Does the West realize the impact the Russian criminal world has on life and politics in Europe?
The European Council on Foreign Relations published the report Crimintern: How the Kremlin uses Russia's criminal networks in Europe. Authored by Mark Galeotti, it shows the origins of Russian criminal structures in Europe, their dependence on the Kremlin and their areas of influence.
the report shows tight connections between the criminals acting in Europe and Russian state intelligence services FSB and GRU.
According to the report, 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. The interpenetration of the criminal 'underworld' and the political 'upperworld' has led the regime to use criminals from time to time as instruments of its rule.
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.
The penetration of the criminal world in Russia
In 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, hybrid gangster-businessmen who were able to take advantage of the crash privatization, legal chaos, and state incapacity showed up.
Many criminals 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.
A 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 'upperworld', 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'.
Russian criminal groups in Europe.
In the 1990s, Russian-based organized crime (RBOC) groups came to Europe as would-be conquerors. For some time, they appeared to be 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. 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.
Today most RBOC groups 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.
Connection to the Kremlin
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.
From the tsarist Okhrana to the various Soviet agencies, the political police looked to the underworld for sources and recruits. The prevailing culture of Russian officialdom - in which political authority is there to be monetised - combined with the powers and impunity of the security apparatus, led to endemic corruption. On the whole, officers from the security and intelligence services did not join gangs or even necessarily form them, even though there were a few so-called 'werewolves in epaulets'. Rather, they usually conspired with organized crime networks or provided services for money − primarily protection or information.
However, Putin's Russia is also very much an 'adhocracy'. Institutions and formal positions, whether one is a civil servant or not, matter very little. What matters is how useful one is to the state. As a result, any individual or structure may be called upon as and when the need arises. The blurring of social and functional boundaries in this way has also, inevitably, blurred the legal ones. Just as the Soviet state frequently used criminals and agents as instruments, whether controlling political prisoners in the Gulags or compromising foreigners, so Putin has continued the tradition and also put them to use.
A quintessential example is Viktor Bout, a man whose career spanned the worlds of crime, business, and intelligence work − and often all three at the same time. An intelligence officer, probably from the GRU (military intelligence), he set up an air freight business specializing in shipping to dangerous destinations. Alongside delivering aid, he was also implicated in sanctions busting and arms dealing, periodically as an apparent agent of the Russian state. It is unclear whether his offer to sell 700 Russian Igla surface-to-air missiles to Colombian FARC narco-rebels was on Moscow's behalf (although the volume of the missiles he could acquire suggests so), but his example illustrates the smooth and often imperceptible transition between official and non-official roles.