Kirim puffs on his cigarette explaining that he has decided to sever all ties with the Russian criminals. The war prompted this Ukrainian smuggler to end his involvement in one of the most powerful mafia networks in the world.
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Formed on the ruins of the Soviet Union, this cross-border trafficking of drugs, weapons and human beings between Russia and Ukraine was turned upside down by the Russian invasion launched in 2022.
“The vast majority of Ukrainian criminals have sided with Ukraine, but there are also those who continue to collaborate with Russia,” says Kirim, 59, at a cafe in the port city of Odessa, in the south of the country.
By attacking Ukraine, Russian troops cut off a smuggling route that stretched hundreds of kilometers from Russia to Europe.
Organized crime in the two countries, which share historical, linguistic and cultural ties, thrived in the tumultuous 1990s, profiting from widespread corruption.
“It was one of the tightest-knit criminal ecosystems in Europe. They were one,” said Tuesday Reitano, deputy director of the NGO Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, to AFP.
The war, however, erected physical barriers to traffic, between battles on the front and checkpoints. Not to mention the enormous suffering caused by the invasion.
Gangsters « patriotes »
A feeling of “us against them” has thus developed among the Ukrainian mafia, so that “even the criminals feel patriotic”, explains Mr. Reitano.
Kirim thus presents himself as a patriot and claims to have put an end to all of his smuggling contacts with the Russians, while ensuring that criminals have financed the Ukrainian war effort and charities.
Some would have, according to him, also participated in the fighting on the front.
According to Mr. Reitano, the criminals may use the state of war to try to rebuild their image or obtain leniency from the authorities in exchange for their support.
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Another member of the Odessa underworld, who speaks under the pseudonym of Alexander, also claimed to be a patriot refusing to work with the Russians.
The 40-year-old debt collector, however, points out that the gangster code of conduct prohibits cooperation with the Ukrainian state, which he described as fundamentally corrupt.
“I don’t want to fight for them, but I will fight for my city,” he proclaims, sipping his second late-morning beer.
The two gangsters say that the Ukrainian security services ordered the mafia to cease its activities when Moscow invaded the country, and that they wanted any information on the Russians.
The Ukrainian security services told AFP that they had “neutralized” in the spring of 2022 a powerful criminal group in Odessa, which cooperated with Moscow and “terrorized and intimidated the inhabitants”.
As patriotic as they claim to be, local Ukrainian criminals can also profit from the territories left behind by the Russians driven out by the war.
When the war broke out, members of high profile international organized crime groups left Russia and Ukraine for less turbulent regions such as Central Asia and the Gulf States.
“We know that there is still a lot of cooperation between the Russian underworld and the Ukrainian underworld, outside of Ukraine,” reveals Tuesday Reitano.
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According to the European police agency Europol, it is very likely that gangsters from both countries will continue to work together.
Criminals use different smuggling routes and stopping one of them does not stop the traffic. They are adapting and diversifying their operations.
“They pay attention to profits and, despite the war, continue their criminal activities, while seeking the best opportunities,” explains Catherine De Bolle, director of Europol.
“We do not see for the moment a split between the Russian mafia and the Ukrainian mafia,” she slices.
In Odessa, whether with the Russians or not, and despite the obstacles imposed by the war, the gangsters are always at work.
“Despite everything, it continues. Odessa remains Odessa,” says smuggler Kirim, shrugging his shoulders slightly.