TIME Ukraine

Why Chechens Are Fighting Chechens in Ukraine’s Civil War

Muslim Chechen men, who fight alongside Pro-Russian rebels, pray near a checkpoint in the town of Zugres, Eastern Ukraine, on Jan. 11, 2015.
Mstyslav Chernov—AP Muslim Chechen men, who fight alongside pro-Russian rebels, pray near a checkpoint in the town of Zugres, Eastern Ukraine, on Jan. 11, 2015.

The conflict has given exiled Chechens a chance to revive an old battle against their Moscow-backed kinsmen

The Chechens arrived at about the same time on both sides of the war in eastern Ukraine. On the side of the Russians, they came last spring with no insignia on their uniforms, crossing the border into the rebel-held territory of Ukraine and taking up positions around the city of Donetsk. General Isa Munaev, by contrast, arrived on the opposite side of the front lines with a suitcase full of insignia – military berets, pins and flags bearing the symbol of Chechen independence: a wolf in repose above nine stars, each representing one of the major clans, or teips, of Chechnya.

His arrival opened one of the odder dimensions of the conflict in Ukraine. This sovereign country, which has more than enough of its own internal divisions and rivalries, has become host to a foreign conflict of Chechens versus Chechens that has been simmering elsewhere for more than a decade.

Adam Osmayev, the commander of a battalion of Chechens fighting against Russia-backed rebels, is in the town of Lysychansk, Ukraine on March 2, 2015.
Olya Engalycheva—APAdam Osmaev, the commander of a battalion of Chechens fighting against Russia-backed rebels, in Lysychansk, Ukraine on March 2, 2015.

Regardless of the peace process now easing the broader war in Ukraine, this narrow struggle is likely to continue as long as the opposing sides from Chechnya have the chance to meet each other in an active conflict zone. “It’s like a blood feud,” says Adam Osmaev, one of the key Chechen commanders participating in the war. “Politics can’t stop it.”

The feud that split Chechnya, a tiny nation of highlanders who mostly adhere to a moderate strand of Sunni Islam, began around the year 2000, when they were fighting their most recent war for independence from Russia. Under the command of President Vladimir Putin, the Russian air force systematically bombed the rebellious province into submission that year, and with no air defenses to fight back, Chechnya’s rebel leadership was broadly divided between those who grudgingly accepted Russian rule and those who kept up a guerrilla-style insurgency.

Gen. Munaev was among the latter. By his own account, he remained in Chechnya for more than five years after the war’s official end, actively participating in the resistance even as his fellow fighters turned to the use of assassinations, sabotage and terrorism in their attacks on Russian and loyalist forces. All too often, civilians were caught in the conflict, especially as Chechen rebels turned to the use of suicide bombings and took innocent hostages. In 2006, during a counter-insurgency strike in Chechnya, Munaev was gravely injured – sustaining, as he later recalled, 36 shrapnel wounds. His comrades then smuggled him through Ukraine to Europe to seek treatment, and he received political asylum in Denmark soon after.

By that point, Chechnya was firmly under the control of a young warlord named Ramzan Kadyrov, whom Putin had entrusted in 2004 to stamp out what remained of the local insurgency. The result was a vicious internecine struggle. A brawny boxing fan with a private zoo full of carnivores, Kadyrov oversaw the hunt for rebel leaders in the mountains of Chechnya and allowed no resistance to Russian rule, often referring to Putin as a kind of surrogate father. Even in exile, Kadyrov’s enemies would often wind up dead – some assassinated in Europe, others in Turkey or Dubai – even though Kadyrov denied personally ordering their murders.

The exiled Munaev seemed undeterred. Having recovered from his injuries in Denmark, he set up a political activist group to campaign for Chechen independence, and he stubbornly renounced any Chechen who agreed to talk of reconciliation with Kadyrov or his representatives. “This war never ended for us,” says his close friend and associate in Denmark, the exiled Chechen statesman Ilyas Musayev. “The thought of any contact with those who have betrayed Chechnya, who have killed their own tribesmen, causes a Chechen terrible pain,” Musayev told TIME during an interview at his apartment near Copenhagen in late 2009.

