Russell Bonner Bentley III intended to devote the afternoon of April 8 to the banal task of picking up some new health insurance documents. The 63-year-old Texan and his wife, Lyudmila, had driven to the shabby, four-story Soviet-era municipal building flanked by spruce trees in the Petrovsky District on the western outskirts of Donetsk, a city in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas that has been a war zone for the past ten years. At the top of the building’s façade hung a black, blue, and red flag and the white double-headed eagle of the Donetsk People’s Republic, an unrecognized breakaway statelet of Ukraine that was formally annexed by Russia in 2022. 

Bentley had moved to the Donbas from Round Rock, just north of Austin, nine years and four months before to fight alongside the pro-Russian rebels there. I traveled to Donetsk to interview him in 2017—an attempt to understand what fueled him. A communist, he viewed Russia as the heir to the Soviet Union and saw the conflict purely through the Kremlin’s lens. “I felt a responsibility to come here and show the people of Donbas and the world that not everyone in the United States supports the fascist government of the United States that supports the Nazi government of Ukraine,” he said shortly after taking up arms. After six months in combat at the front he realized that using a grenade launcher is a young man’s game and threw himself into the “information war” against the West. By the time Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, he had become an influential propagandist for the Kremlin, releasing a torrent of videos and posts filled with disinformation about the conflict and regularly appearing on Russian state media channels. Bentley was widely known in Donetsk as the “Donbass Cowboy” (employing the Russian spelling of the region) and by his call sign, Texas (pronounced Tejas in Russian), and was granted Russian citizenship in 2021.

That overcast April afternoon he and his wife planned to trade in some of their documents from the Donetsk People’s Republic for new ones issued by the Russian Federation. But shortly after they arrived at the building, an incoming volley of Ukrainian shells struck nearby. Bentley, wearing a black T-shirt and moss-colored camouflage pants, rushed out of the building toward the smoke to see if there were any civilians who needed help. Instead of the low ponytail he had maintained for most of his time in Donetsk, his white hair was cut short. Lyudmila, a local English teacher whom he married in 2017, stayed behind to shelter in the building as the shelling continued. 

Several hours passed, and Bentley did not return to the municipal building or answer his wife’s repeated calls. Lyudmila set out looking for him, eventually finding their white Lada Niva parked at a service station nearby. Inside the car rested Russell’s hat and glasses, and his shattered cellphone lay on the ground beside the vehicle. But there was no trace of Bentley, his bag, or his car keys. Eyewitnesses later told Lyudmila that five men in military uniforms had blindfolded a man matching Bentley’s description before hustling him away. When Lyudmila returned the next day, the car was gone, apparently taken by two Russian soldiers. 

“Russell was brutally detained on April 8,” Lyudmila wrote on her husband’s Telegram channel, an encrypted instant messaging service, identifying his captors as members of Russia’s 5th Tank Brigade. “I CALL ON EVERYONE to do EVERYTHING POSSIBLE to save my husband, our ‘Texas.’ ” 

But Lyudmila, who did not respond to an interview request, could uncover few concrete details about Bentley’s kidnappers and what may have motivated them to take him. Early reports said he might have been mistaken for a spy because of his less-than-fluent command of the Russian language and his proximity to the front line. One of the local investigators told Lyudmila that “most likely” Russell was murdered after being captured, but declined to share what informed that assessment. She appealed to Russian president Vladimir Putin for “maximum assistance” to either help her locate her husband alive or have his body returned to her. Shortly thereafter, a military investigator was dispatched from Moscow to look into the case, but no further details about the status of the investigation have been released. 

Then in late April, a white Niva was found near an abandoned brick factory close to the front line, according to a Telegram post from Vlad Filin, a disabled veteran turned pro-war blogger based in Donetsk. Inside was a burned body. The remains found in the vehicle are undergoing a forensic medical examination, according to Roman Ivlev, Lyudmila’s lawyer. He insists that Russian soldiers killed Bentley. “The scoundrels who committed this crime . . . wear epaulets,” the lawyer said. 

On May 6 an official Russian organ, the state-run news agency RIA Novosti, finally characterized Bentley’s death as a murder. In that piece, Dmitry Kiselev, the head of Rossiya Segodnya who is known as Putin’s chief propagandist, called for the perpetrators to be punished. “This is our military correspondent,” Kiselev said. “The crime should be investigated, there is a principle of inevitability of punishment. Everyone is equal before the law.” 

