Crimintern: How the Kremlin uses Russia's criminal networks in Europe

organized crime

2017-04-17 /


o Over the past 20 years, the role of Russian organized crime in Europe has shifted considerably. Today, Russian criminals operate less on the street and more in the shadows: as allies, facilitators and suppliers for local European gangs and continent-wide criminal networks.
o The Russian state is highly criminalized, and the interpenetration of the criminal 'underworld' and the political 'upper world' has led the regime to use criminals from time to time as instruments of its rule.
o Russian-based organized crime groups in Europe have been used for a variety of purposes, including as sources of 'black cash', to launch cyberattacks, to wield political influence, to traffic people and goods, and even to carry out targeted assassinations on behalf of the Kremlin.
o European states and institutions need to consider RBOC a security as much as a criminal problem, and adopt measures to combat it, including concentrating on targeting their assets, sharing information between security and law-enforcement agencies, and accepting the need to devote political and economic capital to the challenge.


"We have the best of both worlds: From Russia we have strength and safety, and in Europe we have wealth and comfort."

Retired (he says) Russian criminal, 2016[1]
Today, Russian-based organised crime (RBOC) is responsible for around one-third of the heroin on Europe's streets, a significant amount of non-European people trafficking, as well as most illegal weapons imports.[2] It is a powerful and pervasive force on the European continent. However, it takes different forms in different countries and largely works with - indeed, often behind - indigenous European gangs. European policing is behind the curve when it comes to fighting Russian-based organized crime, as its understanding of these gangs is outdated. Police are looking for the kinds of street-level 'invader' or 'colonist' gangs seen in the 1990s, rather than peering behind the curtain of indigenous organized crime groups to reveal their Russian connections.

What makes RBOC a particularly serious and timely challenge is the growing evidence of connections between such criminal networks and the Kremlin's state security apparatus, notably the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), military intelligence (GRU), and the Federal Security Service (FSB).[3] Organized crime groups have already been used by the Kremlin as instruments of intelligence activity and political influence and are likely to become an even greater problem as Russian's campaign to undermine Western unity and effectiveness continues. It is crucial that European countries and the European Union as a whole develop sharper and more effective responses to the threat.

'Mafia superpower' interrupted

In the 1990s, Boris Yeltsin expressed his concern - perhaps tinged with a perverse sense of pride - that Russia was becoming a "superpower of crime".[4] Following the fall of the Soviet Union, the old-school tattooed mobsters of the so-called vorovskoi mir ("thieves' world") and their vor v zakone ('thief in law") leaders were succeeded by a new generation of avtoritety ("authorities"): hybrid gangster-businessmen who were able to enthusiastically take advantage of the crash privatization, legal anomie, and state incapacity that characterized Yeltsin's era. One former police officer, who had been a senior commander in Moscow at the time, stated that, "these were days when we knew the bandits had not just money and firepower on their side, but they had a better krysha (literally "roof", referring to political protection in Russian slang) and we just had to accept that."[5] Drive-by shootings and car bombings were almost routine and gangsters openly flaunted their wealth and impunity. There was a very real fear that the country could become, on the one hand, a failed state, and on the other, a very successful criminal enterprise.
However emaciated and abused the state seemed to have become during this period, its bones and sinews survived. The 1990s saw organized crime metastasize and evolve. By the end of the decade, a series of violent local, regional, and even national turf wars to establish territorial boundaries and hierarchies were coming to an end. The wealthiest avtoritety and their not-quite-so-criminal but much wealthier oligarch counterparts had used the 'time of troubles' to seize control of markets and assets, and were now looking for stability and security to exploit and enjoy these successes. Finally, some small groups within the military and security structures, motivated by both nationalist and their own personal and institutional interests, were agitating for a revival of Russian state power and an end to the disorder.

