Home / Articles / Confronting the Challenge of Weaponized Corruption in the Black Sea Region and Beyond
Existing and emerging democratic nations around the world—particularly the Black Sea countries bordering Russia—face expanding threats that transcend traditional forms of warfare. Authoritarian regimes such as those of the current Russian Federation and People’s Republic of China increasingly rely on creative measures short of war to undermine, stall, or outright resist the spread of democratic principles around the world—principles that remain anathema to their tenuous grip on power. Modern efforts to counter these threats would benefit from revisiting a particularly prescient observation by the 19th century British statesman and two-time Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, who concluded:
The policy and practice of the Russian Government has always been to push forward its encroachments as fast and as far as the apathy or want of firmness of other Governments would allow it to go, but always to stop and retire when it met with decided resistance and then to wait for the next favorable opportunity.
Little has changed since Lord Palmerston’s era. In the 21st century, insecure, yet equally opportunistic, elements occupying the Kremlin maintain a policy of encroachment in selfish pursuit of geopolitical and material gains. Kremlin factions still prioritize regime survival and personal enrichment over the interests and general welfare of those outside of its exclusive, and often opaque, patronage networks.
What has changed between Palmerston’s time and the present is an apparent “apathy or want of firmness” from the Western democratic countries to challenge these pursuits. Despite a staunchly anti-democratic and destabilizing angle, the Russian Federation’s contemporary encroachments face seemingly little-to-no resistance. Recent events should raise many questions related to how Russia managed to seize control of Crimea so quickly, with so few forces, and with so little resistance. Moreover, what enables Kremlin forces and/or influences to destabilize existing democracies while simultaneously stalling further democratic reforms at home and increasingly abroad? This question should drive ordinary citizens, policy analysts, and senior democratic statesmen to demand further analysis and action. Specifically, is there a single critical element or factor enabling continued Kremlin successes short of armed conflict? If so, what must be done to wage “decided resistance” and/or harden defenses against further assaults on democracy, individual liberty, accountability, and the rule of law throughout the Black Sea region and beyond?
A Preferred Instrument of Kremlin Statecraft
The primary element that is often missed—or in certain cases dismissed—in this new era of “strategic competition” is systemic corruption and, specifically, weaponized corruption. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, weaponized corruption emerged as a preferred instrument of statecraft for kleptocratic, authoritarian regimes. Eurasia scholar Brian Whitmore warns that the growing threat of weaponized corruption is “the new communism” and injections of Kremlin black cash the new “red menace.” Others, including President Joseph Biden, identify weaponized corruption as an existential threat to democracy and, therefore, “a matter of core national security interest.” The Interim National Security Strategic Guidance further solidified the Biden administration’s commitment to “take special aim at confronting corruption,” describing this phenomenon as a scourge that “rots democracy from the inside and is increasingly weaponized by authoritarian states to undermine democratic institutions.” And while these recent words and revelations represent a critical first step, they must be met with immediate and tangible action.
Weaponized Corruption Defined
Weaponized corruption manifests itself in many forms. Specific to Russia, Alexander Vindman, the former director for Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Russia at the White House’s National Security Council, describes weaponized corruption as the use of corruption as a tool of statecraft to purposefully “interfere with, co-opt, weaken, and destabilize democratic institutions and processes.” Vindman outlines several tools and/or tactics commonly employed by the Kremlin to destroy democracies (and democratic institutions) and replace them with state-sponsored oligarchies loyal to—or at least co-opted by—the Kremlin. Specific examples include utilizing state-owned enterprises (e.g., arms trading and energy companies), private business surrogates, paramilitary groups (e.g., Wagner Group), and the Russian Orthodox Church as scions of Russian state power and influence; placing pressure on opponents of Russian oligarchs in foreign courts, while legitimizing their illicit assets abroad; laundering money through patronage networks; financing pro-Russia politicians and parties; and propping up failing economies in pro-Russian separatist regions and easing the burden of managing statelets.
