For all their efforts fighting for Ukraine in the eastern city of Bakhmut, if the Chechen volunteers’ Dzhokhar Dudayev battalion was a football club it would be Millwall. Nobody likes us, their fans sing, and “we don’t care”, says Tor, 38, with a laugh.
“Once I heard from one Ukrainian: ‘You can do what do you want here in Ukraine, but you will still in our opinion be terrorists and gangsters,’” says the Chechen private, who asked to be identified only by his call sign. “And I said: ‘You know what [is] the difference between me and you, or my nation and yours? We don’t care what Ukrainians think about us, we don’t care what Americans, Russians or British think of us. In truth, we do not care what the Chechens think of us.’ Yeah. We have to do what we have to do, you know.”
The Kremlin-backed Ramzan Kadyrov’s infamous Chechen militia is a well-known entity. Disparagingly known as the TikTok army for their tendency to perform military theatrics on camera for the purpose of social media shares, their main claim to fame is a record of terrorising civilians abroad and at home, where Kadyrov rules through cruelty and fear.
Less well known, perhaps, are the three Chechen battalions on the Ukrainian side, fighting on the most gruelling and bloody frontlines, unlike Kadyrov’s troops, who appear to have been dropped to the rear.
The Dzhokhar Dudayev battalion is one of those fighting with Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s Ukrainian forces, as they have since Russia first invaded eastern Ukraine and illegally annexed Crimea in 2014. Named after the first post-Soviet president of independent Chechnya, known as the Republic of Ichkeria, it was created as a “peacekeeping battalion – so rest in peace, Russians,” says Tor.
Many of their fighters are first- or second-generation Chechen émigrés who fled Kadyrov’s tyrannical rule when he emerged as Putin’s strongman out of the post-Soviet Chechen wars waged by Moscow as it sought to kill off independence.
The Chechens say they are fighting for Ukraine as it has come to represent the best chance to free those nations under what they describe as “the Russian yoke”. Those of them who have lived in Ukraine for a while add that the country also offers them the freedom to practise their Muslim faith.
The perception of Chechens inside Ukraine is “very bad”, says Tor, poisoned by the reputation of Kadyrov’s regime and the propaganda pumped out by Moscow, including over the supposed threat of “radical Islamism” that they are said to pose. “For more than 30 years, nonstop propaganda against us. [They say] we are barbarians, we are animals, we are predators, we cannot speak normally.”
The battalion operates under the command of the Ukrainian army but they are not recipients of any of the defence budget. Its clubhouse, in a basement in a building in Kyiv, is littered with pickled vegetables, flak jackets, a machine gun and even a Starlink satellite dish. They are constantly seeking further donations. A sombrero hanging on a coat hook cuts an anomalous sight. “We have a Mexican donor,” says Tor. “He has been here a couple of times, he donated two cars.”
There is a further peculiarity. The battalion commander is Adam Osmaev, 41, a former pupil of Wycliffe College, a prestigious public school in the Cotswolds, and a one-time student of economics at Buckingham University.
Born in the Chechen capital, Grozny, Osmaev is the son of a high-ranking official in Chechnya’s Soviet-era oil industry. Osmaev was sent to England at the age of 13. He pulled out of university to join the fight against Russia when the Chechen war broke out in 1999.
He keeps an understandably low profile today. In October 2017, Osmaev was wounded and his wife, a sniper in the battalion, was killed when suspected Russian secret service agents opened fire on them with a Kalashnikov rifle as they returned by car to their house outside Kyiv.
“He’s very good person and he’s professional,” says Tor. “He’s really professional. A very motivated guy who is fighting for independence of Ukraine, who still has a strong belief that sooner or later Chechnya will be independent. We know he’s a very just man, calm and quiet. A real officer.”
The battalion’s track record since 24 February is certainly impressive. They ran sabotage and reconnaissance activity in the north of Kyiv in March as the Russians sought to storm Ukraine’s capital, before taking part in the liberation of the city of Izium, in the north-east of the country. “We were very proud to play a small part, give our 50 cents,” says Tor.
For the last two weeks they have been in Bakhmut, in the eastern Donetsk region. The fighting is house to house, says a staff sergeant who goes by the call sign Maga. “There are no defensive positions [for the Ukrainians] because there are these five-floor buildings and the Russians destroyed them one by one,” he adds. “They Russians have lots of heavy artillery and the Ukrainian army does not have enough to keep all these positions. Not enough mortars to keep the Russians back. The Russian tactic is to destroy everything, leave only ruins and then the infantry come. It is a tactic they used in Chechnya.”
On Sunday, Russia claimed the capture of another village in the Bakhmut area as its forces seek to encircle the city.
The frustration, the Chechens say, is that the west has not yet woken up to the need to properly arm the Ukrainians. The provision of US Himars rockets systems is said to have made the liberation of the southern Kherson region at the end of last year possible. The slow pace of the German government in its deliberations over the supply of Leopard 2 tanks is said by Tor to have been “a crime”. “Just give Ukraine the weapons and they will do the rest and save the situation without the need for you to shed your blood.”
As for fighting for a country that is not quite sure about you, Tor believes perceptions are changing. “It’s the old generation and it is the same in Chechnya, where we have people who still believe in communism, who still believe that we have to be Russian,” he says.
“We are fighting for the future and we are fighting for a free future for us and for Ukraine and for the young generation. For us, this young generation is more important than the old Soviet generation. We cannot count on the opinions of victims of Russian propaganda, and we have to say we don’t care so much.”