In 1990 he followed a girlfriend up to Minneapolis and got a job cutting trees, but it occurred to him that he’d be far better off selling marijuana, which he could purchase cheaply in the Valley. He started out by riding a Greyhound to Brownsville, sending weed home via UPS, and then taking the bus back north. He soon purchased a new car with his proceeds, and the operation expanded. He and his partners stuffed bricks of marijuana into car seats, packed them into semitrucks, and even loaded them onto small planes, moving them all around the country.

At the same time, Bentley threw himself into his first love: political activism. He joined the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws and the Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party, founded in 1986, and he began calling himself Russell “Bongo” Bentley. He donated to the cause from his personal coffers and in 1990, at the age of thirty, ran for U.S. Senate against the Republican incumbent and a then relatively unknown political science professor named Paul Wellstone. In his candidate statement to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Bentley promoted hemp’s potential as an alternative fuel and touted the billions of dollars taxpayers could save by legalizing marijuana. Although he lost, he received a respectable 29,820 votes in the general election.

Some questioned the wisdom of fighting for marijuana legalization while simultaneously trafficking large quantities of the drug, but this risk didn’t seem to give Bentley pause. “He was blinded by the cause he was fighting for,” said his friend and former bandmate Phil Loveland, who had moved to Minnesota from South Padre around the same time as Bentley.

Bentley’s political beliefs further crystallized during a trip to Cuba in the mid-nineties. Over dinner with a captain in the Cuban army, Bentley said that he had long considered himself a socialist.

“Well, I’m a communist,” she replied.

“What’s the difference?” he asked.

“A communist is someone who is willing to fight for socialism,” she said.

Russell thought for a moment before answering, “Then I’m a communist too. I’m willing to fight for it.”

Around this time, Bentley discovered the internet’s potential for expanding the reach of his platform. In October 1995, when fellow activist Arlin Troutt went on trial for conspiracy to distribute one hundred kilograms of marijuana, Bentley penned regular dispatches from the federal courthouse and posted them on internet message boards. After his friend’s conviction, Bentley’s online rhetoric took a more apocalyptic tone: “And as for finding a new land of the free and home of the brave, I say this—we already know this land is not free, it’s become the biggest police state that humanity has ever seen. . . . It’s up to us to set it right. It’s our country, isn’t it?”

The following February, a SWAT team burst through the door of Bentley’s Minneapolis home and arrested him. “We got Bongo,” an officer reportedly said over the police radio. A federal grand jury in Brownsville had indicted him on one count of money laundering and six counts of possession with intent to distribute marijuana. The indictment alleged he had smuggled more than 1,500 pounds in total. He pleaded guilty to one count and received a jail sentence of five years and three months.

According to Bentley, he was transferred to a halfway house in Minneapolis in 1999. He was slated for release before the end of the year, but he failed a drug test in August. He couldn’t bear returning to prison to serve out his full sentence, so that evening he used a pocketknife to shear off his ponytail. He then sliced through the window screen of his bedroom and slipped into the Minnesota night.

The next few years were peripatetic and paranoid ones for Bentley. “He was living in hell,” Loveland recalled. Bentley assumed the identities of multiple friends, carried a pistol everywhere, and obsessed over police scanner traffic. Despite his fugitive status, he moved to Alaska to work on a ballot initiative to decriminalize marijuana. On the campaign, he kept a low profile. “It makes sense now why he shied away from camera time,” said Lincoln Swan, one of his co-workers at the time.

Ultimately, after almost eight years on the lam, he was arrested in Snohomish County, Washington. According to Bentley, he’d gotten into a squabble with a roommate, and after police ran his prints he was sent to serve out his sentence at a maximum-security federal prison. A year later, in the summer of 2008, he walked out into the world with an impassioned distrust of the federal government.

Bentley at the Palace of Culture in Makiivka, where he performed for a special forces battalion in October 2017.Courtesy of Russell Bonner Bentley III

On most days Bentley sticks to a few well-established routines. When he’s scheduled to film a new video, he chats with his cameraman first thing in the morning and then heads out to capture footage in whichever neighborhood has been shelled the previous night. On other days he pours himself two cups of coffee and hunkers down on the fold-out couch that doubles as a bed and an office. There he peruses his favorite websites, composes blog posts, and hatches plans for new projects (he’s got a memoir in the works).

As he showed me around Donetsk for several days, his celebrity was evident. People gave him high fives when passing on the sidewalk or excitedly yelled, “Texas!” when they spotted him from afar or stopped and asked him to take a selfie, as our cab driver did one afternoon. When we visited the city’s World War II museum, a docent jumped from his chair and yelled, “Comrade Texas has arrived!”

“Everybody knows my face,” Bentley told me.

His local fame is unsurprising, given that there are few charismatic Texans willing to forcefully articulate the Kremlin’s point of view, but his rise as a prominent voice in Donetsk also portends a nefarious development in the information war.