Bentley voting in the Russian presidential election this March
Bentley voting in the Russian presidential election this March.Russell Bentley/VKontakte

This end was a long way from Beverly Drive in Highland Park, where Bentley spent his early years. In a photo from the early sixties, Bentley stands in front of a hedge on the green lawn of his family’s home with his hands on his hips. He can’t be more than four years old, and he’s dressed in a button-down shirt and a large cowboy hat. A leather holster looped through his belt holds a toy gun.

Bentley’s life story had a cinematic sweep, as he would often note himself. His family was wealthy thanks to his great-grandfather, who patented a new form of asphalt and paved roads throughout Texas in the early twentieth century. When Bentley was eight, the family moved to Houston, living in River Oaks and Memorial. There, he discovered the writings of Che Guevara and Karl Marx and began acting out at school. 

As a teen he spent three years at a wilderness camp for “emotionally disturbed adolescents” outside of Bryan. He joined the Army at age twenty, spending three years as a combat engineer, and when he finished his service waited tables at the Pantry and Grill Room, a restaurant his parents had opened on South Padre Island. In 1990, Bentley moved north to Minnesota, and began smuggling marijuana from Matamoros—the Mexican city across the river from Brownsville—to Minneapolis. That same year, he adopted the nickname “Bongo” and joined the Grassroots Party, which advocated for the legalization of cannabis, and mounted a run for U.S. Senate. He came in a distant third behind the Democrat and Republican candidates, winning some 29,820 votes. 

Six years later, Bentley was arrested and sentenced to five years and three months in federal prison for drug smuggling. A few months prior to his release, he absconded from the halfway house where he was finishing his sentence and spent the next almost eight years as a fugitive on the run from the U.S. Marshals. After he was caught, he served a final year at a maximum security prison in Seattle, walking out in 2008 with a sturdy dislike for the feds. “The American government, and the Ruling Class that owns it, are the greatest threats to the future of the Human Race that the world has ever known,” he wrote on Facebook in 2009.

Bentley moved back to the Austin area, where he was born, and began working as an arborist. In his spare time, he read a range of Kremlin-friendly fringe websites, slowly coming to view the “Russian world” as superior in all regards. Bentley believed President Barack Obama was a fascist and lionized strongmen such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, and Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. He felt increasingly disaffected with life in the United States and began to think about how to imbue his life with purpose. “51 years—longer than I ever expected to be around, but I still have a few more grand adventures on my agenda,” he wrote in June 2011.

When Gaddafi was killed by a mob following NATO’s intervention in Libya that October, Bentley felt the need to do something. So he bought a bottle of spray paint and drove to Burnet Road, where he climbed up a billboard featuring a line of solemn U.S. Marines and the words “For Honor and Country” and wrote “F— NATO” in shaky block letters over it. The defaced billboard stayed up ten days before it was taken down. 

From his home in Round Rock, Bentley watched the 2013 Euromaidan protests unfold online. Students had taken to the streets of Kyiv to protest Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, a Putin ally. After a crackdown by riot police, a wider swath of society came out and Yanukovych eventually fled to Russia. Putin dubbed this a “coup” carried out by “neo-Nazis, Russophobes, and anti-Semites.” Bentley agreed, declaring in breathless Facebook posts that the protesters in the streets of Kyiv were “U.S.-backed Nazis.” He followed Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and the ensuing separatist conflict in Donetsk and Lugansk closely. After seeing a photo of a dying woman who had lost her legs in a Ukrainian airstrike, he felt compelled to take action beyond graffiti. He uprooted his life in Texas to join the fight, setting up a GoFundMe that November to pay for his plane ticket. 

Bentley crossed the border from Russia into the Donetsk People’s Republic in December and quickly found a spot in the Russian-backed Vostok battalion. He was skeptical he would survive his first winter fighting at the front, and after his first six months at the front he redirected his efforts from armed combat to propaganda, declaring in a YouTube video, “My words are my bullets now, and they have a range that goes all the way around the world.” 

