By Brian Whitmore
October 27, 2015
In the past couple years, Russian hackers have launched attacks on a French television network, a German steelmaker, the Polish stock market, the White House, the U.S. House of Representatives, the U.S. State Department, and The New York Times.
And according to press reports citing Western intelligence officials, the perpetrators weren't rogue cyber-pranksters. They were working for the Kremlin.
Cybercrime, it appears, has become a tool of Russian statecraft. And not just cybercrime.
Vladimir Putin's regime has become increasingly adept at deploying a whole range of practices that are more common among crime syndicates than permanent members of the UN Security Council.
In some cases, as with the hacking, this involves the Kremlin subcontracting organized crime groups to do things the Russian state cannot do itself with plausible deniability. And in others, it involves the state itself engaging in kidnapping, extortion, blackmail, bribery, and fraud to advance its agenda.
Spanish prosecutor Jose Grinda has noted that the activities of Russian criminal networks are virtually indistinguishable from those of the government.
"It's not so much a mafia state as a nationalized mafia," Russian organized crime expert Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University and co-host of the Power Vertical Podcast, said in a recent lecture at the Hudson Institute.
Hackers, Gangsters, And Goblins
According to a report by the FBI and U.S. intelligence agencies, Russia is home to the most skilled community of cybercriminals on the globe, and the Kremlin has close ties to them.
"They have let loose the hounds," Tom Kellermann, chief security officer at Trend Micro, a Tokyo-based security firm, told Bloomberg News.
Citing unidentified officials, Bloomberg reported that Russian hackers had stepped up surveillance of essential infrastructure, including power grids and energy-supply networks, in the United States, Europe, and Canada.
Dmitri Alperovitch, co-founder of the security firm CrowdStrike, noted recently that the Russian security services have been actively recruiting an army of hackers.
"When someone is identified as being technically proficient in the Russian underground," a pending criminal case against them "suddenly disappears and those people are never heard from again," Alperovitch said in an interview with The Hill, adding that the hacker in question is then working for the Russian security services.
"We know that’s going on," Alperovitch added.
And as a result, criminal hackers "that used to hunt banks eight hours a day are now operating two hours a day turning their guns on NATO and government targets," Kellermann of Trend Micro told The Hill, adding that these groups are "willingly operating as cyber-militias."
The hacking is just one example of how the Kremlin effectively uses organized crime as a geopolitical weapon.
Moscow relied heavily on local organized crime structures in its support for separatist movements in Transdniester, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and 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.
In annexed Crimea, the Kremlin installed a reputed gangster known as "The Goblin" as the peninsula's chief executive.
And of course there is the case of Eston Kohver, the Estonian law enforcement officer who was investigating a smuggling ring run jointly by Russian organized crime groups and the Russian Federal Security Service.
Kohver was kidnapped in Estonia September 2014, brought across the Russian border at gunpoint, and convicted of espionage. He was released in a prisoner exchange last month.
The Geopolitics Of Extortion
But Putin's mafia statecraft doesn't just involve using and colluding with organized crime groups.
It often acts like an organized crime group itself.
In some cases this involves using graft as a means of control. This is a tactic Moscow has deployed throughout the former Soviet space, involving elites in corrupt schemes -- everything from shady energy deals or money-laundering operations -- to secure a "captured constituency."
This is a tactic Russia attempted to use in Georgia following the 2003 Rose Revolution and in Ukraine after the 2004 Orange Revolution, where "corruption and shadow networks were mobilized to undermine the new leadership's reform agenda," according to James Greene in a 2012 report for Chatham House.
This was particularly successful in Ukraine, where opaque gas deals were used "to suborn Ukraine's post-Orange Revolution new leadership," Greene wrote.
And Putin is clearly hoping to repeat this success in eastern Ukraine today -- especially after elections are held in the rebel areas of Donbas.
"His bet in the eastern Ukraine local election, if it ever takes place, won't be on the rebel field commanders but on local oligarchs who ran the region before the 2014 'revolution of dignity.' Through them, he will hope to exert both economic and political influence on Kiev." political commentator Leonid Bershidsky wrote in Bloomberg View.
In addition to graft, Moscow has also effectively utilized blackmail -- making the international community a series of offers it can't refuse.
It's a neat trick. First you create instability, as in Ukraine, or exasperate existing instability, as in Syria.Then offer your services to establish order.
You essentially create demand -- and then meet it. You get to act like a rogue and be treated like a statesman.
It's how protection rackets operate. And it has become one of the pillars of Putin's foreign policy.
"It’s the geopolitics of extortion, but it’s probably working," Galeotti told Voice of America in a recent interview.
"He’s identifying a whole series of potential trouble spots around the world, places that matter to the West, and is essentially indicating that he can either be a good partner, if they’re willing to make a deal with him, or he can stir up more trouble."