Violence-Oriented Right-Wing Extremist Actors in Russia: Night Wolves - Part 1

October 30, 2023
Matus Trubac  —  Research Intern

During the past decade and a half, extremist non-state actors in Russia have become a central element of the violent transnational right-wing extremist milieu. The Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014 and particularly its re-invasion of the country in 2022 have afforded these actors far greater opportunities to operate and increase their influence than before. This blog is the third in a series in which CEP aims to highlight some of the key actors, analyze their extremist ideology, modus operandi, and transnational role.

The Night Wolves, AKA Putin’s Angels, are an extremist biker gang from Russia. Founded in 1989 as the first biker gang in the Soviet Union, it now operates an international network of local branches and sister organizations throughout Europe and many post-Soviet regions.

The gang has direct links with the Russian state, having ridden with president Putin, received funding from the Kremlin, coordinated with Russian embassies and consulates in European countries, and even fought in Ukraine. In fact, now that Putin requires mercenary companies to sign direct contracts with the Russian ministry of defense, the Night Wolves are likely closest to the Kremlin of any extremist non-state actor in Russia.

The founder and leader of the Night Wolves is Alexander Sergeyevich Zaldastanov. The Night Wolves were initially a regular motorcycle club, but Zaldastanov began to use the club for political activism in the early 2000s. He was born in Kirovohrad, present-day Ukraine, and lived in Sevastopol, Crimea, before moving to Moscow to study medicine at the turn of the 1980s. There, Zaldastanov formed the Night Wolves in 1989. Zaldastanov, also known as the ‘Surgeon’, is the gang’s spokesperson and appears to have a personal relationship with Putin. He appears at almost all of the gang’s rallies and claims to have fought in Ukraine in 2014.

Zaldastanov founded the Night Wolves as the first motorcycle gang in the Soviet Union in 1989, and since then they have had violent clashes with other gangs. In 2012, for example, one of its members was killed in a shootout with the Three Roads, a rival gang in Moscow. The clash was over the latter’s ties to an American biker gang. After its founding, the Night Wolves functioned like a mafia, engaging in extortion, murder, and violence. Amongst the 60 businesses managed by the group are also many ‘security services’, which specialize in, inter alia, offering combat training or protection to businesses.  

The Night Wolves do not have anything resembling a coherent ideological manifesto, but their rhetoric includes ultranationalist, right-wing extremist, anti-LGBTQ, anti-democratic, and violent narratives. The gang can be interpreted as something akin to Russia’s fifth column, an instrument of soft power that consists of combat-ready gangsters who hold extremist views and are scattered across Europe. The group has supported Russia’s invasion of Ukraine since 2014 and some of its members take part in the fighting. Their ostensible degree of separation from the Kremlin allows the gang to act as a proxy for Russian militaristic and ideological aggression.

The group is openly discriminatory against the LGBTQ community. In 2015, Zaldastanov suggested an alternative name for the anti-Maidan protests: ‘Death to Faggots!’. Zaldastanov believes that the annexation of Crimea was a show of resistance against ‘all this homosexual talk,’ in addition to the ‘global Satanism’ and growing ‘savagery’ of Western Europe. Naturally, membership is restricted to heterosexual men.

The gang’s homophobia is likely connected to its Russian Orthodox conservatism. The Night Wolves claim to be an informal ally of the Russian Orthodox Church, and regularly organize rides to holy sites in Russia. Zaldastanov became a devout Orthodox Christian after surviving a motorcycle accident in 1999, claims to have religious visions, and regularly meets with Patriarch Kirill, leader of the Russian Orthodox Church. Other members see the conflict in Ukraine as part of a greater holy war against the West. This religious extremism also extends to Russian historical figures. The group venerates Stalin, declaring him a supreme and mystical figure. Furthermore in 2015, gang members voiced their support for the Russian dictator at the Katyn war cemetery, a memorial that commemorates the killing, upon Stalin’s orders, of several thousands of members of the Polish elite by Soviet troops during World War II. At the same procession, they displayed red flags with Stalin’s portrait and shouted Stalinist slogans such as ‘For Stalin!’. They describe Putin in similar terms – Zaldastanov has called Putin a ‘spiritual guide’.

The group appears to have close ties to Putin, who has employed the Night Wolves as a paramilitary and security force. The club was allegedly introduced to Putin by Alexei Weitz, a Russian Orthodox public relations specialist who worked for the Kremlin. Weitz has previously called the Night Wolves a death cult, in reference to the members’ fanatic devotion to the gang’s cause. Weitz, as a member of the Council for Interethnic Relations under the President of Russia, has also been sanctioned by the EU and Ukraine. Since then, the gang has begun to consider itself to be part of Russia’s army. Zaldastanov offered Putin 3,000 members of the gang as an unofficial militia that could crush any ‘color-revolutions’ in Russia and abroad. This led to the group being sanctioned by Canada. In 2015, the gang joined an anti-Maidan coalition that intended to repress anti-Putin protests and violently attacked peaceful protesters.

