The first time Mamuka Mamulashvili headed to Ukraine with designs to confront Russian forces, it was 2014 and he wasn't invited.
Russia had taken the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, and Mamulashvili was sure that the ex-Soviet country would face a more widespread Russian invasion eventually, like his birth nation of Georgia had a half decade before.
Sitting in the Georgian Legion’s oldest base outside the capital of Kyiv in late June while recalling his early days in the country, Mamulashvili sipped black tea near a second-floor window overlooking a courtyard where he could watch his troops. Some moved quickly from training to training, others relaxed with a cigarette or gamely threw knives into a slice of tree trunk. Subordinates often called up to him through the window, asking permission for one request or another. The building had an open-door policy that made it feel more like a tight-knit neighborhood than a military base.
It took only two years for Ukrainian officials to take notice of the battle-tested leader ready to fight Russian President Vladimir Putin's forces. By 2016, Mamulashvili’s Georgian Legion was the first battalion of foreign fighters to be incorporated into the Armed Forces of Ukraine. He spent the months before the most recent invasion by Russian forces in February warning his bosses that a blitz into Ukraine was coming, warnings that were largely ignored.
Mamulashvili’s eyes clouded over before he looked down and lowered his voice to discuss the similarities between this war and the battles he fought in his own homeland years ago. For him, it is a familiar nightmare.
“The horrors we saw in Irpin and Bucha -- the tortured bodies, raped children, starving people -- it was just like in Georgia. Except now the world is watching,” Mamulashvili said.
But this time, in Ukraine, he hopes to have a fighting chance against the Russians.
Since the war began, the Legion has grown from a small militia on the outskirts of the Ukrainian military establishment into one of the country’s most stalwart special forces groups, integrated into its central structure, deployed to some of the war’s hottest areas and used to train other military and police units on the most effective tactics against Russian forces.
Every soldier in the Georgian Legion, now numbering more than 1,000 troops, is an experienced fighter. Unlike many of Ukraine’s other military battalions, the vast majority of the Georgian Legion has seen combat in other wars -- oftentimes against Russia specifically -- and can usually speak from firsthand experience about the devastation wrought on civilian populations by the carnage of battle.
Their service has helped Ukraine avoid the fate projected by so many Western intelligence agencies, which anticipated the country would fall within a matter of days. But despite effectively retaking much of the territory that Russia had initially claimed, hard combat continues.
Legion officers’ phones never stop ringing on the front in Zaporizhzhia, a city straddling the strategic Dnieper River in the south of Ukraine. Often completing missions within a mile or less of Russian forces, the Legion travels in small squadrons that include a drone operator, a medic and a communications expert among others. In unmarked trucks, they drive quickly and erratically to their destinations to make themselves more difficult targets for potential missile strikes. They change their bases on the front every couple of weeks, aware that their location will be pinpointed eventually through a combination of geotagging and tips from suspicious locals. Their Zaporizhzhia base was an empty building just over 10 miles away from enemy lines, cozy with cots, sleeping bags and cooking gear. Used for just a few weeks, it was bombed about 10 days after they had moved on.
Not all of their frontline bases are so comfortable. At times, the soldiers sleep in trenches or other makeshift campsites within range of artillery strikes, hugging their rifles and whatever they’ve got to stay warm and dry. The troops rotate in and out of these positions about every two weeks, their stubble and worn faces making it easy to see at home base who has just come from the front and who is about to take their places.
Faces of the Wolves
Most members of the Georgian Legion hail from Georgia, but at least a quarter of the Wolves of Ukraine, as they call themselves, come from other countries like the U.S., the U.K. and Israel. Because Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has specifically stated that his country will treat foreigners from the West caught fighting in Ukraine as “mercenaries” and refuse to abide by Geneva Convention protections, the Legion often uses its Western members as trainers or in other positions that limit their chances of being taken as a prisoner of war.
