Pro-Russian Militants: Moves and Countermoves

Moves and Countermoves is a weekly column on developments of political importance and opposing reactions


As anti-Kiev demonstrations in Ukraine’s east evolved into an armed insurgency, several separatist militias came to the front of public attention. Like the volunteer battalions of the Ukrainian army, the armed forces of the Donetsk and Lugansk Peoples’ Republics largely rely on irregular forces. Many armed groups (on both sides) include foreign volunteers among their ranks, who join the fight for ideological, political, or personal reasons.

Among the more notorious volunteer units on the separatist side of the conflict include the Death Battalion, the Ghost Brigade, and the previously profiled Vostok Battalion.


The Ghost Brigade

Ghost Brigade leader Aleksei Mozgovoy has emerged as one of the most powerful men in the Lugansk Peoples’ Republic. His 2000-strong volunteer unit is central to the Republic’s defense efforts. The Lugansk native was a non-commissioned officer in the Ukrainian army prior to the beginning of an armed revolt in April 2014. According to a report by the Jamestown Foundation, he “built up the Prizrak (ghost) unit from the platoon to the ‘brigade’ level.”

Mozgovoy is regarded as more articulate and radical than other rebel commanders. He hosts dialogues with Russian nationalist leaders and is popular among Orthodox traditionalist, nationalist, and Eurasianist circles in Russia and the former Soviet Union.

His ideology consists of a blend of traditionalist Orthodoxy, pan-Russian nationalism, and anti-globalism. His militiamen, many of whom are believed to come from traditionally Cossack areas in southern Russia, regularly evoke Cossack imagery and symbolism.


Death Battalion

While the Ghost Brigade draws its inspiration from pan-Slavic and Cossack sources, the Death Battalion more heavily draws from pro-Russian Caucasian volunteers. Like the Vostok Battalion, Death Battalion is largely comprised of Chechen volunteers who oppose the government in Kiev. Composed of approximately 300 men, the Death Battalion largely consists of veterans of the Chechen wars of the 1990s.

It is likely that these fighters are affiliated with the Kadyrov government in Grozny, though the Chechen Presidents denies sending them to Ukraine. Kadyrov later stated his willingness to personally travel to fight in the Donbas and calls into question his declared non-involvement in the conflict.

Though Chechens also fight on the Kiev side of the conflict, their role is more prominent among separatist forces.

According to a Brigade leader under the nomme de guerre “Stinger”, the Brigade’s members “are (former) soldiers and officers of the Russian army, of Russian special forces, mostly veterans of war campaigns.” In an unverified interview, a brigade fighter references Kadyrov’s government’s involvement.


Local Politics Define External Allegiances

Clan relations are a significant factor contributing to the presence of Chechen fighters on both sides of the Ukraine crisis. As was previously covered on Leksika, Caucasian Islamists and more extreme Ukrainian nationalists have ties spanning several decades. These militants actively oppose the Kadyrov Clan and their faction of pro-Moscow Chechens.

At least one Caucasian Islamist group, Jaish al-Muhajireen wal Ansar, has reportedly made an appearance in Ukraine. Jaish has been active in the Syrian war in coordination with Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate. Abdul Karim al-Ukraini, Jaysh’s second-in-command and an ethnic Crimean Tatar, has called on compatriots to wage a holy war on Moscow. “I want to say to those brothers, and I am addressing those brothers who remain [in Crimea], that they should feel dignity, so that they can start on the path of jihad,” he said. “So if they can’t come to the lands of Islam, like Sham [Syria], they can go to Moscow or Poland because the infidels there and here won’t rest until they destroyed your religion.”

Isa Munayev, a Chechen militant in-exile, has promised to bring 60,000 Islamic Fighters to Ukraine to help in their war against Russia. Munayev has previously been labeled a war criminal for his role in the Chechen Wars, and is believed to have personally beheaded as many as 20 Russian soldiers. The authenticity of these and other circulating YouTube videos of Islamic militants in Ukrainian insignia are difficult to verify. However, Munayev’s participation, and the participation of similar exiled Chechens, in actions in eastern Ukraine will continue to complicate the situation in Ukraine and tie its resolution to outstanding conflicts along Russia’s periphery.


Moving Forward

It is likely that Caucasian rivalries have spilled over into the war in Ukraine. Forces, both nationalist and Islamist, which were defeated in the 1990s are now seeking revenge on Russia in Ukraine, and the victorious factions under Kadyrov are continuing to defend Russian interests there.

While connections between Islamist Caucasian rebels and Ukrainian nationalists have already been established, the ties between the military wings of identified groups in Ukraine, the Caucasus, and Middle East nationalist militant groups will remain difficult to verify and necessitate outside resources.

The role of foreign fighters in the battle for Donbas is unlikely to taper in the near future, particularly as fighting intensifies and diplomatic efforts have failed to result in concrete solutions.