Organized crime helped Putin grab Crimea, and may open the way for him to take more of Russian-speaking Ukraine.
DONETSK, Ukraine—I was talking to some young black-clad pro-Russian agitators at a checkpoint they’d set up on the outskirts of this city in eastern Ukraine when a shiny black Mercedes pulled up a few yards away. Some of the men from the group walked over and stuck their heads into the car. I couldn’t see who the capo was, couldn’t hear what orders he was giving, but the scene was like something from a movie about the mob. Nobody wanted to say who that was in the car. Nobody wanted to repeat what he’d said.Such scenes are increasingly common in this contested part of Ukraine near the Russian frontier. “Bosses are starting to appear on the fringes of the protests, they are middle-aged, older and better dressed than the younger men who are in the vanguard of the protests,” says Diana Berg, a 34-year-old graphic designer. The grassroots agitation in favor of Russia has become less spontaneous and more focused in recent days.Before and since Russia’s move to annex the Crimea, many who favor the pro-European government in Kiev have argued that these “bosses” might be provocateurs from Russia’s FSB intelligence service or Spetsnaz special forces infiltrated into Ukraine to orchestrate pro-Russian sentiment. But Berg, an organizer of the pro-Ukrainian rally last week where pro-Russian thugs stabbed a student to death, says there’s a different and in some ways more frightening explanation: the ominous hand of organized crime.A public prosecutor, who declined to be named in this article for reasons of personal safety, says local hoodlums are operating among the pro-Russian protests in the restive eastern Ukraine, helping to direct them on the instructions of Kremlin-linked organized crime groups. He points the finger specifically at the notorious Seilem mob, which has been closely tied over the years to ousted Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych, a onetime governor of Donetsk, who is now in exile in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don.
“We have already seen organized crime working hand-in-hand with the Russians in Crimea,” says the prosecutor. In that breakaway Black Sea peninsula, Moscow helped install former gangland lieutenant Sergei Aksyonov as prime minister, and his background is well known. Aksyonov and his Russian separatist associates share sordid pasts that mix politics, graft and extortion in equal measure and together they helped steer Crimea into the Russian Federation. Police investigations leaked to the Ukrainian press accuse Aksyonov of past involvement in contract killings. Back in January 1996, Aksyonov was himself injured after his car overturned on the Simferopol-Moscow road during a shootout.
“Why should it surprise you,” the prosecutor in Donetsk asks, “if the same dynamic [as in Crimea] is playing out here? … Maybe there are Russian intelligence agents on the ground, but Moscow through crime networks has an army of hoodlums it can use, too.”
The international media were late to pick up on Crimea’s toxic nexus of organized crime, political corruption and politics. But across post-Soviet Ukraine the three have long been regarded as interchangeable and inseparable. And the eastern and southern parts of the country are the worst of all. “Political corruption is ingrained in eastern Ukrainian political culture,” the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington-based think tank, noted in a 2012 study.
The three regions most notorious for the closest relationships between gangsters, oligarchs and politicians—Crimea, Donetsk and Odessa—were the most resistant to the Euro-Maidan revolution that led last month to the ouster of Yanukovych. And now all three regions are at the forefront of the pro-Russian fight-back against the new national leaders in Kiev.
Taras Kuzio, a research associate at the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Alberta, who wrote the Jamestown report, says the internal political turmoil in Ukraine should be viewed through the lens of the hand-in-glove relationships between politicians, mobsters and the so-called “red directors,” managers-turned-businessmen who are steeped in the ways of Soviet-style public sector corruption and deal-making.
The red directors also have their protégés: men such as billionaire Dmytro Firtash, the gas-trading mogul who was arrested by Austrian police on suspicion of mob activity earlier this month following Yanukovych ‘s ouster. Nor are the ties limited to the Ukraine. Their tentacles embrace Moscow: Firtash has joint business ventures with Russian billionaire Arkady Rotenburg and his brother, Boris, close friends and judo sparring partners of President Vladimir Putin. The Rotenburg brothers, not coincidentally, are prominent on a U.S. sanctions list announced Thursday by President Barack Obama to target Putin cronies.
The symbiosis of politics, organized crime and unscrupulousbiznesmeni developed quickly in Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union in much the same way as it did in Russia. The ambitious, the greedy and the powerful lunged for the huge profits that could be made. The state was disintegrating. The big industries – energy, mining and metals – were being privatized, and may the most ruthless man win. “Individuals such as Yanukovych, Aksyonov and their Donetsk and Crimean allies literally fought their way to the top,” says Kuzio. In Donetsk, Yanukovych as governor “integrated former and existing organized criminal leaders into his Party of Regions,” says Kuzio.
