Exclusive: An interview with a Chechen commander fighting for Ukraine

DNIPROPETROVSK, Ukraine – The leader of the Chechen volunteer battalion here says Canada, the United States and other western nations can help to stop Russian aggression now in the “open war” against Ukraine, or face it later elsewhere.

“If we don’t stop Russia, it will go further,” said Cmdr. Isa Munajev, a veteran of the Chechen wars of the 1990s who now serves in the Ukrainian army. He suggested Estonia and Latvia will be the next countries Russia will attack. About 3,000 to 4,000 Russian soldiers are among those fighting with separatist rebels in the east of Ukraine, the United Nations has reported.

Munajev was interviewed recently 50 kilometres behind the lines at the headquarters of his group, called the International Peacekeepers Battalion. About 10 tents house the group’s soldiers here, and it has people in two other locations as well.

Cmdr. Isa Munajev with reporter Bird.
Cmdr. Isa Munajev with reporter Bird.

The commander said he is motivated partly by revenge, after the Russians killed some family members in earlier wars, but he also wants to help the Ukrainian people stop Russian-backed separatist aggression.

He said he would like Canada and the United States to enter the fray in eastern Ukraine. “It would be wonderful. It would be unity of the civilized world against the barbarian (Russian President Vladimir) Putin.”

But another officer at a checkpoint in Ukrainian-held territory said this is a local fight that should be fought by local soldiers, though he would welcome material aid from the West. So there is a variety of viewpoints about what should be done going forward.

Despite the Sept. 5 ceasefire agreement, which promises autonomy for the two self-proclaimed republics in Donetsk and Luhansk regions, shelling and skirmishes continue.

Since Ukraine does not belong to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, western countries are not obliged to help it repel aggression. But NATO is concerned about the violence in eastern Ukraine and is seeing an increasing number of flights of Russian military aircraft over the Baltic states, which are NATO members.

An Oct. 8 report from the UN’s Human Rights Office outlines rape, beatings, mock-murders and murders of Ukrainian civilians by “armed groups” in the war-torn areas.

“It is true,” said Munajev, who blamed the rebels and Russians for the atrocities, though the report says elements on both sides are culpable. “I have been here for two months and the same things happened in Chechnya (when Russian troops invaded in the 1990s). I hope the world community will stand up to this devil, Putin. We can defeat him only together.”

Tents used by the Chechen battalion.
Tents used by the Chechen battalion.

Munajev said seven of his men have been injured in recent fighting; he would not reveal the number of dead.

Timur, 21, is an ethnic Chechen who recently graduated with a degree in economics and was living in Germany. “I have seen what the Russians have done to the Chechen people,” Timur said, explaining why he volunteered. “Many of my family have died.”

All of those interviewed spoke through an interpreter.

Another soldier, Valentine, 35, is from Russia. “No other battalion would accept me, and my father was Ukrainian,” he explains. He was trained by the Russian army.

The commander said Russian forces are three kilometers closer to this base than they were last week. “The Russians are coming here, step by step,” he said. The HQ is in a field near a line of trees used for firewood to cook and heat the tents.

“I hope the world will find out the truth. It’s a war, an open war against the Ukrainian nation and state,” said Munajev.

The Russian president’s image is used for target practice.
The Russian president’s image is used for target practice.

[hr] Mr. Bird is a Canadian freelance reporter.