Isa Munayev’s war: The final days of a Chechen commander fighting in Ukraine
This is part two in a series by the same author called ‘Ukraine’s Private Battalions’. Part one, on Feb. 26: In Midst of War, Ukraine Becomes Gateway for Jihad. Part two, on Feb. 27, 2015: The Life and Death of a Chechen Commander. Part three, on March 18: The Making of a Christian Taliban in Ukraine. Photos in the series are by Tomasz Glowacki and Marcin Mamon. See all the photos by going to the original stories on The Intercept.
IN SEPTEMBER OF 2014, I found myself standing on a narrow, potholed street in Kiev, east of the Dnieper River, in an area known as the Left Bank. I didn’t even know, at that point, whom I was meeting. I knew only that Khalid, my contact in Turkey with the Islamic State, had told me his “brothers” were in Ukraine, and I could trust them.
When one of them called me, I was given the address of a small street in the Ukrainian capital where I should go, and no other information. When I arrived, I found myself in a maze of Soviet apartment blocks. I immediately noticed two well-built men walking by; they were bearded, with black sunglasses and black leather jackets. When I looked closely, I could see sticking out of their jackets the barrels of small machine guns.
“Kandahar, Kandahar,” one of them said into his radio, after approaching me.
Could we go in? “No,” was the answer. The “commander” was still busy.
The armed men guided me past rows of Soviet-era apartment buildings, and then we waited in a wide, open square among the tall, concrete buildings. After half an hour of waiting, we wove through the housing complex until we approached a 10-story building, then took the elevator up to a mid-level floor and entered a small apartment. The single room was furnished with a bed, a kitchen table and two chairs.
Sitting inside the small apartment was Isa Munayev. I recognized him immediately, because he was one of the few Chechens serving in Ukraine who was photographed frequently without a mask. He was upset, and shouting into the phone: “We came to die for you, and you don’t even want to do what you promised.”
Even before he arrived in Ukraine, Munayev was well-known. He fought against Russian forces in both Chechen wars; in the second, he was the commander of the war in Grozny. After the Chechen capital was captured by Russian forces between 1999 and 2000, Munayev and his men took refuge in the mountains. He fought from there until 2005, when he was seriously injured and went to Europe for treatment. Munayev lived in Denmark until 2014. Then war broke out in Ukraine, and he decided it was time to fight the Russians again.
As Russian-backed separatist forces began battling Ukrainian forces, Munayev came to Ukraine and established one of what would become several dozen private battalions that sprang up to fight on the side of the Ukrainian government, operating separately from the military. Munayev’s group was called the Dzhokhar Dudayev battalion, named after the first president of independent Chechnya, who was killed by Russian forces in 1996. Munayev was the head of the battalion.
He was not at the front in the fall of 2014, because he was busy training forces and organizing money and weapons, from Kiev. An older man in a leather jacket introduced me to Munayev. “Our good brother Khalid recommended this man,” the man said. (Khalid is today one of the most important leaders of the Islamic State. Khalid and Munayev knew each other from years spent fighting together in Chechnya.)
Munayev had reason for all the security precautions. Vladimir Putin regarded him as a personal enemy, and so did Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin-friendly leader of Chechnya. Yet once I was inside the apartment, Munayev greeted me like an old friend, and we chatted casually about friends and colleagues we both knew from Chechnya; some were dead, a few still alive.
For those looking for an easy narrative in today’s wars, whether in the Middle East or in eastern Ukraine, the Dzhokhar Dudayev battalion is not the place to find it. The battalion is not strictly Muslim, though it includes a number of Muslims from former Soviet republics, including Chechens who have fought on the side of the Islamic State in Syria. It also includes many Ukrainians. But all are fighting against what they perceive to be a common enemy: Russian aggression.
Munayev was full of nervous energy, gesturing and talking loudly. He rarely stood still; even in the small apartment, he got up frequently, walked around and sat down again. When I asked whether I could visit him once he moved to the front lines, he told me to call him next time I was in Kiev.
