US takes on the Russian organized crime ‘Brothers’ Circle’. Who?

The US administration has rolled out its new Strategy to Combat Transnational Crime with an associated Executive Order on Blocking Property of Transnational Criminal Organizations. Great – it is time to put TOC higher up the threat ladder (just as the terrible Oslo events underline the dangers in focusing too much on jihadist terrorism) and while this does not represent a silver bullet solution in and of itself, it is a useful overall strategy and does unlock further resources as well as, one hopes, mark the shift of budgetary allocations towards the struggle.

The Strategy on the whole talks in broad terms, but it does make it clear that its main concern about Russian/Eurasian gangs is the threat of the penetration and destabilization of the US economy by kleptocrat criminal-businessmen:

Russia/Eurasia: Russian and Eurasian organized crime networks represent a significant threat to eco­nomic growth and democratic institutions. Russian organized crime syndicates and criminally linked oligarchs may attempt to collude with state or state-allied actors to undermine competition in strategic markets such as gas, oil, aluminum, and precious metals. At the same time, TOC networks in the region are establishing new ties to global drug trafficking networks. Nuclear material trafficking is an especially prominent concern in the former Soviet Union. The United States will continue to cooperate with Russia and the nations of the region to combat illicit drugs and TOC.

I’m a little skeptical about the whole question of dominating strategic assets (not least because the Kremlin tends to regard that as its job, and whatever you say about Russian OC, it’s outgunned by the state). Arguably a greater threat to US economic wellbeing is the extent and professionalism of Russian medicare fraud operations. Sure, rather less sexy that nuclear trafficking, less headline-grabbing than drug dealing, but a substantial drain on an already overstretched public good.

My main surprise, though, was in reading the list of specific entities targeted in the Executive Order:

3. YAKUZA (a.k.a. BORYOKUDAN; a.k.a. GOKUDO)

The Camorra are indeed the most violent and dynamic of the Italian-based OC groups. The Yakuza have suffered major setbacks, and are rather less overtly violent, but retain massive economic clout and social capital. Los Zetas, ex-special forces turned narcos, are among Mexico’s most dangerous groups.

But the Brothers’ Circle, aka Family of Eleven, aka The Twenty? Who are these? In many ways the very proliferation of names is indicative. Whereas the Yakuza/Boryokudan/Gokudo issue can simply be explained by whose name you use (they call themselves the Yakuza, gokudo is slang and boryokudan, ‘violent ones’, is the official term), this range of monickers is rather different.

The term bratsky krug, brothers’ circle, has been used from time to time within the vorovskoi mir, the traditional Soviet/Russian underworld. But even then, it did not represent a specific group, so much as a general term for the most respected and powerful of the vory v zakone, the ‘thieves within the law’ who made up that underworld’s elite. But apart from the fact that the days in which the underworld was dominated by the vory is past – indeed, if anything the new model of the criminal boss, the entrepreneurial avtoritet, reflects the kind of economic threat the strategy cites – even then it was more a synecdoche than a structure, a term for the core movers and shakers within the criminal subculture. The more general term bratva, brotherhood, is sometimes used for crime gangs in Russia, especially Chechen ones, but again this is used for groups in general, not a specific one.

The ‘Brothers’ Circle’ is not a term Russian law enforcement would recognize either, and like ‘the Family of Eleven’ and ‘The Twenty’ seems rather to reflect pop culture representations of Russian OC. There is, after all, a pervasive and pernicious trend towards seeing the mafiya as a much more organized structure than it really is. I sometimes feel that there are those who believe that there must ultimately be a boss or a ruling council, ideally meeting around a large mahogany table in an extinct volcano somewhere. References to ‘The Twenty’ also often may conflate it with a rather nasty 1990s myth about the ‘Jewish conspiracy’ and the claim that the twenty richest men in Russia were all Jews. I’m not for a minute thinking this is in any way behind the US use of the term, just that this may be part of its pedigree.

So where on earth did the Administration find these terms, or more to the point, why proscribe an ‘organization’ that it is hard to accept exists? The basic problem is that Russian/Eurasian OC is a very fluid, entrepreneurial and networked phenomenon. Even structures such as Solntsevo, Tambovskaya and the respective underworld empires of Tariel Oniani and Ded Khasan are not fixed organizations like Yakuza groups or New York Mafia families. They are as much as anything else clubs and contact markets, comprising inner core groups tied to key figures, semi-autonomous other gangs, local franchises, semi-independent contractors, corrupt patrons and some-time customers of their services. It is often very hard to say where one ends and another begins, or who is ‘in’ which – the answer is that many gangs and criminals have multiple connections.

So maybe this helps explain the conundrum, since I know that the people I know who were involved in this process are not morons. In further elaboration, the Circle was described as a

“multi-ethnic criminal group… largely based in countries of the former Soviet Union but extending to the Middle East, Africa and Latin America.”

In other words, I suspect that given the absence of any other meaningful specific individual gangs to identify, reference to the Circle represents a convenient catch-all term, a way of making sure that Russian OC is included in the Order – as it should be. But this need not limit law-enforcement operations. After all, looking at the actual wording of the Order it is clear that the listing is more symbolic and exemplary than restricting. Its terms relate to:

Section 1.  (a)  All property and interests in property that are in the United States, that hereafter come within the United States, or that are or hereafter come within the possession or control of any United States person, including any overseas branch, of the following persons are blocked and may not be transferred, paid, exported, withdrawn, or otherwise dealt in:

(i)   the persons listed in the Annex to this order and

(ii)  any person determined by the Secretary of the Treasury, in consultation with the Attorney General and the Secretary of State:

(A)  to be a foreign person that constitutes a significant transnational criminal organization;

(my emphases) In short, whether or not a member of one of the four ‘groups’ listed in the Order, so long as the AG and SoS can make a case that a target is a ‘foreign person that constitutes a significant transnational criminal organization’ then they are fair game. So that relieves me: even if the Circle doesn’t exist, Russian gangsters who pose a serious organized transnational challenge can be targeted.

My only concerns are two. One is practical, that by referencing this non-existent ‘organization’, the Order will skew the activities of law-enforcement towards trying to find it. In the 1990s, much police intelligence work against the Russians was, after all, wasted thanks to a determined but futile attempt to try and conceptualize them as being just like the Italian mafia, with pyramidal hierarchies, a boss, lieutenants, etc. The second is intellectual, that journalists and scholars will also start looking for and talking about these mythic beasts. I understand that for political and practical reasons it might be handy to use a single term rather than to talk generically about the most serious forms of Russian and Eurasian organized crime, but as a proudly pedantic scholar I am saddened that the Administration isn’t willing to sacrifice a little pith for accuracy.


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