Ukraine's resistance would last no longer than 72 hours. Their resilience has come as a surprise to many and even the Chechens.

Ukraine has frequently requested foreign volunteers, particularly those with specific military skills. Thousands of foreign mercenaries and soldiers have accepted the call and are fighting for Ukraine against Russia.

Reportedly among them, there are groups of Chechen fighters joining the fight against Russia.

There are also a vast amount of people who go against the Russians, stemming from Western Europe or some other areas, which are not under Russian control. 

As a result of two vicious Chechen civil wars in the 1990s and now with the brutal rule of Kadyrov, a Chechen diaspora community across Europe and Turkey has been created.

That has resulted in hundreds now ready to join the fight to defend Ukraine, and defeat their common enemy in Russia.

This includes veterans of the Russian-Chechen wars who want to continue in the fight against the Russians, including some of their sons.

A lot of those fighters appear to have been born after the Chechens had to escape the country and find refuge in Western Europe and elsewhere.