Española: Russia’s Premier Soccer Paramilitary Group

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 43

(Source: Española’s Telegram Channel)

Executive Summary:

  • The Russian private military company (PMC) Española grew out of a subculture of soccer hooliganism in Russia.
  • Española’s connection to soccer has important implications for using sports to recruit private soldiers for Russia’s war against Ukraine—a trend that has shown signs of spreading beyond soccer to hockey.
  • The Russian PMC could use soccer to forge ties with fans outside Russia in the Balkans, Central Europe, and beyond.

On March 3, sources confirmed the death of Vyacheslav Subbotin, head of the Russian private military company (PMC) Española, in Ukraine’s Donbas. Española has been participating in Russia’s war against Ukraine since the expanded invasion began in February 2022 (, March 4). The news of Subbotin’s death brought additional attention to yet another Russian paramilitary group in Ukraine. These organizations have gained increased coverage since Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin rebelled against Russian President Vladimir Putin in June 2023 (see EDM, July 24, 2023, March 3). Española, however, differs from other Moscow-employed paramilitary groups in that it is primarily made up of soccer hooligans. The group’s connection to sports is significant for two reasons. First, Española’s ability to unite members through a shared interest in soccer makes the sport a potential breeding ground for grassroots recruitment, which could enable Russia’s already increasing paramilitarization to skyrocket. Second, the group could use the sport to forge ties between Russian and foreign extremists from the Balkans, Eastern and Central Europe, and beyond.

Española’s origin story began well before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Between 2014 and 2015, some soccer hooligans traveled to Donbas to fight in Russia’s hybrid war, seeking an outlet for violence after Moscow toughened its stance on soccer hooliganism (, November 6, 2022). One such criminal thrill-seeker was Stanislav Orlov, an avid CSKA Moscow fan who would later become one of Española’s founders. Having acquired ample paramilitary experience in “numerous regional conflicts,” he arrived in the city of Horlivka in 2014, where he joined a brigade led by Igor Bezler, a separatist forces commander supported by the Main Directorate of the Russian General Staff (GRU) (, accessed March 6). Reportedly, Orlov’s knowledge of foreign languages put him in charge of coordinating foreign mercenary activities, which gave him the nom de guerre “Ispanec” (Spaniard). Later, he founded a reconnaissance unit, “Skull and Bones,” which played an important role in military engagements near Horlivka and Debaltseve. In 2015, he left the frontlines and joined the Union of Donbas Volunteers, organized by then-Putin advisor Vladislav Surkov.

Orlov allegedly participated in the foiled assassination of then-Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Đukanović in September 2016.  He then disappeared from the public eye only to reemerge in 2022 after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, when he helped found Española. According to Orlov, the core of the new organization consists of soccer fans and hooligans from the soccer clubs Shakhtar Donetsk, CSKA (Moscow), Dinamo (Moscow), Spartak (Moscow), Lokomotiv (Moscow), Torpedo (Moscow), Zenit (Saint Petersburg), Ural (Ekaterinburg), Shinnik (Yaroslavl), Orel, Rostov, Nizhny Novgorod, Kuban (Krasnodar), Saturn (Ramensky District in Moscow Oblast), Tavriya (Simferopol), and Illichivets (renamed FC Mariupol in 2017 and dissolved after Russia’s invasion). Reportedly, Española was created as a counterforce against the Ukrainian Azov Brigade, which also has some roots in soccer hooliganism (, accessed March 6).

By March 2023, some Russian media began to report that Española had separated into two wings. The military wing performs tasks and missions on the battlefield, and the “humanitarian” wing is primarily involved in non-military activities, such as publicity and recruitment (Meduza,  March 14, 2023). According to Orlov, Española became an independent PMC in the spring of 2023, when its “contract” with the Russian military’s Vostok Brigade expired. He argued that the new status allowed the group to change its operations in two key ways. Specifically, Española now has the “ability to independently decide where to fight” and to completely control its internal workings, including discipline instruction, bureaucracy, training (with a specific pivot toward anti-drone warfare), and other activities (, March 9, 2023).

By late 2023, Española started recruiting female fighters. According to the PMC’s Telegram account, women could be recruited for various positions, including snipers, medical services, radio-electronic warfare, and drone operators (, November 28, 2023). This is of particular interest as the announcement stated that female recruits were to sign contracts not with Española but with  Redut, a PMC that receives its financing from the Russian Ministry of Defense and is viewed by some as a replacement for the Wagner Group (Radio Svoboda, October 10, 2023; see EDM, March 3).

Between 2022 and early 2024, Española took part in the following major military engagements:

  • The battle for Mariupol and the siege of Azovstal (, January 3),
  • Battles along the Kherson and Zaporizhian fronts and in the Vuhledar direction (, November 6, 2022),
  • The battle for Bakhmut (, August 7, 2023), and
  •  The battle for Avdiivka, which was captured by the Russian army in early 2024 (Meduza, March 4).

Information on Española was scarce until earlier this year when new reports shed light on its operations, ownership structure, and key benefactors. According to one report, Roman and Arkady Rotenberg, both Russian oligarchs and members of Putin’s inner circle, may be the patrons of this mercenary formation. If true, they likely finance the group through Russian Railway (OAO Rossiyskie zheleznye dorogi). Allegedly, the Rotenberg brothers exercise control via their confidant Viktor Shendrik, who previously worked security  and whose career began in the special unit “Vympel” (dubbed “intellectual special forces”) of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB). Later, he switched to private security and business, becoming a board member of Transkonteyner, Russia’s largest container transportation operator, and TransTelecom, a major telecommunications company (, March 4). As a result, Española may have a dual allegiance: to the Russian Ministry of Defense via the group’s subordination to Redut and to the Rotenberg oligarchs via financial dependence.

The story of Española is critical in understanding the dynamics and strategic challenges posed by Russia’s ongoing paramilitarization in three ways. First, a mercenary formation whose main uniting platform is a sport will have a significant grassroots effect on Russian society. In effect, the popularization of Española—and mercenary groups in general—has been actively spreading not only to soccer but also to ice hockey. Russia’s most prominent hockey teams openly showcasing Española symbols during official sporting events (, September 3, 2023).

Second, the ideologies of paramilitarism, anti-globalism, and anti-Americanism could indeed become a foundation for increasing cooperation between soccer hooligans in Russia, Europe, and beyond. This could inevitably lead to provocations and subversions in the European Union and countries aspiring to EU membership.

Third, the example of Española highlights the ongoing trend toward the privatization of force in Russia, with major companies and corporations acquiring private armies of their own. These include the “Moscow Metro,” Roskosom, Sberbank, Rosatom, Rsgidro, Novatek, and Rusial (, June 9, 2023, August 1, 2023;, February 20;, accessed March 6).

The rise of PMCs in Russia highlights the societal acceptance of violence in Russia drawn on by the Kremlin’s war against Ukraine. As these groups continue to proliferate and increase in strength, they could begin to pose a threat domestically, with popular discontent spreading throughout Russia society due to heavy losses and destabilization at home from the “long war.”