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When Russia annexed Crimea, the Kremlin installed a reputed gangster known as "the Goblin" to run the peninsula. When Moscow's agents abducted Estonian law enforcement officer Eston Kohver, they used a mafia-run smuggling ring to set him up.

And of course, organized crime groups have played a prominent role in the Moscow-instigated conflicts in Transdniester, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Donbas.

It has become something of a cliche to call Vladimir Putin's Russia a "mafia state." But cliche or not, the term actually fits. Not just because the Kremlin and organized crime groups are closely linked. And not just because Moscow uses gangsters as instruments of policy.

The term is most apt because the Putin regime actually operates like a crime syndicate. It uses threats, intimidation, and extrajudicial violence to achieve its goals. It has teams of enforcers to harass, harm, and -- if necessary -- kill its enemies.

It is even structured like a crime syndicate. It is run by a tight cabal of "made men" who oversee their own crews of capos and underbosses.The made men are led by a godfather-like figure whose main function is to settle disputes among them.

The Putin Syndicate has its code and its rituals. It has a team of respectable consiglieres, who, like good little mafia lawyers and accountants, give it a facade of respectability. In this sense, Tom Hagen has nothing on Sergei Lavrov.

And its goal is simple. Self-perpetuation and self-enrichment.

But just as La Cosa Nostra adorned itself in age-old Sicilian traditions and the venerable rites of Roman Catholicism (recall the chilling baptism scene from The Godfather), the Putin Syndicate cloaks itself in Russian nationalism and Orthodox Christianity.

But all the pomp and ceremony masks a much more banal reality.

Be Corrupt, Be Very Corrupt

Vladimir Yakunin is doing pretty well for himself. According to an investigation by anticorruption blogger Aleksei Navalny, the longtime Putin crony and boss of Russian Railways controls a business empire of offshore companies around the world worth billions of dollars.

"It is an underworld family of the purest kind, and it exists due to its mafia boss, Vladimir Putin, who gives license to steal everything they can get their hands on," Navalny wrote.

Yakunin's case is typical for the syndicate's made men, all of whom have their own little empires: Igor Sechin at the oil giant Rosneft; Yury Kovalchuk at Bank Rossia; Gennady Timchenko at the gas producer Novatek; and construction magnates Arkady and Boris Rotenberg.

Corruption is the Putin Syndicate's lifeblood. It starts at the top and it flows down by design. It isn't a bug in the system, it's a feature -- an essential feature.

"For the Kremlin, corruption has been a reliable means of keeping control over all meaningful elites -- economic, political, municipal, media, even intellectual," Kadri Liik of the European Council on Foreign Relations wrote recently.

"It is the basis of much upward mobility in Russia. In the clientelist system, loyalty rather than merit is rewarded, and access to illicit wealth is the reward as well as guarantee of continuing loyalty."

And the more widespread the corruption, the better. The more people and companies who are corrupt, the more who are dependent on -- and beholden to -- the syndicate.

Indeed, the syndicate's code demands that its members steal, seek rents, and take bribes and kickbacks -- although not in excess of their rank. It also demands total loyalty.

And those "that do not engage in corruption are clearly alien elements to the system," Liik wrote. "What happens to them depends on the circumstances. If they are dangerous, they will be marginalized or isolated, even destroyed."

And this same principle applies to Russia's neighbors.

Making The World Safe For Graft

Putin's syndicate is more than a small-time local mafia. It's an international conglomerate that seeks to spread corruption -- and by extension its reach -- beyond its borders.

In a 2012 report for Chatham House, James Greene noted how Putin sought to gain control over Ukraine and Belarus's energy infrastructure by using murky companies "such as EuralTransGas and RosUkrEnergo as carrots for elites, and energy cut-offs as sticks."

But the approach is about more than just energy policy. It's about control.

Greene wrote that by utilizing "the corrupt transnational schemes that flowed seamlessly from Russia to the rest of the former Soviet space -- and oozed beyond it -- Putin could extend his shadow influence beyond Russia's borders and develop a natural 'captured' constituency for maintaining a common Eurasian business space."

And in this sense, the European Union, with all its transparency and accountability, is a mortal threat. Which goes a long way toward explaining Moscow's approach to EU aspirants like Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine.

"Ukraine’s former President Viktor Yanukovych was clearly 'Russia’s person' in Moscow’s eyes -- if not by convictions, then certainly by virtue of his corrupt relationships and the ties that these created," the European Council on Foreign Relations' Liik wrote.

"Yanukovych's talks with the EU were therefore viewed by Moscow not even as a rebellion by Yanukovych, but as a hostile takeover attempt by the West."

And when Putin's syndicate was unable to stop this by buying off Yanukovych, it resorted to more extreme measures.

"Russia’s destabilization of Ukraine...should be seen for what it is: a Kremlin containment effort to prevent Ukrainians from achieving a democratically accountable government that would threaten Russia’s corrupt authoritarian system," Christopher Walker, executive director of the National Endowment for Democracy’s International Forum for Democratic Studies, wrote last year in The Washington Post.

In a recent article expanding on this theme, Walker noted that the Kremlin "aims to erode the rules-based institutions that have established global democratic norms and cemented the post-Cold War liberal order." It is also seeking "to check the reform ambitions of aspiring democracies and subvert the vitality of young democratic countries."

The Kremlin frames this in the language of national security and restoring Russia's international role. But at it's core, it is about protecting the interests of a corrupt syndicate.

-- Brian Whitmore

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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