Vladimir Putin wants to reclaim Russia’s former glory, and he expects the support of Russians across the globe, wherever they may live.
A Four Corners investigation has uncovered the activities of a cluster of dedicated pro-Russian nationalist groups operating here.
Some are explicit about their mission — to wage a propaganda war to help further the Kremlin’s global agenda — prompting analysts to warn Australia that it should be paying close attention.
The Night Wolves are Vladimir Putin’s favourite motorcycle club. Their nickname is “Putin’s Angels”.
The Russian arm of the club has been described as a “proxy” for the Kremlin: willing to carry out or support military operations at arms-length from the Russian government.
For the past six years they have been establishing a presence in Australia.
The Australian chapter of the Night Wolves was founded in 2015. The club says it now has about 40 to 50 members in NSW, Queensland, Victoria and Western Australia.
According to Mark Galeotti, an associate with London-based security thinktank the Royal United Services Institute, the presence of the Night Wolves in Australia creates a potential opportunity for the Kremlin.
“It’s entirely plausible that for example a new chapter gets opened because you have ethnic Russians who enjoy motorbiking,” said Mr Galeotti.
“Once it’s present … these things become a potential bridgehead. It’s not as if they suddenly become instruments of the Kremlin, it’s that the Kremlin can potentially reach out and use them in some way.”
The Night Wolves have not always been Kremlin supporters. The club formed in the 1980s, as part of a cultural rebellion against Soviet rule.
But under Vladimir Putin, the Russian club and its members have been “co-opted ” by the Kremlin, according to Mr Galeotti.
“[The Kremlin] looked at the kind of nationalist macho values that they espouse and said, ‘Actually, those are now our values and we can do something with it,’” he said.
As a result of their involvement in the 2014 conflict in Ukraine, which included fighting with and supporting pro-Russian separatists, the United States Treasury has placed financial sanctions on the Russian Night Wolves and Mr Zaldostanov.
The Australian club is not sanctioned, and they insist their role is benign: that they hold rides to commemorate historical Russian military victories and do charity work with the Russian-Australian community.
“The Night Wolves is a patriotic club. We organise events to commemorate World War I, World War II, the victims who died in all these wars,” said Australian national president Vladimir Simonian.
National vice-president Sasha Duganov says members can’t join unless they own a motorbike.
“We don’t do drugs, we don’t do weapons, we don’t do any of that stuff.”
“We just want to show the world … that Russia has a massive history and we are trying to keep it up.”
When the Australian chapter was established, Mr Simonian was named by Mr Zaldostanov in a congratulatory message posted online.
NSW Police say they are aware of the Night Wolves motorcycle club and their reputation in Russia, but police do not consider them an outlaw motorcycle gang in NSW.
Police have noted “Night Wolves members travelling to Australia for a number of years”.
“But there is no information or intelligence to suggest their presence relates to criminal activity.”
The Night Wolves are among an international network of patriots determined to remind the world that Vladimir Putin’s Russia is a force to be reckoned with.
The Australian Cossacks
The Cossacks are descendants of a group of Russian horsemen who fought with Tsarist forces during the Russian civil war.
They are known for their suppression of popular protests in Russia and were one of the key pro-Russian groups fighting against Ukrainian forces in Crimea in 2014.
Sydney-born Simeon Boikov is the leader of the Australian Cossacks, which styles itself as a military unit.
Mr Boikov has led groups of Australian Cossacks to Russia, where they fired guns and toured a military training facility.
The son of an Orthodox priest, he is unambiguous about the group’s role here.
“The purpose of the Cossacks in Australia is to preserve Cossack traditions, culture, values, and also to promote pro-Russian sentiment,” he told Four Corners.
“So our job as Russian patriots … is to be mobilised and be active in defending Russia.
“We believe that it’s not enough just to be Russian, you must support Russia.”
In 2018, Mr Boikov was referring to Australia when he told a Russian media outlet that “we have a unique opportunity to support Russia from within an enemy state”.
He said Cossacks in Australia could “pursue a pro-Russian position, lobby politicians and members of parliament, oppose anyone who lies about Russia, attacks Russia or imposes sanctions. Basically, they can wage an information war.”
When Four Corners asked why he regarded Australia as an enemy state, he responded: “Australia in this context, a state which is placing sanctions against Russia and behaving in an anti-Russian manner, in that way could be perceived that the activities are not the activities of an ally.”
Mr Boikov talks a relentlessly pro-Russian line, including denying any Russian involvement in the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines MH17 over Ukraine in 2014 in which 283 people died, 38 of them Australians.
Strelkov is currently being tried in the Netherlands, in absentia, on murder charges related to the atrocity.
“Igor Strelkov is a hero of Novorossia,” Mr Boikov told Four Corners.
“He didn’t shoot down MH17, neither did anyone on the Russian side. MH17 was shot down by Ukraine, over Ukrainian territory in Ukrainian airspace. Had nothing to do with Russia. Very simple.”
“They can make whatever kangaroo court they like. If we shot the plane down, I’m sure we would have admitted it.”
Mr Boikov and his fellow Cossacks have also tried to silence the local Ukrainian community, taunting parishioners and their priest outside a Ukrainian church in Sydney over the Russian military incursion into Ukraine.
Also present was Vladimir Simonian, the president of the Night Wolves Australia motorcycle club.
Mr Boikov defends his actions. “If we wanted to, we could have done something much worse, but we wouldn’t do that because we don’t promote breaking the law, we don’t promote radicalism. That’s un-Australian.
“But it’s good to remind other people in our physical presence, just people seeing the fact that Cossacks are there and so forth is enough to discourage anti-Russian activities.”
Last month, when protesters marched in central Sydney over the jailing of Russia’s main opposition leader Alexey Navalny, Mr Boikov led a counter-protest.
“We’re here with our President … Supporting Vladimir Putin against these opposition scum,” he told Four Corners during the march.