Since Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014, Europe has been on high alert against further Russian aggression, with military planners conducting joint exercises and calling for increased military spending. This summer, however, Moscow’s hybrid war on the West took an unexpected twist: a pro-Russian paramilitary established a base, disguised as a biker gang headquarters, a little over an hour from Bratislava, Slovakia—well within the borders of NATO itself.
In July 2018, the Slovak press reported that the Night Wolves, a nationalist Russian biker gang, had created an official European base of operations in the village of Dolna Krupa on a site owned by Jozef Hambalek, an entrepreneur with ties to right-wing Slovak militias. The base probably would have escaped international attention if not for aerial footage, published in the Slovak press, that showed not just motorcycles but tanks and armored personnel carriers, which Hambalek had borrowed from the Slovak Institute of Military History on the pretext of establishing a military history museum. (The director of the institute, who claimed that he was duped, was relieved of his post.)
The vehicles turned out to be decommissioned and have since been returned to the Slovak Ministry of Defense. But the episode was nonetheless disturbing: The Night Wolves, frequently referred to as “Putin’s Angels” for their ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, are effectively an arm of the Kremlin. Indeed, the establishment of a Night Wolves base inside NATO is an extension of one of Moscow’s favorite strategies in recent years. Disguised proxies—PMC Wagner mercenaries in Syria, local paramilitaries in Ukraine, or “little green men” in Crimea—pursue Russian interests abroad while offering the Kremlin plausible deniability, which cripples the West’s ability to respond.
NIGHT WOLVES EUROPE
The Night Wolves started as an independent, countercultural biker gang in Russia in the 1980s, and although their politics have grown more nationalistic in recent years, they still portray themselves as a private, patriotic club. A closer look, however, reveals their gang’s deep ties
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