The war in Ukraine has a unique impact on the closest region in Russia. Chechnya, a republic in the North Caucasus ruled by the notorious Ramzan Kadyrov, has created its own system to provide Putin and his war machine with the new soldiers. The rule of law has been long forgotten in this land, allowing Kadyrov to send civilians to war using any means necessary. Chechen authorities chased taxi drivers, confiscated citizens’ passports, and were ready to pay the mercenaries a huge pile of cash. We, the NC SOS Crisis Group team, investigated how the residents of this heavily restricted region are trying to escape the war or to capitalize on it.
The content of this article is based on the testimonies of our Chechen defendants and open data sources.
How were the Chechens persuaded to go to war?
Putin announced mobilization only in September, before that military personnel were sent to war, not ordinary citizens. However, in Chechnya, mobilization began immediately after the invasion. “Volunteer” units were formed in the republic from the early stages of the war, enticing people with high salaries and promises of easy money. Each official, imam, and commander in Chechnya was assigned a specific recruitment target, and they had to find ways to fulfill it.
The usual Russian propaganda in the North Caucasus took on a distinct local flavor. Chechens were still fed narratives of “eight years of shelling in Donbass,” “LGBT propaganda in Ukraine,” and “drug addicts among the Ukrainian government.” However, these clichés were presented with a religious context. The authorities declared a “jihad” against Ukraine and urged the Chechens to come to the aid of their neighboring country.
Nevertheless, it seems that the ideological approach did not resonate, and persuasion through monetary incentives or forced measures became necessary. The Chechens did not believe in waging a “jihad” against Ukraine, and the authorities’ campaign against drug addicts and LGBT individuals, which morphed into persecution of dissidents within the republic, failed to inspire the locals.
But even those who have little understanding of Islam know that jihad is when they come to your land and try to kill you. Many understand that Chechnya should declare jihad not against Ukraine but against Russia
Money, threats, and religious motives did not lead to a mass desire among Chechens to go to Ukraine. Kadyrov tried to demonstrate broad support to the federal authorities: videos appeared in various public groups where Chechens gathered in squares expressing their willingness to go to the front. In reality, however, a significant portion of the people in these videos are mercenaries and military personnel from other regions of Russia. They underwent training in Chechnya or were stationed at local bases.
For many mercenaries, the last haven in Russia became Khankala, a military base near Grozny. Russian mercenaries were trained there, and Chechen battalions “Akhmat” are also based there. Khankala is a convenient location due to the new infrastructure and the accessible railway connection that makes it easy to transfer troops to the border.
The very first Chechens recruited as volunteers underwent training at the Russian Special Forces University base in Gudermes, along with mercenaries from other Russian regions. Many of them were later sent to the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) to maintain order in the occupied territories. Among other things, Chechens interrogated prisoners and spent their free time in bars and restaurants, harassing local women.
Threats, blackmail, and arrests
Chechens were mostly forced into war. Local law enforcement has had a proven business scheme for several years: they detain citizens on fabricated charges and then release them in exchange for “ransom” from their relatives. This system has now been modernized: those captured are coerced and threatened to be sent to war.
The situation is worse for those who have been previously detained. Chechen law enforcement maintains a database of individuals who have ever been detained for drugs, alcohol, negative statements towards the government, or LGBTQ+ affiliation. Previously they were often detained repeatedly to extort money from them. Now, repeat detention carries the threat of being sent to the frontlines: individuals are blackmailed with real prison terms and threatened that their relatives will be targeted and someone among them will be sent to war.
That’s very effective. They simply gave people a choice: either face a long prison sentence or go to Ukraine. But what if you have a large family? If you don’t go, enforcers will frame your younger or older brother and send him instead. They forced many people to go that way. They intimidate the population
Those who are detained are also coerced into providing testimonies against their friends, acquaintances, and even complete strangers. Law enforcement uses the information extracted through torture to arrest several more people. This is a common recruitment method for “volunteers” in Chechnya because every detained person is seen as a potential combatant.
