Putin Welcomes the Return of the Russian Mafia

Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses a forum of pro-Kremlin youth groups on August 2, 2013. Mathieu Duchâtel and Alexandre Sheldon-Duplaix write that Putin appears to be courting the notion of Russia as “a superpower of crime,” not as a threat or an embarrassment but a potential opportunity. Michael Klimentyev/RIA Novosti/Kremlin/reuters

This article first appeared on the European Council on Foreign Relations site.

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 organized 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 in assassinations of Chechen rebels in Turkey; Russian cybercriminals have been used to fight the Kremlin's virtual wars in Georgia and Ukraine and to crack into German and Polish government systems; and cigarette smugglers in the Baltics 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 for 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, Germany's FBI, warned of the expansion of "Russian-Eurasian organized 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 organized crime" means Corsican godfathers, Syrian-Swedish gang lords and everyone in between, "Russian-Eurasian organized 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 organized 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 organized crime"—and particularly of its links with the Russian security apparatus.

Organized crime is certainly often close to the state, and in some areas it has clearly been used to the advantage of Russian elites. A classic example is the harnessing of Russian hackers, who are 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 that represent potential security challenges in Europe can be categorized together as Russian-based organized crime.

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 and disputed. Organized crime is neither a simple pawn of the state nor wholly independent, but it 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 organized 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.

Mark Galeotti is a visiting fellow at the European Council of Foreign Relations and senior research fellow at the Institute of International Relations Prague. An earlier iteration of this column appeared with the wrong byline.