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WASHINGTON — Launched by Moscow in 1999, the second Chechen war elevated the stature of Russia’s new and then little-known prime minister, a former intelligence officer named Vladimir Putin. Intended to bring the mountainous Islamic region back under the Kremlin’s control, the exceptionally brutal campaign endeared Putin to Russians nostalgic for a show of strength from what was considered by much of the world to be a fading nuclear superpower.
“The bandits will be destroyed,” Putin said at the time, in an echo of how he would talk of the “Nazis” he now claims to be purging from Ukraine’s government and military. “We must go through the mountain caves and scatter and destroy all those who are armed.”
So when Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov announced earlier this week that he was in Ukraine to support Putin’s invasion, it seemed as if the past had caught up with the present. Even though Kadyrov’s journey to the front — he claimed on social media to have nearly reached the capital, Kyiv, which is still under Ukrainian control — may have been fictitious, amounting to little more than a publicity stunt, some say his involvement could lead to an even bloodier conflict.
“Kadyrov is a psychopath who personally tortures his political prisoners,” Russia expert Michael Weiss told Yahoo News, alluding to Kadyrov’s well-known human rights abuses. Weiss and others say the apparent presence of Kadyrov’s soldiers in Ukraine could signal a new phase of fighting, one in which the rules of conventional warfare are discarded as Putin becomes more desperate for victory.
Kadyrov, 45, rules Chechnya under Putin’s supervision. And if Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is the conflict’s leading man, Kadyrov is the more colorful counterpart to chief villain Putin, given to brandishing a golden gun and trotting out a pet tiger. And even as he was supposedly preparing for war, Kadyrov engaged in a social media feud with Tesla founder Elon Musk.
His cartoonish demeanor, however, disguises a deep lust for power and a penchant for violence. Kadyrov commands a paramilitary outfit called the Kadyrovites, who work to suppress any rebellion in Chechnya, which has struggled to free itself from Russia (and other empires) for centuries. By doing Putin’s bidding — which has included hunting down opponents in Istanbul and Berlin — Kadyrov essentially guarantees he will retain the Kremlin’s support.
“The Russian military is facing a critical lack of manpower,” explains Emil Aslan, professor of security studies at Charles University in Prague. Kadyrovites, he told Yahoo News, “are an essential asset to the Russian military, both in tactical and psychological terms.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Thursday that the Biden administration could not confirm the presence of Chechen fighters in Ukraine. But such confirmation has come from battlefield reports, as well as from social media posts, where a kind of meta-battle is being waged for world opinion.
The Kremlin has not hyped Kadyrov’s role and, in fact, challenged the bombastic warlord’s own assertion that he was on the outskirts of Kyiv. At the same time, the Kremlin has few other allies to turn to.
“Russia's scrounging for troops in Chechnya and beyond is probably a sign of how poorly the war has gone for them,” says Ben Friedman, policy director at the Washington, D.C., think tank Defense Priorities.
Although Ukraine’s military is much smaller than Russia’s, poorly trained Russian conscripts have been repelled repeatedly since Putin launched an invasion last month. And with the United States and other nations continuing to supply weapons to Kyiv, Russia could be coming dangerously close to defeat, potentially leaving it to rely on the kind of grueling warfare that allowed Putin to declare victory in Chechnya two decades ago, after an earlier attempt to conquer the Muslim-majority region proved unsuccessful.
Russian President Boris Yeltsin launched a disastrous invasion of Chechnya in 1994, seeking to keep the small, oil-rich republic from gaining independence. Yet Chechnya mounted a furious defense that culminated in a battle for Grozny, the Chechen capital, that left hundreds of Russian soldiers dead. The humiliated Russian army retreated, and Chechnya achieved a measure of autonomy — and peace.
An earnest student of Soviet propaganda, Putin could now be trying to use crude stereotypes about Chechens’ fighting prowess to frighten an otherwise emboldened Ukrainian resistance.
After a series of apartment bombings in Moscow and elsewhere that were blamed on Chechens — but were likely carried out by Kremlin security services — Putin started a second Chechen war that saw Grozny leveled and the small republic’s civil society effectively destroyed. In exchange for their loyalty, the Kadyrov family — who had once been rebels themselves — were given unfettered power over the Chechen populace. They have wielded that power ruthlessly, in particular when it comes to the nation’s gay and lesbian population.
A 2006 report by Human Rights Watch found that dissidents could face almost medieval retribution. “They started kicking me, and then brought an ‘infernal machine’ to give me electric shocks. They attached the wires to my toes and kept cranking the handle to release the current. I couldn’t bear it,” a survivor of Kadyrov’s torture, named in the report as “Khamid Kh.,” testified.
Bringing such methods to Ukraine would only exacerbate a conflict that has already led President Biden to call Putin a “war criminal.”
A supporter of Putin’s campaign from the start, Kadyrov said earlier this week that he was on the battlefield and ready to fight. That assertion was later debunked by a Ukrainian news outlet that determined Kadyrov’s announcement had actually been sent from Chechnya. Still, Chechens are involved in the conflict, with Ukraine accusing them of trying to assassinate Zelensky.
Their role could broaden should Russia’s assault fail to take Kyiv and other large cities. If forces aligned with Kadyrov “are asked to target neighborhoods, target civilians, they will do it,” says Jean-François Ratelle, a University of Ottawa expert on the Chechen wars. “They could be used to commit war crimes against civilians.”
Putin could also use Chechens to shoot Russian conscripts attempting to desert, Ratelle said. The practice has precedent in Russian history: During World War II, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin had Red Army frontline soldiers trailed by security services ordered to shoot anyone trying to retreat from the terrifying German onslaught.
So far, all the alleged war crimes in Ukraine appear to have been committed by Russians at the Kremlin’s behest. But the prospect that Kadyrov could become more involved in the conflict alarms experts on Chechnya and its tumultuous history.
Weiss, the Russia expert, said reports that Putin was recruiting fighters in Syria — where Russia helped bolster dictator Bashar Assad’s ruthless regime in that nation’s civil war — were another development pointing to an escalation. “Putin is throwing everything he can into this war.”
If the second Chechen war cemented Putin’s grip on Russia, the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine could prove his undoing — but not before thousands more soldiers and civilians die in the process, especially if he looks to Kadyrov for the cruelly unconventional warfare that is the Chechen warlord’s calling card.
Others see Kadyrov’s belligerent shows of support for the war in Ukraine as a desperate attempt to frighten Ukrainians with racist tropes about Muslim Chechens and their supposed disposition toward violence.
Yet while Kadyrov himself is loyal to Putin — little surprise, since Putin installed his father as the leader of Chechnya in 2000; the elder Kadyrov was assassinated by separatists in 2004 — other Chechens despise the strongman and his Kremlin ties, choosing instead to fight on behalf of Ukraine.
“I want to tell Ukrainians that real Chechens, today, are defending Ukraine,” a dissident Chechen commander said last month.