November 30, 2023




Nobody involved in the war in Ukraine is more fearsome
than Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov — at least
when it comes to social media.

Illustration by Anthony Gerace for POLITICO

It’s past midnight on March 4, and Ramzan Kadyrov sounds drunk and drugged, or maybe just depressed and angry. Eight days into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the war, it seems, isn’t going to plan. In a rambling voice message lasting nearly eight minutes, the Chechen strongman — one of Vladimir Putin’s most prominent allies — bemoans the losses Russian troops are suffering.

Slurring his words as he appeals directly to Putin, Kadyrov calls on the Russian president to complete the invasion as quickly as possible: “Give our fighters the chance to use all possible — and impossible — force to finish this off once and for all.” 

“Comrade President, comrade Supreme Commander in Chief, I have told you more than once that I am your infantryman. I am ready to give my life for you,” he says. “But I cannot bear to see how our fighters for the defense ministry, National Guard and other structures are dying. I appeal to you to close your eyes to everything, and to give the order to put an end to it all in one or two days. Only that will save our state and people.” 

The statement, posted on Kadyrov’s Telegram channel, is just one of a series of voice messages, videos and written texts the Chechen commander has uploaded to the encrypted messaging service and other social media since Russian troops launched their all-out assault on February 24.

Featuring tirades, reflections and cheerleading for his commanders in the field, Kadyrov’s musings offer a rare window into how one of the conflict’s chief protagonists has viewed the fighting as Russian troops waged a scorched-earth campaign across southern and eastern Ukraine and racked up heavy losses in a stalled effort to capture Kyiv.

The warlord’s digital diary brims with bravado typical of the thickset 45-year-old who has ruled with an iron fist for 15 years over the North Caucasus republic. Evidence of actual bravery on the battlefield is, however, lacking: Kadyrov’s sometimes clumsy attempts to shape the war narrative — especially amid unexpected early setbacks — give away clues that, for all the fighting talk, his top commanders have largely stayed out of the line of fire.

Kadyrov’s posts — which frequently notch up more than a million views — also provide occasional moments of unintended comedy.

Twenty minutes after his message in the early hours of March 4, he posts again. Apparently, his mental state has not gone unnoticed, and some have questioned whether the recording was genuine.

He complains that people haven’t recognized his voice because he has a cold and a sore throat.

“It is me, Ramzan Akhmatovich Kadyrov,” he croaks, “chief, hero of Russia, general and Putin’s infantryman. Fighting spirit, iron will. Only forward,” he says before signing off for the night.

What follows is the war according to Kadyrov, as one of Russia’s most feared figures watches the fighting unfold, first from his power base in Grozny and later — according to his Telegram channel at least — from the ground within striking distance of Kyiv.

Friday, February 25: Kadyrov’s war begins with a parade in front of his governor’s palace in the Chechen capital.

His men may be readying to fight Putin’s battles, but Kadyrov himself started out as a Chechen rebel, part of a 1994 uprising led by his father that was put down by Russian forces with the brutal carpet bombing of Grozny.  

In the second Chechen war of 1999, which helped propel Putin to the presidency, Kadyrov switched sides and fought with the Russians. He was rewarded in 2007 when the Kremlin installed him as president of the Chechen Republic at the age of 30.

Nicknamed “Putin’s attack dog,” Kadyrov has since shown unswerving loyalty to the Russian president, who has in return allowed him to rule Chechnya as his personal fiefdom. He has constructed a cult of personality, portraying himself alternately as cruel, colorful and capricious (he once got into a slanging match with the comedian John Oliver over a lost cat and his predilection for Putin T-shirts). But, above all, he presents himself as a man of war.

And so, the day after Putin ordered Russian troops into Ukraine, Kadyrov publishes a slickly produced video of 12,000 armed fighters, kitted out in black or in camouflage, arrayed before him. The video includes scenes shot from a drone flying overhead.

“I officially declare that Chechen fighters will occupy the hottest hotspots in Ukraine,” Kadyrov tells the massed troops. Addressing the Ukrainian defense forces, he says: “If you really want to meet us there, I invite you with pleasure.” 

“Akhmat!” calls Kadyrov — the name of his father, who was assassinated in 2004. 

Sila!” — “Strength!” — shout the troops in reply.  

Then a call and response of “Allahu Akbar!” — “God is great!” 

The soldiers then go home. The parade was for show. Kadyrov’s real fighters are already in Ukraine, with Chechen units of the Russian National Guard — or Rosgvardia — already spotted on the road heading north from Chechnya as long ago as February 2.

* * *

Saturday, February 26: Day three of the war brings confirmation that Kadyrov’s forces are directly involved in the Russian invasion, and the first reports that his men are taking losses.

Kadyrov posts videos featuring one of his field commanders, Hussein Mezhidov, raising the Russian flag at a Ukrainian military base. Mezhidov — head of the northern regiment of the National Guard’s 141st Motorized Infantry — points to a sign on a guardhouse with the name of the base where he’s arrived.

Just 30 kilometers northwest of Kyiv’s city center, the military base is in Hostomel, close to the Antonov International Airport, which was taken — apparently without a fight — in an early Russian helicopter raid.

