Since the onset of conflict in Ukraine, which has been ongoing since 2014 as Russia began deploying ground forces to the east of the country amid a massive post-Euromaidan revolt, combatants and volunteers from all over the world have sought to join in the fighting between Ukraine, various pro-Ukrainian militias, and Russian-backed separatist groups in the east.
Volunteers fighting on the side of Ukraine have come from a wide spectrum of countries and ideologies, both secular and religious, but those fighting in Islamic militias and hailing from predominantly Islamic regions tend to come from areas where Russia has seen a historical involvement in the invasion of neighboring countries. The most prominent volunteers among these groups are fighters who hold some personal connection or affiliation to conquests fought by Russia in recent history, such as the first and second Chechen wars and the 2008 Russo-Georgian war.
As early as 2014, when Russia first began its military intervention on behalf of pro-Russian separatist forces in eastern Ukraine, Chechen battalions were being established to combat Russian-backed militants, with Georgian battalions and Crimean Tatar battalions following closely alongside.
Crimean Tatars are a Turkic people living in the Crimea region of Ukraine, on the northern coast of the Black Sea. The area is currently occupied by the Russian Federation, which militarily annexed the territory in 2014. Crimean Tatars have historically comprised the majority ethnic group in the region, up until 1944 – when the USSR, under Josef Stalin, ordered that Crimea’s population of Tatars be deported from their homeland towards central Asia. After this act of forcible ethnic cleansing, which ultimately resulted in the deportation of over 200,000 Tatars, ethnic Russians now comprise a majority of the Crimean peninsula, followed by Ukrainians, with the Crimean Tatar population – most of whom are practicing Muslims – coming in at third.
According to the Kyiv Post, over 1 million Muslims live in Ukraine, with most of them residing in the Crimea region. According to a 2001 Ukrainian government census, Crimean Tatars comprise the third largest minority of the region, with a population of over 243,000. There are 11,000 Crimean-Tatars , 3,700 Azeris, and 2,900 Uzbeks also residing in the Crimea, and all of these ethnic groups are predominately Muslim.
According to a 2013 study by the Washington-based International Republican Institute think tank, 15% of Crimea’s population are Muslims. Among Crimean Tatars, the Turkish-backed nationalist “Bozkurtlar,” more commonly known as the “Grey Wolves,” exists as a relatively popular political movement.
A Crimean Tatar combatant makes the Grey Wolf symbol with his fingers. [Source]
The patch of the Noman Çelebicihan Taburu Battalion, a Tatar battalion based in Crimea.
In 2016, the Noman Çelebicihan Taburu Battalion – a small Turkic/Crimean volunteer brigade – was established. The group was founded by Lenur Islamov, the ex-Deputy Prime Minister of the Crimea. The battalion itself was named after Noman Çelebicihan, a Tatar politician who was killed by invading Bolshevik forces in 1918.
Members of the Noman Çelebicihan Taburu Battalion, some wearing Turkish uniforms and all wearing Guy Fawkes masks, can be seen in this 2017 photo. They were likely supplied with equipment by private Turkish citizens. [Source]
The organization is comprised of around 50 voluntary Crimean Tatar (Turkic) nationalists and adherent Muslims based in Chongar, a small peninsula north of the Crimea in Kherson Oblast. In many pictures, they can be seen wearing Turkish military uniforms.
In the Chongar camp, a Turkish flag is flown alongside the Crimean and Ukrainian flags. The battalion mostly defends the border of the Crimea, and is not involved in offensive attacks, as the group is marginal in size and it would be unrealistic to launch an offensive to take back the Crimea with such a small force. A likely commander of the Noman Çelebicihan Taburu Battalion is Isa Akayev. Akayev has fought against Russian forces in Ukraine since 2014, and fought during the battle for the Savur-Mohyla height, home to the Savur-Mohyla statue, which collapsed during the war.
