There has been a great deal of debate about the nexus of immigration and criminal behavior. In the news, we see many examples of ordinary Americans attacked by illegal immigrants. Much of the attention has focused on immigrants from Mexico and Central America; the exploits of criminal gangs like MS-13 in the United States are well documented.
But there are other parts of the world that have brought mayhem, death, property loss, and white-collar crime, such as money laundering and stock fraud, into the country. Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, is one of these places. And the problem is far more complex than illegal immigration per se. Poor vetting even before foreigners get to our borders often allows sophisticated criminals into the U.S. These con artists and gangsters disguise themselves as business people or asylum seekers. Some pretend to pursue legitimate investment opportunities in the U.S.
With impeachment focusing on relations between President Trump and Ukrainian President Zelensky, it’s clear the former Soviet republic of Ukraine deserves extra scrutiny. The media is fixated on two Soviet-born Americans, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman. The Florida businessmen have recently become major GOP donors and supporters of President Trump, while attempting to establish back-channel contacts between Ukrainian politicians, oligarchs, and our government. Both have had a relationship with the former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, now acting as the President’s lawyer, and both have been indicted for campaign law violations.
The legacy of corruption of the former Soviet Union still permeates Eastern Europe, and Ukraine is one of the worst offenders. According to Mark Galeotti, Professor of Global Affairs at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs and an expert on transnational crime, Ukraine’s conflict with Russia, combined with its culture of corruption, has turned it into Europe’s petri dish for criminal activities.
Other than rhetorical platitudes spewed by Ukraine’s politicians and business elites, little if anything has changed in Ukraine. The International Monetary Fund and other international donors have repeatedly cast doubt on that country’s dubious claims of progress in rooting out corruption from all levels of society. The West has even held up additional promised aid in order to force compliance with anti-corruption measures.
Although Ukraine is an ally of the United States, and many who have immigrated from Ukraine in the past are talented, law abiding, and have become responsible citizens, not all is well with the recent surge of immigrants from the embattled East European nation. Many immigrants from Ukraine to the U.S. have brought the Soviet criminal legacy with them onto American soil. Just in June of 2019, a Ukrainian recidivist with a drunk driving conviction killed a group of Marine veterans in a devastating vehicle crash.
A Litany of Criminality
Volodymyr Zhukhovskyy, who came to the U.S. as a refugee has been charged in their deaths and those of two of their loved ones after allegedly causing a crash in Randolph, New Hampshire, NBC Boston and the Boston Globe reported. A Grand Jury indicted Mr. Zhukhovskyy on 23 charges.
Zhukhovskyy reportedly had multiple run-ins with the law dating back seven years. In 2013, Zhukhovskyy was convicted of drunk driving and had his driver’s license suspended for 210 days. At the time, he was called an “immediate threat” by state officials. In 2017, Zhukhovskyy was convicted on drug charges including the distribution of heroin and cocaine.
In the United States the “Odessa Mafia” (as the Ukrainian criminal network is referred to) is based in the Brighton Beach district of Brooklyn, New York. According to multiple media sources, it is regarded as the most powerful post-Soviet criminal organization in America. It has expanded into other major city hubs such as Miami Beach, San Francisco and Los Angeles, where it has established collaborative associations with locally-based Armenian and Israeli criminal organizations. It’s known for being a very secretive organization, being involved in protection rackets, loansharking, murder-for-hire, as well as fuel tax fraud rackets and narcotics trafficking.
Leonid Feinberg and Boris Nayfeld who came from Ukraine were notorious gangsters in the 1990s. Recently, U.S. law enforcement targeted Semyon Mogilevich, an alleged criminal mastermind who ended up on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted List. Similarly, a Ukrainian energy oligarch with ties to Russia, Dmytro Firtash, has been indicted in the U.S. on bribery charges, as he fights extradition from his residence in Austria. Neither Firtash nor Mogilevich had immigrated to America, but both stand accused of perpetrating sophisticated criminal schemes here.
Ukrainian self-proclaimed tycoon and alleged criminal, Pavel Fuks (sometimes spelled Fuchs) controls multiple properties in America. While Zhukhovskyy was a refugee, Fuks had a U.S.-issued visa that allowed him to visit frequently and for extended periods. Both Ukrainians had legal status to stay in the U.S. In the past, Mr. Fuks regularly vacationed on Florida’s Fisher Island and in New York, and had made efforts to befriend American politicians, lawyers, and business leaders.
In 2015 BTA Bank, a major bank based in Kazakhstan, filed a lawsuit against Pavel Fuks, and eventually won over $50 million against him. Three Ukrainian media outlets, including Chronicals, have detailed Pavel Fuks’ alleged involvement in heroin trafficking into Europe.
More and more information on massive money laundering and theft of IMF aid to Ukraine is coming to light daily. Ukrainian corruption can seep into the American political, banking, and judiciary infrastructure if left unchecked. It relies on technology, banking (conventional, cash and cryptocurrency), and human capital.
President Trump’s administration is right to crack down on the abuses in our immigration system. The green lighting of criminals and gangs into the United States has hurt many an American citizen, whether it be through drunk driving, murder, property theft, money laundering, or by unduly influencing and corrupting our political system. There are many vested interests who will resist such a crackdown — the Mexican cartels for instance. We can be sure Ukrainian organized crime will also be one of them.
Patrick O’Malley is a former American intelligence operative who has lived in Ukraine for the past 15 years working for a variety of governmental and corporate clients.
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