They come clad in some of the latest tactical gear trends, sporting berets, long dark beards, and expensive armor accouterments. With some of the latest in rifle optics, communications, and combat equipment it could be easy to classify the Chechen soldiers fighting in Ukraine as an elite special operations unit. In fact, they often carry that mystique in every conflict since fighting against Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. However, is this lofty and laudable title a well-deserved classification, or a psychological operation and propaganda ploy by the Kremlin?
Early indications of the combat prowess of these units is starting to draw a doubtful impression of their true abilities. However, there is a considerable amount of historical evidence to say that these fighters are among the world's best. Coming from a fractured mountainous region that has been steeped in conflict for centuries, it is worth an examination of the Kremlin's “secret weapon.”
Chechnya is only one of a massive number of ethnic minority territories that populate the greater Caucasus region. Bordered on three sides by Iran, Turkey, and Russia, this region has been a hotly contested piece of ground for almost all of human history. As a result, it has seen on-and-off wars for centuries but most recently the Russian invasions of Chechnya in 1994 and 1999, Georgia in 2008, and the ongoing conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
However, Chechnya and its surrounding regions have fought their own long-standing fight against Russia in all its forms. Starting with the Russian empire in the very early 19th century and continuing into the 2010s, instability and war were a constant. It was in the later part of this tense relationship that the modern Chechen warrior image came to fruition.
During the First Russo-Chechen war, the local militias and guerilla forces of the Chechens had managed to rout the Russian army despite an immense imbalance in force composition and technologies. The Second Russo-Chechen War brought the province into Kremlin control and, despite fierce opposition, the Chechen warriors fell into line with the Russian military.
The recognized martial expertise of the Chechens solidified, they became a de facto branch of the Russian Ministry of Defense, specifically the Rosgvardia. This being comparable to the United States Army National Guard, they had far more access to weapons, equipment, and technology than their American counterparts. On top of this, they were not held to a similar moral standard, both on the battlefield or when deployed against local critics.
In Georgia, they were used as brutal shock troops, burning and “depopulating” as they went. In the first invasion of Ukraine in 2014, they operated alongside other irregular forces as an elite light infantry and reconnaissance element. For the United States and NATO, they were reportedly active in Afghanistan and Iraq.
While many of the accusations of Chechen foreign fighters working against the U.S.-led coalitions are simple battlefield myths with little to no truth, their near-mythical status remained. In fact, many of the NATO contingent in Afghanistan had spoken in almost hushed tones about any noticeably competent element of the enemy as the “Chechens” because of their unusual skill and ferocity in battle.
Despite this largely unverifiable presence on the battlefield against a Western force, they have become a unique fixture of the current operations in Ukraine. The memories of their brutality and cunning against the Russians in the 1990s and early 2000s became their calling card. As a result, many saw them as fearsome and indomitable. When coupled with their Caucasian machismo and martial culture, the bankroll of the Kremlin, and their effectiveness as a psychological tool on the battlefield, they need not even see combat to be useful.
With Putin’s puppet in the region Ramzan Kadryov as the new branch’s commander, they have become a unique tool for the Russian Federation. Since ascending to power in 2007, Kadyrov has been an extension of the Kremlin, suppressing Chechnya with terror and muscle. As his personal army, they have been made the poster-children of Chechen might.
The Chechen “special forces” have had the resources to build this image handed to them. As an instrumental part of Russia’s foreign policy and security framework, they have been used domestically as a heavy hand against any dissent. Their training is promulgated as rigorous and brutal, complete with classic imagery of jumps through flaming hoops and smashing concrete blocks upon one another. Training operations with other Arab Muslim nations has added to this portfolio of experience. Despite this, some observers online have contested this and surmised that the training has not transferred to the battlefield.
Much of the social media content arising from the Russian side of the war has been centered around this elusive group of units. Chechens, armored in their high-end kit and clothed in their own unique camouflage pattern, offer braggadocious statements about their operations. After claiming victories on the front, they further this image with combat helmet camera footage. However, the comments sections of these videos are often filled with observations that there doesn't seem to be any return fire or enemy.
Additionally, several open source investigations have found that many of the Chechen units are still in a stalemate with Ukrainian defenders. One unit, the Special Rapid Response Force (SOBR in Russian) is supposedly the very tip of the spear for Kadyrov's army. However, this unit has stalled outside Kyiv where they've been locked in combat with the Ukrainian Territorial Defense Units.
Despite this internet commentary, the use of foreign or non-Russian militants in actual front-line combat operations is not unusual. Chechen troops have been deployed to Syria as a part of the Kremlin’s larger project to mask the death numbers. Just as was done with the Wagner fighters in several pivotal battles, the number of killed and wounded with the Chechen units is easily hidden from official reports.
Their usefulness on the battlefield is far from one dimensional. A military unit need not always be an effective weapon of death and destruction. Rather, a multi-faceted “swiss-army knife” designed to give commanders of the larger force more options can work just as well.
Psychological operations are a key component, particularly when fighting a dedicated and entrenched defender that already has the tactical advantage. As a part of this, bringing intimidating units onto the field such as Russia’s infamous Wagner Group mercenaries can tip the scales just enough to help win the day.
The Chechen units are an excellent tool for this. Their history of fighting savagely, despite the odds, and using the urban terrain to immense successes is still in the minds of military history enthusiasts and academics alike. This combined with their notoriously cold-blooded approach to warfare has been immortalized in videos going back to the early days of video sharing online.
Additionally, whereas even regular Russian soldiers would balk at the idea of harsh repression of a population or shooting prisoners and civilians, Kayrov’s troops have already shown they are more than happy to oblige. However, it is because of this sheer brutality that a light may be shed beyond their façade.
The discipline instilled in many of the world’s elite forces is what separates a brute force “hammer” (regular infantry) from the proverbial scalpel (special operations forces). Confusing ruthlessness and cruelty with exceptional expertise and skill in battle is at the core of the propaganda machine. This machine, now being seen on social media and in the pro-Kremlin symbolism campaign, has arguably had some success in the online war. Sergey Sukhankin, a Russian policy advisor at Trent University summed up their purpose buy stating “the Chechen fighters narrative may have been used by the Russian side as an element of its information warfare against Ukraine”
While it is a show of limitless support by Kadryov, the deployment of these units also serve to boost or replace the loss of the Russian Army’s intimidation factor. In the opening days of the war, the unexpected Ukrainian resistance cost the Russians dearly, in both manpower and equipment. Additionally, it cost them the disarming image once held by Putin’s army. Chechen “special forces” are the band-aid to fix this.
These Chechen units are far more a product of the propaganda war rather than the ground war. This is particularly in line with the classic Russian tactics of “maskirovka”, or asymmetric and psychological warfare aimed at confusion and instability. As an extension of this core ideology on warfare, Kadyrov’s men use Tik Tok as their primary weapon system, rather than their AKs.