The Chechens: Putin’s Loyal Foot Soldiers
Main Image Credit Reliable henchman: Vladimir Putin with Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov in 2018. Image: kremlin.ru / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0
The Chechen security forces are intended to secure Ramzan Kadyrov’s rule by providing force at home and in support of the Kremlin’s military operations. They can perform a valuable function for Russia on the battlefield.
On 12 September, Ramzan Kadyrov – the head of the Chechen Republic – announced that his ‘elite fighters’ had returned to Ukraine after a period of rest. He warned that they would deliver ‘excellent results’ on the front line and advised Ukrainian troops to carry a white cloth with them. The Chechen forces deployed to Ukraine were at the heart of some major events such as the attempted assassination of President Volodymyr Zelensky in March. Their reputation preceded them, and they were termed ‘elite’ and ‘battle hardened’. But is this reputation deserved? And what, if anything, do the Chechen forces offer the Russian military?
A Troubled Past
To understand the role that Chechnya’s forces play in the wider context of the Russian military, it is necessary to first examine the history of Chechnya since the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991. As the Soviet Union collapsed, the country disintegrated into 15 republics, the largest of which was Russia – itself made up of many nationalities. Some of them chose that moment to declare their independence from Russia, and Chechnya was one of the first to do so in 1991 under the leadership of Dzhokhar Dudayev. Dudayev pursued anti-Russian policies, which in turn prompted Russia to support Chechen proxies against him, resulting in a series of attempted coups between 1992 and 1994, from which Dudayev emerged successful.
In response, the Kremlin organised the Russia-led attempted coup and war in 1994. Dudayev was eventually killed by a Russian strike in 1996, and a peace treaty was signed between Russia and Chechnya in 1997, which has been interpreted as a de facto recognition of the republic’s independence. The republic became increasingly ungovernable, and its warlords grew closer to Wahabism. They began cross-border incursions into Dagestan, and a series of apartment bombings in Moscow in 1999 played into the Kremlin’s narrative that Chechnya was a threat to all of Russia, giving Vladimir Putin sufficient cause to launch the Second Chechen War from late 1999. At this point, Akhmad Kadyrov, reportedly tired of the warlords and alarmed at their turn to Islamic internationalism, pledged allegiance to the Kremlin and Putin, along with his son Ramzan Kadyrov.
The Kadyrovs fought on the side of the Russian forces that they had opposed in 1994, and by 2003 had collected a considerable faction of militias around themselves that became known as the ‘Kadyrovtsy’ or Kadyrovites. Akhmad Kadyrov was made president of Chechnya with relative freedom from Russia, and began consolidating his rule through collective punishment and amnesties for former warlords, who would often join the Kadyrovtsy. However, Akhmad Kadyrov was assassinated in 2004, leading to two interim presidents, Sergey Abramov and Alu Alkhanov, before Ramzan Kadyrov was appointed president of the Republic by Putin himself in 2007 and charged with defeating the insurgency. In return, Kadyrov and Chechnya began to receive considerable funding and freedom from the Kremlin, especially when compared with the other Russian republics. This provided the Kremlin with a route out of the unpopular war, and left Kadyrov indebted to Putin, as well as in personal control of a large personal militia.
Kadyrov’s forces amount to a private army. They technically fall within the chain of command of the Rosgvardia, Russia’s national guard, but are not subject to the same conditions as their federal counterparts. Instead, they are commanded entirely by Kadyrov, who has offered to send them to fight Putin’s wars in Syria and Ukraine. Their exact numbers are unclear, and different estimates have been given. In 2014, Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov (who was assassinated by Chechen police in 2015) asserted that Kadyrov had 20,000 troops at his command. An assessment by BBC Russia at the time placed the figure closer to 6,200.
Chechen units were identified as perpetrators of some of the crimes in Bucha, where they are reported to have terrorised Ukrainian civilians from the moment they entered the town
Kadyrov’s forces at the start of the war in Ukraine were understood to include the following:
- OMON ‘Akhmat-Grozny’ – a form of specialised police often used in riot control or as paramilitaries.
- The 249th Separate Special Motorised Battalion (SMB) ‘South’ of the 46th Separate Operational Brigade of the Russian National Guard.
- The 141st Special Motorised Regiment ‘North’ of the 46th Separate Operational Brigade of the Russian National Guard.
- SOBR ‘Akhmat’, the most elite formation of the Chechen special forces. Previously, it was called ‘Terek’.
The forces also appear to include a number of units assigned to the Ministry of Internal Affairs with responsibility for guarding Chechnya’s oil fields and Kadyrov’s home village of Tsentoroi.
In July 2022, Kadyrov formed a new regiment called the 78th Motorised Rifle Regiment and named after Akhmat Kadyrov, which consisted of four conventionally armed battalions named according to the points of a compass. By September, the regiment was reported to be fully staffed and assigned to Russia’s 42nd Motorised Rifle Division. A Russian SMB typically consists of around 500 personnel, while a regiment consists of approximately 2,000. So, between the 249th, 141st and 78th, Kadyrov could be expected to field 4,500 personnel – not including the other specialised formations.
