NEWS

Putin's marauding biker gang is on the move again

The motorcycle club whose members were at the vanguard of Russia's occupation of Crimea, nicknamed "Putin's Angels" by the media, is on the road again.


Members of the Night Wolves were due in the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina's Serb-majority entity Republika Srpska, Banja Luka, on March 21, 2018, and were expected to hold a press conference in the Serbian capital, Belgrade, around a week later.

They have planned or taken provocative rides before — including a Victory Day trip to Berlin and a candle lighting at Katyn, where Josef Stalin is said to have ordered the execution of tens of thousands of Polish officers during World War II — and are targeted by U.S. and Canadian sanctions for their thuggish support of non-uniformed Russian forces during the takeover of Crimea in 2014.

Related: This is what happens when you give a Marine and a Ranger motorcycles

The group's agenda during its tour of what it calls the "Russian Balkans" remains unclear, and it is hard to know whether it somehow reflects Kremlin geopolitical goals or is just a solid effort at trolling.

Atlantic Council senior fellow Dimitar Bechev recently argued that while Russia is increasingly active in the Western Balkans, its influence is not as great as generally believed.

Promoting his new book, Rival Power: Russia In Southeast Europe, at the London School of Economics, Bechev expressed concern that Western media was obsessed with the idea of Russia as a "partner-turned-enemy" in the Balkans and the Middle East.

Dimitar Bechev. (Photo by Stephan Rohl)

"In reality, if Russia was increasingly present in the Balkan region, it was not always because it was imposing itself but because local powers and elites were engaging Russia to serve their own domestic agendas," Bechev said.

The Slavic culture and the Orthodox faith of many of the region's inhabitants have also meant that the "narrative structure [already] tends to favor Russia" in the Balkans and makes it fertile ground for the possible exercise of Russian "soft power."

But Jasmin Mujanovic, author of the book Hunger & Fury: The Crisis Of Democracy In The Balkans, is less certain that Russia's influence in the region has been overstated.

"Russia's influence in Bosnia and the Balkans is obviously not as significant as it is in its immediate 'near abroad.' But that does not mean Moscow does not have concrete strategic aims in the region, aims which, from the perspective of the political and democratic integrity of local polities, are incredibly destructive."

According to Mujanovic, the combination of clear Russian objectives in the region and the desperation of some local politicians to cling to power (such as Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik) makes for an explosive mix.

Also read: This missile system is Russia's answer to American stealth fighters

"[O]ne does not militarize their police, or hire paramilitaries, or purchase missiles if they are not prepared to use them," said Mujanovic. He suggested that some individuals were prepared to use violence to sabotage the Bosnian elections in 2018 and "counting on support from Russia and assorted Russian proxies to do it." He did not provide specific evidence of any such plans.

"Russia's objective is simple: Keep Bosnia out of NATO and the EU," Mujanovic added. "Moscow wants to ensure that the country remains an ethnically fragmented basketcase in the heart of the Balkans."

Jasmin Mujanovic's Hunger and Fury: The Crisis of Democracy in the Balkans

Into this volatile context ride the Night Wolves.

On their Facebook page, the Russian bikers said their nine-day tour through Bosnia and Serbia would cover 2,000 kilometers after leaving Belgrade on March 19, 2018. Two of the Night Wolves have been denied entry to Bosnia on security grounds, including the group's leader, Aleksandr Zaldostanov, aka "The Surgeon."

Following their role in the Ukrainian conflict, the Night Wolves were blacklisted by the U.S. Treasury in 2014 and a year later prevented from riding through Poland on their way to Berlin to mark the 70th anniversary of the Allies' victory over Nazi Germany.

Yet these concerns apparently are not shared by authorities in Serbia and in Republika Srpska, in Bosnia.

"The different perceptions of the [Night Wolves'] tour are a reflection of the Balkan political landscape, including differences in relations with Russia," Belgrade-based analyst Bosko Jaksic told RFE/RL's Balkan Service.

"Republika Srpska in particular is a bastion of pro-Russian sentiment and currently the main focus of Russian activity in the Western Balkans," Jaksic added. "In Serbia, meanwhile, there are numerous organizations, groups, associations, and even political parties that do not hide their admiration for Russia. [This tour] among other things should serve as a warning that Russia is ramping up its influence, relying both on existing local support and using every available means and avenue to project its soft power."

Jaksic said he believes the Balkans became a key part of Moscow's strategic agenda following the onset of the Ukrainian crisis and is now a target for its soft-power arsenal.

