The Kremlin’s Football Hooligans – Another Face of Putin’s Special War

This year’s UEFA European Championship has been rocked by violence. While football hooliganism is nothing new, what happened this year appears organized as well as political. Moreover, the worst hooligans involved are Russian. Given the difficult relations at present between Moscow and the European Union, questions have arisen about what’s really going on.

First, the facts. Although UEFA expected some violence this year, what has happened exceeded all expectations. The worst incident was the England-Russia match at Marseille on June 11, which featured pre-game combat between fans. Russian “ultras” charged at English fans, injuring several, some seriously. Bottles and bar chairs were among the improvised weapons employed. The Russians seemed well prepared, with some of the “ultras” wearing mouth-guards for protection while others sported England shirts – a case of deception to assist their attack.

Then, right at the end of the match, 150 determined Russians charged the England section of the stadium, sending hundreds of fans fleeing for their lives. Police were slow to restore order, and by the time the melée ended, 35 attendees were injured, four of them seriously, including two England fans left comatose.

As shocking as the conduct of Russian “ultras” was in Marseille, the comments that followed their brawling made matters even worse. Although Vitaly Mutko, Russia’s sports minister, allowed that the “ultras” had behaved badly and had “shamed” their country, others were less willing to back down.

Some Kremlin officials greeted the Battle of Marseille with glee. A senior Russian MP tweeted his support for the rioters: “Don’t see anything wrong with the fight fans. On the contrary, well done our boys. Keep it up!”

Some Russians have found fault with allegedly effeminate French police, including this memorable jibe from a senior Kremlin police official: “A normal man, as a man should be, surprises them. They are used to seeing ‘men’ at gay parades.”

Even Vladimir Putin got in the act. Several days after the Marseille riot, Russia’s president commented at the Economic Forum in St. Petersburg, “Do you know when the football cup started there was a fight of Russian fans with the British ones, but I don’t know how 200 Russian fans could fight several thousand of the British.” Although Mr. Putin has criticized the actions of his fellow countrymen at Marseille, this statement was an unsubtle dig at England fans.

UEFA has reacted promptly to Russian misconduct. Two days after the Marseille riot, it fined Russia 150,000 Euros and issued a suspended disqualification for violence by “ultras,” adding that a repeat of such events would result in the team’s expulsion from the tournament.

However, the violence has continued, albeit not at the scale witnessed in Marseille. There have been numerous scuffles between Russian fans and others. Most seriously, Russian hooligans attacked and injured several tourists outside the famous Cologne Cathedral. Six Russians were arrested for the attack. The men were on their way to Cologne Airport to catch a flight back to Moscow. Although the attack appeared to be spontaneous, the hooligans had gloves and wore balaclavas – hardly normal attire in June.

In response to these assaults, French authorities have expelled 20 Russians on national security grounds. In addition, three Russians who participated in the Marseille riot received jail terms from a French court for their role in the violence: Aleksei Yerunov, the head of the fan club for Moscow’s Lokomotiv team, was handed two years, while Sergei Gorbachev received 1.5 years and Nikolai Morozov one year in prison.

Among the Russians deported from France is Aleksandr Shprygin, leader of the All-Russian Football Supporters Union, who is a notorious far-right thug with neo-Nazi views.  Infamous for showing off in public, sometimes with a Hitler salute – on occasion brandishing it alongside topless women for the cameras – the 38-year-old Shprygin is no stranger to Russia’s political elite and he is popular among ultranationalists for his combative antics.

There are widespread suspicions that Russian football hooliganism exported to Western Europe may be no accident. In the first place, the “ultras” do not resemble the drunken Russians who usually show up at UEFA events, sometimes causing trouble. The younger generation is fitter, seemingly preferring weightlifting to vodka, and much better trained and organized for street combat. They are also markedly more aggressive than the previous generation of Russian football hooligans.

Several of the “ultras” have boasted of military service in Eastern Ukraine in Russia’s undeclared two-year-old war in the Donbas, leading Western security services to wonder if they are connected with the Kremlin, particularly the General Staff’s Main Intelligence Directorate or GRU, which was responsible for the appearance of “Little Green Men” in Crimea in March 2014.

British intelligence suspects that GRU is indeed behind the “ultras” and that they are part of what some call Kremlin “hybrid warfare,” which I have termed Special War. This is a new generation of intelligence-led attacks on Western countries, encompassing espionage, propaganda, subversion, and even terrorism, with the presence of Kremlin operatives being camouflaged. The intent of Special War is to clandestinely influence politics in Moscow’s favor – and to send a message that Russia is not to be trifled with.

Evidence for GRU involvement is circumstantial but important. Those in the know have noted that Mr. Shprygin got his start as a fan for Dynamo, the Moscow sports club that was founded by the KGB and continues to be run by its successors. Then there’s the fact that the Russian Football Union arranged for a special charter flight to get 230 hardcore fans to the June 11 game in Marseille.

Not to mention that several of the “ultras” who reached France sported large GRU tattoos. These are distinctive, featuring the black bat which is the GRU logo. Some of the tattoos, clearly obtained as a souvenir of service, included specific unit designations while others even include the letters GRU (ГРУ in Russian).

A French intelligence official told me that several of the “ultras” were “definitely GRU, whether past or present we don’t yet know.” A BfV official added that he had “little doubt that Marseille got a visit from GRU” and that it was no accident. “So a company of SPETSNAZ [Russian military special forces, controlled by GRU] ‘suddenly’ appears in France for a football match and we’re supposed to believe it’s all by chance?” he asked.

A former GRU officer who now lives in the West agreed with that assessment, pointing out that sport was controlled by the Kremlin during Soviet times, and this is just one more aspect of life in the USSR that Vladimir Putin has resurrected. “Putin seeks to cause fear in Western Europe, and what better way than to send hardened fighters to disrupt high-profile matches?” “I remember the look that these ‘ultras’ have – lean, mean, and eager to fight – from my own time with GRU. I have no doubt who these young men are,” he added.

The worst of the Russian troublemakers have been sent home now but it appears that this is just one more secret front that Mr. Putin has opened against the West under the rubric of Special War. European football hardly needs more hooligans, but Moscow seems eager to supply them. We have likely not seen the last of GRU’s “Little Green Men” masquerading as football fans.

(This article appeared in the German newspaper BILD, you can read that here.)