A few months later when I returned to Ukraine, in early 2015, Munayev was no longer in Kiev. He was fighting in the east, in the so-called Debaltseve “cauldron,” which had become the center of an intense battle between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists. But Munayev gave permission for Ruslan, a member of his battalion, to take me to his secret base.
I was the first journalist allowed to visit the base, and I would end up being the last journalist to see Munayev before his death.
THE TRIP FROM Kiev to the base of the Dzhokhar Dudayev battalion in the east winds along 500 miles of poorly maintained roads pocked with holes, and in the winter, often covered in snow. When we passed the city of Dnipropetrovsk, in southeastern Ukraine, we were told to turn off our phones and remove the batteries.
We approached Munayev’s base late at night after many hours inside a cramped, overheated car. On the last bit of road, Ruslan got lost in the fog. He wasn’t the only one. We stopped at one point to talk with the driver of a Ukrainian army truck; the soldier was completely confused. He didn’t know where to go, and we couldn’t help him. On the horizon, we saw the flash of rockets as troops fired at positions near Donetsk. Dull explosions punctuated the silence of the night.
We rendezvoused with Munayev’s men at the crossroads of a small village, near a Soviet-era monument to “working women” painted bright white. An armored van, similar to one designed to carry cash to the bank, pulled up next to us. Ihor Kolomoisky, a Ukrainian oligarch from Dnipropetrovsk, had given the car to Munayev’s fighters. From there we drove together to the base.
The Dudayev battalion base was situated in an old, dilapidated complex of buildings, a former psychiatric hospital that once treated drug addicts, among others. The conditions were tough, but at least the main building was warm, heated by a wood-burning oven. Fighters cut down the trees from around the hospital to feed the oven.
“There is no one in Chechnya who hasn’t suffered at the hands of the Russian army.”– Isa Munayev
About 50 to 60 fighters were in the building, at least half of them Ukrainians, many from the city of Cherkasy. Others came from Chechnya, and the republic of Kabardino-Balkaria in the North Caucasus. There were also Crimean Tatars, Azeris and one Georgian from Batumi. All were there to defend Ukraine against Russia. “I know how much this great nation needs help, and we really want to help them,” Munayev said.
Munayev also admitted, however, that he hoped the weapons he got in Ukraine would end up in the hands of militants in the Caucasus. He had a clear goal. “I defend Ukraine and Chechnya,” he told me. “If we succeed in Ukraine, then we can succeed in Chechnya.”
In Ukraine, Munayev was seeking revenge for the wrongs that he and his people had suffered. Russians had killed his father, his wife and his children. “These are the enemies who murdered my people, who took my country from me,” he said. “They killed all those who were dear to us. There is no one in Chechnya who hasn’t suffered at the hands of the Russian army.”
Adam Osmayev, the deputy commander of the battalion, is famous in his own right. Two years before the outbreak of war in eastern Ukraine, the British-educated Chechen was arrested in Odessa, a port city in the south of Ukraine, on suspicion of conspiring to assassinate Vladimir Putin. Osmayev initially pleaded guilty, but then withdrew the plea, writing in a statement he submitted before the court that the admission was “obtained through physical and psychological coercion.” Osmayev claimed that after his arrest in 2012, representatives of Ukraine’s security service beat him on the head with fists, gun handles and rifle butts. He said they kicked him, partially suffocated him with a plastic bag over his head, and injected him with drugs.
Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky helped create the first battalions — the Dnipro and Dnipro-1 — each with about 500 people.
In the spring of 2014, after a new Ukrainian government came to power, Isa Munayev and three of his men broke Osmayev out of prison, according to Ruslan, who was one of the fighters involved. On the way back to Kiev, special forces surrounded them at one of the militia checkpoints, Ruslan said, and after a dramatic standoff, the Ukrainians allowed the Chechens to go free. (There is no way to confirm Ruslan’s account, but in the fall of 2014, the Odessa court suddenly declared that Osmayev had fulfilled enough of his sentence and had been set free). Osmayev and Munayev came back to Kiev, and the Dudayev battalion was created.
