Española: The Football Hooligans Fighting for Russia in Ukraine

1. Introduction

Among Russia’s patchwork of convicts and mercenaries is a battalion formed of Russia’s most dangerous football hooligans roleplaying as pirates. Formed in 2022, “Española” or “Hispaniola” Battalion is a Russian volunteer battalion currently serving in Ukraine. Indeed, the military unit consists of hooligans or “ultras” – football’s most fanatical supporters. Española has successfully recruited these diehard supporters by playing on the similarities between the battalion and ultras groups which often resemble paramilitary organisations. Once considered the scourge of Russian society and sport, hooligans are now being lured to the frontline through promises of cash and comradery. 

Serving alongside Russia’s regular armed forces, Española has received international media attention for their neo-nazi links and ragtag mercenary appearance. Alongside other extremist Russian volunteer battalions, the unit represents  the hypocrisy of Putin’s mission to “denazify” Ukraine. 

This article will explore how a passion for violence and neo-nazism encouraged hooligans to pick up arms and fight for Russia under the banner of fictional pirates from a children’s book.

2. Española Insignia and History

2.1 Logo, Badges and Motto

The Española logo features the word “Española” in white cursive text followed by a Soviet Tokarev semi-automatic pistol on a black background.

The logo of the Russian volunteer battalion fighting in Ukraine, Española group.
The logo of Espanola battalion is frequently displayed on social media.

Soldiers of the Española battalion wear a skull and crossbones badge. The badge is likely a hangover from Española’s predecessor Skull and Bones reconnaissance company. Stanislav Orlov, commander of the company drew comparisons with a similar badge worn by General Kornilov’s Shock Regiment during the Russian Civil War. [source] Moreover, the symbol bears similarities to the Second World War German Waffen-SS units, unsurprising given the Española’s neo-nazi links.

The badge of the Russian volunteer battalion fighting in Ukraine, Española group. The group mostly recruits football hooligans and ultras.
The Espanola patch takes inspiration from historical far right Russia figures.

On Telegram, Española frequently use their motto “ОДИН ЗА ВСЕХ И ВСЕ ЗА ОДНОГО!!!”.



2.2 History of Española

In essence, Española’s origins start before the 2022 full scale invasion of Ukraine. Between 2014 and 2015, large numbers of Russian ultras began travelling to the Donbas in Ukraine as authorities clamped down on hooliganism in Russian football. [source] One such ultra was Stanislav Orlov, a CKSA fan and a member of the Red-Blue Warriors ultras group. Orlov fought alongside Russian backed separatists in the Donbas and gained the nom guerre “Spaniard” for his proficiency in foreign languages.

Stanislav Orlov leader and founder of Espanola group. A Russian he had fought in the Donbas having family from Ukraine. He is a member of the football hooligan group Red Blue Warriors.
Stanislav Orlov (right) A.K.A “The Spaniard” is the founder and leader of Espanola.

In 2014, Orlov created the “Skull and Bones” reconnaissance company. Between 2014 and 2015, Orlov commanded the unit with distinction in battles near Gorlovka and Debaltsevo. [source] In Autumn 2015, Orlov left the frontline and joined the Union of  Volunteers of Donbas (UDV). [source]

In 2022, shortly following the full scale invasion of Ukraine, Orlov’s command tasked him with establishing a unit similar to the “Skull and Bones” company. Orlov fell back on his connection with Red-Blue Warriors to recruit volunteers for his new expanded unit. 
In Spring 2023, Orlov created “Española”. The name of the battalion was a play on Orlov’s nom guerre “Spaniard” as well as the pirate schooner Hispaniola in Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1883 book, Treasure Island. Pirates feature heavily in the unit’s public relations with the hooligans, re-accommodating their image as buccaneering outlaws. [source]

3. Organisation

Between February 2022 and February 2023, Russia contracted the Española group to the 114th Guards Motor Rifle Division. By March 2023, Russian media outlets began reporting that Española’s contract with the 114th had expired and the unit was now operating as a private military company (PMC). [source] Since Spring 2023, Española have been subordinate to the Russian Ministry of Defence controlled PMC – Redut. The leader of Española, Stanislav Orlov, stated in March 2023 that by becoming a PMC it “allow[s] us to choose the directions where to fight” and choose their “own internal rules”. [source] [source]

In March 2023, Metro estimated Española battalion has around 550 soldiers. In the same month, Orlov claimed the battalion comprised of  four companies:

  • Assault Company
  • Reconnaissance Company
  • Drone Company 
  • Air Defence Company

4. Española Recruitment

4.1 The Initial Draw

Española group recruits primarily through social media on sites such as Telegram and VK. The group appeals not only to football ultras but to neo-Nazi and members of the far right. Notably Mikhail Turnakov, a former MMA fighter and overt neo-Nazi, features regularly in Española promotional material. Indeed, adorned in swastika tattoos and sporting a mohawk, Turnakov embodies how Española perceive themselves – a band of rebels and renegades.

