The Russian Military’s People Problem
It’s Hard for Moscow to Win While Mistreating Its Soldiers
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.
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 to the Kremlin.
Night Wolves Europe was established as an independent division of Wolf Holdings, a business empire whose interests stretch across Russia and Europe. Branches of this empire organize patriotic and educational activities; run night clubs, hotels, and a motorcycle center; and conduct security operations and training, including professional military training for civilians, police, and military forces in Germany, Hungary, Italy, Serbia, and Switzerland. As a report by the irregular warfare expert Matthew Lauder makes clear, Wolf Holdings is closely linked to the Russian state. The company’s president and primary owner, Gennady Nikulov, is a former military officer and current vice-president of Sevastopol’s pro-Russian “self-defense forces” who was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department in 2017. The leader of the biker gang itself, Alexander Zaldostanov, has frequently appeared in photos next to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Lauder finds that the Night Wolves “exemplify a larger trend by the Russian government to outsource activities to non-state actors that are traditionally conducted by the state intelligence and defence entities,” including “intelligence collection, propaganda dissemination, agitation and provocation, combat operations and tailored violence.” During the Crimea conflict in 2014, for instance, the Night Wolves formed a small but important part of Russia’s paramilitary invasion force. Before the official start of the invasion, they collected intelligence, distributed propaganda, and organized pro-Russian militias in coordination with Russian Special Forces. After the invasion commenced, they became one of two paramilitary forces tasked with combat operations on behalf of the Russian military. The Night Wolves conducted a raid on a Ukrainian naval base, secured a natural gas facility, and captured a senior officer of the Ukrainian Border Guard Service on behalf of Russian forces.
In Europe, the Night Wolves are better known for their “patriotic” activities. Every spring, the Night Wolves take a highly publicized ride from Moscow to Berlin to commemorate Russia’s victory in the Second World War. For the past several years, Poland has refused entry to the Night Wolves, who have ridden through Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Hungary instead. The gang also visited Serbia and Serbian parts of Bosnia this March, despite the fact that Zaldostanov was banned right before the event occurred. In stating the ride’s purpose—to retrace “the pilgrimage routes of the distant past, with stop-offs in the ancient centres of Orthodox Christianity”—the group evokes familiar Russian propaganda themes, such as Soviet greatness, Orthodox Christianity, and pan-Slavism.
Slovakia’s response to hosting the Night Wolves Europe demonstrates that a NATO country can be too divided to effectively resist the establishment of a Russian paramilitary base within its territory. The Slovak Foreign Ministry said that it is looking into ways to prevent the Night Wolves from operating there, and the Defense Ministry took back its loaned equipment. Yet the interior minister, Denisa Sakova, says that the government has no plans to take action against the Night Wolves for now. Sakova is a member of the left-wing nationalist Smer party, whose coalition partner,the right-wing Slovak National Party, is traditionally close to Russia.
Even if the Slovak government had the will to shut down the Night Wolves’ base, however, it would encounter legal obstacles. Russia exploits the fact that in the liberal democratic states of the West, nongovernmental organizations can generally own land and even conduct paramilitary training while enjoying broad legal protections for free speech and assembly. Unless the organization commits a crime—for instance, by violating weapons statutes, lying on government documents, or committing tax fraud—a government would be hard-pressed to shut it down.
Some Slovaks have thus found themselves wondering what, if anything, their government can do to repulse the Night Wolves. In an interview with the authors, Daniel Milo, an analyst with Slovakia’s GLOBSEC Policy Institute, likened the group’s base to a cancer cell. At the moment, he says, the base might seem small and insignificant. But left unchecked, it could metastasize, eventually becoming a “safe haven for covert Russian influence” within NATO.
The Night Wolves Europe is just the latest outgrowth of Russia’s strategy of using paramilitary groups in foreign countries to further Russian interests. In Ukraine, Russia helped establish paramilitaries that it later installed as “governments” in the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. Russia has also developed friendly paramilitaries throughout central and eastern Europe in an effort to polarize NATO publics and paralyze NATO political systems.
