Even for Ukrainians hardened by more than a year of war here against Russian-backed separatists, the appearance of Islamic combatants, mostly Chechens, in towns near the front lines comes as something of a surprise — and for many of the Ukrainians, a welcome one.“We like to fight the Russians,” said the Chechen, who refused to give his real name. “We always fight the Russians.”He commands one of three volunteer Islamic battalions out of about 30 volunteer units in total fighting now in eastern Ukraine. The Islamic battalions are deployed to the hottest zones, which is why the Chechen was here.
Fighting is intensifying around Mariupol, a strategic seaport and industrial hub that the separatists have long coveted. Monitors for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe say they have seen steady nighttime shipments of Russian military equipment on a rail line north of here. Recently, the Ukrainian authorities released photos — which they said were taken by a drone flying north of the city — that showed a massing of heavy weapons, including tanks and howitzers, on the rebel side.Anticipating an attack in the coming months, the Ukrainians are happy for all the help they can get.As the Ukrainians see it, they are at a lopsided disadvantage against the separatists because Western governments have refused to provide the government forces with anything like the military support that the rebels have received from Russia. The army, corrupt and underfunded, has been largely ineffective. So the Ukrainians welcome backing from even Islamic militants from Chechnya.“I am on this path for 24 years now,” since the demise of the Soviet Union, the Chechen said in an interview. “The war for us never ended. We never ran from our war with Russia, and we never will.”Ukrainian commanders worry that separatist groups plan to capture access roads to Mariupol and lay siege to the city, which had a prewar population of about half a million. To counter that, the city has come to rely on an assortment of right-wing and Islamic militias for its defense.The Chechen commands the Sheikh Mansur group, named for an 18th-century Chechen resistance figure. It is subordinate to the nationalist Right Sector, a Ukrainian militia.Neither the Sheikh Mansur group nor Right Sector is incorporated into the formal police or military, and the Ukrainian authorities decline to say how many Chechens are fighting in eastern Ukraine. They are all unpaid.Apart from an enemy, these groups do not have much in common with Ukrainians — or, for that matter, with Ukraine’s Western allies, including the United States.Right Sector, for example, formed during last year’s street protests in Kiev from a half-dozen fringe Ukrainian nationalist groups like White Hammer and the Trident of Stepan Bandera. Another, the Azov group, is openly neo-Nazi, using the “Wolf’s Hook” symbol associated with the SS. Without addressing the issue of the Nazi symbol, the Chechen said he got along well with the nationalists because, like him, they loved their homeland and hated the Russians.
To try to bolster the abilities of the Ukrainian regular forces and reduce Kiev’s reliance on these quasilegal paramilitaries, the United States Army is training the Ukrainian national guard. The Americans are specifically prohibited from giving instruction to members of the Azov group.Uh-huh. Like these militias won't get the weapons that the American trained Ukrainian regulars will sell to them.