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.
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