There are two narratives that have come out about Chechen involvement in the conflict in Ukraine. I’d like to briefly look at these and discuss their significance.
The first narrative we are hearing is that the Vostok and Zapad Battalions are still active, and are being used again as they were in the 2008 conflict in South Ossetia.
The Vostok (East) Battalion has a long and rather checkered history in the annals of Chechnya. The faction was formed in 1999 out of a previously existing Chechen fighting force that had been loyal to Aslan Maskhadov’s Ichkerian government. The goal was to essentially co-opt former separatist fighters into a group loyal to the Kremlin. Both they and the Zapad (West) Battalion were directly subordinated to the GRU, the intelligence arm of Russia’s Ministry of Defense. The groups operated on the territory of the Chechen Republic.
The move was only partially successful, however. The Vostok Battalion was led by the powerful Yamadaev family. Sulim Yamadaev was the official commander of the battalion. Under the Yamadaevs, the group was turned into a heavily armed gang that operated independently, with little or no oversight from the Russians. Human rights groups accused them of perpetuating kidnappings, murders, and other atrocities in the early 2000s.
Over time, as the Vostok battalion became more influential, it expanded its area of operations. The group was active not only in Chechnya, but also in business disputes in St Petersburg. They were even sent to Lebanon as “peacekeepers” in 2006.
Meanwhile, back in Chechnya, a power struggle emerged as Ramzan Kadyrov moved to take control of the republic. In April 2008, armed conflict broke out between the Yamadaevs’ people and Kadyrov’s people. Sulim Yamadaev eventually left Chechnya in disgrace, and on the run as a wanted man.
Yamadaev’s Vostok Battalion also played a role in the 2008 Russo-Georgian War. And they did not hide the fact. Video footage played on Russian television showing their involvement:
A man named only “Khamzat” was the alleged leader of the group. Khamzat was later identified as Khamzat Gairbekov, the unit’s intel chief (h/t @NoahSneider).
On 5 March, the Ukrainians alleged that the Vostok battalion was alive and well, and operating in Crimea.
An article by Reuters also alleged Chechen involvement in the Crimea takeover. A young Chechen man who said he was a member of the Zapad Battalion, were sent to Yevpatoria in the middle of March, and stayed there for two weeks.
He said that he and about 200 other soldiers from his special battalion, containing ethnic Chechens, were mobilized on March 12 and spent two weeks in the Crimean city of Yevpatoria.
Vostok’s Khamzat Gairbekov allegedly appeared again in Slaviansk, Donestsk region in mid-April.
However, some intrepid reporting by TIME’s Simon Shuster revealed that Gairbekov was not in fact in Donetsk .
This was after a long piece by the New York Times asserted that the man in side-by-side photos was Gairbekov.
Simon Shuster has done enough to refute these claims, but there is another narrative that is also playing out with regards to Chechen involvement in the armed conflict in Ukraine.
According to a report [rus] out of Chechnya [eng] that young men are being coerced by Kadyrov’s people into going to fight in Ukraine. In addition, recruitment centers are being opened around the republic.
Kadyrov immediately took to Instagram [ru] to refute this report, but his denial was less than convincing, to say the least.
Meanwhile, videos are still being posted on YouTube alleging Chechen involvement in the conflict. Here are a few offerings:
1. Dancing the Lezginka in Crimea
2. Video of masked man claiming 300 Chechen volunteers are in Donetsk
Obviously these videos are not definitive proof. The only thing that can be said for sure about the first video is that men in uniform are dancing in the snow on a dock. And the masked men in the second video could be anybody.
I will keep updating as I learn more because this is a story that is almost certainly not going to go away as the conflict progresses.