Mark Galeotti writes: 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. [Continue reading…]