BANJA LUKA, Bosnia and Herzegovina — The Night Wolves, a Russian motorcycle gang known as Putin’s Angels and widely feared as agents of meddling and mayhem beyond Russia’s borders, provoked more bemusement and giggles than awe on their latest outing, a nine-day tour of the Balkans designed to show that Russia still had some fervent friends left in Europe.
Instead of roaring into town amid throbbing engines and clouds of smoke, the tattooed, potbellied bikers arrived by car and minivan in Banja Luka, the capital of Republika Srpska, a would-be state born in bloodshed during the Balkan wars of the 1990s.
Anxious about the cold weather, they left their bikes behind in Moscow but did bring along leather vests, an icon of the Virgin Mary and a “press secretary,” a snarling Russian woman whose main job was to keep away the press.
As skirmishes continue between Ukraine forces and Russian-backed separatists near the Ukrainian town of Avdiivka a few hours away this combat training center in Russia is teaching attendees military tactics like shooting and hand-to-hand combat. It’s run by this man. Denis Ryauzov – Combat Trainer Leader for Wolf Holding of Security Structures NATSOT We’re at the the training grounds where our students take courses offered by our center. NATPOP – “Get ready” (military exercise) == VO His name is Denis Ryauzov, and he’s also the chief instructor. Denis Ryauzov – Combat Trainer Leader for Wolf Holding of Security Structure, airborne officer in reserve I’m a former reserve officer, graduated from an airborne forces faculty, then served in the army, quit and then worked at the security services. He says they’re teaching people self-defense. Denis Ryauzov – Combat Trainer Leader for Wolf Holding of Security Structure, We’re not training any military, we’re training people who may find themselves in an extreme situations. We’re talking about the tactics that ordinary people can use if they willingly or unwillingly find themselves in the local conflict zone. But the company’s promo videos seem to blur the line between self-defense and actually taking up arms. VO And the U.S. government in June hit Ryauzov and his firm with sanctions. Denis Ryauzov – Combat Trainer Leader for Wolf Holding of Security Structure, airborne officer in reserve I first didn’t believe it, thinking it’s a joke. What’s written under my name – as the reason why I was put under sanctions – is not true at all. VO The U.S claims that Ryauzov’s security company — which is called Wolf Holding of Security Structures — is owned by and supports the Russian motorcycle club known as the Night Wolves. The Night Wolves themselves were put under sanctions in 2014 after the U.S. says its members took part in fighting the Ukrainian government in Crimea and East Ukraine. NAT – storming The Night Wolves leader has openly touted his group’s involvement in the Ukraine conflict. SOT from RT, Night Wolves leader Alexander Zaldostanov in 2014: They understood and valued our work in Sevastopol and Crimea right. Alexei Weitz is one of the group’s regional leaders. He says the Night wolves’ mission is social engagement and promotion of patriotic values, including faith. Alexei Weitz, Night Wolves member, former political technologist What are’re helping the East [Ukraine]? We help our people – the supporters of the Russian world. Here at a monastery called Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius, the bikers came to provide security on a religious holiday. Alexei Weitz, Night Wolves member, former political technologist There are a lot of pilgrims here today…and our guys will be working on security here in Lavra. ++ There is no military training without the spiritual training. +++ The goal of our public service is to get stronger in faith and get ready to protect our motherland at any moment. The Night Wolves say they’re not a political organization and they are officially a non-profit organization that works with young people and puts on patriotic bike-shows and performances. But they get grants from the Russian government and Russian president Vladimir Putin has made appearances with the group. Putin talking to Night Wolves also in 2012: I know you’re organizing a New Year performances for kids. This year it was very interesting. And Weitz apparently sees no harm in making political statements about Russian involvement in Ukraine. Alexei Weitz, Night Wolves member, former political technologist People in Donbass are protecting the Russian world. They’re protecting our unified space. We’re gathering humanitarian help and deliver it there in convoys…We’re carrying after the sick and the children, because there are always bombings there, and by the way, not without the West’s assistance. The Trump’s administration sanctions against the Night Wolves and their affiliates is more of a symbolic move from the U.S. government since there is little it can do to economically impact them. Still, the Night wolves decided to respond to the new sanctions with a new performance in Crimea, the Ukrainian territory seized by Russian separatists in 2014. The show is called “The Russian reactor”. NATPOP – trailer of the show. Alexei Weitz, Night Wolves member, former political technologist Sanctions is a slap on their own face, of the Western world. ++ We’re first and foremost serving our country, and our duty is to strengthen our faith and get ready to protect our motherland at any moment. END
As skirmishes in Ukraine continue, the Night Wolves — a Russian motorcycle club that is on friendly terms with President Vladimir V. Putin — run a combat training center just a few hours away.CreditCredit…Pool photo by Alexei Druzhinin