Fight clubs, neo-Nazi soccer hooligans, and motorcycle gangs serve as conduits for the Kremlin’s influence operations in Western countries.
Members of the Night Wolves motorcycle group pose on top of a Red Army tank. (Hannibal Hanschke / Reuters)
Deep in the forests of Slovakia, former Russian Spetsnaz commandos trained young men from a right-wing paramilitary group called the Slovak Conscripts. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014, some of these freshly-minted paramilitaries went to fight with Russian forces in eastern Ukraine while others stayed at home to agitate against NATO as a “terrorist organization.”
On the streets of the French city Marseille, Russian soccer hooligans sporting tattoos with the initials of Russia’s military intelligence service, GRU, brutally attacked English soccer fans in June 2016, sending dozens of bloodied fans to the hospital. Alexander Shprygin, an ultranationalist agitator and the head of the All-Russian Union of Supporters (a soccer fan club that he claims was established at the behest of the Russian Federal Security Service, or FSB), was arrested during the melee and deported from France.
In Budapest’s Fiumei Road Cemetery in May 2017, a Russian motorcycle gang carrying giant red flags displaying the Soviet hammer and sickle rode up to a World War II memorial. Somewhat incongruously, the tattooed bikers, accompanied by pinstriped Russian Embassy diplomats, disembarked from their motorcycles to lay red carnations in front of the memorial and then posted a video clip of it online.
It seems almost too strange to be true: fight clubs, neo-Nazi soccer hooligans, and motorcycle gangs serving as conduits for the Kremlin’s influence operations in Western countries. It sounds more like an episode of The Americans with a dash of Mad Max and Fight Club mixed in. Yet this is exactly what is happening across Europe and North America as Russia’s intelligence services co-opt fringe radicals and angry young men to try to undermine Western democracies from within. And not just in the virtual world, but in real life.
Part of the appeal of this strategy is its sheer outlandishness. It may seem implausible that Russia’s secret services could recruit or radicalize skinheads or social outcasts in the West. The Kremlin can easily argue that whatever ties exist between far-right groups in Russia and the West occur spontaneously, and have no connection to the Russian state. But whether it be Serb ultranationalists in Montenegro or neo-Nazis in Hungary, the hand of Russia’s intelligence services has in many cases already been exposed. Russia’s ongoing war in eastern Ukraine, waged using separatist proxies under the firm command and control of the Russian military, has provided a convenient recruiting ground for right-wing fanatics from Brazil to Belarus.
After the Kremlin accelerated its covert war against Western democracies in the aftermath of its invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s intelligence services dramatically ramped up their “active measures” (in Russian intelligence jargon, aktivnyye meropriyatiya or “active measures” refers to a broad range of covert influence and/or subversive operations) using radical-right and fringe groups. These groups serve as the perfect unwitting agents to accomplish Moscow’s twin goals of destabilizing Western societies and co-opting Western business and political elites.
By forging ties to radical groups on the far right, and sometimes on the far left, the Kremlin has developed convenient local surrogates that can amplify its talking points, even as Russian trolls reinforce the divisive narratives such groups spread online.
It would be a mistake, however, to think that the partnerships between the Kremlin and these groups are always marriages of convenience. Many are genuine partnerships based on a shared aversion to liberal democracy and a desire to undermine it.
The Kremlin’s recruitment of skinheads, biker gangs, soccer hooligans, and street fighters does not usually appear geared toward the armed overthrow of democratic governments. Far more often, the recruitment, indoctrination, and manipulation of fringe right-wing groups seems aimed at sowing political chaos in Western democracies and subverting or weakening democratic institutions. But occasionally, as in Ukraine, these proxies can operate directly in support of Kremlin operations.
An imposing figure at 6 foot 3, Alexander Zaldostanov, a former dental surgeon with scraggly shoulder-length hair and a goatee, is now the leader of a Russian motorcycle gang called the Night Wolves. Typically photographed in black-leather biker gear, Zaldostanov is a well-known figure in Russia: He was a torchbearer for the 2014 Sochi Olympics and a recipient of the Order of Honor from Russian President Vladimir Putin for “patriotic education of youth.” An ardent nationalist, Zaldostanov tries to evoke the spirit of romantic imperialism and conquest modeled on Russia’s famous Cossack horsemen, as well as a countercultural rebelliousness designed to appeal to Russian Millennials and youth. The Night Wolves’ unifying “ideology,” to the extent that one exists, is based on contempt for the West, which is portrayed as feeble, decadent, rootless, and libertine. Zaldostanov once suggested “death to faggots” would be an appropriate motto for the “anti–color revolution” group he founded with the ultranationalist politician Nikolai Starikov and others.
