DATE and the Hybrid Threat of the Transnational Criminal Syndicate

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The Australian Army’s newly adopted Decisive Action Training Environment (DATE) has significantly broadened the complexity of the threat picture away from the more conventional Musorian Armed Forces and brought with it a slew of new actors and issues.

Adapted to real world threats, the new stakeholders in this updated training environment include near-peer conventional threats as well as insurgents, guerrillas, terrorists and transnational criminals. Arguably the most formidable element of DATE is the real phenomenon of the ‘hybrid threat’ which vastly surpasses its conventional predecessor in complexity.

A significant stakeholder in the new hybrid threat picture is that of the transnational criminal organisation. DATE has identified this sub section of threat actor because some of these groups act as paramilitary and as facilitators of arms, traffickers of sensitive information or control illicit trades. It is important to identify these groups and understand what effect they can have in the various theatres of operation.

One of the most strikingly versatile, developed, and highly sophisticated operators in the transnational criminal world is that of the mafia. A notable example of this threat is the Russian Mafia or Vory v Zokone, described in Mark Galeotti’s book The Vory: Russia’s Super Mafia. Founded during the time of the Czars, the collapse of the Soviet Union brought new opportunities for rapid expansion with an array of new actors to add to the increasingly complicated milieu that was Russia’s ever-changing underworld. Among these new players were former athletes, boxers, wrestlers and a small but impactful number of afghantsy, the soldiers who had served in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation of the 1970s and 80s.

The bulk of these new players would take up positions as muscle or enforcers and some would rise in the ranks, often by utilising legitimate (or seemingly legitimate) businesses. When the collapse of the Soviet Union saw social and economic upheaval in Russia and Eastern Europe the underworld was engulfed in a brutal war which would further alter this landscape.

Among the turbulence of this period a new actor emerged in the Russian underworld, the avtoritet, who further blurred the lines between legitimate business and organised crime. The enduring development of this period was the crossover between the underworld, the business world and the state’s institutions, namely the military and intelligence services.

It is speculated that this partnership has seen Russian organised crime networks play significant roles in assassinations abroad on behalf of the Russian Government. These kinds of targeted operations epitomise DATE’s hybrid threat where the Kremlin’s political objectives are carried out by means of cooperation between state intelligence services and underworld enforcers. Such methods can also easily be adapted to inflict harm on friendly forces deployed in operational theatres.

Another more significant potential flashpoint with this phenomenon are Russian private military contractors, with the Wagner Group being the most notable. Known for its involvement in some of the heaviest fighting in Eastern Ukraine and Syria, the Wagner Group is believed to have had significant initial funding and high level ongoing involvement from Yvgeny Prigozhin, a well-connected and highly influential and successful businessman who owns St. Petersburg’s first Casinos and restaurants, grocery chains and catering businesses.

Yvgeny Prigozhin epitomises the avtoritet breed of transnational criminal and his dealings- particularly founding the Wagner group- exemplify the manner in which DATE’s notion of the hybrid threat can develop from humble criminal roots into a full-fledged threat in an operational setting.

As the criminal world becomes increasingly intertwined with commercial enterprises and becomes ever more reliant on, and enhanced by, the recruitment of military and intelligence services’ personnel, the more urgent the need for a comprehensive strategy. Such a strategy needs to take into account the fact that contemporary transnational criminal groups are no longer simply bandits that operate across borders.

The contemporary transnational criminal enterprise that emanates from Russia, Eastern Europe and the Caucuses is now a highly sophisticated series of networks that have the ability to hide in plain sight, while also operating in cyber space and execute their objectives by means of covert and direct action.

They are manned, at times, by skilled, experienced operators with military and intelligence service backgrounds and can be called upon by the state to carry out tasks on behalf of political interests with dangerously effective plausible deniability by government officials.

Much could be said about just how dangerous the transnational criminal group could be to Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel and operations in the future. The most likely course of action for organised crime groups includes the funding and facilitating of arms sales to belligerent groups that may be opposed to ADF operations. Similarly, they could carry out information operations or even commit outright violence against a civilian population to erode trust in the ADF or local government.

Russian intelligence services are renowned for using information (and disinformation) warfare, like character assassination and using cyber warfare and social media platforms to discredit and delegitimise the Kremlin’s adversaries.  While much of the targeted violence is aimed at Kremlin dissidents and whistle-blowers, there is nothing stopping a hybrid criminal threat from directly targeting ADF personnel during opportune times of vulnerability.

Of all the hybrid threats presented by DATE, the threat emanating from the transnational criminal group is arguably the most challenging because of its ability to work in synch with other belligerents and stakeholders in the operational environment. With an almost endless budget, the transnational criminal organisation has far less constraints than state actors.

While interfering or clashing with ADF missions and personnel may be extremely low on their list of priorities, the force that could be brought to bear on ADF missions is potentially catastrophic. DATE has presented a complex array of stakeholders in the training environment for the very reason of adjusting to present day threats and prompting the use of a broader array of assets to achieve mission success. The ADF would do well to use this tool to prepare to counter the threats of transnational crime in the future.

About the Author: CPL Barry Laming served in the 2nd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment as a Rifleman and French linguist. In 2013 he transferred to 5th/6th Battalion, Royal Victoria Regiment and completed a Graduate Diploma in International Relations at Deakin University during which time he was Chapter President of Australian Student Veterans Association.