A multibillion-dollar project is announced to construct a bridge across the Kerch Strait. Police raid a meeting of Georgian gangsters at a swanky downtown Moscow restaurant. And an emissary from the powerful Solntsevo crime syndicate is reportedly dispatched to Simferopol.
What do all these things have in common? They're all elements of a shadowy struggle among organized crime groups to get their claws into Crimea.
Vladimir Putin's annexation of Ukraine's Black Sea peninsula has turned the international order on its ear. And as longtime Kremlin-watcher and security expert Mark Galeotti wrote this week, it also promises to upend the delicate balance in the post-Soviet underworld -- with possibly violent results.
"The underworld status quo is relatively brittle, full of hungry upstarts and deep feuds, as well as unbalanced by new money flowing into some gangs' coffers, thanks to the growing and massive trade in Afghan heroin," Galeotti, a professor at New York University and a co-host of the Power Vertical Podcast, wrote this week in "The Moscow Times."
"Further competition in Crimea could shatter the already fragile underworld peace."
And it's not like Crimea was exactly gangster-free even before the Russian annexation. A combination of official neglect from Kyiv, hostility between local law enforcement and the central Ukrainian government, and the Black Sea Fleet's role in various smuggling operations combined to make the peninsula a magnet for post-Soviet organized crime.
"Crimea's political and economic structures were infamously interconnected with its underworld. Simferopol's Salem and Bashmaki crime gangs of the 1990s ran protection rackets, smuggled drugs, and assassinated each other, Galeotti wrote.
Indeed, Crimea's Moscow-installed de facto Prime Minister Sergei Aksyonov is widely reported to be a mid-level gangster -- known as "the Goblin" -- with the Salem gang.
And now, major projects like the $5.5 billion Kerch Strait bridge project connecting Crimea to Russia's Krasnodar Krai and plans to build a new casino and resort complex promise to present the most lucrative opportunity for the criminal underworld since, well, since the Sochi Olympics.
And the Russian authorities seem determined to make sure "their" anointed gangsters -- like Moscow's powerful Solntsevo group -- get the largest piece of the action.
In a recent post on his blog, Galeotti noted
how on May 24 police broke up a meeting of Georgian gangsters at a swanky restaurant in downtown Moscow -- an apparent attempt to warn them to stay out of Crimea. "It’s futile to try and keep the Georgians out of Crimea, but I imagine that a pernicious alliance of ethnic Russian mobsters and the government will try to minimize their role there," he wrote.
Given the fragile peace in the underworld in the wake of the Moscow assassination of the legendary crime boss Aslan Usoyan
in January 2013, it looks like Crimea's new status provides all the conditions for a mob war.
And if Crimea looks like a playground for gangsters, in eastern Ukraine
it's springtime for Russian ultranationalists and neo-Nazis.
Pavel Gubarev, the self-styled "people's governor" of Donetsk, was a member of the ultranationalist group Russian National Unity
, whose symbol bears a disturbing resemblance to a swastika.
The far-right paramilitary organization was founded in 1990 by nationalist leader Aleksandr Barkashov, and its members have been implicated in violent crimes against ethnic minorities and in the 2009 killings
of human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov and journalist Anastasia Baburova.
Aleksandr Borodai, a Russian citizen who is the "prime minister" of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, was an editor and remains a contributor
to the far-right -- and often anti-Semitic -- newspaper "Zavtra," founded by ultranationalist Aleksandr Prokhanov in the 1990s. The newspaper's website
now serves as a recruiting platform for mercenaries fighting in eastern Ukraine.
Prokhanov, a fringe figure in the 1990s, has enjoyed a resurgence with the Ukrainian crisis, with his articles appearing regularly
in the mass-circulation pro-Kremlin daily "Izvestia.'
The Donetsk People's Republic's self-styled "defense minister," Igor Girkin, aka "Strelkov," is also a contributor
to "Zavtra" Girkin, who Ukrainian authorities claim is an agent with the Russian Defense Ministry's Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), also reportedly served as a mercenary in conflicts in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Transdniester, and Chechnya.
And Gubarev, Borodai, and Girkin are just the tip of the iceberg. Moscow-based political analyst Vladimir Pribylovsky told RFE/RL's Russian Service this week that the conflict in eastern Ukraine is serving as a magnet for Russian nationalists of various stripes.
Russia may be threatening to cut off Ukraine's gas supply. But it is busy exporting its mafia and neo-Nazis to its southern neighbor.
-- Brian Whitmore
NOTE TO READERS:
Be sure to tune in to the Power Vertical Podcast on June 6 when I will discuss the themes raised in this post with co-host Mark Galeotti and guest Merkhat Sharipzhan.