A Russian nationalist motorcycle club that has expressed ardent support for President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was an eye-catching inclusion in the latest round of EU sanctions approved by the bloc this week.
The Night Wolves club and its leaders, including Slovak citizen Josef Hambalek, head of its European section, will face sanctions, officials familiar with the decision have told the Financial Times, in the latest measure targeting supporters and propagandists public of war.
The club, which combines a leather-clad Hell’s Angels aesthetic with Russian flags, patriotic slogans and the occasional demonstration of the Russian Orthodox faith, has held numerous concerts and rallies in support of the invasion since its launch in February.
Bikers focused on publicizing their motorbike parades, driving through parts of central Russia, their bikes emblazoned with the pro-invasion symbol Z, collecting donations for residents of pro-Russian separatist enclaves in eastern Ukraine.
The group’s Russian frontman Aleksandr Zaldostanov, also known as ‘The Surgeon’, told the FT by telephone that he was ‘not surprised’ by the sanctions and that they ‘meaning nothing’ for him.
But the group has already attempted provocative trips to Europe, particularly Germany and Poland, which now may be off the table. “If we can no longer travel then our friends, our brothers, will come here [to Russia] instead,” he said.
The Night Wolves claim to have chapters overseas, although Zaldostanov declined to name the number of club members in Europe. He said German authorities had recently raided the homes of some members of the group there.
The biker gang was previously blacklisted by the United States for participating in Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014 and over claims they have members in the ranks of rebel fighters in eastern part of the country during the ensuing war.
Hambalek sparked controversy in 2018 when a site in the Slovak countryside believed to have been used by the Night Wolves as the headquarters of its European chapter turned out to store tanks and armored vehicles.
Zaldostanov is a friend of Putin, and the president rode with the biker gang in a parade in 2011.
But Zaldostanov also has Ukrainian heritage and was born in Kropyvnytskyi, a town in the Kirovohrad region of central Ukraine. He then went to school in Moscow, he said.
His support for the invasion stems from the belief that Russia and Ukraine are “one country”, he said, and that they are “all one unified and indivisible Russia”.
Asked about it, Zaldostanov raised his voice and said that it was Western countries, rather than Russia, that started the war. They did this by creating an artificial distinction between Ukrainians and Russians, he said, and “forcing us to fight”. Then he hung up the phone.
The Night Wolves have taken a long journey from their origins as an anti-Soviet rebel group, hosting rock concerts in the 1980s, to becoming a convenient ideological tool for the Kremlin and receiving state funding for their activities. , according to anti-corruption activists. .
The group now has a clothing line as well as an official center in Moscow, located in a former scrap yard that serves as a concert hall and bar.
When the planned EU sanctions were first reported this week, the group was in Sevastopol, a city in Crimea annexed to Russia, according to Zaldostanov’s social media page, where they were preparing to stage a motorcycle show.
The sanctions are part of a new package approved by member states this week, which also includes a ban on imports of Russian gold. The measures include a ban on all transactions with Russian state lender Sberbank that are not food-related, and an order freezing all its assets.