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‘Anything but a hawk’ Elena Milashina has been writing about Chechnya for years — and thinks that Ramzan Kadyrov is trying to protect it from the worst
As a special correspondent for Novaya Gazeta, Elena Milashina has been writing about Chechnya and the Caucasus for over a decade. She has been brutally attacked and threatened with attacks in the past, in connection with her investigations. On February 8, 2022, Milashina was forced to leave Russia, following new threats from the head of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov. Milashina’s new profile of Kadyrov for Novaya Gazeta and its web project, the Free Space, considers the inner life of the Chechen leader, and why he cannot be accurately described as “a hawk.” We have summarized Milashina’s long essay and present her understanding of Kadyrov in our own words.
Since the beginning of the Russian invasion, several thousand servicemen of the Rosgvardiya’s Chechen segment were deployed in Ukraine. By mid-March, most of them returned to Chechnya “to take a break,” and the Chechen leadership announced its first round of recruitment for army volunteers. That initiative met with very little enthusiasm: only 1,500 men were recruited, most of them current and former law-enforcement professionals.
Ordinarily, law enforcement jobs are in demand in Chechnya. During the war, this dynamic changed, since joining the police or the National Guard came to mean automatically joining the reserve for the future rotations of Russia’s forces in Ukraine.
In April, a center for training army volunteers was created on the basis of the privately-owned Russian University for Special Forces (RUS), located in Gudermes, Chechnya. The new mobilization center received volunteers from all over Russia, and sends around 200 new soldiers to the front every week, according to official data. By early May, the share of non-Chechens in the nominally Chechen volunteer formation “Akhmat” had reached 96 percent.
By late April, the troops mobilized back in March returned to Chechnya. The region’s leadership promised not to re-deploy anyone against their wishes; but some people still volunteered — especially those who had served in police or security roles while in occupied Ukraine. The Head of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, used his personal influence to create “relatively safe” conditions for his troops. According to his colleague, Magomed Daudov, Kadyrov spent 20 billion rubles (or approximately $339 million) on the organizational needs of the Chechen units in the first six months of the war.
In June, the Russian Defense Ministry informed Kadyrov of the decision to create several new military formations on Chechen territory — the idea being that those new formations would report directly to Russia, not the Chechen leadership. It seems possible that Kadyrov’s bravura statements about thousands of Chechen infantry standing ready to fight for Putin had backfired: Kadyrov now had no choice but to “salute, and deliver.”
On June 26, the head of the Chechen government stated that “wanting to form new battalions” was “prompted by the extremely patriotic mood among the young people in the region.” “The number of those who would like to rise up in defense of Motherland is growing exponentially,” he said. A massive advertising campaign was launched to promote the new volunteer battalions. Kadyrov, meanwhile, assured prospective recruits that the formation of new units did not mean that they would be sent to the front anytime soon.
But advertising did not result in high numbers of new recruits — and the new units were formed “de facto from the current employees of the Chechen Interior Ministry and the Chechen segment of the National Guard.” That those people had already served in Ukraine follows from Kadyrov’s Sept. 10 remark that “the new regiment and battalions are composed exclusively of fighters who have extensive experience in fighting international terrorism, and have already proven themselves in combat operations in the Donbas.”
At the same time, Chechens were being actively recruited to join the police and Rosgvardiya in the republic. In particular, new servicemen were sought for the so-called “oil regiment” — a special regiment dedicated to the security needs of the oil-and-gas industry. This regiment, however, had been formed to replace its predecessor, which had been “reorganized for battle.” On Aug. 20, Kadyrov said that the numbers of those wishing to join was increasing “daily,” but there’s evidence to the contrary. On Sept. 13, Magomed Daudov said that, in the town of Argun, only three out of 188 men from Argun’s poorest families agreed to serve in that regiment, despite the assurances that they would not go to war.
“They’re good-for-nothings, and they’ll have no more social benefits,” Daudov said. “When others take up arms and go to Syria, to Ukraine — once, and twice — don’t their families worry, too? But we have to work, relying on the Almighty, and that He will save us from death.”
In September, Kadyrov reported that, first, the National Guard formations, and, later, two more battalions and a Defense Ministry regiment were all dispatched to the front — the latter regiment being precisely the one “not intended” for deployment in Ukraine. Elena Milashina writes that her personal acquaintances in the National Guard, who had been promised that they wouldn’t have to go back to Ukraine, were “loaded onto buses and sent off” to the front. A female acquaintance of Milashina’s from the Grozny area told the journalist about prayer events organized by one of Kadyrov’s daughters, to which local women were bussed in the night.
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In mid-September, Kadyrov signed an order for the fall draft of men born in 1995–2004 (that is, men of the so-called “draft age,” between 18 and 27). Kadyrov’s order was interpreted as a total mobilization of all men in that age category, “alarming the whole of Chechnya.” Part of that alarm came from the fact that these young men belong to Chechnya’s “precious generation,” born and raised “under the bombs” of the preceding wars.
On Sept. 20, a middle-aged Chechen woman’s audio appeal was circulated on Chechnya’s social networks. Speaking to other women, she said: “If we don’t get out our sons and defend them, they will be killed and maimed.”
Hear my cry! My cry is necessary — this is coming to all of our homes, they’ll take someone from every house! Let our own bodies turn into corpses, rather than having to bury our sons.
The following day, several dozen women were arrested in Grozny for protesting the mobilization.
A day later, Kadyrov stated that no mobilization will happen in Chechnya, since the republic had already mobilized 254 percent of the planned draft number. Kadyrov did not specify what was that planned total for the republic. Yet, the same day, he addressed the Chechen people, speaking emotionally about the war in Ukraine and having sent troops there so that “the war would not come to Chechnya.”
‘You’re demons! You’ve married Putin,’ they say to us; ‘You defend Russia’s interests and imperial ambitions.’ So, they’re imperial! So what? I’m telling you that I don’t want the adversary to demolish Grozny, which I worked so hard to restore. I don’t want the war to come to Chechnya. I’d rather fight in Ukraine, because I don’t want women and children killed here. I have nowhere to hide them — I don’t have food for them, I don’t have bunkers to keep them in! I’d rather fight over there, because I don’t want Chechnya burned down, I don’t want everything here crushed! That’s not what we restored it for.
Russia “used to look at us with suspicion, through binoculars, so to speak,” Kadyrov said, adding that “thanks to the special units who worked harder than required, to the volunteers who worked harder than they had to, we became a part of Russia!”
Elena Milashina believes the sincerity of Kadyrov’s words. She concludes that the Chechen leader might be “anything but a hawk.” Instead, the past six months of Kadyrov’s words and actions paint the picture of a man playing a complex game with Russia. That game involves compromises and sacrifices, for the sake of protecting Chechnya from the worst.
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