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Some of the laundered Russian money was used to buy fancy cars. Some of it to purchase furs. Some of it paid for elite prep-school fees. And some of it was spent on real estate.

But at least some of the Russian black cash also helped finance political mischief.

The latest investigation into Russian money laundering by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) exposed the inner workings of a vast criminal conspiracy to siphon at least $20 billion out of Russia and launder it through foreign banks.

The Guardian cites unidentified law-enforcement officials as saying the total amount that sloshed through this massive money laundromat could be as high as $80 billion.

Most of this appears to be the run-of-the-mill fraud, tax evasion, and capital flight of a kleptocracy.

But for Russia, crime and corruption are also often simultaneously used as weaponized tools of statecraft.

And it's hard to imagine a money-laundering operation of this magnitude, involving major Russian banks and figures with ties to the Russian government and security services, that isn't at least tacitly Kremlin-sanctioned.

Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian organized crime and security services and a senior research fellow at the Institute of International Relations in Prague, notes that "most of this $20 billion haul was, of course, just the corrupt proceeds of corrupt people doing corrupt things," but some of it "seems to have been put to political use by the Russian security services."

According to the OCCRP report, for example, some of the funds went to the Center for Geopolitical Analysis, a think tank in Poland that pushes the Kremlin's agenda in Europe.

The center is run by Mateusz Piskorski, who leads the Euroskeptic political party Zmiana -- and who was detained last year on charges of spying for Russia.

So far, that's the only documented case of the laundered funds being used for political purposes.

But Moldovan officials told Reuters that some of the money was used to advance Russian state interests.

Moreover, OCCRP's co-founder, Paul Radu, who led the investigation into Russian money laundering, told me that "we don't know where 80 percent of the money went," adding that it was largely distributed to "ghost companies" without clear owners.

"It's like a Tor network of financial transactions," he added, referring to the popular Internet anonymizer.

That's a lot of untraceable black cash.

And this black cash is sloshing through some of the world's top banks as the Kremlin's active measures in the West are becoming ever more active: as Russia is suspected of stealthily funding political movements, NGOs, and so-called "alternative" media outlets in Europe that stoke fears about the migrant crisis, advocate a Euroskeptic agenda, and otherwise promote the Kremlin's agenda.

"Putin's corrupt system functions as a network of business relationships," political commentator Leonid Bershidsky writes in his column for Bloomberg.

"It's a kind of secondary nervous system inside the Russian bureaucracy, running parallel to the official one, creating parallel chains of command and serving different goals than the official system whose tools it uses."

But often the goals overlap. And when they conflict, there is little question whose interests have priority.

The security services tolerate, monitor, and recruit hackers from Russia's digital underworld. Intelligence and law-enforcement agencies run protection rackets. And organized crime is allowed to flourish, so long as it doesn't embarrass the state.

And yes, money-laundering schemes are allowed to operate.

The condition on all this is that the Kremlin can reach in at any time to use crime and corruption it has tolerated and nurtured to advance its geopolitical goals.

And you can stir up a helluva lot of mischief, buy a lot of influence, stealthily fund a lot of fake-news-spewing media, and secretly finance a lot of xenophobic political parties with $20 billion.

NOTE TO READERS: Be sure to tune in to The Power Vertical Podcast on March 24 when we will discuss the OCCRP report and some of the issues raised in this post. Joining me will be co-host Mark Galeotti and the OCCRP's Paul Radu.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.

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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 Follow @PowerVertical

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