Violence-Oriented Right-Wing Extremist Actors in Russia: Night Wolves - Part 2

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 more opportunities to operate and increase their influence. This blog is the fourth in a series in which CEP highlights the key actors, analyzes their extremist ideology, their modus operandi, and their transnational role.

The Night Wolves are one of the best-funded non-state extremist actors in Russia. European and American sanctions have only slightly restricted the group’s range of activities: for example in July 2022, Zaldastanov raised the possibility that group members would not be able to go on ‘trips’ to Europe. However, as the club’s finances appear to be mainly concentrated in Russia, the sanctions are likely to have limited success. What’s more, despite having been sanctioned by the US since 2014, the Night Wolves continue their operations in Europe, send fighters to Ukraine, and do not appear to be lacking funds.

According to documents released by Alexei Navalny, the group received 56 million rubles (US$ 1.1 million) from taxpayer money in a span of 18 months between the years 2013 and 2014. Just 7 million rubles (US$ 73,200 ) were funneled to the group specifically for the purposes of activities related to the role motorcyclists play in ‘the spiritual life of Russian society.’ There were another five official grants from the Russian Presidential grants fund totaling 21.5 million rubles (US$ 225,000). In addition, money is funneled from the Russian state to other legal entities held by Zaldastanov, the leader of the group, as well as to entities controlled by members of the group, such as Yevgeny Strogov, leader of the ‘Russian Motorcyclists’ and the ‘Russian motor-tourism federation’. In comparison, the average presidential grant distributed in 2014 was 2 million rubles (US$ 21,000). In the same two-year period, the Night Wolves also received 12.5 million rubles (US$ 130,000) from the National Charitable Fund for their New Year’s Shows. These shows are often choreographed by Zaldastanov himself, and have featured theatrical performances diseeminating Russian propaganda and anti-Western narratives, such as a play depicting America attempting to conquer Russia.

The Night Wolves also derive funding from their commercial operations and associations. One major income stream of the group derives from its links to various security companies and small businesses. Alongside Zaldastanov, a certain Anton Karandeev is listed as the co-owner of a wholesale trading company called Bike.V.Center LLC., currently under US sanctions. It is unknown whether Karandeev is also a formal member of the Night Wolves club. Bike.V.Center LLC manages a network of small businesses, mainly auto repair shops and motorcycle dealerships. Many members of the Night Wolves also make money by selling alcohol and medicine under companies that use the wolf brand.

Given the group’s propensity for violence, the close connection of its members to the commercial security sector in Russia is not surprising. For example, Umar Kremlev, the current president of the International Boxing Association, is known for being a close acquaintance of Zaldastanov. Kremlev, also known as the ‘deputy surgeon’ in the gang, is the former owner of a jewelry firm and the current owner of a security company that uses the Night Wolves brand. Originally called Private Security Company Night Wolves, it was renamed to SB Volk [wolf] Private Security Company. It reportedly receives millions in government contracts from Russia, having earned 16 and 8 million rubles (US$ 167,000 and US$  83,500) from contracts in 2016 and 2015 respectively. Kremlev’s security company allegedly owns branches in the Tver, Krasnodar, Voronezh, and Moscow regions.

Other Night Wolves members also own security companies. Gennady Nikulov is a former soldier in the Soviet Airborne Troops and currently the leader of the Night Wolves’ local branch in Kalyazin, Tver region. He is the president of ‘Wolf’ Holding of Security Structures, under which he manages his security comanpanies. These include Volk-50, which Nikulov started in Sevastopol, Wolf 1423, based in Voronezh, and Volk, based in Krasnodar. Alexei Kaplin, co-founder of a local branch of the Night Wolves in the Istrinsky district of the Moscow Region, owns the private company Bars Group Okhrana and the company Katerok LLC, which is engaged in retail trade. Evgeny Lapin, co-founder of the club’s branch in the Tambov region, also owns two security companies: The Tambov Wolf and LLC Antares. Igor Cherkezia, co-founder of the Night Wolves branch in Bashkortostan, manages the Luger private company.

These security companies recruit employees for security services, but through their connections to the Night Wolves they might also be helping to recruit fighters into pro-Russian militias in Ukraine, as well as into the Russian army itself. The club itself has already been doing this. Since 2014, the Night Wolves have been supporting the recruitment efforts of fighters for the separatist forces in Donetsk and Luhansk. In 2014, the Night Wolves used local offices and social media to recruit fighters into pro-Russian separatist militias in Crimea. In 2015, the group helped recruit Crimeans into the Black Sea Fleet, and in 2016, the Night Wolves’ 2016 annual bikes show in Crimea included a recruitment booth for the Russian military.

The official website of the Night Wolves only includes a vague section about joining the club, and it does not outline any concrete application steps. However, according to an interview with a member, one needs to be invited by an existing member and then ride with the club for two years before becoming a ‘wolf’. Many such candidates are members of smaller clubs associated with the Night Wolves, such as M-8, Zlatoverst, and Ghosts of Domodedovo. Each candidate wears a number of stripes on their jacket that correspond to their progress toward full membership. In 2014, the number of members was estimated to be around 5,000. After joining, members may then receive, or if they are able, provide combat training in camps operated under the Wolf Holding of Security Structures.

One such training camp is located near Avdiivka and run by Denis Ryauzov, a former reserve officer in the Russian army, now Combat Training Leader of the network. Wolf Holding of Security Structures also offered training to the extremist paramilitary group Slovenskí Branci in the Slovak Republic which was disbanded on October 11, 2022. The compound was owned by Jozef Hambálek, the head of the Slovak branch of the Night Wolves. Wolf Holding also operates another training center in Sevastopol. In June 2017, Ryauzov, Nikulov, and Wolf Holding of Security Structures were sanctioned by the US Treasury.

Despite its considerable training camp holdings, at times the Night Wolves have been able to skip training altogether and immediately mobilize individuals in other countries to violence by appealing to their extremist views.

The Night Wolves have also assembled a 50-member platoon to fight in Ukraine. Its commander is Andrei Mishchenko, whose call sign is ‘Hollywood.’ He is the president of the Khimki branch of the Night Wolves. According to Mishchenko, Zaldastanov also has a personal relationship with Akhra Avidzba, known as Abkhaz, commander of the International Brigade ‘Pyatnashka’ (the 15th brigade). This brigade formed part of the rear forces of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic. Reportedly, the personal connection between Zaldastanov and Avidzba allowed members of the Night Wolves to receive two weeks of training by separatist forces in October 2022, after which they engaged in combat near the Ukrainian town of Avdiivka.

The club’s ties to the Russian government, financial wealth, recruitment efforts for separatist forces in Ukraine, its role in a web of organizations offering military training, and the presence of its fighters in Ukraine has likely transformed it from a mere Biker Club and Russian propaganda tool into an extremely concerning force for extremism and nationalism. The group exemplifies a dangerous synthesis of extremist ideology and combat-ready members. The Night Wolves are already a force for violence in Russia, be it against rival gangs or civilians, but as the non-state extremist actor in Russia most favored by the Kremlin, now more than ever they are capable of spreading their ideology and inciting violence abroad.

The first blog entry on the Night Wolves can be found here.

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

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