February 1, 2023   6 mins

“I am here in Ukraine fighting because first the Russians came to my motherland, Chechnya. Now they want to do here what they did to us.” Kazbek has just picked me up from Dnipro station to take me to his base near Bakhmut, where he and his unit are fighting on Ukraine’s bloodiest front. I climb into the back seat, where propped up in the middle is Kazbek’s automatic rifle, the FN SCAR. It’s colossal; and it will set the mood for the next few days.

I first met Kazbek last spring on a Ukrainian military base on the frontline in the Donbas. With his well-tended beard, he looked like a typical Chechen. I was surprised to see him. Chechens in Ukraine were, I thought, all fighting for Russia under orders from their leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin’s psychopathic puppet leader of Chechnya. I was wrong.

Russia’s victory in the Second Chechen War, which ended in April 2000, cemented Putin’s position as President. It also resulted in the levelling of Chechnya’s capital, Grozny. Many of those who had fought the Russians fled abroad, fanning out across Europe and the Middle East. But some were not done, and they eventually ended up in Ukraine, determined to keep battling Moscow wherever they could. Today, there are four dedicated Chechen battalions, at least two of which, the Dzhokhar Dudayev and Sheikh Mansur Battalions, have been fighting since the war began in 2014.

Kazbek is one of around 200 Chechens here. After leaving his home country in the 2000s, he married a Ukrainian woman and had a son, Deni. He considers himself a Chechen-Ukrainian. In the Donbas, the soldiers treat him like a cooler older brother. “He’s a great fighter,” my friend Dima told me. “Really good at tactics.”

That in itself isn’t surprising: Kazbek has been fighting Russians since the first Chechen War broke out in 1994. “Everyone rose up — women, children went to the mountains and the men went to war — every man,” he tells me now. He pauses. “We had no fear of the Russians,” he tells me. “Only rage.”


We drive out of Dnipro toward the base. Kazbek’s immaculate beard has grown, in eight months, into a bushy mass with an upturned moustache. His head remains a perfectly shaved, symmetrical dome. Now he is accompanied by his friend Yevgeny (half-Chechen, half-Ukrainian), who puts on some Chechen music. “Bro, first we go to the cemetery, is that ok?”

We pull off the motorway onto a side road and a sea of blue and yellow flags comes into view, surrounding the many rows of headstones. Lines of Ukrainian soldiers stand by the graves, many with their heads bowed in mourning. We drive through the cemetery until we arrive at a gate with a crescent moon on it: the Muslim section.

The favoured style of gravestone is black marble — with a portrait of the deceased. The graves are in rows, with the first line made up of mounds of earth: the latest arrivals have not yet had enough time to get headstones. We walk to one side where Kazbek and Yevgeny pause by a grave marked by a simple headstone with “Amina” written across it.

Amina, Kazbek explains, was the wife of his comrade, Adam, and a famous fighter in Ukraine. She was shot by a gunman: a Kadyrovite not a Chechen, he is keen to stress. (In Ukraine, people only ever refer to Russia’s Chechen units like this, to demarcate them from those fighting for Kyiv.) Kadyrov and the Russian FSB are determined to hunt down all Chechens fighting for Ukraine and have deployed assassins across the country. The gunman was caught and sent to prison, but was then traded in a prisoner swap for Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian filmmaker and activist from Crimea.

Kazbek and Yevgeny pose for a photo by the grave. Kazbek raises his finger skywards to show there is only one God, Allah. Religion is on his mind as we leave the graveyard. “Muslims, Jews, Christians, we all have one God. It’s the same school, just different classrooms.” This is Islam, Chechen-style. Religion is central to Kazbek’s life. “But I became a man in war. Before I never prayed to God,” he later told me. “My first weapon was a training rifle. We made Molotov cocktails — we had nothing else. When the sun rose on the second day of war, I had already seen many of my friends and neighbours die; I saw Russian planes in the sky. That was the day I learned how to pray.”

David, Kazbek and the FN SCAR

But his Islam is one that eschews fanaticism and a hatred of other religions. On his uniform he has, among other things, an Israeli flag. “The Israelis have helped Ukraine a lot in this war,” he explains.

Kazbek loves Ukraine but his time here has not always been straightforward. When he arrived, he had to convince many people that, as a Chechen, he was neither a terrorist nor a “barbarian”. Even today, like so many other Chechens fighting for Ukraine, he has not been granted citizenship. They have been promised it, but there are always more bureaucratic hurdles to overcome. It never ends.

“Getting a passport is a big problem because I have a shit Russian passport,” he tells me. “It’s wrong that a soldier cannot get a passport after all these years. I can get documents to fight in the war but not to live here as a citizen. It’s not about the Ukrainian people, who are great, but about bureaucracy.” In that sense, his situation reminds me of the many difficulties that those other fierce and effective soldiers, the Gurkhas, had in obtaining British citizenship.

I ask Kazbek if there is anything the Chechens could teach the Ukrainians. “Most of all,” he says, “we show Ukraine that Russia can be defeated.” He never wants to be seen as boasting, so he adds quickly, “today, Ukraine is teaching the Chechens. Now I am studying how best to fight the Russians here. My unit are my brothers. Brothers in war, brothers in religion. Brothers in heart.”

This is unsurprising. He has been fighting in Ukraine for a long time; he was, he tells me, the first Chechen to do so. Soon after the 2014 Euromaidan revolution, he volunteered to join the army. He knew war was coming. He knew from Chechnya what the Russians would do. “I joined the 34th battalion,” he tells me. “And I went to fight in the East, I fought in Donetsk and Gorlovka. We got up close and saw fear in their eyes. And God helped us to win because truth is on our side.”

Kazbek adores Ukrainian rap and turns up the sound system. “Don’t fuck with Ukraine!” belts out in what has become an official anthem here. “I got ice in my veins/Loaded guns I’m insane/fight for peace in my land.” As we drive, Kazbek downs cans of Red Bull. “Russian Warship, go fuck yourself,” concludes the song. The music is fitting. Kazbek is a stormtrooper; his job is to attack Russian positions and kill as many of them as possible. “David, we take the fight to the Russians and only God knows who will win.”

We drive deep into the Donbas and once more Kazbek is in a thoughtful mood. “The problem is the Russians — they are imperialists in their hearts. Britain and France both had empires, but they passed into history. There is not one day Russia has not had an empire, or tried to have one.” He continues: “The industrial Revolution came, and the French and English realised that they needed to invest in the economy, in diplomacy. But the Russians are exactly like they were 300 years ago — just with gadgets.”

Kazbek’s words hint at something often overlooked in Western Europe and the United States. For Chechens and Ukrainians, as well as Georgians and Kyrgyz and Kazakhs and all the peoples of the Former Soviet Union (FSU), this war is about many things — but at heart it is an anti-colonialist struggle. That is why few here were surprised when, last year, Putin compared himself to Peter the Great; he openly admits to sharing the Tsar’s goal of returning “Russian lands” to a greater empire. When I speak to people from across the FSU, opinions on Ukraine are often mixed, but they all admire Ukrainians for standing up to Moscow. They know it could be them next.

As we close in on the base, Kazbek slows down and looks over at me. “Look, David, we want to live, not die. And we don’t have to die for Ukraine. All we have to do is kill for it.”

David Patrikarakos is UnHerd‘s foreign correspondent. His latest book is War in 140 characters: how social media is reshaping conflict in the 21st century. (Hachette)