The video posted on social media on Monday showed a jovial man with a long, grey beard firing his automatic rifle around a corner and in the direction of a building on fire, thick black smoke billowing from it.
The soldier is laughing for the camera, enjoying the battle. But there is nothing in fact pleasant about Ruslan Geremeyev. He is a notorious Chechen warlord and the prime suspect in the assassination in Moscow of Boris Nemtsov, who was Vladimir Putin’s fiercest political rival at the time he was gunned down in 2015.
Geremeyev has now been dispatched by Putin to do his dirty work in Mariupol, the port city in southern Ukraine that has been reduced to rubble by Russian artillery. Thousands of civilians have been killed and hundreds of thousands have fled. But what is left of Mariupol is now being fought over in street-to-street fighting, with Ukraine’s remaining troops digging in for guerilla warfare they are unlikely to survive.
Geremeyev, a major in the Chechen Republic’s North battalion, has been pushed front and centre in the propaganda campaign as Mariupol teeters on the brink. One video shows Geremeyev hoisting the Chechen flag atop a civic building in the city. Seven years earlier he had been named by the Nemtsov family lawyer as the person behind the killing while Russian investigators had declared him a suspect in ther assassination, only to downgrade him to a witness and allow him to flee to the Gulf before he could be questioned. Now Geremeyev, 43, is leading Russia’s assault on Mariupol.
He is being cheered on by Ramzan Kadyrov, the feared Chechen leader, whose father, Akhmat Kadyrov, adorns the flag hoisted over the Mariupol municipal building. On Monday, Kadyrov, 45, flew into Mariupol, posing for photographs with Chechen fighters as if this was an amateur football team that had simply won a local derby. Putin had promoted Kadyrov to major-general five days ago as a thank you for Chechen republic’s support. As many as 10,000 Chechen fighters are said to be involved. On Monday, Putin promoted Kadyrov a second time to the rank of lieutenant-general.
"Ramzan Akhmatovich [Kadyrov] came to Mariupol to talk, raise the morale of the guys, provide additional technical equipment, adjust and finalise the strategy for the next couple of days in order to liberate Mariupol,” said Akhmed Dudayev, a Kadyrov spokesman in a statement reported in the Russian media.
In a posting on Kadyrov’s Telegram channel, the Chechen leader praised “our dear brother Ruslan Geremeyev” as the “good one” who “always sees the task through to the end”.
It is unclear how much of the Chechen involvement is simply pro-Kremlin propaganda at a time when Russia is being beaten back from other areas of Ukraine. It remains unclear for how long the Ukrainian troops still inside Mariupol can keep the Russian troops at bay.
In the north of the city, in the Kalmisuuky district, soldiers from the “Somali” battalion raised their distinctive flag over the bomb-damaged municipal building. The battalion is a military unit of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s republic, the Russian-backed separatist region that Putin has illegally declared an independent state. The battalion - official name 1st Separate Tank Battalion Somalia - was given the name because its former commander believed his fighters were as fearless as Somalis.
But Ukraine has refused to surrender Mariupol. If the Kremlin’s forces seize the city that opens up a land corridor for Russia from Crimea to the separatist held Donbas. It would also potentially free up Russian troops to advance north, threatening to encircle Ukraine’s forces in the east. But that is just one scenario. The likelihood is that the Russian troops - after a month’s fighting - are exhausted and running out of supplies. Even if Mariupol falls in the coming days - if not hours - Russia will need to deploy a sizable force to hold it.
A Ukrainian soldier serving with the Azov regiment speaking to The Telegraph through a social media channel was defiant. “The invaders have already entered the city, but they have not yet achieved much success,” said the soldier, giving only his first name Vadislav. “Every day there are battles for every street, for every house. We Ukrainians have been encircled, and it is difficult to fight off on all sides, but we are still holding on.”
The conditions are impossible. Each night, Russian bombers fly in, attacking Ukraine positions.