But Kadyrov has other concerns on his mind: Rumors are circulating that two other top commanders — Magomed Tushaev of the 141st Motorized Infantry’s southern regiment and Anzor Bisaev, chief of Chechnya’s interior ministry troops — are dead.

Kadyrov goes live on social media. He’s wearing a brown hoodie. As he waits for viewers to log on, he coughs, snorts loudly and rearranges his hair. He apologizes for his appearance and says he hasn’t slept.

“Why am I going live? There have been a lot of rumors,” Kadyrov says in the video, posted to his Telegram channel at 4:19 p.m. in Chechnya. 

Kadyrov’s paramilitary forces — known as the Kadyrovtsy — are part of the Russian National Guard, a branch of the military that reports directly to Putin. Operating outside the normal chain of command they are, in effect, the Chechen leader’s personal army.

“Some say that many of our fighters have been killed,” he says. “I officially declare to you that, as of today, at this very minute, there has not been a single man lost, not a single man wounded.”

But the rumors keep coming, culminating in an official claim by the Ukrainian Armed Forces later that evening that Tushaev has been killed. 

At 11:48 p.m. in Grozny, Kadyrov posts a new video. Taken from over his shoulder, it shows him talking on his smartphone’s loudspeaker. The name shown on the display is Anzor. The two-minute conversation is in Chechen. The men laugh. 

He also posts another categorical denial that both Bisaev and Tushaev are dead. 

“I contacted the guys. They are more alive than all the living, and even more alive than people scribbling fake stories from the sofa!” he says. 

“The guys have a fighting spirit, not a single scratch, full ammunition, and full supplies of homemade dried meat (it will give strength in the most difficult campaign), as well as a great regret that there are only 24 hours in a day. After all, the operation could otherwise have been completed today.” 

* * *

Sunday, February 27: It’s day four and Kadyrov is growing impatient.

Apparently frustrated with the lack of progress, he complains in a Telegram post that Russia is going soft in its battles with the Banderovtsy — a derogatory name for the Ukrainian militias led in World War II by Stepan Bandera, whose Order of Ukrainian Nationalists collaborated with the Nazis.

“I do not understand why we continue to coddle the Banderovtsy,” he writes. “After all, from the first day it has been obvious that the nationalists aren’t able to understand any language other than force.”

“We must finish what we started and move forward without looking back. Come what may. In war there is death and destruction. There is no other way, unfortunately.” 

Reports continue to circulate that a detachment of Chechen fighters has been killed.  

An eyewitness video from Bucha, a Ukrainian town just south of Hostomel, shows the smoldering wreckage of a Russian armored column on the town’s main street. 

“These are fucking Kadyrovtsy,” says the man shooting the video in a running commentary laden with Russian profanity. “They came and left this world, the fucking bastards. This is what is left of them. Those motherfuckers are spare parts now.” 

Kadyrov responds by posting a short video clip of four Chechen commanders — including Tushaev and Bisaev — chanting the battle cry “Akhmat Sila!” and doing a thumbs up.

More video posts follow that same evening, of a column of Chechen troops parked on a woodland road. In one, troops are shown praying in the forest. In a second, Tushaev is seen walking toward the camera, shaking hands with another soldier, and smiling.  

The days that follow feature a whirlwind trip by Kadyrov to Moscow to meet senior Kremlin officials. He confirms that two Chechen soldiers have died in combat and six were injured but denies reports of further casualties.

As the propaganda war heats up, the head of the Ukrainian National Council of Defense and Security, Oleksiy Danilov, alleges that Russia’s FSB spy agency has tipped off Kyiv that a Chechen death squad has been sent to assassinate President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

* * *

Tuesday, March 3: A video reposted by Kadyrov features Mezhidov claiming to have routed 2,500 Ukrainian troops and displaying captured weapons. “We are showing who we are,” Mezhidov boasts into the camera.

Adds Kadyrov: “The guys are rushing forward to Kyiv and are burning with the desire to explain to the Banderovtsy in no uncertain terms that they are no longer masters here. I’m sure they will do that.”

At home, however, opposition news sites are running reports that Kadyrov and his henchmen are flying their families out to Dubai, fearful that the war on Ukraine will fuel unrest.

Kadyrov’s teenage son, Akhmat, posts a video on Instagram of himself and two brothers in uniform. “To the fantasists and low-life provocateurs who made up the story that we left the republic, I answer: It was you cowards who fled, we are here, in our beloved Motherland, and we are not afraid! Akhmat Sila! Allahu Akbar!” he says. 

It’s that night that Kadyrov posts his rambling video calling on Putin to complete the task of conquering Ukraine as soon as possible. 

* * *

Wednesday, March 4: Kadyrov’s mood appears to improve, but his anger grows as the day wears on. 

In the afternoon, he lambasts the Ukrainians over their battlefield tactics, accuses them of spreading lies and rules out any compromise in peace talks. 

“No concessions!” he writes. “Only forward and not a step back. We have all the strength we need to finish what we started.” 