Weaponized corruption also represents a form of contemporary “gray zone” warfare. According to scholar Frank Hoffman, the gray zone includes “those covert or illegal activities of non-traditional statecraft that are below the threshold of armed organized violence; including disruption of order, political subversion of government or non-governmental organizations, psychological operations, abuse of legal processes, and financial corruption as part of an integrated design to achieve strategic advantage.” Weaponized corruption also represents a recent manifestation of Russia’s New Generation Warfare (NGW) concept, which emphasizes the increased use and importance of irregular, non-military tools over conventional military ones in achieving geopolitical aims short of armed conflict. Overall, weaponized corruption reflects the changing character of modern warfare and, specifically, political warfare, i.e., “the employment of all the means at a nation’s command, short of war, to achieve its national objectives.”
Black Sea Black Markets
Few places figure as prominently in the fight against weaponized corruption as the Black Sea region. The greater Black Sea region is literally on the front lines of weaponized corruption. Testifying before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Ivan Vejvoda of the German Marshall Fund of the United States described how “corruption is a wide spread and deeply rooted phenomenon in the Black Sea region” and “a threat not only to democracy but to the states themselves.” Increasingly, dirty money and powerful oligarchs decide or, at the very least, heavily influence everything in these countries. As a result, democratic reforms remain hostage to illicit means of profiteering and other autocratic interests.
The issue of weaponized corruption is a regular topic of discussion within the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) and a recently created bipartisan Congressional Caucus against Foreign Corruption and Kleptocracy. Several prominent think tanks and special interest/advocacy groups have since launched special initiatives geared toward better understanding and countering weaponized corruption, specific to the Black Sea region and beyond. Some prominent examples include recent papers and/or initiatives released by the RAND Corporation, CSIS, Hudson Institute, FPRI, CEPA, Transparency International, Atlantic Council, and the Alliance for Security Democracy.
The Black Sea region, once a model for democratic reform movements (e.g., the color revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine), is now subjected to severe democratic backsliding. This backsliding, in turn, perpetuates a process of societal demoralization, destabilization, and delegitimization. Weak, undemocratic, and unaccountable systems of governance are necessary pre-conditions for kleptocratic state capture. Conversely, free, democratic, transparent, and accountable systems of government and a robust civil society are the best weapons against criminal state capture and, therefore, represent an existential threat to the Kremlin’s antidemocratic, authoritarian model built on fear, intimidation, political subversion, propaganda, and patronage (e.g., rewarding and enriching select loyalists at the expense of everyone else and democratic institutions writ large).
The Russian Federation’s lingering border conflicts with Ukraine and Georgia are tailored toward political destabilization and state capture rather than seizing physical terrain. This includes ensuring that its bordering states remain loyal to Kremlin influence and interests. Therefore, maintaining a status-quo reliance on conventional military deterrence alone cannot and will not secure lasting peace and stability in the Black Sea region. Combining military deterrence with traditional forms of diplomacy also will not ensure successful democratic reforms. Pro-democratic forces—including the millions of freedom-loving people throughout the region—must mobilize and collectively demand a new strategic approach. The Black Sea region desperately needs a modern containment strategy reflective of the current geopolitical realities—one that prioritizes government accountability and emboldening a whole-of-society effort to reenergize stalled democratization and stabilization processes.
A proposed framework for combating the irregular threat of weaponized corruption centers on building and leveraging a robust civil society and related special interest, advocacy, watchdog, and other mechanisms of accountability to map and ultimately expose so-called “iron triangles.” These iron triangles consist of interlocking, mutually dependent, and often a Kremlin-backed merging of crime, business, and politics.
