Then-Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, center,  rides a three-wheeler July 24, 2010,  accompanied by the Night Wolves biker group leader Alexander Zaldostanov, right, at Gasfort near Sevastopol, Crimea. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP)

Not many motorbike groups can claim to have a head of state as a supporter, but the case of Russia's Night Wolves is an exception. President Vladimir Putin has publicly embraced the group, and after Russia's annexation of Crimea last year, the Night Wolves were quick to parade through Crimea's streets.

Their next ride, however, will be less trouble-free. After the group announced that it was planning a ride through Europe to celebrate the victory over Nazi Germany in World War II, Poland denied the bikers access to the country. Many eastern Europeans saw something else in the ride: a ridiculing of the victims of the Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Originally, the group wanted to travel from Russia to Berlin, passing through Belarus, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Austria and imitating the conquest of the Soviet Union from more than half a century ago, according to AFP. Rally organizer Andrei Bobrovsky told the French news agency that the main goal of the trip was "to pay respect to those killed on WWII battlefields in the struggle against Hitler's Nazis."

On Friday, Poland's foreign ministry justified their decision by saying that the group failed to provide the required information on the ride in time. Russia's foreign ministry reacted with outrage, calling the justification an "outward lie."

"The necessary information has been provided fully and on time," the ministry said in a statement. "The decision has political undertones."

There may be some truth to the Russian foreign ministry's claims. Last week, Polish Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz called the rally a "provocation" and pointed to the fact that the group's leadership had openly supported the Russian military involvement in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.

The Night Wolves have certainly evolved since their formation. In its early days in the 1980s, the group was focused on organizing rock concerts. As its size and influence grew, its leader,  Alexander Zaldostanov — nicknamed "the Surgeon" — steered the group in an increasingly political direction.


Alexander Zaldostanov, leader of the Night Wolves motorcycle club at his headquarters-cum-repair grounds in Moscow, surrounded by other bike enthusiasts in August 1999. (Paul Miller/The Washington Post)

With more than 5,000 members, the Night Wolves has become an influential voice in Russian politics. "Fiercely patriotic, they believe that wherever the Night Wolves are, that should be considered Russia," the British Telegraph described the group in 2014.

The paper also described an incident in which Putin was hours late for a meeting with former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych after having been on a tour with the bikers for a bit too long.

Putin and the bike group reportedly first met in July 2009. What was first believed to be yet another public relations stunt to boost Putin's image turned out to evolve into a much more serious political relationship.


Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, left, meets with bikers in Moscow after Putin paid a surprise visit to the headquarters of the "Night Wolves" biker club. (Alexey Druzhinin/AFP via Getty Images)

Since then, Putin and the Night Wolves have praised and supported each other — and not only when riding bikes. In February 2015, Zaldostanov was photographed when he headed a so-called "Antimaidan" movement in Moscow.

The banner he helped to carry read: "The Wolves of Russian Spring" — a reference both to his biker group as well as the Russian opposition to the Maidan protests and the new pro-Western government in Kiev.


Alexander Zaldostanov, center, leader of the "Antimaidan" social movement and of the "NightWolves" biker group, waves a flag and helps carrying a banner in February 2015. (Sergei Ilnitsky/EPA)

Such images have only worsened the negative reputation of the Night Wolves in countries like Poland. “I wish they would never come here,” Monika Trzcinska, the mayor of the Polish town of Braniewo, told the New York Times earlier in April.

Despite the Polish refusal to let the bikers into the country, the trip is nevertheless supposed to start as scheduled Sunday. At the time of writing, it's unclear exactly what their route will be.