At the time I visited, most of the fighters were at the front in the vicinity of Luhansk. But the exact number serving in the battalion is a mystery. According to one source, there are 500 volunteers. Assuming that number is correct, it’s a significant force, which is why it’s increasingly feared in Kiev. The battalion is not subject to any political leader in Kiev, or subordinate to any political structure there.
The Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky helped create the first volunteer battalions — the Dnipro and Dnipro-1 — each with about 500 people. For several months, he also financially supported several other battalions, including Azov, Aidar, Donbass, and Right Sector battalion. In the end, Kolomoisky also invited the Chechens, hoping they would protect his businesses and factories, if needed.
Since the 1990s, Kolomoisky has been one of the most powerful men in Ukraine. His influence extends across almost the entire Ukrainian economy. Among other companies, he controls PrivatBank, the country’s largest bank, and exercises significant authority over Ukrnafta, its largest oil and gas producer. His influence extends over the media through several television stations, including the popular channel 1+1. The oligarch also owns the football club Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk.
Most of Kolomoisky’s assets, however, focus on Privat Group, which The Wall Street Journal described as “an informal nebula of companies controlled by Mr. Kolomoisky and his partners.” In 2008, Forbes estimated that Kolomoisky’s fortune was $4.2 billion.
When Kolomoisky saw that the Russians might capture Dnipropetrovsk — where his business was centered — he decided to cooperate with the new president of Ukraine, who, like him, was a businessman. Kolomoisky also wanted to help bail out the government’s army, which had been hobbled by years of corruption. After Russia annexed Crimea and separatists began fighting in eastern Ukraine, Kolomoisky announced his candidacy for the post of governor of Dnipropetrovsk. He was immediately appointed to the position.
“If we die, at least we die as soldiers, and not as slaves.”
– Isa Munayev
When the Russians stopped approximately 120 miles short of Dnipropetrovsk, Kolomoisky suddenly lost interest and stopped paying the volunteer battalions. The Right Sector battalion responded by seizing his property, but Munayev couldn’t do that. He was a foreigner, and feared the Ukrainian authorities would regard his battalion as an illegal armed group, then disband it. Munayev was bitter, but would not openly speak ill of the authorities in Kiev. The Ukrainian people were still helping his fighters.
There are three volunteer battalions with a significant number of Muslim fighters operating in Ukraine today (it would be wrong to describe any of the battalions as “Muslim,” since they also include Ukrainians and other nationalities). The Dudayev battalion operates between Donetsk and Luhansk, the Sheikh Mansour battalion, which broke off from the Dudayev battalion, is based close to Mariupol, in the southeast of Ukraine, and in the northeast is the Crimea battalion, based in Krematorsk, which consists mostly of Crimean Tatars. (There is also a separate company of Crimean Tatar fighters that operate as part of a sotnya, a Slavic term for “hundred.”)
From time to time, Munayev met with representatives of the Ukrainian Security Service, known as the SBU. The Ukrainian government and President Petro Poroshenko fear that Chechens — along with other branches of voluntary battalions dissatisfied with the developments in Ukraine — could one day threaten the government in Kiev.
That concern isn’t totally without merit. “It doesn’t matter whether the Ukrainian authorities help us or not,” a commander from the Tatar battalion told me. “Now we have weapons and we will never given them up.”
That commander recently arrived in Ukraine from Syria. He wants to fight to free Crimea, which he does not believe Ukraine will ever recover through negotiations. “It can be done only by force, with weapons in hand,” he said.
IN THE END, I spent three days at the base with Munayev. As a volunteer battalion, the relationship between commander and fighters relies on mutual trust, rather than traditional military structures. The volunteers weren’t there because they were paid soldiers or conscripts; they were there because they believed in Munayev’s instincts and abilities as a commander. And Munayev believed in them. “These are my fighters,” he said at one point. “These wonderful, beautiful young men.”
