Putin’s Shadow Recruits

A Chechen special force trooper. Photo: Alexander Nemenov/ AFP
Julia Ioffe
October 4, 2022

Since Russia first invaded Ukraine, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov has played a pivotal role in Vladimir Putin’s war efforts. He has been both a loyal cheerleader and a provider of troops, but he has also been critical of the president and his generals’ prosecution of the war, viciously and publicly laying into them when he feels that the Kremlin isn’t fighting ruthlessly enough. He has also claimed to have sent thousands of Chechen fighters into Ukraine and bragged on social media that his units captured key positions there, including in the city of Mariupol. At times, he has begged Putin to let his men “finish the job,” implying that Chechen soldiers are more ruthless and would subdue Ukraine quickly, unlike their feckless Russian counterparts. 

Kadyrov has long exploited the myth of the Chechen warrior, made famous in the West by the Chechens’ fierce resistance to Russian colonization in the 18th century, and then by their fight for independence in the 1990s, brutally repressed by Putin in his rise to power. That myth is tinged with a lot of fear and racism, both in Russia and Ukraine, as well as in the West, but it is also one of the keys to Kadyrov’s hold on his throne. He took power as the head of the Chechen Republic in 2007, after two savage wars, the latter of which became a never-ending series of Russian counter-terrorism operations. Countless Chechens disappeared and it bred a Chechen insurgency that reached deep into Russia with terrorist attacks. Kadyrov, with the help of Kremlin money and firepower, was able to quell the restive republic, ruling it through sheer terror. Indeed, he has terrorized people both inside Chechnya (where any dissenters are hunted down with ghastly efficiency and punished, as are their relatives) and outside of it (the reach of the almighty F.S.B., for example, stops at the Chechen border).

But no dictatorship built on fear is really all that strong, and if the war in Ukraine is putting some cracks in the image of Putin, it hasn’t spared his viceroy, either. Last week, I spoke to a Chechen journalist, who I’ll refer to as Marina to protect her identity, about the situation in Chechnya and the rifts that the war has exposed. We also spoke about why so much of the fighting and dying in Putin’s pan-Slavic nationalist Ukrainian campaign is being done by ethnic minorities, and why, after months of silence, these minorities, from Dagestan to Yakutia, are finally rising up in protest.  

Like the other Chechen journalists and activists who introduced me to her, Marina maintains close contacts with people at home but is now forced to live abroad. After February 24, Russia became far too dangerous a place for professionals like her. She had survived both Chechen wars, but this was danger of a different kind: Marina still has family in Chechnya, and though she continues to report on Russia, as well as on her native republic, she fears brutal reprisals against her family, the kind that only Kadyrov, who has personally tortured prisoners, is capable of. “There is not a single day that goes by that I don’t think of the fact that the local security forces can burst into my family’s home and arrest them because of me,” Marina told me. “Every time I see a message or a call from home, I think, They’ve come for them. And I take this risk not because I decided to fight for the truth, but because I love my work.”

I hope that you find our conversation, which has been translated, condensed, and edited for clarity, as surprising, thought-provoking, and moving as I did.

Julia Ioffe: Why have there been so many ethnic minorities, who have been persecuted by Russia, fighting on the Russian side from the very beginning of this war?

Marina: The most popular version is that this is because the regions where these minorities live are historically quite poor, where people live on $350 a month on average, and so the military is seen as a means of making a living. But I don’t think this version holds up to scrutiny, because it’s not true across all the minority republics. 

It’s different all across the predominantly Muslim North Caucasus: for example, a lot of people from Dagestan signed military contracts to go fight in Ukraine, but not a lot from Kabardino-Balkaria. So why is that? Why did so many Dagestani men sign up to fight voluntarily in the early months of the war, but so few Chechen and Ingush men? Personally, I think it has something to do with the fact that the Ingush and Chechen people were deported en masse during World War II, but the Dagestanis weren’t, so they are a bit more loyal to Moscow. Their idea of Russian patriotism hasn’t been violently upset in the last 100 years.

How do people feel about the invasion of Ukraine in Chechnya? At least in private.

In Chechnya, people are unanimously against this war. If you were to sum up their feelings in one phrase, it would be: “This isn’t our war.” First and foremost, they cite religion. This is a war of Christians against Christians. Chechens are Muslims, and fairly religious Muslims at that. So they think about death at least five times a day when they pray, and dying in a war that is Christians versus Christians is not a great way to get into heaven, and they understand that very well. 