In Slovakia, Moscow has supported several pro-Russian paramilitary organizations, two of the largest being the Slovak Recruits and Action Group Resistance Kysuce. These Slovak paramilitaries promote anti-NATO and anti-EU views online while training their members in military skills and tactics. Some of their members have received training in Russia from former Russian Special Forces, and a few have fought alongside Russian paramilitaries in Ukraine. Martin Keprta, a founder and a former member of Slovak Recruits, has been fighting for the 15th International Brigade of the Donetsk People’s Republic Army since autumn 2014.
In addition to fighting for Russia, these groups have helped to push radical pro-Russian views into central Europe’s political mainstream. In 2016, the openly anti-Semitic and anti-Roma party, People's Party Our Slovakia, entered the Slovak parliament with 8 percent of the vote. The party’s leader, Marian Kotleba, has a close relationship with Action Group Resistance Kysuce, dating back to 2008. Kotleba was one of the first of Europe’s far-right politicians to express support for the deposed, pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych during the Maidan protests in late 2013. Throughout the Ukraine crisis, Russia has sought to undermine Kiev and weaken the EU and NATO by using friendly secessionist-nationalist organizations to deliberately revive ethnic antagonisms within other central European countries, including Hungary, Romania, and Poland. Earlier this month, for instance, Hungary (whose government is close to Russia) and Ukraine expelled one another’s consuls after a video circulated of a Hungarian official handing out passports to ethnic Hungarians in the trans-Carpathian region of Ukraine and a Ukrainian nationalist organization published a list of Hungarian secessionists online.
Russian paramilitary organizations located inside of NATO countries may also be used to infiltrate governments and militaries. Since paramilitary organizations tend to draw their members from the armed forces, they can acquire military-grade weaponry from contacts and establish direct links with the official armed forces. Russia extensively infiltrated the Ukrainian army and security services prior to its 2014 invasion and may be using paramilitaries to do the same inside NATO. Leaders of the Slovak Action Group Resistance, for instance, have specifically called for their members to infiltrate the Slovakian army or police. The Slovak political experts Grigorij Meseznikov and Radovan Branik describe the group as “mentally and physically much better prepared for real armed conflict” than other paramilitaries.And as mentioned above, the Russian Night Wolves have helped train the police in Hungary and a number of other NATO countries.
In Slovakia, it appears that an entire high school has been created to develop close relations between Russians and the Slovak armed services. The Private Secondary Professional School for the Protection of Persons and Property, based in Bratislava, was founded in 2007 by Stefan Kurilla, a certified Russian Special Forces instructor, and is financed in large part by Russian banker and kickboxing entrepreneur Sergej Chepinoga. The school employs Slovak and Russian teachers and disseminates pro-Russia, anti-Western, and anti-NATO views among its students, many of whose parents work for the Slovak police, intelligence services, or the Defense and Interior Ministries. The school’s former head, Jozef Gandzala, is a member of the Association of Slovak Soldiers, a pro-Russian veterans’ organization that accused the Slovak Defense Ministry of “treason” for supporting a NATO troop deployment to Latvia in 2017.
In the short term, the United States and other NATO countries must act decisively to shut down the Night Wolves’ base in Europe. But a longer-term strategy is necessary for confronting Russia’s habit of funding, organizing, and supporting paramilitary and extremist organizations abroad.
The EU should begin by following the United States’ lead and adding Wolf Holdings and other paramilitary organizations in Europe to its list of sanctioned organizations. All Schengen zone countries should likewise deny entry visas to non-EU Night Wolves members. Washington and Brussels should also consider using sanctions to discourage groups based within NATO states from getting training from those based in the Russian federation.
Finally, Washington should pressure the Slovak and other European governments to expel the Night Wolves and pass legislation similar to the United States’ Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, which provides Washington with broad discretion to sanction entities affiliated with the Russian government, toprevent Russia from supporting paramilitary organizations within NATO territory. Democratic governments cannot prevent associations of native individuals from exercising their rights to free speech and association. But they can find ways to prevent hostile governments from organizing opposition to NATO within its borders.