Over the past month, Munayev had been organizing raids behind enemy lines, attacking the command posts, artillery, rocket launchers and entrenched tanks. He would personally go to the front lines for a week or two, then return to the base just to pick up a new group of fighters, allowing the others to rest.
Munayev went to battle for the last time on Jan. 26. He went to Debaltseve, which the separatists took in February following an intense battle that left much of the city in ruins. Before getting into the white armored van that last day, he told me the same thing he told his fighters — that he didn’t know when he would return. “We are going deep behind enemy lines,” he said. “I hope everything will be fine. If we die, at least we die as soldiers, and not as slaves.”
Munayev didn’t return. What happened next depends on whom you believe. There are suspicions that his location was betrayed to the Russians. But one of the fighters I spoke with, a Chechen who came to Ukraine with a Turkish passport, does not believe that. According to his account, on Feb. 1 Munayev’s group went to help the volunteer Donbass battalion fighting near Debaltseve. Most of the fighters stayed at the Ukrainian positions, but Munayev took four fighters and went on a scouting mission. He wanted to get to the rear of the enemy. They walked a little over 2 miles into “no man’s land,” between the two sides.
They came to a small village called Chernukhino, where they stumbled upon Russian soldiers. There was shooting, and the Chechens killed a few Russians — the rest of the Russians withdrew. The Russians, however, managed to give the village’s coordinates to their artillery, and soon all hell broke loose. At the same time, the assault began on Debaltseve, which was defended by the Ukrainian army, as well as volunteer battalions including Donbass and Dudayev.
Munayev’s body was left on the battlefield, something strictly prohibited by the Chechen honor code.
The five lightly armed Dudayev fighters were attacked by infantry and tanks, and so they fled. They came upon a courtyard, where they saw a building with a shop. Munayev emptied some rounds into the front door and ordered his men to take refuge inside. When the last one entered, there was an explosion. The room filled with clouds of black smoke. When the dust settled, the commander of the militants was lying at the entrance to the building. Munayev had been hit by shrapnel from a tank shell, and had a large gaping wound. Munayev, who had survived two brutal wars in Chechnya, died instantly. He was 49 years old.
What happened next is even more controversial. The commander’s body was left on the battlefield, something strictly prohibited by the Chechen honor code. I spoke with a fighter from the Chechen battalion of Sheikh Mansour, which broke away from Munayev’s branch a few months ago. Relations between the two battalions are not good.
He didn’t want to talk about the death of Munayev, or why the commander was left on the battlefield. Ask the people “who were with Isa in his last moments,” the fighter said when I asked him about it. “Of course we know what happened, but it is not our business.”
Munayev’s fighters said they didn’t take him from the battlefield because they were too far from the Ukrainian positions, and wouldn’t have been able to carry the body. They were convinced that no one would escape alive. Fleeing, they had to jump over fences, walls and sometimes on top of the roofs of houses. In the evening, they came to the trenches of the Donbass Battalion.
Before Munayev left the base for the last time, I had asked him what he thought of the Chechens fighting in Syria alongside ISIS and other Islamic organizations. What were they fighting for there?
“I don’t know what they’re fighting for, but I know what I’m fighting for,” he answered. “I fight for freedom.”
Adam Osmayev, Munayev’s deputy, was a few miles away fighting alongside the Ukrainian troops when Munayev was killed. When Munayev’s death was reported in the Russian media, one of the claims was that Osmayev had murdered him. Osmayev wouldn’t even comment on that allegation. He said that type of information must have come from Russian security services trying to discredit him.
Osmayev said that a few days after Munayev’s death, when the fighting “subsided a little,” he went to retrieve his commander’s body. Osmayev carried the body from the battlefield, and he and his comrades buried him in the wild fields of Ukraine. Osmayev’s debt to Munayev was repaid.
Osmayev, who has now taken over leadership of the Dudayev battalion, said he didn’t know for sure what happened, but he was sure Munayev died like a soldier. “He was looking for his end,” Osmayev said. “It found him.”
* At the request of the writer, “Ruslan” is identified by a pseudonym.