He conceded, however, that little could be done from exile to change the situation in Chechnya, and as time past, their old insurgency died down. Russia felt secure enough in 2010 to abolish martial law in the region, and a sense of normalcy returned to Chechnya as its bombed-out cities were rebuilt with money from Moscow.

The war in eastern Ukraine, which broke out last spring, provided the exiled Chechens with their first chance in years to take up arms against Russia again. Munaev didn’t miss the opportunity. Weeks after Russia set off the conflict by invading and annexing the region of Crimea, Munaev arrived in Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, with his suitcase of Chechen flags and patches.

Forty-eight years old at the time, he must have seemed a strange volunteer to the Ukrainian military officers who received him. But in their desperate search for experienced fighters – Ukraine’s armed forces were hopelessly unprepared for a war with Russia – Munaev was a valuable paramilitary asset. So Ukraine’s military provided him with a cache of small arms, and he was quickly allowed to form a unit called the Dudaev Battalion, which began serving alongside the Ukrainian army last spring. (The unit was named after the late Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudaev, a former Soviet air force general who ruled Chechnya during its years of de facto independence from 1991 until 1996, when he was killed in a Russian airstrike.)

At a press conference in October, Munaev made clear his motives for coming to fight in Ukraine: “If Ukraine loses, Chechnya will lose,” he said, his voice seeming to falter with emotion. “Fighting here in the defense of Ukrainian freedom, we are defending our own freedom, our own statehood.” By that logic, he urged all Chechen exiles to take up the call to arms as a revival of their bygone war against Russia, and dozens of them have.

According to the battalion’s officers, about a quarter of their roughly 200 fighters are Chechens who have mostly come from their exiles in Turkey and various parts of Europe. Half of them are Ukrainian, while the rest are a mixed bag of former Soviet military veterans, mostly from Azerbaijan and Georgia.

Over the past year, they have participated in some of Ukraine’s fiercest battles against pro-Russian separatist forces, often doing the dangerous work of reconnaissance behind enemy lines. But Munaev’s role as their commander did not last long. In February, during a vicious battle for control of the strategic railroad juncture of Debaltseve, he was killed in action while on a reconnaissance mission with a handful of his men. His deputy commander Osmaev, a far younger and less experienced fighter from Chechnya, then took over command of the unit.

Back in their homeland, Kadyrov was elated at the news, taking it as his chance to tell all Chechens not to follow in Munaev’s footsteps. “Stop immediately!” he wrote on his Instagram account. “This is not your war. Go home now. This is your chance to stay alive.”

It seemed an ironic piece of advice for Kadyrov to offer. At least since May, dozens of his loyal fighters from Chechnya have gone to aid the pro-Russian forces in Ukraine, and he has repeatedly warned the government in Kiev that he would send more of them to arrest Ukrainian politicians or help the separatists carry the fight. He has even offered to join the war himself if Putin gives him leave.

During a visit to Chechnya in April, TIME interviewed one officer of the region’s Interior Ministry forces who says he served a brief tour in eastern Ukraine last year. Before the deployment, he says he and the other men in his unit went on leave from active duty, allowing their commanders in Russia and Chechnya to deny having sent them. “It was a formality,” he says on condition of anonymity. “That’s the way of this war.”

Though he never met a fellow Chechen on the other side of the front lines, he didn’t seem troubled by the fact that it was possible. So deep is the split within this nation that one Chechen fighter might go covertly to Ukraine from Russia, another might travel from his exile in Europe, and neither would seem bothered by the fact that, meeting on the field of battle, they would share the bonds of faith, language and kinship that have defined their identities for hundreds of years.

Driving around in his armored car in the front-line town of Lysychansk, the current commander of the Dudaev Battalion says he can’t even bring himself to call the other side Chechens anymore. “These are people who serve the historical enemy of their nation, who kill their own kin,” Osmaev tells TIME. “These aren’t Chechens. At best they’re Chechen-speaking Russians.” He doesn’t seem to care that the scorn is mutual.

