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Within the war between Russia and Ukraine, a war between Chechens

Bandera, 41, a Chechen who is fighting for Ukraine against Russia, on June 25. (Serhiy Morgunov for The Washington Post)

KHERSON REGION, Ukraine — The long table was set with sliced vegetables, bottles of Coca-Cola and juice, boiled lamb hearts, and kebabs cooked over a fire. Sitting at the head was the man of the hour — the birthday boy. His arms were crossed in front of his broad chest as he leaned back in his chair and observed the rare party.

Joining him at the table were soldiers with beards that matched his. Some were the sons of men he’d fought alongside in a different war that felt very much like this one. Now he was their commander.

He was presented a cake covered in chocolate frosting and decorated with the images of two flags — one for the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, the home to which he and his comrades hope to return one day, and one for Ukraine, the country they are fighting for now. What the two have in common is their enemy: Russia.

“There are very few of us — my people have been evicted and exterminated,” said the commander, who asked to be identified only by his call sign, Makhno. He leads a reconnaissance platoon that is part of Ukraine’s military intelligence service.

“The Russians are destroying our population,” he said. “How can we not fight them?”

But often the forces on the other side of the front line are also from Chechnya, the small Muslim-majority republic under Russian rule in the Caucasus Mountains. Within a war between Russia and Ukraine is another war: between Chechens who have pledged their loyalty to Moscow and Chechens who say those fighters are traitors for joining forces with the country that bombarded their towns and cities decades ago.

Within Russia’s forces is a Chechen contingent known as the “Kadyrovites” — named after former Chechen leader Akhmad Kadyrov, who switched sides to join Russia in its second military campaign in Chechnya, in 1999-2000. And within Ukraine’s military are an undisclosed number of Chechens who believe this fight — stopping the Kremlin’s imperial aims — started with their homeland.

Makhno has no hesitation about killing Kadyrovites, even if they are fellow Chechens.

“They started killing us first,” he said. “They’re just Russian servicemen now. There’s no difference. They have no relation to us.”

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Maga, a 29-year-old volunteer fighter in Ukraine, was just a boy during the second of Russia’s wars in Chechnya. One of his earliest memories is hiding in a basement with his family. His grandfather had gone upstairs to observe the Russian jets and helicopters flying overhead, so Maga followed him — afraid to leave his grandfather alone.

“Then there was a big ‘bang, bang, bang!’ ” Maga recalled. “A missile had fallen somewhere nearby. The noise was so loud and scary that it knocked me off my feet and right back down the stairs to the basement.”

He asked to be identified by his nickname because he still has family in Chechnya and fears reprisals against them.

Maga’s hatred of Russia runs in the family, he said. His father fought Russia in the two brutal wars for Chechnya’s independence that devastated the republic. The second, begun by Russian President Vladimir Putin in 1999, led to the eventual installation of Ramzan Kadyrov in 2007 — Putin’s personal appointment after his father, Akhmad Kadyrov, was assassinated in 2004.

Russia’s aerial attacks on the capital city of Grozny a quarter-century ago left nearly every building in ruins. The United Nations later called it the “most destroyed city on Earth.”

Moscow reestablished direct rule over Chechnya in 2000, but Makhno and others didn’t surrender. For years they ran insurgency operations against the pro-Russian Chechen forces. But when Russian-led separatists started a war in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region in 2014, Makhno was in Europe, recovering from an injury suffered during combat.

He then realized there was a new battlefield on which he could face his enemy. He came to Ukraine as a volunteer soldier before becoming a full member of the armed forces in 2018.

For Maga, Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine presented his first opportunity to continue his father’s fight. He joined a volunteer battalion that didn’t even have bulletproof vests and helmets. Eventually, he got a donated used set and took up a position in the Kyiv suburb of Moschun, where some of the most intense battles took place.

“I don’t understand who raised guys in Chechnya that they can now say, ‘We’re Putin’s infantrymen,’ ” Maga said. “How could you do it? How could you hate your own people?”

Ramzan Kadyrov has tried to build a personality cult. He has more than 2.5 million followers on his Telegram channel, where he posts rambling commentaries calling the Ukraine invasion a “holy war” and claiming conquests of Ukrainian cities and towns. On Thursday, he posted a fake “surrender” video of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky filled with antisemitic tropes, portraying him as a cocaine addict who admitted being stupid and begged Kadyrov for mercy.

