Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is primarily Vladimir Putin’s war, but if there is a second man whose name and reputation will be tied to the devastation unleashed by Moscow it is Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov.
His fighters were part of the first wave assault on the country, and died in large numbers around the Hostomel airbase, with one key commander among those killed.
Elite Chechen squads were also reportedly recruited for failed attempts to assassinate key Ukrainian leaders in the first 48 hours of the invasion, western intelligence said.
More recently Kadyrov’s men have appeared among forces imposing a brutal siege on the port city of Mariupol, where targets have included a maternity hospital and the suffering of hundreds of thousands has become emblematic of Ukrainian pain.
And the Chechen leader himself even posted a video on social media recently, which he claimed was a strategy session filmed in a basement bunker in Ukraine. He used it to menace Kyiv residents with the prospect of a “personal visit”.
Ukrainian intelligence services say the video was likely false bravado, filmed at home in Chechnya. Intelligence from phones and internet suggested he never crossed into Ukraine, and even Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov declined to endorse the video, saying the Kremlin had “no data” on a possible trip into Ukraine.
But regardless of veracity, the footage was useful propaganda, signalling how closely and enthusiastically Kadyrov has associated himself with this war.
He appears to see the invasion of Ukraine as an opportunity to boost both his power and his profile. Sending his men is a way for Kadyrov to prove his loyalty to the Russian leader whose patronage is the basis of his authority.
“There are many thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of Chechens who hate him, who resent him and many families who are in a state of latent blood feud against him and his family, so Kadyrov understands if he wants to to survive he needs Russia and Vladimir Putin’s backing,” said Emil Solomon Aslan from the Institute of Political Studies at Charles University in Prague.
“That’s why he wants to display absolute loyalty, show he is useful, can come and do very grandiose stuff.”
They are somewhat irregular forces for Russia to deploy. There is constant feuding between Chechen commanders and Russian intelligence, including petty public insults (a recent video showed fighters using feminine grammar to mock a male FSB leader) and little integration with the regular army. In videos, troops highlight that they are under the command of Kadyrov, not the Russian military hierarchy.
Unlike Russians, the Chechen troops carry mobile phones, post to social media and call the conflict a war – ignoring the Kremlin’s propaganda ruling that the carnage must be called a “special operation”.
Their prominent role despite all this is a tribute to Kadyrov’s reach, a public show of how a great power’s military depends on his band of Chechen fighters.
This month he launched an Arabic language channel on Telegram, apparently to capitalise on that prominence, an ambitious move for the leader of a small, non-Arabic speaking Russian region.
He has tried to present the mobilisation as something backed across Chechen society, with schoolteachers ordered to make lists of people with space in their homes to “shelter refugees”, and claims that some government employees would forego a month’s salary because they “donated it to the war”.
For Putin, the Chechen leader offers experienced fighters, honed in vicious wars of attrition against insurgency and in street-to-street fighting which is already ripping apart several Ukrainian cities. Their reputation for brutality is a weapon in itself.
“Kadyrov has long experience of so-called ‘cleansing operations’ [against civilians], and his fighters may be used as psychological tool against peaceful Ukrainians,” said Aleksandre Kvakhadze, a research fellow at the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, focused on the north Caucusus.
“The implicit threat is there: if you don’t surrender, you may meet the same fate as peaceful cities in Georgia and Chechnya.
“Also, the older generation of Chechen fighters participated at some point in defence of Grozny, when they were fighting against Russia. So Russian commanders believe in this sense his forces have skills that may be useful in Ukraine, especially during things like the siege of Mariupol.”
Kadyrov, who runs Chechnya as a personal fiefdom through fear and violence, may even offer inspiration in dictatorship to the Russian leader, as the economy crumbles under sanctions and Putin moves ever deeper into autocracy.
He has traditionally offered the Kremlin a kind of alternative enforcement network, for intelligence gathering and taking out enemies too toxic or controversial for regular spy services.
Perhaps most prominently, five Chechens were found guilty of the 2015 murder of Boris Nemtsov, a leading opposition figure, although the crime was never directly tied to Kadyrov.
As the Kremlin seeks scapegoats for failures in Ukraine, with the FSB chief for the country reportedly under house arrest, these roles as enforcers and in intelligence gathering may prove even more useful, particularly as there has been historical enmity between the two camps.
Many Chechens felt they were sent as cannon fodder to a badly planned war in the early days, when their heavy losses included a senior commander. Now they seem more focused on a media war, aimed at driving recruits and bolstering their leader.
At home, Kadyrov has been pushing hard for “volunteers”, who are offered a sign-on bonus of about $2,300 (£1,750) and pay of $1,000 a month, with extra for successful operations, one recruiter said in text messages to a prospective young fighter.
They have approached groups including martial arts coaches asking young men to sign up, but Chechens are apparently mostly unmoved, aware how lethal the war has become.
“The footage and metadata show most [Chechen] forces are at least 20km [12 miles] away from the frontline, the only things they do is record videos to motivate people inside Chechnya and promote the warrior image of Kadyrov and his forces,” Kvakhadze said.
“They are putting in a lot of effort to mobilise ‘volunteers’, offered very generous financial reward for participating, but Telegram and leaks suggest it is not successful.”
Kadyrov also has one other reason to fight. Lined up with the Ukrainian forces are at least two brigades that include members of the Chechen diaspora who loathe him, and would like to see him overthrown. He needs to show enemies at home and abroad his strength, but he needs to keep his forces intact to prop up his brutal rule.
“Kadyrov seems to have been shocked by the scope of Ukrainian resistance, and it seems that dozens if not hundreds of his people have been killed. He has a lot of people, around 12,000, but to stay in power he needs those fighters,” Aslan said.
“If they suffer too much serious damage in Ukraine, this could backfire for Kadyrov. This might explain some of the rumours he rolled back some of his forces.
“He wants to show himself as a tough leader of these tough fighters who are willing to self-sacrifice. But I’m not really sure if they are willing to give up their lives.”