Ukraine's Mob War

The country's gangsters who are turning underworld might into upperworld power.

When U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry accused Russia of trying to impose its will through the "barrel of a gun and the force of a mob," he could just as well have said "the force of the mob." After all, this is the new model of asymmetric conflict in which Moscow is using myriad covert, third-party, and deniable agents to extend its power. Among them are local gangsters, both petty and powerful, who are providing everything from local political allies to street muscle. In the process, Moscow is demonstrating the extent to which organized crime can be used as a tool of statecraft and war.

Although Russian state agents clearly are working in eastern Ukraine, from Spetsnaz special forces to intelligence officers, the exact number is hard to define. In any case, it is undeniable that the overwhelming majority of the camouflaged gunmen seizing buildings, blocking roads, and skirmishing with loyalist forces are either locals -- including defectors from the notorious Berkut special police -- or else irregular Russian volunteers who have been allowed or encouraged to cross the border and join the conflict.

Some in the new generation of local paramilitary commanders -- warlords, we'd call them in other settings -- appear to be gangsters who have spotted an opportunity to convert underworld might into upperworld power. The infamous Russian lieutenant colonel who appeared to introduce the Horlivka police to their new commander in mid-April was later identified as a local criminal, for example. More seriously, a closer look at some of the figures emerging as power brokers in the Russian-dominated east reveals distinctly dubious ties.

To a large extent this reflects the endemic criminalization of the Ukrainian state under successive leaders. Like Russia, Ukraine experienced a massive upsurge in organized crime in the 1990s, when new political and economic systems were being created at a time of catastrophically weak state control. Overt gangsterism in the streets was matched by the rise of a new elite who often blended political, economic, and criminal enterprises. Unlike Russia, though, there was no subsequent reassertion of the primacy of the state, something that did not so much eliminate organized crime as house-train it, bringing it back under the dominance of the political elite.

As a result, Ukraine headed into this current crisis already undermined and interpenetrated by criminal structures closely linked to cabals of corrupt officials and business oligarchs. However, a particular problem is the extent to which many local gangs -- and not just in the Russian-speaking east -- are connected with Russian organized crime networks. In Crimea, not only was the new premier, Sergei Aksyonov, allegedly a mobster nicknamed "Goblin" in the 1990s (he has denied this, but the one time he tried challenging the claim in court, his case was dismissed), but the new political elite is drawn largely from the former one, richly seeded with known and identified criminals.

For example, Russian law enforcement officers have confirmed to me that on the Ukrainian mainland, the Moscow-based Solntsevo network, Russia's largest and most powerful mob, has a long-standing relationship with the "Donetsk clan," an infamous political-criminal circle in the eastern Ukrainian industrial city of the same name. This was the heart of ousted President Viktor Yanukovych's power base, and his Party of Regions became a "haven for Donetsk-based mobsters," according to a 2006 cable from the U.S. Embassy in Kiev to the National Security Council. There certainly seems evidence that the mobsters have enthusiastically joined the separatist cause: Seven of them were visible among the thugs who beat peaceful pro-Kiev marchers recently, as the police looked on. A Donetsk prosecutor's warning in March that "through crime networks [Moscow] has an army of hoodlums it can use," seems depressingly prescient.

The gangs of the rest of Ukraine, though, also have ties to Russia. The Black Sea port of Odessa is an infamous smugglers' haven and a key hub in Russian global trafficking networks, not least moving Europe-bound Afghan heroin arriving from the Caucasus. Even in Ukraine's west, gangs are often closely involved in the lucrative trafficking of heroin, people, and counterfeit cigarettes into Europe -- businesses that largely depend on the Russian connection. Unless Odessa's godfathers want to lose a growing share of this underworld business to Crimea's port of Sevastopol, they will have to play nice with the Russians.

Furthermore, the rising against Yanukovych was not simply about wanting a closer relationship with the European Union or just anger at his heavy-handed repression. It was also driven by anger at the blatant corruption and criminality of the state he represented. Although it is too early to know whether any of the dreams of Euromaidan will come to fruition, these ideals sit uncomfortably with those who have benefited from the old order. Some, such as oligarch businessman and front-running presidential candidate Petro Poroshenko, have been able to join the new Ukraine. It will be far harder, however, to see a role for local godfathers whose businesses are too dirty, whose connections too shady, and whose loyalties too questionable to be able to make such a transition.

For a few, the solution seems to be to find common cause with the resurgent extreme right, itself an almost autonomous force within today's Ukraine. Nationalist Right Sector leader, Oleksandr Muzychko, killed in a gun battle with security forces in March, for example, was actually wanted for membership of an organized crime gang.

