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Putinfellas

  • Brian Whitmore

They call me the Godfather. (illustration by Shutterstock)

They call me the Godfather. (illustration by Shutterstock)

As deputy mayor of St. Petersburg in the 1990s, Vladimir Putin spent a lot of time with gangsters.

He collaborated with the infamous Tambov and Malyshev organized crime groups to gain control of St. Petersburg's gambling industry.

He used his office to help launder mafia money and to arrange foreign travel for known mobsters.

And security for the Ozero dacha cooperative he co-founded with some of his former KGB pals was provided by a company run by the Tambov gang, whom Putin also helped secure a monopoly over the city's fuel distribution network.

Putin was, in fact, an important liaison between the local government and the criminal underworld, Karen Dawisha writes in her highly acclaimed book Putin's Kleptocracy.

And when he moved into the Kremlin, Putin put his old mafia contacts to use as key tools of Russian statecraft.

"A significant part of Russian organised crime is organised directly from the offices of the Kremlin," the International Business Times quoted Ben Emmerson, a prominent British attorney who represents the family of slain Russian defector Aleksandr Litvinenko, as saying.

Likewise, Russian organized crime expert Mark Galeotti noted in a recent lecture at the Hudson Institute that Putin's Russia is "not so much a mafia state as a state with a nationalized mafia."

Putin's Kremlin has used organized crime to carry out the tasks it wants to keep its fingerprints off, be it arms smuggling, assassinations, raising funds for black ops, or stirring up trouble in the former Soviet space.

Moscow relied heavily on local organized crime structures in its support for separatist movements in Transdniester, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Crimea, and the Donbas.

In the conflict in eastern Ukraine, organized crime groups served as agents for the Kremlin, fomenting pro-Russia unrest and funneling arms to rebel groups.

Putin's weaponization of the mafia stems from his political education in the gangsters' paradise that was St. Petersburg.

"In genealogical terms, Putin is the product of the KGB. But in sociological terms, he is the product of the new class that emerged in the Darwinian conditions of the 1990s: business-minded, ambitious, nationalistic, and coldly utilitarian about norms and rules," veteran Russia-watcher James Sherr of Chatham House wrote in a recent report.

But now, thanks to Spanish Judge Jose de la Mata, the mask is coming off Putin's mafia statecraft in a big way.

Judge de la Mata has issued international arrest warrants for a dozen reputed Russian gangsters from the Tambov and Malyshev gangs, including current and former Russian government officials.

On the wanted list are Interior Ministry official Nikolai Aulov, Vladislav Reznik, a member of the ruling United Russia party who is deputy head of the State Duma's Finance Committee, and former Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sobolevsky.

Other officials linked to the gangs, but not subject to warrants, include two longtime Putin confidants: former Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov and current Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak.

Also named are former Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov and former Information Technology Minister Leonid Reiman.

The charges -- which include complicity in assassinations, weapons trafficking, extortion, fraud, forgery, bribery, drug smuggling, and money laundering -- are based on a decade-long investigation and stem from a 488-page complaint filed by Spanish prosecutors Juan Carrau and Jose Grinda in May 2015.

In 2010, Grinda briefed U.S. officials in Madrid about the investigation, informing them that the Kremlin used "organised crime groups to do whatever the government of Russia cannot acceptably do as a government."

According to a classified cable from the U.S. embassy that was published by Wikileaks, the prosecutor told the American officials that Putin's Russia was a "virtual mafia" state where it was impossible to distinguish between the government's activities and those of organized crime groups.

In terms of countering the threat Putin's Russia poses to the West, the Spanish investigation is no less important than NATO's moves to rotate four brigades through the alliance's frontline states in Eastern Europe.

The alliance's decision to beef up defenses on its eastern flank should create a credible deterrent to the kinetic threat from Moscow.

But dealing with the more insidious non-kinetic threat, the one stemming from Moscow's weaponization of organized crime, is a job for law-enforcement.

NOTE: This post has been updated to reflect correct and clarify information regarding the arrest warrants.

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or

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