Apart from a few weeks at the start of the war during Russia’s failed effort to topple Kyiv, the Kadyrovites have not been involved in front-line fighting, according to military analysts, and instead are assigned to the less prestigious “cleanup” operations, securing cities and towns already conquered.

“They’re people without any battle experience, so they’re not real soldiers,” said Michael Nacke, an independent Russian military analyst, journalist and videoblogger.

“A lot of people called them the TikTok army,” Nacke said, referring to the group’s posts of themselves firing on what appear to be vacant buildings. “They exist to scare people."

Among ordinary Ukrainians, they’ve succeeded, garnering a reputation for being the most feared of Russia’s forces. Ukrainian officials say the Kadyrovites were responsible for some of the worst atrocities, such as killing and torturing civilians, in occupied areas throughout the Kyiv region.

Their actions followed a playbook Makhno knows well. During the first Chechen war, Russia’s forces surrounded and blockaded villages like Samashki, preventing civilians from evacuating and bombing them repeatedly. The strikes left craters where houses had been. In both wars, Russian forces were responsible for the torture of prisoners and summary executions, human rights groups reported.

“Whatever they were doing here, they did it to our relatives at home first,” Makhno said. “Each of us has had relatives and neighbors killed. We know this system better than anyone else. And that’s why we’re fighting here.”

In recent days, Kadyrov has repeatedly claimed credit for the “historic” conquest of the Luhansk region, adding that “for us Chechens at least, the special operation is still far from over,” using the Kremlin’s preferred name for the war. He said he desperately hoped Putin would let his men attack Kyiv and annihilate the Chechens fighting on the Ukrainian side, whom he called “rats” and “officially recognized terrorists.”

“I have only one request,” he said. “It consists in giving us permission to go, if necessary, even to Kyiv itself and to get even with our blood enemies.”

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Two Chechen battalions are reported to be fighting on Ukraine’s side: the Sheikh Mansur Battalion and the Dzhokhar Dudayev Battalion — named after legendary Chechen leaders who resisted Russian rule.

In February, the leader of the Dzhokhar Dudayev Battalion, Adam Osmayev, announced in a video that his fighters were joining the fight against Russia, urging Ukrainians not to think of the Kadyrov fighters as Chechens.

“The real Chechens are standing with you, bleeding with you, as they have in the past eight years,” he said, referring to the start of Russia’s aggression in eastern Ukraine and the invasion of Crimea in 2014.

In 2012, Russia accused Osmayev of plotting to assassinate Putin. Osmayev and his wife were driving in Kyiv when they were ambushed by gunmen at a rail crossing in 2017; his wife was killed.

Also joining Makhno’s birthday party last month was Bandera. He was living in Belgium when the war started, trying to open a steakhouse. He said he dropped everything — including leaving his wife and seven children — to join Makhno on the front line. The two men had fought Russian forces together in Chechnya starting when they were teenagers.

“I had the intention to kill 50 Orcs and then leave,” Bandera said, referring to Russian soldiers as the fictional monsters in “The Lord of the Rings.”

“But then when I came here, I realized I can’t leave until the end.”

Both he and Makhno quoted Dudayev, the Chechen separatist leader who was assassinated in 1996, who predicted in 1995 that Russia would one day attack Ukraine in the same way it did Chechnya.

“The whole world did not understand this before,” Bandera said. “But now it’s starting to get it — that Putin will come knocking on their door next. After Ukraine, it will be other countries in Europe. We came here with the hope that the international community will not play double standards and sit back like it did before with Chechnya.”

Dixon reported from Riga, Latvia. David L. Stern in Kyiv contributed to this report.

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled the name of Michael Nacke and incorrectly identified him as part of a military analysis group. Nacke is an independent Russian military analyst, journalist and videoblogger. The article has been corrected.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin signed decrees Friday to annex four occupied regions of Ukraine, following staged referendums that were widely denounced as illegal. Follow our live updates here.

The response: The Biden administration on Friday announced a new round of sanctions on Russia, in response to the annexations, targeting government officials and family members, Russian and Belarusian military officials and defense procurement networks. President Volodymyr Zelensky also said Friday that Ukraine is applying for “accelerated ascension” into NATO, in an apparent answer to the annexations.

In Russia: Putin declared a military mobilization on Sept. 21 to call up as many as 300,000 reservists in a dramatic bid to reverse setbacks in his war on Ukraine. The announcement led to an exodus of more than 180,000 people, mostly men who were subject to service, and renewed protests and other acts of defiance against the war.

The fight: Ukraine mounted a successful counteroffensive that forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in early September, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the U.S. can support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

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