Just two days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine was launched, Ramzan Kadyrov, president of Russia’s Chechen Republic, announced his forces were deployed to the battlefield.
Since then, Chechnya’s leader has posted on social media regular updates and videos of Chechen soldiers allegedly participating in military and humanitarian activities on Ukrainian territory.
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On March 14, he uploaded a video of himself in a room full of soldiers, saying he was with Chechen forces near the capital, Kyiv. The claim was not independently verified and Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said he had “no information” about Kadyrov being in Ukraine.
This was not the first time Chechen forces have been deployed to conflicts the Russian army has participated in. They also took part in the 2008 war in Georgia, the first phase of the conflict in Ukraine in 2014-15, and the Syrian war.
Observers, however, say despite their reputation as fierce fighters, Chechen forces sent to Ukraine have not played a significant role on the battlefield. Their presence has been perceived as a public relations exercise, one that reflects both Kadyrov’s own political posturing and the Kremlin’s propaganda needs.
Who is Ramzan Kadyrov?
Kadyrov came to power in 2007, three years after his father, former Chechen President Akhmad Kadyrov, was assassinated. The two fought in the first Chechen War (1994-96) on the side of pro-independence forces but in the Second Chechen War (1999-2000) switched sides and helped the Russian army defeat them. As a result, Chechnya lost its short-lived independence and became one of the regions of the Russian Federation.
Since coming to power, Kadyrov has stamped out political opposition and curbed human rights and freedoms. He has been accused of ordering torture and extrajudicial killings. A string of assassinations of Russian journalists and human rights activists have been linked to Chechnya, including the killing of Anna Politkovskaya in 2006 and Nataliya Estemirova in 2009, both of whom had criticised Kadyrov.
A number of his Chechen critics who had sought asylum abroad have also been attacked and some killed, including Sulim Yamadayev, a former Chechen military commander, and Kadyrov’s former bodyguard Umar Israilov.
In 2017, the United States imposed sanctions on the Chechen president over his human rights record. The Treasury Department also linked him to the 2015 assassination of Boris Nemtsov, a prominent opposition leader and critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Kadyrov’s heavy-handed repression in Chechnya has drawn little reaction from Moscow. According to Russian journalist and political commentator Konstantin von Eggert, this is because of the political arrangement Putin struck with Kadyrov.
“Russia did not win the two Chechen wars. Russia was defeated,” Eggert said. “[There was] an unofficial understanding that Russia is going to finance Chechnya … and is going to leave Chechnya to manage its own affairs in exchange for peace.”
Throughout his 15-year tenure as Chechnya’s president, Kadyrov has presented himself as a guarantor of peace, cracking down on separatists and launching “anti-terrorism” operations. He has also regularly demonstrated his devotion to Putin in his rhetoric and political activity.
“The role of Kadyrov since he became president has been to show loyalty to Putin … and to serve as a boogeyman, a constant threat to Putin’s enemies,” Eggert said.
In return, the Chechen Republic has enjoyed significant subsidies from the Russian federal government, going as high as 87 percent of its budget, which have not been reduced even when austerity measures were imposed in the past.
Federal funds have also regularly gone into the Akhmad Kadyrov Fund, along with mandatory monthly contributions from the salaries of Chechen state and private company employees. The fund, which has been sanctioned by the US Treasury, is seen as Kadyrov’s financial tool and has been used for a variety of personal projects, including allegedly paying Western actors to attend his birthday.
‘Kadyrovtsy’ in Ukraine
The deployment of Chechen troops to Ukraine has been yet another act of loyalty from Kadyrov towards the Kremlin. In his February 26 video, he said: “The president took the right decision and we will carry out his orders under any circumstances.”
Kadyrov has claimed that Chechen volunteers ready to go to Ukraine are in the tens of thousands. A report from Russian state broadcaster RT reported some 12,000 Chechen troops were prepared to deploy to Ukraine, but there has been no confirmation of how many are actually on the ground.
According to Harold Chambers, a North Caucasus analyst, Chechen forces linked to Kadyrov – also known as “Kadyrovtsy” – were part of the convoy that headed to Kyiv and are also in the besieged city Mariupol.
“The Kadyrovtsy in Ukraine have been given conventional objectives (ie, neutralising Ukrainian leadership, counterinsurgency, stopping desertion), while playing a crucial part in Putin’s initial psychological warfare campaign,” Chambers told Al Jazeera.
Although Kadyrov has said Chechen forces are participating in the fighting, the claim has been challenged by Russian-backed separatists and some observers.
In a March 15 post on social media, Igor Girkin, a former commander of Russian-backed separatist forces in Donetsk, said Chechen soldiers had not participated in the fighting in Mariupol. In a March 16 interview, Alexander Khodakovsky, commander of the Vostok battalion, part of the Donetsk separatist forces, said Chechen soldiers came to Mariupol ill-equipped.
“They showed up all wrapped up, pretty, bearded, dressed up … I looked around – light armoured vehicles. They had no support means,” Khodakovsky said.
Ruslan Leviev, founder of the Conflict Intelligence Team, a research collective that uses open-source data to map out Russian military activity, told Al Jazeera he has seen no evidence of Chechen forces participating in fighting.
“They stand behind the front line and do ‘pretty videos’, shouting ‘Akhmat – Strength!’ and ‘Allahu Akbar!’” he said.
Other Chechen forces are in Ukraine that have joined the Ukrainian side. They are part of the Dzhokhar Dudayev and Sheikh Mansur volunteer battalions, which were also engaged in fighting in eastern Ukraine in 2014-15. They are made up of Chechens who openly oppose Kadyrov, but according to Chambers, have not directly faced “Kadyrovtsy” on the front line so far.
The Dzhokhar Dudayev battalion is likely deployed to fight in the east, while Sheikh Mansur fighters are part of the forces protecting Kyiv, he said.
Apart from claiming various military successes, Kadyrov has also posted on social media about Chechen soldiers distributing humanitarian aid, which he said had been bought with money from the Akhmad fund.
“There is a clear communication or PR task which is implemented by Chechen troops in Ukraine,” Grigory Shvedov, chief editor of Caucasus-focused Kavkazkiy Uzel media outlet, told Al Jazeera.
In his opinion, the deployment of Chechen forces to Ukraine is a chance for Kadyrov to demonstrate his usefulness after violence and insecurity in the North Caucasus declined in recent years, and the large subsidies Chechnya receives from the federal budget started to appear unjustified.
This comes as sanctions imposed on Russia as a result of the invasion are putting a significant strain on its federal budget and may undermine its ability to distribute funding to regional governments, including the Chechen one.
Kadyrov’s strategy of demonstrating loyalty and enthusiasm for the war seems to be working, particularly as reports have emerged that parts of the Russian political establishment and economic elite have opposed the invasion.
On March 16, during a meeting to discuss economic support for Russia’s federal regions, which Kadyrov attended along with other regional heads, Putin turned and thanked him for his service, adding “say hello to your guys”.
“This shows that this PR is not only a [Chechen] initiative, but something which is demanded from the highest level,” Shvedov said.
Apart from using Kadyrov’s communications tactics in the effort to win the information war at home and abroad, the Kremlin may soon resort to some of his other political strategies. According to Shvedov, the war in Ukraine is likely to increase the need for oppressive social control in Russia.
“The Chechenisation of Russian society after this tragedy in Ukraine will only increase. And it is not only repression itself, but also the use of power to build legitimacy,” he said. “We are already seeing [this] and the only question is how far it would go.”
You can follow Mariya Petkova on Twitter @mkpetkova