The EconomistThe Economist

How Russia’s invasion split the mafia

24 Apr 2023 · 6 min read

Before the war, Ukraine was a key node in a vast criminal network reaching from the Andes to Afghanistan. The disruption caused by the war could alter the face of global crime, writes The Economist.

Curated by informed

Aleksandr otdelnov owns an unusual tourist attraction: a smuggling museum. Contraband has been flowing through his native Odessa since the eighteenth century. Until it closed because of covid-19, the museum displayed everything from pearls and pistols sneaked into imperial Russia to more contemporary loot. Then came the war in February 2022. “The port stopped working, and everything stopped,” says Mr Otdelnov. It wasn’t just the tourist flows that ended. Odessa had been a key node in a vast network of crime centred on Ukraine and Russia that reached from Afghanistan to the Andes. It was part of the “strongest criminal ecosystem in Europe”, reckons the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime (gitoc), a think-tank.

Russia’s invasion has hit this underworld with the force of an earthquake (see map 1). The vast majority of rock-hard Ukrainian mobsters have stopped collaborating with their Russian peers: “We are thieves, we are against any state, but we decided we are for Ukraine,” says one. Lucrative heroin-smuggling routes are being remapped, affecting prices and profits for criminal syndicates thousands of miles away. If the disruption proves lasting it could alter the face of global crime. It will also change Ukraine.

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