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Mixed Motives

Smeared by some as mere mercenaries, a band of Georgians fighting in Ukraine says neither money nor revenge underlies their drive to battle Russia on all fronts.

by Tatiana Kozak 5 April 2017

“We have been here in Ukraine since April 2014. At the very beginning we were a group of six people – ideologically minded people who wanted to help,” says Mamuka Mamulashvili, commander of the so-called Georgian Legion.


Almost since the outbreak of war in eastern Ukraine three years ago, this unit of Georgian soldiers has been fighting alongside government forces in what Kyiv calls the Anti-Terror Operation against separatists in the Donbas region.


Mamulashvili fought in his own country’s separatist conflicts while barely into his teens and later advised the Georgian army. For him Ukraine’s war against Russian-backed separatists is more than a brush fire: the shooting war in the Donbas and the political wrangling back in Georgia are just two symptoms of what he calls “the struggle of the modern world with the remains of the Soviet Union.”


‘The Same War in Abkhazia’


Mamulashvili and other Legion members spoke to TOL from one of their bases near the frontline.


Their “command headquarters” is typical of this war: the fighters are holed up in an abandoned house on the outskirts of a village from which many residents fled during heavy tank battles in the area in 2014 and 2015, in the first and fiercest part of the war. The Georgians took up positions in the area in mid-2015, replacing a regular Ukrainian Army battalion. They were officially co-opted into the Ukrainian Army in 2016 and now fight as a company of the 25th Kyivan Rus Battalion.


The house is littered with the usual paraphernalia of a soldier’s life: weapons, walkie-talkies, ammunition, icons, a girlie calendar, letters from children delivered by civilian volunteers, boxes of provisions. Georgian and Ukrainian flags hang side by side.


The base headquarters in a partly abandoned village near the front line.


There are personal touches too. Mamuka Bozhadze, a former border guard from the Kahketi region, has his own shelf. During a recent visit, it displayed a Georgian fur hat and a Russian-language sign reading “Sukhumi,” capital of the secessionist Abkhazia territory (the sign was recently erected outside the base).


There are four-footed residents of the base, too: a few dogs, usually barking at passing neighbors, a cat, and a goat named Katya adorned with an earring and a leash in the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag.


When there is no shelling and they are off duty, the fighters spend time sleeping, listening to music, chatting, or watching movies on DVDs – the internet connection is very bad here. They all gather for dinner and treat their guests to the famous Georgian hospitality. The table is loaded with shashlik and baked goose. But there is no traditional wine; instead the soldiers drink cola or tea and coffee. Volunteers bring all the provisions.


Here and elsewhere along the frontline in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, fighting has picked up in recent months.


“Every night we have fireworks like in New York. Last night I thought it was midnight on New Year’s Eve – what a show!” one soldier says at dinner.


These men have little faith in the internationally brokered peace process, or the 2015 Minsk agreement to end the fighting.


“The Minsk agreement – I don’t know whom this Minsk agreement is for,” someone says. The men say they know firsthand that the rebels’ backer, Russia, understands only the language of power.


“In fact, we had the same war in Abkhazia,” said Zurab Kvizhinadze, one of many Legionnaires who fought in Abkhazia during the conflict in the early 1990s. “It suddenly turned out that farmers who had been growing tangerines all their lives were good at shooting with anti-aircraft missiles! Natural-born tankmen. It’s the same here. The coal miner turned out to know how to operate the newest artillery.”


The irony in his tone is a reference to Russia’s insistence the conflict in eastern Ukraine is a domestic one and denies claims of its military’s direct involvement on the rebel side and of supplying arms to them.


After dinner, Kvizhinadze and some of the others return to their posts for night duty.


Several times that night, we take cover in a nearby shelter when word arrives that shells could hit the base. But the night passes in relative quiet, although we see explosions in the distance.


Blood Brothers


Since joining the Ukrainians in Donbas, the Georgian unit has grown to a full-fledged company made up of professional soldiers hardened in several post-Soviet conflicts.


Dmitry Javakhishvili, 28, participated in the NATO mission to Afghanistan as a machine gunner.


After his tour ended, Javakhishvili took emergency medicine courses, and now uses his knowledge on the Ukrainian frontline.


“There is one good smell in the world – the smell of gunpowder,” he says half-jokingly. “But the main reason I’m here is because of the friendship between the Ukrainian and Georgian people. When there was war in Georgia, in Abkhazia, Ukrainians helped us.”


“It's not about shooting and the smell of gunpowder,” says 42-year-old Zviad Maisuradze. “Look at these guys. They have honesty. I know these guys won’t leave me and I would do the same. This is the meaning of life.” He was 15 years old when he first took up arms, fighting in Georgia’s conflicts with breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia and afterwards alongside Azerbaijani forces in Nagorno-Karabakh. He admits that it’s become difficult for him to live a peaceful life. And the war with Russia, as he calls it, has a personal dimension.