The second reason is the memory of the Russian-Chechen wars. It’s such an obvious thing: you just can’t stand and fight under the flag of a country that, just 20 years ago, tried to wipe you off the face of the earth. It’s so widely understood that most people don’t even say it. When I ask them, Why don’t you want to go fight? They ask me, What do you mean, why? These are the same people that fought us here? And they don’t mean that in a metaphorical sense. Often, these are the exact same people, the same commanders, the same generals, the same people, the same last names [of the people that fought us then], you understand? 

How do you square that grassroots opposition with the fact that Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov is so active in promoting this war and in promoting the fact that his Chechen troops are fighting in it? 

Kadyrov has something to lose so he is throwing everything he can into the fire. He’ll even throw himself in, because he has something to lose.

You mean, his personal power?

Yes, his personal power, of course. But it’s not just that. If in this war his position is at all undermined, then he will fall into the hands of these very same Chechens if he doesn’t have time to flee. Because he has a lot of blood enemies among the Chechens, this is a well-known fact. 

What do you mean?

Ever since he came to power in 2007, he spent his time buying himself an army. He bought it from among the people in his ancestral village and his relatives and clan members, people who have never had anything, who lived in these rural villages. They really never had anything. And he gave these people, who would have probably lived like that for the rest of their lives, he gave them cars and money and work and power. He gave them a lot of money. And if Kadyrov is gone, then all this is gone for all these people, too, because they spent all these years not just getting rich, but smearing themselves in blood. There’s no turning back for them. I’m positive that all these people who are close to Kadyrov, these battalion commanders and so on, they will genuinely follow him into battle and to their deaths. 

As for all the others, many of them are being sent against their wills. For the entire seven months of this war, we’ve seen information that these are people who were in jail or were caught for some small infraction. They were made to sign papers and sent to fight in Ukraine to expiate their alleged guilt: either you go to jail or you go fight. How do they fight? How many of them survive? We have no idea. I have a strong suspicion that the situation for people who are sent to fight involuntarily is really bad. 

The third category is people who really want to go make money. I don’t personally believe that there were a lot of them. Early on in the war, Kadyrov showed a photograph of allegedly 10,000 Chechen fighters who were going into Ukraine, but we were all joking that this was all staged, using everyone and anyone related to the security forces, any bodies that he could find.

I’ve heard that Chechen families who have lost people in Ukraine are not publicizing this fact, that they’re burying their relatives quietly—out of shame.

I’ve heard that, but I also don’t know anyone personally who has died. Which, I think is telling. I know lots of people and I have lots and lots of relatives, and these relatives have relatives. And I personally haven’t heard of anyone dying there, which, given the very high casualty rates in this war, tells me something about the real number of Chechens fighting there. 

Let me tell you the story about a relative of mine, so that you get a sense of how Chechen families think about their relatives fighting in Ukraine. I have a relative who decided he wanted to have a military career and this is a kind of stain of dishonor on our clan. We have a pretty big clan, several hundred people, and he is the only one who chose this path. Despite the fact that some very, very close relatives of his were killed by the Russians during the wars, and he still decided to go and join. Let me tell you, it was not very cool. Now almost no one goes to visit him because this is a disgrace and a stain on the clan. Even when he came back from the front, even though it’s a tradition to visit someone who has returned from something dangerous, very few of our relatives will go visit him because no one wants to normalize and legitimize what he has done. 

What do you mean about the real number of Chechens fighting in Ukraine? Do you think it’s higher or lower than the official count?

I think that the number of Chechens fighting in Ukraine is wildly inflated. If it were truly as high as everyone says, it would be very hard to hide, even with the shame, even with people hushing things up, if you had 1,000 caskets coming home, it would be impossible to hide. Whether you do it publicly or secretly, you still have to bury the person and you can’t hide much in Chechnya. It’s very small and everyone knows each other. [The population of Chechnya is 1.4 million.] For some reason, everyone believes Kadyrov’s version of events, I don’t know why.

Let’s talk about the mobilization. Why did Kadyrov announce that the mobilization order would not affect Chechens?

There are a few theories. The first is that he wanted to calm the Chechen people. You would think it doesn’t make much sense, since he crushes any signs of dissent. He tracks people down and makes them apologize on camera. That’s the best case scenario. The worst case scenario is they can arrest your relatives, beat them, or do something else. So then why is he trying to throw a bone to the people? 

