Of particular concern is the smuggling of weapons and electronics, such as microchips and vehicle components, across Ukraine’s porous eastern border. One expert last night warned that an increasingly desperate Vladimir Putin may even create a Russian “Bureau 39”, emulating a North Korean government agency that uses state resources to forge currency and sell drugs.
It is thought to net between £500million and £1billion in hard currency for the pariah totalitarian state.
Organised crime has been flourishing in the self-proclaimed People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk since Moscow’s 2014 invasion of its neighbour.
In Crimea, the Bashmaki and Salem crime groups were instrumental in assisting Russia’s annexation of the peninsula. Puppet leader Sergey Aksenov was named by Ukrainian authorities as a middle-ranking member of Salem in the mid-1990s.
Recalling a visit to Ukraine in 2020, former South African intelligence officer Tony Schiena, who now heads Mosaic crisis management firm, said: “Our American client hired us as he was concerned about the people he was dealing with.
“The investigation led us from an armsdealing conference in Kyiv to a forest in eastern Ukraine where opened trunks of vehicles would reveal automatic weapons with silencers.
“We had to direct our client out of various deals that he was intending to make; a complex system of financial transactions and acquisitions that would span Ukraine, Poland, Croatia and Israel.”
While Russia’s invasion hindered smuggling operations, it did not stop them. The end of hostilities will, experts warn, lead to several years in which crime groups will continue to flourish.
Dr Mark Galeotti, of the Council on Geostrategy think tank, said: “A third of all heroin used to be trafficked along the northern route. Now it’s a sixth but the chains between Ukrainian and Russian organised crime groups have not broken and things have started to move.
“There is no question that Russia, with a track record of using organised crime, is seeking to undermine sanctions.”
He added: “Russia has captured a number of Javelin missiles but we also know that they’ve bought some. Crime groups can offer to secure anything that is man portable. This is what initially deterred the US and UK from sending sophisticated kit.”
Even before the Russian invasion, there were some 400,000 illegal weapons circulating in Ukraine, according to official estimates.
Dr Galeotti warned that the Kremlin could “nationalise” organised crime in order to bring in currency.
He said: “As Russia moves further into a war-fighting economy, the temptation to deploy a North Korean-style Bureau 39 route and begin to effectively nationalise organised crime will become stronger.”