The Chechens have gained a reputation as fierce warriors in two wars against Russia, the first from 1994 to 1996 and the second from 1999 to 2014.
It was the most violent conflict between Europe and the former USSR since the Second World War. Chechen warriors are now fighting in Ukraine on both sides of the front line.
Those who fled to Ukraine after the wars that ravaged their country are supporting Ukraine’s armed forces, even though their involvement has gone almost unnoticed. However, the announcement — made with great fanfare on February 25 — that Ramzan Kadyrov’s troops would be sent to Ukraine to fight alongside the Russian army did cause a stir among Western media.
Kadyrov, president of the Republic of Chechnya since 2007, even claims to have gone to Ukraine. He is a loyal supporter of Vladimir Putin who brought Chechnya back into the Russian Federation by using terror as a government weapon.
Kadyrov leads tens of thousands of men known as the Kadyrovtsy. No other federated entity in the Russian Federation has an armed force of this size. Although the Kadyrovtsy are members of the Russian National Guard, they remain under the sole command of Kadyrov, who also holds the title of major-general.
So how should their participation in the Russian invasion of Ukraine be interpreted?
As a professor of political science at Laval University, my research focuses on civil wars — particularly those in Chechnya and the Sahel conflict in Africa — and political violence.
A psychological weapon
Many analysts believe that Russia’s military strategy did not work in the first two weeks of the war. Ukrainian resistance coupled with Russian supply difficulties, as well as poor coordination of the various army corps and problems of motivation among conscript and professional soldiers, has considerably slowed down the advance of the Russian troops.
Faced with these military and logistical difficulties, Russia has now made psychological warfare a central element of its strategy. The announcement of the entry of Kadyrov’s troops into the war and the propaganda surrounding it are part of Russia’s effort to destabilize the enemy.
The Kadyrovtsy are above all specialists in policing conquered cities. They are known for the cruelty and abuse they administered in Chechnya itself, in the Donbass in 2014 where they intervened, and in Syria where some of their soldiers are still deployed.
Russia’s announcement that Chechen troops were being brought in was meant to strike fear in the Ukrainian population. Similarly, the rumor that their special forces have been given the specific mission to kill Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is intended to sow uncertainty and create fear.
However, their role may go beyond that: Moscow sent one of these battalions to the Donbass in 2014 to bring the pro-Russian separatists to heel and purge them of their most undisciplined elements.
The presence of Chechen troops shows that Moscow is preparing for urban guerrilla warfare in Ukraine. Kadyrov’s troops could be an asset for this, not just to overcome local Ukrainian resistance but also to discipline Russian troops and their affiliates.
A rebel who has fallen in line
Other more political dimensions directly and indirectly feed Russian propaganda and the psychological warfare it is waging.
Ramzan Kadyrov’s appearances on Chechen television and on social media are a constant reminder of his loyalty to Putin. While these sometimes border on caricature, they do illustrate the support of a once rebellious federated subject who has now fallen into line after two unprecedentedly violent wars and the establishment of an authoritarian regime that is on Moscow’s payroll.
Of course, the over-personalization of politics and decision-making in the Federation silences any dissenting voices — if there are any left. The fact that Kadyrov embodies this image of cohesion is paradoxical, however, given that the relationship between Moscow and Chechnya is still characterized by a type of exceptionalism within the Federation.
Cracks that could widen
On another level, Kadyrov’s support is a reminder that the commitment of the subjects of the Federation to backing up Putin is not being hindered by ethnic and religious boundaries. These differences are being erased by the common objectives of opposing the despised West and fighting Ukrainian authorities who have been described as “Nazis.”
However, cracks are beginning to show in the façade of this ad hoc alliance, and these will become more difficult to hide if the war drags on. The Kremlin appears to have asked the leaders of the federated subjects to defend the official discourse that this war is a “special military operation” targeting only military objectives.
It could be difficult for most of them to maintain this smokescreen as questions begin to arise among their own populations about the significant losses that the Russian army appears to be suffering.
But referring to the Russian army as a whole, without giving more details, tends to obscure its multi-ethnic character. Experts even estimate that non-ethnic Russians (i.e., Russian citizens, but of non-Russian origin) constitute a majority in the army.
Coming from less socioeconomically well-off federated entities, these members could account for a significant proportion of deaths. Such a scenario could not be countered by Kadyrov’s calls to intervene quickly in Ukraine. Such calls could turn out to be counterproductive for Putin.
The role of the Kadyrovtsy in the conflict in Ukraine is far from one-dimensional. Beyond the terror they inspire, they also embody the total commitment the federated subjects have to Putin. However, this idyllic picture could crack if the war turns out to be longer and harder than anticipated.
The use of these troops is a risky gamble. Their poor integration into the chain of command could diminish the benefits associated with their engagement alongside regular units of the Russian army. With Kadyrov’s triumphalism seeming out of step with the reality of this war, he could become a political liability to Putin.
Aurélie Campana is professor of political science at Laval University