After arriving in Sevastopol in February 2014, Zaldostanov took charge of a detachment of Night Wolves and set up roadblocks around the city. A couple weeks later, the bikers helped storm the Ukrainian naval headquarters to force the surrender of the beleaguered forces stuck inside, marking a decisive turning point in Russia’s semi-covert operation to annex the peninsula. The Night Wolves’ operational role in this armed takeover was second only to Russia’s infamous “little green men,” Russian special-operations forces with their insignias removed. As far as the GRU’s psychological operations (“psy-ops”) were concerned, however, the Night Wolves played the leading role.
Russian state-owned media, and some Western journalists who followed suit, portrayed the Night Wolves as patriotic locals acting spontaneously in support of the Russian putsch, reveling in the attractive story line and the accompanying photographs and video footage of tattooed bikers. The Kremlin’s narrative of “tough guys” taking matters into their own hands was carefully stage-managed to distract attention from the story the Kremlin did not want told: the Russian military’s coordinated attack on Ukraine.
Although the exact nature of the Night Wolves’ ties to Russia’s secret services is still somewhat murky, the U.S. government believes that, at a minimum, their operations in Crimea from February to March 2014 were closely coordinated by the GRU. When the United States sanctioned the Night Wolves in December 2014, the Treasury Department noted in a press release that “the Night Wolves have been closely connected to the Russian special services.” The statement enumerated the group’s actions in support of the takeover of Crimea, including intimidation, criminal activities, abduction, storming a gas-distribution station, and exfiltrating members of Viktor Yanukovych’s regime from Ukraine.
The Night Wolves’ links to the Kremlin are, however, readily apparent. Putin has met with the bikers numerous times since 2009, and he personally hopped onto a Harley Davidson three-wheeler to ride alongside them in the port city of Novorossiysk in August 2011. (One has to wonder, though, about his choice of vehicle.) Whatever the original impetus may have been for establishing the club, by 2010 it had been thoroughly transformed. The Kremlin political strategist Vladislav Surkov—who later oversaw Russia’s covert operations in eastern Ukraine— supported the idea of using the Night Wolves as an anti-Western spectacle to galvanize Russian-nationalist sentiment, according to Peter Pomerantsev, an expert on Russian information warfare. It was also reportedly Surkov who gave the Night Wolves prime-time billing on Russian television, transforming the obscure biker club into a household name.
One series of Night Wolves “shows” for children (subsidized by the Kremlin) featured Russian characters chastising Americans for threatening Russia with sanctions, bragging about their country’s nuclear weapons, and “denouncing the ‘stupidity’ of the west,” The Guardian reported. Today, the Night Wolves often stage elaborate concert-like performances across Russia that double as nationalist rallies and Cirque du Soleil–type extravaganzas, at which they sell branded motorcycle gear and market their own clothing line.
As their ties to Russia’s intelligence services deepened following the Crimean operation, the Night Wolves expanded their activity into a number of European countries. The Night Wolves’ visit in March 2018 to the Bosnian entity of Republika Srpska was underwritten by a $41,000 grant from the Kremlin, according to The New York Times, and had a clear geopolitical aim: to provide visible support to the pro-Kremlin president of Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, and tacitly support his calls for the secession of Republika Srpska from the rest of Bosnia. (Secession would result in the breakup of Bosnia’s fragile multiethnic state and preclude its membership in NATO and the European Union, a key Kremlin foreign policy goal). Outside of Republika Srpska and Serbia, the Night Wolves are viewed with suspicion, if not outright hostility. Georgia, Ukraine, Poland and the Baltic states have banned the Night Wolves from entering their countries, understanding their mission as fomenting confrontation and chaos within Western societies on behalf of the Kremlin. Slovak President Andrej Kiska recently called the Night Wolves “a tool of the [Putin] regime” and “a serious security risk” for Slovakia.