Here are a few cases that were shared with us:
- A young man was detained for a traffic violation, and the enforcers demanded that he hand over “three guys who use drugs” to be sent to war.
- A detained woman in another region of Russia was asked to find “three Chechens” who use drugs. This shows that even in other regions of the country, it is difficult for Chechens to be left alone from Kadyrov’s regime.
- The detained woman was threatened that her brothers would be found and sent to war if she did not comply with the demands of the law enforcement authorities.
How are detainees sent to war?
It was a sensational story when the world learned that Russia’s sending prisoners to war. As for Chechnya, the situation here is even worse. Chechen security forces have the power to detain individuals, torture them and keep them in basements for months, all without any documentation. There are no charges, no investigations, and no legal proceedings. In reality, hundreds and thousands of people are imprisoned, but there is no official record of their detention. On paper, these individuals are considered free.
Chechens can be immediately sent to the frontlines right after their detention, without compiling any documents. People are also recruited in special prisons for “drug addicts”, LGBT people and objectionable authorities. Prisoners are held there without any accompanying documents, and officially, they are considered free individuals who have voluntarily chosen to go to Ukraine.
We know for sure about one basement in which 70 people were kept. All of them were detained unofficially. At least two of them were caught on suspicion of being LGBT, others for drug or alcohol use, forgery, and theft.
When mobilization began in the autumn, the security forces visited the basement every day and asked, “Who wants to go to work? We’re setting you free today.” By “work,” they meant being sent to the war, and everyone understood this. Nearly two-thirds of the detainees agreed to “go to work.” Out of approximately 70 people in custody, around 20-25 remained, while the rest left the basement and proceeded to the training grounds and then to Ukraine.
It is almost impossible to determine the exact number of Chechens who were forcibly sent to the front from prisons and basements, as the precise number of illegal detentions in the Chechen Republic is uncertain. However, the fact that two-thirds (45-50 individuals) went to Ukraine is a concerning trend, even if we are referring to just one detention location.
How is Kadyrov trying to lock Chechens in the republic?
Following the outbreak of the war, obtaining a passport became challenging for men. Even if they managed to get the document, security forces visited them for additional interrogations.
Months later, the situation worsened: some departments started issuing documents only with guarantors (men over 35 years old with the same last name). Those who successfully obtained a passport were then visited and taken to the police station, and if it was discovered that they intended to go abroad, some were sent to Ukraine.
A significant part of the male population and their relatives fled the region. Chechens encountered difficulties when traveling abroad: border guards specifically targeted vehicles with Chechen license plates at land borders, subjecting them to additional checks and sometimes even preventing their passage. Some people relocated to other parts of the country. However, as practice has shown, Chechens are easily found in any region of Russia.
“Kadyrov holds unlimited power in Russia, and his people can do whatever they want with Chechens in any region. Putin granted him complete authority to kill and destroy the Chechen nation. And that’s precisely what Kadyrov does: he kills and destroys the population of the republic,” our interviewee stated. Our work experiences have also confirmed these statements: if individuals fleeing from Chechnya had conflicts with the security forces or influential families, they were always located within Russia.
Increased control over the movements of Chechens effectively restricts the male population within the republic, leaving no room for escape. And anyone caught on the streets can be sent to the front. After the mobilization announcement, the Chechen police conducted raids in places where potential soldiers could be found, including cafes, gaming clubs, and gyms.
Taxi drivers have also been targeted. Following the mobilization announcement, security forces conducted regular raids in areas where taxis typically operate. The situation has worsened: people are subjected to significant fines for fabricated reasons, and in some cases, their cars are confiscated entirely. Drivers left without vehicles are explicitly told, “You have no money or work – go defend your homeland.”
