The Kadyrovites are focusing their efforts on Mariupol and Kiev, although several military officials and analysts question their actions, which are heavily embellished by the propaganda of Kadyrov

The role of Chechen fighters in Ukraine behind Kadyrov's propaganda

AP/MUSA SADULAYEV - Chechnya's regional leader Ramzan Kadyrov in Grozny, Russia. Kadyrov said on Wednesday 20 January 2021

Since Chechen leader Razman Kadyrov announced the dispatch of more than 10,000 fighters to the conflict in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin's great ally in the Caucasus has become one of the most controversial figures in the war. Shortly after the Russian invasion began, Kadyrov sided with Moscow, expressing his full support for the operation in Ukraine and underlining his loyalty to the Russian president.

The battle for the Hostomel airfield was one of the first actions in which the Chechen fighters took part, and also the one in which they suffered their first casualties. Since then, all their military movements have been relayed via Telegram by Kadyrov, who has even claimed to have travelled to the country to personally supervise his troops. His "personal visit" was also announced via the social network with a video allegedly recorded in a bunker near Kiev.

Miembros del servicio conducen vehículos blindados de transporte de personal con banderas que muestran una imagen del antiguo líder checheno Akhmad Kadyrov tras el discurso del actual jefe de la república Ramzan Kadyrov, dedicado a un conflicto militar en Ucrania, en Grozny, Rusia 25 de febrero de 2022 REUTERS/CHINGIS KONDAROV

However, Ukrainian intelligence services pointed out that the footage was probably recorded from Grozny. Even Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov claimed he had 'no data' on Kadyrov's alleged trip to Ukraine. Despite the video's lack of veracity, the footage is part of the strong war propaganda developed by the Chechen leader since he moved his special troops to Ukraine. 

 El líder regional de Chechenia, Ramzan Kadyrov, habla frente a un retrato de su padre Akhmad Kadyrov, el presidente checheno que fue asesinado en una explosión de bomba en 2004, Grozny, Rusia AP/MUSA SADULAYEV

In addition to videos of Chechen fighters, Kadyrov has also used children to defend his military intervention in Ukraine. Recently, the Chechen president released a video shot at a school in Grozny showing children dressed as soldiers and carrying weapons. Others wear a white T-shirt with the letters Z and V and wave Chechen and Russian flags.

The aesthetics of this video are similar to the one it published to announce the deployment of forces in Ukraine: military exhibitionism and shots of both flags, all filmed in a very sophisticated and propagandistic manner that reminded many of the videos released by Daesh.

Fotografia de archivo, el líder regional checheno Ramzan Kadyrov habla en una reunión para conmemorar el Día de la Concordia y la Unidad Civil en la capital provincial de Chechenia, Grozny, Rusia, el martes 6 de septiembre de 2016 AP/MUSA SADULAYEV
The effectiveness of the Chechen fighters is in question

But this propaganda aside, what have Chechen forces achieved during these 33 days of war? According to various videos, released by both the Russian and Ukrainian sides, the Chechens are carrying out attacks in Mariupol together with Moscow forces. They are also part of the convoy on its way to Kiev, Caucasus analyst Harold Chambers told Al Jazeera.

"The Kadyrovites in Ukraine have conventional objectives, i.e. neutralising the Ukrainian leadership, counter-insurgency, stopping defection, while playing a crucial role in Putin's initial psychological warfare campaign," Chambers explains. Chechen fighters are often associated with negative ideas because of the brutality of the Chechen wars, an aspect the Kremlin uses to frighten the population as well as Ukrainian forces.

La ciudad de Grozny fue totalmente destruida por las dos guerras entre el centro federal ruso y la rebelde República Chechena de Ichkeria, de 1994 a 1996 y de 1999 a 2009 AFP/ALEXANDER NEMONOV

"The implicit threat is there: if you don't surrender, you may face the same fate as the peaceful cities of Georgia and Chechnya," Aleksandre Kvakhadze, a researcher at the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, told the British newspaper The Guardian. Meanwhile, in early March, members of the Ukrainian army eliminated a group of Chechens who were aiming to assassinate President Volodimir Zelensky. 

Separatistas prorrusos del batallón checheno "La Muerte" forman una fila durante un ejercicio de entrenamiento en el territorio controlado por la autoproclamada República Popular de Donetsk, en el este de Ucrania, el 8 de diciembre de 2014 REUTERS/MAXIM SHEMETOV

However, some claim that the Kadyrovites are not playing a significant role in the fight against Ukrainian forces. As reported by the Qatari media, the operations carried out by the Chechen fighters have been questioned by pro-Russian separatists and certain analysts.

Igor Girkin, former commander of pro-Russian forces in Donetsk, denied that Chechens were involved in the fighting in Mariupol, while Alexander Khodakovsky, commander of the Vostok battalion, part of the separatist forces in Donetsk, criticised the "poor training" of Chechen fighters. In a video posted by the Komsomolskaya Pravda YouTube channel, Khodakovsky referred to the lack of firearms and the poor condition of some of their vehicles. 

