Crimintern: How the Kremlin uses Russia’s criminal networks in Europe

C9s92ljW0AAhnPtMy latest report for the ECFR is out. While I am waiting for the bidding war for the film rights, I’ll settle for pointing people in its direction – you can download it free here – and offer up the summary:

  • Over the past 20 years, the role of Russian organised crime in Europe has shifted considerably. Today, Russian criminals operate less on the street and more in the shadows: as allies, facilitators and suppliers for local European gangs and continent-wide criminal networks.
  • The Russian state is highly criminalised, and the interpenetration of the criminal ‘underworld’ and the political ‘upperworld’ has led the regime to use criminals from time to time as instruments of its rule.
  • Russian-based organised crime groups in Europe have been used for a variety of purposes, including as sources of ‘black cash’, to launch cyber attacks, to wield political influence, to traffic people and goods, and even to carry out targeted assassinations on behalf of the Kremlin.
  • European states and institutions need to consider RBOC a security as much as a criminal problem, and adopt measures to combat it, including concentrating on targeting their assets, sharing information between security and law-enforcement agencies, and accepting the need to devote political and economic capital to the challenge.

I confess I am pleased with the ‘Russian-based organised crime‘ notion, that I think fills an ontological niche, in that it is clear that there is a difference between those gangs which still have strong connections to Russia — who could as easily be Georgians, or Dagestanis, or whoever — and those who have essentially moved out of the country. It is the former who are especially susceptible to use by the Russian security apparatus, and who genuinely worry me. (And yes, I’m also pleased with the title…)

From Trump’s Washington to the Capitals of Europe, Corruption is Russia’s Greatest Ally

The steady drumbeat of Russian contacts with Trump’s team on one level should not surprise. The Russians – like most real and wannabe global powers – assiduously network, hoping to gather insights and make connections that can later be parlayed into access and impact. This is, however, a case study of the way that the dirty little vices of modern democracy, from the inter-connectivity of transnational and untransparent business interests to the use of money and flattery to buy a voice, all the ways in which democracy becomes distorted by money, serve as a force multiplier for predatory authoritarian kleptocracies.

In fact, my view is that for the West today, the greatest security threat is not Russian tanks or Russian disinformation, it is our own corruption – and the ways Russia seeks to use it.

Let’s look at the Trump White House. I still have serious doubts about some of the headline allegations kicked off by Steele’s ‘Trump dossier,’ from the ‘salacious’ stuff (that has become the code word of choice, after all…), to the suggestion that Trump has been given 19% of oil giant Rosneft as the bribe of the millennium in return for lifting sanctions. (Though that would mean we know the market value of the White House: about $11 billion.) Much more plausible is the general picture of regular, lower-level contacts between Russian officials and American movers and shakers, regardless of the serious tensions between their countries.

There are all kinds of contacts which are appropriate, unavoidable, and wholly acceptable. Some of the administration’s more strident critics need to be reminded that not every Russian is a spy or a gangster. However, all the mysterious bouts of amnesia or dependence on covert meetings suggests that even the participants realise they are transgressing the acceptable, and that they are probably not meeting simply to further international cooperation or exchange banalities about the weather.

In a dark past, America was ripped apart by the search for reds under the beds. Much of this was paranoid witch-hunting, but there were indeed those motivated by ideology, a sense that the Soviet Union represented something greater for humanity. Today? Sure, some imbecilic racists and blinkered social conservatives may believe that Putin’s Russia stands for their values, but the people we are talking about, the people who matter, are in the main neither simpletons nor idealists, but pragmatically self-interested.

Those in Trump’s campaign and his administration who retain links with Russians do so not because they are dazzled by Putin, less yet by Tchaikovsky and Dostoevsky. They do so because it suits and pleases them, because the Russians offer something: flattery, information, personal gain.

This is not necessarily the crude corruption of a suitcase of cash in return for documents or a favourable vote. It is rather the more insidious corruption of hooking people on the notion that the Russians can help you get closer to your financial and personal goals. After all, the biggest differences between this new Cold War and the old one is that there is little real ideological dimension, and our societies and economies are now incestuously connected. Russians buy penthouses in London and New York, Americans buy Russian stocks, Russian-funded media buy insert spreads in Western newspapers, and so forth. Much of this is essentially innocent, or at least as innocent as modern capitalism can be, but these are the wellsprings of the global rivers in which Moscow’s spies and agents of influence can freely swim.