Commander Isa Akayev, posing in front of a flag emblazoned with the shahada. [Source]
Crimean Tatar combatants are seen wearing Turkish military uniforms. A flag with three crescents, likely representing the Grey Wolves, can be seen in the background. [Source]
Turkish and Crimean Tatars pose in front of field tents at Chongar camp, while several men make the Grey Wolves sign with their hands. [Source]
It has not been confirmed whether these combatants actually engaged in combat against Russian-backed separatists. Only minor incidents, like an APC ramming the fence of Chongar camp and reports of small arms fire in the area, have been confirmed. The APC which ran into the exterior fence of the camp reportedly belonged to the Ukrainian army.
Two Crimean Tatar fighters pose in front of a Tatar flag, while ones forms the takbir sign with his right index finger. [Source]
There is a relatively small group consisting of Turkic Crimeans, which have formally engaged in combat, and are stationed on active frontlines. The group exists as part of the ‘’Right Sector’’ (Pravy Sektor), a right-wing, ultra-nationalist organisation. The group’s likely leader, Marlen Misiratov, designed several interesting flags consisting of the standardised red-black Pravy Sektor colours:
“Pravy Sektor” in faux Arabic font. [Source]
Another Misiratov-designed Pravy Sektor flag, with two grey wolves and the word “Turkey” written underneath. [Source]
The group’s likely commander, Marlen Misiratov, fought against Russian-backed separatists at multiple points, and even captured at least one separatist alive during clashes in the early stages of the Russian invasion. A video shot by Radiosvoboda.org shows a vague shot in which Marlen can be seen alongside a group of armed men, likely preparing for combat.
Marlen Misiratov takes captive a Russian-backed separatist after a battle, likely some time in 2014 or 2015. [Source]
Multiple Crimean Tatar combatants, likely originated from the Noman Çelebicihan Battalion (as they appear to be wearing the same style of uniform), pose for a photo. The third man from the left is Sultan Hanbek, another likely Crimean Tatar fighter. [Source]
The logo of the Devlet Giray Yedek Taqimi, another Crimean Tatar group active in the area. [Source]
Halil ‘’Uzbek’’ Ahmet, a combatant in Donetsk, poses with a flag from the Devlet Giray Yedek Taqimi group. [Source]
Another frontline group with a Turkic Crimean background is the Devlet Giray Yedek Taqimi. A notable member and likely political official within the group is Rüstem Mamut Oğlu, who wears a ‘’Nogay’’ patch on his chest, representing a Turkic ethnic group from the Caucasus region in Russia. The group is based in Donetsk. According to an article by Radiosvoboda, there are also ethnic Uzbeks (Likely Crimean Tatars who were deported to Uzbekistan in 1944) in the area.
Combatants, including Rüstem Mamut Oglu, pose with a group flag in Donetsk. [Source]
Despite their presence as a defensive force, most groups don’t seem to be active in offensive combat. The Noman Celebicihan battalion is only involved in border patrol and observation. The small group headed by Misiratov does exist on the frontline, but until now only Misiratov himself has been seen in battle during the early stages of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. And Devlet Giray Yedek Taqimi seems rather like a political organization, asking for more attention to be directed to the Crimean Tatars positioned on the frontline.
Chechen and Caucasian Combatants
Another notable ethnic group fighting against Russia in Ukraine are the Chechens. Chechens come from the autonomous region of Chechnya in the Caucasus on the southern edge of Russia, and have a long history of conflicts with Russia. Like many other ethnicities in the area, Chechens are predominantly Muslim. Chechnya became world news in 1994 during the first Chechen war, in which Chechen rebels defeated the occupation Russian army. Years later, in 1999, the second Chechen war erupted, ultimately leading to a Russian victory and the slow imposition of control over the region – although Chechnya remains technically autonomous, ruled by Ramzan Kadyrov, a former Chechen rebel with strongly pro-Putin leanings.
Despite the culmination of formal conflict in 2009, Those who oppose Russia and the current Chechen government still seek to fight against the Russian Federation in its many forms – with many traveling to Syria, joining up with militant Islamic organisations such as Imarat Kavkaz or Liwa Muhajireen Wal Ansar. Some have joined the Islamic State, while other rebels have remained in the mountains of Chechnya. There also exists a group of Chechens living in Ukraine, some of them natives who fled during the Chechen wars.
