The Night Wolves may call themselves a humanitarian and religious organization – but their mix of Orthodox Christianity and Slavic nationalism has the potential to cause trouble in a fragile, war-scarred region.
When it comes to exerting both a religious and a cultural influence in the Western Balkans, Russia stands out as a major player, with a powerful instrument in the form of the Russian Orthodox Church.
By promoting an Orthodox pan-Slav identity in countries such as Serbia, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, Russia is able to portray itself as a protector of traditional values, while also fuelling anti-Western sentiment.
Although many of these efforts include relatively benign activities, such as the restoration of religious sites and the construction of religious and cultural centers, the link between Orthodox leaders and nationalist extremism – that could reignite violence in a region already scarred by war – is more concerning.
Russia often interweaves religious and political motivations to wield influence abroad. Through close ties with local Orthodox churches and other organizations in the region, it has been able to stoke nationalist extremism by outsourcing activities, like intelligence collection, combat operations and even intimidation and targeted assassination, to non-state groups. One example of this is the Night Wolves bikers gang.
The Night Wolves began as an anti-establishment biker club in the 1990s but has since evolved into a patriotic organization with strong Orthodox leanings and close ties to the Kremlin.
Over the past decade, it has grown into a complex network of private businesses and non-profit organizations whose activities range from youth clubs and patriotic activities to nightclubs, tattoo shops and sale of merchandise. They are affiliated with Wolf Holdings, which provides security and special training, and has 17 centers in Russia, Europe, and Asia. By 2016, the Night Wolves had established 51 chapters in multiple locations, from Chechnya to Serbia. In total, they have approximately 5,000 members.
Since 2008, the gang has become significantly closer to the Russian Orthodox Church, thanks to its leader, Alexander Zaldostanov, and prominent member, Alexie Weitz. Zaldostanov underwent a spiritual transformation after a motorcycle accident in 1999, and, with help from Weitz, then refocused the club towards the promotion of pan-Orthodox sentiment among the Slavic peoples. He meets regularly the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, (and former KGB agent) Patriarch Kirill, to discuss hosting patriotic events. The Night Wolves have also defended the Church against protests.
One way that the club promotes its agenda is by sponsoring motorcycle pilgrimages to holy sites, often during times of political tension. Not long after the nerve gas attack on former spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England, in 2018, which the UK blamed on Kremlin agents, the Night Wolves started a nine-day tour of the Balkans.
On the border of Serbia and Bosnia, member Yevgeny Strogov told The New York Times that the purpose of the pilgrimage was “to expand the spiritual bond between people and friends in Serbia and the Republika Srpska” – the Serb-led entity in Bosnia. Russians and Serbs “have the same culture and the same religion”, he added. “That means a lot to us.”
Although Russia and some Orthodox Church leaders hail the Night Wolves as a humanitarian organization, they are widely seen in the West as part of an extremist ecosystem. When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, for example, the Night Wolves assisted the Russian authorities by coordinating roadblocks, intimidating local officials, and helping the Russian military raid a Ukrainian naval facility. These actions earned several members medals from Russian President Vladimir Putin, for helping the “Return of Crimea”, but also earned the organization a spot on the United States’ black list.
The Night Wolves’ extremist actions have not been confined to Ukraine. The alleged coup in Montenegro in 2016 also involved members of the gang. Aleksandr Sindjelic, indicted by Montenegro as suspected leader of a plot to overthrow the pro-Western government, was a co-founder of the Serbian chapter of the Night Wolves. While the Serbian Orthodox Church was not directly implicated in the alleged coup, it hosted its leaders at Ostrog monastery the night before it took place.
The mingling of pro-Russian organizations like the Night Wolves with religious institutions produces a concerning combination that has the potential to reignite ethnic violence in the Balkans.
The Serbian Orthodox Church is known for its support for Serbian nationalists, some of whom still hope to create a Greater Serbia. The Church uses its influence in countries like Montenegro to fuel anti-NATO and EU sentiment by providing these forces with financial and logistical support. The Night Wolves themselves, along with other non-state organizations, add to this sentiment, acting as an arm of the Russian government, simultaneously allowing Russia a level of deniability in their actions.
The EU’s growing hesitance concerning its involvement in the Balkans is providing space for Russia to take advantage. To head off this danger, the EU must take a more active role in the integration of the region. It must revive discussions about the accession of those states where the conversation has stalled, while taking account of local nationalist and ethnic tensions. At the same time, it must do so without alienating Bosnian Serb or Kosovo Serb leaders. That will be an uphill battle. In 2017, the Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik rejected multiple invitations to meet European ambassadors and discuss their perceived anti-Serbian views. Ultimately, the EU must provide something to these leaders that entices them to move closer to the West.