For Moscow, Russian-based criminal networks provide an unconventional asset in the geopolitical struggle with the West.
In the 1990s, the so-called “Russian Mafia” was Europe's new nightmare, an overblown threat surging west into Europe instead of Soviet tanks. In the 2000s, it had become a cliché, the thriller-writer's staple. Now it is back on the agenda, with serious concerns that organised crime has become a ‘fifth column’ of the Kremlin’s effort to undermine European security.
At home and abroad, Russia’s gangsters and spooks are often closely connected. Criminals are suspected to have been used in assassinations of Chechen rebels in Turkey; Russian cybercriminals have been used to fight the Kremlin’s virtual wars in Georgia and Ukraine and crack into German and Polish government systems; and cigarette smugglers in the Baltic appear to have been used to raise funds for Russian political influence operations. The traffic goes both ways, too, with Russian intelligence and security officers often corrupted into working for the criminals.
The reason for the crossover is clear; Russia is engaged in a geopolitical struggle with the West but lacks the economic and soft power of its adversary. As such, it must take advantage of covert and unconventional tactics to make up this deficit. From this perspective, criminal networks are an obvious asset.
Europe’s security services are slowly waking up to the extent of this threat. Spain’s long-running Troika investigation is creeping closer and closer to the Kremlin. And this month Holger Münch, head of the Bundeskriminalamt (BKA), Germany's FBI, warned of the expansion of “Russian-Eurasian organised crime” in Germany. His intervention, while a serious and welcome contribution to a neglected debate, underscores the limitations of Europe's understanding of the problem. Just as talking about “European organised crime” means Corsican godfathers, Syrian-Swedish ganglords and everyone in between, so too “Russian-Eurasian organised crime” includes too many disparate types and forms to be of any real value.
This lack of understanding stems in part from the fact that police agencies have not been given the resources or mandate to understand the deeper political connections and sociological subcultures of the criminals they are charged with arresting and prosecuting. Where law enforcement has tried to make sense of these groups, it has tended to see them in simplistic and outdated terms of reference relating to the vory v zakone - a violent underworld culture that arose and spread within Stalin’s gulag labor camps. Russian organised crime is heir to a vivid and brutal history, but it is no longer defined by the gulags, and the vory has been in decline since the fall of the Soviet Union.
Europe needs a more systematic and nuanced appreciation of “Russian-Eurasian organised crime” – and particularly of its links with the Russian security apparatus. Organised crime is certainly often close to the state, and in some areas has clearly been used to the advantage of Russian elites. A classic example is the harnessing of Russian hackers, granted a degree of impunity in return for their willingness from time to time to target the Kremlin’s foes. However, this is not a “mafia state” – policy is not wholly subordinated to criminal profit – nor is it one in which the whole of the underworld is an instrument.
Many of these groups are essentially divorced from Russia and have no reason to cooperate with Moscow. Rather, the groups which represent potential security challenges in Europe can be categorised together as Russian-based organised crime (RBOC). Whether run by Georgians living in Moscow, or the offshoot of a Slavic gang from St Petersburg, whatever ethnicity they are or language they speak, they operate abroad but have assets, family or other vulnerabilities in Russia that the Kremlin can threaten or support. As ever with Russia, the truth is complex, nuanced, disputed. Organised crime is neither a simple pawn of state nor wholly independent, but often has to work within parameters set by the Kremlin.
In 1994, Russian President Boris Yeltsin warned that his country was becoming “a superpower of crime.” Today, Vladimir Putin appears to be courting that very same status, but in a profoundly different way, regarding Russian-based organised crime abroad not as a threat or an embarrassment, but a potential opportunity. As Russia’s geopolitical competition with the West continues, understanding the nature of this threat will be increasingly important for European security.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.