In the wake of the failed rebellion in Russia, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov is positioning himself as a warlord ready to go into battle for Vladimir Putin.
But unlike the paramilitary Wagner group, which Moscow is now seeking to disband, Chechen special forces have earned a reputation as “TikTok fighters” more concerned with their social media appearance than battlefield successes.
Following rival warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin’s mutiny, Kadyrov has sought to emphasise his continuing close ties to Putin, posting a selfie with the Russian president on his Telegram channel on Wednesday and bragging about their meeting the day before. Yet the record of his private army has raised questions over whether the Chechen fighters will be able to provide the Russian military with support equal to that of Wagner.
Hours after Prigozhin’s march on Moscow, a Kadyrov battalion posted a video on Telegram showing its forces dramatically patrolling a deserted bridge, dressed head-to-toe in camouflage and armed with machine guns.
“Whoever they are, whoever they are, we will bury these traitors to the motherland and fulfil any job assigned to us,” one of the Kadyrov fighters boomed as he wielded a thumbs up at the camera.
However, there was one problem with the footage: it appears to have been filmed during the Moscow sunset on Saturday — after Prigozhin’s insurrection had already ended — and in Kostroma — a city that Wagner fighters never came close to during the uprising.
Kadyrov has ruled the restive republic of Chechnya since 2007, and his fighters have already been active in Ukraine. Since joining the fighting there in February 2022, Kadyrov, an early Instagram adopter, and his fellow fighters have been prolific in their music video-style social media postings, which tend to be montages of fighters parading around in military garb — often with little sign of any firefight.
The fighters’ actual military successes have been significantly less numerous.
“The Chechen forces present an image they are very strong, parading very menacingly with their kit and equipment,” said Alex Kokcharov, a risk analyst focusing on Russia. “On the battlefield in Ukraine, we haven’t seen the Chechen forces making a significant impact, particularly along the front lines.”
The Chechen forces were most visibly present in parts of Ukraine that were already under Russian control, he said. By contrast, Prigozhin’s Wagner fighters had made some real military gains during their time on the ground, aiding in Russia’s capture of the city of Bakhmut, for instance, he added.
It was not always this way. When Russia launched its full-scale war in Ukraine in February 2022, Kadyrov sent multiple Chechen military units to the frontline where they were expected to play a pivotal role in Moscow’s ultimately failed plan to take over Kyiv.
However, the units sustained heavy losses soon after the war began, causing Kadyrov to rethink his forces’ involvement, said Emil Aslan, a Caucasus specialist and security studies professor at Charles University in Prague.
“He understood he was going to lose a lot of his people. And he cannot afford this,” Aslan said, adding that Kadyrov relied on his legions of experienced fighters to preserve his political standing at home.
“To survive, Kadyrov needs two things: Putin’s backing and the perseverance of his personal army. From then on, he was kind of manoeuvring between showing that he’s deploying forces that he’s going to sacrifice for the sake of national leader Vladimir Putin . . . and, on the other hand, trying to save the lives of the most experienced Kadyrovtsy,” said Aslan, referring to the elite fighters that make up Kadyrov’s personal army.
The stout and bearded leader has held on to power in Chechnya largely thanks to his close political alliance with Putin, who has lavished the region with federal funds and helped Kadyrov maintain his longstanding rule.
The relationship has also allowed Kadyrov to build up his own private army of mercenaries, who have been accused of war atrocities in Ukraine as well as the torture and murder of Kadyrov’s domestic opponents and critics.
In his relationship with Putin, Kadyrov was unrivalled — until the emergence of Prigozhin and his own competing private mercenary force. While Kadyrov sided with Prigozhin in some of his criticism of Russia’s top military brass, the two also feuded on social media, making repeated swipes at one another.
On Saturday, as Prigozhin’s rebellion unfolded, Kadyrov took to Telegram to denounce the Wagner leader, accusing Prigozhin of “a vile betrayal”.
“I have repeatedly warned that war is not the time to voice personal grievances,” Kadyrov said. “We have a supreme commander-in-chief, elected by the people, who knows the whole situation to the smallest detail better than any strategist.”
Apti Alaudinov, commander of Kadyrov’s Akhmat battalion, said that his fighters had been deployed to Rostov to stave off the rebellion and came within 500 to 700 metre distance from Wagner fighters.
Alaudinov said many Chechen fighters had not travelled to Rostov as they were “responsible” for holding the front line in Ukraine. He claimed that the Russian ministry of defence specifically requested the Chechen forces “not to engage in any combat because there was a hope to resolve everything peacefully”.
However, some military analysts remain sceptical. “It appears [Kadyrov’s forces] were biding their time to see what happens next,” said Samuel Bendett, adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
“No one really wanted to step in front of Prigozhin’s forces last weekend, except those few aircraft and helicopters that were shot down.”