In Crimea, “every level of government was criminalized,” according to Viktor Shemchuk, who served for many years as the chief public prosecutor in the region. “It was far from unusual that a parliamentary session in Crimea would start with a minute of silence honoring one of their murdered ‘brothers,’” Shemchuk recalled in a December interview with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, a consortium of investigators and journalists tracking developments throughout Eastern Europe.
Donetsk was no different. A March 2006 cable from the US embassy to the National Security Council – one of several on Ukraine released by WikiLeaks—noted that Yukanovych’s Party of Regions was a “haven for Donetsk-based mobsters and oligarchs” and had commenced an “extreme makeover” with the help and advice of U.S. political consultants, including “veteran K Street political tacticians” from Washington D.C. and a onetime Ronald Reagan operative, “hired to do the nipping and tucking.”
According to the cable, Yanukovych was “tapping the deep pockets of Donetsk clan godfather Rinat Akhmetov.” Now supposedly Ukraine’s wealthiest oligarch, Akhmetov has been keeping a low profile in these early post-Yanukovych days, staying out of the limelight and issuing inoffensive statements on how important it is for everybody to get along.
Another US embassy cable from then-Ambassador William Taylor in September 2007 drilled down on how Yanukovych was centralizing Donetsk crime and political and business corruption in his party – something he would go on to do on an even larger national scale when he was subsequently elected as President in 2010. After Yanukovych became president, according to Ukrainian officials, more than $20 billion of gold reserves may have been embezzled and $37 billion in loans disappeared. In the past three years, they claim, more than $70 billion was moved to offshore accounts from Ukraine’s financial system.
The Americans have sent teams of experts to Kiev to help Ukraine’s interim leaders follow the money. “We are very interested in working with the government to support its investigations of those financial crimes,” U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt told reporters last week, “and we have already, on the ground here in Ukraine, experts from the FBI, the Department of Justice and the Department of Treasury who are working with their Ukrainian counterparts to support the Ukrainian investigation.”
Many of the financial crimes are likely to trail back to Moscow. Yanukovych confidant Firtash (the gas mogul picked up in Austria) admitted during a December 2008 meeting with then-US Ambassador Taylor that he had entered the energy business with the assistance of the notorious Russian crime boss Semyon Mogilevich, who, he said, worked with Kremlin leaders.
“Many Westerners do not understand what Ukraine was like after the break up of the Soviet Union,” Firtash told the ambassador. When a government cannot rule effectively, the country is ruled by “the laws of the streets,” he said.
That’s still the rule. The old order has much to fear from reform and change and will do all it can to preserve its wealth and power—and its best bet for that to happen is to look to Russia.
For precisely that reason, rights campaigners and reformers in Ukraine’s interim government are racing against time to uncover as much of the mob story as possible. An anti-corruption panel headed by Tetyana Chornovol, an investigative journalist who was nearly beaten to death in December for her reporting, is starting in earnest to recover billions of dollars of stolen money and piece together the financial crimes of the Yanukovych regime.
The Daily Beast learned something about these operations first hand when a team from the organized crime police raided a discreet boutique hotel in downtown Kiev where this correspondent was staying. According to the police the hotel is owned by Eduard Stavitsky, Ukraine’s former energy minister. He is now believed to be in hiding in Russia. The police searched all the rooms looking for any Stavitsky documents and combing through financial records. As one of the investigating officers told me, “We need to move fast before the cover-ups start.”
Ukrainian border guards detained a soldier suspected of being a Russian army officer who was picked up while riding in a military truck packed with ammunition at the Berezove checkpoint, about 28 miles southwest of the militant-held city of Donetsk.
Guards found nearly 200 cases containing grenades and ammunition, including rocket-propelled shells, inside the military truck.
“He (the Russian officer) had no documents. But he admitted that he was a chief of an RAO (rocket-artillery weapons unit). He is responsible for ammunition supply.
He said that while delivering the ammunition they had got lost,” Oleksandr Tomchyshyn, a border-guards spokesman said. Another man who was detained identified himself as a pro-Russian separatist fighter.
If he is confirmed as a Russian soldier, Ukraine is likely to use the case to bolster its charges that Russia is continuing direct involvement in the 15-month-long conflict and failing to honor a peace agreement worked out in Minsk, Belarus, in February.
Meanwhile, Ukraine and Western countries contend that Russia is providing troops and weaponry to pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine.
Since April 2014, at least 6,400 people have been killed in the region while Russia continues to deny such allegations, the Associated Press reports.
A spokesman said the two men may have taken a wrong direction and driven toward Ukrainian forces manning a checkpoint southwest of the rebel-controlled city of Donetsk by mistake.
“We can assume that they took a wrong direction while driving, got lost, and came on our checkpoint,” military spokesman Oleksandr Motuzyanuk told a briefing.
The two men wore military uniforms without insignia and carried no identity documents, he said.