"So, planes fly from four in the morning, they fly from Rostov: two planes each. One bombs the infrastructure, and the second launches missiles at ‘suspicious’ houses. But me and my brothers have not yet been hit.
“We will fight to the last drop of blood. Mariupol is in critical condition because the enemy has surrounded us, and the food is already running out. But I believe in the help of Ukrainian forces from other directions. Our goal is to hold out - the enemy will also soon have nothing to eat, and their equipment cannot last forever."
Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, has praised the bravery of his soldiers inside a city that has been under attack for weeks. Mr Zelensky said he had offered his troops the opportunity to save themselves and wave the white flag. But they had refused to do so. They will fight to the end. “I am telling them: guys, I understand everything, we will definitely return. But, if you feel you need to be there, and you feel it is the right decision and you can survive, please do so,” the president told his troops. But his soldiers had refused to leave their wounded and dead comrades.
“I understand what it looks like for the military… I offered them a choice. They replied: ‘We cannot leave. The wounded are here. We will not leave the wounded.’ Moreover, they said: ‘We will not leave the fallen’. Thus, they are defending the city, defending the wounded, defending the fallen, whom they want to bury.”
Mariupol ‘has not fallen so far’
A senior Ukrainian official dismissed reports that Russian troops had seized full control of Mariupol. "It has not fallen so far," said the official, who accused the Kremlin's propaganda machine of pumping out disinformation. "Russia is presenting the situation this way but there remain a couple of positions where our forces are holding the defence of the city."
Mariupol’s mayor sounded less defiant; his city seemingly close to capitulation.
"Not everything is in our power," said Vadym Boichenko, the pro-government mayor of Mariupol, in a live television interview. "Unfortunately, we are in the hands of the occupiers today."
Mr Boichenko pleaded for a full evacuation of the remaining population of Mariupol. Before the war started, 400,000 people had lived there and in the ensuing four weeks at least a quarter of a million people have fled.
"According to our estimates, about 160,000 people are in the besieged city of Mariupol today, where it is impossible to live because there is no water, no electricity, no heat, no connection," said the mayor. "And it's really scary."
“We need a complete evacuation from Mariupol," Boichenko said. "Our most important mission today is to save every life... And there are hopes that we will succeed. For example, there are 26 buses that have to go to Mariupol to evacuate, but unfortunately, they haven't received permission to move. And this game is played every day. A cynical game like, 'Yes, we are ready. You can drive there,' but in fact it does not work. Our heroic drivers under the fire are trying to reach the places where Mariupol residents can be picked up, and they are waiting with the hope that they will have such an opportunity. But the Russian Federation has been playing with us since day one."
A military specialist, who uses the name Jomini of the West on Twitter but appears well connected to Western intelligence, posted on the social media site a latest appraisal of the citation in Mariupol. “The Russian forces continue to press deeper into Mariupol,” he concluded, “It is possible that the city defences may soon be bisected by Russian forces advancing from east to west.”
Majority of city’s hospitals are damaged
Russian forces may be close to capturing Mariupol but there isn’t a lot left. It is estimated that 90 per cent of the city’s buildings have been destroyed or damaged. 60 per cent have suffered direct hits, according to Ukrainian officials, and 40 per cent destroyed.
Seven of the city's hospitals —again 90 per cent of the city's hospital capacity — were damaged, of which three were destroyed. A maternity hospital was obliterated in an act that is being investigated for war crimes. Twenty three schools and 28 children’s nurseries have also been wiped out in the bombing.
Mariupol will go down in history as one of those cities destroyed by war like Guaernica or Grozny, the Chechen capital. Kadyrov ought to be at home in Mariupol. But the reality is that for all the Chechen troops' reputation as fearsome, battle-hardened fighters, it is unclear that they have been any more effective than the rest of the Russian forces. Just two weeks ago, Kadyrov pleaded with Boris Johnson in a posting on telegram to lift sanctions against him. All he wanted to do, he said, was “indulge high-minded thoughts in the National Portrait Gallery”. But the die is cast. Putin's deluded invasion has stranded him in Mariupol instead.