Putin’s Islamic Jihad
Russian President Vladimir Putin has backed allowing volunteers, including from abroad, to help pro-Moscow separatists fighting in Ukraine’s Donbas region, more than two weeks after he sent thousands of Russian troops into the neighbouring country.
At a meeting of Russia’s security council, the defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, said there were 16,000 volunteers in the Middle East who were ready to fight alongside Russian-backed forces in the breakaway Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.
“If you see that there are these people who want of their own accord, not for money, to come to help the people living in Donbas, then we need to give them what they want and help them get to the conflict zone.”
This comes after the armed Muslim Chechen fighters—renowned for their barbaric violence and human rights abuses—were levelled after their convoy of 56 tanks destroyed near Hostomel northeast of Kyiv, by Ukrainian missile fire on the second day of the Chechens’ deployment.
The once hailed great protector of Orthodox civilisation, is now bringing in Islamic mercenaries from Syria to fight Orthodox Christians, joining his Chechen Islamist mercenaries in doing the same.
Chechnya is a land-locked region located in the North Caucasus, a member republic of the Russian Federation, a strictly conservative state with a majority of Sunni Muslims. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russian authorities established a pro-Russian regime in 2003, managing to gain the support of a great faction of Chechen warlords.
The supreme mufti of Chechnya, Salah Mezhiev, has equated the Russian invasion in Ukraine with jihad in defence of Allah. He declared that Muslims had a “duty” to fight on the Russian side “for the Quran and for the Prophet.” The same day, Kadyrov himself said:
“Don’t try to hinder us. We won’t stop. We are under orders. We are on a jihad…. Those who die in this war will be martyrs, there is no doubt about that.”
On 25 February, a huge rally was held for pro-Russian fighters in Chechnya’s capital, Grozny. More than 70,000 Chechen volunteers were ready and willing to fight for Russian in Ukraine, Kadyrov said. Chanting the Islamic war cry Allahu akbar (Allah is the greatest), the Chechen jihadists prepared themselves for the fight against the Orthodox Christian people of Ukraine.
It is the belief that by using experienced Islamic fighters, Moscow can avoid the fact that many Russian soldiers are reluctant to fight effectively against the Ukrainian people and their morale is flagging due to fierce Ukrainian resistance. The Russians hope that the Chechen jihadists, skilled in irregular warfare, will prove to be more resilient against the Ukrainian resistance, especially in the urban centres, drawing on their expertise from Syria.
This is not the first time that Putin aligns himself with Islamists. In September 2015, Putin ordered his military to intervene on behalf of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who was in the fifth year of waging a brutal civil war against domestic opposition and overseas recruits. By then, Moscow had already provided weapons to the Syrian state, which had become infamous for horrific human-rights violations. But the Russian military effort helped turn the war decisively in Assad’s direction. Last year, the group Airwars estimated that the Russian intervention had killed tens of thousands of civilians; the United Nations has accused Russia of war crimes. The intervention also offers clues to how Putin wants to wield military power abroad, as has been seen in the last several weeks in the ongoing war in Ukraine.
Mario Alexis Portella is a priest of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore and Chancellor of the Archdiocese of Florence, Italy. He has a doctorate in canon law and civil law from the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome; he also holds a M. A. in Medieval History from Fordham University, as well as a B.A. in Government & Politics from St. John’s University. He is also author of Islam: Religion of Peace? – The Violation of Natural Rights and Western Cover-Up.