In other words, the real story is about the way that the rich and the powerful may regard Russia as a geopolitical antagonist, and yet be happy to cut deals with Russians if it helps them become richer and more powerful.

But this is not just an American story. In Europe, too, corruption is Moscow’s friend. From the lobby groups which agitate against the Ukraine sanctions because they are suffering as a result, to the politicians happy to mobilise anti-US and anti-EU sentiment with the aid of Russian money and airtime to their own ends, this is a widespread issue.

The greatest danger, I would suggest, is not so much the overt ‘Putin-understanders’ such as the Czech Republic’s President Miloš Zeman or Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Of course, they are convenient for Moscow, not least because their words can be retransmitted for propaganda purposes, and their sentiments erode the European consensus on punishing Russia for its aggression in Ukraine. But at the same time, these are not fifth columnists looking to hand over their country to Putin.

The real threats are those motivated not by naïve or contrarian but probably genuine and consistent beliefs, but by corruption. These are the cynics and opportunists, and they are dangerous for several reasons. First of all, unlike the Zemans and Orbans of this world, they may be subtle and covert, couching their lobbying and sabotage in the language of good business sense, or European resistance to American ‘bullying,’ or whatever other rationalisation seems more appropriate. They can also be used as deniable fronts for Russian operations; the continuing (if unproven) belief that then-head of Lukoil in the Czech Republic Martin Nejedly funded Zeman’s campaign on Moscow’s behest (for which he was later recompensed) is a perfect example. Was this just a case of a Czech funding a Czech campaign, openly and entirely within the law, or foreign interference? And how do you prove the latter?

Secondly, they are self-propelled. They do not look to the Kremlin for instructions, although inevitably sometimes Moscow will seek to direct them. They will look for ways to advance their own causes, sometimes actually by seeking new ways to make themselves useful, because usefulness is rewarded. If it is true that members of Trump’s campaign colluded with Moscow to get him elected, did the Russians drive the whole process, or at what point did their American interlocutors begin to make suggestions and requests? You do not need to corrupt those who are already corrupt, and who will instead approach you and see what you are willing to offer.

Thirdly, they not only take advantage of the fluidity of modern capital and ideas, the difficulty modern states have in proving where money came from, where ultimately ownership of an asset lies. They actively seek to protect and extend this system. The drug lord, the spy, the terrorist, and the ruthless financial-political player all have a shared interest in foiling efforts to reverse this process. From the struggle to extend anti-kleptocracy laws in London, to the death-of-a-thousand-amendments facing new transparency laws in Prague, this is a battle being fought across the West, and yet one we have yet properly to appreciate is about security as much as fighting crime or controlling corporate malpractice.

The difficulty in regulating finances, the challenges addressing disinformation, and the failure often to monitor and limit campaign contributions, are all aspects of a common and systemic problem of corruption. The Russians – and not only the Russians – are taking fullest advantage of this, and this makes it one of the most important battlefields of a conflict which is as much as anything else about values, laws and ideas. What is being played out in Washington is as much as anything else a case study in how pernicious and wide-spread the challenge has become.

New Book: ‘Hybrid War or Gibridnaya Voina? Getting Russia’s non-linear military challenge right’

19823811_cover-frontminiI’m today releasing Hybrid War or Gibridnaya Voina? Getting Russia’s non-linear military challenge right. As the title suggests, this study explores the whole issue of Russia’s non-linear challenge to the West and make recommendations about possible responses. It is not the last word, of course, and is as much as anything else written to try and further the debate. A key point I do make is that I feel what we tend to call Russian ‘hybrid warfare’ (it’s not the best term, but we seem to be stuck with it at the moment) is not only that not special in Russian eyes, but in many ways ought perhaps to be considered as two similar but distinct ways of wielding similar instruments: as a preparatory stage before proper kinetic warfare operations (‘hybrid war’) and as a purely non-kinetic variety of aggravated and confrontational diplomacy (‘political war’). Ukraine faced the former, the West the latter. Either way, these are wars…

I reproduce the Executive Summary below, but the book is available in both PDF and hardcopy here or from Amazon.