As the years ticked by, the range of Bentley’s words was severely limited: he was banned from Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. He turned to Telegram to disseminate his content, amassing some 22,000 followers there, and posted prolifically on VKontakte, a Russian social media site. He became a valuable player in the propaganda space, as there are few Americans (and even fewer Texans) who are willing to support Putin’s view of the world so unfailingly. He regularly appeared on Russian news programs, shot footage himself around Donetsk, was a frequent commentator on fringe vlogs and podcasts, and even spoke in Moscow last December at an event celebrating “the real heroes of modern Russia.” “Heading west with the Liberators of Ukraine. We may stop in Kiev, we may stop on the English Channel. We may liberate the USA,” Russell wrote on VKontakte in February 2022, four days after the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. He later wrote that “[t]he only cure for the US government is fire.”

In 2023, Bentley served as an official correspondent for Sputnik, a Russian state-owned news agency. In March, in one of his final videos for the outlet, he invited viewers along with him as he went to vote for Putin at a polling place in Donetsk. “I’ve come to do my civic duty . .  .to vote for the real democracy of the Russian Federation,” he says, pointing out his paper ballot and the clear ballot box as indicators of the fairness of the process, which was viewed by the outside world as a sham election

In his almost ten years in Donetsk, Bentley became a local celebrity, and he also was widely known in Russia itself, aided in part by his magnetic personality and a creative streak. His folk song, “Sweet Home Novorossiya,” which he sings in English and Russian, played on the radio there.

Donetsk is a real cool city,
And you know, it’s my new home. 
My brothers here—they’re cool and heavy, 
And we’re all loved by the finest girls, oh yeah! 
Sweet home, Novorossiya,
Donetsk, Lugansk . . . Slavyansk! 
Gorlovka, Saur-Mogila, 
From Kharkov to Odessa—this is our motherland! 

Clips from Russell and Lyudmila’s 2017 wedding made their way onto prime-time state television throughout Russia. But he achieved his viral breakthrough with the broader world in March 2022, when he, wearing a leather jacket and a gray Lenin cap, appeared near the front line accompanying a battalion as they pressed south from Donetsk toward Mariupol a few days after the start of Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine. Speaking in front of a column of tanks spray painted with Zs—a Russian military symbol used to indicate support for the war against Ukraine—Bentley appeared jubilant. “This is Tejas on the front line with the de-Nazifiers and the liberators of Ukraine. . . . These guys are gonna save and liberate all the good people in Ukraine and the bad people, boom, kick their ass,” he said, kicking the air behind him for dramatic flourish. The video amassed more than a million views on Bentley’s YouTube channel before it was taken down.  

Bentley’s apparent murder has enraged Russian military bloggers and others who knew him. “TEXAS HAS BEEN MURDERED! LIKE THEY KILLED MANY OF OUR BROTHERS! AS THEY KILLED PRIGOZHIN AND ALL THOSE WHO SPEAK THE TRUTH AND HONESTLY STAND UP FOR RUSSIA!” Yegor Guzenko, a former Russian soldier turned military blogger, posted on his Telegram channel. He called for the killers to be held to account. “LET THEM SHOW THOSE WHO KILL THEIR OWN! SHOW THEM TO THE PEOPLE!” 

Alexander Korobko, a producer of an upcoming Al Jazeera documentary about Russell titled A Diary of a Fighter, came to consider him a dear friend. (Bentley was slated to attend the film’s premiere in Doha, Qatar, this June.) Korobko, the coauthor of a biography of Putin published in 2012, told me he first met Bentley in 2018 when he was in Donetsk filming a documentary with American actor Peter von Berg. “I didn’t characterize Russell according to his political agenda. I looked at him the way Leo Tolstoy taught us to look at people at war—the human side. I saw a great character,“ he said. “For me his strength lay not in his being political, but in his almost universal empathy.”

Bentley seemed to have found a sense of purpose and peace in Donetsk. “I have a small house with a big garden,” he shared in many recent interviews, calling his adopted city “the coolest, most beautiful place I have ever been.” Part of that purpose, as he understood it, included the likelihood of an early death. “I came here to give my life to a cause,” Bentley told me in 2017 as we sat in one of his favorite bars in Donetsk. “I didn’t think I would be famous or any of that, I never expected that, but I hope that what I have done can be a lesson and an example. Courage is the key to happiness.”