January 20, 2023

Kadyrov says Chechens are fighting a ‘holy war’ against ’satinism’ in Ukraine

Institute for the Study of War

Head of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov continues to frame Chechen fighters’ involvement in the war in Ukraine on distinctly religious grounds, thereby building out his reputation and the reputation of his power base. Kadyrov responded to the recent list of guidelines for grooming standards in the Russian army and noted that a majority of Chechen fighters wear beards in accordance with the Sunnah, and additionally claimed that his Chechen fighters have been responsible for major gains in Mariupol, Severodonetsk, and Lysychansk.[1] Kadyrov questioned the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD)’s justifications for these guidelines and said they would demoralize fighters who are “waging a holy war.”[2] Kadyrov additionally amplified a sermon given by Chechen theologian Magomed Khitanaev on January 20 that claimed that the “special military operation” in Ukraine is aimed at eradicating Ukranian “satanism.”[3] Kadyrov has repeatedly justified Chechen fighters’ involvement in the war on distinctly religious grounds, thus presenting himself as the protector of Muslim fighters and bridging the gap between Chechen forces and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s framing of the war on religious and moral grounds.[4]

Kadyrov also notably posted footage on January 20 of a group of Chechen theologians completing their training at the Russian Special Forces University in Grozny, Chechnya, and noted that over 300 qadis (magistrates and judges who implement sharia law) and imams are planning to undergo similar training and deploy into Ukraine.[5] The fact that Chechen qadis will supposedly be embedded in Chechen units that deploy to Ukraine is noteworthy—qadis typically serve a judicial role in criminal and civil matters, and their presence in Ukraine may suggest that Kadyrov intends Chechen forces to serve a basic governance function in occupied areas. ISW has previously reported on Kadyrov’s efforts to position himself and his Chechen powerbase as a parallel and complementary structure to the conventional Russian armed forces.[6] Kadyrov may hope to use qadis and imams in Ukraine to set social conditions for the long-term resettlement of Muslim populations from the Caucasus in occupied areas of Ukraine, although there is no independent evidence of any such plans. ISW has previously reported on Kadyrov’s efforts to import Chechen elements to Ukraine to fill administrative and law enforcement roles in occupied territories for similar purposes.[7]

The Wagner Group appears to be struggling to present itself as an effective parallel military structure, thus increasingly proving to be a parasitic paramilitary entity. Russian opposition outlet TV Dozdh reported on January 20 that a woman whose husband reportedly died fighting with Wagner in Ukraine received her husband’s sealed coffin, death certificate, and a medal of honor and buried what she thought was her husband before finding out that he was alive and in Ukrainian custody.[8] TV Dozdh claimed that it has collected many such stories and that Wagner representatives have essentially intimidated family members into not checking coffins to confirm the deaths of their relatives.[9] Moscow Duma deputy Evgeny Stupin relatedly noted appeals he has received from constituents claiming that once their relatives signed contracts with Wagner and deployed to Ukraine, they ceased to hear from their relatives entirely.[10] These reports suggest that Wagner lacks basic administrative organs to maintain records of individual servicemen and communicate properly with authorities. Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin ironically has gone to great lengths to criticize the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) establishment, which he has accused of being inept in precisely these ways.

The Wagner Group may additionally be relying on the Russian MoD for the use of military assets on the frontline. A prominent Wagner Group-affiliated Russian milblogger posted an infographic on January 20 reportedly showing the array of military assets that Wagner is using around Bakhmut, including a TOS-1A thermobaric artillery system (typically a military district-level asset), various self-propelled guns and mortar systems, several armored vehicles, and an Su-25 aircraft.[11] The use of these assets, particularly aviation assets such as the Su-25, suggests that Wagner is working with the Russian MoD to access and operate these systems. While Wagner servicemen can feasibly operate these systems independently, they likely continue to rely on the MoD for logistical support and maintenance functions. Taken in tandem with reports of pervasive administrative and communication failures within Wagner’s ranks, the use of MoD equipment suggests that Wagner is functioning more as a parasite attached to the Russian armed forces than as the entirely self-contained, parastatal organization that Prigozhin tries to present it as being.

US intelligence confirmed the rivalry between the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and Wagner Group on January 20. National Security Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby stated that a rift is forming between Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin and Russian MoD officials as a result of an ongoing competition between conventional Russian forces and Wagner mercenaries in Ukraine.[12] Kirby added that Wagner “is becoming a rival power center to the Russian military and other Russian ministries” with its 50,000-strong group of forces in Ukraine consisting of 40,000 convicts and 10,000 contractors.[13] ISW continues to monitor the progression of the Wagner-Russian MoD conflict in the information space, with the Russian MoD again deliberately avoiding directly acknowledging Wagner troops’ participation in a claimed capture of Klishchiivka, Donetsk Oblast, on January 19.[14]

Prigozhin’s quest for legal recognition of Wagner Group may also trigger some factionalization within the Russian government—whether he intentionally sets out to do so or not. Chairman of the Russian socialist Just Russia—For the Truth party Sergey Mironov published a picture of himself with a Wagner sledgehammer that he said was a gift from Prigozhin.[15] Prigozhin had engraved the settlement names of Bakhmut and Soledar, Donetsk Oblast, likely to support his ongoing effort to advertise his forces as victors of the Battle for Soledar. Mironov also responded to a comment from a social media user asking if he intended to use this sledgehammer in combat, sarcastically implying that he is already on the front lines and in the trenches at his current position.[16] Mironov’s actions could suggest that he is a member of the pro-war faction that Prigozhin had previously referenced in his rants and may be advocating for the legalization of Wagner in Russia. Mironov had an exchange with a different commenter who had asked him to define Wagner and how the Kremlin regulates the group, to which he responded that the commenter was too late to the conversation.[17] That social media user, in turn, interpreted Mironov’s response as disregarding the Russian Criminal Code provisions against illegal military structures such as private military companies.[18] ISW previously reported that Prigozhin used Mironov’s likeness in his advertisements for the Wagner Center in St. Petersburg and is likely attempting to expand his group of backers within the Kremlin to support his commercial interests.[19]

