KYIV, Ukraine (AP) – Kneeling in a field of yellow wildflowers, a Chechen soldier carefully attaches an explosive device to the bottom of a small drone. Seconds later it is released. It explodes next to two old mannequins lined up 200 meters away, one wearing a Russian-style military hat on his head.
After this and other training outside the Ukrainian capital, the Chechen soldiers, in various camouflage shoes and protective clothing, will head to the front lines in Ukraine, promising to continue the fight against Russia that has raged for years in their homeland in the North Caucasus.
Fighters from Chechnya, the war-ravaged republic in southern Russia, are taking part on both sides of the conflict in Ukraine.
Pro-Kiev volunteers are loyal to Dzhokhar Dudayev, the late Chechen leader who led the republic to independence from Russia. Forming the “Dudayev Battalion”, they are the sworn enemies of Chechen troops who support Russian President Vladimir Putin and joined Russia in the months-long siege of Ukraine’s main port city of Mariupol and other hot spots in eastern and southern Ukraine. .
A group of new Chechens, many of whom live in Western Europe, were trained at a makeshift shooting range outside Kiev before heading east. During a training session on Saturday, the new recruits – all Muslim men – shouted “Allahu akbar!” (“God is great!”), who hold their guns in the air before getting military ID cards issued to volunteers.
Ukrainian officials say the Chechen battalion currently numbers several hundred fighting alongside the country’s military but not formally under the national command.
Instructors teach the new battalion members the basics of combat, including how to use a weapon, assume a firing position and work in teams. Trainers include veterans of wars in Chechnya that ended in 2009, some joined Ukraine after fighting against Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine began in 2014.
Tor, a volunteer who wanted to be identified only by his nickname on the battlefield, said he sees no difference between the two conflicts.
“People need to understand that we don’t have a choice,” he said in English, his face covered. “If they (Russian troops) win this war, they will continue. They never stop. I don’t know. The Baltic countries will be next, or Georgia or Kazakhstan. Putin openly says, absolutely, that he wants to rebuild the Soviet empire.”
Russia launched two wars to prevent Chechnya, a predominantly Muslim province, from gaining independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The first conflict broke out in 1994.
The second Chechen war started in 1999 and culminated in a siege by Russian troops of Grozny, the Chechen capital, which was devastated by heavy Russian bombing. After years of battling an insurgency, Russian officials declared the conflict in Chechnya over in 2017.
Muslim Madiev, a veteran fighter in the Chechen conflicts, identified himself as an adviser to the volunteer battalion in Ukraine. He joined the soldiers during the target practice on Saturday, targeting a plastic bottle held on a stick. Bullet cases flew from his automatic rifle into a field already littered with bullets, shotgun cartridges, and cardboard target sheets.
‘We are going to win this war. The whole world is already standing up for us,” he says in Russian.
“We were the only ones fighting for ourselves (in Chechnya). Nobody was with us. But now the whole world is behind Ukraine. We have to win, we have to win,” he declared. ___ Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine