The Kremlin’s newest hybrid warfare asset: gangsters

Mark Galeotti writes: as they look to prosecute their “political war” against the West, the Russians are emerging as the most enthusiastic users of gangsters’ services. Given that their intelligence services are now up to Cold War levels, it seems ironic that they would even need such amateur auxiliaries. However, so ambitious and numerous are their operations that even they sometimes need some extra capacity or deniability.

Some of the instances when Russia has used criminals as proxies are well known. Russia’s seizure of Crimea, for example, and the subsequent undeclared war in Ukraine’s Donbass region were carried out not just by Russian special forces, but by local gangsters serving as so-called self-defense volunteers. Similarly, many Russian cyberattacks, especially large-scale ones, involve mobilizing criminal hackers. (Indeed, the cyberespionage division of the Federal Security Service has actually recruited hackers by giving them the choice of prison or service.)

But most of this state-sponsored organized crime is more low-profile. We are seeing more and more cases, especially in Europe, where local counterintelligence services believe gangsters are acting as occasional Russian assets. Some work on behalf of the Russia state willingly. In other cases, these criminals have been turned into assets without their knowledge, thinking they are simply doing a service for a Russian gang. And yet for others, they are made an offer they can’t refuse. In a recent report for the European Council on Foreign Relations, I call these “Russian-based organized crime” — whether ethnically Russian or not (because many are Georgians or the like), they are criminals with business or personal interests back in Russia, a fact the Kremlin can use as leverage.

To be sure, most of the time direct links between criminals and the Russian state are hard to establish. What good would it be to hire them if they weren’t? But in some cases, the politically convenient patterns are plain to see. In Istanbul, Russian gangsters have killed Chechen rebel supporters, according to Turkish intelligence. In Ukraine, only a few days ago, a Chechen gangster tried to kill an anti-Russian militia commander.

In the Czech Republic, the authorities warn of the links between Russian intelligence and questionable businesses involved in corruption and money laundering. In Finland, the security police suspect Russian criminals are buying up strategically placed properties from which military facilities can be monitored or even attacked.

Criminal hackers — those not recruited straight into the intelligence services — are being used for both targeted information heists and crude cyberattacks. Putin has even hinted, with a nod and a wink, that such “patriotically minded” cybercriminals may have been behind the Democratic National Committee hack. [Continue reading…]

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