Before arriving in Ukraine, I was curious to learn whether Bentley was being paid by Russia for his work. He has developed ties to some of the most powerful media channels in Russia, and he is Facebook friends with several people who work for publications operated by the Internet Research Agency, the media factory named in Robert Mueller’s February indictment. Bentley has also appeared in articles and videos on at least ten websites run by the agency. Yet he denied ever receiving payment. “See the hole in my boot? You see my car? No, ’cause I don’t have one. My apartment is a hundred bucks a month,” he said. “I wish I was getting a check. I don’t get paid by anybody. The only money I get is what my friends send me here because they like me and they like my work.”

When we visited the city’s World War II museum, a docent jumped from his chair and yelled, “Comrade Texas has arrived!”

Bentley, I discovered,  is a new kind of soldier in the information war, a freelancer who has garnered a loyal following precisely because he claims to be independent from state or corporate control. In truth, of course, he often echoes the talking points spun out by Russian news sources. And in that respect, he is part of an emerging crop of self-styled information warriors loyal to authoritarian regimes. “There are more of these actors cropping up in conflict zones around the world,” said Tanya Lokot, an assistant professor at Dublin City University’s School of Communications who studies how digital media has been used on both sides of the Ukrainian conflict.

These actors include the likes of Mimi al-Laham, who churns out conspiracy theories advocating for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad on Twitter; Eva Bartlett, a blogger who claims the White Helmets’ rescues of Syrian civilians are staged; and Graham Phillips, a YouTube vlogger who moved to Donetsk after a stint in Kiev. Though their reach may be limited compared with the likes of Russian state media, the conspiracy theories they promote tend to ricochet around the web, making the leap from alternative media websites to Russian television, and after gaining traction on social media, burbling up to the mainstream. As a result, parsing the truth has become more elusive than ever.   

Bentley, for example, claims he’s on a mission to stop World War III, a conflict he believes will pit “one percenters” in the U.S. and European Union against Russia. He thinks the conflict in Donbass could be that war’s opening salvo. (He also argues that the election of Donald Trump has forestalled the conflict, for now.) But he concedes that stopping World War III is “rather a large task for an old poet that smokes and drinks too much, but I’ve got some good friends helping me.”

Bentley introduced me to a number of those friends, many of whom were fellow foreign fighters. There was a Serbian sniper named Dejan “Deki” Beric, a boyish 43-year-old with floppy brown hair and the unsettling habit of fingering the Velcro on the handgun holster of his cargo pants while he spoke. He joined the fight in Ukraine in revenge, he said, for NATO’s 1999 bombing campaign in Yugoslavia and claimed that “every war in the world has been started by American journalists.” There was also Alexis Castillo, a 29-year-old Colombian-born Spaniard who had been involved in anti-fascist activism in his hometown of Murcia. “I’m doing more than I could do in Spain,” he said. And there was an eccentric 30-year-old Frenchman named François Mauld d’Aymée, who had traded his life running a tutoring company in London to spend three months in 2016 fighting alongside the Kurdish Peshmerga against ISIS in Iraq. Last year he showed up in Donetsk, where he landed a job as a teacher at a local university and as an opera singer. “I feel like Donetsk is more European than Europe,” Mauld d’Aymée gushed, before railing against the “globalists” and “Islamists” he believes are taking over France. (Though Bentley has plenty of friends in Ukraine, he seems to have fallen out of contact with his family. His sister, who declined an interview request, said she no longer speaks to her brother. He’d remained close to his brother until his sudden death from heart failure, in October 2015.)

Bentley, like a growing number who harbor a skeptical view of America and the West, has found a savior of sorts in Putin. Though the global economy has partly recovered since the Great Recession, Putin has continued to appeal to globalization’s discontents on both the far right and far left in the U.S. and Europe, lending credence to the idea that politics isn’t a spectrum, it’s a circle: taken to their extremes, the left and right converge.

Bentley’s main critiques of American society, from flat wage growth to the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few, largely mirror the party line for progressive American Democrats. But he goes far beyond that. Like the Austin-based conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, Bentley believes that the world is run by a shadowy cabal of oligarchs who control everything from the Western media to the appointment of the next U.S. president.

The more time I spent with Bentley, the more I realized his worldview is rife with contradictions. He denounces America’s totalitarian impulses but waxes poetic about foreign strongmen past and present, including Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.

He criticizes most Americans for being checked out. “One of these days, the swords will come out. And on that day, all the people in the United States who were willing to let their government commit war crimes all around the world as long as they can still buy a six-pack and watch the Super Bowl, they’re going to get what they deserve,” he said.

In August 2016 Bentley told a writer from the Russian website RIA FAN that he would never again visit his homeland. “If I go back to the United States, I’ll be driving a T-72 tank, and I will go there to make a revolution,” he said.

