Russian fight clubs provide another example of how largely innocuous groups that exist independently of the Kremlin can be instrumentalized by Russia’s intelligence services. One particular type of martial-arts club, based on the systema combat style, which has its origins in medieval Russia, is popular with Russian special forces. Systema uses a fluid and improvisational fighting style, less bound by rules than judo or karate, and is designed to inflict maximum pain and lethal blows on an opponent. Aside from the hard-core nature of its enthusiasts, systema clubs operate just as normal judo or karate clubs do, holding classes and training sessions in Russia and many other countries, including the United States.
In the West, the majority of systema clubs are exactly what they appear to be. However, according to an investigation by the EU Observer, a number of systema fight clubs in Europe and North America prominently display their links to Russia’s special forces and even use GRU or FSB insignia in their promotional materials. They appeal to nationalistically minded expatriates such as military veterans, and tap into a particular Russian-nationalist subculture that extols the secret services, much like that Spetsnaz club in South Florida. Many systema practitioners also travel regularly to Russia to receive advanced training.
Boris Reitschuster, a German expert who has written extensively on systema fight clubs in Europe, alleges that even if the vast majority of members are ordinary fight-club enthusiasts, these groups are actively being used by Russia’s intelligence services to recruit agents. Reitschuster cites the estimate of a Western intelligence agency that in Germany alone, systema clubs have been used to recruit between 250 and 300 agents.
In such cases, however, the term agent may be somewhat misleading. While systema clubs may include Russian intelligence agents in the traditional sense of the term (that is, active-duty officers), many others are likely “agents of influence” who do not necessarily serve in the GRU with a rank or formal affiliation. Such agents of influence are not typically used to access secret information, and many are unaware of their own manipulation by a foreign intelligence service.
If some Russian fight clubs in Europe and North America harbor a small fraction of GRU-affiliated agents instrumentally tapping into the street-fighting milieu to drive home an anti-Western (and pro-Russia) message, then their activity is not much different from the trolls who work for Russia’s Internet Research Agency. The key difference would be that the indoctrination and recruitment is being done in person rather than online.
Neo-Nazis, skinheads, soccer hooligans and similar violence-prone groups on the radical right also have the potential to serve as ready, often unwitting, Kremlin agents of influence who can be manipulated to undermine Western democratic institutions. The Kremlin makes use of far-right groups for a number of reasons. First, these groups can be manipulated and indoctrinated through social media, which makes them ripe targets for organizations like the Internet Research Agency, whose trolls can mobilize their members with carefully crafted messaging. Second, these groups are likely to find the Kremlin’s ideology of “traditional Russian values” appealing, particularly when contrasted with Western liberal values such as individual rights, tolerance, and self-expression. Right-wing groups are more easily drawn into the Russian orbit with anti-immigrant, anti-LGBTQ, and anti-feminist rhetoric and by a narrative that stresses a collectivist, tribal, and racially exclusive worldview.