Mikhail Turnakov is a former Russian MMA fighter currently serving in Espanola in Ukraine.
Turnakov has openly expressed his support for “White Power” and Nazi Ideology. [source]

Since 2014, authorities curtail hooligan culture in Russia, with society‌ holding a negative view on the fanatics as troublemakers. Española’s recruitment exploits the outsider status felt by ultras to unite and draw them to cause bigger than their partisan football rivalries. 

According to Ukrainian intelligence, Espanola pays volunteers 220,000 rubles (£1,900) a month. Recruits must serve for a minimum of six months after training. As part of the contract, the military also offers recruits the benefit of lucrative insurance payouts:

  • Minor Injury – 1 Million Rubles
  • Medium Severity Injuries – 2 Million Rubles 
  • Serious Injury – 3 Million Rubles
  • Death – 5 Million Rubles

Note: 1 Million rubles is approximately £8,600/€10,050/$10,800 

Espanola recruit Russian ultras from the country’s elite football clubs such as CSKA Moscow, Zenit St. Petersburg and Spartak Moscow. The above video is an Espanola propaganda recruitment video, 12 July 2023. [source]

4.2 Training

To join the Española battalion recruits must contact an Española representative via Telegram or VK. Recruits are then invited to conduct initial tests at Española’s base in the central region of Russia (the exact location is not specified). At the base, officers conduct the following tests:

  • Heart rate/blood pressure
  • Respiration
  • General Fitness
A recruitment poster for Espanola. The poster calls for recruits to volunteer to fight in Ukraine.
A recruitment poster posted by Espanola on Telegram.

The standard of the fitness test is relatively low. Candidates are expected to do 10 pullups and 50 push ups. The requirements are further lowered for older veterans looking to join the battalion.  Once the applicant passes the following tests they can then begin the 21-day on-site basic training. Following basic training, recruits are then transferred to Española’s primary base in the Donbas, Ukraine. In the Donbas, advanced training begins. Recruits can specialise in the following:

  • Sniper
  • Drone Operator
  • Electronic warfare and Air Defence Operator
  • Artilleryman
  • ATGM operator
  • Driver/ Mechanic
  • Medic
  • Sapper Engineer

The unit also operates a strict code of conduct. Notably all soldiers are banned from consuming alcohol:

“Anyone caught drinking alcohol … will receive a broken arm and jaw to help cure the disease of drunkenness. At the same time, the [soldier] is expelled from the team in disgrace.” Española on Telegram.


5. Operational History

Since 2022, Española group has been involved in a series of major battles in Ukraine. Between February and May 2022, Española fought in the battle for Mariupol. As the battle culminated in the siege of Azovstal Iron and Steel Works in May 2022, Española directly combated the Azov Assault Brigade, itself consisting of Ukrainian football ultras. Following the battle for Mariupol, Orlov posed with a lion cub reportedly kidnapped from Mariupol Zoo. [source

Football ultra, Stanislav Orlov holding two lion cubs from Mariupol zoo following the Ukrainian retreat.
Orlov displaying Lion cubs kidnapped from Mariupol Zoo. [source]

In August 2022, Española was repositioned to Bakhmut. The Meduza article also reported that former Russian international player, Andrei Solamatin had joined the unit. Solamatin represented Russia at the 2002 FIFA World Cup. In Bakhmut, the 114th Guard Motor Rifle Division (the unit Española were contracted to) suffered heavy casualties and were rendered combat ineffective by September 2023. [source]

Based on Telegram posts by Española, the unit also appears to have been present during the Russian army’s capture of Avdiivka in 2024. [source]

A fallen member of Espanola receives an ultras-style send off by the Red Blue Army.

6. Conclusion

The Española group and paramilitary groups more widely are just one solution to Russia’s manpower issue. By incorporating Española, the Russian MOD has legitimised the ideology of paramilitarism on a grassroots level. Unlike other private military companies, lucrative contracts are not the dominant draw of Española. The battalion’s recruitment leans more heavily on the unit’s common identity, offering a community to a rejected segment of Russian society. In a time of crisis, the Kremlin has embraced the football hooligans they so staunchly repressed in 2018.

While it is unlikely Russia will further mobilise in 2024, it is likely the Russian MOD will continue to promote paramilitary groups and increase the privatisation of the armed forces. Russia’s manpower issues are less acute than Ukraine’s in 2024 however Russian forces will need to rotate following the Spring/Summer offensive. There is therefore a drive to find alternative methods of recruiting soldiers to the frontline, short of mobilisation.

Española’s reach is unlikely to remain limited to Russian football. The overlap in values between sports and war, particularly in their organisational values makes comparisons a potent recruitment tool. Hooligan or “Ultra” culture is not isolated to Russia, Ultras exist across Europe and South America. Ultra culture is therefore a potential vector for international recruitment, notably in pro-Russian states such as Serbia.

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