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One month before the start of the war, the head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, stated that if he were “in place of the president,” he would have “long taken Ukraine, sent troops there, and restored order.”
Amid reports in the Western media about Russia’s plans to invade Ukraine, these words sounded ominous, and the Kremlin hastened to respond to them: “The fundamentals of the foreign policy of the Russian Federation are formulated by the head of the Russian state.” After that, Kadyrov clarified – and emphasized that he spoke as a “blogger” and a “common person”.
On the first day of the invasion, the head of Chechnya publicly supported Putin – and since then, as a “blogger” and an “ordinary person”, he constantly makes statements. For example, he actively speaks about the course of Russian-Ukrainian negotiations and criticizes federal politicians for lack of “patriotism”. And also – he publishes videos on his Telegram channel about the participation of Chechen military in combat operations.
The video is worth mentioning separately. TikToks showing the military exploits of the so-called Kadyrovites – Chechen law enforcement officers – have literally flooded the internet. Because of this, they have even jokingly been called “TikTok troops”. Ukrainian media do not hide their irony when talking about them. “Kadyrov’s TikTok troops have posted a video of a real battle with a Bandera traffic light and an empty building,” reads the headline of one of the March news articles.
What role does Kadyrov’s army actually play in this war? How many people did Chechnya send to the front and what was their combat contribution? Why does the head of the republic openly criticize the intermediate results of Russian-Ukrainian negotiations, and what does the Kremlin think about it? And also, did the invasion of Ukraine really give Kadyrov new political opportunities, thanks to which he has been so active in recent months?
We tried to answer all these questions in an article.
Writing about Chechnya is difficult even in peacetime, let alone during a war. That’s why for this text we have assembled a team of authors and experts.
Journalists from the publication “Kavkazsky Uzel” (a key independent Russian media outlet dedicated to the Caucasus) helped us explain who the Kadyrovtsy are, including by surveying their sources in the republic. Dmitry Kuznetsov, the editor of the “Analysis” section of “Meduza” (an independent Russian news website), analyzed the Kadyrovtsy’s involvement in the fighting and their role in this war. Kit Editor Lisa Antonova spoke with relatives of Chechen soldiers who were killed or wounded in action. Meduza correspondent Andrey Pertsev gathered information on how Ramzan Kadyrov’s increased activity is perceived in the Kremlin and federal law enforcement agencies. The head of the “Hot Spots” program at the Memorial Human Rights Center, Oleg Orlov, explained Kadyrov’s role in the current domestic political situation and identified key risks that may arise in the future.
Who are the Kadyrovites?
And why one should not call all Chechen soldiers like that?
An uninitiated person may consider any Chechen law enforcement officer or military personnel a Kadyrov supporter – this is incorrect. Kadyrovites are specifically referred to as employees of the Chechen Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Republican National Guard. They are personally controlled by Ramzan Kadyrov and are under his significant influence.
The Ministry of Internal Affairs and the National Guard in the republic consist of many different units. For example, the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Chechnya includes 20 city and district police departments, the PPS-1 and PPS-2 regiments (named after Akhmat Kadyrov Special Forces Regiment), as well as the traffic police department for the republic.
The Chechen Rosgvardiya includes the SOBR “Ahmat”, the republican OMON “Ahmat-Grozny” and the OMON “Ahmat-Grozny” on transport, a department of extramural security for ensuring the safety of republican oil facilities (the so-called “oil regiment”), a special aviation unit, the special forces regiment named after Ahmat Kadyrov (known as the “North” regiment), and the “South” special forces battalion.
Since 2016, information on the size and structure of the Russian National Guard (Rosguard) has been classified and is kept secret. However, two sources interviewed by us, who previously worked in Chechen law enforcement, claim that the total number of Kadyrovtsy (forces loyal to the leader of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov) in the Republic reaches 16-18 thousand people.
Demonstrating that these are “his” security forces, Kadyrov regularly organizes spectacular events with them and “checks their combat readiness”. To make these inspections look impressive, “extras” are involved – employees of budget organizations and activists of youth associations in Chechnya. And for media support, local journalists are brought in: the republican press ministry gives them instructions on what and how to shoot.
According to Kit’s data, key units of the Chechen Rosguard were sent to fight in Ukraine: SOBR “Ahmat”, OMON (both republican and transportation), units “South” and “North”, as well as a part of the “oil battalion”.
But not only Rosgvardiya employees are sent from Chechnya to the front, but also volunteers who are not affiliated with the power structures. They are recruited, including through the internet. Back in April, ads appeared on social media about recruitment for a “special operation for de-Nazification” with the same phone numbers for contact. For example, they were posted on the “Volunteers of Chechnya” channel on Telegram and the “Sevastopol in VKontakte” public group.
