Muslim factor in the Ukraine war

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As the war in Ukraine drags on, some international news outlets started to focus on the participation of Muslims on both sides of the conflict.

Prior to analyzing the geopolitical and social reasons behind such participation, it is important to be clear about some basic factors in order not to fall into the trap of exaggeration.

There are Muslim citizens of Ukraine as well as of Russia.

Like other citizens, they serve in the armed forces of their respective countries.

According to world population review, there are over half a million Muslims living in Ukraine.

Also, the primary core group of Muslims fighting on the Ukrainian side are Tatar-Muslims from the Crimea region which was annexed by Russia in 2014.

Tatars have historical grievances against Moscow as many of them were exiled to Central Asia en masse during the Joseph Stalin era.

In Russia there are close to 20 million Muslims of various ethnicities.

Naturally, many of them serve in the Russian army.

However, since the beginning of the Ukraine conflict, the participation of Chechens has attracted wide media attention.

This carries important geopolitical weight for both sides.

Overall, the participation of Muslims is used as a propaganda tool by both sides to advance a particular narrative of the situation.

Russia wants to show that its actions in Ukraine have wide-ranging support among its diverse population.

In addition, Moscow regularly highlights the fact that there are Chechens fighting on the Ukrainian side.

The Russia media often presents the Chechens as radical Salafis aspiring for a rematch with Russia, post-second Chechen war which began in 1999.

Russia emphasizes the participation of Chechens on the Ukrainian side in order to play the terrorism card and explain to its citizens that the territorial integrity of Russia is also at stake in the current war in Ukraine.

The Ukrainian side allowed the formation of three Chechen battalions to fight on its side in order to open Moscow’s old geopolitical wound hoping to foment a secessionist movement in Chechnya once again.

Kiev’s propaganda narrative also frequently highlights participation of non-Chechen Muslims on its side, mainly from the former Soviet republics.

The aim is to present the war in Ukraine as one fought by all peoples of the ex-USSR against revisionist Russian empire aspiring to once again subjugate them.

Recently there have been reports that the Russian government is also recruiting soldiers from various Central Asia countries who live in Russia as migrant workers to join the Russian army for better pay opportunities.

Central Asians are also fighting on the Ukrainian side.

In our previous analysis of the participation of foreign fighters in Ukraine, we had stated that “militarily speaking, foreign fighters are unlikely to dramatically alter the course of the war, primarily because their numbers on both sides are quite small.”

However, from a political angle, participation of foreign fighters in the Ukraine war broadens the political and social ramifications for Central Asia and the wider Caucasus region.

In the early 1990s, wars in Abkhazia, Tajikistan and Karabakh formed the eco-system of socio-political movements which impacted the political scene in Georgia, Chechnya and Dagestan for many years.

It cannot be ruled out that the current war in Ukraine will have similar ramifications for Central Asia and the Caucasus region.

What is likely to happen among Muslim organizations fighting on the Ukrainian side is that they will be used by NATO member countries to push for regime change or destabilization in countries ruled by pro-Russian dictators in Central Asia.

Instability on Russia’s southern borders is a big geopolitical headache for Russia and China.

This, however, is a double-edged sword as unstable Central Asia and the Caucasus means decreased alternatives to Russian natural gas.

Also, chances of score settling among the known three Chechen battalions which receive wide media coverage, can also have a negative impact upon NATO camp.

The three Chechen battalions are formations of groupings which do not see eye to eye on some important regional and ideological issues pertaining to the Caucasus.

Also, the Salafi vision still plays a significant role among the pro-independence Chechen trend, as was demonstrated by the influx of Chechen and Dagestani Salafis into Syria in 2011-12.

It should be noted that historically, the Salafi trend which is present on the Ukrainian side, but to a much lesser degree than the Russian media makes it appear, as an overall trend, has a track record of serving the western geopolitical agenda and often turning unruly as the case in Syria and Libya have amply demonstrated.

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Disclaimer: Muslim factor in the Ukraine war - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect point-of-view

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