In the face of what Kiev and Western governments say is undeniable proof, Moscow denies its regular forces are engaged actively in the conflict on behalf of the separatists.
Though a fragile ceasefire seems to be holding, thousands of people have been killed in the conflict in Ukraine’s industrialized Russian-speaking east.
Ukraine is still holding two Russian soldiers who were captured in May and have been charged with terrorism. Russia says the two men had quit their special-forces unit to go to Ukraine on their own.
Here is a video of the truck found at the Berezove checkpoint:
The battalion has released a number of videos containing drone footage of Russian-backed separatists positions in the past, but this new video contained something unusual:
The video opens with the question “Where does the terrorist Givi celebrate his birthday?”, “Givi” being Mikhail Sergeyevich Tolstykh, commander of the pro-Russian “Somalia Battalion”.
The video then shows a Google Maps satellite image of Donetsk, showing the distance of the area filmed in the drone footage that follows from the frontline down of Avdeevka, 7.29km away.
The video then highlights a location in the drone footage where a number of T-72 tanks are parked, as well as provided the address and co-ordinates of the location featured (Donetsk, street Zlitna 11A, 48.062107, 37.759581)
The video then cuts to footage filmed by a pro-Russian blogger showing separatists troops celebrating Givi’s birthday party on July 19th, and uses Google Street View to confirm the location the video was filmed by comparing buildings in the footage filmed by the blogger to buildings visible in the Google Street View imagery:
The video then goes on to describe the rest of the area, criticises the separatists for flautning the “Minsk protocol”, and various other statements.
What’s interesting about this video is it combines drone footage with open source material from tools such as Google Maps and Google Street View, and video filmed by a blogger.
They also include the co-ordinates of the sites they are showing that makes it easy for anyone interested to check what they are showing is correct.
This is a very unusual combination of open source material in a video produced from a military unit, but shows that groups in Ukraine might be coming around to the idea that by combining non-classified material with open source material it’s possible to present a much more stronger case that the information being presented is reliable.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has warned that Ukraine could disappear from the map of Europe as Yugoslavia did, if Kiev does not “show some flexibility” and grant more autonomy to the territories in the east held by pro-Russian separatists.
Six countries currently on the map of Europe were once members of the Serb-led communist Yugoslav Federation before the Yugoslav wars in 1992, while Kosovo declared its independence from the territory of Serbia in 2008.
Ironically Russia has backed Serbia in not recognizing Kosovo’s independence and blocking a U.N. resolution recognizing the organised killing of ethnic Bosniaks by Bosnian Serb forces as “a crime of genocide”.
Speaking to Slovenian broadcaster RTV Slovenija ahead of his visit to the country, a former Yugoslav republic, Medvedev compared the conflict between pro-Russian forces in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions to Yugoslavia. The interview transcript was published on the Russian government’s website.
“Let us ask, for example, the Russian youth if they remember a country such as Yugoslavia? I think most young people would already be struggling to recall that this country was ever on the map of Europe,” Medvedev said. “It was a very difficult, harsh, painful and, unfortunately, unpeaceful process. Why am I reminding you of this? Because, when we are told that it is necessary to respect international obligations, it is something we completely agree with… but this approach must be applied to all states, in all situations.”
The early 1990s saw the Yugoslav conflict reach the height of its violence, specifically in Bosnia and Croatia where around 110,000 and 20,000 respectively have been reported killed.
Other states seceded more peacefully, most notably Montenegro which parted from Serbia in 2006 after a referendum agreed by both sides. Slovenia’s own war of independence lasted 10 days, during which around 100 people were killed.
“I am reminiscing about Yugoslavia, only because I hope that at some point in the future we will not have to remember the country which used to be called Ukraine in the same way,” Medvedev added. “The existence of Ukraine at the present moment depends on the wisdom, patience, tact, willingness to compromise and the desire to speak to everyone who makes decisions on the territory of Ukraine.”
The Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) has prepared a dossier laying out evidence for what it calls “Russian aggression against Ukraine.”
The report alleges there are some 9,000 Russian troops deployed in Ukraine, forming 15 battalion tactical groups. The force includes about 200 tanks, more than 500 armored fighting vehicles, and some 150 artillery systems, according to the dossier.
The SBU also identifies by name five Russian generals who it says are playing leading roles in commanding and coordinating the military forces of the separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Speaking to Bloomberg, New York University professor and specialist in Russian security services Mark Galeotti said that by “embedding their senior officers,” the Russians are solidifying control over the separatist portions of Ukraine.
Russia has consistently denied any military involvement in the conflict there. RFE/RL takes a closer look at the six officers who have been implicated:
Major General Oleg Tsekov
Tsekov graduated from a military institute in Chelyabinsk in 1988. He then served in various parts of the Soviet Union and Mongolia.
