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Muslims are fighting on both sides in Ukraine

The war, which has divided Muslim clerics, threatens to destabilize the Caucasus and Central Asia

Ramzan Kadyrov, head of the Chechen Republic, addresses service members while making a statement on the military conflict in Ukraine, in Grozny, Russia, on Feb. 25. (Stringer/Reuters)
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As Russian troops pushed in the first days of the war toward Kyiv, Kharkiv and other Ukrainian cities, and Ukrainians resisted, families in the Russian North Caucasus began to bury sons killed in the fighting. At one funeral in the Kurchaloyevsky district of Chechnya, a Muslim cleric announced that the families of Abdulbek Taramov and Tamirlan Isaev would each receive 1 million rubles (about $6,400) and a cow. Just days before, on Feb. 27, an Islamic scholar based in the Chechen capital of Grozny, Salakh Mezhiev, had declared the Russian invasion a “jihad.” Chechen soldiers, he explained, were fighting “for the Koran, for God” and to save both Russia and Islam from “filth” spread by NATO.

Pro-Kremlin propagandists have cast the Russian invasion as a war for what Putin has called the “spiritual unity” of Orthodox Christian Russians and Ukrainians. Yet an overlooked aspect of this war is the fact that Muslims of diverse national and ethnic backgrounds аre playing a central role. Muslim clerics in Russia have backed Vladimir Putin’s offensive and tried to rally the support of Russia’s estimated 20 million or more Muslims (at least 14 percent of the country’s population). On the front lines, Russian Muslims find themselves pitted against fellow Muslims defending Ukraine. Chechens are fighting on both sides. More Islamic burials are anticipated in both countries in the days to come.

These deaths could have significant geopolitical implications. Ukrainians are obviously bearing the brunt of Putin’s fury, but the war threatens to ignite other kinds of conflict within Russia and, via its Muslim diaspora communities, throughout the Caucasus and Central Asia. The Russian clerics’ support of Putin could also backfire: Their support of Putin’s venture could discredit them in the eyes of their followers, who may come to question the legitimacy of the war and its religious validation — a development that would unsettle Russian Islam.

To be sure, Muslims have served in the Russian military since the tsarist era, yet their presence has been especially visible — and controversial — in this war. Among the first Russian casualties whose name became public (in this case by way of a local official’s statement) was a Muslim from Dagestan, Nurmagomed Gadzhimagomedov. Numerous Muslim names have already appeared on lists of captives, and according to analysis by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, about one third of casualties are soldiers with non-Slavic, mostly Muslim names. Notably, the Chechen strongman and Putin ally Ramzan Kadyrov has dispatched a unit of loyalists to Ukraine. Videos of their exploits have circulated on social media, and Ukrainians have accused them of attempting to assassinate President Volodymyr Zelensky. When the offensive slowed in its early days, Kadyrov urged Putin to set aside all restraint to finish the job more quickly and has since called on Muslims to embrace the war as a religious duty.

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In Ukraine, Kadyrov’s forces have become a symbol of Russian tyranny — and for some, Muslim-Christian conflict. Far-right Azov Battalion fighters have filmed themselves smearing bullets in pork grease to antagonize Muslims fighting for Russia, whom they refer to as “orcs.” However, Ukraine is also home to Chechen exiles who have never forgiven the Kadyrovs for siding with Russia and crushing their independence movement in 1999-2000. They, too, have pledged to fight.

In Russia, top Muslim clerics have for now put their rivalries aside and have mostly united behind the Kremlin. In Russia’s Republic of Bashkortostan, Talgat Tadzhuddin has echoed Kremlin talking points justifying the invasion, concluding his statement with citations from the Koran. Kamil Samigullin, the mufti of the Republic of Tatarstan, has argued that the West’s support of Ukraine is hypocritical, given the interventions in Libya and Iraq (and the treatment of Palestinians), and asserted that Ukraine is controlled by neo-Nazis who have harmed Ukrainians “of all confessions, including Muslims.” Similarly, in Moscow, mufti Albert Krganov expressed regret about Ukrainian suffering but concluded that Ukraine had become a “staging ground for an attack on our country.” He added that Muslims were praying “for our president and for our soldiers in Ukraine regardless of their religion or nationality.”

In offering their blessings for the war, though, these clerics have taken a risk. Their authority is not universal, and it remains unclear how Muslims, particularly those with sons in the military, will respond. The “jihad” declared in Chechnya does not appear to have much popular support. One influential critic, Abdullah Kostekskii, a Salafist from Dagestan now in exile in Turkey, has declared it unlawful for Muslims to participate in the war for either “infidel” army. His Russian-language YouTube video on the subject has received more than 450,000 views in just over a week.

Nowhere is the risk of these controversies creating intra-Muslim conflict and anti-government mobilization greater than in the North Caucasus, which has some of the lowest standards of living in Russia. Squeezed by corrupt and oppressive rule, the region has been fertile ground for clashes among competing Islamic movements; as many as 7,000 locals may have left since 2013 to join the Islamic State seeking social justice and religious purity. There and elsewhere in Russia, disapproval of Muslims killing one another or dying in a futile war to aid the domination of one Slavic “brother” over another may harden.

Sanctions are yet another destabilizing feature of the war: Among the people most severely hurt by them will be the region’s Muslim labor migrants. As construction and other sectors of the Russian economy grind to a halt and the ruble plummets, 7.8 million itinerant workers from Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan will lose wages that sustain their families back home. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, where remittances make up roughly 30 percent of GDP, are the most vulnerable. Kazakhstan, Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan will also feel Russia’s pain due to currency and trade disruptions.

Back in Ukraine, the prominent Muslim cleric Said Ismagilov has responded to all of this by calling for Ukrainian unity against Russian aggression — and by appealing to Russian Muslims “not to support the Putin regime.” On his Facebook site, he has published photographs of a Ukrainian mosque damaged by Russian shells and asked the world’s Muslims “to be on our side,” arguing that Ukraine is a country, unlike Russia, “where Islam is a respected religion.”

The war in Ukraine is testing Muslims’ allegiances and straining relations between state-backed clerics and their followers. It also threatens to reopen the wounds of Russia’s wars of the 1990s in the Caucasus, while placing immense pressure on Central Asians in Russia and throughout the region. Within Russia itself, Putin’s actions risk undermining key religious foundations of the state by isolating the Kremlin’s Muslim-leader allies from their fragile social bases. Meanwhile, the possible entry of Syrians recruited by Russia and exiled Chechens fighting for Ukrainians raises the stakes of the war for neighbors in the Middle East.

Conceived as a quick operation to consolidate Russian domination of Ukraine, the war’s entanglement of Christians and Muslims of different ethnic and national origins and competing religious orientations could soon inflame ideological and sectarian antagonisms far beyond the battlefield.