Kadyrov’s Troops Clash With Russian Forces in Occupied Melitopol

Vladimir Putin meets with Ramzan Kadyrov at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 13, 2023. Chechnya is among the eight regions ordered to tighten their belts and cut budget deficits. MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV//Getty Images

Footage of a new apparent clash between Russian forces and their Chechen allies is spreading around Russian and Ukrainian social-media channels, amid continued reports of morale and discipline problems among Moscow’s forces in occupied Ukraine.

The video, shared by several high-profile pro-war Russian military bloggers and Chechen channels, purportedly showed a violent confrontation between regular Russian and Chechen forces at a checkpoint in the occupied and heavily fortified southern Ukrainian city of Melitopol. Newsweek cannot independently verify the footage and has contacted the Russian Defense Ministry by email to request comment.

Vakha Khambulatov, the commander of the Chechen Vostok-Akhmat battalion, was reportedly involved in the confrontation, accused of attacking a Russian soldier in anger at being stopped at the checkpoint. After an unidentified Russian serviceman questioned the paper orders produced by Khambulatov, Chechen soldiers with the commander appeared to beat the soldier and threaten him with a pistol.

The Visionary Telegram channel said the video of the skirmish is generating a scandal in Russia. “Vakha Khambulatov…and his subordinates are beating military police officers who stopped their motorcade without justifiable reasons,” the channel wrote.

“The hot ‘Chechen topic,’ which cooled down during the New Year holidays, is again rising to the top of the military-political agenda,” the post added. Subsequent developments, the channel said, will reveal a lot about the current tensions developing between the Chechens and their Russian comrades.

The ultranationalist Voenkor Telegram channel posted an angry reaction to the video. “It is impossible not to react to this,” the popular blogger wrote. “This is a direct challenge… Are these exactly the defenders who are entrusted to protect the people of the Russian world?”

The Thirteenth channel, meanwhile, went as far as to call for violent retribution. The channel said that Russian soldiers manning checkpoints should face down armed Chechens. If “there is a threat to your life, then you need to take your machine gun off the safety and discharge it into an ugly, bearded face,” the post said, referring to the characteristic full beards worn by Muslim Chechen fighters.

Tensions have long existed between regular Russian units and Chechen formations under the control of Ramzan Kadyrov. He is Chechnya’s pro-Kremlin strongman, whom Moscow allows to rule the North Caucasus republic as a personal fiefdom in exchange for loyalty to President Vladimir Putin.

Kadyrov’s rule has enabled Moscow to quiet the restive region. Chechnya played host to two brutal secessionist conflicts in the 1990s and 2000s, the second of which was overseen by Putin. Kadyrov’s father—Akhmad Kadyrov, who was assassinated in 2004—fought the Kremlin in the First Chechen War but switched sides to back Moscow in the second.

Ramzan Kadyrov sent his forces to Ukraine early in the full-scale Russian invasion of the country. However, the Chechen units were widely mocked by Ukrainians and Russians alike for their performative but ineffective showings in combat. Such behavior won them the “TikTok Battalion” nickname, a reference to the many social-media videos produced by the Chechen fighters.

Known as “Kadyrovtsy” or “Kadyrovites,” they have repeatedly clashed with their Russian comrades. “Relations between conscripts and occupation forces from the Chechen Republic on the temporarily occupied territory of Donetsk Oblast remain strained,” the Ukrainian armed forces said in November 2022. It followed an incident in Makiivka, Donetsk, in which three occupying soldiers were reportedly wounded.

Kadyrov himself has also engaged in the Kremlin backbiting that has accompanied Moscow’s full-scale invasion.

The Chechen leader initially echoed many of the grievances expressed by oligarch-turned-warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin, who, as the leader of the mercenary Wagner Group, engaged in fierce criticism of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov.

However, as Prigozhin became more outspoken, Kadyrov distanced himself. When Prigozhin launched his ill-fated coup in June 2023, Kadyrov offered his Chechens to put down the mutiny.

After Prigozhin’s death in August 2023, Kadyrov lamented a “great loss for the whole state.”

However, he added: “I asked him to leave his personal ambitions behind in favor of matters of paramount national importance… Everything else could be dealt with later. But that’s just the way he was, Prigozhin, with his iron character and his desire to get what he wanted right here and now.”

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