A house divided: international organized crime expert reveals how the Russian war against Ukraine is transforming the operations of Europe’s largest criminal ecosystem
Nearly a year and half after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, warzones, economic sanctions and shifting alliances are creating new long-term trends in local and global law enforcement. As a key hub of weapons, drugs and human trafficking, criminal activity in the region has large implications for Europe.
The conflict’s disruption to criminal operations has prompted unprecedented relationships and challenged longstanding cultural norms and codes of noninvolvement with state actors during wars. Mafia groups have provided humanitarian aid, supplied weapons to troops on both sides and even launched cyberwarfare attacks.
Jay Albanese, a professor of criminal justice at the Wilder School, has worked with the Department of Justice, United Nations and other leading international groups to study the causes and impacts of transnational crime across the globe. We spoke with Albanese to learn more about how this continuing geopolitical conflict is reshaping criminal enterprises.
Q: What are the overall trends you are seeing related to criminal enterprises across Ukraine and Russia? How do they impact us indirectly or somehow help influence policy in the US and Western Europe?
Ukraine has come a long way since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. At that time, Ukraine was left with a Soviet-style government in which both public and private corruption was systemic, and organized crime filled the gap to provide many goods and services to the public.
It has been a remarkable 30 years in the evolution of Ukraine to a country that is now being considered for membership in NATO. It is a country that now has an entire generation who have lived in freedom from Soviet occupation, a fact that Russia has severely underestimated.
Q: How does the situation in Ukraine affect Americans?
There are two ways the war in Ukraine directly affects Americans (and the rest of Europe). First, the focus on national security during a war reduces the focus on organized crime and corruption. This permits the growth of cybercrime, and trafficking in illicit goods, services, and people, in the face of a distracted government. The source or destination of most of this illicit trafficking lies in the US and Europe. Second, without the ongoing support of the US and Europe, Ukraine could fall in the war of self-defense with Russia, unleashing a deluge of organized crime, corruption, forced migration and illicit trafficking that would impact us all.
Q: What do you see as the most significant factors facing relationships between the government and criminal organizations in Ukraine and Russia during the war?
Ongoing war always creates shortages. These shortages, disjunctions between supply and demand, foster opportunities for organized crime to flourish. In the U.S. we created such a vacuum 100 years ago with Prohibition, making alcohol illegal without addressing the demand or effective regulation. The result was organized crime stepping in and filling the vacuum with bootlegging, speak-easies and illegal gambling to keep people at the speak-easies.
In the case of Ukraine, the situation is quite different, as there are wartime shortages of food, weapons and all kinds of items needed for everyday living. If the government or its allies do not fill this need, illicit entrepreneurs arise to do so. This strengthens the power of organized crime, which becomes another serious problem to face, especially once the war ends and reconstruction begins.
Q: How powerful are these criminal organizations in exerting influence?
It is important to note that criminal groups only have power when the rule of law is weak. When governments are ineffective in enforcing laws and regulating exploitative conduct, organized crime is strengthened. When a country is in the middle of a war, like Ukraine, the central focus is not on pursuing organized crime groups.
Instead, the focus is on maintaining the territorial sovereignty of Ukraine itself. Therefore, national security becomes the overriding focus of the government, leaving individual citizens to flee, make the best of a bad situation or accept what organized crime/illicit entrepreneurs can provide — all while surviving an assault from another sovereign nation. This is not unlike what has happened in past wars in many other places around the world.
Q: What do you make of these so-called "Patriotic Criminals" who are supporting different sides through humanitarian aid?
There is no such thing as “Patriotic” criminals who exploit others. Criminals are self-serving by definition. However, it is always good to see fellow citizens of Ukraine and elsewhere support one another, but I believe both sides know what is going on here. Patriotic people truly care for their country and their fellow citizens above all else — including personal profit — so it remains to be seen whether these acts are truly patriotic or self-serving in the long run.
Q: What will be the long-term impacts of the war on organized crime in Ukraine?
The Ukraine war will have long-lasting consequences, given that a significant segment of its population has been forced to flee, and its infrastructure has been devastated. The extent of public corruption and organized crime that occurs in the rebuilding process will depend on both the nature and extent of support that Ukraine gets from its allies, such as how long it will take to rebuild, and how well Ukrainians adapt to a re-unified nation and a renewed national commitment as an important member of the European alliance.
If Ukraine is permitted to lose the war against Russia, however, the impact on Europe and the rest of the world is unimaginable.
Q: What is your current involvement and can you share some resources that can help us better understand the situation?
I have been asked to co-edit a special issue of the “Journal of Illicit Economies and Development,” published by the London School of Economic Press. I am co-editor with colleagues in Ukraine and elsewhere in Europe. The theme of the issue is “The war in Ukraine and its impact on transnational organized crime in the region.” That issue should appear sometime in 2024 and will include reports from Ukrainians and others with firsthand knowledge and study of the situation. You can view the call for papers for that issue.
Also, the reports of the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime are a good primer on some of the important issues involved in Ukraine: