Chechens fighting with Kyiv seek 'free' homeland

STORY: These soldiers on Ukraine's frontlines say their ultimate goal is to liberate a land further east - the Russian republic of Chechnya.

They belong to a unit of Chechen fighters helping Ukraine battle Russian troops in the besieged city of Bakhmut.

Their hope is that a Ukrainian victory could spark political crisis in Russia.

And bring down the powerful pro-Moscow leader of Chechnya - Ramzan Kadyrov, accused of human rights abuses by governments including the United States.

This fighter goes by the nom-de-guerre Maga.

“We're not fighting just for the sake of fighting. We want to achieve freedom and independence for our nations.”

Kadyrov calls himself Russian President Vladimir Putin's "foot soldier".

Many Chechens support him.

Members of his personal army are fighting for the Russians, though he has also been a vocal critic of Russia's military performance in the conflict so far.

Most of the fighters who have joined forces with Kyiv have come from Europe, where many sought refuge during the two Chechen wars of the 1990s.

The older ones among them have direct combat experience, Maga says.

Another pro-Ukrainian Chechen fighter, who identified himself as "Tor", says more Chechens are turning away from Moscow.

“There are thousands of people like us. And there will be tens of thousands. Because people now get the understanding that we need to get away from Russia. We need to de-russify ourselves as much as possible. We need to give up their (Russian) language, their alphabet, their culture, everything that ties us with them. Because, unfortunately, there are wonderful writers, poets and so on, but today all of those wonderful writers and poets are used by the Russians not to promote their culture or to enrich the culture of other nations, but solely as a means of occupation.”

Ukrainian authorities have sought to exploit those hopes.

In September, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy appealed to non-ethnic Russians, specifically Caucasians, to refuse to join Putin's army.

"Defend your freedom now in the streets and squares," he said.