But the concern is that there will be more gangsters, even from the country's west, who will feel that their only chance of preserving their wealth, power, and liberty will be in alliance with the Russians or at least doing all they can to ensure that the new government in Kiev is no more willing or able to clean up the country than the earlier ones. Gennady Kernes, mayor of the eastern city of Kharkov and a man both with criminal convictions and claims of more recent gang ties, was a stalwart of the Yanukovych regime. Of late, however, he had begun to try to build bridges with the new government in Kiev. On April 28, unidentified gunmen shot him in the street, leaving him fighting for his life. Although it is too soon to know, the chatter in the Moscow security community is that Kernes was targeted for his "treachery," though opinions vary as to whether this attack was by a local gang or a Russian hit.

Maybe it doesn't matter. After all, a key precept of the Russians' new style of asymmetric war is to work through as many different agents as possible, from reliable allies to useful dupes. Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk recently told the Russians "don't behave like gangsters," but the growing threat, one articulated to me by a Ukrainian representative at a recent security conference, is rather that the gangsters will find common cause with the Russians.



America's Peace Crisis

The U.S. diplomatic corps is underfunded, overstretched, and set up to fail. Here's how to fix it.

America has had a problem with peace. Even as its military power remains unmatched, the United States has seen its foreign-policy influence fall into steady decline. The string of crises where the United States has looked to soft power over hard, from Syria to Ukraine, to say nothing of Iraq and Afghanistan, has increasingly exposed the long decay of America's ability to manage peace rather than conflict.

Wrapping up his tour in Asia on April 28, U.S. President Barack Obama defended his foreign policy as the slow, methodical work of pursuing American interests, saying, "You hit singles; you hit doubles. Every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run." But the nation's capability to enact this kind of patient strategy is stretched thin.

While February's brouhaha over woefully unqualified political appointees for ambassadorial posts may have subsided, the problem it pointed to has not -- and it is more serious than it appears at first glance. More than one-third of senior foreign service officers in leadership in the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) are political appointees, and the proportions may be larger further down the organizational chart. To be fair, this practice goes back well before Obama's time as president, and not all political appointees turn out to be subpar diplomats. Still, the United States "is the only industrialized country to award diplomatic posts as political spoils, often to wealthy campaign contributors in an outmoded system that rivals the patronage practices of banana republics, dictatorships and two-bit monarchies," retired foreign service officer James Bruno has argued in Politico.
Perhaps it's time to do away with or limit in diplomacy and development what has long been outmoded in defense. Military command posts by patronage went out with the Civil War. Despite the risks of civil-military disassociation, the professionalization of the military has resulted in the world's premier fighting force. It's usually in the diplomatic arena where the United States falls short, and thinking it has few other options, the country tends to send in troops or military hardware, as it did from Vietnam to Iraq, or resort to drones -- or want to, as some do in Syria, Iran, or Ukraine.

The problem goes deeper than patronage and polemics though: The United States just doesn't take the profession of peace seriously. "There is no professionalization to the profession of being an American diplomat," noted Foreign Policy's Kori Schake, "and that is a far graver problem for U.S. foreign policy than the scattered cases of spectacularly ill-qualified political appointees." Compared with the professional development of military officers, who can spend up to 40 percent of their careers at school or in training, foreign service officers receive little beyond their initial training at the Foreign Service Institute.

America's foreign policy and national security establishments simply aren't structured for success in peacemaking, which is largely and more appropriately a civilian commission. James Locher, the architect of the Goldwater-Nichols Act, which reorganized the Defense Department, and former head of the Project on National Security Reform, has attributed much of this problem to a chronic "strategy deficit." And it isn't limited to what a Pentagon's study termed a "Decade of War" or what Foreign Policy's David Rothkopf called a "decade of fear." It's reflective of a long-standing and more pathological American problem. As Alexis de Tocqueville observed, Americans know well how to get into wars and fight them, but not how to end or prevent them.

Compared with a military industrial complex that spends more each year than most countries' GDPs, civilian-led national strategic capabilities to foster peace and prevent conflict remain a cottage industry. Many embassies are so thinly staffed that they are "at or above capacity in terms of executing U.S. government programs," including those more directly affecting national security, according to a recently released report on the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership.

While competitors like China and Japan field platoons of commercial officers to forward national economic interests, their American counterparts look more like the Lone Ranger. This helps explain why the United States has struggled to secure the kind of trade deals that the president tried to close -- the Trans-Pacific Partnership among them -- which are often the result of years of relationship-building by a dedicated group of officials. Beyond fostering peace, such engagement abroad begets prosperity at home -- and the jobs that go with it.

"The question no longer is whether to strengthen diplomacy and development," posits the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, "but how to best shape, elevate, and reform U.S. civilian agencies" that perform crucial tasks with less support, less funding, and often less fanfare than the military, while bearing increasing burdens. Although military casualty rates have declined, the losses of diplomats and aid workers in the field have risen to the point where they are proportionally similar. Yet hardly anyone thinks of this on Memorial Day.