Iron triangles not only exist in countries and small communities throughout the greater Black Sea region, but they are also expanding in size, scope, and influence. A 2008 national intelligence report warned of an “apparent growing nexus in Russian and Eurasian states among government, organized crime, intelligence services, and big business figures [oligarchs].” Misha Glenny, in his 2008 book, McMafia, warned of a growing “triangular conspiracy between oligarchs, bureaucrats, and organized crime,” which he described as “extremely strong and resilient.” Their strength and resiliency likely stems from an outer protective ring, or “krysha,” consisting of Russian security services and/or other proxy elements enlisted to preserve, protect, and defend Kremlin geopolitical aims and interests. British scholar and expert on Russian organized crime Mark Galeotti often refers to krysha (and supporting smotryashchye—i.e., local observers or lookouts) to describe an emerging political-criminal nexus and what he calls Russia’s “Crimintern.”
Iron triangles also form the functional source of strength and power in any campaign of state capture by way of weaponized corruption. Military planners refer to an adversary’s primary source of strength and power as its center of gravity (COG), and the process of conducting a COG analysis remains relevant to both regular and irregular campaigns. COG analyses enable campaign planners to reveal critical vulnerabilities and/or weaknesses that can be exploited in a campaign designed to defeat the adversary.
Critical to the function of iron triangles is the profitability of such an alliance and, specifically, a steady distribution of dirty money. In order for these iron triangles to remain profitable, certain conditions must exist. Typically, participating entities must operate under some expectation of impunity or protection against exposure, accountability, and criminal prosecution. Undemocratic, unaccountable, and authoritarian regimes that lack strong systems of governance, a thriving civil society, and a free press present ideal conditions for iron triangles to thrive. Reinforcing this notion, Moisés Naím, in his award winning book, Illicit, observed that “illict traders cannot prosper without help from governments or accomplices in key public offices,” while further stating that unless these criminal networks “face diminished incentives to trade—less demand, lower margins, higher risks—it is more or less futile to talk about other remedies.”
Therefore, governments alone are not the most effective means to counter iron triangles. Instead, a diverse and mutually supportive network of public, private, local, as well as international and multinational elements must be committed to identifying, mapping, and exposing iron triangles.
Critical Role of Civil Society
The emphasis on private sector and other non-governmental elements is essential since many public officials may already be implicated (either wittingly or unwittingly) and, therefore, less likely to cooperate and/or take counter-corruption efforts seriously. Traditional forms of diplomacy may also fall flat due to risks of potentially offending the partner nation and de-railing other key strategic initiatives. Instituting an independent process of illuminating the various beneficiaries and interlocutors of this corrupt network will, ideally, compel public action as well as ensure public condemnation of criminals, co-conspirators, and/or complicit government officials alike.
Naming, shaming, silencing, and sanctioning are just a few ways to help delegitimize and ultimately dismantle iron triangles and, by extension, malign Kremlin influence. Under the proposed framework, the goal or desired end state is establishing less permissive environments where the risk outweighs the reward. Since many elements of an iron triangle are opportunistic and motivated by power and profit rather than ideology, they will most likely—when met with decided resistance—opt to shift to more permissive environments or stop altogether. When there is less opportunity to profit and more profitable (and perhaps less risky) opportunities exist elsewhere, logic suggests that those same criminal elements will adjust accordingly. This forced displacement, in turn, creates vital openings for much-needed reform.
Ultimately, weaponized corruption provides autocratic regimes a mechanism to undermine and weaken democracies while also solidifying key patronage networks necessary for power consolidation abroad and, in the most extreme cases, state capture. Unlike conventional military incursions, weaponized corruption enables easy—and much less apparent—penetration of national borders, populations, and centers of political power without risking or warranting a military response.
The most pressing, immediate threat to democracy and democratic principles is no longer large, nation-state armies waging conventional wars of attrition along the Fulda Gap, i.e., 20th century Cold War thinking. Instead, 21st century democracies around the world are under constant and unrelenting assault by increasingly irregular (e.g., covert, proxy non-state actors) and asymmetric forces—forces that the Western Alliance has so far been unable and perhaps even unwilling to successfully counter short of armed conflict. The Black Sea region needs more than just a promise of eventual North Atlantic Treaty Organization military expansion to reenergize regional governance and civil society reforms, restore legitimacy, and reverse recent trends of democratic backsliding. The global community must mobilize and act now to wage decided resistance against weaponized corruption.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.