Photo par Jack Crosbie
The knowledge that the toffee-and-poppy-seed cake had been made by a group of local volunteers was enough to reassure the Chechen militia commander that he would not be poisoned over afternoon tea. "For anything else," he said, handing over a small cardboard box containing a Geiger counter, "I always scan for radiation."Clad in combat fatigues and sporting an impressive black and white beard, the exile goes by the nom de guerre of "Muslim." Many of his associates were poisoned by the Russian security services, he said, and he was not prepared to meet the same fate. He has survived to reach his mid-40s despite two devastating Chechen wars with Russia in the 1990s, a decade living as a guerrilla in the remote mountains of the North Caucasus, and now 12 months fighting the Kremlin-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
The commander's "Sheikh Mansur" battalion — named after an 18th century Chechen resistance fighter — is among three volunteer Islamic battalions fighting alongside Kiev government forces in eastern Ukraine. An unconventional splinter group, it highlights one of the conflict's messier dimensions: Chechen versus Chechen.On one side are those who fight for Ukraine, said to number around 100. Moscow denies Western accusations that it has sent regular troops into eastern Ukraine but, as far as these Chechens are concerned, this is the same conflict on a different front.On the other side, several hundred Chechens loyal to strongman Ramzan Kadyrov support the pro-Russia separatists. In 2004, President Vladimir Putin entrusted the young warlord Kadyrov to extinguish the local insurgency in Chechnya and allowed him to rule the previously war-torn state with impunity.Amid this bitter feud, Muslim's unit offers a further twist. While Western Europeans may typically associate right-wing groups with Islamophobia, the Sheikh Mansur battalion has forged an unlikely alliance with Right Sector, a Ukrainian far-right paramilitary movement. Elsewhere they may have been natural enemies but here, their coalition is born of a shared nemesis and fuelled by a common hatred of Russia.
Right Sector, estimated to have between 1,000 and 5,000 men, grew during 2014's Euromaidan protests in Kiev from half-a-dozen nationalist fringe groups. Its agenda has long stoked Russian propaganda about Kiev's so-called "invading fascists." The organization refuses to be absorbed into the command structure of Ukraine's armed forces and increasingly poses an internal threat to the country, shown by last month's deadly shootout with police in the western city of Mukachevo or their vociferous calls for the impeachment of President Petro Poroshenko.
'We have a common enemy who doesn't care about us or our lands'
The Sheikh Mansur group also fight alongside the Azov Battalion, a pro-Kiev force whose alleged neo-Nazi views led the US to ban American soldiers from training and arming its members. The group denies having an extremist agenda, despite adopting a symbol almost identical to the Wolfsangel emblem associated with Nazi Germany. And Muslim insists Ukraine's disparate militias are fully united."We have a very good relationship with the volunteer battalions, including Azov," he told VICE News. "We fight together on the front, share many friendships, and never argue about ethnicity or religion.Related: We Witnessed an Initiation Ceremony That Turned Ragtag Rebels Into Cossacks"There is nothing surprising about our alliance — we have a common enemy who doesn't care about us or our lands. The men in my unit are just simple Muslims and have no interest in making anyone else follow our religion."Out of all Ukraine's volunteer battalions, Muslim spoke most fondly of Right Sector. "They exist outside the system and only fight for their land, not for money," he added. "We share this cause. Those within the system are a little different from us. As far as we are concerned, Right Sector fighters can do whatever they like — we are here only to fight Russia."In Sheikh Mansur and Right Sector's shared compound, around an hour's drive from the front line, a shirtless Right Sector fighter lolled in the afternoon heat behind camouflage netting. He expressed a similar level of faith in the alliance, but didn't put too fine a point on it. "Chechens, Right Sector," said Vyjak, punching his right hand into the palm of his left: "Putin kaput."
Sergiy Vasilovich, head of Right Sector's political wing in Donbass, adopted a similar stance when asked about the group's relationship with Sheikh Mansur. "The volunteer battalions are like a tight fist, fully united in patriotism," he told VICE News.
