MOSCOW — Pro-Russian separatists battling Ukrainian forces in eastern regions say they’re facing a shortage of fighters, but they seem to have found a source hundreds of miles to the east, in Russia’s conflict-torn North Caucasus.
Chechens, renowned for bloody tenacity and fearlessness during two wars in the southern Russian region over the past two decades, have joined in the battle against Ukrainian armed forces around the Donetsk region.
While the presence of battle-hardened Chechens may bolster the fight on the battlefield, it’s an open question whether they will actually help or hinder the separatist cause.
“It kind of undermines the whole theme that this is a local battle," said Michael
Bohm, a Moscow-based journalist and an author of a book on Russian psychology. “For the average grandmother, grandfather, for the average person, who is not particularly in favor of Kyiv but doesn’t want to join Russia, they are not going to look very favorably upon this."
For older Ukrainians, the arrival of fighters from Chechnya — a region long associated with terrorism — is distasteful at best.
Between 1994 and 2009, Moscow fought two full-scale wars and battled a low-level insurgency, trying to hold onto the Muslim majority republic. During that period, Chechnya’s ethnic Russian population plummeted, from 23 percent in 1989 to less than 2 percent today. To many observers, the wars were the latest chapters in a 200-year clash of between Muslim Chechnya and Christian Russia.
For weeks, as the insurgency in Donetsk and other eastern regions gained force, the militants appeared to be mainly a mix of disaffected Ukrainian citizens — ethnic Russians and ethnic Ukrainians — plus small numbers of Russian citizens from across the border. In the past week, however, Western and Ukrainian media have documented and interviewed fighters who identified themselves as Chechen.
Donetsk Mayor Oleksandr Lukyanchenko said that Chechens were among the 43 separatists hospitalized after a major battle for the Donetsk airport earlier this week. And Chechen fighters reportedly were among the 34 Russian citizens whose remains were sent back to Russia on Thursday.
Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov posted on the Internet photos of well-armed men he said were Chechens performing Muslim prayers during the Donetsk airport battle, identifying them as soldiers of Chechnya’s strongman leader, Ramzan Kadyrov.
Kadyrov, who was installed as Chechnya’s leader by Moscow, said any Chechens fighting in eastern Ukraine went there as private citizens.
"No 'Chechen troops' and especially no 'Chechen military convoys' are taking part in the conflict,” he wrote on his Instagram page.
There is no doubt that Chechens are now fighting in Ukraine, said Yaroslav Kovalchuk, director of the internal politics department of the International Center for Policy Studies in Kyiv. He also said the presence of Chechen fighters would hurt the separatist cause.
“Earlier, a large part of local population supported or were loyal to the militia, because they thought it is local people,” Kovalchuk said. “Now, when they see Chechen people, they see indeed that it is not local gunmen, but it is military men coming from another country."
Chechens are not the only foreigners reported fighting alongside local separatists.
Cossacks — the legendary horseback-riding communities that populate parts of Russia and Ukraine and that are known for their warrior ethos — ran patrols and manned checkpoints in Crimea before the Black Sea peninsula was annexed by Russia in March. Serbian militiamen were also spotted there. An Associated Press reporter who watched a parade Sunday in Donetsk reported seeing one fighter wearing a patch identifying him as from a Cossack unit from southern Russia.
The sophistication of the training, weaponry, and equipment being used by some of fighters in eastern Ukraine has also led many to conclude that the Russian security and military intelligence agencies are funding, or sending, operatives over the border.
"What we are seeing is a lot of mercenaries, from all over — veterans of the Afghan war, the Chechen war, both wars," Bohm said. "It is a good way to make money."
Ukraine's ambassador to the United Nations, Yuriy Sergeyev, on Thursday demanded that Russia end what he called “mercenary activities” in eastern Ukraine.
Turning to Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, he asked: “What are hundreds of Chechens doing in Ukraine? Did they come to protect Ukrainian Orthodoxy or Slavic unity?”
The Russian diplomat replied that Sergeyev's “ironic comments about Chechens” were “pointless.”