TIME Ukraine

On Patrol With One of Russia’s Most Wanted in the Battle for Ukraine

TIME embedded with the Dudaev Battalion led by commander Adam Osmaev, who is wanted in Russia on terrorism charges

Last year, the people of Ukraine realized that they had, in effect, no army to defend them. Their military had been too depleted by corruption and mismanagement to mount a defense when Russia sent troops to seize the region of Crimea in February 2014. Through the following spring, armed forces mostly stood by as Russia went on to fuel a separatist rebellion in Ukraine’s eastern regions, seizing effective control of more territory and large portions of the border with Ukraine. The so-called “volunteer battalions”—poorly trained but highly motivated militias—arose to fill the holes in Ukraine’s defenses.

Over the past year, dozens of these paramilitary groups have appeared on Ukraine’s battlefields, often bearing the brunt of the fighting against Russian-backed separatist forces. They consist of anywhere from a few dozen to a few thousand troops, and their more successful commanders often enjoy the status of national celebrities. But their place in the military hierarchy of Ukraine tends to be murky. Though they get much of their heavy weaponry from government stockpiles, they mostly operate in a legal grey zone, closer to guerrillas than national guards.

Earlier this year, TIME embedded with one of the more controversial of these groups—the Dudaev Battalion—which has been carrying out reconnaissance and sabotage behind enemy lines since the war began. About half of its troops are from foreign countries, meaning that, legally, they do not have the right to serve in Ukraine’s armed forces. But their commander Adam Osmaev, who is wanted in Russia on terrorism charges, now wants to merge his force with Ukraine’s defense ministry or national police—a move that would give him access to more weapons, he says, as well as a chance to get some Western military aid.

TIME On Our Radar

Magnum Photographer Jerome Sessini Wins Olivier Rebbot Award

Crash Malaysian airways uvraine
Jerome Sessini—Magnum The remains of a passenger on board Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 that was shot over eastern Ukraine, July 17, 2014.

From "Malaysia Airlines Ukraine Crash: ‘Unreal’ Scenes from Photographer Jerome Sessini"

The prestigious Overseas Press Club Awards recognizes the best international journalism

Last July, Magnum photographer Jerome Sessini was in eastern Ukraine when he heard that a plane had been brought down by a surface-to-air missile.

The French photographer was one of the first journalists on the scene. His heart-wrenching images showed how a field of sunflowers in the village of Torez had been transformed into the horrific resting place for 298 passengers.

For his coverage of the macabre landscape, published in TIME, the Overseas Press Club of America has awarded Sessini the Olivier Rebbot Award.

“I am pleasantly surprised,” the photographer told TIME ahead of today’s ceremony in New York. “I’m pleased for two reasons: one, because it’s a prestigious award and, two, because Gilles Peress is one of the former recipients of that prize, and he’s always been a model for me. He’s covered conflicts with a real analytical depth, which makes all the difference.”

Sessini spent most of 2014 in Ukraine, documenting the violent protests on Maidan Square in Kiev, the MH-17 plane crash, the unrecognized rebel-led referendum in Donetsk and the impact of war on local populations in eastern Ukraine.

“My process sounds a bit contradictory,” he said. “I start by covering a breaking news event and at some point, something happens in me and I have to cover that story in the long term. The two are indissociable. I need the urgency before I can change rhythm and take the necessary distance to the subject to produce a deeper body of work.”

Sessini was particularly attracted to the story in Ukraine because it visually stimulated him while holding a historical importance. “I’ll admit it, it was a mix of egoism and altruism,” he says. “The reason I decided to do long-term work in eastern Ukraine is because I felt the local population was the biggest loser of this war. They find themselves in the middle. They’ve been ostracized by the central government of Ukraine, and they are seen as the bad guys because Russia supports them.”

Sessini will be going back to eastern Ukraine in May.

The Overseas Press Club of America has also awarded photographers Bulent Kilic of Agence France-Presse and Rodrigo Abd of Associated Press with the John Faber Award and the Feature Photograph Award, respectively.

Kilic was named TIME’s 2014 Wire Photographer of the Year.