However, while some Western countries have banned the individual members of the Russian Night Wolves by putting them on visa blacklists, constitutionally they cannot prevent their own citizens from establishing local Night Wolves chapters. Such local chapters exist in Ukraine, Slovakia, Latvia, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Germany, Serbia, and Bosnia. Most of these offshoots are run by Russian émigrés, many of whom are likely dual citizens. In the United States, according to the Miami Herald, a former FSB official, Svyatoslav Mangushev, established a biker club in South Florida called “Spetsnaz,” which was loosely modeled on the Night Wolves.
In 2014, during the same year that the original Night Wolves were leading armed attacks to seize the Crimean peninsula, one of the members of the Spetsnaz club petitioned the Night Wolves headquarters in Moscow for permission to formally establish a U.S. Night Wolves affiliate. According to the Miami Herald, one of Mangushev’s business partners at the time was a Russian government official who had invested nearly $8 million in South Florida real estate (though where he got the capital for such investments, given his government salary, remains a mystery). Today, the Spetsnaz motorcycle club is defunct, perhaps as a result of the extensive media attention it attracted. But the curious case of this pro-Kremlin biker club in South Florida illustrates both the far-flung and opportunistic nature of Russia’s covert-influence operations.
To understand how far-right fringe groups can be mobilized by Russia’s intelligence services, one need only consider the case of Montenegro, where the government claims the GRU sought to organize a coup d’état to assassinate the country’s prime minister and sow chaos during the country’s most recent parliamentary election, in October 2016. The GRU’s plan, according to Montenegro’s chief special prosecutor investigating the coup, involved using cyberattacks to hack into popular messaging apps like Viber and WhatsApp and spreading false rumors that the vote count had been rigged by the ruling party. Using this disinformation, prosecutors allege, the GRU sought to mobilize protesters into the streets. Next, a group of hired mercenaries, dressed up in stolen Montenegrin police uniforms, was to storm into the Parliament building and fire on protesters to sow mayhem and disorder. In the ensuing chaos, the prime minister was to be assassinated in order to render the country rudderless.
To mask its involvement in such a daring operation against a country on the cusp of NATO membership, the GRU reportedly turned to fringe, radical-right groups to carry out its planned attack. Aleksandar Sindjelic, a cooperating government witness in the case, claims to have been a key ringleader. Sindjelic identified two Russians as GRU officers, saying that they organized and financed the plot, and described the operation in great detail. Sindjelic, who is wanted on murder charges in Croatia, is a Serb ultranationalist who had fought on behalf of pro-Russian forces in Ukraine.
Back at home in Serbia, Sindjelic was a member of the local Serbian chapter of the Night Wolves motorcycle club. His co-conspirators shared similar backgrounds as radical nationalists and many were either petty criminals or foot soldiers for organized-crime groups in the region. After Montenegro made public the alleged plot, Putin’s national-security adviser, Nikolai Patrushev, immediately flew to Belgrade to extricate the fugitive operatives from Serbia. The two men, Eduard Shishmakov and Vladimir Popov, flew back to Moscow the day after Patrushev’s visit. They are now being tried in absentia, along with 12 individuals being held in Montenegro. The trial has not yet concluded. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump, following his meeting with Putin in Helsinki, has publicly questioned the U.S. commitment to defending Montenegro in the event of an attack, despite the country’s status as a NATO ally.
Russian fight clubs provide another example of how largely innocuous groups that exist independently of the Kremlin can be instrumentalized by Russia’s intelligence services. One particular type of martial-arts club, based on the systema combat style, which has its origins in medieval Russia, is popular with Russian special forces. Systema uses a fluid and improvisational fighting style, less bound by rules than judo or karate, and is designed to inflict maximum pain and lethal blows on an opponent. Aside from the hard-core nature of its enthusiasts, systema clubs operate just as normal judo or karate clubs do, holding classes and training sessions in Russia and many other countries, including the United States.
In the West, the majority of systema clubs are exactly what they appear to be. However, according to an investigation by the EU Observer, a number of systema fight clubs in Europe and North America prominently display their links to Russia’s special forces and even use GRU or FSB insignia in their promotional materials. They appeal to nationalistically minded expatriates such as military veterans, and tap into a particular Russian-nationalist subculture that extols the secret services, much like that Spetsnaz club in South Florida. Many systema practitioners also travel regularly to Russia to receive advanced training.