"Our country's gap is strategic and institutional -- we have most of the tactical capacities we need," Eric Wolterstorff of the Coalition for Stabilization Reform told me. However, "stability operations require comprehensive planning and coordinated action, which are all but impossible within our government's current structure." The only nonmilitary capacities specifically dedicated to managing the transition from conflict to peace are the State Department's Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations (CSO) and the Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI) at USAID, and none of these are integrated.

Yet CSO and OTI together are still smaller than any one of the Defense Department's nearly 40 civil affairs units, which have fewer than 200 personnel each. Civil affairs, in turn, represents less than 1 percent or so of the force structure dedicated to something other than fighting wars or supporting war fighting. Created as military-government units to help transitions to local civilian-government control more than a century ago, they later featured functional specialists like the "Monuments Men." Despite, or perhaps because, they are the low-tech solution to a low-tech problem, civil affairs has also not been very well managed or resourced since the end of the Cold War. For one, most of it has been in the reserves, and for good reason -- that's where you find the mindsets and skill sets to deal with civilians. But reservists have always been considered second-class soldiers.

Having only one serious tool in the toolbox -- and often the wrong one -- to respond to today's peace and security challenges does not bode well for a great power looking to expand strategic "optionality" and maintain its global leadership and all the benefits that go with it. Military power, as many generals tell us, is a blunt instrument. Yet, if all you have is a hammer, then everything tends to get handled like a nail.

One glaring lesson from the decade of war and fear is that winning the peace is much harder than winning a war -- a reality known by strategic thinkers from Sun Tzu to Colin Gray. The tandem lesson is that you can't win the peace at gunpoint alone. Warfare in any age is fairly straightforward: It essentially involves defeating an enemy, and as Americans have fought them, this has meant the application of science, technology, and overwhelming force. Building peace, however, is a more complex, collaborative, and less measurable process of convincing people to embark on a course of political, social, and economic change, as much from the bottom up as from the top down.

Ironically, it seems the military is learning faster and more broadly that peace is for professionals. In general, it has been changing, as one observer has noted, "from a force of confrontation to one of cooperation," finding it more advantageous to work indirectly through U.S. civilian agencies, NGOs, the United Nations, and civil society organizations to perform peace-building and stability tasks -- that is, with civilians who are more capable than before and better suited for these tasks. Most pathways to peace call for Birkenstocks rather than boots on the ground. Besides, done correctly, they preserve blood and treasure in a 21st-century strategic application of the martial principle known as "economy of force."

But civilian organizations can't do this work alone. Peace-building is, in practice, applied national strategy. It is the whole-of-society approach to the whole-of-society challenges that we must increasingly face and one where the resources needed to find a solution can be found in both government agencies and the private sector. As New America Foundation President Anne-Marie Slaughter has explained:

The most effective strategy for addressing transnational or global problems involves mixed networks of public, private and civic actors created under the rubric of public-private partnerships, global alliances, global campaigns or collaborative networks. Although not a panacea, such arrangements can stretch scarce government resources and ensure that they leverage other contributions of money, expertise and other in-kind resources.

If the United States wants peace, it has to plan, organize, and most of all resource for peace at least as seriously as it does for war. This requires more than rebalancing rather than reducing funding for diplomacy and development versus defense. As Schake explained, the State Department and USAID must more seriously and systemically manage foreign service officers and other professionals in "smart power," educate and train them, and use them more wisely in the field.

This effort calls for even more than "a comprehensive rethinking of U.S. foreign assistance and security interests," as the Alliance for Peacebuilding recommended for the Foreign Assistance Act -- which, like the National Security Act, hasn't been updated since the early days of the Cold War.

The good news is that it may not be a resource-intensive as we think. "It's not as much an issue of capacity as it is about organization, structure, and authorities," said Stuart Bowen Jr., who headed of the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) for nearly 10 years. Based on SIGIR's recommendations, a group of Congress members led by Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Texas) responded last summer to this need for "smart power" by calling for the establishment of the United States Office for Contingency Operations, which would establish a single, whole-of-government point of authority for funding and direction of stabilization and reconstruction operations. They have a steep uphill climb, though, and so far their efforts have gone nowhere.

"Whatever it turns out to be, this kind of reform needs champions," Bowen told me, "as there was for Goldwater-Nichols."

Ultimately, the United States has to prove it is as committed to its competence for peace as it is for security. Deeds much match words, and actions must reflect values -- and the service and sacrifice of diplomats and aid workers should be as honored as that of soldiers. If not, James Madison's warning that "no nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare" will be a self-fulfilling prophecy and the United States will continue to forfeit its moral as well as its material right to lead.

It's not just the White House and Congress that must treat the profession of peace as sincerely as the profession of arms. It's the people who send them there. As the Project on National Security Reform realized, "It takes a nation to fix a government."

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images