Thousands of Kremlin opponents have been fighting for Ukraine in covert units since the Russian invasion. The volunteers come from Belarus, Chechnya and Georgia, among others. After decades of suppression, they are using the war effort to take revenge on Putin.
For months, the Russian military has been struggling with such a severe shortage of personnel that a new wave of mobilization seems inevitable. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian armed forces are enlisting thousands of volunteers. Many of them are historical enemies of Vladimir Putin – from Chechnya, Georgia, Belarus or ethnic minorities and anti-Kremlin opponents from their own country.
Numerous ethnically motivated battalions and regiments have formed to fight Ukraine since the Russian invasion. They were themselves suppressed by Russia for decades. Working alongside Ukraine, they now want revenge on Putin, as research by the New York Times shows. “We just want to fight the Russians,” says a battalion commander. “We know what they are”. The leader of the Russian volunteer corps wants to return to his homeland at some point – but only if Putin is supported. “You can’t persuade a bully to leave,” he says.
Many of their operations are covert, including sabotage missions behind Russian lines. “Their knowledge of Russia and the Russians and their hatred of Moscow made the volunteers good undercover cops for Kyiv,” writes the New York Times.
The Ukrainian military has so far declined to comment on the volunteer fighters. However, the groups say they are acting with the full knowledge and direction of the Ukrainian army and intelligence services. Their motivation: revenge for the historic complaints about expropriation and oppression by Russia.
Including several Chechen volunteer battalions. Fighters from Belarus have also formed a thousands-strong regiment. Other volunteers come from the Caucasus, Central Asia, and other ethnic minorities that make up larger populations in Russia, including Tatars and Turkish-speaking groups. More than five million Tatars, nearly two million Chechens and dozens of other ethnic minorities live in Russia,
Some volunteers also accuse the Kremlin of having deliberately recruited reservists in predominantly poorer and remote regions in which ethnic minorities live. For example, significantly more of them would be among the victims than ethnic Russians.
Some Russian exiles are also among the volunteer units, including anti-Putin nationalists and neo-Nazis. Among the thousands of Belarusians are many opponents of President Alexander Lukashenko, who is one of Putin’s closest allies. A Chechen volunteer battalion is named after Dzhokhar Dudayev, the former Soviet general who led the Chechen independence movement against Russia in the 1990s.
How many volunteers are actively fighting against Russia is unclear. The battalions don’t want to give exact details. “We have enough,” the deputy commander of a Chechen volunteer battalion told the New York Times. “Ukraine has no shortage of men, but we have to join in and be part of this war,” the commander continues. The units pay for their own weapons, ammunition, food and equipment.
The numerous volunteer fighters benefit the Ukraine, especially their linguistic advantage. Because most speak Russian, some also Ukrainian. One commander even says that some pose as Russian soldiers and enter occupied territories to carry out sabotage operations.
But her revenge on Putin also harbors risks. Any undercover soldiers captured by Russian forces would be severely punished. Many of them want to return to their homeland in the long term and overthrow the Russian and Belarusian governments there.