Dolna Krupa, Slovakia — Paramilitary and influence operations can take many forms. They could be a team of Delta Force operators conducting Operational Preparation of the Battlefield (OPB) in an unstable region; they could be a CIA front company creating a pro-U.S. narrative in a far-away country; but they could also be a Russian biker-gang launching branches across Europe: Meet the Night Wolves.
A nationalist, paramilitary group, the Night Wolves isn’t your usual biker gang. Often referred to as “Putin’s Angles,” they were established in the 1980s as a counter-cultural organisation. Following the crumbling of the Soviet Union, they turned increasingly nationalist. Their appeal and connections enabled them to launch a business empire. Wolf Holdings has numerous branches across Russia and Europe. They operate nightclubs and hotels. More alarmingly, they provide educational opportunities to locals and professional military training in countries such as Germany, Italy, and Slovakia.
Officially, they are a private, independent group. Actions, however, speak louder than words. Night Wolves members have seen combat action in Eastern Ukraine and Crimea. Their head, Gennady Nikulov, is a former military officer who received a medal from the Russian Ministry of Defence for his actions in the annexation of Crimea. He is also the vice president of Sevastopol’s — the Crimean capital — self-defence force. It isn’t surprising that he is on the U.S. sanctions list.
Recently, the Night Wolves launched yet another European branch, in Dolna Krupa, Slovakia.
Their Slovakian-bought compound resembles a military base: high barbed wire fences, watchtowers, and barracks make up the Night Wolves’ newest addition.
In an interview with local media, Andrei Bobrovsky, chief of the Night Wolves Europe centre, estimated their membership to be “30 to 40 thousand people. There are several thousand people in every country we go to. We’re becoming a serious force that can move mountains and share our idea to the very end. It’s become a mass movement.”
The increased activity of the Night Wolves is clearly another prong of the Kremlin’s hybrid warfare strategy. Coupled with cyberwarfare and influence operations in the U.S. and Europe, the paramilitary group is encouraging a pro-Russian narrative in a strategically important place. Equally important is the deniability factor: Whatever the Night Wolves try to do, Moscow can always deny any involvement. They are, after all, private citizens pursuing their hobby, right?
Slovakia is directly West of Ukraine and South of Poland. In the event of a conflict with Russia, Slovakia would be the second line of defence. Thus, it is an ideal place to create a paramilitary outpost that could sow confusion and destruction within NATO and EU troops.
And it isn’t a novel concept. During the Cold War, NATO commanders had a similar plan. If war broke-out, U.S. Special Forces A-teams and Special Air Service (SAS) patrols were going to infiltrate behind the advancing Soviet onslaught and conduct unconventional warfare. They were even equipped with portable, man-carried, airborne-delivered nuclear weapons.
Although it wouldn’t be reasonable to expect the Night Wolves to have potent unconventional warfare capabilities, they still are a major nuisance. For example, in a low-intensity conflict — exactly like the ones in Crimea and Donetsk — they could prove invaluable to the Russian military. Armed but without uniforms, knowledgeable of the local terrain and power structure, the Night Wolves are conducting OPB as we speak.
In Crimea, before the invasion in 2014, they gathered intelligence, sowed uncertainty through propaganda, and coordinated with Russian SOF to enable a quick annexation. Once hostilities began, they shifted from a support to an active role: they seized naval bases and energy infrastructure and even captured Ukrainian High-Value Targets (HVTs).
What is most alarming is that neither NATO nor the European Union (EU) appear to know how to counter “Putin’s Angels.”