"These so-called 'Putin's Angels' are undoubtedly a part of a very political agenda," Jaksic said.

It appears that in Republika Srpska, where only around half of the population has access to the Internet, trolls must deliver their message in person.

More: Vladimir Putin celebrated his re-election this weekend

"The leader of the Night Wolves...uses his motorbike like a scalpel to make an incision and separate parts of the Balkans from the West, bringing them closer to Russia. He does so while preaching pan-Slavism and Christian Orthodoxy, two favorite themes of Russian propaganda," Jaksic said.

While the West equivocates over the Balkans, Mujanovic complained, "Moscow and Banja Luka will not squander an easy opportunity to 'create new facts' on the ground," adding that even a small dose of violence could be fatal to "a polity already as fragmented as Bosnia."

"This," Mujanovic said, "is the most significant threat to the Dayton peace [accords] since 1996."

4 critical components to the success of the first total penis transplant

The procedure was performed on an Afghanistan war veteran wounded by an IED

Doctors at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Maryland announced the first-ever successful total penis and scrotum transplant was performed on an Afghanistan veteran recently. The recipient was wounded in an IED attack that left him without sexual or urinary function but left his internal organs unharmed.

The procedure was performed on March 26th and the unidentified "sergeant" will have urinary function by the end of the week.

Keep reading... Show less
Articles

How R. Lee Ermey's Hollywood break is an inspiration to us all

While there have been many outstanding actors and celebrities who have raised their right hand, there has never been a veteran who could finger point his way to the top of Hollywood stardom quite like the late great Gunnery Sergeant R. Lee Ermey.

Keep reading... Show less
GEAR & TECH

Marines used a 3D printed F-35 replacement part for the first time

Marines with Combat Logistic Battalion 31, 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, are now capable of "additive manufacturing," also known as 3-D printing.

This innovative process uses 3-D printing software to break down a digital model into layers that can be reproduced by the printer. The printer then builds the model from the ground up, layer by layer, creating a tangible object.

Keep reading... Show less
History

The 'indomitable determination' of John Paul Jones lives on in the Navy

April is a great month to remember the namesake of one of our Pearl Harbor guided-missile destroyers, USS John Paul Jones, named for a founding hero of our Navy and proudly known by the crew and their families and friends as "JPJ."

On April 19, 1775, the Battles of Lexington and Concord lit the match of Revolution against British tyranny. At the time Great Britain had more than 250 warships with nearly half having 50 or more guns – cannons. Our tiny naval force consisted of a few ragtag privateers and some humble sailing vessels. Even before our nation began, the founders commissioned 13 frigates and recruited warfighters, including immigrants like John Paul Jones.

Keep reading... Show less
Articles

This is how the 'missing man formation' honors fallen pilots

The first time I witnessed a 'missing man formation' was at the funeral of my grandfather, who flew the B-25 Mitchell during World War II. After his service in the Army Air Corps, he became a commercial pilot for TWA and then ventured into private flight. He died in an airplane crash at the age of 74 and my family gathered with his aviation community at Santa Paula Airport for his memorial.

At the ceremony, we looked to the sky as a group of planes from the Condor Squadron flew overhead. One of the planes banked away, leaving an empty space in the formation.

The symbolism was not lost on me.

Keep reading... Show less
Veterans

This Army vet started a supplement company dedicated to education

Before John Klipstein joined the Army, he smoked a pack a day and his PT test run time was roughly 23 minutes — which accounts for the time spent throwing up on the side of the track. The military turned that around. The newly-minted 13B found a love for fitness and pushing his body to the limit. After leaving the military, he developed a line of supplements to help others do the same — safely.

Keep reading... Show less

Taiwan is ready to push back against China's aggression

Tensions between the Peoples Republic of China and Taiwan have recently flared up as China held the largest show of naval force in its history in April 2018, and made new threats directed towards Taipei.

"We would like to reaffirm that we have strong determination, confidence and capability to destroy any type of 'Taiwan independence' scheme in order to safeguard the country's sovereignty and territorial integrity," Ma Xiaoguang, a spokeswoman for the State Council's Taiwan Affairs Office, recently said.

Keep reading... Show less
GEAR & TECH

The president is getting a new Marine One after almost 60 years

Marine One is an icon of the presidency and for the most part, one helicopter has carried that load for almost 60 years: The VH-3, which first carried President Eisenhower in 1961. The current D model of the VH-3 entered service in 1978 and was later backed up with the introduction of the VH-60N in 1987. But, the fact remains that both of these helicopters are getting older by the day.

Keep reading... Show less