"Our objectives are to liberate Ukrainian territory up to the Russian border. We can do it now that Russia's economy is suffering but we cannot win by defending the front line alone."Back at base, Muslim described how, as a young man, his national service in Chechnya morphed into a life of full-blown insurrection. After his republic declared independence and the Russian tanks rolled in, he went on to witness the horrors of the war first-hand in Grozny, a city annihilated by Moscow's forces."I have buried two brothers, several cousins and many friends," he said. "War is not a good thing. Russia wanted to take us back to the Stone Age."Following a second war in 1999-2000, Moscow crushed the bulk of Chechen resistance and established a puppet state in the form of the Kadyrov dynasty as the underground resistance resorted to increasingly violent and extreme measures, such as assassinations, hostage-taking, sabotage, and suicide bombings.Muslim said he was forced into hiding in the mountains and eventually left the country in 2007. "I was not scared but our forces were too weak," he said, his sleeve bearing a colorful insignia of the sun rising over a Chechen mountain. "I miss everything there. It is the most beautiful place in the world. For a Muslim, Mecca is the holiest place in the world. But as a man, Chechnya is my home."
Following seven years as an exile, apparently living in France and Ukraine, Muslim in 2014 went to meet another Chechen rebel, General Isa Munayev — a key figure among all Chechens fighting in Ukraine. Munayev had been injured in 2006 during a counter-insurgency strike in Chechnya and was smuggled to Europe to seek treatment. He was granted political asylum in Denmark where he ran a group campaigning for Chechen independence, until events in Ukraine provided the perfect opportunity to resume his struggle against Russia.He headed to Ukraine last spring where he was received by Kiev's military officers desperate for experienced fighters. Furnished with arms, Munayev formed the Dzhokhar Dudayev battalion, named after the late Chechen president and independence leader. It bristled with his compatriots — including Muslim, who went on to form the Sheikh Mansur battalion several months later — as well as Azeris, Georgians, Ingush, and Tatars.In February, Munayev was killed fighting alongside the Ukrainian army during the vicious battle for Debaltseve. Adam Osmayev, a British-educated Chechen, replaced him, and Muslim has continued to operate with his own cohort.
'I have never worn a helmet or body armor'
Chechens are a martial tribe, renowned and feared on the battlefield where many of them fight without protective gear. "I have never worn a helmet or body armor," Muslim said. "And neither have my fellow fighters. We're not used to it, it's not in our tradition. For a start, it's very heavy — far better to carry an extra 15 kilos (33lbs) of ammunition or weapons.
"There is a prescribed time for us to die, we believe in that final point. I've been fighting for more than 20 years — I know this to be absolutely true."The Chechens on either side are prime candidates for executing dangerous raids and reconnaissance missions behind enemy lines, tactics honed during combat with Russia. "My men are good at that," Muslim said. "We have learned a lot about mountain and urban guerrilla warfare fighting Russia. Ukraine now wants to use our knowledge."He claimed that his men had stolen military vehicles from separatist lines and even dragged a Russian soldier back last month. "We handed him to the SBU (Security Service of Ukraine)," he added, without going into further detail.
Among its ranks, Sheikh Mansur reputedly counts men who have fought in anti-government forces in Syria. "They left and came here because it got so complicated." Muslim explained. "Initially it was just rebels versus Assad, but then there were too many groups."My first and eternal enemy is Russia so I will never fight in Syria. I cannot leave my personal enemy for them. If my house is on fire, I will not leave to extinguish another fire I see on the horizon. Here I see my enemy and no one can make me believe that Russia is otherwise. It is so simple for me."When asked about the opposing Chechens fighting along with the separatists, the commander showed a surprising lack of rancor; he saves that for Putin. "We wouldn't call all of them traitors, some are just deceived," said Muslim. "Rather, I pity them, they are just trapped. I don't want us to fight — after our wars of independence, there aren't many of us left.
'Russia must be saved from Putin's gang'
Related: The Holdouts: We Witnessed a Battalion's Final Days on Shyrokyne's Frontline"Russia must be saved from Putin's gang. There is a lot of evil in the wider world because of that man. He is like a robot with only one setting. It's impossible to reason with a zombie."Towards the end of the interview, a further possible motivation for his decision to fight in this foreign land became apparent. From 1932-33, Ukraine was ravaged by the Holodomor. A cataclysmic famine, the Holomodor was unleashed by Stalin to crush Ukrainian nationalism and collectivize farming across the USSR. Millions died amid forced grain seizures in a country famed for its fertile black earth, supposedly the breadbasket of the Soviet Union.While some of those affected tried to reach neighboring Romania or Poland, others headed east to find food and refuge in Chechnya and Muslim's mountain village became one such a sanctuary."There were many elderly women in my village who had fled from Ukraine as young girls," he recalled, sipping his black tea. "I grew up with their stories of starvation. We know what happened to them. Chechens have shared Ukraine's tragedy."Follow Jack Losh on Twitter: @jackloshRelated: Textbooks and Assault Rifles: The Student Soldiers in Rebel-Held Ukraine