Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov became an internet sensation for the Kremlin as he traveled to Ukraine to visit the frontline of Russia’s invasion. But some say the trips and posts are staged.
Even the Ukrainian Minister of Internal Affairs says that Kadyrov’s trip is fake, claiming he staged it as an elaborate and highly successful public relations campaign to boost his profile and cast Russia’s war in Ukraine in a positive light.
Kadyrov is a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who recently promoted him to lieutenant general of the Russian military. A leader who’s been accused of human rights abuses, Kadyrov also has a flare for online drama, such as when he sparred with John Oliver because the comedian made fun of him for putting the entire nation of Chechnya on notice to search for his missing cat.
No one denies that Kadyrov harnessed the power of social media to promote his public image. He built huge followings on Facebook and Instagram before getting booted from the platforms in 2017 over such stunts as threatening to kill a 15-year-old who called him “Satan.”
Since then he’s turned to VK, the Russian version of Facebook, and Telegram. Kadyrov is similarly successful on these platforms, amassing 900,000 followers on VK and 1.6 million on Telegram.
This week, videos and images emerged of Kadyrov in Ukraine.
On Monday, he wrote on VK and Telegram, “Friends, the city of Mariupol daily receives liberators represented by the Russian armed forces. Today, I decided to pay an unexpected visit there together with my dear nephews.” (“Nephews” refers to several Chechen officials who reportedly accompanied him.)
Posts about Kadyrov’s Ukraine trip solicited adoration and praise.
“May God give strength and health! These people can’t leave,” one wrote on his VK post about visiting a wounded Chechen fighter in the hospital on the way to Mariupol, Ukraine. Soldiers who accompanied him also posted footage from their travels to TikTok.
These and other images and video of Kadyrov spread across social media.
The trip also attracted international media attention.
The New York Post wrote of the “Prada-wearing Chechen warlord” visiting Mariupol. The Times of London covered Kadyrov’s trip. Other outlets reported on the trip, with some noting Kadyrov brought his 14-year-old son with him.
There’s just one problem. Internet sleuths say that Kadyrov staged the trip. While Kadyrov or his troops may have gone to Ukraine, they believe much of the footage is actually of them role-playing as if they’re fighting and assisting in the war effort. Some posts, they say, weren’t filmed in Ukraine at all.
In a thorough thread, the Wilson Center fellow Kamil Galeev detailed how Kadyrov’s supposed Ukraine trip was nothing more than public relations, which Galeev refers to as “PRmaxing.”
Galeev began the thread by noting that an image of Kadyrov praying, which many of his followers believed was taken in Ukraine, was shot in front of a gas station company that doesn’t operate there.
“Russia has lots of these gas stations but there are none in Ukraine,” Galeev tweeted. “Kadyrov took tough-guy-photos in Russia and claimed he did it in Ukraine.”
Galeev and others also say that widely circulated footage of Kadyrov’s soldiers “fighting” in Ukraine is a farce.
“Why do Kadyrov’s soldiers take so much stuff to the ‘battlefield’?” Galeev wrote. “Why are they always so fresh, their uniforms so clean, without even a little bit of dirt? Well, because they don’t fight. They are TikTok troops of a TikTok warlord.”
“Kadyrov’s TikTok troops bravely fight with an empty building,” Eastern European media outlet Nexta reported. “In the video you can clearly hear the cameraman shouting ‘Come on, come on, let’s start, I’m shooting,’ and the Chechen soldiers, looking into the camera, run to shoot at the destroyed house.”
This isn’t the first time Kadyrov has been accused of pretending to visit Ukraine during the Russian invasion.
“One of the scariest Chechen super-soldiers, that was presented on many Tiktok videos, including ‘the-near-Kyiv’ video with Kadyrov unexpectedly appeared in Chechnya, next to his mom…” one tweeted on March 15, adding mockingly.
“DAMN! CHECHENS ARE EQUIPPED WITH TELEPORT. WE ARE DOOMED,” they wrote, questioning how Kardykov could have been in both Kyiv and Chechnya around the same time.
According to Galeev, public relations is the entire point of Kadyrov’s posts about going to Ukraine. By that measure, it’s been a resounding success.
Galeev reports that Russian TV host Tina Kandelaki commended Kadyrov’s social media prowess, which she said led his Telegram following to multiply from 60,000 before Russia invaded to its current 1.6 million subscribers. She also praised Kadyrov for getting Elon Musk and Telegram founder Pavel Durov to reply to his posts.
“Ramzan confidently entered the social media space and immediately realized it is the modern battlefield,” Kandelaki reportedly wrote.
“Kadyrov created the best military blog in Telegram. That’s amazing. We are a country of content producers, too. We can do it, too.”