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.

Video: Russia’s Hybrid War: What Does it Really Mean, And How Should the West Respond?

hybridwarjan2017On 10 January 2017, I spoke at an event organised by the Institute of International Relations Prague (UMV) at the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs (to whom I must express my thanks for the use of the splendid Mirror Hall).

The video is now available at the IIR’s YouTube page, here. The blurb is below, and you can find the report around which I was speaking here.

The challenge of Russia’s ‘hybrid war’ remains one of the main concerns of Western policy-makers, yet quite what does this mean, and how can it best be resisted? Dr Mark Galeotti, a senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations Prague and one of the world’s leading experts on Russian security has recently completed two major analyses of the issue, his comprehensive report Hybrid War or Gibridnaya Voina? Getting Russia’s non-linear military challenge right (Mayak) and Heavy Metal Diplomacy: Russia’s political use of its military in Europe since 2014 (European Council on Foreign Relations).

hybridwarjan2017b

One-and-a-Half Cheers for new Czech centre to resist Political Warfare

mvcrOn 1 January, the Czech Centre Against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats (CPTHH) is formally opened, within the Ministry of the Interior (MVČR). With a 20-strong staff, its main focus will be to tackle disinformation and political manipulation through the media–and yes, essentially this means Russia’s current ‘political war’ on the West–and to respond openly. My snap verdict is that this is a worthy start, but the Czechs, like other European countries, need also to move beyond this fashionable but essentially reactive approach and think more strategically and perhaps also robustly about fighting this political war.

(more…)

Who were the Georgian gangsters arrested in Europe?

I’ll complete this list as more identities become available, but to date, these are the names of the various figures arrested in the June 18 swoop on the Georgian Kutaisi gang across Europe:

Hungary

  • Merab Dzhangveladze, “Dzhango,” vor v zakone and leader of the Kutaisi
  • ?

Italy

  • Guram Odisharia, “Buya,” vor v zakone
  • Roin Uglava, “Matevich,” vor v zakone
  • Gia Gurchiani, vor v zakone
  • Aleko Imedadze, vor v zakone
  • Beso Kuprashvili, vor v zakone
  • Akaki Tugushi, “Enzo Batumi,” vor v zakone
  • ?

Czech Republic

  • Alexander Kartsivadze, vor v zakone
  • ?

Lithuania

  • Givi Gordeladze, “Givi Tol’styi” (“Givi the Thick”), vor v zakone [Gordeladze is again at large; the Lithuanian court, for reasons still not wholly clear, released him on bail, not deeming him a flight risk on grounds of his age (65) and health. Surprise, surprise: he flew.]
  • Temur Nemsitsveridze, “Tsripa,” vor v zakone
  • Razhden Shulaya
  • ?
  • ?

Portugal

  • ?
  • ?

France

  • ?

(Last update: June 27, 2013)

“A Tale of Two Cities”: Corruption in Prague and Moscow compared

“Influence-peddling, embezzlement of government funds, the (ab)use of state intelligence agents to snoop on personal rivals; the police swoop, politicians and powerful government officials are arrested and the prime minister, while personally not involved, takes responsibility for what happened on his watch and resigns. Moscow? Hardly: this is Prague.”

In my latest column for Russia! magazine, I consider what lessons the Czech’s treatment of their current–very real–corruption problem could hold for the Russian government. If it is serious about dealing with corruption systemically and from the top down. Which, sadly, I very much doubt.

Georgian Organized Crime Blitz in Europe

(Some further thoughts to complement my initial, snap response, Europe-wide arrests of Georgian gangsters, with senior Kutaisi vor seized in Prague’)

squadarmobileOn 18 June, police in six European countries carried out coordinated operations, arresting 18 alleged members of the Georgian organized crime group known as the Kutaisi clan. Coordinated by the Italian National Police’s Central Operational Service and the Bari city Squadra Mobile (flying squad), these arrests netted 13 alleged vory v zakone (‘thieves in law’ or ‘thieves within the code’). Overall, there were 7 arrests in Italy, 2 in the Czech Republic, 5 in Lithuania, 2 in Portugal, one in France and one in Hungary. (Some Italian reports also cite arrests in Moscow, but I have yet to see that confirmed.)

This operation, the outcome of an 18-month investigation, was described by Europol as “one of the most significant blows against clans controlled by this high-ranking, elite of the world of Russian-speaking organised crime.”

Perhaps most interesting is that it appears—although this has not been confirmed—that the Hungarian arrest was of Merab Dzhangveladze (“Dzhango”/”Django”), the head of the Kutaisi grouping, and a major player within the Georgian underworld in both Georgia and Russia.

He is a close ally of Tariel Oniani (“Taro”), the vicious senior Georgian gang leader in Russia. He was also a sworn enemy of Aslan Usoyan (“Ded Hasan”), murdered in Moscow in January. Usoyan had formally had Dzhangveladze stripped of his vor v zakone status in 2008, as part of a tit-for-tat struggle with Taro, although this means little in today’s more diffuse and opportunistic underworld. Dzhangveladze may well have been behind the assassinations of both Usoyan and Vyacheslav Ivankov (“Yaponchik”) and has in many ways been Oniani’s right hand while he is in prison.

If Dzhangveladze has indeed been arrested, then this turns a serious blow to the Kutaisi into a devastating one. His brother Levon has in the past acted as his interim lieutenant, but lacks the stature to hold the group together for long. The Kutaisi clan, with an estimated 50 vory v zakone, is one of the most significant Georgian organized crime groups, not least amongst the so-called lavrushniki (“bay leaves”), Georgian gangsters within the Russian underworld. It certainly delivers a serious blow to the extensive Georgian—and, by extension, Eurasian—organized crime in Europe, as well as another example of the increasingly effective coordination of the struggle against them by European police forces.

However, this may also play to underworld developments in Russia. At present, the Usoyan and Oniani networks are locked in a phony war over both deep feuds and future dominance of the “mountaineer” fraction of the underworld, not so much a cold war as a tepid one that could quickly heat up further. If Dzhangveladze is taken out of the picture for long and if the Kutaisi clan are not able to bounce back quickly—two distinct “ifs”—then it does undermine Oniani. It could even embolden Chanturia, Usoyan’s successor, to strike…

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