The last one states that you can sign up to be a volunteer right at the Mayor’s Office in Grozny: men with Russian citizenship from 20 to 50 years old are eligible – apparently, residents from any region of the country can go to war “from Chechnya”. The authors of the announcement do not hide the fact that they do not conclude official contracts, but instead pay out 300,000 rubles in cash. Then, 10 days of military training – and you can go to the front “together with the fighters of the Chechen battalion”. “We do not consider you as ‘cannon fodder’,” the message says.
However, not all Chechen “volunteers” go to the front voluntarily. Several sources of “Caucasian Knot” in the republic said that employees of some budget institutions in Chechnya – in particular, the Grozny “Vodokanal” – were forced to sign up as “volunteers”. In addition, the publication “Caucasian Realities” reported with reference to local human rights defenders that residents of various districts of the republic were being detained en masse for compulsory dispatch to the war. And the Chechen human rights association Vayfond reported dozens of messages from Chechen men who asked for help to leave Russia, as they were being prepared for dispatch to Ukraine.
Ramzan Kadyrov himself calls the Chechen law enforcement officers “volunteers,” which creates confusion – as a result, all Chechens in the war are considered Kadyrov’s people by default. This is a mistake, explains Oleg Orlov, the head of the “Hot Spots” program at the Memorial human rights center.
In reality, the military personnel from Chechnya in Ukraine are divided into the so-called guardia (i.e. experienced soldiers who are better protected) and regular conscripts (who are more commonly used as “disposable material”).
How many people did Chechnya send to fight?
And what do their relatives say?
There is no exact data on the number of people who went to fight in Ukraine from Chechnya.
Ramzan Kadyrov announced in his Telegram channel on February 26 that there were 12,000 “fighters ready to go to Ukraine.” A month later, he announced another 10,000 people “from among the law enforcement officers of Chechnya.”
According to the published videos, several thousand military personnel were really gathered in Grozny every day. However, it is unknown how many of them were actually transferred to Ukraine, notes Dmitry Kuznetsov, the editor of the “Analysis” section of the “Meduza” publication, who analyzes the military operations in Ukraine since the beginning of the war. He remembers that since then, some “volunteer” units of several hundred people each have also been sent to the front. However, it is difficult to say where they are now and how many there are.
In turn, the advisor to the head of the Ukrainian president’s office, Alexei Arestovich, estimated the total number of migrants from the Caucasus Republics in Ukraine to be around 25,000 people, of whom no less than 5,000 were killed or injured. Arestovich had difficulty saying what proportion of them were specifically from the Chechen Republic.
On May 15th, the Main Intelligence Directorate (GUR) of Ukraine counted 2425 Chechen soldiers who have stayed in Ukraine for some time and have already left the country. Among them, 92 people died, 288 were injured, and over 60 left the units and left without permission, notes the Ukrainian intelligence.
The lists of the Main Intelligence Directorate include the names, dates of birth, and addresses of Chechen military personnel, as well as the dates they left the territory of Ukraine. Some surnames are accompanied by contact details of the men themselves and their relatives. There is also a “status” column: “wounded,” “killed,” “ill.”
All persons on the lists are marked as “volunteers”. However, in the “Unit” column next to the names, “MVD”, “Rosgvardiya”, “EMERCOM” and “City Hall” are indicated (presumably, we are talking about “volunteers” who have completed documents at the Grozny city hall). The dates of departure of units were obtained by intercepting phone conversations, Kit told in the office of the President of Ukraine. They refused to provide further comments.
We called several phone numbers listed. A relative of one of the mentioned individuals (we do not name military personnel at the request of their families) confirmed that this man had gone to fight in Ukraine voluntarily and was indeed killed. “Yes, he died there. Acquaintances called from there (from Ukraine.) and said that snipers shot at him,” he said, adding that he personally went from Chechnya to retrieve the body in Rostov. According to him, the deceased had been on Ukrainian territory for about two weeks and periodically “called, said he was alive and that everything was normal – nothing else.”
The mother of another man from the list (next to his name it says “MVD”) also confirmed to Kit that he died in Ukraine. “On the night of April 6th, we were informed [that he had died], they said they were already bringing him, that he had died. And they brought him to our village by ambulance. He died on April 4th, as we were told, from a sniper shot,” the woman said.