He graduated from the Academy of the General Staff in 2011. The same year, he was appointed commander of the 200th motorized special-forces brigade of the Northern Fleet.
In September 2014, the volunteer information service InformNapalm published evidence that the unit had been mobilized from Murmansk Oblast to Rostov Oblast, together with evidence that service personnel from the 200th had been identified in Ukraine.
Tsekov was promoted to major general (equivalent of a U.S. two-star general) on February 21, 2015.
The latest SBU dossier charges that Tsekov commands the so-called 2nd brigade of the separatist forces near Donetsk.
Major General Valery Solodchuk
Born in Astrakhan, Solodchuk graduated from the paratroops institute in Ryazan in 1992. In 2012, he was named commander of the 7th guards air-assault division based in Novorossiisk. A media reference in 2014 identified Solodchuk as deputy commander of the 5th Army in the Far East.
Digital-forensic investigators have drawn attention to a soldier of the 7th guards air-assault division named Stanislav Ramensky. He posted on social media several photographs that seem to have been taken in Crimea in March 2014, when Russia annexed the peninsula from Ukraine.
He also published a photograph of the medal and certificate he was given on April 14, 2014, “for the return of Crimea,” which was signed by Solodchuk.
He answered that there are no such units and that the entire military is in a state of constant combat readiness. Asked if that meant that his unit is prepared to be ordered into battle at any moment, Solodchuk answered, “Exactly.”
The SBU dossier charges that Solodchuk is the commander of so-called 1st Army Corps of Novorossia in the Donetsk area.
Major General Sergei Kuzovlev
Sergei Kuzovlev was born in 1967 and graduated from the paratroops institute in Ryazan in 1990. He also studied at the Academy of the General Staff. He was promoted to major general in February 2014. Since 2014, he has been chief of staff of the 58th Army based in Vladikavkaz.
In January, the Ukrainian SBU released an audio recording that it alleged showed Kuzovlev organizing the military forces of the self-proclaimed “Luhansk People’s Republic” in eastern Ukraine. The SBU says Kuzovlev goes by the pseudonyms “Tambov” and “Ignatov.”
Major General Aleksei Zavizion
Aleskei Zavizion was born in Narva, Estonia, in 1965 and graduated from a military institute in Chelyabinsk in 1986. He served in the Far East, in Chechnya, and as commander of Russian forces in Tajikistan.
In 2009, he began studies at the Academy of the General Staff.
In March, Ukraine’s SBU claimed Zavizion, using the nom de guerre Alagir, directed the shelling of Kramatorsk and Mariupol. Referring to Zavizion, SBU official Markiian Lubkivskyi wrote on Facebook that “a citizen of the Russian Federation…with the call sign Alagir is currently in Donetsk within the rotational assignment of running the Operational Headquarters since January 2015, coordinating military operations with the participation of representatives of illegal armed formations.”
“Alagir is the person in charge of the deployment of artillery, mobile rocket systems, and heavy equipment,” Lubkivskyi continued. “Major bloody attacks on Ukrainian cities, particularly on Kramatorsk and Mariupol, were carried out under his direct command and coordination.”
Lubkivskyi also wrote that Zavizion was scheduled to be replaced by Russian Major General Andrei Gurulyov.
Major General Roman Shadrin
Roman Shadrin was born in Rostov Oblast in 1967 and graduated from a military institute in Kazan. He served in the Soviet contingent in East Germany after graduating in 1988. In 1995, he was awarded the Hero of Russia medal for his service during the first war in Chechnya.
After service in Armenia and the North Caucasus, Shadrin was named deputy commander of Interior Ministry troops in the Urals region. In 2008, he served during the conflict with Georgia in the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia, after which he was promoted to major general.
In September 2013, he was elected to the Yekaterinburg City Duma from the ruling United Russia Party.
The SBU dossier says Shadrin is the so-called minister of state security for the self-proclaimed “Luhansk Peoples Republic” (LNR) in eastern Ukraine. According to a media report on July 3, Shadrin denies the allegation, saying he has only traveled to Ukraine’s Donbas region “with a humanitarian mission.”
The Yekaterinburg-based Novy Den news agency reported the same day that Shadrin has “repeatedly traveled to eastern Ukraine with humanitarian missions.”
It also noted that Shadrin resigned as chairman of the city legislature’s security committee in January and quoted an unidentified source in the Yekaterinburg Duma as saying Shadrin “holds one of the top positions in the security service of the LNR.”
The same source said it is not known when Shadrin will return to his duties in Yekaterinburg, but there have been no efforts to strip him of his mandate.
Illegal armed groups in the city of Donetsk kidnap local residents and force them to work for free, engaging in cutting scrap metal in the destroyed Donetsk airport, according to Donetsk’s local web portal.