Russia's faltering war effort in Ukraine has a new face.
Garbed in combat fatigues, arm stretched out over a military map in a darkened room, Chechnya’s warlord-leader Ramzan Kadyrov announced via his Telegram channel on Sunday that he had personally joined the Russian campaign.
A loyalist of Russian president Vladimir Putin and deft user of social media, Kadyrov posted videos on Sunday that appeared to show him commanding a Chechen special forces division, with his right-hand man Adam Delimkhanov leading another unit and other fighters forcing Ukrainian prisoners of war to shout Chechen slogans.
“The other day we were about 20km from you Kyiv Nazis and now we are even closer,” he wrote – claiming to be close to Hostomel airport, just north of Ukraine’s capital. “You can relax for a minute, because you won’t have to look for us – we’ll find you. Oh, you don’t have long left. It’s better you surrender and stand alongside us [. . .]or your end will be at hand.”
The Financial Times was not able to independently confirm the authenticity of the videos. Dmitry Peskov, Putin's spokesman, on Monday said the Kremlin had "no data" on whether Kadyrov actually was in Ukraine.
Chechen forces have, however, been an integral part of the Kremlin’s military plan from the start. Western intelligence officials told the FT that Chechen hit squads were key to the failed plan to assassinate Ukraine’s political leadership in the first 48 hours of the invasion. For the past three weeks, at least three Chechen tactical formations have been fighting in the country.
Though the units have had mixed success in operations around the country, with Chechen forces near Kyiv repeatedly held back by Ukrainians, Kadyrov’s apparent personal entry this weekend is a signal that the 45-year-old intends Chechens to play a greater role in Russia’s conflict.
Nearly three weeks into the war, Moscow’s invasion has been a military debacle, and efforts are under way to try to regain the initiative and rally Russian forces, which continue to suffer heavy losses, despite their vastly superior firepower and numbers.
Kadyrov’s arrival – and the foregrounding of his Chechen troops in media coverage as a result – may play as much of a psychological role in helping Moscow’s campaign as it will in boosting Russian firepower.
"The Chechens have established a reputation as tough and brutal fighters," said Emil Aslan, a Caucasian specialist and professor in the department of security studies at Charles University in Prague. "Deploying Chechen fighters has a big psychological impact."
An increased Chechen presence is unlikely to do anything to address the fundamental problems with Russia's campaign to date, analysts said. Until the Kremlin is better able to co-ordinate and mass its forces, the stalemate on the ground is likely to persist, regardless of where it replenishes its frontline fighters from. Besides Chechens, Russian authorities have said they are ready to welcome fighters from Syria, and the Central African Republic, where Russian forces have been themselves active in recent years.
The thickly bearded Kadyrov has run his mostly Muslim republic in the Caucasus Mountains as a personal fiefdom since his warlord father Akhmat-Khadzhi was assassinated in 2004. He commands the Kadyrovtsy, a 25,000-strong militia that has been credibly accused of widespread abduction, torture and extrajudicial killings. Its fighters helped to crush the second of two Chechen separatist wars in 2009, helped suppress a domestic Islamist insurgency while fighting on the side of separatist forces in eastern Ukraine and regime troops in Syria.
"These are fighters who have been used by Kadyrov to go after insurgents in Chechnya and also after the families of insurgents," said Aslan. "If the Russians are serious about taking over Ukraine, and choking resistance, then having these 'dirty' warriors gives them cover to do things and say 'it was these crazy savage people from the Caucasus.'"
Kadyrov claims 10,000 Chechens are being deployed to fight in Ukraine – and has threatened to bring as many as 70,000 to the fight. But most analysts believe the current number is likely to be far smaller, perhaps between 3,500 and 7,000, and fighting a distant war for the Kremlin may have less appeal for some Kadyrovtsy. Nevertheless, they represent a considerable fighting force for the Kremlin to draw upon.
"They represent a body of pretty determined fighters," said Jack Watling, research fellow for land warfare at the UK's Royal United Services Institute, who said Kadyrov's forces had several advantages over regular Russian troops deployed to fight. "They are much more motivated fighters, available at a time when the Russians are desperately short of manpower." They are also fighters more habituated to brutality, he said.
Moreover, thanks to years of generous funding from Moscow to prop up Kadyrov, they are also better equipped than most Russian soldiers.
With Russia forced to shift to besieging major cities, Chechen fighters in particular may be a valuable potential vanguard. The three units reported to be in Ukraine are the "Akhmad Kadyrov" Special Motorised Regiment of the National Guard, Rosgvardiya's 249th Separate Special Motorised Battalion "Yug", and the Defence Ministry's Special Battalion "Vostok".
But the line between reputation and reality is also a thin one. Chechens have not had to deal with a conventional adversary, as equally motivated as they are, for a very long time, said Watling. “This is a fight for which they lack experience.”
Indeed, some question whether Kadyrov’s grizzled image has much martial substance behind it. In late February he addressed 12,000 Kadyrovtsy at a rally in the Chechen capital Grozny to promise support for Putin’s war. He looked every inch the Caucasian strongman, except his chunky combat boots were from Prada’s 2019 season, retailing for just over $1,500.
According to Ukrainian defence reports, Chechen fighters have had mixed successes in Ukraine, and have been beaten back north of Kyiv.
Russia’s conventional army is likely to be wary of them, according to western officials and analysts. Russia analysts and western officials said Kadyrov considered himself answerable to Putin alone, not the Kremlin’s generals or Russia’s powerful intelligence apparatus. Many in Russia’s senior echelons recall that Kadyrov’s father originally fought against them in the first Chechen war, only swapping sides in 2000.
“Kadyrov and the Chechens are a wild card for the Russian armed forces as they do not control Kadyrov,” said one European defence official. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022