The 141st and now the 78th Motorised Rifle Regiments are the only formations equipped with armoured fighting vehicles such as the BRT-80 series infantry fighting vehicle, which is armed with a 30 mm automatic cannon. This means that they can be employed for conventional military tasks such as offensive actions alongside regular Russian units. The remainder are confined to small arms and lightly protected vehicles, which effectively relegates them to rear echelon duties or light support of conventional offensives by other Russian units.
However, from 2013, Chechen forces were trained by Daniil Martynov, a former FSB special forces (SF) officer from the elite unit known as Alpha. Kadyrov is understood to have rejected any federal assistance in training his security forces in favour of Martynov. The BBC reported that Martynov's former colleagues took a dim view of him providing Alpha's secrets to the Chechens. In that same year, Kadyrov announced the opening of an SF training centre in Chechnya, which would be open to Russian and foreign SF. In 2015, the Chechen SF reportedly came first at an SF competition in Jordan. It is consequently reasonable to assume that the Chechen forces may have received a higher standard of training than is typical for the regular Russian soldier.
Understandably, Chechnya was not trusted to provide troops for the Russian army, especially given the insurgencies that were live in the north of the region. In return, Kadyrov does not trust the Russian army, and his recent outbursts against Russian senior staff and the FSB reflect this. As a result, Chechens could only fight in units loyal to Kadyrov. Chechens were formally allowed back into the Russian army in 2014, and a series of scandals followed as they mixed with personnel from the rest of Russia and encountered other nationalities as part of their postings.
Kadyrov's position and wealth are dependent upon Putin’s goodwill, which makes him a uniquely compliant leader within Russia who is constantly willing to prove his worth to Putin
Despite this, Chechens have featured in all of Putin’s wars as allies of the Russian forces and typically under the command of Kadyrov. In 2006, Chechen troops provided protection for Russian engineers building bridges in Lebanon. In 2008, two battalions known as Vostok and Zapad (East and West), which were led by the Chechen Yamadayev family with oversight provided by Russia’s military intelligence directorate, the GRU, deployed to Georgia. They were lead elements of the Russian advance in some cases and proved to be experienced and capable soldiers under fire. However, both battalions were viewed as opponents of Kadyrov and disbanded upon their return, with many of them joining the Kadyrovites. The Yamadayev brothers who commanded Vostok and Zapad were assassinated between 2008 and 2009. A number of Chechens went to fight for the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic in 2014 – although some also fought for Ukraine. Kadyrov later claimed that they were ‘ex-employees’ of the Chechen security forces and that they were not sent there on business by him.
In Ukraine, since February, Chechen forces have performed several roles and have deployed as complete units. Their initial role was to provide filtration (an element of the forced deportation of Ukrainian citizens) and rear echelon security against bypassed Ukrainian forces and partisans. They were focused on the Kyiv line and expected to perform collective punishment as part of the offensive operation. Typically, this involved threatening or harming the families of wanted personnel to prevent them from resisting – a technique used extensively by the Kadyrovites to subdue opponents and Islamists in Chechnya. Chechen units were also identified as perpetrators of some of the crimes in Bucha, where they are reported to have terrorised Ukrainian civilians from the moment they entered the town. At the same time, they appear to play a role in disciplining Russian units: there have been multiple reports of them executing wounded Russian soldiers, and even shooting those that retreat from battle.
Outside of crimes against humanity, Kadyrov’s forces have provided the Russians with a group of willing, motivated and well-trained personnel to conduct difficult operations. With the 141st at their head, the Chechens were organised into assault platoons and took command of the siege of Mariupol. Ukrainian sources have explained that the Chechens were very capable at finding the seams between Ukrainian units, such as where the marines joined up with territorial defence units, and directing their efforts there. These points were typically where coordination between the forces was at its weakest, allowing the Chechens to make progress and ultimately succeed in reducing the Ukrainian defences. This role has continued to some extent, with Chechen units, Wagner Group mercenaries and Russia’s airborne forces providing a second line of troops. One tactic they employ is to send less experienced units forward to reveal Ukrainian positions, which are then engaged with precision artillery and loitering munition strikes. The Chechens and others then follow up the attack against weakened Ukrainian positions.
Through a steady stream of videos released via TikTok, the Chechens have gained a somewhat poor reputation. However, first-hand reports from Ukrainian soldiers indicate that these videos are in no way representative of their attitude during combat, and that the Chechens represent a very real challenge.
A Complex Picture
The Chechen forces used by Russia provide a small core of combat-ready troops that appear to be very willing to deliver violence and oppression against either friend or foe. They have proven themselves to be reliable and at times have assumed a central position in the Russian military, as was the case in Mariupol. However, it is important to assess them within the context of the Russian armed forces. The special forces elements, airborne formations, and private military companies all provide similar, if not better and more reliable combat capabilities. The uniqueness of the Kadyrovtsy is in their leader’s allegiance to the Kremlin and Putin. His position and wealth are dependent upon Putin’s goodwill, which makes Kadyrov a uniquely compliant leader within Russia who is constantly willing to prove his worth to Putin. This means that his forces can be reliably sent to complete very unsavoury tasks, including the assassination of Nemtsov and the collective punishment of Ukrainian citizens. They are, in sum, a force used to complete many tasks and a useful concession that allows the Kremlin some measure of control over Chechnya, without having to send Russian soldiers to the region once more.
This article is part of the Russia Military Report series.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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