'Drown Russians in Drugs': How Ukraine Unleashed a Hybrid War on Russia
19:04 GMT 07.06.2022 (Updated: 19:09 GMT 07.06.2022)
© Sputnik / Sergey VenyavskyNarcotic substances in the forensic laboratory of the drug control department for the Southern Federal District (SFD).
© Sputnik / Sergey Venyavsky/
The volume of drugs smuggled from Ukraine to Russia over the past several years is enough to poison the population of an entire city.
"Drone" (mephedrone) and "flakka"(alpha-Pyrrolidinopentiophenone, a.k.a. alpha-PVP) started pouring into Russia eight years ago following the Maidan coup in Ukraine. Synthetic drugs became as prolific as heroin was in the 1990s.
One of the groups which started trafficking drugs from Ukraine in 2014 and mostly consisted of Ukrainians was the KhimProm Group. It would smuggle up to half a tonne of synthetic drugs per week, thus starting a war to destroy Russia from within, with the actors’ origins tracing back to the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU).
The annual turnover of KhimProm exceeded two billion roubles ($33.5 million). Such clandestine operations, which have also developed logistics networks, still operate throughout Russia with Ukrainians as their main workforce. Sputnik interviewed Russian law enforcement officers and convicted drug dealers serving sentences in Russia to find out why Ukraine has become the main source of labour and supplier of designer drugs to Russia.
Alexander is a member of one of the Russian law enforcement agencies fighting illegal trafficking. He has considered himself a soldier in this new hybrid war for the past eight years of his 15-year-long service, and the enemy's main weapon in this war was drugs.
"Drug trafficking was already one of the most difficult crimes to detect, and we caught and arrested no more than 5-10% of all drug dealers. Following the outbreak of hostilities in the Donbass, Russian law enforcement agencies solved no more than 1–2% of such crimes. The number of crimes has increased as well,” Alexander told us.
The situation was exacerbated when Ukrainian law enforcement officers almost completely cut off contact with their Russian counterparts, he adds.
"I don't think that this drug intervention began without their [Ukrainian law enforcement] knowledge. They've declared a kind of hybrid war against us, which has been going on for eight years now," he said.
According to the Information and Analytical Centre of the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs, about 7,200 Ukrainians were detained for drug crimes in Russia between 2014 and 2021.
Artem, a native of Donetsk, is one of them. Like law enforcement officer Alexander, he is former military and knows first-hand what war is. Artem, who is currently serving his sentence in a prison near Orenburg, Russia, used to serve in the Donetsk militia. He conscripted in 2014 when the Ukrainian Army was approaching his home city.
After several years of service, he was seeking a civilian job and was approached by an unknown man on the Russian Vkontakte social media platform. The man offered Artem 40,000 roubles ($670.80) per month, which was more than enough to feed his entire family for up to two months.
"I agreed, and the person who corresponded with me told me to leave for Lugansk", he explained.
Artem was then interviewed in Lugansk and sent to Russia. You can guess the rest: the arrest, the trial and the Orenburg prison.
His recruitment story resembles that of other Ukrainians convicted of drug trafficking. The scheme was almost always the same: a person living in a Ukraine city would find an advertisement for a job in Russia. These ads could be found in minibuses, shops, at train stations or on the Internet. Unidentified people then offered them a job as a courier in exchange for a pay that most Ukrainians would consider substantial. The person who fell for the bait contacted the employer by phone or via Internet and received an invitation for an interview in a cafe.
© Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) FSB busts mephedrone lab
FSB busts mephedrone lab
© Russian Federal Security Service (FSB)/
The potential recruit was usually met by two strong guys, who promised a solid salary for work in Russia. They gave the recruit money to travel and to rent a house, and they always supplied them with a smartphone with the encrypted messenger SovegMe installed, in which the handlers’ contacts had already been saved. The new drug trafficker would then go to Moscow, where their misadventures would begin.
Upon arrival, Artem was instructed to order a bank card in his name and travel to one of the cities chosen by the handlers, rent an apartment and wait for further instructions. These instructions consisted in finding a hidden cache with drugs, dividing it into doses and stashing it around town for resale. From that moment, the Ukrainian employee would begin his "military" career as a drug dealer.
Apart from the same recruitment scheme, the arrested drug dealers from Ukraine shared something else in common.
When asked about people who offered them the job and who supervised their activities in Russia, the convicts began to get nervous. However, after a brief pause they would reveal that they were introduced into the illegal business by the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU).
Artem from Donetsk says that during the interview in Lugansk, a recruiter showed him an SBU ID and explained that he was looking for people to run a drug business in Russia. Artem does not name any details that would identify the officer, since he still has relatives in Ukraine and fears for their lives.
Andrei, who just recently finished serving his sentence, is more open about the SBU's involvement. He was born in Ukraine before moving to Russia. When he found himself in financial problems in 2014, SBU Lieutenant Colonel Vladimir Storchak, with whom he had connections since his days in Ukraine, introduced him to another SBU officer - Dmitry. The latter offered Andrei the chance to raise some money by handling "cargo transportation" in Russia.
Andrei soon learnt what kind of cargo transportation it was, trafficking shipments of between 5 and 200 kilograms of synthetic drugs from one city to another and hiding them in stashes. However, Andrei's time as a drug trafficker ended in 2015, when he was arrested moving one of the drug shipments in Kurgan. He was sentenced to seven years, but was released early and is on probation.
To force Andrei to cooperate, his SBU recruiter Dmitry threatened him.
