Russian Mafia Moves West

You've got to hand it to the West. It seems finally to be catching up with the reality of the Russian mafia. Last year, a New York court sent down "The Japanese," whom Russian newspapers described as controlling up to one third of the Russian economy -- even though the FBI, which said it had been following his movements for a year or more, could only get him on a bum-rap conspiracy.

Last year, too, the Swiss police grabbed "Mikhas," another alleged "thief-in-law" -- and the head of Moscow's Solntsevo gang -- whom they described as being deep in the drugs, smuggling, extortion and prostitution businesses. Mikhas's apparent successor, Yury Yesin (sobriquet unknown), didn't last long as the Solntsevo gang's new boss either. He was arrested earlier this year -- by Italian intelligence officers -- during a so-called summit meeting of Russian "goodfellas" at the fancy ski resort of Madonna di Campiglio.

The Italian secret police, who had been working alongside the Federal Bureau of Investigation on the case, said that Yesin had recently moved to a seaside resort north of Rome "for security reasons," and that his boys had been investing criminal profits from Russia in legitimate Italian businesses. They also hinted the group had so much available money that they could easily have disrupted the normal workings -- if such there be -- of Italy's financial markets.

There's also a sign that Western police bodies -- especially the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency -- may actually have invested in the odd Russian- speaker. Thus at a recent trial in Miami, an undercover cop called Alexander Yasevich took the stand to testify against one Ludwig "Tarzan" Fainberg. Fainberg, an Israeli citizen, is the proprietor of a Miami strip-club called Porky's. Yasevich said the man had boasted to him about how he'd set up an important cocaine-smuggling operation.

That, though, wasn't all -- and it's this that gives me slight pause about the ability of the West to deal with the ubiquity and sheer inventiveness and power of the Russian mafia. Fainberg and the strip club Porky's were at the heart, said federal drug agents, of an enormous web of conspiracies involving cocaine, heroin and counterfeit money, as well as Russian military helicopters, airplanes and bullet-proof limousines. More than that, they announced, Fainberg and the Porky's mob were involved in an attempt to supply Colombian drug barons with a Russian nuclear-powered submarine.

This Piranha-class attack submarine, so the court was told, was at the time available for sale at its home at the Kronstadt naval base near St. Petersburg for a knock-down price of $5.5 million. (It probably cost eighteen times that, just to build.) According to published specifications, a Piranha has 18 torpedo tubes and needs a trained crew of 62 -- which the Colombian drug barons, one imagines, would have had to supply. What was it to be used for? The DEA seems to think it was for delivering bulk shipments of coke anywhere in the world that they might be wanted. It didn't explain how -- if the delivery was to the U.S. seaboard -- a Russian nuclear submarine would go undetected and avoid starting World War III.

Now the boys down at Porky's, when they laid these great plans, may have been taking too much of their own Colombian marching powder. Or they may well have been led on -- it's been known to happen -- by the DEA. But what troubles me in all this is that Fainberg had already, it seems, bought Russian helicopters for the Colombians at $1 million a pop. So, too, did the Japanese Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cultists along with a bunch of Russian chemical weapons experts.

And if the mafia can provide these, courtesy of the armed forces, well, it can provide almost anything, including a bunch of stuff that the West probably hasn't thought of yet.

The other thing that troubles me is the hint that the Italian intelligence boys gave about the control of foreign markets by Russian money. The other day, by accident, I came across an apparently legitimate Russian company that was looking for major finance in the West. Extremely discreet inquiries revealed it was indirectly controlled by the Solntsevo mob and the Solntsevo mob was, in turn, protected by ... well, by someone very high up in the government.

So how can Western agencies hope, when it comes to Russia, to separate good money from bad and Russian hoods from legitimate businessmen and from government? I don't have any idea -- especially when a huge injection of cash into their money markets and businesses is exactly what most Western countries are competing for.