Russia is a corrupt, autocratic kleptocracy centered on the leadership of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, in which officials, oligarchs and organized crime are bound together to create a “virtual mafia state,” according to leaked secret diplomatic cables that provide a damning US assessment of its erstwhile rival superpower.
Arms trafficking, money laundering, personal enrichment, protection for gangsters, extortion and kickbacks, suitcases full of money and secret offshore bank accounts in Cyprus: The cables paint a bleak picture of a political system in which bribery alone totals an estimated US$300 billion a year, and in which it is often hard to distinguish between the activities of the government and organized crime.
Among the most striking allegations contained in the cables, which were leaked to the whistleblowers’ Web site WikiLeaks, were: Russian spies use senior mafia bosses to carry out criminal operations such as arms trafficking, law enforcement agencies such as the police, spy agencies and the prosecutor’s office operate a de facto protection racket for criminal networks and rampant bribery acts like a parallel tax system for the personal enrichment of police, officials and the Federal Security Service (FSB), the KGB’s successor.
The cables also say investigators looking into Russian mafia links to Spain have compiled a list of Russian prosecutors, military officers and politicians who have dealings with organized crime networks, while Putin is accused of amassing “illicit proceeds” from his time in office, which various sources allege are hidden overseas.
In an angry interview with CNN’s Larry King Live, recorded before the latest disclosures, Putin denounced the cables and warned the US not to stick its nose in Russia’s affairs. He made clear he was not amused by a US diplomat’s description of him as “Batman” and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev as “Robin.”
“To be honest with you, we did not suspect that this [criticism] could be made with such arrogance, with such rudeness, and you know, so unethically,” Putin said.
The principal allegations stem from a Spanish prosecutor, Jose Gonzalez, who has spent more than a decade trying to unravel the activities of Russian organized crime in Spain. Spanish authorities have arrested more than 60 suspects, including the top four mafia bosses outside Russia.
In a briefing for US officials in January, Gonzalez said Russia was a “virtual mafia state” in which “one cannot differentiate between the activities of the government and OC [organized crime] groups.”
Gonzalez said he had evidence — thousands of wiretaps have been used in the last 10 years — that certain political parties in Russia worked hand in hand with mafia groups. He alleged that intelligence officials orchestrated gun shipments to Kurdish groups to destabilize Turkey and were pulling the strings behind last year’s case of the Arctic Sea cargo ship suspected of carrying missiles destined for Iran.
At the summit of what is known in Russia as the power “vertical” lies the Kremlin, a prime beneficiary of the entrenched system of kickbacks, bribes, protection money and suspect contracts.
In a detailed and apparently plausible analysis, US Ambassador John Beyrle cited one source as saying: “Everything depends on the Kremlin ... [former Moscow mayor Yuri] Luzhkov, as well as many mayors and governors, pay off key insiders in the Kremlin.”