TIME viral

Watch This Fox Actually Make His Own Sandwich

Who needs opposable thumbs when you have teeth?

Foxes are known for being clever mammals, but this fox in Chernobyl, Ukraine can assemble his own lunch.

Watch as the animal adroitly stacks bread and deli meats atop one another in a five-layered epic sandwich worthy of a professional kitchen. Aside from the food-hygiene aspect, of course.

TIME Aviation

Germany Failed to Pass on Warnings Before Plane Was Shot Down Over Ukraine

The catastrophe killed 298 people

German authorities knew of the danger of flying over eastern Ukraine before flight Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down last July but failed to pass on the warning.

Two days before the Malaysia Airlines flight was brought down, the German government was alerted that the situation had become “very worrying,” the Süddeutsche Zeitung reports, citing the downing of a Ukrainian air force plane at a height of about 20,000 feet on July 14.

The German foreign ministry cables noted the plane’s height and its vulnerability as a “new development” to the conflict. Targets including civilian aircraft would also have been endangered at that height.

Flight 17 was destroyed three days later on July 17, killing 298 people, a catastrophe that might have been averted had Malaysia Airlines known of the dangers.

Three Lufthansa planes flew over the area on the day of the disaster. “If the government had warned our companies of this ‘new development,’ Lufthansa would surely not have flown planes over eastern Ukraine,” a Lufthansa insider told the Süddeutsche Zeitung.

A Dutch-led investigation says it is likely that the plane was shot down by a Russian-made missile launcher.

[Süddeutsche Zeitung]

TIME viral

Watch an Unbelievable Dust Storm Turn Belarus Into Tatooine

This is terrifying

An incredible video has surfaced of a bizarre weather phenomenon that, within a matter of minutes, transformed day into night in the Belarus city of Soligorsk on Monday.

Thankfully, while property damage was reported in the region, nobody was injured during the storm, says the Russian news outlet RT.

A cold front near the border with Ukraine created the epic dust storm called a “haboob,” which is rare in the region at this time of year. What’s more, the storm also included heavy rain.

It appears Mother Nature reminded us that science fiction may not be so outlandish after all.

Read next: How a Dust Storm Inspired a Mass Exodus and a Great Novel

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Ukraine

Ukrainian Ally of Ousted President Found Dead

Oleg Kalashnikov in Kiev, Ukraine in 2013.
Vladimir Donsov—AP Oleg Kalashnikov in Kiev in 2013.

Eight other allies of Viktor Yanukovich have had sudden deaths in the last year

A former member of the Ukrainian parliament who opposed the popular movement that ousted President Viktor Yanukovich was found dead with gunshot wounds in Kiev.

The Ukrainian Interior Ministry said in a statement that the body of Oleg Kalashnikov, 52, was discovered Wednesday evening.

Kalashnikov was involved in the “anti-Maidan” protests in support of Yanukovych, who fled in February 2014. According to the BBC, at least eight Yanukovych allies have died in the last three months; most of the deaths have been deemed suicides.

[Reuters]

TIME Ukraine

Meet the Pro-Russian ‘Partisans’ Waging a Bombing Campaign in Ukraine

Ukrainian police and forensic experts examine the wreckage of a mini-bus after explosion, in Kharkov, March 6, 2015.
Sergei Kozlov—EPA Ukrainian police and forensic experts examine the wreckage of a mini-bus after explosion, in Kharkov, March 6, 2015.

Their tactics mark a turn toward terrorism in Ukraine's year-old war

Soon after midnight on April 1, a separatist group calling itself the Kharkov Partisans issued another one of its video warnings to the Ukrainian government. It claimed that within the next 48 hours a bomb would explode far behind the front lines of the war in eastern Ukraine. “As of now, the earth will begin to burn beneath your feet,” said the group’s spokesman, Filipp Ekozyants, in the message to Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko and his top security officials.

