1.0. Who are the ‘Night Wolves’?
The Night Wolves are the biggest bike group in Russia and now operate as a far-right group in support of the Kremlin (source). They state that their goal is to take back the Russian lands that were separated (source).
The group’s primary motivation is to restore Russia as a great power and reclaim the lands that constituted the USSR. For example, they advocated for Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and called on the Kremlin to crack down on democratic opposition (source). The group poses as a promotion of ‘social engagement’, visiting Orthodox holy sites and hosting bike shows with stunts, special effects, and a touch of patriotism. Additionally, people know the Night Wolves for their far-right and anti-Semitic political views. They have also faced criticism for being homophobic and promoting nationalist discourses (source). As a result, the West imposed sanctions on the Night Wolves for their involvement in the annexation of Crimea in 2014 (source).
2.0. The Formation of the Night Wolves
In 1989, a group of ‘metalheads’ formed the organisation to provide security for various rock bands across Russia (source). They became a political entity when they joined the resistance against the failed anti-Gorbachev coup in 1991 (source). Interestingly, their biker look stems from American cultural inspiration.
Over the years, the Night Wolves have become more and more associated with the Orthodox religion and has developed stronger ties with the Russian government (source).
The Night Wolves now operate as a network of private businesses, non-profit organisations and community groups. It is difficult to identify which organisations the Night Wolves are directly connected to. Nevertheless, the following section describes some general business ventures.
3.0. Tactics and Techniques
The main goal of the night wolves is to (source):
- Exert Russian traditional values
- Fuel anti-Western sentiment
- Promote pan-Slav identity
Activities used to promote their goals include:
- Restoration of religious sites
- Construction of cultural centres
- Developing youth clubs
- Hosting patriotic activities
- Managing nightclubs
- Tattoo shops
- Merchandise selling
- Defending the Church against protests
- Motorcycle pilgrimages
Although some of these activities seem benign and harmless, extensively promoting Orthodox values in areas scorned by war, can lead to the ignition of national extremism and racial tensions. The motorcycle pilgrimages are probably of the most public activities by the Night Wolves. They typically schedule these trips during periods of political tension. For instance, their excursion to Republika Srpska, which we will discuss in more detail later.
3.1. COMBAT TRAINING
The Night Wolves are associated with ‘Wolf Holding of Security Structures’, a company that operates training camps for ‘self-defence’ (source). In reality, however, these camps provide military training to Russians. The U.S. has alleged that the biker gang directly owns the security organisation. Wolf Holding of Security Structures also offers armed protection and armoured vehicles as well as the installation of monitoring equipment (source). This organisation, coordinated with Zaldostanov of the Night Wolves, leads a ‘self-defence’ training unit in Sevastopol, Crimea (source).
4.0. Locations where the Night Wolves are Active In
The Night Wolves currently has around 51 chapters in multiple locations (source).
The Night Wolves biker group are very significant public figure in Russia. Altogether, they are known to take part in pro-Putin rallies. We cannot underplay the influence of the Night Wolves in Russia. Leader Zaldostanov served as a torch bearer at the 2014 Sochi Olympics in Russia (source). By 2016, statistics estimated that the Night Wolves had approximately 5000 members in Russia.
4.2. BiH and Republika Srpska
In 2018, the Night Wolves embarked on a tour of the Western Balkans, spending time in pro-Russian regions such as Republika Srpska. Republika Srpska is a Serb-majority entity within Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) and often publicly supports Putin and the Kremlin. Republika Srpska’s President Dodik even awarded the leader Zaldostanov with a medal of honour (source). The Biker gang also participated in a parade commemorating ‘Republika Srpska Day’, which is arranged by Bosnian ethnic Serbs (source). This parade is a highly disputed occasion in Bosnia. Consequently, the Bosnian government deemed the event as unconstitutional in November 2015 (source).
Members of the group have also been located in Bulgaria (source). Bikers often attend events organised by the Russian Embassy and have posed for pictures with the Russian ambassador in Bulgaria. The Bulgarian Orthodox Church have, allegedly, ‘blessed’ the biker group. Their influence in Bulgaria could be particularly problematic with Bulgaria being an EU member state.
The Night Wolves have caused tensions to flare in Bulgaria in the past. Prior to their visit in 2016, protests were organised against their arrival (source). These protests resulted in violence between pro-Russian nationalists and the anti-Night Wolves campaigners. Although no members of the biker gang were allegedly involved in the violence, their presence was certainly a catalyst.
The Night Wolves have a branch in Montenegro which operates under the motto: “Pray to God and Stick to Russia” (source).
Authorities in Montenegro accused members of the Night Wolves of being involved in an assassination plot against Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic. Russia has condemned Montenegro’s accession to NATO in June 2017 (source). Prosecutors have stated that Kremlin supported the plan in order to block Montenegro’s accession to NATO (source).
Moreover, members of the Night Wolves in Montenegro called on authorities to stop a pro-Ukrainian rally from taking place (source). Opposers of Russia planned the march to show solidarity with Ukraine amid fears of a Russian invasion. Supposedly, the Night Wolves claimed that the march would only create a “war-mongering rhetoric” and provoke religious intolerance.
