Acrylic Paints and Urban Combat The Chechens Fighting on the Ukrainian Side
Out in the yard, among the boxes of munitions and homemade grenades, the painting of a street scene has been set out to dry. A man with a wildly untamed beard, who introduces himself as Omar, says that we are in the right place, this is the quarters of the Chechen unit. His battle clothing is spattered with color, but it's not blood or mud. It’s acrylic paint. "I fight, and I paint," he says.
He was able to produce his best paintings near Mariupol, he says, where they just barely managed to escape the slaughter with their lives. There, he says, he used the lids of munition crates as his canvas. Here, in a village slightly removed from the city of Bakhmut – which has been the focus of an unceasing Russian offensive for the past several months – he has cut an old Soviet-era city map into manageable segments, painting on the yellowed backside. The perspective he has chosen for his current painting includes both the local mosque and one of the churches.
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 12/2023 (March 18th, 2023) of DER SPIEGEL.
The widely held image of Chechens is that of unrelenting Islamists. In the reporting on the Chechen fighters involved in the war in Ukraine, most of the attention has been focused on the militia fighters under the command of Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov, who took part in Russia’s invasion and are infamous for atrocities. That, though, is only half the story of this small Caucasus republic, one which, two decades ago, experienced the same fate that Ukraine is now suffering: an invasion by Vladimir Putin.
Indeed, a Chechen unit is fighting on Ukraine’s side in the Donbas. Its name, the Sheikh Mansur Brigade, sounds religious, and most of the men wear full beards. There are about 100 of them, though their precise number is confidential, and the vast majority of them were born in Chechnya. But the unit also includes converts and sympathizers from other countries. A closer look reveals an unexpected mix of personal histories that says a lot about the war and provides answers to the question as to why some people are moved to go into combat far from home.
Ukrainian soldiers near Bakhmut in March 2023Foto: Aris Messinis / AFP
For our long-negotiated visit to the unit’s headquarters, a basement in the heart of Bakhmut, we have to provide the precise minute of our arrival and the make and model of our vehicle, so that they can open the gate at exactly the right time. "Drive immediately into the last garage, on the left side," are the instructions we have been given. Mirrors are set up everywhere so that members of the Mansur Brigade can monitor movement on all sides without being seen – the product of 20 years of experience with guerilla warfare.
One of the men says they are currently preparing for house-to-house fighting. His nom de guerre is Shamil, after the legendary, 19th-century Caucasian resistance fighter Imam Shamil. He adds that their focus on close-quarter combat is born less out of heroism than from a lack of alternatives: "We only have rifles, no tanks and hardly any artillery. If we see Russian soldiers within a distance of 200 meters, I can get them with a Kalashnikov. That’s our only chance."
Chechen fighters have been volunteering in Ukraine since 2014, when Vladimir Putin sent in his elite troops to conquer Crimea and parts of the Donbas. Many of them fled their homeland when Russia attacked Chechnya, and the Ukraine war is something of a déjà-vu.
Deputy commander Abu: "When Chechnya was attacked by Russia in 1999, nobody helped us. Nobody even listened to us."Foto: Johanna Maria Fritz / OSTKREUZ / DER SPIEGEL
"When Chechnya was attacked by Russia in 1999, nobody helped us. Nobody even listened to us," says a deputy commander who calls himself Abu. "Later, in Georgia and Syria, everyone just let Putin do his thing there too. But he always follows the same pattern: Lies and bombs. Back then, he led the world to believe that we are all religious fanatics and terrorists. But we were focused on something else: Freedom from Moscow’s tyranny." Now, he says, it makes perfect sense for him to be fighting alongside an Orthodox-Christian country against invaders from another Orthodox-Christian country. "We have the same goal."
As he makes tea, Abu says that he immigrated to Kyiv in 2006, but then left for Sweden in 2010 after the pro-Russian politician Viktor Yanukovych became president of Ukraine. He returned in 2014, when friends of his from the Ukrainian protest movement called him up after Yanukovych fled the country and Putin marched into Crimea and the Donbas. "They were good at demonstrations. But we were good at guerilla warfare," the 36-year-old veteran recalls. Today, their unit isn’t part of the regular military, he says, but is mostly used by the Ukrainian secret service agency SBU for reconnaissance missions behind Russian lines. At the time of our last meeting in late February, though, they had been waiting for several days for new orders – and it was unclear whether they would be told to continue fighting or to pull out of Bakhmut entirely out of concerns that the city could not be held for much longer.
"Either way, we’re here," he says, in contrast to the militia fighters loyal to Putin’s Chechen lackey Kadyrov. His men, says Abu, are prominent on TikTok and other social media channels, but they aren’t present at the front. It is a statement confirmed by a Ukrainian army officer, who says the pro-Putin fighters from Chechnya haven’t been seen in Bakhmut for months – a state of affairs that he would like to see reversed. The officer is responsible for prisoner exchange negotiations. "For a single one of the Kadyrovskys," as the Chechens under Russian command are called, "we can get back 10 or 20 of our own men!" Kadyrov, he says, apparently doesn’t have that many men at his disposal and has convinced Putin that if his men are captured, they should be prioritized in prisoner exchanges.
