Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov – a key ally of Vladimir Putin, the Russian president – is sending his three teenage sons to fight in Ukraine, amid mounting criticism of the Kremlin’s handling of the war among propagandists.
Mr Kadyrov, who fought against Russian forces during bloody separatist wars in the 1990s, announced on Monday that the time had come for his sons, aged 14, 15 and 16, “to prove themselves in battle”.
In a slick video for his millions of Telegram followers, the boys fired machine guns, grenade launchers, rocket-propelled grenades and even mortars and the heavy weapons of armoured vehicles, grinning at the explosions in the distance.
“Akhmat, Eli and Adam are willing to put their skills to use during the Russian special military operation – I’m not joking,” said Mr Kadyrov in an accompanying message.
“Soon they will leave for the frontline and will stay at the most dire points.”
Mr Kadyrov’s announcement seemed to be aimed at those who have accused him of using his region’s security forces in Ukraine purely for self-promotion.
Throughout the war, Chechen troops have been caught staging combat videos in areas far from the actual front lines, winning them the nickname of the TikTok soldiers.
Mr Kadyrov, who has been accused of horrific human rights abuses in his native Chechnya, once claimed to be inspecting troops during the siege of Mariupol in a photo that was actually taken in a Russian border town.
Mr Kadyrov openly criticised Russia’s military leadership last week over the success of Ukraine’s counter-offensive, as frustration spread among Russia’s propagandists who never normally dare to speak out against the Kremlin’s handling of the war.
Some of Russia’s best-known television pundits, who until recently predicted a swift takeover of all of Ukraine, have turned on Russian military tactics, warning viewers of a protracted war against the West ahead.
On Friday, Putin illegally annexed parts of Ukraine’s Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions. However, the Russian army has been in an embarrassing retreat, having lost the strategic town of Lyman over the weekend.
Maxim Yusin, a hawkish talking head who days ago warned of an imminent nuclear apocalypse, criticised the hasty annexation on Sunday.
“I can’t remember a precedent in history where you would absorb territories that you don’t control,” said Mr Yusin on NTV’s political talk show, casting doubts on the Kremlin’s official narrative that Moscow will soon be in complete control of the annexed regions.
“How are we supposed to liberate Zaporizhzhia – population 700,000 – when, if we’re being completely honest, we can’t say if the mobilisation is even going to help to turn the tide of the war? Things are not going so great right now.”
Vladimir Solovyev, one of Russia’s most notorious propagandists who has made a living spouting vitriol for two decades, struck a sombre note, urging viewers to face the grim reality of a protracted war.
“I’d very much like us to attack Kyiv and take it tomorrow, but I’m aware that the 300,000 men we’re mobilising will take time to train.
“For a certain period of time, things won’t be easy for us. We shouldn’t be expecting good news.”
With regional governors already struggling to calm the widespread outrage that followed Putin’s mobilisation order and rein in overzealous recruiters, Russian officials have reported the first deaths at training centres for new soldiers.
At least three mobilised men died at a training centre in the Urals over the weekend.
Maxim Ivanov, a politician from the Sverdlovsk region, said one man took his own life and another died after suffering a stroke. A third man failed a medical check-up and was promptly sent home, where he died from cirrhosis of the liver.
Another death was reported at a centre outside Novosibirsk, where a local official said a recruit had “died in his sleep”.
Banks and other lenders have started offering payday loans to mobilised men who have been asked to buy their own military kit, including basic equipment like bulletproof vests.
Posters offering microcredit popped on the streets of Kursk, close to the Ukrainian border, promising a “decision within 29 minutes” for newly mobilised men struggling to buy vital kit.
Three days after the lavish ceremony celebrating Putin’s annexations, there was still confusion in the Kremlin over where Russia’s new border actually lies.
Asked about Moscow’s recent losses in Ukraine, a Kremlin spokesman said on Monday it recognised the pre-war borders for Donetsk and Luhansk but the border for Kherson and Zaporizhzhia is yet to be defined.
“We are going to continue to consult the populations of these regions,” Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, told Russian reporters on Monday.
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