‘My MMA Gym Will Be Empty’: Chechens Head to Ukraine to Fight Kadyrov

As the Chechen warlord Ramzan Kaydrov sends his forces to aid Vladimir Putin's, Chechens who suffered under him prepare to join the battle.
chechnya fighters ukraine russia ramzan kadyrov
A pro-Ukraine group of Chechen fighters

When Kyiv announced it disrupted a plot by Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov to assassinate Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, young Chechen men already preparing to head to fight for Ukraine took it as confirmation they’d have another chance to fight Vladimir Putin’s Russia and his key henchman at the same time.

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With a population of 2 million under Kadyrov’s semi-autonomous rule, Chechnya’s two vicious civil wars in the 1990s and increasingly brutal rule by Kadyrov have combined to create a Chechen diaspora community across Europe and Turkey in the hundreds of thousands. Hundreds of them now appear ready to join the fight to defend Ukraine.

Kadyrovtsy are in Ukraine fighting alongside the Russians, that makes it every Chechen man’s responsibility to confront the enemies of Chechnya and our faith,” according to Ramzan, a former jihadist fighter in Syria from Chechnya quietly living in exile in Turkey, speaking under a pseudonym. “Kadyrov and his clan control the [Russian-loyal security services] and hunt his political opponents in Russia, in Chechnya, and in Europe.”

“But now they are in Ukraine for Putin and we can hunt them again,” he said. “We know these men [sent to kill Zelenskyy] who work for Putin’s dog [Kadyrov].”

Ukraine has requested foreign volunteers, particularly those with specific military skills. It has already received more applications than it can immediately vet for links to criminal or terrorist organisations, according to a Ukrainian Defence Ministry official interviewed by VICE World News.

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The Ukrainian military is nearly encircled on multiple fronts, including the capital Kyiv. The ad-hoc resistance of local militias and the Ukrainian army faces material and manpower shortages that will only increase as more Russian forces are committed to the battlefield. 

But while volunteers without formal military training tend to be useless in times of war, Chechen volunteers had a significant military impact at times on the Syrian civil war and ensuing war with ISIS. 

Led by Abu Omar al Shishani, a half-Chechen, ex–Georgian special forces soldier who eventually became the overall military commander for ISIS before dying in a 2016 drone strike, the Chechens and other Russian-speaking Muslims immediately gained a reputation for battlefield competence in a fight they initially joined because of Syria’s alliance with Russia. And now a younger generation thinks Ukraine offers that same opportunity to get back at Putin and Kadyrov, who is personally hated by much of the diaspora, many who fled his persecution. 

“More requests than we can process and there are concerns of course about the background of some of the people who want to come fight,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. 

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“Nazis and jihadists are strictly prohibited, we understand it’s a disaster for our image if the wrong people come.”

“Volunteers are a nice gesture and that people want to risk their lives for Ukraine is very appreciated, but unless you have a handful of very specific military skills, it’s not a real solution to the Russian war machine. Ukraine needs support from states, not people; we have lots of brave people.”

But inside Idlib, Syria along the border with Turkey is a rebel enclave with dozens of deeply experienced fighters from former Soviet states. Their experience includes giving military training  during the Syrian civil war. Many appear willing to leave, but the past associations with jihadists have everyone wary of letting them across the border to transit Turkey for Ukraine.

“There’s a lot of [Russian-speaking] guys inside Idlib who would rather be in Ukraine than Syria, but they are not sure if the Turks will let them pass the border on their way,” said Abu Marwan, a Syrian who once fought alongside a mostly Chechen unit that eventually joined ISIS. 

“But they are unsure if they will be arrested. Most of the guys who are left did not join ISIS, but they did come to fight jihad and have associations. They’re asking the Turks for permission to move.”

A regional security official confirmed that Turkey’s intelligence service was aware that some of the Russian-speaking Idlib groups, specifically fighters associated with Malhama Tactical - a small, Russian-speaking group of military trainers - had expressed an interest in departing for Ukraine, but it had not yet been decided. 

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“It’s a complex subject with many different security and political factors,” said the regional official, who refused to be identified to speak freely about intelligence matters. “There’s a lot of guys that would be fine to let leave, they’re dangerous if you’re Russian or a Kadyrov fighter, but they’re Chechens focused on Chechen issues not international jihadist dogma. But there are also a handful anyone would want to arrest [while] in transit.”

That’s not deterring the young men of the Chechen diaspora set on fighting against Russia and Kadyrov, who represents a former rebel faction that eventually betrayed its comrades by forging an alliance with Moscow.

“Tens of thousands of young men in French and German cities, throughout Turkey,” said Ramzan, describing the pool of potential applicants. 

“It’s a cultural pressure for us Chechens - my father and uncles fought in the 1994 Chechen War, I fought in the 1999 war, went into exile and fought the Russians in Syria (2014),” he said. “Young men know the reason they live in Lyon [France] and not Grozny is because of Putin and his dog. They want to help Ukraine, but they want revenge.”

“Shamil,” a 22-year-old Chechen MMA fighter living in a city in southern France under an asylum visa, told VICE World News that the first announcement that Kadyrov had sent his fighters to help Putin attack Ukraine meant his community had to respond. 

“I am going to Ukraine this weekend, inshallah,” he said, explaining his planned route with the agreement that it not be published. “Each night, all Chechen people pray for the chance to defeat Russia. My MMA gym will be empty next week if the French police do not interfere.”