Russia Tries to Terrorize Ukraine With Images of Chechen Soldiers

Moscow is exploiting stereotypes of Chechen brutality.

By , a journalist based in Toronto.
A Chechen special force trooper sits atop an armored personnel carrier in the town of Gudermes, Chechnya.
A Chechen special force trooper sits atop an armored personnel carrier in the town of Gudermes, Chechnya.
A Chechen special force trooper sits atop an armored personnel carrier decorated with a portrait of former Chechen President Akhmad Kadyrov, the father of current Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, in the town of Gudermes, Chechnya, on July 25, 2019. Alexander Nemenov/AFP via Getty Images

Putin’s War

Thousands of Chechens mobilizing south of Ukraine. Hundreds of Chechen fighters praying in the forest before battle. Dozens of Chechen special forces handed playing cards bearing the names and photos of their intended targets. Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya’s brutal leader, making a defiant promise to seize Kyiv.

These are the images being broadcast by Russian propaganda channels, leveraging the very presence of Chechen soldiers in Ukraine as a psychological weapon against Ukrainians.

Moscow’s weaponization of Chechen fighters, trading on stereotypes about the Chechens themselves, is part of its propaganda campaign to attempt to force Kyiv’s surrender—efforts that have, thus far, spectacularly backfired.

Thousands of Chechens mobilizing south of Ukraine. Hundreds of Chechen fighters praying in the forest before battle. Dozens of Chechen special forces handed playing cards bearing the names and photos of their intended targets. Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya’s brutal leader, making a defiant promise to seize Kyiv.

These are the images being broadcast by Russian propaganda channels, leveraging the very presence of Chechen soldiers in Ukraine as a psychological weapon against Ukrainians.

Moscow’s weaponization of Chechen fighters, trading on stereotypes about the Chechens themselves, is part of its propaganda campaign to attempt to force Kyiv’s surrender—efforts that have, thus far, spectacularly backfired.

Russian state propaganda, and a network of pro-Kremlin Telegram channels that have been used to pump out information warfare mirroring the ongoing assault, has claimed that anywhere between 10,000 and 70,000 Chechen fighters—which Kadyrov has described as “volunteers”—are set to depart for Ukraine to bolster Moscow’s main forces.

Those numbers are likely significant overestimates, but Chechens have certainly arrived. The journalist Neil Hauer reported that Chechens may have landed at the Antonov airport, west of Kyiv. Images have emerged of special forces raising the Chechen flag in the nearby town of Hostomel. Armored personnel carriers emblazoned with the white letter V—in contrast to Russian vehicles, which carry a Z—were seen racing down roads consistent with the surrounding area. Video of Chechen fighters perusing weapons and vehicles in a captured Ukrainian supply depot, from Saturday, were shared widely.

Yet a small contingent of Chechen fighters on the outskirts of Kyiv isn’t quite what was promised by pro-Kremlin propaganda. Images of hundreds of Ukrainian fighters standing amid trees prompted the Daily Mail, citing Telegram channels linked to the Russian security services, to proclaim that they were “hunters,” given decks of cards with photos of their intended targets.

Russian perception of Chechnya is colored by the brutal war between forces loyal to Moscow and Chechen separatists, which ran off and on from the mid-1990s to 2009. More recently, Kadyrov launched a vicious crackdown on LGBTQ people in Chechnya that went far beyond measures taken anywhere else in Putin’s socially conservative Russia. Despite Kadyrov’s role as a faithful Putin lieutenant, anti-Chechen sentiment is still rife in the region: Violent clashes between ethnic Chechens and Russians have been reported over the past two decades. Putin’s repeated use of Chechen special forces to fight his wars has bolstered their fearsome image.

That’s no accident, said Jean-François Ratelle, who teaches at the University of Ottawa and is an expert on Russia and the Caucasus.

“The [psychological operation] is about making people believe that what happened in Chechnya will happen in Ukraine—that they’ll rampage the city, loot, rape, and kill,” he said.

But, he stresses, “obviously it will not happen.”

Images of those supposed kill teams have circulated for days. “I don’t see any proof that they are ready to storm, or be used in, Kyiv,” Ratelle said.

The idea that Chechens are particularly fierce and ruthless is a carefully manicured ethos, he added.

“Kadyrov makes it easy,” Ratelle said. “Because he will say anything on TV.”

In the weeks before Putin declared war, Kadyrov, a Chechen warlord and close ally of the Russian leader, was one of the most vocal advocates for not only launching a military operation against Kyiv but for annexing the entire country.

The psychological warfare fits neatly into broader Russian efforts to end the invasion of Ukraine before it had even really begun. It doesn’t seem to be working particularly well, however. The pace of fighting in Ukraine suggests Russia expected significantly less resistance than it has actually encountered, an assessment shared by Western intelligence.

Ratelle said, for all the show, the Chechen contingent may be significantly less important than the Kremlin would have Ukraine believe. Beyond the fighters who have arrived north of Kyiv, there are known to be two Chechen battalions stationed in Crimea.

If the war drags on, however, and Kyiv descends into urban warfare, things may change. “Chechens have been known to be extremely brutal in counterinsurgency—not respecting international law,” Ratelle said. “Even more than Russian contractors.”

There remain deep divisions in Chechnya about Russian rule. Ratelle, who has spent time in the Caucasus with Islamist insurgents fighting Putin’s regime, said not all Chechens are behind the Russian lines.

“We’ve seen fighting between Chechens, against Chechens in eastern Ukraine in the last couple of days,” he said.

Exiled Chechens opposed to Kadyrov and Putin have seized opportunities in recent years to take the fight to the Kremlin abroad: in Syria, Donetsk, and now in the rest of Ukraine.

On Saturday evening, Akhmed Zakayev, who leads the Chechen separatist government in exile, delivered a statement announcing his intent to form volunteer detachments of Chechens living abroad to fight alongside the Ukrainian government, according to a video posted by the news outlet Egazet. It is estimated there are around 150,000 Chechens living in Europe. But, Ratelle said, Zakayev’s announced support for Kyiv might not mean much due to his limited influence in the diaspora.

For now, even in the areas where the Chechen fighters have made gains, Ukrainian security forces have stalled their attacks. Images posted to pro-Ukrainian channels have shown Chechen tanks, branded with the telltale V, smoldering on the side of the road. Videos taken elsewhere in the country—likely from the northeast, where snow is still on the ground—showed the bodies of fighters purportedly from the Caucasus.

On Saturday afternoon, the Kyiv Independent journalist Illia Ponomarenko and the UNIAN news agency reported that Magomed Tushayev, a prominent Chechen military leader, had been killed in battle in Hostomel. On his own Telegram channel, however, Kadyrov disputed that Tushayev had been killed. He uploaded a video purporting to show Tushayev with Anzor Bisaev, another Chechen commander who was in Ukraine. “They are more alive than the living,” he wrote.

Kadyrov further suggested that none of his forces had even been injured in the fighting.

Justin Ling is a journalist based in Toronto.

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