The Chechens Are Coming!

How Social Media posts spoiled Chechnya’s deployment of troops to Syria (who were already there)

The Chechens Are Coming!

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Today, Rosbalt reported that five people were arrested for filming and sharing a video showing Chechen soldiers preparing to leave for Syria. This video, originally published on December 6, shows soldiers filmed at the Khankala military base in Chechnya who were to serve in Syria as military police.

Per a source to Rosbalt, the video was spread to the wider public after a person involved in the filming of the video sent it to a friend, who spread it on a social network site. Due to the video being spread, according to the source, this Chechen military unit’s deployment to Syria was postponed. This unit was to serve as military police guarding Russian assets in Syria, and was reportedly formed from soldiers of the Zapad and Vostok battalions — two disbanded special forces units primarily made up of ethnic Chechens.

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov refuted reports that soldiers from the Zapad and Vostok battalions were being sent to Syria, saying that there are no such battalions in Chechnya, and that Russian soldiers “are not taking part in ground operations in Syria.” Kadyrov did not deny that Chechen soldiers, as servicemen of the Russian Ministry of Defense, support the ongoing efforts in Syria, specifically in providing security to airbases in Syria.

The Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT) was able to confirm the location of the video, showing that it was indeed filmed at the Khankala base in Chechnya.

A video of an orchestra performing at the base in 2011 shows the same structures in the background as those we see in the recent video.

Screenshot from video of Chechens preparing to leave for Syria.
Screenshot from 2011 video showing same structure at the Khankala base.

Kavkazsky Uzel, along with Radio Svoboda and other services from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty have also confirmed the location of the base as Khankala.

A satirical news account’s tweet of: “Military police from Chechnya with Iveco LMVs [Light Multirole Vehicles] with license plates of the Southern Military District are already in syria at the Hmeymim airbase. They shaved [their beards] so that they wouldn’t be mixed up.

On December 9, Aleksnadr Kolotilo published a story about the military police at the Hmeymim airbase in Syria, where he interviewed a commander of military police. The story states that the interview was taken in August, thus indicating that the photographs were likely taken at around the same time. However, on Twitter, some speculated that the photographs of military police in Kolotilo’s story showed Chechen soldiers, perhaps related to the delayed rotations of military police from Khankala.

“Russian military police have arrived at the Hmeymim airbase to provide security”

Though the soldiers in these photographs may very well belong to a Chechen military unit, there is no direct evidence that these men photographed in August (and did not recently arrive, despite the tweet from @NovostiDamask) are related to the Khankala deployment. However, that said, no one disputes that Chechen military units have operated as military police at the Kmeymim airbase in Syria.

While this story has intrigue on its own — a leaked video, cancelled military rotations, rumors of shadowy special forces groups— the situation is even more confusing when looking at Kadyrov’s previous statements regarding Chechen soldiers’ role in Syria. Just last week, Kadyrov denied that Russian (including Chechen) soldiers took part in ground operations in Syria — though, as he has noted, Chechen soldiers would be happy to do this. However, in February, Kadyrov claimed that Chechen special forces were already on the ground in Syria and have “embedded inside Isis-controlled territory as part of an intelligence-gathering mission.”

Well over a year after its official announcement, Russia’s operation in Syria has had mixed results. While Russia has achieved some strategic goals in bolstering of the Assad regime and assisting the ongoing siege and capture of Aleppo, it has also killed thousands of civilians/non-combatants in its air campaign and had some questionable results in the fight against ISIS, as seen in the terrorist group’s recent recapture of Palmyra.

The benefits of Russia’s messaging campaign surrounding its Syrian operation are even harder to discern. In just the last month, Russia has suffered a PR disaster surrounding its sole aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, which has lost two aircrafts due to its faulty equipment and, according to experts, has not actually contributed any assets to the Syria operation. Also this week, Palmyra fell to ISIS, a few months after the Russia held a triumphant concert among its historic ruins, leading Russian pundits to blame everyone from the Syrian Army (for incompetence) to the United States (for supposedly “redirecting” ISIS fighters). This recent scandal surrounding a rotation of Chechen soldiers deployed as military police and Kadyrov’s denials of ground operations just adds to the confusion around Russia’s involvement in the Syrian Civil War, especially in light of a recent interview aired on state-sponsored Vesti, in which a Russian colonel described taking part ground operations in Syria.