For more than a year, Chechens, Muslims from southwestern Russia, have been fighting on both sides of Ukraine’s struggle against Russian occupation.
The undeniably frank reason one anti-Russia militiaman recently gave The New York Times? “We always fight the Russians.”
The Chechens have had a long and tense relationship with Russia’s central government, alternatively fighting for independence and courting special favor from the rulers in Moscow. When Russia annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea in March 2014, it once again gave Chechens a reason to push back against Russian overreach. (RELATED: Muslim Polygamy Is Russia’s Hottest Political Debate)
Chechnya is more than 600 miles away from Ukraine. So for Chechens to be traveling there at all, and hoping to settle their grudges, is surprising.
As early as May 2014, Chechen fighters were appearing on both sides of the fight in Ukraine. President Vladimir Putin’s hand-picked head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, has denied any pro-Russian involvement by his own Chechen forces. But fighters on the ground claimed that they were, in fact, acting on Kadyrov’s orders.
On the other side a battalion of volunteers, many of them veterans of Chechen-Russian conflicts taking back to the 1990s, are trying to keep Ukraine free of the Russian-backed rebels that control significant parts of the country. Besides the annexation of the Crimea to Russia, the rebels have also self-declared the “Donetsk People’s Republic” in eastern Ukraine, where everything from mailboxes to money are starting to resemble Russia.
According to Time Magazine, one of the first Chechen commanders in Ukraine was a rogue general, Isa Munaev, whose grudge with Russia dates back to Putin’s forceful crackdown on pro-independence fighters in 2000. Exiled in Denmark since 2006, Munaev saw Putin’s incursion into Ukraine as a perfect opportunity for revenge. (RELATED: What Russians Say About Life After Putin)
Just weeks after the conflict began, as Time puts it, “Munaev arrived in Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, with his suitcase of Chechen flags and patches.” He died in battle in February.
Besides the Chechens, the Ukrainian side has been forced to accept uncomfortable allegiances with anti-Russia militias that open embrace neo-Nazi imagery. Like the Muslim volunteers, these groups (which bear such names as “Right Sector” and “the Azov Group”) operate independently of the Ukrainian military or its American advisors.
But the more colorful warriors don’t bother the Chechens. The fighter who told The New York Times that “we like to fight the Russians” shrugged his shoulders when asked about the fascists. They get along just fine, he said, “because, like him, they love their homeland and hate the Russians.”
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