But considering his emerging role in the war, climbing into a tank is no longer necessary. As he said in a YouTube video in early 2017, “My words are my bullets now, and they have a range that goes all the way around the world.”

Bentley filming a video in Donetsk for his YouTube channel on April 18. Photograph by Brendan Hoffman

One morning in Donetsk, Bentley and I hailed a taxi to a satellite office of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, a three-story building with a tan tile exterior where Bentley was headed to pick up his new passport. He wore burgundy cowboy boots and had pinned a red star to his khaki jacket with the words “Defender of Donbass” written in Russian.

Ever since his Russian tourist visa had expired, in December 2014, Bentley had been stuck in the DPR. There is no Russian consulate in Donetsk, so he couldn’t apply for a new visa, and he was a wanted man in the rest of Ukraine. Thus, a DPR passport, which would allow him to travel to Russia, was his only way out of eastern Ukraine. (Though Russia doesn’t officially recognize the DPR as an independent state, it does allow holders of its passport to enter its territory without a visa.)

Trailed by his cameraman, Bentley strode into the office of Natalya Gaivoronskaya, the district’s chief migration officer, who was standing behind her desk in a pressed blue uniform. Knowing she would be on-camera, she had made a special trip to the hair salon. “Russell Bentley, here for my passport of Donetsk People’s Republic,” he announced in Russian.

Gaivoronskaya pushed a piece of paper across her desk for Bentley to sign. “That’s it. Congratulations,” she said, and handed him the slim booklet. “Thank you very much,” he said. He gazed at the maroon cover and gold embossing. “I’m very proud. I’m very, very happy.” He shook the migration officer’s outstretched hand. “My new country.”

Gaivoronskaya’s six-year-old son, wearing green camouflage fatigues adorned with Russian and DPR flags, had been patiently waiting to get a photograph with Bentley. The boy hopped up from his chair, and Bentley grinned as he shook his hand.

Afterward he went outside to make a statement on-camera. His fiancée, Lyudmila, tucked a stray strand of hair behind his ear, and Gaivoronskaya stepped outside and looked on as the cameraman offered suggestions about what to say. “You can say this passport is like a symbol of freedom,” he said, gunshots cracking in the distance. “You can also say this is like an island of freedom. People from different countries can come here and join us.” 

“I want to thank the kind, good people of the Donetsk People’s Republic for giving me their friendship, their brotherhood, letting me be part of the big family that our republic is,” Bentley said. “It is my new motherland. I will defend it, I will protect it, and I will help this republic to make a better world. This passport is a symbol of the struggle against fascism around the world.”

In September Bentley and Lyudmila were married in an Orthodox church in Donetsk. Footage from their wedding ceremony and festivities aired on Sunday night prime-time TV throughout Russia. Russell wore a white dress shirt with a black leather vest and a red bandanna fashioned as a cravat; outside the church, he donned a black suede cowboy hat. “The cowboys and the Cossacks are now together, and together we will make a better world for everybody,” he said after the ceremony. At the reception, they served barbecue, vodka, and pink wedding cake. In the pages of the Donetsk edition of the popular Russian tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda, a journalist wrote, “Another foreign citizen could not resist the charms of a Donetsk beauty.”

The next month, Bentley made his first trip to Moscow to “meet some bigwigs,” he wrote me, though he was uncharacteristically coy about what he did in the Russian capital. And in November he went on a two-week road trip around the Crimean peninsula, meeting members of the local militia and visiting churches and historic sites along the way. In Sevastopol he spent time with several Night Wolves, a Russian nationalist biker gang led by Alexander Zaldostanov, a personal friend of Putin’s who boasted to Vice News in 2015 that he had long encouraged the Russian president to take over Crimea. Bentley presented Zaldostanov with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s he’d stashed in his coat pocket. “I’ve known a fair number of [Bandidos and Hells Angels] in my time, but [Night Wolves] are different,” he wrote me that evening. “They’re REAL tough guys, as you might expect from Russian bikers, but they are the Good guys too. Otherwise Vladimir Putin wouldn’t ride with them.” A few days later, Zaldostanov invited him back to film a cameo in his movie, Russian Reactor, which Bentley described as “a patriotic vision of the last 100 years of Russian history.”

When I was still in Donetsk with Bentley, I tagged along as he and a few friends gathered at an underground bar to celebrate his new citizenship. Late into the evening, his jubilation had not faded. In our time together, he often mused about how much he loved his new life. “This is the best and happiest time in my life,” he told me. “Not a lot of guys can say that at my age.”

At one point that night he proposed a toast. “As of today, I have a new country,” he proclaimed. “If the U.S. starts World War III, I’ll fight on this side, and I’m happy to see the U.S. destroyed just like Germany was!”

His friends all raised their glasses and cheered.