In the shadow of war, the landscape of transnational organized crime (TOC) in Ukraine has undergone a seismic shift, with geopolitical tremors felt all across Eastern Europe. Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the existing nexus of international relations (IR) and organized crime has not only persisted but also evolved, revealing both new challenges and opportunities for criminal enterprises and policymakers alike.

The intertwining of major powers’ geopolitical ambitions with the pursuit of wealth and influence by organized crime is a recurring theme throughout history. Reflecting on the past, one can draw parallels with Port Royal, once dubbed the most debauched or sinful city in the New World. In the mid-17th century, far from the corridors of Whitehall, this Jamaican haven thrived on a volatile mix of piracy, prostitution, plundering, and trade — fueling both the coffers of criminals and the ambitions of the British Crown, as Jeremy Paxman writes so wittily but forcefully in his 2012 magnificent Empire. The demise of this legendary hub, submerged by an earthquake in 1692, marked the end of an era.

Yet, while empires fade, the dynamics of geopolitics and the enduring influence of organized crime in general, and TOC in particular, remain potent forces in global affairs. It is awkward, therefore, that there has never been much cross-fertilization between the study of TOC and the study of politics and IR. One would expect IR realism to delve into the day-to-day reality of the many clashes between nation-states and their respective national interests, exploring how TOC groups influence state behavior by utilizing (or exploiting) formal or informal elements of national power. However, this expectation goes unmet, as IR realism has evolved to prioritize structural analysis — especially with the rise of Kenneth Waltz’s neorealism, which yet again underlines the role of great powers and the pressures within the anarchical structure of the international system. In this framework, TOC does not feature as an analytical or empirical factor. Ignoring TOC for the sake of methodological simplicity or parsimony comes at a cost – it’s akin to flying blind.

Case in Point: TOC and War in Ukraine

The Russo-Ukrainian war has forced a drastic rerouting of illicit flows. The traditional smuggling paths that once carved their silent tracks through Ukraine have been disrupted by active conflict zones, leading organized crime groups to seek alternative routes through less-monitored border areas, as detailed in the research by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime. These shifts are not merely adaptations but strategic transformations that exploit new vulnerabilities, particularly in border areas less equipped to handle such challenges​​.

In the chaos of war, the boundaries between state actors and organized crime have blurred. Ukrainian authorities have found themselves in reluctant yet often necessary partnerships with criminal networks. This collaboration can range from leveraging these groups’ local knowledge and influence to maintain order, to more direct involvement where organized crime acts as an arm of state operations without robust law enforcement​​​​. This unsettling alliance was illustrated starkly when Ukrainian security services reportedly called upon organized criminals to help root out Russian saboteurs and stabilize regions wracked by subversive activities. While these measures are desperate, they underscore the complex role that organized crime plays in the fabric of national security during tumultuous times​​.

The strategic implications of TOC in the context of the Ukrainian conflict extend well beyond its borders, influencing NATO and the EU’s security strategies. The transformation of criminal ecosystems, as noted by Virginia Commonwealth University’s Jay Albanese, challenges established norms and creates new international security dilemmas​​. This transformation includes the increasing involvement of criminal groups in activities traditionally reserved for state actors, such as logistics and even direct combat support, complicating international efforts to stabilize the region.

The role of Russia in this evolving criminal landscape cannot be overstated. Not only does the conflict bear the hallmark of heightened Russian influence operations, but there is also an observable shift in how Russian and Ukrainian organized crime groups interact. Historically intertwined, these groups have found themselves increasingly at odds, mirroring the geopolitical fracture lines drawn by the war. This realignment is notably seen in the breakdown of partnerships; once governed by mutual benefit, they are now sundered by national allegiances and survival strategies​​.

A Look Ahead: Policy Recommendations

As Ukraine and its international partners look toward reconstruction and recovery, the specter of organized crime looms large. With vast inflows of foreign aid and reconstruction funds on the horizon, the potential for corruption and the infiltration of criminal interests into the rebuilding process is a significant risk. The dual use of humanitarian aid channels for smuggling operations is just one of many such examples.​​

So, how should policy experts respond to this complex intersection of international politics and criminal organizations?

Amidst the increasing interconnection between TOC and geopolitics, there is an urgent call for policymakers to reconsider the issue of organized crime along two lines. Firstly, they must confront the problem head-on and recognize the strategic significance of organized crime groups and their activities. This does not imply that every TOC group or cartel acts as an agent of a state; some do, while others do not. However, historical evidence and current data suggest a simple correlation: where geopolitical tensions rise, so does organized crime. This underscores the need for policymakers to allocate more resources to research and scholarship that approaches TOC from an IR perspective. Both theorists and practitioners have long acknowledged that organized crime is a complex phenomenon requiring a multidisciplinary approach. In addition to this, we propose the integration of a distinct geopolitical perspective.

Written by Professor Robert Schuett & Viktor Kharyton