According to her words, her son called her the day before his death, on April 3, and said that “in the morning they are going to Mariupol”: “When I asked where he was calling from, he said he didn’t know. He didn’t say anything else.” When asked if the deceased had served in the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the woman replied that he was “in the Kadyrovtsy forces.” But the son did not tell the woman any details about where exactly he was serving and as part of which brigade.
Another woman mentioned in the lists of the Main Intelligence Directorate as a relative of the wounded person confirmed information and the fact of the injury during the hostilities in Ukraine. She refused to make any further comments. And the brother of another wounded person confirmed both his own name and the name of the relative from the lists of the Main Intelligence Directorate. But after being asked about his brother’s participation in hostilities in Ukraine, he hung up.
How do the Kadyrovtsy (Chechen forces loyal to Ramzan Kadyrov) wage war?
And do they have their own combat “style”?
Chechen military does not have heavy weaponry, explains to us by the editor of the “Analysis” section of the “Meduza” publication, Dmitry Kuznets. The Russian National Guard has D-30 howitzers and mortars, but tanks and other heavy artillery, necessary in this war, are absent from the National Guard, he continues.
Therefore, like the rest of the units involved in Ukraine, the Chechen military only plays a supporting role. The battles are fought at long distances – distances of artillery fire, and a distance of several kilometers is usually maintained between the warring parties. Structures without artillery are poorly adapted to this – not only the Rosgvardiya, but also, for example, the battalions of the Ukrainian defense.
Such light infantry is more useful for clearing rear areas, defending areas where there is no artillery combat, and interacting with the civilian population, notes Kuznetsov. The Main Intelligence Directorate of Ukraine came to a similar conclusion. According to their information, Kadyrovites were in the second echelon of the Russian army’s offensive – in particular, they searched homes and “stopped retreating Russian units”. All of this has a distinctive “Chechen” style – cruelty and ignoring the “rules of war.” This can be judged from the materials of independent media about Hostomel, Bucha, Borodyanka, and Irpen, where Chechen soldiers were spotted.
The leadership of the Ministry of Defense is not pleased with the Chechen military “style”, says a source close to the presidential administration. “They [the Chechen military] did not coordinate with anyone, moved chaotically, citing orders from Kadyrov himself and his entourage. They looked formidable, but fighting specifically with the army [of Ukraine], rather than with terrorists [inside the republic], did not work out very well for them,” he said.
There are complaints about Chechen military personnel from the leadership of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR). The commander of the DPR’s “Vostok” battalion, Alexander Khodakovsky, expressed his opinion on the Kadyrovtsy he encountered on the Mariupol direction in his Telegram channel, stating: “It’s a mixture of all republican police agencies, not prepared and equipped in accordance with the tasks.” However, Khodakovsky later had to apologize for his words in the best Chechen traditions: after the arrival of one of Kadyrov’s closest associates, State Duma deputy from “United Russia” Adam Delimkhanov, the combatant called the Chechens “knowledgeable people” and, on camera, said “Ahmat is power.”
It is difficult to verify how well the Chechen military knows their job: unlike many other units of the Russian Guard involved in Ukraine, the Chechens have never made major mistakes, notes Dmitry Kuznetsov. Some units of the Russian Guard accidentally ended up on the front line – and, given the peculiarities of their equipment, this ended badly (for example, with burned columns of vehicles). That is, either the Chechen Russian Guard is used with great caution, or its reconnaissance works well, Kuznetsov concludes.
Another source close to the AP, Kit, emphasizes that Chechen formations “spend a lot of time on PR, but they have few roles in the fights.” And indeed, compared to other Russian units in Ukraine, Kadyrov’s men have their own media group, which shoots staged battles, says Dmitry Kuznetsov. Ramzan Kadyrov actively shares these videos in his Telegram channel.
The staged filming began in the same place where a unit of Chechen Rosgvardiya had been stationed since the end of February, to the west of Kiev. Then they went to Mariupol and filmed in the Left Bank district of the city. “The main part of the content was prepared in the village of Bezimennoe and in the settlement of Sartana: they organized shootouts and filmed so-called headquarters events in the building of the House of Culture – they leaned over the map, drew arrows on it. At that time, it was, so to speak, the rear area, relatively safe,” says Kuznetsov. Ramzan Kadyrov also visited Bezimennoe, which is located a few kilometers from the Russian border.
The media group visited the “liberated villages” in Luhansk People’s Republic and, together with a film crew from LNR, talked about how they “liberated” everything, put up Chechen flags – despite the fact that Kadyrov’s fighters did not participate in the battles. For example, in the city of Popasnaya in Luhansk region, the key role in the fighting was played by fighters from the Wagner PMC.