Abu, speaking about the Ukrainians
"Bakhmut feels like Chechnya," Abu says. He was just seven years old in 1994, when his family’s district on the outskirts of the capital of Grozny came under bombardment during the First Chechen War. "We moved from the village to the city and back to the village, always heading to where it was quiet, where bombs weren’t falling." He was the youngest of seven brothers, two of whom died in 1996. "We only found their bodies, full of bullet holes. Even as an adolescent, he served as a messenger, before then joining the fight. He fled into the mountains, and then returned when a peace treaty materialized under Russia’s first post-Soviet president, Boris Yeltsin. In 1999, though, when Putin attacked Chechnya again, he left for good.
Abu goes back and forth between Ukraine and Sweden, where he works construction to earn money for his family and for the months he spends at the front. "We don’t receive any military pay here, and war is also something you have to be able to afford." He has been living legally in Sweden for long enough that he could apply for citizenship, "but to do so, I would have to live there uninterrupted for an entire year. That’s not so easy at the moment."
Every now and then, they watch Russian television, he says with a chuckle. "During the war against Chechnya, they would say that the army had to protect Russia from terrorists. Now, they claim that Ukraine is full of homosexuals and they have to protect Russia from that – that if they don’t stop us here, we’d bring our depraved culture to Russia."
But as tragically and typically as Abu’s biography seems to mirror the fate of Chechnya, the image becomes far more nuanced the more you get to know the unit. And the less the men fit in with the cliché of religious warriors from the Caucasus.
Shamil in his quarters in Bakhmut: "I needed stability, a moral compass telling me what’s right and what’s wrong."Foto: Johanna Maria Fritz / OSTKREUZ / DER SPIEGEL
Shamil, for example, the man with the monumental beard and nostalgic pseudonym, isn’t Chechen at all. He's half Russian and half Ukrainian. Aside from his parents, he says, his entire family lives in Russia – and he spent several years in a Russian prison for an attempted bank robbery, converting to Islam behind bars. "I needed stability, a moral compass telling me what’s right and what’s wrong."
After his release in 2018, he emigrated to Ukraine. It made perfect sense for him, he says, to join the Chechen brigade last spring, three months after the Russian invasion. Prior to doing so, he says, he had tried to tell his family in Russia that Putin’s troops were committing terrible wrongs: "But they didn’t even listen. They just parroted the propaganda."
So, he decided to fight. But now, he has something of a legal problem: As an ex-convict from Russia, he isn’t allowed to purchase a sniper rifle in Ukraine, despite the war. "I’m a good marksman and would like to fight as a sniper," he says. But first, he must clear the legal hurdles stemming from his criminal record in Russia. "I didn’t want to lie to officials here," he says. And in contrast to the Russian side, where the mercenary unit Wagner Group is largely made up of released convicts, the Ukrainians are a bit more cautious.
Omar has achieved a certain amount of fame in Ukraine for his paintings.Foto: Johanna Maria Fritz / OSTKREUZ / DER SPIEGEL
Artist and fighter Omar in his studio at home: "I only use acrylic paint anymore. Oil dries too slowly, and that’s not great when you’re under fire."Foto:
Johanna Maria Fritz / OSTKREUZ / DER SPIEGEL
Omar's painting equipmentFoto: Johanna Maria Fritz / OSTKREUZ / DER SPIEGEL
Omar, the painter, wears a full beard and uses a nom de guerre from the Second Caliphate in the early days of Islam. But his real name is Volodymyr, and he's Ukrainian. Exhibitions and prizes for his art have brought him fame in Ukraine, and filming was just completed for a television documentary about him.
He’s only been back at the front for the last two weeks, after spending some time in the hospital with shrapnel wounds from a Russian shell that exploded just a bit too close. He converted to Islam several years ago "because of the spirit," courage and temperament of his Chechen companions, he says.
He liked to paint as a young boy in his village, he says, with the roar of explosions audible in the distance. He then joined the army and was sent to former Yugoslavia as a UN peacekeeper. For years, he didn’t pick up a brush – "until I just had to start painting again."
He was accepted to art school in the Carpathian town of Ivano-Frankivsk, and he exhibited his works in Kyiv. When Russian troops marched into Ukraine in 2014, he went back to war, joining a volunteer militia fighting in eastern Ukraine. "I was stuck in a shell crater with another soldier in Pisky, an embattled suburb of Donetsk. We couldn’t leave. So I asked him: 'Can I draw you?'"
Since then, he has been armed not just with a grenade launcher, but also with brushes and paints. He says he has chosen the units he fights with in part based on the landscapes where they are deployed. "I didn’t just want to fight, I also wanted to paint." It’s so easy to die these days, he says, that he figured he could allow himself the luxury of pursuing his passion.
Whenever the fighting calms down in Bakhmut, he takes his easel outside. He paints the sky purple, the birch trees in the shadows are green – slightly surreal panoramas of a doomed city.
"I always have to be fast," he says. If he has to, he’ll just do a sketch outside before completing the painting in the bunker. "But that’s not ideal." The warzone has turned him into a pragmatist: "I only use acrylic paint anymore. Oil dries too slowly, and that’s not great when you’re under fire."