As an aftermath of the first and second Chechen wars, many Chechens fled via Ukraine towards western Europe, while some Chechens decided to stay in Ukraine and settled in Crimea and other areas. According to an article by Maidan.org, many Chechen refugees in Ukraine were arrested and extradited to Russia in 2010 during the presidency of Viktor Janukovychj.
These factors explain easily the Chechen involvement (on both sides) in the Ukrainian-Russian conflict. There are many Pro-Russian Chechens fighting for Kadyrov, the current leader of the Russian autonomous region of Chechnya. These forces have also been used as military police in Syria, fighting alongside the pro-regime coalition headed by Bashar al-Assad.
There also exist several Chechen and Caucasian groups fighting against Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Many Chechens are loyal to Kadyrov, who has good ties with the Russian president Putin, but others outside of Russia see him as a traitor for working with a nation which killed thousands of Chechens.
One of the most notable Chechen commanders in Ukraine was Isa Munayev. Munayev fought in Chechnya against the Russian army. During the second Chechen war he was appointed as military commandant of Grozny. He fled towards the rural areas during the loss of Grozny, and after that traveled to Denmark. In 2014, Munayev became the commander of the Chechen ‘’Dzhokhar Dudayev Battalion’’ in Ukraine. It was reported that Munayev had around 500 combatants under his command. Munayev was eventually killed in 2015 after being hit by shrapnel from a tank shell, thus elevating Adam Osmayev to the position commander. The relationship between Munayev and Osmayev before Munayev’s death is unknown.
Isa Munayev with other members of the Dzhokhar Dudayev Battalion. The battalion reportedly also consist of Azerbaijanis, Georgians and Ingush people. [Source]
Another notable battalion is the Sheikh Mansur battalion. This battalion is more religious than the Dzhokhar Dudayev Battalion. The battalion was formed in 2014 and is comprised mostly of Chechen war veterans who fought in the first and/or second Chechen wars.
The commander of the Sheikh Mansur Battalion, Muslim Ceberlovski, also fought in both Chechen wars and was active in guerilla warfare in the mountains of Chechnya against Russian forces. Ceberlovski met Isa Munayev in Denmark, where the Dzokhar Dudayev Battalion was formed. Ceberlovski later formed his own battalion, announcing that he had separated from Munayev before his death.
Murad Putilin, a Chechen aid worker, has been seen wearing the patch of the Sheikh Mansur battalion. [Source]
Commander Muslim Ceberlovski of the Sheikh Mansur battalion with other Muslim (combatants) and civilians in Kiev, October 2019. [Source]
Many of the pictured fighters and representatives here are Chechens, Crimean Tatars, Ukrainians, and Azerbaijanis. The woman seated can be seen holding a picture of Amina Okuyeva, a female combat medic of Ukrainian/Chechen origin. She was killed in 2017 during an ambush in Kiev. Her husband is commander Adam Osmaev, who was wounded during the same ambush.
A Chechen fighter in Ukraine, holding a Malyuk rifle.
Converts to Islam also comprise a minor element of these groups, but the original ethnicity or background of these Muslim fighters is often difficult to determine.
A group of Muslim combatants in Ukraine, 2014. [Source]
There have been several notable casualties among Muslim fighters, such as Isa Munayev and Amina Okuyeva. Another fighter who is not nearly as well-known is Shamil Rumygin, a Crimean Tatar Muslim who was killed near Luhansk. He died on July 21st, 2019, alongside another combatant, Nikita Skitchenko. Shamil was buried next to Isa Munayev and Amine Okuyeva in Dnipro. Both fighters were part of the 25th airborne brigade.
Shamil Rumyigin. [Source]
Russian expansionism and its regional invasions have increasingly made it so that ideologies and organizations, which previously maintained little popular support, can easily establish themselves and create thoroughly defined networks in areas averse to Russian imperialism. In this case, whether the conflict sees a diplomatic resolution or a renewed fighting may wildly affect how groups will be structured in the future.
At the author’s request, a donation of $50 has been made to Refugee Support Europe for the publication of this article.