Diaspora launches Ingush independence movement: The Committee of Ingush Independence held the “Congress of Allies of Free Ingushetia” on 7 January in Istanbul. According to its Telegram channel, the Committee appears to have been founded in mid-December, but only posted at the beginning of the year. The stated goals of the new social movement are “To consolidate Ingush society around the idea of freedom and independence, To convey the voice of allies of independent Ingushetia to the whole world, To create a solid foundation for the construction of an independent Ingush state, To preserve religious and cultural identity, to prevent assimilation and dissolution of the Ingush ethnos, To prevent another deception of our people and a round of violence against them,” and “To provide the Ingush people with the exclusive right to make fateful decisions for themselves.” The congress is the first substantial effort made by the Ingush diaspora to garner support for independence outside of the republic. The viability of domestic support for independence is highly questionable, as Ingushetia still faces essentially the same circumstances as at the fall of the USSR, pressured by Russian assimilation and Chechen irredentism. Additionally, the Ingush authorities just concluded large-scale raids against members of the Batalkhadzhintsy Sufi brotherhood, now co-opted by Kadyrov and sent to Ukraine, which was formerly one of the most vocal and best-armed voices for Ingush society. From an objective standpoint, there is no viable path toward Ingush independence.
The Aguev saga: The year began with rumors swirling across Chechen social media that Rustam Aguev, head of the notorious Kurchaloevskii OMVD police department, the only such unit under U.S. sanctions*, had been killed in Ukraine. Ramzan Kadyrov’s most senior officials, including his top lieutenant MP Adam Delimkhanov and his propaganda minister Akhmed Dudaev, quickly attempted to disprove the claims. The rumors of Rustam’s death, however, failed to reach larger opposition channels, contrasting with the case of Magomed Tushaev’s supposed death in February 2022. In the video with Delimkhanov, Rustam appeared alongside his brother Ismail, the commander of the “Zapad-Akhmat” battalion in the Russian Ministry of Defense’s forces. The livestream with Dudaev is more convincing, as the Aguev brothers were with Delimkhanov in Mar’inka at the end of October, where the 7 January video was allegedly also filmed. The Aguev brothers have attempted to raise their profile within Kadyrov’s administration during the invasion, with their mother even meeting Vladimir Putin. Rustam declared his unit ready to deploy to Ukraine as early as 12 March 2022. However, it is unclear whether their current participation is indicative of their increased status or of Kadyrov’s unwillingness to risk more important members of his security services. The pattern of appointments and reappointments for leadership roles among the kadyrovtsy throughout the war suggests that the Chechen leader has not changed tack from aiming to capitalize on the ongoing invasion.
*Rustam’s older brother Ibragim led the unit during the activities leading to its sanctioning.
New Azhiev footage: Ukraine’s Defense Intelligence (GUR) recently released footage of the Ichkerian Armed Forces (itself part of the Foreign Legion) on the frontlines in eastern Ukraine. Prominently featured is Rustam Azhiev, aka Abdul-Hakim Shishani. Azhiev is one of the longest-fighting Chechen commanders, having led units in Chechnya and Syria, with his time in the latter conflict leading Ajnad al-Kavkaz (AK) marking his entrance into the international spotlight. After living in Turkey for a few years, he arrived suddenly in Ukraine in October, seven months after reportedly declaring his desire to join the renewed defense. His relocation was in all likelihood organized by Akhmad Zakayev, head of the government-in-exile* of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, as Azhiev now serves as the Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Ichkerian Armed Forces, directly subordinate to Zakayev.
Azhiev’s presence in Ukraine has raised questions among some Chechens and analysts. These questions concern both his alliance with Zakayev and Ukraine’s promotion of him, especially using his Arabic nom de guerre. Azhiev’s presence and partnership can be explained with two facts. First, since Zakayev likely facilitated Azhiev’s entrance into Ukraine, along with some of his men, Azhiev owes Zakayev a debt of some kind. Accordingly, his loyalty appears to be the form of repayment. Second, over decades of the modern Chechen struggle for freedom, the Ichkerian military elite have displayed a significantly higher degree of ideological and network mutability than the political elite. This is because there is an actual bottomline objective for the military elite, of which Azhiev is a member. The objective is the same as it has always been: the defeat of Russia. The result of possessing such a fixed and focused purpose is that it allows the military elite to shape how they present themselves in a more adaptable manner. Ideology is not the central point of the partnership, enabling Azhiev’s fight against Russia is. Azhiev has himself stated that fighting Russia has been the focus of his life since he was nineteen-years-old. Further, as part of his relocation to Ukraine involved being appointed as the Deputy Commander-in-Chief, he must now fulfill a certain high-profile, symbolic role. Thus, he must now make speeches and attend ceremonial events, such as when streets are renamed in honor of Ichkerian heroes.
The reason for Ukraine’s promotion of Azhiev is rather straightforward. Chechen volunteers have been one of the most constant groups defending the country since 2014. The video footage of Azhiev fits into a larger PR campaign that serves the dual purpose of thanking the Chechen defenders and countering the public image generated by the brutality of Ramzan Kadyrov’s occupying forces. Streets around Ukraine have been renamed in honor of Chechen fighters, including in Kyiv, Izyum, and Kryviy Rih. Additionally, a billboard depicted Sheikh Mansur Battalion commander Muslim Cheberloevskii with the caption “Ukraine, know your heroes.”
Azhiev’s presence is likely to become increasingly visible as Zakayev looks to promote him as the best military leader under which all Chechens should fight in the hypothetical war to come.
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