His field commander Mezhidov appears in another video, reassuring Russian-speaking civilians hiding in an underground shelter. “Everything will be fine. We will protect you,” he says before the scene cuts to show him holding a baby.

A pattern is emerging, of senior Chechen commanders interacting with civilians, rather than engaging in combat. That, says one Western analyst, reflects the auxiliary role of the Russian National Guard, which is to clear and secure territory behind the front line.

“They don’t really do fighting,” says Harold Chambers, a Chechnya watcher at the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington-based think tank originally set up to help Soviet defectors. “They do actively terrorize civilian populations. And there are questions as to how good they actually are at counterinsurgency operations.” 

Back on the home front, a new post appears on the Instagram feed of Kadyrov’s son Akhmat. Together with brothers Adam and Ali he is posing in uniform, flanked by men in full combat gear. A man introduces himself as a special forces commander and says the boys have undergone training. It is night and the skyscrapers of Grozny are lit up in the background. 

“The only place we are going if it is necessary — that’s Ukraine,” says Adam, who looks overweight and speaks with a lisp. “We will fulfill any order given by Ramzan Akhmatovich Kadyrov.” 

The days that follow feature more videos from the field and allegations by Kadyrov that Zelenskyy has fled the country.

* * *

Monday, March 7: Kadyrov posts another video of Mezhidov with his armored unit in the background. As the camera pans it shows a sign for the town of Babyntsi. It turns out that Mezhidov and his men have, since his first post from Hostomel, moved 30 kilometers to the rear. 

Still, a second video features Mezhidov taunting the Ukrainians: “Where did you go? I am looking for you,” he says, calling on them to stand and fight. 

A Chechen opposition channel calls out Mezhidov: “The Kadyrovtsy retreated 30 km from the fighting and are shouting ‘Where are you?’”

More play-fighting follows for the cameras, with Mezhidov pointing proudly to an armored vehicle driving by with bullet holes in its side. Another clip shows Chechen commanders speaking to civilians, patrolling an apparently peaceful neighborhood and, finally, one of them dancing on the street as his comrades clap.

Ukrainian national security officials say, without providing evidence, that the real mission of the Kadyrovtsy is more sinister: they’ve been tasked with a role akin to that of the zagraditelnye otryady, literally “blocking detachments,” of Stalin’s Red Army: to shoot Russian soldiers who are wounded, retreating or deserting.

* * *

Friday, March 11: Kadyrov finds time to publish a 5,000-word tract on his government’s home page which repeats Putin’s unproven allegations that Ukraine is led by a Nazi rabble, is developing nuclear and biological weapons, and its military is using civilians as human shields.

He portrays the invasion as a liberation.

“Russia has not set itself the goal of occupying Ukraine!” he writes. “The people of Ukraine will choose their own destiny: without the participation of neo-Nazis and Western influence. Russia adheres to such a policy throughout the world, in relation to any country — it defends the rights of nations to self-determination.” 

Kadyrov has so far only admitted to two Chechen combat deaths in Ukraine. There is no way to independently verify the body count, but according to a tally by news site Kavkaz.Realii — which is backed by U.S.-run Radio Liberty — 110 soldiers from the wider North Caucasus and southern Russia have died in Ukraine. 

* * *

Sunday, March 13: Reports surface that Kadyrov is paying a flying visit to the battlefield. He is shown in a darkened room being briefed by his commanders, including Daniil Martynov, a security aide reputed to be Kadyrov’s “minder” for the Federal Security Service, the Russian spy agency.

After hearing the update, Kadyrov says: “When the order is given, your mission will be to capture Kyiv.”

In a second video the Chechens say they are in Hostomel. The location could not be independently verified. But, even if true, it would mean they have not advanced at all since Mezhidov raised the Russian flag at the military base on Day three of the war.

Addressing the Ukrainians on his Telegram channel — which now has a million followers — Kadyrov brims with theatrical menace:

“Hey, you Kyiv Nazis, we are getting closer — guess how close we are?” he goads his enemies.

“You’d be better off surrendering and joining us, as I already told you, or your end will come.

“This offer still stands. But not for much longer.”

* * *

Monday, March 14: Ten days after his midnight ramble betrayed signs that he was cracking up under the pressure, Kadyrov has recovered the social media braggadocio that made him famous.

He trash talks U.S. tech billionaire Elon Musk, who has just challenged Putin on Twitter to fight in “single combat” for the possession of Ukraine.

“Elon Musk, I would not advise you to take on Putin. You just aren’t in the same weight category,” Kadyrov posts, offering to help Musk “pump up” with a visit to Chechnya for combat and martial arts training.

“Can you imagine it? You’re in the red corner — a businessman and blogger. Putin in blue is a world leader, strategist and the scourge of the West. It would look unsportsmanlike if Vladimir Vladimirovich beats a weaker opponent.” The banter escalates the next day, with Kadyrov questioning Musk’s manliness by calling him “Elona.” The Tesla boss rises to the bait by changing the name on his Twitter account — which has 78 million followers — to Elona Musk.

But even as Kadyrov does battle on Telegram, his top field commanders are still where they were at the start of the war: away from the fighting but on the front lines of the battle for attention.


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