These women who said they wanted to come out and protest, [who sent voice memos on WhatsApp to each other, saying they wanted to protest], knowing who Kadyrov is, what awaits them, started distributing these voice memos where they say very clearly, So what? So what if they kill us? If they kill our sons, we don’t care if we die. Of course, Kadyrov detained them and their relatives, and says that he is going to send their male relatives to fight in Ukraine. But he must understand perfectly well that if these women had already decided to go out, then others might, too. What I’m hearing from relatives in Chechnya is that, in the markets, people are already talking—women, specifically—about going out to protest. What do we have to lose? So he understands that he has to calm them down, not because he’s afraid of these Chechen women but because he has to show the Kremlin that he still firmly controls Chechnya. At the same time, he can still grab people off the street, out of jails, anyone who’s run afoul of his people, and fill out the ranks of these so-called volunteer battalions. That’s the double game that he’s playing.

What’s the second theory?

The second theory is a little more complicated and harder to prove. It is that Kadyrov was extremely slighted when there was this prisoner exchange in which [Putin crony] Viktor Medvedchuk was swapped for Ukrainian prisoners, and there were a couple American prisoners in the mix. One of the negotiators was Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. Kadyrov apparently didn’t like that because his traditional role was to be the go-between between Russia and the Arab world. And here he wasn’t asked, he was totally ignored. Apparently, he was very offended by that.

How are Chechen men responding to the mobilization? 

I would say that pretty much everyone wants to leave. Everyone that I’ve spoken to wants to leave. Others really want to leave but know they can’t so they’re hiding at home. Many have already fled Russia. Today, I spoke to my mom and she said many of my friends and relatives, many of my cousins have fled wherever they could, some to Turkey, some to Kazakhstan, some to Georgia. It’s a surprisingly uniform reaction. The men I’ve spoken to are only discussing one option. No one is discussing the option of going to Ukraine to fight. They’re only discussing the possibility of what happens when they go to jail [for refusing the draft]. And there they expect to be tortured, they’re talking about how to survive the torture. That’s what scares them. Judging by Kadyrov’s rhetoric, he’s quite angry at those who are evading the draft by changing their addresses, even though he said there won’t be a draft in Chechnya.

Why did Dagestan protest so much? And why didn’t it protest earlier in the war?

The only reason I can think of is that the people who went to fight earlier in the war went voluntarily. Until the mobilization order, it was people who were already in the military or military contractors, people trying to make a career out of it, people who, for better or worse, believed in the Russian army enough to tie their fates to it, and so their parents and families were more or less ready for their sons fighting and dying. It’s not that you’re necessarily okay with it, but it would be very strange to protest against it. Now, when it is being done by force, it makes sense that people are coming out in protest against it. What’s interesting to me is why Dagestan, of all places, came out so forcefully. 

And why do you think so?

I talked to one friend who’s from Dagestan and he said it’s because the family traditions, the family ties are stronger, as in the ties between a mother and son are stronger in Dagestan than in other parts of Russia. I don’t know that I agree with that, but I do agree that there are mothers in the North Caucasus who stand to lose two, three, four sons to mobilization. And what is she going to do when she loses all of them? Because no one has any doubt that she’ll lose them, untrained, unequipped. They’re all going to die there and no one has any doubt about that.

Do you think these protests will lead to anything or will they be squelched like all the others?

If they are reformatted into more organized protests, then maybe something will change. But if it remains like this, if it’s 20, 30, even 100 people in Makhachkala [the capital of Dagestan], another 50 in Khasavyurt [another city in Dagestan], then it costs nothing for the authorities to crush it. They can jail everyone. It’s very easy.

Why aren’t the more Slavic regions of Russia protesting? Why aren’t their mothers coming out?

It’s a good question, but I’m guessing part of it has to do with the fact that they’re not an ethnic minority. Despite the fact that they live in shit like every other region, they don’t have a sense of grievance toward Russia that it hurt them or treated them like second-class citizens. They weren’t constantly humiliated. They weren’t colonized. They trust the state more, they believe the television.

The other factor is that the mobilization quota for Moscow was extremely small: 16,000 people for a city of over 15 million people. When you see these numbers, it’s hard to think of this as anything other than ethnic cleansing. And it doesn’t seem like an accident. The only question is why? Why do they have to do this? Is it just a continuation of colonialist policies, a habit that they don’t even think about? Or is there a plan? I don’t want to get into conspiracy theories, so I just think it’s habit: send the “black-asses” [a slur for people from the North Caucasus] in first.