El comandante los describe como “gente corriente que habían llevado una vida pacífica”, aunque posteriormente “gastaron algo de dinero en ellos, los equiparon e invitaron a participar en la guerra”. “Su grado de preparación para la misión es muy bajo. Los enviados a Mariupol no están preparados ni equipados de acuerdo con la misión”, añadió, según recoge el portal Caucasian Knot.

The commander described them as "ordinary people who had led a peaceful life", although they later "spent some money on them, equipped them and invited them to take part in the war". "Their degree of preparation for the mission is very low. Those sent to Mariupol are not prepared and equipped according to the mission," he added, according to the Caucasian Knot portal. 

Soldados de las fuerzas especiales chechenas armados asisten a una celebración dedicada al 70º aniversario del nacimiento del Primer Presidente de la República de Chechenia, Héroe de Rusia Akhmad Kadyrov, el presidente checheno que fue asesinado en una explosión de bomba en 2004, en Grozny, Rusia AP/MUSA SADULAYEV

Kadyrov has denied Khodakovsky's statements, arguing that he had "built his assumptions on false information". "Having seen our fighters in battle, Khodakovsky was convinced of their high professionalism," he wrote on Telegram. The Chechen leader also claimed that his men had taken control of Mariupol's city hall. "Other units move in parallel through the city and clean it of Azov's filth," he added, referring to the Ukrainian nationalist Ukrainian battalion. 

Differences between Chechen troops and Russian authorities

Several media outlets such as The Guardian have also reported constant disputes between Chechen commanders and members of Russian intelligence, as well as poor integration among the troops. In multiple videos, Chechen fighters remind that they are under Kadyrov's command, not the Kremlin's. In one recording, Chechen fighters can also be seen to be under the command of Kadyrov, not the Kremlin. A Chechen soldier can also be seen mocking an officer of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) in one video. It is here, in the area of communication, that Chechen and Russian soldiers differ the most.

El líder de la República de Chechenia, Ramzan Kadyrov, durante una reunión con el presidente de Rusia, Vladímir Putin, en una residencia cerca de Moscú, Rusia 31 de agosto de 2019 KREMLIN/ALEXEI NIKOLSKY via REUTERS

According to the newspaper's Ukrainian correspondents Emma Graham-Harrison and Vera Mironova, Chechen troops carry mobile phones, unlike Russian servicemen. Likewise, Chechens post on social media and call the conflict in Ukraine a 'war', ignoring the Kremlin's main propaganda rule of calling it a 'special operation'

Political and religious leader

This war, in which Chechen forces have been involved from the beginning, is key to Kadyrov's image, so propaganda is crucial. The Chechen dictator seeks in this way to boost his power while emphasising his loyalty to Putin, his main ally. In recent years, Kadyrov has emerged as the unique and authoritarian leader of Chechnya through his close relationship with Putin, who gives him broad authority in the management of internal affairs. 

Un arco de carretera que desea "Buena suerte" muestra retratos del presidente ruso Vladimir Putin (L) y del ex presidente checheno Akhmad Kadyrov, el padre del actual líder checheno Ramzan Kadyrov, en Grozny AFP/ALEXANDER NEMENOV

Without Putin, Kadyrov would not be who he is. As Emil Solomon Aslan of the Institute of Political Studies at the University of Prague tells The Guardian, thousands of Chechens deeply hate their president, which is why "Kadyrov understands that if he wants to survive he needs Russia and Putin's backing". "That's why he wants to show absolute loyalty, to show that he is useful, that he can do very great things," he adds. However, Aslan also alludes to casualties among the Chechen brigades, something that could prove "counterproductive" for Kadyrov. 

El lider de la República de Chechenia, Ramzan Kadyrov, se encuentra frente a los miembros del servicio para hacer una declaración, dedicada a un conflicto militar en Ucrania, en Grozny, Rusia, el 25 de febrero de 2022 REUTERS/CHINGIS KONDAROV

The Chechen president, in addition to trying to remain a strong leader in the republic, also seeks to establish himself as a religious figure. According to journalist Al-Habib Al-Aswad of Al-Arab, while political Sunni Islam expresses hostility towards Moscow, Kadyrov presents himself as Putin's main supporter "on the basis of his ethnic and religious affiliation". Organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood are banned in Russia. Similarly, Moscow has carried out military operations against Islamist groups in Syria or Libya. 

En esta foto de enero de 2017, el muftí principal de Chechenia, Salakh Mezhiyev, en primer plano, dirige una oración para una delegación de funcionarios chechenos, con el legislador checheno Adam Delimkhanov, tercero a la derecha, en el patio de la dañada Gran Mezquita de Alepo en la Ciudad Vieja de Alepo en Siria PHOTO/AP

However, under Kadyrov's control, Chechnya has undergone what Al-Aswad calls 'social Islamisation'. The Heart of Chechnya Mosque, the Russian Islamic University, religious schools and an Islamic medical clinic have been built in Grozny. In this way, Kadyrov presents himself as a religious figure, but without contradicting Moscow's actions.