Russia in 2018…


A quick note that my latest, end-of-year vlog video here, a mere eight-to-nine minutes long, is of my thoughts about what may face Russia in 2018, and what to look for. Putin and succession, active measures, Ukraine, why Russia is not Mordor, and, yes, even a mention of the World Cup…


From the ‘Brothers’ Circle’ to ‘Thieves-in-Law’: one myth succeeds another for the US Treasury

Vory(Of course I can’t not start with a plug: my book The Vory, on Russian organised crime yesterday, today, and tomorrow, comes out from Yale University Press in April for the UK, May for the USA. Now available for pre-order…)

So, on 22 December, the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated as one of its Big Bad Global Criminal Targets, “the Eurasian criminal entity, the Thieves-in-Law.” Criminals such as Zakhary Kalashov and Lasha Shushanashvili are targeted as part of “a Eurasian crime syndicate,” a “vast criminal organization which has spread throughout the former Soviet Union, Europe, and the United States.” Sounds scary. And also faintly familiar.

Hang on, weren’t criminals such as, say, Zakhary Kalashov and Lasha Shushanashvili not already sanctioned? Why yes, come to think of it, they were: back in 2012, as members of “the Eurasian crime syndicate, the Brothers’ Circle,” which was described as “a criminal group composed of leaders and senior members of several Eurasian criminal groups that are largely based in countries of the former Soviet Union, but also operate in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America.”

At the time, I expressed deep skepticism about the existence of any such “Brothers’ Circle,” not a term one ever finds in this context in Russian sources, and suggested that given the essentially fluid nature of Russian organised crime, and the need for bureaucracies to have terms more substantive than “assorted Russian and Eurasian bad guys,” that it was simply invented, as “a convenient catch-all term, a way of making sure that Russian OC is included in the Order.” (I then returned to this theme here.)

That the “Brothers’ Circle” has apparently quietly morphed into the ‘Thieves-in-Law” seems to prove the point. Frankly, this is, I suggest, if anything worse. The Circle had the advantage of being essentially made up, but the Thieves exist…just not in the way Treasury suggests. First of all, it’s not an organisation, but a subculture and a social rank. It’s not even like using “Made Men” as a substitute for the Cosa Nostra, because the Thieves – the vory v zakone – represent a small and often not dominant fraction of some of the gangs in question. Secondly, that whole culture is dying, if not dead, the old titles losing their relevance and increasingly simply being bought. Thirdly, it is disproportionately a Georgian and to a lesser extent Russian fascination, which does not touch the Chechens, for a start.

I get it, OFAC needs a title, a label. But I never thought I’d actually be missing the old fantasy of a “Brother’s Circle.”


A brief dip into gun-nuttery: the ASh-12 CQB rifle


ASh-12 with sound suppressor, because subtlety is clearly this cannon’s forte

Forgive me a brief descent into gun-wonk territory. A couple of years back, I heard about a new, big-bore Russian close-quarters battle (CQB) assault rifle that had been designed to FSB specifications for their special forces/counter-terrorism teams as a real man-stopper, including against targets wearing modern body armour. I’m no more than a three-quarters gun-nut, so it took me a while to hear what it actually is: the Tula KBP ASh-12, a bullpup design firing a massive 12.7mm round (remember, most modern assault rifles fire something from 5.45mm to 7.62mm), including armour-piercing and subsonic loads.


It’s been in use since the start of 2012, but rarely seen until now. I feel I ought to be using this as the springboard to make some wider, wiser point, but no, this is just a combination of oh, so that’s what they were talking about and gosh, that’s a BFG… Back to normal service.



First thoughts on this weekend’s local elections (and looking for signs of hope)

hqdefault2This weekend saw local and gubernatorial elections in Russia (and a few by-elections, too), and here is my latest vlog “hot take.” Kremlin-friendly incumbents held the governors’ positions, which was no surprise given not least that potentially-credible rivals had already been excluded. However, the local elections, especially in Moscow, threw up some interesting results. It’s too easy to see Russia in the grip of historically-mandated autocracy, so it’s a useful (if sometimes tricky) challenge to look for positive signs of change and growth, but I think we can see some here. No, no suggestion of some imminent and dramatic shift, but in a way those should always be mistrusted. Rather, an incremental evolution. We’ll see.


Managing Russia’s Political War

CHOREOGRAPHING-CHAOS---GRAPHICIn the year-and-a-bit that I was a visiting fellow for the European Council on Foreign Relations, I was working on a tetralogy of reports on different aspects of Russia’s “political war” (not a hybrid one, really) against the West: first looking at the intelligence services (‘Putin’s Hydra‘), next the use of the military with coercive intent (‘Heavy Metal Diplomacy‘), then Russian organised crime groups’ role in policy (‘Crimintern‘). For the final, capstone report, ‘Controlling Chaos: How Russia manages its political war in Europe,’ I have taken a look at how far the active measures campaign is truly coordinated (answer: sometimes, and often retrospectively), how unified the message (answer: there’s a core intent to divide and distract the West, but national goals, as in the figure below) and when it is, from where (answer: the Presidential Administration). I’m very pleased with this report, and the series as a whole (and grateful to the ECFR for the chance to focus on it), and I hope it is useful to scholars, policy makers, and everyone interesting in just what the blazes is going on!



The ‘Prophylactic Conversation’ and the management of Russian organised crime: the Ekaterinburg example


Ekaterinburg still seems to have the best crop of gangster gravestones

Back when Yuri Andropov headed the KGB, the Soviet political police replaced, or at least supplemented the blunter instruments of earlier times with more subtle and insidious ones. One such was the profilakticheskii razgovor, the ‘prophylactic conversation.’ Someone identified as a possible problem – talking too openly critically about the Party, say, or trying to get the trade union actually to represent workers’ interests – would be invited to the local KGB office, just for a chat.

Depending on the quality and delicacy of the interlocutor, often no threats would be made, no accusations advanced. It would be just that, a chat. How’s the job? I hear your kid is applying to university next year, that must be exciting. I hope your grandmother’s illness clears up soon. But of course, in a system when a severe and spiteful state controls everything, both sides knew that every word was a threat. A good job could be replaced with a bad one; a child could get rejected from university; medical care could be withheld. Few people have the ruthlessness with themselves or others to be heroes in such circumstances. Andropov’s dictum was, after all, maximum effect for minimal force.

Increasingly, this has become a tool also used with organised crime. The state does not control organised crime (let alone vice versa), but the relationship is complicated. Much of the time, it genuinely fights it, but at other times it recognises a degree of symbiosis. This is not just about the many interconnections, especially at the local level, between political, business and underworld elites. It is also because, like post-war Japan for most of its history, there is something of a sense that organised crime is better that its disorganised counterpart.


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