Pro-Putin biker gang the Night Wolves hit with EU sanctions, but leader ‘The Surgeon’ says they have ‘no meaning’

Night Wolves leader Alexander Zaldostanov and Russian president Vladimir Putin
The leader of Russian biker gang the Night Wolves is a close ally of Vladimir Putin.
Alexey Druzhinin—AFP/Getty Images

The latest round of EU sanctions makes a novel addition to the list of Europe’s most maligned: an unruly Hell’s Angels–like biker gang with a long history of supporting Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The Night Wolves—a biker gang with chapters in Russia and several other European countries—is now being targeted by EU sanctions in response to the group’s involvement with the Russia-Ukraine war and the close relationship between Putin and the gang’s leaders.

The European Commission announced that the Night Wolves were part of its latest sanctions package released on Thursday. The sanctions will target the group itself and four of the gang’s leaders. In 2018, the Night Wolves counted over 5,000 members, including Ramzan Kadyrov, the dictatorial leader of the Chechen Republic who has branded himself a close ally to Putin.

The commission, which called the Night Wolves a “nationalist motorcycle club,” said that the group holds 45 chapters in a number of countries, including in the EU. 

The gang has been “actively involved” in Russia’s military campaign against Ukraine ever since 2014—when Putin forcefully annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea—by spreading pro-Russia propaganda and even fighting alongside Russian troops, according to the sanctions package.

Sanctioning the Kremlin’s biker gang

It is not the first time the Night Wolves have come under foreign sanctions, as the U.S. targeted the gang in 2014 after evidence emerged that it had participated in military incursions in Crimea.

The EU sanctions have come as “no surprise” to the gang, as leader and founder Alexander Zaldostanov, also known as the Surgeon, told the FT, adding that the restrictions hold “no meaning” for him or his group.

Zaldostanov is personally being accused by the EU of “actively supporting Russian state propaganda through publicly denying Ukraine’s right to statehood and calling for the “denazification” as well as the “de-Ukrainisation” of the country.”

In addition to the group as a whole, the EU sanctioned four individual members of the Night Wolves, including Zaldostanov and Josef Hambálek, the head of the gang’s European chapter, who established the group’s Europe headquarters on a former military base in Slovakia that is the known site of several armored vehicles and tanks, and where the EU alleges he has been training Night Wolves members to fight in Ukraine.

‘Putin’s Angels’

Leader Zaldostanov initially founded the Night Wolves as a rock-and-roll and motorcycle fan club in 1989, but the group’s colorful and leather-clad history since then has been composed of close relations with the Kremlin, friendly appearances with Putin, and a strong support for Russian military action in Ukraine. 

The group has sometimes even been known as Putin’s Angels

Before starting the Night Wolves, Zaldostanov was reportedly a successful facial reconstruction doctor in the 1980s—hence his nickname—according to a detailed profile by Vice in 2015.

He was born in Soviet-era Ukraine but spent most of his life in Moscow, and has long been a close supporter of Putin and his policies, especially concerning Ukraine. 

The Night Wolves chief frequently traveled to Crimea before, during, and after the Russian annexation of the territory in 2014, justifying Russia’s presence in Ukraine as necessary in order to “​​defend it from the fascists who have come to power.” 

Putin himself has also shown himself to be a fan of the gang and a close ally of Zaldostanov, awarding him medals in 2015 for his “patriotic work” quelling pro-democracy protests in Russia. Zaldostanov and Putin have also embarked on motorcycle joyrides together in Crimea, flying Russian flags and celebrating the annexation.

The latest EU sanctions are designed to put an end to one of the Night Wolves’ most commonly employed tactics: spreading pro-Putin propaganda far beyond Russia’s borders. 

For years, Night Wolves missives have embarked on open-road journeys across Europe stamping out anti-Russia demonstrations and intimidating locals, having made near-annual visits to Germany, Poland, and Bosnia. Last February, shortly before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the group called on authorities in Montenegro to put a stop to anti-Putin protests in the country, criticizing protesters for their “warmongering rhetoric.”

The sanctions are designed to halt these incursions into EU soil, although Zaldostanov told the FT that the gang’s mission to support Russia can still be carried out from their home bases.

“If we will no longer be able to make the trips then our friends, our brothers, will come here [to Russia] instead,” he said.

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