Chechens are renowned for their strong martial culture and long resistance to Russian rule dating back to the 19th century, when Chechen religious and military leader Imam Shamil fought a spirited insurrection against the Russian Empire that made him an icon and celebrity among Russians even after his surrender in 1859. Chechens have carried this tradition into exile as well, where in Jordan, for instance, a relatively small community of 5,000 to 10,000 Chechens and Circassians are disproportionately represented in the country's armed forces, according to journalist and historian Oliver Bullough, who tracked the communities of scattered North Caucasus peoples in his book Let Our Fame Be Great.
Today, whether from inside or outside Chechnya, Chechens who fought in or escaped the Chechen wars are left with scant opportunities. Bullough writes, "For the 190,000 Chechens or so who have sought asylum in the West, there is the pain of homesickness, and the bureaucratic complications of life in a foreign country. For the Chechens who have chosen to remain at home there is a lack of education, a homeland strewn with mines, a destroyed economy and, still, the risk of arbitrary arrest and death."
One of the few employment opportunities within Chechnya is working for the vast private army of the federal republic's pro-Kremlin leader, former insurgent commander Ramzan Kadyrov. Russia also formed Chechen units for itself, with the nearly exclusively Chechen "Vostok" and "Zapad" battalions. They served as special forces units in 2003, and Russia used "Vostok" extensively in its 2008 war against Georgia.
Georgia, meanwhile, has also looked to the disaffected Chechen diaspora for its proxies.
Last August, just weeks before Georgia's parliamentary elections, the government announced it had surrounded a "squad of saboteurs" that had taken hostages in the Lopota Gorge in eastern Georgia. After negotiations failed, a shootout ensued, killing at least seven militants and three Georgian special forces soldiers. At the time, the government implied the armed group had passed into the country from the North Caucasus and was part of a Russian plan to destabilize Georgia and install a pro-Russian government.
But residents of villages in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge area told a different story. The Pankisi Gorge is populated by Kists, a group ethnically and linguistically linked to Chechens. During the two Chechen wars, insurgents often used the gorge, which pokes into the Caucasus mountain range south of Chechnya, as a staging ground for operations, and by the early 2000s, it was flush with refugees and both Chechen and foreign fighters alike.