Since 2009, they have been one of the defining elements of Russian soft power in Eastern Europe. Their biker rallies and mass rides through countries like Ukraine, Estonia, Serbia, Romania and Bosnia serve to promote Slavic pride and Russian patriotism in Moscow’s former Soviet dominions. President Putin has often joined them on these rides, although he usually plays it safe by choosing a three-wheeler.

In 2012, when he came to Ukraine on an official visit, he spent several hours riding around the Crimea with Zaldostanov and the Night Wolves while President Yanukovych was kept waiting for him in Kiev. (Since his ouster, Yanukovych has clearly not won any more respect from the Russian President. At a press conference on Friday in the Russian city of Rostov, where he has fled to escape charges of mass murder in Ukraine, Yanukovych said that Putin has so far refused to meet with him. He expressed surprise that the Russian President was “remaining silent” on the crisis in Ukraine.)…

“We have one goal here,” Zaldostanov tells TIME on Friday night, a few hours after arriving in Sevastopol. “We are here to defend our country, or at least the parts of it that remains ours. We will defend it from the fascists who have come to power. So let it be known to all of them. Wherever we are, wherever the Night Wolves are, that should be considered Russia.”

In his view, “Russia” would include a swathe of Ukraine reaching far beyond the Crimea.