NOVOMOSKOVSK, Ukraine - Adam Osmayev, an anti-Kremlin Chechen who is helping Ukraine ward off Russian aggression, doesn’t have a typical long beard associated with Islamist rebels. He is neither impulsive nor emotional nor, he says, a radical.
He is an opportunist and he sees his chance in Ukraine. The nation is providing him with the best opportunity to continue his lifelong struggle against Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov.
Though Osmayev sympathizes with the Chechen insurgency against the Kremlin, he believes North Caucasian rebels have made a mistake by embracing radical Islam.
The base of Osmayev’s Dzhokhar Dudayev Battalion near the city of Novomoskovsk in Dnipropetrovsk Oblast is a humble one – just a few buildings.
Osmayev invited a Kyiv Post reporter to sit on a tree stump and sip tea as two furry red cats were strolling nearby. The base’s barracks are adorned with Ukrainian, Chechen and Georgian flags and barricaded with sandbags.
The battalion is named after Chechen insurgent leader Dzhokhar Dudayev, who has had streets named after him in Lviv and Ivano-Frankivsk. Dudayev was the first president of the short-lived independent Chechnya. He was assassinated in 1996 by the Russian government, which waged two wars to force the breakaway republic into submission.
Osmayev comes from a family of pro-Russian Chechens that used to cooperate with the pro-Kremlin Akhmat Kadyrov and his son and successor, Ramzan Kadyrov.
His father Aslambek used to own an oil firm in Chechnya, while his uncle, Amin, was the speaker of the pro-Kremlin Chechen legislature and a member of the Russian parliament’s upper house in 1995-1998.
Osmayev says he has had frequent debates with his father and uncle, persuading them to oppose Russia.
In 1994-2001, Osmayev went to the U.K.’s Wycliffe College and then studied economics at Buckingham University without graduating.
He moved back to Russia in 2001, when a Chechen insurgency against Russian authorities was in full swing. However, Osmayev is secretive about this stage of his life and would not say whether he took part in the insurgency. He said, however, that he used to be an executive of a business consulting firm in Moscow.
Osmayev was accused of complicity in a terrorist attack in Moscow in 2007 – a charge that he denies – and fled Russia, moving to Odesa in 2008.
In 2012 he was arrested by the Security Service of Ukraine and Russia’s Federal Security Service in Odesa and accused of plotting an assassination attempt on Putin.
Osmayev says the case is fabricated and politically motivated.
In November, Osmayev was found guilty of the illegal use of explosives and document forgery by an Odesa court but he was released since he had already served his term by that time.
Then he joined the Dzhokhar Dudayev Battalion and succeeded Isa Munayev, who was killed in battle, as its head in February.
Osmayev’s primary motivation in Russia’s war against Ukraine is that Ukraine and Chechnya have a common enemy.
“In Chechnya we faced the same thing that Ukraine is facing,” he said. “You can’t even imagine what kind of monster you are up against.”
Osmayev believes pro-Russian Chechen leader Kadyrov to be his arch-enemy and criticizes him for “spoiling the Chechen people” by establishing a dictatorial regime. “Chechen people have never accepted authoritarianism before,” he said. “We have never had kings. (The Chechen spirit) contradicts the Asiatic mentality.”
Kadyrov’s fighters have fought against Ukrainian troops in Donbas.
However, many of them reportedly withdrew from eastern Ukraine in recent months amid a conflict with separatist leadership and increasing tensions between Kadyrov and the Kremlin.
Though Osmayev supports Chechen insurgents fighting against Kadyrov and Russia, he is against Islamic radicalism.
“Extremists caused a lot of damage. I see the same threat in Ukraine,” he said, adding that radicals could start destabilizing the government. “You don’t change horses in mid-stream.”
The Islamization of Chechen and North Caucasian rebels began after secular Chechen leader Dudayev was killed by Russian troops in 1996. The radicalization peaked when some of them pledged allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in late 2014.
Osmayev is emphatically against the Islamic State, a radical Islamist group in which Chechens led by Abu Omar al-Shishani reportedly play a decisive military role. He says that some former Kadyrov loyalists had gone to Syria to fight for the Islamic State.
“Extremes are similar,” he says, arguing that supporters of Kadyrov’s dictatorship resemble those of the Islamic State.
Osmayev’s battalion specializes in subversion and countering the enemy’s subversive groups. He said that Russian subversive groups had stepped up their raids in Luhansk Oblast in recent weeks and are trying to occupy buffer zones adjacent to the front line.
“The fact that they are sending GRU (Russian military intelligence) officers proves that their intentions are serious,” he said, referring to the capture of two Russian GRU officers by Ukrainian troops on May 16.
The unit, which previously had no legal status, is currently undergoing legalization. Ukrainian citizens will join the Interior Ministry’s Zoloti Borota battalion, while foreign citizens are expected to join army units under a bill enabling foreign fighters to get Ukrainian citizenship, Osmayev said.
The bill was passed by the Verkhovna Rada in the first reading in April. Osmayev said he was unhappy with the situation in which pro-Russian Ukrainians had Ukrainian citizenship, while some of those fighting for Ukraine didn’t.
“Those who want to destroy this state have Ukrainian passports, while those who protect it don’t,” he said.
Another problem that the Dzhokhar Dudayev Battalion had is that some fighters left it last October and set up another Chechen unit, the Sheikh Mansur Battalion – named after an 18th century Chechen insurgent.
Osmayev could not comment on the reasons for this, however.
The Dzhokhar Dudayev Battalion comprises not only Ukrainians, who form the bulk of the unit, and Chechens but also Azeris, Ingush, Tatars and Georgians.
Iralki, a Georgian, has a personal motivation to fight for Ukraine. One of his ancestors fought against Soviet Russia during its invasion of Georgia in 1921, while his father fought against Georgia’s Russian-backed breakaway republic of Abkhazia in 1992-1993.
He believes Russia betrayed Georgia by effectively breaking their 1783 protectorate treaty and annexing the country in 1800 – something that could be compared with the annexation of Crimea last March.
“Those who know they are to blame are capable of everything to justify their crimes,” Irakli said, commenting on Russia and Kremlin-backed separatists.
Another fighter, Abrek, is mocked by his comrades because he is a native Ukrainian despite looking like a Chechen and having a typical Chechen beard and a Caucasian nom-de-guerre.
“Abrek is someone who renounced everything to protect his land,” Abrek, an agronomist, told the Kyiv Post. “If Putin had not launched his aggression, I would grow strawberries.”
Kyiv Post staff writer Oleg Sukhov can be reached at email@example.com.