Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Moscow last week yielded a pile of optimistic pronouncements from the top U.S. diplomat on the likelihood of successful cooperation between the United States and Russia. “We see Syria fundamentally very similarly”; “The U.S. stands ready to work with Russia”; “Despite our countries’ differences, we demonstrated that when the United States and Russia pull together in the same direction, progress can be made.” That last statement in particular jumps out at the reader, as it appears to be grounded in a thoroughgoing realist foreign policy reading of Russia. Russia, that thinking goes, is a fairly normal autocracy, and as such can be relied on to be a predictable, if at times unsavory, actor on the world stage. Find common interests with it, and you find possible areas of cooperation.
But reality has never quite fit the realist reading. In truth, Russia is less an autocracy and more a mafia state—a nation run by and for a powerful clique that maintains close ties to, and is intertwined with, notorious criminals. A 2010 State Department cable, leaked by Wikileaks, detailed how criminals and organized crime groups enjoy secret support and protection by state officials, working to complement state structures to do whatever the government of Russia couldn’t acceptably do as a government out in the open. The bulk of the cable’s information comes from a candid presentation by Spain’s Special Prosecutor for Corruption and Organized Crime, José Grinda. Grinda is quoted as saying that, for Russia, “one cannot differentiate between the activities of the government and organized crime groups,” and that there are proven ties between pro-Kremlin Russian political parties and “organized crime and arms trafficking,” including involvement in gun-running to the Kurds, “in an attempt to destabilize Turkey.” He also emphasized the “tremendous control” exercised by the Russian mafia over some strategic sectors of the global economy, including aluminum and natural gas, which was made possible due to the Kremlin’s collaboration with Russian criminal organizations.
And there is much fresher evidence.
Earlier this year, a 488-page document, the product of a decade-long investigation by Spanish prosecutors into the linkages between organized crime and the Kremlin, alleged that Russia’s Chairman of the Investigative Committee, Alexander Bastrykin, owes his political career to Gennady Petrov, a high-ranking member of the Tambov crime syndicate. The Tambov gang was the top mafia clan active in St. Petersburg in the 1990s, around the time when a young Vladimir Putin was active in the city’s government. Spanish wiretaps allegedly caught Bastrykin’s lawyer openly thanking Petrov for having arranged political promotions for his boss. And Bastrykin was hardly the only high-ranking official implicated: there were are at least a few Duma deputies, a former Defense Minister, and even a former Prime Minister.
And just two weeks ago, the results of an investigation published by Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny thoroughly shook up Moscow in revealing that the two sons of Russian Attorney General Yuri Chaika had engaged in a close business partnership with Russia’s criminal Godfather Sergei Tsapok. Tsapok, whose gang in Russia’s Krasnodar region operated with impunity for years and received protection from higher-level authorities, became known country-wide in 2010 after his goons killed a dozen of people, including women and children, in what became known as the Kuschevskaya massacre.
The degree to which organized crime and the Russian state are intertwined has several important implications for Western policy.
First: The extent of collaboration with Russia should be limited to avoid further penetration of criminalized networks into Western institutions. Policymakers should know that when any actionable information is provided to the Russians, it is also very likely shared with Russia’s criminal networks. Interpol officials already remain wary of revealing too much information to their Russian counterparts. Similar precautions ought to be followed in all other areas of policy-making.
Second: Policymakers should not hope for autocratic brittleness to bring a hasty end to the current regime in Moscow. Though there are no clear lines of succession to the increasingly autocratic Putin, in the long term, mafia states tend to be more resilient than might appear at first glance. This is in large part due to the way they are organized: along family-style networks. Criminal authorities greatly emphasize members’ loyalty by uniting them through the bonds of blood and partnerships (see Chaika’s sons, above). Over time, these lineages extend over more and more “families” and are managed by a single head at the top of a pyramidal hierarchy. Mafia states differ from other regimes by the abundance of joint ventures owned by members of the “family” and family-like political elite members. The largest Russian corporations are often co-owned by direct or remote relatives of members of the elite (see the scandal involving Igor Shuvalov, First Deputy Chairman of Government, who in the late 2000s bought a sizable number of shares of Gazprom in his wife’s name, just ahead of a liberalization decree that sent the stock soaring). The family-like structure of the Kremlin-run networks ensures their quick reproduction in case they are disrupted. It also makes all of the corrupt system’s beneficiaries more critically dependent upon the survival of the system as a whole. Unlike in Argentina or Venezuela, where recent elections at least appeared to move the needle in a hopeful direction, elections in Russia are much less likely to make a difference. The elimination of such a system requires the complete destruction of its multiple criminal branches within and outside of Russia.
The resilience of mafia state elites also has to do with their devotion to mafia codes of honor and omertà, which include demands of absolute loyalty to the mafia organization, unconditional subordination to the leader, emphasis on silence, and demands of non-disclosure. Whatever business is done within the elite circles, it should under no circumstances be exposed to outsiders. Of course, this tendency in Russia is not new. Winston Churchill likened the gyrations of the Soviet Kremlin to “bulldogs fighting under a carpet,” and today’s Russian elites abide by the same principles to resolve their disputes: private matters are managed in a strictly quiet and secret manner, with very few scandals leaking to the outside world. Final decisions tend to be announced without any pre-existing public debate. Be it the launch of a new war in Georgia in 2008 or the brazen projection of force into Syria in 2015, such decisions usually come across as sudden and unexpected to outside observers. And just like the Mafiosi they consort with, Kremlin insiders also primarily respect force and violence, use threats to test and scare off their enemies (witness the repeated airspace violations in the Baltics and beyond), and tend to see compromise as a sign of weakness.
Finally, as Moisés Naím pointed out, mafia penetration fundamentally alters the behavior of states on the international stage. Mafia state elites are arguably more likely to gamble in situations where leaders of more normal states would chose a moderate stance and are more likely to engage in military escalation in comparison to other countries. Because in mafia states the national interest and the interests of organized crime are so inextricably intertwined, their governments might be more prone to use force when their access to profitable illicit markets is threatened. For example, the illicit trade in Abkhazia and South Ossetia might have pushed senior Russian officials, who acted as the criminals’ patrons and partners, to start a war against Georgia in 2008.
All these observations suggest that Western analysts and leaders need to be more on alert when discussing the possibilities of partnership with Russia on Syria and other matters. The Kremlin neither understands nor respects compromise with its Western counterparts. Rather, it tends to perceive it as a sign of Western weakness and will betray its erstwhile earnest partners when circumstances allow and advantage dictates. The interests and values of the Kremlin elites differ from those of their Western counterparts in profound ways—ones that traditional international relations theories have a hard time accounting for. It’s an important thing to keep in mind the next time Putin’s Kremlin wrongfoots the West in an area that seemed so ripe for cooperation. Secretary Kerry, beware!