The authorities’ hostility towards taxi drivers also carries political motives. One of Ramzan Kadyrov’s daughters, Tabarik, owns the “Grozny Taxi” service, which has become the largest taxi fleet in the city through non-competitive means. Drivers from other services have long faced harassment, and in 2020, during the pandemic, Kadyrov banned the operation of all taxi companies except “Grozny Taxi” and “Mig”. By May of this year, drivers were already complaining about unfair fines, leading to a nearly threefold increase in prices for Yandex.Taxi services to compensate for the costs of paying penalties.
How much are mercenaries paid and who fights?
There are those who went to war voluntarily. Some “Kadyrovtsy” (members of the inner circle of the regional leader Ramzan Kadyrov) seek to gain favor with the authorities and pave their way to the “elite.” However, even among the high-ranking “kadyrovtsy”, there are few who actually want to fight, although the Chechen units are primarily involved in the cleansing operations of already captured settlements.
Chechens do not desire to fight. This shaitan (devil) is trying to please Putin, and that’s why he is sending our Chechens there
Primarily, Chechens go to the front for the sake of money. The salaries of Chechen mercenaries increased as the number of casualties grew. At the beginning of the war, the payment was around 300,000 rubles (around 3 550 dollars). After three or four months, it rose to approximately 500,000 rubles (around 5 916 dollars), and by the end of 2022, with some luck, it was possible to negotiate up to 700,000 rubles (around 8 280 dollars). Sometimes recruiters offer 300,000 rubles along with additional material benefits, such as a car.
The payment varied depending on the detachment’s status. For example, the people of Magomed Daudov, a close associate of Kadyrov known as “Lord,” offered approximately 100,000 to 150,000 rubles (around 1 183 to 1 775 dollars) more than other recruiters.
In Ukraine there are also Chechens who simply wanted to rob and went for easy money. Recruiters enticed people with promises of looting opportunities. They told everyone, “You can do everything. Do what you want. If you want to steal, steal. If you want to use force, do it. If you want to bring back weapons and belongings, you can keep everything from the spoils. It will all be yours.” And many fall for it.
What was happening in Mariupol?
The recruits were sent to Ukraine for six months, but many returned earlier due to Ramadan. The returned “Kadyrovtsi” mainly took part in the “cleansing” of Mariupol. They brought back loot such as gold, jewelry, phones, and laptops.
According to the returning ones, they conducted interrogations, searches, and confiscated valuables from Ukrainian civilians. If civilians resisted, the “kadyrovtsy” resorted to shooting or taking them to the commandant’s office.
Chechens who returned shared videos depicting scenes of violence. In one video, an argument ensued between a Ukrainian couple and the invading soldiers. In response, the “Kadyrovtsy” threatened the man and forcibly stripped the woman’s dress, humiliating her in front of him. The outcome after the recording is unknown, but this video is not an isolated incident.
Why don’t Chechens protest?
Most Chechens are against the war, but they are not ready to voice this. Any dissatisfaction is forcefully suppressed by the security forces, and even a careless word can lead to detention by the police and, subsequently, being sent to the war. Under Kadyrov’s rule, a network of informants has been established, seeking to coax individuals into criticizing the authorities and then report their words to law enforcement agencies.
This is very dangerous, statements against the authorities are punishable by death, it is well known
The people live in fear, and the atmosphere in Grozny is tense. The number of men has significantly decreased, with some in Ukraine and others seeking refuge abroad. Popular destinations for departure include Kazakhstan, Turkey, Georgia, as well as the route from Serbia to Croatia. Some individuals attempted to relocate to other regions of Russia, but they were eventually discovered.
There must be a response of violence against violence. If we go to the slaughter like sheep, nothing will change. If the authorities use violence, the same violence must be used against them, and nothing else
However, there are still people in Chechnya who are prepared to take to the streets “under certain circumstances,” although it remains unclear what specific conditions would prompt them to do so. Currently, Kadyrov and his circle manage to maintain control over the population’s potential for protest.
The situation is explosive, people are exhausted by Kadyrov’s gang. When it explodes, there will be a lot of blood and a lot of problems