Sure enough, the bomb arrived. Though reports have been conflicting as to the damage it caused, a large explosion rang out in the southwestern part of Kharkov, Ukraine’s second largest city, within 24 hours of the Partisans’ threat. Police denied that any bombing had occurred that night, though that seems to be part of a cover up. “The explosion did take place,” says Andriy Sanin, the head of the local branch of Right Sector, a nationalist paramilitary group that works in league with Ukraine’s armed forces. “It appears to have been an act of intimidation,” he says, declining to give further details. In a follow-up video on April 3, the Partisans claimed that the attack had targeted a military convoy, killing a dozen Ukrainian servicemen.

But whatever the details of that bombing, it would hardly have been the first attack attributed to this guerrilla group. In interviews with TIME over the past two months, the group’s spokesman, a former wedding singer now based in western Russia, has claimed responsibility for a spate of bombings, mostly targeting military and industrial installations in the region of Kharkov, which lies right on the border with Russia. “Our goal is to liberate the people of Kharkov,” Ekozyants says in the first of several interviews. “And we will fight until the current authorities are weak enough to allow this.”

Numbering more than a dozen in the past few months alone, the bombings in Kharkov and other cities have marked a grim turn in Ukraine’s year-old conflict. The Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine’s eastern regions have managed to seize control of two major cities and large chunks of the border with Russia. But they are clearly not satisfied with the extent of their possessions. Even amid the ceasefire that Russian President Vladimir Putin negotiated and signed with President Poroshenko in February, the bombing of Ukraine’s cities has only intensified. The war now seems to be shifting from the use of tanks and artillery to the methods of terrorism and guerrilla warfare.

The goal of these attacks, says Ekozyants, is to paralyze the Ukrainian authorities and inspire locals to join a separatist revolt against them. But there seems to be some debate within his organization about the admissible means of achieving this. About two hours before Ekozyants issued his warning on April 1, he told TIME that the November bombing of a crowded bar in Kharkov was the work of a radical cell of the Partisans. Eight people were wounded in that bombing, two of them critically.

From their bases in Russia and the rebel-held cities in eastern Ukraine, the more moderate leaders of the Partisans then issued a ban on attacking civilians, in part to avoid a popular backlash against their methods, says Ekozyants. “After what happened at [the bar], our coordinating council issued a directive to all our cells, saying any more actions in places where there are peaceful people will be punished by lethal means.”

But the lethality of the bombings in Kharkov have still continued to increase. The deadliest confirmed attack struck on a religious holiday, Forgiveness Sunday, Feb. 22, the day in Eastern Orthodox tradition when believers are meant to repent for their sins. It was also the day when many in Ukraine marked the one-year anniversary of their country’s revolution, which brought a pro-Western government to power last winter. Sanin, the local paramilitary leader, was leading a march of commemoration that afternoon through Kharkov, and as his column set out through the city, an anti-personnel mine exploded at the side of the road, sending a shockwave full of shrapnel into the crowd. Four people were fatally wounded, including two teenage boys, and nine others were hospitalized.

“In the first seconds there was panic,” Sanin recalls. “Everyone was screaming, running, and there was a real risk that the victims would get trampled where they lay.” Sanin appears to have been one of targets of the attack, but he escaped with minor injuries.

A few days later, Ukraine’s state security service, the SBU, released what it claimed to be a video of the bomber’s confession. Because his face in the footage is blurred and his name has not been released, it has been impossible to verify the authenticity of the SBU’s claims, which have not always been reliable. In a monotonous patter, the alleged confessor claims that an agent of the Russian security services paid him $10,000 to carry out the bombing on Forgiveness Sunday.

For his part, Ekozyants denies that the Kharkov Partisans had anything to do with that attack. But some of his allies in the rebel movement still believe the bombing was justified. “There were no accidental victims there at that march,” says Konstantin Dolgov, a leading pro-Russian separatist in Ukraine. “They were all the same people who were fueling a big civil war in Ukraine. They were calling for the death of Russians, of Russian-speakers,” says Dolgov, who denies any involvement in that bombing. After a pause, he adds: “There’s a good Russian saying: You sow the wind, you reap the storm. And the storm caught up with them during that march.”