Boris Reitschuster, a German expert who has written extensively on systema fight clubs in Europe, alleges that even if the vast majority of members are ordinary fight-club enthusiasts, these groups are actively being used by Russia’s intelligence services to recruit agents. Reitschuster cites the estimate of a Western intelligence agency that in Germany alone, systema clubs have been used to recruit between 250 and 300 agents.
In such cases, however, the term agent may be somewhat misleading. While systema clubs may include Russian intelligence agents in the traditional sense of the term (that is, active-duty officers), many others are likely “agents of influence” who do not necessarily serve in the GRU with a rank or formal affiliation. Such agents of influence are not typically used to access secret information, and many are unaware of their own manipulation by a foreign intelligence service.
If some Russian fight clubs in Europe and North America harbor a small fraction of GRU-affiliated agents instrumentally tapping into the street-fighting milieu to drive home an anti-Western (and pro-Russia) message, then their activity is not much different from the trolls who work for Russia’s Internet Research Agency. The key difference would be that the indoctrination and recruitment is being done in person rather than online.
Neo-Nazis, skinheads, soccer hooligans and similar violence-prone groups on the radical right also have the potential to serve as ready, often unwitting, Kremlin agents of influence who can be manipulated to undermine Western democratic institutions. The Kremlin makes use of far-right groups for a number of reasons. First, these groups can be manipulated and indoctrinated through social media, which makes them ripe targets for organizations like the Internet Research Agency, whose trolls can mobilize their members with carefully crafted messaging. Second, these groups are likely to find the Kremlin’s ideology of “traditional Russian values” appealing, particularly when contrasted with Western liberal values such as individual rights, tolerance, and self-expression. Right-wing groups are more easily drawn into the Russian orbit with anti-immigrant, anti-LGBTQ, and anti-feminist rhetoric and by a narrative that stresses a collectivist, tribal, and racially exclusive worldview.
Finally, the Western radical right is attractive to the Kremlin not only because it provides a pool of recruits—often angry young white men—for stirring up social protests, but also because it serves as a backdoor for establishing ties with far-right political parties and anti-establishment politicians. The Kremlin views such politicians—like France’s Marine Le Pen, Germany’s Frauke Petry, and Italy’s Matteo Salvini—as battering rams that can be used to demolish democratic institutions and to challenge the political establishment’s support for NATO, the EU, and transatlantic ties. Although the Kremlin’s effort to co-opt Western politicians is beyond the scope of this article, it is a key reason why Russia invests resources in cultivating fringe radicals in the West.
For obvious reasons, however, the Kremlin tries to hide its support for far-right groups, both in Russia and elsewhere. A BBC documentary on Russian neo-Nazi soccer hooligans secretly recorded the leader of Moscow’s Spartak “ultras” explaining that his army of followers served as “Putin’s foot soldiers.” Shortly after the documentary aired, Russian police issued a call for all those who had been interviewed in the film to report immediately to local stations across Russia and sign forms saying they had been coerced into lying by the BBC.
Despite efforts to hide such ties, the evidence of the Russian state’s support for far-right circles across Europe is mounting. István Györkös, a Hungarian neo-Nazi who leads a far-right paramilitary group called the Hungarian National Front, serves as a perfect example of the sort of radical militant Russia’s intelligence services target. The Hungarian National Front is a neo-Nazi hate group that glorifies the Waffen-SS and regularly attacks the United States, Jews, LGBTQ persons, and liberals. It holds paramilitary combat-training sessions and extols Hungary’s fascist Arrow Cross movement, which was active in the 1930s and during World War II. Although it is unclear exactly how Györkös’s ties to Russian intelligence were first established, in 2012 Györkös launched a website called hidfo.net, which glorified Putin’s Russia and began disseminating Kremlin propaganda.
In October 2016, Hungarian law-enforcement officers arrived at Györkös’s home to investigate reports of illegal weapons use on his property. In the ensuing confrontation, Györkös shot one of the detectives, prompting a wide-ranging investigation in which Hungarian authorities discovered that Györkös had regularly been holding combat training sessions for members of the Hungarian National Front in the woods outside his home. More shockingly, the authorities learned that these exercises were attended by active GRU officers who were serving under diplomatic cover at the Russian Embassy in Budapest.