“Not even professional soldiers, but ordinary journalists see that these are staged videos. They move in the third or fourth echelon – to be filmed, to depict something. In separate combat episodes, not particularly tense, they take part,” said the advisor to the head of the Ukrainian presidential office, Alexei Arestovich, characterizing the conduct of combat operations by Kadyrov’s troops in an interview with Meduza.
Therefore, it is very difficult to understand how effective the Kadyrovtsy are in military operations. The content that the media group actively produces and shows on social media is not related to the real participation of the Kadyrovtsy in combat. It is completely virtual and therefore looks comical, says Kuznetsov. “It’s not very clear who they’re doing it for. Probably for accountability to the Chechen people. It’s some kind of ‘TikTok’ war, which is very different from what’s actually happening on the battlefield. From their videos, you can only judge that Russian troops have already taken control of some village,” he continues.
“The TikTok troops” confuse us, Kuznetsov sums up. “From the videos, it may seem that the Kadyrovtsy are complete idiots and incapable of anything, but in reality we don’t know anything about it. Maybe it’s true, maybe not. In my opinion, they haven’t had any loud failures. There haven’t been any loud successes either, but the specific nature of the unit – the lack of heavy weaponry – does not allow for loud victories on the front,” he believes.
Chechen military personnel nevertheless participate in real battles. And this can be judged by some video recordings posted on the Internet: they show how heavily wounded Chechens are taken away under bombardment (for example, in Mariupol or Rubizhne). What is happening in these videos really resembles a real battle.
Dmitry Kuznets from “Meduza” highlights three directions in which Chechen military truly fought (and this is confirmed by Ukrainian intelligence data).
In the western part of the Kyiv region.
The Kadyrovtsy followed the paratroopers who took Gostomel and Bucha and were present in all the villages around. “There, the Chechens took part in military operations, they were attacked and constantly shelled by the Ukrainian side. They participated quite actively there, but again, in their role – in the rear, not on the front line. Since the rear was relative there, they had losses,” comments Kuznetsov. At the same time, the media group was filming their “TikTok videos,” which flooded social networks in late February and March.
Ukrainian refugees reported that Chechen immigrants guard the checkpoints at the exit from Mariupol. In particular, Timur Rudov, a captain of a sea vessel, recorded a conversation with the Chechens guarding the checkpoint as he was leaving the city as a refugee (the video is no longer available on his YouTube channel). Based on this information, it can be concluded that Chechen light infantry participated in the fighting for Mariupol.
In the city of Rubizhne in the Luhansk region.
Chechen troops were transferred from Mariupol to Rubizhne in mid-April. According to Dmitry Kuznetsov, all videos with wounded Chechens and real battles were filmed in this city. There were really heavy fights going on there. Chechen units participated in pushing Ukrainian forces out of the city, block by block. Light infantry is necessary for urban combat, to occupy buildings and fight at short distances. However, not only Chechens but also LNR forces and probably other Russian troops fought from the Russian side in Rubizhne. Therefore, it is difficult to assess the contribution of Chechen military specifically, Kuznetsov emphasizes.
How does the Kremlin view Kadyrov’s behavior?
And why has the head of Chechnya already won?
When the Russian-Ukrainian negotiations began, Ramzan Kadyrov became their main public critic in power.
At the end of March, the head of the Russian delegation and assistant to the president, Vladimir Medinsky, announced a “de-escalation in the Kiev and Chernigov directions.” Kadyrov did not like this at all: “We will not make any concessions, Mr. Medinsky made a mistake and formulated it incorrectly.”
On the same day, the head of Chechnya gathered local security officials in Grozny and declared that “we need to go into Kiev and take Kiev.” The call hung in the air – Russian troops from the Kiev and Chernigov directions did indeed withdraw.
Received criticism from Kadyrov; presidential press secretary Dmitry Peskov, whom the head of Chechnya criticized for having “an immature priority scale” and a faulty understanding of patriotism, and also noted that “something needs to be done about it.” Peskov responded, but quite softly, and his response cannot be called symmetrical.
A source close to AP explains the current activity of the head of Chechnya as follows: “Kadyrov has sufficient independence – he can verbally attack officials of the middle and higher levels without crossing the line – for example, making physical threats. He cannot touch high-ranking persons such as [Prime Minister Mikhail] Mishustin or [Mayor of Moscow Sergey] Sobyanin, and probably wouldn’t dare to do so himself.”
Another source close to the Kremlin says that the government finds this situation convenient. “Kadyrov is a ‘bad guy’. Officials can always point out that he speaks for himself, that this is a special region, but not the policy of the country as a whole. If Kadyrov’s position coincides with the official position, as it was at the beginning of the war, it is a plus for him. He would like there to be more such coincidences, but often does not feel the president’s mood,” he explains.
