The rugged reputation comes from his ancestors’ centuries of fierce fighting against waves of invaders and occupiers, delivering blow after blow to those who sought to conquer their mountainous homeland.
But Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov’s combat boots come from Prada’s 2019 collection, priced at about $1,580 (£1,210) retail. His grotesque sensibilities, including an inclination to harm animals and dispatch his henchmen to abduct and kill gay people, dissidents and journalists rather than fight for his homeland.
Kadyrov’s role in Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has put him in the spotlight that he craves, albeit less for his fashion choices than accusations of grave war crimes and human rights violations in the suburbs of Kyiv and the besieged port city of Mariupol.
More Uday than Qusay – or for Game of Thrones fans, more Joffrey than Tommen – the 45-year-old has also been mocked as a “TikTok warrior” for social media posts in which he has pretended to be in Ukraine while remaining in Russia. His gunmen have also been accused of staging videos in attempts to make themselves look fierce, firing off their weapons at empty buildings.
The entire blood-splattered spectacle is a far cry from the pious Muslim shepherds, farmers and civil servants who took up arms on behalf of Chechnya over the decades.
“The Kadyrovites have very little to do with Chechen values,” says Christopher Swift, a national security lawyer and specialist on Russia and the Caucasus. “They’re a bizarre amalgam of very conservative Islamic ideas out of the Middle East and slavish devotion to the Putin regime.”
Experts say Kadyrov’s rise and flamboyant behaviour are both emblematic and symptomatic of the twisted values, sadistic worldview, and craven jostling for position within Russia’s political elite.
“He considers himself a foot soldier of Mr Putin and he serves Mr Putin and the Kremlin and no one else,” says Miro Popkhadze, Georgia’s former Ministry of Defence envoy to the UN.
“But he also is disliked by the elite – the oligarchs, and the security services,” says Popkhadze, a researcher at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
“There is a fight going on between them under the radar for rights and privileges. That’s why he’s using social media – to give the message that he’s there for Putin and making a difference. That’s why he is making a lot of noise.”
The relationship between Kadyrov and Putin stretches back decades, to the time of Russia’s second Chechen war in the late 1990s. The rule of Boris Yelstin was fading, and Kremlin insiders were looking to elevate Putin, then an obscure former KGB operative, as his successor.
That’s where Kadyrov’s father, Akhmad, came in. In late 1999, the warlord and religious scholar, who had helped deliver a humiliating defeat against Russia in the first Chechen war, abruptly switched sides, helping the Kremlin both crush Chechen aspirations and bolster Putin’s image as a competent tough guy.
“The Kadyrovs became very important and very indispensable,” says Thornike Gordadze, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Security Studies and a scholar at France’s Sciences Po.
“The fact that Chechnya is part of Russia is thanks to Kadyrov. The Russian troops play a secondary role,” adds Gordadze, who is also a former Georgian government official.
But from the beginning, the Kadyrovites had a reputation for abuse and gruesome violence, more marauding bandits than a disciplined armed force.
“They would go from house to house not only taking the properties of people and abducting, but taking money and inflicting sexual violence,” says Matthias van Lohuizen, a Dutch scholar who served as an aid worker in Chechnya during the early 2000s.
Akhmad was elected president of the newly-reconquered Chechen Republic of Russia in 2003, only to die at the hands of his former comrades in bombing a year later.
The younger Kadyrov, who had been a militia leader, immediately adopted Putin as a sort of father figure, and took over as president as soon as he turned 30 in 2007.
His governing skills were threadbare, but his militia – the Kadyrovtsy – specialised in killing and terrorising unarmed civilians, serving as his extrajudicial praetorian guard.
He keeps control over Chechnya with an iron fist, aided by what he himself has estimated as $3.8bn in annual subsidies from Moscow.
Kadyrov has been accused of series of assassinations, including of longtime dissident Boris Nemtsov, a killing on the Kremlin’s doorstep that outraged even Putin’s other enforcers.
During a 2008 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Kadyrov appeared to take pleasure at using his pet tiger to terrify his collection of exotic birds.
“I’m going to make them scream,” he was quoted as saying.
Alex Raufoglu, a journalist and researcher focused on the Caucasus region, says he “pretty much does whatever he wants”.
“He is surrounded by yes men who just take orders from him,” he tells The Independent.
Kadyrov and his militia of thousands of men have taken part in several of post-Soviet Russia’s imperial wars, including in Georgia in 2008, in Ukraine in 2014, and during the lengthy and ongoing intervention in Syria that began in 2015.
