If the Russian army launches a new invasion of Ukraine, it’ll face not only a strengthened Ukrainian military, but also fighters from around the former Soviet Union who bear intense grudges against Russian President Vladimir Putin and his regime.
A battalion of several hundred Chechen fighters are already battling in southeastern Ukraine against a Russian-backed “separatist” militia that controls the Donbas region. The Chechens see the war here as an extension of their decades-old fight against Moscow’s harsh rule over their own homeland. A Georgian Legion of perhaps 200 veterans of their country’s 2008 war against Russia have also taken up arms to defend Ukraine.
And there are far-right Ukrainian militiamen who have travelled to fight in both Chechnya and Georgia – seeing all those conflicts as part of the same long war against Moscow’s attempts to restore something like the Soviet empire that collapsed in 1991.
Ukraine and its chaotic democracy have become a magnet for many, including some dissident Russians, who are opposed to Mr. Putin and his increasing dominance over the post-Soviet space.
As a crowd of several thousand people marched through Kyiv on Saturday in a show of unity against the growing possibility of Russian military action, cries of “Long live Belarus!” mixed with chants of “Glory to Ukraine!” (and expletives about Mr. Putin). Thousands of Belarusians have moved to Kyiv after the country’s Moscow-backed dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, launched a harsh crackdown on the political opposition with Mr. Putin’s support.
“We are waiting for the Russians to come. We are trying to be as close [to the front line as possible] so we are the first ones they meet,” said Adam Osmayev, the 40-year-old commander of the Dzhokhar Dudayev Battalion, which is named after the leader who declared Chechnya’s independence from Russia in 1991. The battalion has been active in Ukraine since the outbreak of the Donbas war in 2014.
Mr. Osmayev said the battle against Russia and Mr. Putin is deeply personal for his men – and most of all for himself. Mr. Osmayev hasn’t been to his native Grozny since 2006, during the second of two Chechen wars of independence, which left tens of thousands of people dead and ended with Moscow ruling the region via brutal warlord Ramzan Kadyrov.
Now a Ukrainian citizen, Mr. Osmayev was jailed for three years here (while the Moscow-backed Viktor Yanukovych was Ukraine’s president) on charges that he was plotting to kill Mr. Putin, an allegation Mr. Osmayev denies. Mr. Osmayev was released after Ukraine’s pro-Western revolution in 2014, and has since survived two assassination attempts, including one in 2017 that killed his wife, Amina Okuyeva. Ukrainian authorities have said they suspect Russian agents were behind the attack.
“It was personal for me before [the assassination]. But now it’s even more personal,” said Mr. Osmayev, speaking via Skype from a location that he said was near the frontline in southeastern Ukraine. “A lot of innocent people from my nation have been killed. But when it touched my family, I put a lot more effort into this war.”
Mamuka Mamulashvili, the commander of the Georgian Legion, also has a long-held grudge. Mr. Mamulashvili was just 14 when he joined a unit of the Georgian army commanded by his father Zurab. Father and son were both taken prisoner in 1993 by Russian forces aiding a separatist uprising in the Georgian region of Abkhazia. “I’ve been at war with Russia for 30 years,” Mr. Mamulashvili said.
A month as an underaged prisoner of war was the start of Mr. Mamulashvili’s battle against the Kremlin. By 2008, when Russian troops invaded Georgia after a surge in fighting around South Ossetia, another breakaway region supported by Moscow, Mr. Mamulashvili was an adviser to his country’s defence minister.
Mr. Mamulashvili believes the 2008 war – which saw Russia use the spike in fighting around South Ossetia as a pretext to launch a preplanned attack – provides a template for what Ukraine might see in the days ahead. Over 12 days of fighting, Russian troops dealt a heavy blow to Georgia’s army – as well as the country’s hopes of one day joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization military alliance.
Russia, which has amassed more than 130,000 troops on three sides of Ukraine, is now demanding guarantees that Kyiv will never join NATO. The Kremlin has repeatedly denied that it plans to invade Ukraine.
“Because Russia hasn’t been punished for the war in 2008, it is now escalating against Ukraine,” Mr. Mamulashvili said in an interview at the Georgian Legion’s base in a sports facility on the outskirts of Kyiv.
Mr. Mamulashvili and his men have been in Ukraine since the outbreak of the fighting in Donbas eight years ago. These days, half the Georgian Legion is deployed near the front, while the rest have shifted their focus to helping train Ukrainian civilians to defend their homes.
The thread connecting Georgia’s war with Ukraine’s, Mr. Mamulashvili said, is Mr. Putin’s unwillingness to tolerate democracies on the borders of the authoritarian Russia he has built over the past two decades.
There are also Ukrainian veterans of the wars in Chechnya and Georgia preparing to once more fight Russia. Igor Mazur believes that if he had been born in a “normal country,” he might have been a history teacher. Instead, the Ukrainian ultranationalist has been fighting in wars around the ex-USSR since he was 18.
Mr. Mazur first went to war in 1992, when he travelled to the Trans-Dniester region of Moldova and joined Ukrainian People’s Self Defence, a far-right militia better known by its Ukrainian acronym, UNSO. Though UNSO actually fought on the side of pro-Russian separatists in Trans-Dniester (where Russian “peacekeepers” have been stationed for the past 30 years), the group soon came to regard Russia – and the Kremlin’s attempts to regain control over its neighbours – as its prime enemy.
After Moldova, Mr. Mazur was dispatched by UNSO to fight alongside the Georgian army in Abkhazia, where he and a small group of UNSO fighters carried out hit-and-run attacks. Mr. Mazur then travelled to Grozny to fight on the Chechen side in the First Chechen War.
“We understood that one day Russia would come after us [in Ukraine]. It’s better to fight against the enemy somewhere else than on your own land,” Mr. Mazur said in an interview in Kyiv. “I have a lot of Georgian and Chechen friends. These alliances are important now.”
He says he received concussions in both the Abkhazia and Chechnya wars from artillery blasts that struck only a few metres away from him, but the 6-foot-7 fighter has otherwise never been seriously injured.
Mr. Mazur returned to Ukraine in time to take part in the pro-Western revolutions of 2004 and 2014, where the participation of groups such as UNSO was held up by the Kremlin as proof that fascism was on the rise in Ukraine. (While far-right groups are prominent in street rallies, they collectively won only 2 per cent of the vote in the 2019 parliamentary elections.)
After a Moscow-backed militia seized part of the Donbas region of Ukraine in 2014, Mr. Mazur took up arms again – this time joining a regular Ukrainian army battalion that successfully fought to liberate the Azov Sea port of Mariupol from the pro-Russian forces.
A father of three, Mr. Mazur says his wife persuaded him in 2016 to give up his “all my revolutions and wars.” But now war seems to be coming his way again. The 48-year-old says he has joined a reservist unit and expects to be activated “any second.”
It’s a sentiment shared by the Chechens and Georgians who are also in Ukraine, expecting war.
“I am over 20 years into this war now,” said Mr. Osmayev, the Chechen commander. “We Chechens didn’t have a choice but to fight, and now Ukrainians don’t have a choice either.”
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