"Do not forget that your parents live in Ukraine, and now you will have to work for us anyway and you will always remember that they are here [in Ukraine] and you are there [in Russia]. Their health and life will depend on how you carry out our instructions", Andrei recalls Dmitry as saying.
Other Ukrainians also recount that in response to their attempts to get out of the drug business, handlers either demanded that they return their travel allowances or threatened them, for example by sending them a photo of the house where their family lived.
International drug trafficking is not the only scheme that SBU handlers were involved in. They also branched out into designer drug production.
"The KhimProm drug syndicate, which operated in 14 regions of Russia (it was liquidated in 2017, 47 of the 67 detained members of the group were citizens of Ukraine), produced between 150 and 500 kilograms of controlled substances per week. And in total, in recent years, the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) and the Ministry of Internal Affairs have terminated over 500 laboratories. You can count how much drugs they produced and how many people they could poison", law enforcement officer Alexander explained.
The drug laboratories set up with the help of the SBU mainly produced two relatively new types of synthetic drugs - mephedrone (a.k.a. “drone”) and alpha-PVP (sometimes referred to as "flakka").
"The effect of these euphoriants on the human body, and even more so on the body of a teenager, has not been fully studied. But we can already note the strongest changes in the psyche and the pathological deviations detected after a prolonged use", Alexander explained.
According to law enforcement agency officers, Ukrainians either built laboratories in the border areas and smuggled drugs into Russia or set up production and distribution within Russia’s territory. For example, in 2019, in the Belgorod region alone, 62 kg of drugs were seized from circulation, including 7 kg of synthetic drugs. In 2020, this figure increased almost nine-fold to 534 kg, of which more than half (343 kg) were designer drugs. In 2021, the volume of seized drugs doubled again, to 1,066 kg.
Alexander says that a laboratory at maximum capacity can produce up to 30 kg of drugs per day. Rent, chemical equipment and reagent costs are minimal.
One of arrested chemists was also called Alexander, a native from the Kirovograd region. Chemist Alexander led an illegal laboratory in the Moscow region a few years ago. He is currently awaiting a court verdict in Moscow and has already faced trial for drug production in Ukraine in the past. He reluctantly reveals the identity and methods used to convince him to return to the drug business and go to Russia to “work". According to Alexander, a graduate of the SBU Academy called Roman offered him the role, but he claims he cannot remember any further details about him.
29 January 2020, 17:11 GMT
Unlike other Ukrainians hired for the job, Alexander was not a mere grunt in this hybrid war warranting a simple interview in a café. The future chemist was sent to one of the hostels in the centre of Kiev where he had to pass a lie detector test.
"The interviewers used a polygraph. They were interested in the following: whether I am going to steal money or consume the product, whether I had any connections in the law enforcement, whether I desire to build a career in this business", chemist Alexander says.
In Russia, Alexander quickly bought everything necessary to set up the laboratory, while all the instructions concerning what and how to "cook" were received from the handler via messenger.
"We produced about five kilograms per day, which at retail cost [sold for] about 2,000 roubles ($33.5) per gram, that is two million roubles ($33,500) per kilogram, which is 10 million ($167,714) per day. This is a crazy profit, just crazy, despite the fact that the reagents cost next to nothing. And we were paid just pennies", he claims.
The chemists hid the product in the forests, from where it was taken away and re-stashed by a wholesale courier at the instructions of handlers. The scheme was organised in such a way that manufacturers and distributors never crossed paths. Despite this, particularly distinguished couriers could be promoted to work in the laboratory.
The handlers paid special attention to the secrecy of their endeavour. Employees received money for production needs through QIWI and bitcoin wallets or on bank cards issued to different people. In case anyone got stopped by the police, each dealer had their own story explaining why they came to Russia. In case the stories didn't work, couriers carried a hefty bundle of banknotes with them at all times to try and negotiate with officers "on the spot".
Drugs as a New Weapon
Who profited from the sale of drugs? Certainly not the Ukrainians who worked on behalf of the handlers. They were earning between 20-40,000 roubles ($335-$670) a month in 2015 selling between 10 and 100 dozes at between 1,300 and 2,000 roubles ($21-$33) each.
Surplus profits from the sale of "dope" were reaped by Ukrainian "generals" - actual owners of online stores - and their patrons among the SBU employees. The proceeds from the operations were transferred via the same QIWI and bitcoin wallets.
"Money from the sale of drugs was cashed out through the banking system of Ukraine, in which PrivatBank played the leading role. The SBU officers, who were turning a blind eye to the recruitment of drug dealers in Kiev or recruiting them on their own, received part of these incomes. The SBU then directed these funds to finance right-wing radical groups such as the Right Sector* or Azov [battalion]", a source in a Russian Security Service Agency told us.
However, in addition to reaping mega profits, the handlers of these drug operations pursued other goals. In a conversation with couriers, some of them directly said that their task was to make Russian youth "drown in drugs".
History knows cases when countries organised drug interventions in other states in order to achieve political goals. The 19th century opium wars in China is a fine example. Britain’s efforts to ship its goods to China were blocked by the Qing dynasty’s pursuit of a policy shielding the empire from foreign influence. In response, London organised the trafficking of Indian opium to China, thus boosting the financial income of their colony and at the same time pressing Chinese authorities to cooperate.
In 1839, the emperor closed the country's market to all merchants and smugglers from Britain and India, prompting London to launch an offensive against China, in which the Crown prevailed. Beijing was forced to open its ports to British goods, pay a hefty indemnity and give up Hong Kong. In turn, the country started suffering from public unrest and its population began to die out.
Right Sector* is a organization banned in Russia