Kremlin Joy as Trump Sucks Up to Controversial Russian ‘Tough Guys’

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty

The Russian media is shouting it from the rooftops. Not only did former President Donald Trump publicly meet with two of the country’s toughest men, pro-Kremlin outlets report he pledged to help Russia end the war in Ukraine.

The claim emerged from Trump’s unexpected meeting with notorious Russian UFC stars—and “Putin’s friends”—Khabib Nurmagomedov and Islam Makhachev. The controversial MMA fighters took the opportunity to talk international diplomacy with the former—and possibly future—leader of the free world.

Trump “promised Nurmagomedov to stop the war in Ukraine,” according to news reports trumpeted by major Russian news agencies and television channels.

President Vladimir Putin outlined the kind of ludicrously one-sided settlement it would take for him to call a ceasefire just last week, and the Kremlin hopes Trump will try to bully Ukraine into accepting it if he is re-elected in November.

Russian outreach is now focused on encouraging Trump to do just that. And, of course, the Kremlin will do whatever it can to help him win.

The meeting in New Jersey between Trump and the UFC stars was labelled “historic” by the Russian media and it opens yet another potential backchannel between Trump and Putin.

“We are very proud that our heroes go to America, meet with the future President Trump and that he promises them to finish the war in Ukraine,” Magomed, a former law enforcement official from Dagestan, told The Daily Beast. “Putin must be very happy, he has fatherly feelings for Khabib.”

Nurmagomedov is the most-followed Russian on Instagram. He was named Russia’s No.1 athlete in 2019 before retiring from UFC without ever suffering a defeat (29-0) and has remained hugely popular despite regular controversies.

One-Two Punch From the Skies Is a Massive Blow to Putin

The fighter from Dagestan, a republic inside Russia, was banned for nine months after sparking a brawl in Las Vegas after beating Connor McGregor and then leaping out of the octagon to attack members of the Irishman’s team. Nurmagomedov later said they had insulted his religion. He is a follower of Islam, who reportedly has an “ultra-conservative worldview,” which has led to him speaking out against nightclubs and risqué plays back home. Nurmagomedov and Makhachev, who is also from Dagestan, have both claimed that women should not be allowed to compete in UFC.

The two men, who are met at the airport by adoring fans when they return to Dagestan—where women are not allowed to sit down for a meal with men and where parents still practice the genital mutilation of young girls—also both use the Islamic raised index finger gesture that was co-opted by ISIS in their propaganda material.

“Both Makhachev and Khabib can be seen with that gesture—it symbolizes the belief in the oneness of God,” Alexander Cherakov, a human rights defender at the Nobel Peace Prize winning Memorial told The Daily Beast. “That is a gesture Salafi or Wahhabi Muslims show in Northern Caucuses, which would mean nothing to Trump of course—he just sees two tough guys, he thinks of himself as of a tough guy and hopes they would pass his messages to more Russian tough guys.”

Fundamentalist Salafi and Wahhabi preaching is considered extremism by the Russian authorities and there has been a crackdown by the Kremlin over the past decade but that has not stopped Putin cozying up to the athletes.

Soon after Nurmagomedov’s controversial victory over McGregor, Putin invited the No.1 ranked fighter to meet him and backed his riot-inducing misbehavior. “If we are attacked from the outside, all of us can jump out like that,” he explained. The two men embraced, much like Trump did this month, posing for photographs side by side with their hands clasped together.

Putin personally called Khabib in 2020 after his father died, allegedly from COVID-19, at the age of 57. Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov had trained Khabib since childhood, including having him wrestle a bear cub from the age of 9 in remarkable footage which has since gone viral online. His father, a Russian military veteran who raised his son in the mountainous back woods of the Caucuses, went on to train Makhachev as his boy’s successor.

Putin has long cultivated the habit of hanging out with young tough guys in order to bolster his own macho image, and Trump has clearly picked up the classic “strongman” trope.

Since his meeting with Nurmagomedov, Trump has been lavishing him with praise, describing him on Truth Social as “probably the Greatest Fighter of All Time. I met him at the UFC event on Saturday night in New Jersey. A really smart guy - Big things in the future for Khabib!”

He returned to the subject last week on Logan Paul’s podcast. “I thought he was great. We got to speak, he’s just about my favorite guy. Really talented.”

Grigory Shvedov, Russia-based editor-in-chief of Caucasus Knot, says that Khabib “is very influential, he is a thought leader.” He explained that the Kremlin pays close attention to people like Makhachev and Nurmagomedov “so they would not have any critical attitude for the authorities.” The KGB was always sure to cultivate a close, controlling relationship with any Russian athletes who rose to the international level and it is certain that the FSB now does similar with the current generation of global sports stars. It is unknown whether that relationship would stretch as far as asking them to pass on messages to people like Trump.

The Dagestani icons are also close to the notorious warlord who leads the neighboring Russian republic og Chechnya. Ramzan Kadyrov, also known as “Putin’s Soldier,” is the most violent and brutal leader in the Northern Caucasus and has been accused of countless human rights abuses, anti-LGBT purges, and the oppression of his people.

Kadyrov loves to hang out with the fighters for pictures in his marble palace in Grozny, and has handed over gifts such including a Mercedes S-Class.

The meeting took place at UFC 302, which is managed by Trump’s friend Dana White. At a time when Russian athletes are banned from taking part in the Paris Olympics, Makhachev was top of the bill at the June 2 event.

Much like Trump, White clearly doesn’t see Putin as an enemy. He previously said Putin “would be more than welcome to come” to a UFC event in Moscow.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

Get the Daily Beast's biggest scoops and scandals delivered right to your inbox. Sign up now.

Stay informed and gain unlimited access to the Daily Beast's unmatched reporting. Subscribe now.