Fighters from Russia’s Chechnya region under the command of leader Ramzan Kadyrov have likely been ordered to take a leading role in the fighting in Ukraine in a week when the governor of Russia’s Belgorod region announced the evacuation of children amid ongoing cross-border attacks from Ukraine.
The Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a Washington, DC-based think tank, said in its latest report on Thursday that Russian military commanders had likely ordered the Chechens into battle following the withdrawal of Wagner Group mercenary forces from the destroyed city of Bakhmut.
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According to the ISW, Kadyrov claimed on Wednesday that his forces had received new orders and would be deploying to “active combat activities” to “liberate” a series of settlements after assuming responsibility for the front line in Ukraine’s southeast Donetsk region, which includes the contested city of Bakhmut.
Kadyrov said that Chechen special forces were preparing for offensive operations ahead of Ukraine’s expected counteroffensive to reclaim territory from Russian forces.
“The claimed return of Chechen forces to offensive operations would break Kadyrovites from a nearly yearlong hiatus from participating in high-intensity combat operations” in Ukraine, the ISW said.
— ISW (@TheStudyofWar) June 1, 2023
Chechen fighters have primarily operated in areas behind the front line following their involvement in the bloody battles in Ukraine’s cities of Mariupol, Severodonetsk and Lysychanak, the institute said.
“The Kremlin may perceive Chechen units as an untapped assault force that can restore Russia’s ability to sustain simultaneous offensive efforts on multiple axes of advance,” the ISW added. However, the ISW also noted that if reports of 7,000 Chechen troops in Ukraine are correct, Kadyrov’s forces will not have the numbers “to mount multiple significant offensive operations successfully”.
Describing himself as a “foot soldier” of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Kadyrov had previously deployed his Chechen Republic forces in support of Russian military operations in Syria and Georgia.
Reports of the possible return of Chechen forces to offensive operations come amid intensifying shelling of the border region of Russia’s Belgorod, where authorities have begun evacuating children from the districts of Shebekino and Graivoron.
Belgorod’s regional Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov said on Telegram on Wednesday that the first 300 evacuated children would be taken to Voronezh, a city about 250km (155 miles) further into Russia. Another 1,000 children will be removed to other provinces over the coming days, he said.
“The question of children’s safety in the two districts… is very important,” Gladkov said. “All of us, adults, are very worried.”
A correspondent for state-run agency RIA Novosti near Voronezh said buses had arrived with about 150 people on board on Wednesday.
Gladkov said the situation was growing worse in the village of Shebekino, where he reported more shelling during the day that injured four people but did not cause any deaths.
The governor also urged Russian forces on Wednesday to launch attacks and capture Ukraine’s Kharkiv region, including Kharkiv city, to create a buffer zone between Belgorod and Ukraine, according to the ISW.
‘The situation is quite alarming’
Heavy shelling of Shebekino was reported early on Thursday morning by local news sources. On Tuesday, one person was reportedly killed and two others were wounded in a strike on a centre for displaced people in Belgorod. Several oil depots in the region have also been hit in recent weeks.
The attacks on Russian soil have come as Kyiv says it is preparing for a major offensive against Moscow’s forces.
“The situation is quite alarming,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Wednesday about the shelling of Belgorod.
“We have not heard a single word of condemnation from the West so far,” Peskov said of the attacks which have affected Russian civilians in the region.
More than a year into its Ukraine campaign, Russia has experienced intensifying attacks on its territory, with an unprecedented incursion by Russian anti-Putin fighters last week into Belgorod and a drone attack on Moscow on Tuesday.
The incursion into Russia from Ukraine by the Russian Volunteer Corps (RVC) and the allied Freedom of Russia Legion last week was the largest since the Russian full-scale invasion last year.
The Kremlin also said on Wednesday that it was not considering the introduction of martial law in Russia despite the drone attacks on Moscow and the ongoing shelling of border regions.
The Kremlin’s Peskov said the imposition of martial law in Russia was not currently being discussed.
According to media reports, Peskov was reacting to Chechen leader Kadyrov’s demands for harsher attacks on Ukraine and the declaration of martial law after the drone attacks on Moscow.
Peskov said such a decision was up to Moscow and not the regions. He also expressed concern about the ongoing shelling of Belgorod.
“Measures are being taken,” Peskov said.