At the beginning of the war, Putin really liked the image of Chechen troops in Ukraine that Kadyrov actively promoted on the internet. The president spoke approvingly of the actions of the republican military and awarded Adam Delimkhanov the title of Hero of Russia. “At that time, [presidential administration head Anton] Vaino spoke very respectfully, almost breathlessly, about Ramzan,” claims one of sources close to the presidential administration.
But recently Putin, generally dissatisfied with the course of military operations, is no longer satisfied with Kadyrov and his troops, sources say. Dissatisfaction is fueled by the military and intelligence services: the former is unhappy that Kadyrov’s men are trying to present themselves as superior fighters compared to ordinary soldiers; the latter has long been uneasy with Kadyrov’s independence and “unrestrained behavior”.
But the head of Chechnya has long been in a special position within the government – he is allowed to do things that are not allowed to anyone else in the country, says Oleg Orlov, the head of the “Hot Spots” program at the Memorial Human Rights Center. He disagrees with the common opinion that Kadyrov is uncontrollable. According to Orlov, he is quite manageable, just not in the same way as other officials and law enforcement officers in Russia. Kadyrov is personally controlled by Putin – and no one else, explains the human rights defender. This is why the head of Chechnya calls himself Putin’s infantryman.
Putin is deliberately keeping Kadyrov in this status, believes Orlov: “Like any dictator, Putin needs someone to rely on. His main support is the security forces in various capacities. And like any dictator, Putin needs restraints and counterweights within this security component. Kadyrov is one of the cards in Putin’s deck. Putin benefits from having another security agency that opposes many other security officers.”
Kadyrov periodically tries to expand his powers – and has been doing so since he was appointed head of the republic. The Kremlin puts pressure on him, Kadyrov backs off – only to start again after some time, says Orlov.
So there is nothing new in the behavior of the head of Chechnya that we’re witnessing now, he underscores. Firstly, Kadyrov has long been active on social media and other public platforms (or rather, his PR managers are active – Kadyrov’s own speeches are bewildering in terms of their level of inarticulateness). Secondly, he is not the first time allowing himself sharp statements towards the same Peskov. Thirdly, Kadyrov has always tried to extend his influence beyond Chechnya to the North Caucasus. And finally, fourthly, he has previously sought to play on the federal field by attacking the opposition. The history of the murder of one of the opposition leaders, Boris Nemtsov, in which, Orlow is sure, people from the power structures controlled by Kadyrov were involved, was one of such attempts to expand influence.
The invasion of Ukraine has given Kadyrov new opportunities, according to the human rights activist. The head of Chechnya once again criticizes Peskov, speaks out as a radical “Putinist” and one of the leaders of the “war party” – thereby further strengthening his influence at the federal level. Now he is no longer just the king of one of the vassal entities of the Russian Empire in the North Caucasus, but a federal politician, explains Orlov.
“All participation of Chechens in Ukraine is disproportionately influential on the fighting compared to the attention given to it in the media. And he does it consciously. This is colossal PR! In this sense, his PR campaign is very successful – he has won it,” concludes the human rights activist.
During the war, the audience of Kadyrov’s Telegram channel grew by more than twice – from one million to 2.3 million subscribers.
In one of his recent videos, Kadyrov essentially appealed to Putin to turn over to him control of some Ukrainian territories in the event of their capture: “If the president orders a change of power and to put decent people there – it’s easier than easy. This is our level, regional, if we are entrusted – we would quickly create normal conditions.”
Orlov does not exclude that this is possible. “In the current situation, in this essentially feudal empire that Putin has built, within the framework of this peculiar feudalism, it is quite possible to give some territories and enterprises to an important vassal,” he says.
Orlov is convinced that in the future, it will be difficult to resolve the “Kadyrov issue”. “As long as Vladimir Putin remains in power, the levers of pressure on Kadyrov exist. But when Putin leaves, there will be a problem. One of the complaints against Putin’s regime is that he has laid a large number of mines for the future of Russia. And Kadyrov, as he is now, is one of those mines,” he says.
In turn, one of sources close to the Kremlin, who discussed Kadyrov with FSB officers and military officials, says that “FSB employees, especially older ones, and army generals are mostly convinced that the issue with Kadyrov can be resolved in a way that he will no longer demand attention and irritate.” According to him, “the people in Chechnya will not stand up for him, he has loyal battalions – but all of this is suppressible.”
Oleg Orlov draws a line under these arguments. “With any transit of power, now one will have to somehow reckon with this figure,” he says.