Putin, in turn, has described the group as his friends, appeared at their rallies, and even rode with them. In May 2015, Alexei Navalny claimed that the Kremlin had given the group  56 million rubles in a year and a half. In October 2015, the group received an official grant in the sum of 12 million rubles from the Kremlin. In the same year, the group began to be referred to as ‘Putin’s Angels’ in Western media (the moniker “Angels” is used as a reference to the outlaw motorcycle club “Hell’s Angels”). It has been argued that Putin uses  the group to propagate more extremist doctrine that he does not wish to officially associate with the Kremlin, and to spread political agitation abroad.

The Night Wolves have sent members to fight in both Crimea and the Donbas. In 2014, the group formed a platoon of at least 50 men to fight in Ukraine, with the goal of amassing at least 200 fighters. It appears that this was never accomplished, and as of August 2023, around 50, or less than 1 percent of its members, were fighting on the front lines in Ukraine. Nonetheless, in 2014, the Night Wolves violently repressed pro-Ukraine protests in Crimea—in response to which the group was sanctioned by the US government. After the annexation of Crimea, the Night Wolves conducted patrols on the peninsula and helped recruit soldiers both into their own and the Russian army’s ranks. The gang also conducted joint operations with Spetsnaz units, having conducted a raid on a Ukrainian naval facility. It was only one of two non-state actors permitted by Russia to perform military operations in Crimea. In Eastern Ukraine, the Night Wolves follow orders from the ministry of defense of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic and have organized rallies there. In 2022, members of the gang joined the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic ‘Pyatnshka’ battalion.

But the gang’s violent activities are not restricted to Russia and Ukraine. The Night Wolves have an international network of local branches, especially in Europe. They established their ‘European Headquarters’ outside of the village of Dolná Krupa in Western Slovakia in 2018. The compound is owned by Jozef Hambálek, also known as Džono, who heads the gang’s Slovak branch. It houses old tanks, armored vehicles, and police equipment. The compound was used as training grounds by the right-wing paramilitary group ‘Slovenskí Branci’, or the Slovak Recruits, until the local branch was sanctioned by the EU. Hambálek continues to own the compound, but his accounts have been frozen and he is banned from travelling to other EU countries.

After Russia first invaded Ukraine in 2014, the gang began to be perceived as more dangerous by European governments. In 2014, the leader of its Ukrainian branch, Alexei Vereshchagin, was arrested in Kyiv. In 2023, Jaroslav Naď, the former Defense Minister of Slovakia, accused the group of spreading Russian propaganda and of waging a hybrid war against Slovakia and Europe. In 2018, the Slovak president identified the gang as a security threat. Even though Hambálek was sanctioned by the EU in 2022, the group continues to operate in Europe through sister organizations. One such organization is Motorkári Slovenska, more commonly known as Brat Za Brata (Brother for Brother), led by Matúš Alexa, who has met with Sergey Naryshkin, the leader of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service. Brat za Brata shares Russian propaganda on its social media, frequently copying messages from the Russian embassy in Bratislava, and Russian diplomats have attended the gang’s rallies in Slovakia. Similar biker gangs in Bulgaria have even closer ties to the Kremlin, often attending events hosted by the Russian embassy.

The Night Wolves are also active in the Balkans. In 2022, the gang staged pro-Putin protests in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Bosnian Serb secessionist leader Milorad Dodik, sanctioned by the US for corruption, maintains close ties with the gang’s local branch. In neighboring Serbia, the gang organizes rides from Belgrade to foster closer ties between Russia and Serbia. The Night Wolves were also allegedly involved in the assassination attempt on Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic, as well as a failed putsch in the country in October 2016.

Finally, the Night Wolves are perhaps most infamous in Europe for their annual march from Moscow to Berlin in April and May to retrace the Soviet Army’s route during WWII. These marches are highly controversial in countries through which the gang passes, such as Poland and the Czech Republic. Zaldastanov is known to have said ‘wherever the Night Wolves are, that should be considered Russia’. The gang was refused entry by Poland in 2015 and 2016. The Czech Republic also denied the gang entry in 2015, but it travelled through the country anyway, in violation of the ban.

The first two blog entries in this series, which focus on the extremist group Other Russia can be found here and here.

Daily Dose

Extremists: Their Words. Their Actions.


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