A local smuggler was explaining how the war had disturbed long-established underworld relationships between Russia and Ukraine while sitting at a cafe in the Ukrainian port city of Odesa. He pulled on his cigarette as he spoke.
“The vast majority of Ukrainian criminals took the side of Ukraine,” said Kirim, a 59-year-old man who spoke on the condition that he be given a pseudonym. He did so in exchange for the promise that he would be allowed anonymity.
“But there are also those who continue to cooperate with Russia,” he noted, only commenting after a server had delivered the coffees and left the room. “But there are also those who continue to cooperate with Russia,” he noted.
The transnational organization for the trafficking of drugs, firearms, and people that emerged from the ruins of the Soviet Union in the area now occupied by Ukraine and Russia was once thought to be among the most powerful in the world.
Those connections have been severed, but they are still in place.
A smuggling corridor that extended westward for hundreds of kilometers toward Europe from the border with Russia was severed when troops from Moscow struck Ukraine in February 2022. This resulted in the seizure of illegal goods by the Russian government.
Since the 1990s, there has been a marked increase in the amount of corruption, in addition to the proliferation of organized crime operations between the two countries, which have historical, linguistic, and cultural ties.
“This was one of the most controlled criminal environments in all of Europe. According to Tuesday Reitano, the deputy director of the non-profit organization known as the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, “They were one and the same.”
– ‘Patriotic’ criminals –
The war created both physical barriers, such as frontline battle and checkpoints, and emotional obstacles, such as anger over the tremendous destruction and suffering caused by the invasion. These barriers were thrown up as a result of the war.
“The us-against-them sentiment has been strong in Ukraine, so much so that even criminals feel patriotic,” said Reitano.
Kirim defined himself as a patriot and claimed to have severed one hundred percent of his smuggling relations with Russians. However, he did mention that some criminals have contributed money to the military effort or to charitable organizations.
Reitano pointed out that criminals can use war to try to rebrand themselves or win leniency from authorities in exchange for assistance. It has been reported that some have also joined the combat on the front.
Another underworld figure operating in Odesa stated that he is a patriotic individual who does not collaborate with Russians.
On the other hand, a debt collector by the name of Aleksandr, who is 40 years old and also a pseudonym, stated that the criminals’ code forbids any cooperation with the state, which he characterized as being essentially corrupt.
“I don’t want to fight for them (the army), but I will fight for my city,” he added as he sipped his second beer of the day and donned aviator sunglasses in the late morning.
Both of the individuals who identified themselves as associates of Odesa’s criminal underworld stated that Ukrainian security agencies had encouraged criminals to cease their operations after Russia invaded Ukraine and that they appreciated information regarding Russians.
It would appear that some have disregarded the recommendations.
According to the Ukrainian security service, which spoke with AFP, they “neutralized” a large criminal cell in Odesa in the spring of 2022. This group had collaborated with the adversary and “terrorized and intimidated locals.”
‘Odesa is Odesa’ –
As the conflict broke out, key figures in high-level international organized criminal groups fled Russia and Ukraine for locations including Central Asia, the Gulf States, and other places.
According to Reitano, “We know that there is still plenty of cooperation between the underworlds of Russia and Ukraine outside of Ukraine,” and this is something that they are well aware of.
In addition, Europol drew attention to the extremely high probability that criminals from both countries will continue to collaborate with one another.
Because there is never just one channel for smuggling, the agency highlighted that shutting down one does not definitely halt the flow of contraband, and multinational criminal organizations are, by definition, diversified as well as agile.
“They look at the profits, and even with the war, they continue their criminal business, and they look for the best opportunity,” said Catherine De Bolle, the executive director of the agency. “They look at the profits and even with the war, they look for the best opportunity.”
“We do not see at the moment a split between the Russian and Ukrainian mafia,” she added. “[T]here is no indication of that happening.”
The crooks are still operating on the streets of the port city, regardless of whether they are working with Russians or not, and in spite of the barriers that the war has put upon their rackets.
“However, despite everything, this continues. Kirim, the smuggler, shrugged his shoulders very slightly and said, “Odesa is Odesa.”