But all those engagements were alongside Russian troops and against far weaker enemies than themselves. It remained unclear how well his men would fight in a hot war against a determined and battle-tested foe.
The Ukrainian armed forces, like Chechens of generations past, are struggling to defend their homeland against a merciless invader bent on their subjugation.
In the initial days of the invasion, Kadyrov’s men gave up many casualties and fought poorly, Ukrainians officials have said, and it remains unclear just how much of the Chechen presence is a propaganda exercise.
All the meanwhile, Kadyrov posted questionable footage of himself and his men on social media channels. One photo showed him praying at a Rosneft gas station purported to be in Ukraine. The problem was, as many on social media pointed out, there are no Rosneft gas stations in Ukraine.
Other footage showed his men firing wildly at empty buildings.
Yet another highly derided clip showed his men handing out relief supplies in Mariupol that on closer inspection appeared to be Ukrainian goods the Kadyrovites had looted.
“He likes to present himself and to be presented as a ruthless warrior and a true force,” says Gordadze.
“But this globalised image of Chechens as ruthless fighters is being used by the Kremlin. His presence is publicised in Russian media just to inflict terror. Kadyrov is all about communication and PR and, in fact, he will never really risk his life.”
On the morning of 5 March, Abramova Irina Vladimirovna, 48, was sitting at her home in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha when she and her husband, Oleg, heard an explosion, then gunfire that damaged their building. Men ordered them to come out.
“Don’t shoot,” Oleg said, according to his wife. “There are civilians here.”
The men ordered him to raise his hands in the air, and demanded to know why they were hiding from the soldiers. “We are liberators,” the Kadyrovites told them. “We have come to liberate you.”
They took Oleg away, stripped his shirt off, forced him to kneel and shot him dead through the temple, according to his wife, who recounted the tale for a Ukrainian journalist.
Then they let the house burn down, and ordered her to go away.
According to witness statements collected by Ukrainian investigators and journalists, Kadyrovites in black and green uniforms have been behind some of the worst atrocities and human rights violations in towns such as Bucha, including against children.
Swift described them more as a death squad seeking to destroy the fabric of society than a disciplined armed force.
“What distinguished the Kadyrovites is their willingness to do things that no one else would; the brutality was a strategy,” says Swift.
“They come in at the end of an absolutely brutal conventional war to mop up. But there is a different skill set between brutalising and terrorising your population after the Russians have shelled them into oblivion and trying to invade another country.”
The methods they are using, say experts, are the same that they employed for more than 20 years to crush Chechens opposed to Kadyrov and to Russians opposed to Putin.
Indeed, a Chechen gunman accused in the slaying of Nemtsov, Ruslan Geremeev, has resurfaced in Mariupol in images published on Kadyrov’s Telegram channel. Although they have fared poorly on the battlefield, they appear to exercise little restraint against unarmed civilians.
“For the last week, they marched in the morning through residential areas and shot everyone they saw, every day someone had to be buried,” one witness, a Kyiv sommelier taking care of his relatives, was quoted as telling a Ukrainian news website.
“At the end of March, they killed our neighbour, a pensioner named Strelets. He was just sitting on a bench; he’d never done anything bad in his life.”
Despite scepticism from some in the Kremlin, Putin tolerates and encourages Kadyrov because he serves as a bridge to the Muslim world as well as a way to maintain control over a restive region of his empire.
Gordadze likens Kadyrov to a 19th century colonial viceroy, acting on behalf of the emperor.
By all accounts, Kadyrov is what he appears to be. Even the bling, fashion, collection exotic animals and hunger for social media glory are symptoms of “just how broken these people are”, says Swift.
“This is part of the hollow superficiality of the Putin regime,” he says. “It’s not that different from the empty superficiality that you see in the elite circles in Moscow and Saint Petersburg.”
Ultimately, Moscow may rue the day Putin partnered with such an obviously damaged, violent and ruthless personality and his clique.
In recent weeks, he has lambasted the Kremlin’s top peace negotiator Vladimir Medinsky for scaling back Russian ambitions in Ukraine, and spokesperson Dmitry Peskov for failing to congratulate him on his recent promotion to lieutenant general.
Just as Kadyrov’s father betrayed the Chechen cause, so could Kadyrovites turn against the Kremlin.
“The day may come when we will have the third Chechen warrior,” says Gordadze.
“There are so many people who don’t like Kadyrov. If he dies or is killed and eliminated, this personal agreement between him and Putin also dies, and overnight they can become the army of Chechnya against Russia.”