In October 2014, the Night Wolves carried out one of their motorcycle pilgrimages in Montenegro as part of the “Russian Balkan” tour (source). Furthermore, the Russian embassy in Podgorica, Montenegro actively promoted the event, highlighting the close ties between the activities of the Night Wolves and the Russian state.
In March 2014, members of the Night Wolves travelled to Crimea, setting up roadblocks and providing support for the Moscow-orchestrated takeover (source). They played an important role in the annexation of Crimea. They were reportedly collecting intelligence and distributing propaganda during this period in support of the Russian state (source). A conviction drove them to believe that Ukrainian ‘fascists’ toppled a lawful pro-Russian administration’ with the assistance of the CIA. Following the annexation of Crimea, the city of Bakhchisarai granted the Night Wolves a municipal security contract and a deal to offer patriotic education to the city’s youth (source).
The Night Wolves are likely still operating in Ukraine. The fact that they have strong ties to the Kremlin and a track record of participation in the 2014 annexation of Crimea implies that members would be engaged, to some extent, in the recent invasion of Ukraine.
5.0. Members of the Night Wolves
Estimates suggest that the Night Wolves have 5000 members (source). Becoming a member, however, is not as simple as simply joining a Whatsapp group. The Night Wolves require potential members to meet a number of criteria (source):
- They allow only men. The identity of the Night Wolves is based very strongly on masculine identity and therefore they exclude females from joining.
- Additionally, most members are from former Soviet countries. They claim that this is a ‘must’, however, there have been well-known members from Serbia and Bosnia. This suggests that they do not draw exclusively from former-Soviet countries but recruit more from countries with a strong Orthodox Church presence.
- An existing member must invite you to take part in club activities
- You must attend these activities for two years before becoming a fully-fledged member.
Some well-known members include:
5.1. Alexander Zaldostanov a.k.a. ‘The Surgeon’
Since the early 1990s, Alexander Zaldostanov has been the founder and leader of the Night Wolves. The group derive his nickname from his prior profession in medicine (source). Zaldostanov allegedly underwent a ‘spiritual transformation’ following a motorcycle accident in 1999 (source). This is what has partly caused the club’s further push towards pan-Orthodox sentiment.
Vladimir Putin bestowed an Order of Honour medal upon Zaldostanov. The leader has close links with the President (source). Alexander Zaldostanov is a strong supporter of Russian propaganda and asserts that Ukraine does not possess the right to statehood. He states that Ukraine should be an integral part of Russia. Last year, the EU imposed sanctions on the leader and barred him from entering the EU.
5.2. Vitaly Kishkinov a.k.a. ‘The Prosecutor’
Kishkinov is head of the Night Wolves Donbas branch and previous commander of the Luhansk Night Wolves (source). The so-called Luhansk Republic awarded Kishkinov a war medal in February 2019 (source). He is now a member of the supposed ‘People’s Council’ of the Luhansk Republic’. Kishkinov has also faced sanctions from the EU for implementing actions which undermine the territorial integrity of Ukraine.
6.0. Links to the Kremlin
The Night Wolves are sometimes referred to as ‘Vladimir Putin’s Hells Angels’ and there is good reason for that (source). The biker group have a close relationship with the Kremlin, and with Putin himself. The Russian President has had a number of personal meetings with the group and Russian media often publicises the relationship (source). The Kremlin even funded their 2018 Balkans tour with a $41,000 grant – classing the trip as a ‘pilgrimage’ to promote Orthodox values. Press even pictured Putin riding with the gang in a 2011 parade (source).
7.0. Influence of the Night Wolves
7.1. Ethnic Division
Far-right movements, which we may class the Night Wolves often ignite ethnic divides, particularly in fragile regions such as the Western Balkans (source). Their promotion of ‘Eurasian Values’ is just one way in which they ignite such divides. Their attendance at the Republika Srpska Day parade is just one example of their efforts to divide society. The group often incite hate against minority groups declaring them as “outsiders” (source).
7.2. Far-Right Agenda
Between 2000 and 2017, Russia experienced 495 incidents of far-right political violence which resulted in 459 deaths (source). Their far-right ideology and anti-Semitic, homophobic beliefs are a cause for concern, and they can be held responsible for some of these incidents.
7.3. Online Information Campaigns
Members of the Night Wolves also operate online to spread information and promote the Kremlin. Sven Svenson is a German who now lives in Russia teaching German (source). He is a member of the Night Wolves motorbike gang. Svenson has spent his time since February 2022 trying to combat negative information about Russia online. He claims that Russia is in Ukraine combating Fascism. The Night Wolves sizeable following gives them a strong influence to promote their message.
The Night Wolves are a Russian biker group that was created in 1989 as a group of ‘metalheads’. Today, they operate as a far-right group in support of the Kremlin and have been hit by Western sanctions for their role in the annexation of Crimea. They have also been active in the Balkans, particularly in pro-Russian regions such as in Republika Srpska, and have members in Bulgaria. Not only do the group incite fear and intimidation tactics, but they also play a role in inciting ethnic division amongst communities and are therefore extremely dangerous.