“It was not my decision,” Maisuradze explains. “In 2008, [Russians] lived in my house during the occupation,” he says, remembering when Russian troops pushed deep into Georgia after defeating its small army in the five-day August war, fought largely in South Ossetia. “I couldn’t get inside my house! … My mother’s relatives remained on the other side of the separation line.”


What drives him to fight the Russian-backed forces in Ukraine is something deep-seated, yet obscure: “It's not anger, not revenge, I don’t know what to call it.”


Most of these men know each other from past military service. Their leader, Mamulashvili, is the son of a general. He went to the war in Abkhazia with his father when he was only 14. They spent three months in a prison run by Russian special forces, he says.


A War on Two Fronts


“The Georgian Legion has several wars today – not only in Ukraine, but in Georgia, too,” Mamulashvili insists.


Georgian special services have pressured the families of his men, and the mother and wife of one soldier lost their jobs, according to the commander. On a recent trip to Georgia, Mamulashvili himself was asked to leave within two days.


Mamulashvili identifies himself with the Georgian opposition but remains wary of politicians, even though he shares former Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili’s stubborn mistrust of Russia.


Saakashvili, now a politician in Ukraine, is still associated with the Georgian opposition United National Movement party.


The party grew out of the circle of reformers around Saakashvili who came to power in the bloodless “Rose Revolution.” Five years ago the party lost a hard-fought election to the upstart Georgian Dream party funded at the outset by a billionaire with Russian business ties, Bidzina Ivanishvili. When Saakashvili’s presidential term ended months later, he put Georgia and the threat of legal action from the new authorities behind him, eventually settling in Ukraine at the invitation of its president, Petro Poroshenko. Saakashvili was soon named governor of the Odessa region in hopes that the graft-busting policies that he had successfully implemented in Georgia could be translated to the murky Ukrainian political arena.


The rivalry between Saakashvili’s old party and the ruling Georgian Dream has even reached the war in the Donbas. When Ukrainian authorities detained a Georgian Legion member on a Russian arrest warrant earlier this year, the United National Movement accused the Georgian government of secretly giving information about the soldier to Russia, and Mamulashvili was reported to have threatened to pull the Legion out of the war unless the man was released – as he was after 12 days’ detention.


"Today’s pro-Russian government in Georgia is trying hard to discredit the fighters of the Georgian Legion. They’ve sent agents here to try to discredit our activities. They wrote compromising articles and made TV programs where we were presented as mercenaries,” Mamulashvili said.


Criticism of its true motives from Georgian Dream officials aside, the Legion’s presence in Ukraine arguably does not violate the 2015 law that made Georgian citizens fighting abroad liable to prosecution. Backers of the law said the primary targets were members of illegal armed groups such as the Islamic State in Syria, but also the forces of the unrecognized Luhansk People’s Republic and Donetsk People’s Republic in eastern Ukraine, the Legion’s foes.


The then-deputy minister of internal affairs, Levan Izoria, said the law did not apply to fighters such as members of the Georgian Legion.


“These amendments do not in any way concern those citizens of Georgia who take part in hostilities in Ukraine within the jurisdiction of legitimate Ukrainian authorities,” said Izoria, who is now minister of defense.


In 2015, Poroshenko signed a law permitting foreign military personnel to serve in Ukraine’s armed forces.


Saakashvili appears from time to time at events with the Legion, including one where 29 Legion soldiers received medals recognizing their sacrifices for the love of Ukraine from Patriarch Filaret, the head of the country’s largest Orthodox denomination.


But the Legion’s commander claims Saakashvili is interested only in the publicity generated by such events.


After resigning his governorship in November after less than 18 months in office, accusing Poroshenko of poor leadership and the government of undermining his reforms, Saakashvili launched a new party and called for early elections and Poroshenko’s departure from power.


“We are in no way attached to a political person or party. My guys are ideologically inclined to fight against Russia and help Ukraine. There is a huge gap between politicians and us,” said Mamulashvili, whose past somewhat belies his soldierly distrust of politicians: He received a diplomatic education in France and worked as a political adviser to the Georgian military during Saaskashvili’s presidency.


As the Donbas war enters its fourth year, the Georgians are becoming more entrenched in the Ukrainian military. They say the Legion will soon be raised to a full battalion including Ukrainian soldiers.


Some Georgians have paid the ultimate price for bearing arms in Ukraine. Two Legion members were killed in 2014 and one in 2015, and Georgians have fought for the other side as well. In 2015 Mamulashvili said two former Georgian soldiers, whom he called “betrayers of the country,” had been killed fighting with the Ukrainian rebels.


The Legionnaires can’t afford the luxury of planning their return to Georgia, Mamulashvili warns.


“We are not going home until the war is won,” he said.

Story and photos by Tatiana Kozak, a freelance journalist from Ukraine. 

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