“I left my fiancee, my job and my apartment -- basically, my whole life in Ohio -- to join the Georgians in Ukraine,” said one 26-year-old former American soldier named James Jackson while he rubbed the head of Javelin, the Legion’s beloved German Shepherd, at one of the battalion’s bases outside Kyiv. He still hadn’t told most of his friends and family where he was, knowing they would prefer he stay home and start a family instead of rushing to the war front so far away.
He had been training various units and militia groups across the country in combat medicine over the prior few months. Previously a member of the U.S. Navy in a unit attached to the Marines, he had undergone training in preparation for going to Afghanistan, he said, but the U.S. pulled out of the country before he could be deployed. “I am happy to be putting my skills to use.”
And although the logistics of the war in Ukraine were nothing like he’d prepared for in America, he had “found his home” with the Georgians and was grateful to be “doing his part” for Ukraine.
He also couldn’t help himself from lording his time in the war zone in Ukraine over some of his more boastful Navy buddies back home who’d seen combat in the Middle East and had teased him in the past for his lack of experience. “This isn’t a war where you’re punching down. It’s a whole different ball game,” he said.
Like the other battalions fighting off Russian troops, the Georgian Legion has faced a chronic shortage of arms, body armor and other munitions. They are better off than some groups: They have successfully crowdfunded thousands of dollars to buy dozens of sets of body armor, anti-tank and anti-aircraft arms, vehicles and other necessities since the war began.
But the shortfall in funding is still wide. They’ve raised only enough to provide full kits to about 10% of their soldiers, Mamulashvili said.
They are still waiting for more personal protective equipment -- like ballistic ear and eye protection -- and more advanced arms, long-range artillery and anti-aircraft weaponry that would enable them to strike at the enemy from safer distances. In a field laden with flowers and homemade targets, they took turns one afternoon training on a single new rifle that had just arrived from Belgium, impressed with the gun’s scope and precision, which they said was significantly better than the rifles they normally used.
As a special forces battalion, the Legion carries out a variety of missions both in unison with other brigades and on its own.
On a reconnaissance mission at a destroyed school for the disabled in Zaporizhzhia last month, the unit commander, a Georgian by the name of Irakli (who asked that his last name not be used for safety reasons) led six men through the rubble to meet a small team stationed in the ruins to gather information about the nearby forces. They had to climb through doorways blown apart by shelling and pick their way through children’s toys and books to meet their counterparts, constantly listening for the sound of incoming fire. Dodging gaping holes in the floor and sharp shards of glass from the broken windows, Irakli couldn’t help but think of his own young sons, 6 and 9 years old, whom he’d left behind and what the children who had to flee this school must have witnessed.
“This is not what childhood is supposed to look like,” he said sadly, waving his rifle in a wide circle to emphasize the chaos. On the way out of the school, he gingerly stepped over a muddied portrait of young Vladimir Lenin. “Do you know who this is?” he asked, pausing to take in the irony of it all. He shook his head and walked on.
Their latest fighting in the south of Ukraine follows several critical battles earlier in the conflict that helped prevent quick conquest of the country, battles that members of the Legion speak about with enormous pride.
The Legion played a critical role in repelling Russian forces at Kyiv’s main Hostomel Airport, one of the first major battles that saved the city from Russian control early on the war’s first traumatic day despite having just a few AK-47s to share between fighters and little coordination with the other Ukrainian forces on the country’s new front line. Although the airport was temporarily occupied, it never became the stronghold the Russians needed to stage further attacks on the capital.
Later in March, the Legion helped lead the strategic counter-offensive liberation campaigns of some of Ukraine’s most contested areas like the Kyiv suburbs of Bucha and Irpin that were the sites of crimes against humanity, according to international watchdogs. Hundreds of bodies of civilians, many with their eyes blindfolded and their hands tied behind their backs execution-style, have been unearthed since the area’s deoccupation.
Why They Fight
Ukraine was one of the few countries that sent military support to Georgia to help repel the invading Russian forces in 2008. Although they were unable to stop the occupation, many Georgians like Mamulashvili never forgot who came to their people’s aid.
