Ukraine’s Mob War

The country's gangsters who are turning underworld might into upperworld power.


When U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry accused Russia of trying to impose its will through the "barrel of a gun and the force of a mob," he could just as well have said "the force of the mob." After all, this is the new model of asymmetric conflict in which Moscow is using myriad covert, third-party, and deniable agents to extend its power. Among them are local gangsters, both petty and powerful, who are providing everything from local political allies to street muscle. In the process, Moscow is demonstrating the extent to which organized crime can be used as a tool of statecraft and war.

Although Russian state agents clearly are working in eastern Ukraine, from Spetsnaz special forces to intelligence officers, the exact number is hard to define. In any case, it is undeniable that the overwhelming majority of the camouflaged gunmen seizing buildings, blocking roads, and skirmishing with loyalist forces are either locals — including defectors from the notorious Berkut special police — or else irregular Russian volunteers who have been allowed or encouraged to cross the border and join the conflict.

Some in the new generation of local paramilitary commanders — warlords, we’d call them in other settings — appear to be gangsters who have spotted an opportunity to convert underworld might into upperworld power. The infamous Russian lieutenant colonel who appeared to introduce the Horlivka police to their new commander in mid-April was later identified as a local criminal, for example. More seriously, a closer look at some of the figures emerging as power brokers in the Russian-dominated east reveals distinctly dubious ties.

To a large extent this reflects the endemic criminalization of the Ukrainian state under successive leaders. Like Russia, Ukraine experienced a massive upsurge in organized crime in the 1990s, when new political and economic systems were being created at a time of catastrophically weak state control. Overt gangsterism in the streets was matched by the rise of a new elite who often blended political, economic, and criminal enterprises. Unlike Russia, though, there was no subsequent reassertion of the primacy of the state, something that did not so much eliminate organized crime as house-train it, bringing it back under the dominance of the political elite.

As a result, Ukraine headed into this current crisis already undermined and interpenetrated by criminal structures closely linked to cabals of corrupt officials and business oligarchs. However, a particular problem is the extent to which many local gangs — and not just in the Russian-speaking east — are connected with Russian organized crime networks. In Crimea, not only was the new premier, Sergei Aksyonov, allegedly a mobster nicknamed "Goblin" in the 1990s (he has denied this, but the one time he tried challenging the claim in court, his case was dismissed), but the new political elite is drawn largely from the former one, richly seeded with known and identified criminals.

For example, Russian law enforcement officers have confirmed to me that on the Ukrainian mainland, the Moscow-based Solntsevo network, Russia’s largest and most powerful mob, has a long-standing relationship with the "Donetsk clan," an infamous political-criminal circle in the eastern Ukrainian industrial city of the same name. This was the heart of ousted President Viktor Yanukovych’s power base, and his Party of Regions became a "haven for Donetsk-based mobsters," according to a 2006 cable from the U.S. Embassy in Kiev to the National Security Council. There certainly seems evidence that the mobsters have enthusiastically joined the separatist cause: Seven of them were visible among the thugs who beat peaceful pro-Kiev marchers recently, as the police looked on. A Donetsk prosecutor’s warning in March that "through crime networks [Moscow] has an army of hoodlums it can use," seems depressingly prescient.

The gangs of the rest of Ukraine, though, also have ties to Russia. The Black Sea port of Odessa is an infamous smugglers’ haven and a key hub in Russian global trafficking networks, not least moving Europe-bound Afghan heroin arriving from the Caucasus. Even in Ukraine’s west, gangs are often closely involved in the lucrative trafficking of heroin, people, and counterfeit cigarettes into Europe — businesses that largely depend on the Russian connection. Unless Odessa’s godfathers want to lose a growing share of this underworld business to Crimea’s port of Sevastopol, they will have to play nice with the Russians.

Furthermore, the rising against Yanukovych was not simply about wanting a closer relationship with the European Union or just anger at his heavy-handed repression. It was also driven by anger at the blatant corruption and criminality of the state he represented. Although it is too early to know whether any of the dreams of Euromaidan will come to fruition, these ideals sit uncomfortably with those who have benefited from the old order. Some, such as oligarch businessman and front-running presidential candidate Petro Poroshenko, have been able to join the new Ukraine. It will be far harder, however, to see a role for local godfathers whose businesses are too dirty, whose connections too shady, and whose loyalties too questionable to be able to make such a transition.

For a few, the solution seems to be to find common cause with the resurgent extreme right, itself an almost autonomous force within today’s Ukraine. Nationalist Right Sector leader, Oleksandr Muzychko, killed in a gun battle with security forces in March, for example, was actually wanted for membership of an organized crime gang.

But the concern is that there will be more gangsters, even from the country’s west, who will feel that their only chance of preserving their wealth, power, and liberty will be in alliance with the Russians or at least doing all they can to ensure that the new government in Kiev is no more willing or able to clean up the country than the earlier ones. Gennady Kernes, mayor of the eastern city of Kharkov and a man both with criminal convictions and claims of more recent gang ties, was a stalwart of the Yanukovych regime. Of late, however, he had begun to try to build bridges with the new government in Kiev. On April 28, unidentified gunmen sho
t him in the street
, leaving him fighting for his life. Although it is too soon to know, the chatter in the Moscow security community is that Kernes was targeted for his "treachery," though opinions vary as to whether this attack was by a local gang or a Russian hit.

Maybe it doesn’t matter. After all, a key precept of the Russians’ new style of asymmetric war is to work through as many different agents as possible, from reliable allies to useful dupes. Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk recently told the Russians "don’t behave like gangsters," but the growing threat, one articulated to me by a Ukrainian representative at a recent security conference, is rather that the gangsters will find common cause with the Russians.

Mark Galeotti is a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London and an honorary professor at UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies. His recent books include We Need To Talk About Putin and the forthcoming A Short History of Russia. Twitter: @MarkGaleotti

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