Similar cases have been documented in other European countries. In Sweden, when law enforcement authorities investigated a bomb attack on a refugee center in the western town of Gothenburg in January 2017, they discovered that the neo-Nazis who had perpetrated the attack had received weapons training from a Russian paramilitary group. The group, Partizan, is tolerated by the authorities and operates freely in Russia. Its weapons-training courses are run on behalf of an ultranationalist organization called the Russian Imperial Movement, which was actively involved in the Russian war in eastern Ukraine and whose current geopolitical aim, according to one member, is to create a “Right Wing International.” In Denmark, law-enforcement authorities learned that the leader of the Danish far-right National Front, Lars Agerbak, also received weapons training in Russia. After being convicted for breaking gun laws in Denmark, Agerbak moved to Russia. Although these may seem like isolated cases, the far-right community in Europe is large and growing, and its ties to the Russian state are commonplace. In the Czech Republic, the radical-right and staunchly pro-Russian Czechoslovak Soldiers in Reserves, which, like the Hungarian National Front, regularly organizes combat training, was estimated in 2015 to have 6000 members.
In the United States too, the alt-right and Kremlin ideologues share a common cause. While many of these ties are the result of mutual admiration more than active recruitment, the recent charges against the gun-rights advocate Maria Butina for serving as a Russian agent prove the Kremlin is also actively seeking to cultivate groups on the American right.
Fringe-right groups already consider the Kremlin an ally. At the alt-right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, chants of “Russia is our friend!” were commonplace. Richard Spencer, who led the Charlottesville rally and directs an alt-right organization called the National Policy Institute, has praised Putin as a protector of the white race. His website, altright.com, features such articles as “Why Anti-Racism is Nothing but a Lie” and defends the alt-right’s associations with Putin by arguing that “Russia is one of the few countries left that supports and upholds Pro-European values such as strength, unity, racial awareness, etc.” Similarly, the alt-right figure Alex Jones fawns over Putin and has hosted the Kremlin’s court ideologue Alexander Dugin on his show. Even the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad is seen in a positive light by American right-wing groups, which portray him as a savior of Christian minorities, echoing a common Kremlin propaganda line. Matthew Heimbach, an American white nationalist who has extensively praised Putin, sums up the alt-right’s views when he says “I see Russia as kind of the axis for nationalists … and that’s not just nationalists that are white—that’s all nationalists.”
To understand how fringe groups like soccer hooligans, neo-Nazis, and hard-core fight-club enthusiasts would attract the attention of Russia’s intelligence services, it is important to understand that fringe radical groups have a history of being co-opted by Russian intelligence. In the Soviet Union, the KGB had entire departments focused on penetrating and, if necessary, eliminating groups on the fringes of society that operated independently of the state and were not authorized by the Communist Party. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the KGB could no longer maintain a vast gulag of prisoners and more often favored co-opting groups hostile to the state (though, to be sure, the Russian state has a history of exploiting criminal groups that extends back to the Soviet and even Tsarist periods). Rather than constantly chasing after delinquent groups in attempts to arrest their members only to discover new members popping up elsewhere, Russia’s intelligence services at some point decided it was far easier to allow a few informally sanctioned groups to exist so long as they could be monitored and (at least partially) controlled.
The lessons for the United States and its allies are clear. Russia’s manipulation of fringe far-right groups is part of a deliberate strategy to undermine Western democratic institutions. Russia’s trolls and intelligence services prey on social outcasts in order to radicalize them and recruit them to wage war on their countries’ liberal institutions. To do this, the Kremlin reinforces their belief that liberal democracy is rotten and cultivates their restless anger and propensity toward violence. In addition to stoking anger and resentment, the Kremlin also uses covert financing to bankroll their destructive agenda. These efforts occur both in person, via martial-arts studios and motorcycle clubs, and in the virtual world of social media, where they are largely hidden from law enforcement and the general public. The strategy for fighting against this radicalization will therefore have to meld together what is known about combatting domestic hate groups with an updated counterintelligence toolkit. Finally, the effort to identify, expose, and disrupt Russia’s manipulation of anti-democratic groups is likely to succeed only when it transcends national boundaries and involves active coordination among all democratic states susceptible to this particular form of malign influence.