Vertical criminal integration

Even before Vladimir Putin was made acting president in 1999 and confirmed as Yeltsin's successor in 2000, the gang wars were declining. Many criminals at the time feared that Putin was serious in his tough law-and-order rhetoric, but it soon became clear that he was simply offering (imposing) a new social contract with the underworld. Word went out that gangsters could continue to be gangsters without fearing the kind of systematic crack-down they had feared - but only so long as they understood that the state was the biggest gang in town and they did nothing to directly challenge it. The underworld complied. Indiscriminate street violence was replaced by targeted assassinations; tattoos were out, and Italian suits were in; the new generation gangster-businessmen had successfully domesticated the old-school criminals.
This was not just a process of setting new boundaries for the criminals; it also led to a restructuring of connections between the underworld and the 'upper world', to the benefit of the latter. Connections between these groups and the state security apparatus grew, and the two became closer to each other. The result was not simply institutionalization of corruption and further blurring of the boundaries between licit and illicit; but the emergence of a conditional understanding that Russia now had a 'nationalized underworld'. In short, when the state wanted something from the criminals, they were expected to comply. During the Second Chechen War (1999-2009), for example, Moscow was able to persuade Chechen gangsters not to support their rebel compatriots on pain of retribution, and some years later during the 2011 State Duma elections there were clear indications that criminal gangs were being used to get out the vote and disrupt opposition campaigns.
During Putin's most recent presidency, Russia has entered a new phase of national mobilization. The Kremlin clearly considers itself threatened by − and in a kind of war with − the West. One of Russia's tactics for waging this war is using organized crime as an instrument of statecraft abroad.

From conquistadors to merchant-adventurers

In the 1990s, RBOC groups came to Europe as would-be conquerors. For a time, it looked as if they were unstoppable. Prague became home to representatives of all the main RBOC networks, such as Solntsevo, Tambovskaya, and the Chechens, as well as mobster banker Semen Mogilevich. Russian and Chechen gangs fought each other for supremacy over the Baltic underworld. During the 'bloody autumn' of 1994, Estonia alone saw about 100 murders connected with the struggle for dominance. From the nightclubs of Budapest to the finance houses of London, apocryphal tales and official reports alike began to warn of a coming age of Russian gangster dominance. RBOC even emerged in France, Germany, and beyond. But it wasn't to last. The explosion of apparent RBOC activity owed more to a combination of surprise, media hype, and desperation within RBOC groups to internationalize, than anything else. The process of expansion was ultimately unsustainable. Many groups were eliminated or forced back to Russia, Ukraine, and other eastern states by indigenous gangs and law-enforcement agencies who mobilized against the new threat, sometimes in cahoots with each other.
So when RBOC returned in the 2000s and 2010s it was largely in the shadows, as brokers and facilitators. Some, especially those of Georgian and North Caucasus origin, continue to operate at street level, such as the Moscow-connected Georgian Kutaisi 'clan', which was targeted in 2013 by coordinated arrests in Italy, the Czech Republic, France, Hungary, Lithuania, and Portugal. But such groups are a minority today. Most operate on a more strategic level, offering access to their resources and networks. These groups offer everything from Afghan heroin and Russian methamphetamines, to cybercriminal expertise, and investment of dirty money. The Russian gang that was broken in the Portuguese Operation Matrioskas, for example, invested dirty money into struggling European football clubs to launder proceeds from crimes at home and to run and rig illegal betting operations in Portugal, Austria, Estonia, Germany, Latvia, Moldova, and the United Kingdom. On this basis, RBOC groups have built a network of allies and contacts spanning Europe (and beyond). Not only do they exacerbate existing organized crime problems in European cities - as even quite low-level gangs now have access to high-order criminal capabilities - but they are also able to operate in areas where there are no or few Russians on the ground.
One of the challenges to understanding these groups, their activities outside Russia, and how Moscow employs them, is knowing what to call them. What makes this type of organized crime unique is how it is instrumentalized by the Russian security apparatus. As such, the novel concept of 'Russian-based organised crime' may be the most useful term for capturing the essence of this relationship between criminal groups and the state. This term is defined by the connection of criminals to Russia and its state apparatus above and beyond anything else. RBOC's crucial feature is that its members, while operating abroad, have a strong stake in Russia, regardless of their official nationality, residence, or ethnicity. This means the Kremlin has leverage over them. As a Western counter-intelligence officer inelegantly but evocatively put it, "so long as his balls were in Moscow, the Russians could always squeeze."[6]


[1] Conversation with former Russian criminal, Moscow, 2016.
[2] Heroin data from conversations with Europol analyst, January 2016; human trafficking from Eurostat and Interpol analyses. Both the human trafficking and firearms figures explicitly exclude trafficking within Europe, although some RBOC groups are also involved in these businesses.
[3] For a detailed analysis of these agencies and their aims and activities, see Mark Galeotti, "Putin's Hydra: Inside Russia's intelligence services", the European Council on Foreign Relations, 11 May 2016, available at
[4] 'Yeltsin: Russia a "Superpower of Crime,"' Associated Press, 7 June 1994.
[5] Conversation with former Moscow police officer, Moscow, 2014.
[6] Conversation with counter-intelligence officer, European location, 2016.