MOSCOW—They call themselves The Night Wolves, “a new kind of motorcycle club,” or, sometimes, “Putin’s Angels.” And just as much as the Orthodox Church or the military, the Wolves have become a symbol of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. But the idea that they might be used as his extra-legal enforcers in times of trouble is usually implicit—embedded in their flag-waving Putinized patriotism—never really spelled out.
U.S. President Donald Trump is not so subtle, however, especially when he takes his cues from the Kremlin. Leave it to him to put the potential for violent defense of his interests by a motorcycle gang front and center in the public view.
“I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump—I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough—until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad,” he told Breitbart on Monday in an interview published Wednesday. On Thursday, as the remark was drawing wide and largely unfavorable attention, he tweeted a link to the Breitbart home page.
On Friday morning, as news broke of the massacre at mosques in New Zealand allegedly carried out by a right-wing extremist whose sometimes ironic manifesto called Trump “a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose,” the Breitbart tweet came down.
Trump, you will recall, learned his special brand of politics from the promoters and crowds at pro wrestling events, where violence in the ring is staged, but that’s not always true in the stands. So he’s not likely to give up on the tough-guy iconography offered by bikers, or the way it can be used to incite others. And Russia remains a great example for him.
Here, the Night Wolves are familiar figures, and have been since the 1990s. Their tall, burly, bearded leader Alexander Zaldastanov, nicknamed Khirurg (surgeon), often hugs Putin on camera, usually being careful not to make him look too short. (On bikes they look the same height.)
The Wolves originally copied their tattoos, leather pants and vests covered in pins from world famous American biker movements like Hell’s Angels, who have been rolling around for most of a century. But if the oldest U.S. biker empires were full of revolutionary outlaws, Putin tamed the men in leather, who act according to the programs approved by the Kremlin’s administration and say things appropriate for the state-controlled television channels.
One day you can see them posing with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Orthodox priests, next day they zoom with flapping Russian flags through European countries or open a base in an abandoned military town in Slovakia, a NATO country.
The pro-Putin bikers have been spreading their wings all over the European Union and also finding friends in the mostly Trumpist Russian community of Miami Florida millionaires. The team of Transparency International researched the connection between a group called the “Alfa Anticriminal” organization made up of Russian special service officers, the group’s founder Svyatoslav Mangushev, and a biker club he founded in Miami, called after Russian special forces, Spetsnaz LE [for Law Enforcement] Spetsnaz.
On Saturday the Wolves are planning to bring a 1,423 meter-long flag to Crimea, to celebrate “Russian Spring” —the beginning of the pro-Kremlin unrest in Ukraine—and mark five years since Russia annexed the peninsula with the help of “little green men,” forces of masked soldiers in unmarked green army uniforms.
In Ukraine the Night Wolves play a genuinely sinister role, in fact. They are under U.S. sanctions for recruiting rebels to fight against Ukraine in Donbas. In 2015, Zoldastanov confirmed that his movement had received $856,242 from the state, “openly and transparently.” A report by Bild, a German newspaper, said that the Night Wolves receive their finance from Russian ministry of Defense.
On Friday, the bikers’ leader Zaldastanov spoke on Russia-24 TV about a Russian soldier allegedly killed by a Ukrainian sniper. With a tragic expression on his face, the biker described the accident but did not mention the death toll of 13,000 killed in the Ukrainian war. The biker did not speak on TV about nearly two million people who the war has turned into refugees, or 70 prisoners of war held in Russian prisons. These topics are not on the agenda of Putin’s Angels.
According to Levada Center opinion polls 68 percent of Russians say the United States is their country’s main enemy. Yet the Night Wolves enjoy American-made bikes; even their ideological leader Vladimir Putin rode with them on a Harley Davidson.
And the Night Wolves love Trump, too.
Last January, Zalstantanov the Surgeon had a costumed Trump visit his immense birthday show. The Trump character addressed Zaldastanov with a sweet speech: “You are the president and I am the president, I like that you support Vladimir Vladimirovich, “ said the imitation Trump. “We are both against hostility and hate.”
“The Night Wolves is nothing but another corrupt scheme. I do not believe in their patriotism,” ex-MP Dmitry Gudkov told The Daily Beast.” To open a university in Europe for people to learn to speak Russian would be a much more effective act of soft power then these bikers who today ride for Putin and tomorrow, depending on how good is the pay, would ride for, say, Michelle Obama.”
Or maybe they will just join Bikers for Trump.
Christopher Dickey also contributed to this story.
This article has been corrected to note that Trump’s Breitbart interview was on Monday, although published Wednesday, and he did not tweet directly his widely commented upon remarks about bikers but tweeted a link to the Breitbart home page. That tweet was the one subsequently removed.