These gangs have become known as “Redan PMC,” combining the name of a Japanese anime character with the acronym for Private Military Company, made infamous by the Wagner mercenary group.
They appear to have started in Moscow as a vehicle for teenagers to fight organized gangs of football fans. The teenagers organize through Telegram channels and turn up at designated venues as flash mobs. A recent video showed a running battle at a shopping mall in the Russian capital. Russian news agencies also reported a brawl at a subway station in Moscow.
In the last week, Redan gangs have also begun appearing on the streets of several Ukrainian cities – giving more work to an already overstretched police force. Groups of teenagers have gathered in the capital, Kyiv, as well as Lviv and Kharkiv; a 16-year-old alleged ringleader was detained in Dnipro.
Redan fans wear a very particular motif: the outline of a spider with the number 4. It is derived from a Japanese anime series called “Hunter x Hunter,” in which there is a gangster group called Gen’ei Ryodan (hence Redan). Social media videos and images show that Redan members in Russia also favor black hoodies and checked pants.
Russian authorities have acknowledged the emergence of Redan. State news agency RIA Novosti reported that more than 350 people – 319 of them minors – had been taken to police stations in Moscow for being involved in Redan. It quoted a security source as saying gas cartridges and knives had been confiscated.
The agency also reported that supporters of the “Redan subculture” had been detained in Kazan, St. Petersburg and Novosibirsk.
Redan’s emergence has even got the Kremlin talking. Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday it was important to stop “illegal actions. And, of course, it is rather, let’s say, a pseudo-subculture that goes with a minus sign and which does nothing good for our youth.”
But Ukraine’s national police claim the Russians are trying to export Redan’s negative influence to Ukrainian teenagers through a disinformation campaign on Telegram channels.
The police said Tuesday that they had blocked 18 Telegram channels and groups “created to conduct Russian military information campaigns, undermine the domestic situation in Ukraine and involve minors in illegal activities.”
They added that “about 30 youth gatherings took place in different regions of the country over the course of two days. Law enforcement officers immediately responded and prevented conflicts among teenagers.”
In Kharkiv alone, law enforcement officers identified 245 participants in what it called a flash mob launched by the Russian Federation. 215 of them were minors. Volodymyr Tymoshko, the city police chief said the Russian security services – the FSB – had “gathered all these people through manipulation and deception, and they should have started a fight so the Russian TV could use it. Gas canisters, knives, brass knuckles were found in the possession of many (participants).”
On Tuesday, the police cyber unit said it had detained the 16-year-old founder of a Redan Telegram channel in the city of Dnipro.
In a video recorded and later released by the police, the teenager says: “I am the founder of a group with about 2,500 members. I created it to make money from advertising posts, as the topic of Redan is popular on social media.”
He adds that the idea “came from Russia, intending destabilization. I ask everyone to stop organizing meetings and looking for Redanists.”
In the Ukrainian capital, police said the instigators of “the subculture that came from Russia” were two teenagers, a girl aged 15 who had created a Telegram channel and a 14-year-old boy who had organized a “conflict meeting.”
In an interview posted by police, the girl said the group was “just for hype… I also want to say there is no Redan [in] Kyiv.” Like the teenager in Dnipro, she added that the Redan fad was “straight-up Russian propaganda. I ask that you not believe such information and focus on caring about our guys who are now fighting.”
Vasyl Bohdan, head of the Juvenile Prevention Department of the National Police, said a total of more than 700 people had been summoned to police stations, most of them minors. Bohdan said the force was appealing to parents to “show interest in who their children communicate with.”
It seems likely that now police in both Russia and Ukraine are moving against Redanists, the fad will fade. But its sudden emergence on both sides of the border may speak as much to teenage boredom and the power of social media channels as to any cunning destabilization plan.
CNN’s Josh Pennington and Radina Gigova contributed to this report.