The Kremlin is likely intensifying its efforts to present Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as an existential war to set informational conditions for a protracted war in Ukraine. Russian and social media sources circulated images on January 19 and 20 showing Russian officials installing air defense systems on the roof of the Russian Ministry of Defense building in Moscow and elsewhere near the city.[20] Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov refused to comment on the images, and State Duma Deputy Yevgeny Lebedev called them fake.[21] Some Russian milbloggers responded to these images with satisfaction that Moscow residents would finally be aware that Russia is involved in a “difficult war” in Ukraine.[22] The Kremlin likely deployed the air defense systems in Moscow to generate inflammatory images that portray the war as more threatening to the Russian public. It is unlikely, however, that the Kremlin believes that Ukraine would target Moscow and it likely engaged in this ostentatious play to support intensifying information operations to prepare the Russian domestic information space for a protracted war in Ukraine and further sacrifices.[23] This demonstration is also likely a part of the emerging information operation to contextualize the war in Ukraine in the Russian mythos of the Great Patriotic War, which is likely meant to increase Russian support for the war effort and further mobilization by absurdly portraying Ukraine as threatening Moscow and the rest of the Russian heartland in a way to the way Nazi Germany did during its invasion of the Soviet Union.[24]

Prominent Russian milbloggers claimed that Russian President Vladimir Putin replaced Russian Commander of the Airborne Forces, Colonel General Mikhail Teplinsky, with First Deputy Head of the Russian General Staff Academy, Lieutenant General Oleg Makarevich, on January 20.[25] A prominent Russian news source initially claimed on January 13 that Teplinsky was only on a temporary leave and denied milblogger reports about Teplinsky‘s dismissal.[26] Some milbloggers complained that Makarevich is the least suitable candidate to command the Russian Airborne Forces and called for Putin to instead appoint Colonel Vadim Pankov, current commander of the 45th Separate Guards Spetsnaz Brigade.[27] The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) has not yet confirmed Teplinsky’s dismissal nor confirmed Makarevich’s appointment. Teplinsky replaced former Commander of the Russian Airborne Forces, Colonel-General Andrey Serdyukov, in mid-June 2022, as ISW previously reported.[28] Teplinsky visited rear areas in east (left) bank Kherson Oblast in late December.[29]

The Kremlin continues to promote information operations threatening escalation over Western military assistance to Ukraine. Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov stated on January 20 that if Western defense ministers decided to provide Ukraine with heavy tanks at their meeting at the Ramstein Air Base in Germany, then this would only “add problems for Ukraine and the Ukrainian people.”[30] The Kremlin seeks to undermine Western willingness to offer aid to Ukraine by stoking fears of an escalation, whether between Russia and the West or of the war in Ukraine itself, that Russia cannot execute.[31] The Kremlin will likely continue to respond to Western conversations about further military assistance to Ukraine with vague threats of escalation that have no corresponding action.

Russian President Valdimir Putin fired Russian Security Council Assistant Secretary Alexei Pavlov on January 20, likely in response to Pavlov’s antisemitic comments in Fall 2022. Pavlov had served as a subordinate to Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev since 2009. The Kremlin’s newswire TASS reported that Pavlov’s dismissal was in connection with his receiving a new unspecified position but did not provide the timeline for his next appointment.[32] Pavlov’s dismissal, however, likely relates to his highly publicized comments regarding the need to “desatanize” Ukraine in a Moscow government-owned outlet Argumenty I Fakty in October 2022.[33] Pavlov stated that there is a need for “desatanization” because there are many religious cults in Ukraine following Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity in 2014, such as the Hassidic Jews. Pavlov’s antisemitic statement ignited criticism from Russian Hassidic Rabbi Berel Luzar and forced Patrushev to issue an apology promising that he would take appropriate measures to discipline the author of the piece.[34] It is unclear why Patrushev or Putin would have waited this long to take action. 

Key Takeaways

  • Head of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov continues to frame Chechen fighters’ involvement in the war in Ukraine on distinctly religious grounds, thereby building out his reputation and the reputation of his power base.
  • The Wagner Group appears to be struggling to present itself as an effective parallel military structure, thus increasingly proving to be a parasitic paramilitary entity.
  • US intelligence confirmed the rivalry between the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and Wagner Group on which ISW has long reported.
  • Prigozhin’s quest for legal recognition of the Wagner Group may also trigger further factionalization within the Russian government.
  • The Kremlin continues to engage in demonstrative public actions aimed at setting informational conditions for a protracted war in Ukraine.
  • Russian Telegram sources claimed that Putin dismissed Russian Commander of the Airborne Forces Colonel General Mikhail Teplinsky, but these reports remain unconfirmed.
  • The Kremlin continues to promote information operations threatening escalation over Western military assistance to Ukraine in order to weaken Western support.
  • Russian and Ukrainian forces reportedly continued offensive operations near Svatove and Kreminna.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations across the Donetsk Oblast front line. Russian sources continued to falsely claim that Russian forces are close to encircling Bakhmut.
  • Russian forces in Zaporizhia Oblast are still likely preparing for a defensive operation in the long term despite recent claims of territorial gains.
  • Russian officials and sources continue to indicate that mobilization measures are ongoing despite numerous claims that mobilization has officially concluded.
  • Russian officials and occupation authorities continue deporting Ukrainian children from occupied Ukraine to Russia.
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