‘I’ve been put on Putin’s most wanted list — it’s a badge of honour’

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“I wasn’t surprised when I heard I’d been added to the list,” Mamuka Mamulashvili, the 45-year-old leader of the Georgian Legion who is one of Vladimir Putin’s most wanted, told Express.co.uk.

Since 2014, he and what was initially a group of volunteers but is now a fully-fledged military unit have fought against Russia in Ukraine.

That is nine long years of brutal warfare, mostly in Ukraine’s east but recently elsewhere in the country, often on the frontlines and often just moments away from his opposite numbers.

“It was only a matter of time before they placed me on that list, it is another way of them trying to discredit us,” he said.

But to be discredited by, in Mr Mamulashvili’s words, “a war criminal”, is something that stirs in him not fear but warmth, a credential he could’ve only hoped for in a long military career.

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“It is a great honour,” he said. “A badge of honour, in fact, because Putin is an internationally sanctioned war criminal.

“If I’m doing the right thing, then it is only logical that they are opening a criminal case against me. It feels great, it is a great honour to be defending something good.”

His name was added to the list on October 5 for, the Kremlin said, his “alleged involvement in recruitment and participation in hostilities on behalf of the Ukrainian armed forces”, and is part of a broader criminal case against him and over 70 fighters in the Georgian Legion — allegations which they deny.

The Georgian Legion has fought in many if not all of the key battles in Ukraine this last year.

Their soldiers were there during the Battle of Antonov Airport, the Battle of Kyiv in the early days of the war, the first major battle of Hostomel, the battle of Moshchun, the battle of Volnovakha, the battle of Irpin, Izium, Rubinzhne, Kharkiv, the siege of Mairupol and the ongoing battle of Bakhmut.

In short, wherever Russia has appeared, the Georgian Legion hasn’t been far away.

Much of the group is made up of ethnic Georgians, though it numbers in its ranks other nationalities, including some British soldiers.

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“Brits were the largest group joining the Legion at the beginning of the full-scale war,” Mr Mamulashvili said. “Most of them have left, but there are still quite a few on the frontline.”

The core ethically Georgian members are motivated for a different reason, however, and fight in Ukraine as if it is their own country, and for good reason.

Russia has for years flirted with the idea of forcing itself further on Georgia, its southern neighbour, and in 2008 launched a war against it which saw it gain, Georgians say, 20 percent of the country in the form of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two Russian-backed breakaway states.

For the Georgian Legion, a Russian victory in Ukraine could lead to a Russian invasion of Georgia in the future.

Or, worse, Mr Mamulashvili fears that Russia has already begun dismantling Georgia’s defences from the inside out, flooding the country’s halls of power with pro-Russian figures. “And that is why Russia hasn’t invaded Georgia yet,” he said.

War in Ukraine continues to rage on, with Russian forces pounding the Ukrainian city of Avdiivka with heavy air strikes on Tuesday.

Marginal gains continue to be made by either side in the country’s east, with Russia this week claiming successful artillery and air strikes near Bakhmut.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has this week done the European political rounds, urging politicians not to forget his country amid the crisis unfolding between Hamas and Israel in the Middle East.

Mr Mamulashvili is similarly concerned with the war effort in Ukraine and said far more effort is needed from the West in Ukraine if Russia is to be pushed out completely.

“It isn’t providing enough weapons for Ukraine — we need a lot more right now,” he said.

With things getting tougher and Russia becoming increasingly emboldened, is he not scared that Putin’s agents will be out looking for him, a hefty bounty on his head?

“Oh come on,” he laughed. “They would kill me if they could, I’m just a soldier, not a politician. But they’d have to have big balls if they wanted to get close to me.”

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