Executive Summary

The West is at war. It is not a war of the old sort, fought with the thunder of guns, but a new sort, fought with the rustle of money, the shrill mantras of propagandists, and the stealthy whispers of spies. (more…)

A Perverse Thought: Finding A Silver Lining In Moscow’s Latest Nuclear Sabre-Rattling

Overcompensating a tad?

Overcompensating a tad?

At times, there is something of the predictably petulant teenager in Russia’s strategic responses. NATO lets it be known that it is considering pre-positioning US armour in the Baltic States (as I’ve said, this is “heavy metal diplomacy” aimed at reassuring the Balts and warning off the Russians more than because there is any serious expectation of war). And in knee-jerk response, Putin announces that

“More than 40 new intercontinental ballistic missiles able to overcome even the most technically advanced anti-missile defence systems will be added to the make-up of the nuclear arsenal this year.”

Perversely and paradoxically I find something faintly reassuring about this. Bizarre? Let me explain.

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US prepositioning in the Baltics: heavy metal politics and hostages to fortune

US tanks headed for the Baltic? Consider them armoured diplomats

US tanks headed for the Baltic? Consider them armoured diplomats

There is much about the present Russo-Western confrontation that is symbolic, even when it comes to the tanks rumbling around the Baltic plans or the Russian aircraft screaming past and sometimes into NATO airspace. Essentially, it is a combination of the macho posture of alpha male animals, trying to overawe their rival by any means short of the murderous, and the stately diplomatic dance of hint, demarche and denunciation, in heavy metal form.

Consider, for example, the likely deployment of heavy equipment in the Baltic states, a pre-deployment of enough kit for a full brigade. More than anything else, this is a piece of theatre intended to reassure the Balts that they would not be left high and dry if the big, bad Russians ever invaded, and warn Moscow that Washington is indeed serious about its obligations to its NATO allies.

In military terms, after all, it is harder to see this as serious. Why? All this hardware is pretty pointless without (a) the 5,000 or soldiers to go with it and (b) without the time to take the tanks and other pieces of kit out of storage and get them ready for action — even at the most basic level, they need fuel, ammunition and other consumables. Presumably if — and I don’t believe this would ever happen — the Russians ever were to invade the Baltic states, they would do so through a surprise blitzkrieg, as one of their massive military “exercises” on the borders suddenly reveals itself to be an intervention force. I can’t see Moscow feeling the need to give NATO fair warning and notice!

The sad truth is that the Baltic states are pretty much impossible to defend in purely military terms. The borders are open, the terrain is pretty flat, the settlements small. That in no way minimizes the determination of the Balts, and the Russians would have to expect subsequent bitter guerrilla warfare as patriots fight back from the woods or in the cities, but Moscow’s ability to take the region in the first instant is hard to question.

The corollary? It is that, in purely military terms, Washington is prepositioning a cache of modern weapons for the Russians to capture.

Of course, the point is that this is not what anyone expects to happen: if — again, let’s stress that if — Russia chose to step up its aggression against the Baltic states, it is almost certain to be through indirect, covert or deniable means, not a storm of armour and airpower. The calculation in Washington is that at least by pretending to make a serious military commitment to the Baltic states (and one which makes it certain and obvious that any Russian offensive will bring it into face-to-face contact with US soldiers), it deters Moscow from any such moves. And so we have another demonstration of the many ways in which if not war but military force can be the instrument for politics by other means.

Blowback’s a bitch: MH17 and the east Ukraine campaign’s long-term costs for Russia

MH17Policy makers, especially policy makers who have never seen action, are often seduced by covert operations. They see them as the perfect policy instrument: cheap, deniable, effective. Yes, there can be tremendously effective covert or at least non-conventional operations and campaigns, but just as all intelligence operations must come to terms with the fundamental truth that nothing is guaranteed to stay secret for ever, so too these sneaky campaigns can very easily either fail or, even more likely, have unexpected consequences that may overshadow the intended outcome. After all, while Al-Qaeda and the rise of Osama Bin Laden cannot entirely be charted back to the US campaign to support Islamist rebels fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan–had the social, political and intellectual climate not been ready for the message of jihad then they would have remained on the fringes–nonetheless there is a strong connection.

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