Having started his career a decade ago as an adviser to a pro-Russian governor of Kharkov, Dolgov has emerged as a one of the main links between Moscow and the separatists in eastern Ukraine. He now splits his time between the Russian capital and the rebel stronghold of Donetsk, and he is living proof that the separatists’ ambitions in Ukraine go far beyond the territories they currently control. Russia seems to support his message. On Kremlin-owned television channels, he is a fixture on political talk shows, frequently cast as the benevolent face of Ukrainian separatism.

One afternoon in March, he agreed to meet me at a restaurant in Moscow across the street from the offices of the Russian Presidential Administration, where he sat in a pressed suit with a little separatist flag pinned to his lapel. Despite the resistance of Ukrainian authorities, he claims it is only a matter of time before Kharkov falls to the separatists. “But the liberation is only possible from the outside at this point,” he says. All the local separatists in Kharkov have been jailed or forced to flee the city. So there are now “at least 1,500 men” from Kharkov fighting in various rebel factions in other parts of eastern Ukraine, he says. “They all hope to return home and take revenge for their murdered comrades.”

Ekozyants, who calls Dolgov a close associate, takes a somewhat different view. Through the bombing campaigns of the Partisans, he believes the Ukrainian authorities can be weakened from within, allowing the local separatists to organize an uprising in the city. “All we want is to create a government of Kharkov that will listen to the people,” he says. The ultimate aim is for the city to hold a referendum on secession from Ukraine, much as the region of Crimea did last spring before it was annexed into Russia. “If a majority of people in Kharkov vote to join up with Burkina Faso, then we will join Burkina Faso,” Ekozyants says. “But let the people decide.”

His success as a mouthpiece for separatism in Kharkov derives in part from his earlier fame. Long before the war in Ukraine broke out last spring, Ekozyants was well known in the city as a composer and singer of maudlin ballads, which he would often perform at local weddings and banquets. (“Eternal love, we live to blindly love,” went one of the refrains in his music video from 2009.) The showmanship has since become a hallmark of his propaganda, which is laced with moody, anti-Semitic diatribes against the “shameless yids” seizing power in Ukraine with help from the West.

In late February, when TIME first contacted him for an interview, he replied by sending back a theatrical nine-minute video – “an address to the American people” – warning of an apocalyptic war that would turn U.S. cities into “giant ruins” if Washington does not withdraw its support for the Ukrainian government. When pressed to comment beyond such bravado, he invited a reporter to visit him in the western Russian city of Ryazan, but backed out at the last minute and only agreed to talk via Skype.

In subsequent interviews, he says most of the financial support for the Kharkov Partisans comes from sympathetic businessmen living in Russia, who transfer funds into his bank account. Asked whether the Partisans receive support from the Russian military or security services, he says some Russian state support does come through the rebel leadership in Donetsk. “We don’t just cooperate,” Ekozyants says of that separatist stronghold. “We are one network. We are the same.”

And Russia clearly tolerates their activities on its territory. The bank account Ekozyants uses to gather donations is at a branch of state-controlled Sberbank, Russia’s biggest lender, in the western Russian city of Rostov. In his spare time, Ekozyants says he still earns extra money singing at banquets in Russia, and he also seems to have access to a television studio in one of the Russian cities where he operates.

In late March, he posted a video of himself in a studio interviewing Igor Girkin, a former agent of the Russian security services who led the separatist militias in their conquest of Ukrainian territory last year. The two of them muse for an hour about the future of the “Russian world,” which they see extending across much of Ukraine. The Russian government, Girkin says, has been too indecisive in pursuing its imperial destiny in these borderlands. “But I always felt that God realizes his will through individuals,” he says. Even when those individuals are prepared to set off bombs in peaceful cities.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: April 7

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. It’s time to give up the uniquely American institution of the network anchorman.

By Frank Rich in New York magazine

2. On Billie Holiday’s 100th birthday, her “spiritual endowment” endures.

By Wynton Marsalis in Time

3. How to save crowdfunding from scammers and flakes.

By Klint Finley in Wired

4. Here’s how Putin could lose power.

By Amanda Taub in Vox

5. What if the secret to racial harmony is more uplifting internet videos?

By Katie Jacobs at Penn State News

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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