Bordering Russia in the north and Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan in the south, Georgia is a small nation in the Caucasus of less than 4 million people with a rich cultural history dating back thousands of years. Massively outmanned, they had little chance of stopping their powerful neighbor to the north from streaming into the contested territories with tanks, infantry and artillery. The war lasted just 12 days before the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia were occupied and quickly declared by Russia to be independent republics.
Today, the country’s Kremlin-friendly government is overseen by Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, a man characterized by some regional experts as an authoritarian oligarch willing to do almost anything to remain in power and maintain Georgian sovereignty in the crosshairs of both Russian and Western interests. Like in Ukraine, about a fifth of Georgia is currently occupied by Russian-backed forces. Georgian fighters know that, given their country’s current political situation, they may be questioned or even imprisoned for serving in Ukraine if they choose to go back to Georgia.
That invasion “was a warning about [President Vladimir] Putin’s intentions that we didn’t take seriously enough,” said Dan Fried of the Atlantic Council, who served as a foreign service officer in Russia and as the U.S. ambassador to Poland. “Putin used a war to intimidate a smaller neighbor that was seeking to become closer to the West, and succeeded in intimidating them without any lasting consequences,” he said. Many Georgians currently fighting in Ukraine couldn’t agree more.
But that 2008 battle wasn’t the first for Mamulashvili against Russian-aligned forces.
In the early 1990s during the Abkhazia War against Russian-backed separatist forces, a 14-year-old Mamulashvili fought alongside his father, Zurab Mamulashvili, a general in the Georgian military who passed away last year due to complications with diabetes. During that time, the younger Mamulashvili was captured and held by enemy forces for three months, a period he says forever changed the way he viewed the possibilities for peace. Later, he attended university and earned a master’s degree in international diplomacy, but he soon returned to the battlefield because, he said, he realized that modern diplomacy would not stop “evil aggressors like Russia,” leaving war and military might as the only solution.
Like many in the Legion, he fought hard during the short 2008 war, witnessing war crimes that included executions, torture and other atrocities against POWs and civilians that haunt him to this day.
What Mamulashvili might be proudest of, aside from the Legion’s success on the battlefield during this year’s war, is their record for keeping troops alive.
“We have yet to lose a single soldier in this war,” Mamulashvili said in June, a shocking claim given the high death toll that both Ukrainian and Russian forces have suffered since the war began in late February. The Pentagon recently estimated that Russia has suffered up to 80,000 casualties already, an astoundingly high number by the standards of modern warfare. Since Mamulashvili made this statement, the first Legion member, a Brazilian model turned sniper, was killed in an airstrike while visiting another battalion in July.
Mamulashvili and many of the soldiers in his battalion have received special recognition from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenksyy, citing their fraternity, bravery and skill on the battlefield.
“Incredible Georgian people who understand that friends must be supported!” Zelenskyy tweeted a day after the war began. “Grateful to everyone in Tbilisi and other cities who came out in support of Ukraine and against the war.”
Mamulashvili and three other officers received medals from the national government for their contribution to cross-unit training in a small ceremony at one of their training centers in late June, awards they graciously accepted but quickly cast aside once the applause faded.
“We’d rather have more heavy weapons,” Henryk Diasamidze, another Legion officer honored that day, whispered on his way out of the auditorium and back to one of the small training groups awaiting further instruction. In March, Diasamidze decided to leave his comfortable life in Sweden and pick up arms in Ukraine alongside his old battle buddy Mamulashvili in what he saw as a second shot to get back at the Russians who pillaged his country.
For him and many of his compatriots in Ukraine, the recent invasion is an extension of a larger Russian plot to take over every ex-Soviet country. “We are fighting this war for the world,” he said. “It’s not just about Ukraine.”
Many of the fighters said they plan on staying in Ukraine as long as the war lasts -- or as long as their families waiting for them abroad can afford. Many of the men have young children, some of whom were just months old when they left home and headed to the front.
But they left their homes to join the war in Ukraine to protect their families, they said.
“This is our fight too. It is the entire world’s fight, good against evil,” Mamulashvili said.
“So we will be here until the end.”