Why is an ex-Syria War jihadist fighting for Ukraine against Russia?

Rustam Azhiev, better known by his nom-de-guerre Abdul Hakim al-Shishani, led Ajnad al-Kavkaz in Syria and now leads Chechen fighters in the Ukrainian Foreign Legion.

 Rustam Azhiev, now leader of Chechen units in the Ukrainian Foreign Legion against Russia, is seen firing an anti-armor weapon in city of Bakhmut in the Donbas. (photo credit: Ukrainian Intelligence Directorate)
Rustam Azhiev, now leader of Chechen units in the Ukrainian Foreign Legion against Russia, is seen firing an anti-armor weapon in city of Bakhmut in the Donbas.
(photo credit: Ukrainian Intelligence Directorate)

A Syrian Civil War Chechen jihadist organization leader was confirmed as fighting in Ukraine against Russian forces in footage published by Ukrainian military intelligence on Saturday.

Rustam Azhiev, better known by his nom-de-guerre Abdul Hakim al-Shishani, was shown in a video of operations in the Donbas city of Bakhmut, firing what was identified as an AT-4 anti-armor weapon by arms researcher Calibre Obscura.

Now a leader of a unit of Chechen fighters within the Ukrainian Foreign Legion – the Special Special Purpose Battalion of the Ministry of Defense of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria – Azhiev was the emir of the Islamist Ajnad al-Kavkaz.

Who is Rustam Azhiev and what did he do in the Syrian Civil War?

Ajnad al-Kavkaz was a group that fought during the Syrian Civil War and was made up of Chechen fighters that found themselves in exile after coming to Turkey for medical treatment or momentary refuge following the Second Chechen War.

In Syria, Ajnad al-Kavkaz fought against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, at the time allying itself with  Jabhat al-Nusra and other al-Qaeda-linked groups, according to The Intercept. However, Azhiev rejected the label of terrorism being applied to his group, telling The Intercept in a 2016 interview that Ajnad al-Kavkaz’ policy was not to target women, children or the elderly. According to researcher Joanna Paraszczuk of Chechens in Syria, Ajnad al-Kavkaz has issued statements against the Islamic State and the targeting of all civilians.

 Ajnad al-Kavkaz flag (illustrative). (credit: Wikimedia Commons) Ajnad al-Kavkaz flag (illustrative). (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Azhiev told The Intercept that he was a jihadist, and the objective of the organization was to free his homeland of Chechnya. Syria offered an opportunity for him to fight against Russia, which has maintained a heavy military presence in the country.

Russia maintains an airbase in Latakia and a naval facility in Tartus. Russia air forces have been flying patrols in Syria's skies, requiring Israel to navigate the uneasy diplomatic relationship with the Kremlin to perform air strikes on Iranian infrastructure within the country. This in turn has created a balancing act for Israel in its relations with Ukraine during the war.

Analyst Neil Hauer, who reported in March that Azhiev might be traveling to Ukraine, wrote for the Atlantic Council in 2018 that activity by North Caucasus groups in Syria had become dormant and morale among fighters was low.

Now, as part of the Ukrainian Foreign Legion, Azhiev on October 15 was promoted to the rank of colonel of the armed forces in exile of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, according to Ukrainian intelligence.

In 2016, Azhiev told The Intercept that eventually there would be a global war with Russia that would allow him the opportunity to free his homeland.

Chechen fighters have also been active on the Russian side of the conflict. Since the invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Chechen soldiers loyal to Putin ally and Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov have been active and notable in the battlefield. Kadyrov has been critical of the war's management, pushing for a more aggressive approach.

The Wagner mercenary group has also been reported by Ukrainian intelligence to be recruiting Chechen political dissidents from prisons, to fight in the war in return for pardons. US State Department spokesman Ned Price condemned the practice on Thursday as "a barbaric tactic."