Footage of a firefight that surfaced on social media earlier this week appears to show an unusual group of combatants: Apparent Chechen volunteers fighting on the side of Ukraine against Russia.
CNN has geolocated and verified the authenticity of the video, which shows an RPG gunner at work amid an intense fusillade in the village of Velyka Dymerka, roughly 18 miles northeast of Kyiv.
This isn’t the only evidence of Chechens fighting in Ukraine. On Wednesday, Ramzan Kadyrov, the pro-Kremlin leader of the Chechen Republic – a region in Russia’s north Caucasus – posted a video of Chechen units engaged in street fighting against Ukrainian forces in the besieged port city of Mariupol.
In a commentary on his Telegram account, Kadyrov boasted that the Chechen commander on the scene – who was being interviewed by the Russian daily Izvestiya – had maintained heroic calm under fire.
“During the interview, a tank shell flew into the five-story building behind the back of the unsuspecting Timur Ibriev and exploded,” Kadyrov wrote. “A fragment hit one of the fighters, but got stuck in a weapon belt. The camera captured the Olympian calm and restraint of my dear BROTHER Timur. He didn’t flinch, he didn’t duck. You are proud of such cold-blooded and brave fighters!”
Telegram is Kadyrov’s preferred propaganda outlet: Since the launch of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine one month ago, Kadryrov has posted a stream of videos from the front lines crowing about the prowess of the Chechen soldiers fighting on behalf of Russian President Vladimir Putin. He also claimed to have been in Ukraine, just outside the capital – an assertion Ukrainian officials cast doubt on, prompting irate Telegram posts from Kadyrov.
Just days into the war, Kadyrov even urged the Russian military to take the gloves off and expand its offensive in Ukraine.
“The time has come to make a concrete decision and start a large-scale operation in all directions and territories of Ukraine,” Kadyrov said in a statement on his Telegram account. “I myself have repeatedly developed tactics and strategies against terrorists, participated in battles. In my understanding, the tactics chosen in Ukraine are too slow. It lasts a long time and, in my view, are not effective.”
There are several levels of irony here. Images of the devastated city of Mariupol are eerily reminiscent of Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, which was leveled by Russian forces in a brutal war that went through two phases in the mid-1990s and the early 2000s. And Kadyrov himself was once a guerrilla who fought against Russia before switching sides.
Kadyrov has been accused by international and independent observers of gross human rights violations in his home territory and beyond. He leads sizeable paramilitary forces that – while formally a part of Russian security structures – have personal loyalty to him.
Those troops, known as Kadyrovtsy, or Kadyrov’s men, have a fearsome reputation. During the Second Chechen War, which began in 1999 and coincided with the rise of Putin, Kadyrov’s men helped Moscow wrest control of the Chechen Republic from separatist rebels. They also earned a reputation for brutality, with investigative journalists and human rights researchers documenting a pattern of disappearances and extrajudicial killings by his forces.
But despite the fearsome reputation of Kadyrov’s Chechen fighters, their performance on the battlefield in Ukraine may have been mixed at best. A profanity-laced video of a shattered Russian column in the western Kyiv suburb of Bucha – posted on the official Telegram channel of the State Service for Special Communications and Information Protection of Ukraine – showed ruined vehicles that purportedly belonged to Kadyrov’s men.
And the Kadyrovtsy may find themselves facing other Chechens on battlefields in Ukraine. The Ukrainian politician who first published the video of the fighting in Velyka Dymerka claimed the men seen in action were Chechens who fled Russia’s war there, and were fighting on the side of Ukraine.
The exact details of such claim would be difficult to immediately verify. There is a sizeable Chechen population that fled the Russian Federation in the wake of the wars there. But there is also a significant Chechen diaspora in the Middle East, including the descendants of those who settled in parts of the Ottoman Empire following Russia’s conquest of the north Caucasus. Ukraine also has a significant population of Muslims of other ethnicities, some of whom have joined various Ukrainian military formations to fight against Russia and Russian proxies since 2014.
The fight at Velyka Dymerka may be a case of one such unit in action. Video of the firefight was posted on the Telegram channel that appears to belong to the Sheikh Mansur battalion, a group that originally formed as one of Ukraine’s volunteer units to fight pro-Russian separatists in 2014.
The video posted by the Sheikh Mansur battalion Telegram account suggests that Chechen fighters opposed to Russia – and to Kadyrov – are also intent on advertising their ability to fight.
“Unfortunately, during the attack, one of our fighters, who knows how to shoot video properly, fell ill and was not present in the battle,” the post said. “For this reason, not all of the video of the fight was filmed, but what was filmed was filmed in part on phones by some young fighters.”
How significant are these combatants are to the overall course of the war? That is open to debate. But Chechens on both sides appear to be waging a propaganda war in parallel with the fight on the ground.