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Why did Russia shut down its version of the DEA?

The story of Putin’s decision to dissolve Russia’s Federal Drug Control Service involves turf wars, a tanking economy, and allegations of rampant corruption.
Imagen por Alexander Zemlianichenko/EPA

Early on the morning of January 1, 2013, a brawl erupted in eastern Siberia. The identities of the combatants — a 27-year-old special agent with Russia's Federal Drug Control Service (FSKN) and a 50-year-old police major — indicated it was no ordinary New Year's scuffle. Investigators later said the melee, which left the younger man hospitalized with a traumatic brain injury, was provoked when FSKN agents searched the police official's son for drugs.


Although the incident was apparently isolated, the fight was symbolic of the longstanding rivalry between Russia's Interior Ministry, which oversees the country's police, and the FSKN. This past April, President Vladimir Putin abruptly ended the conflict by abolishing the FSKN, a shocking move that would be roughly equivalent to President Barack Obama shutting down the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

Nearly three months later, Putin's reasons for doing away with the FSKN are still unclear. The agency was perpetually embroiled in turf wars with other Russian state security forces, and its former director, a longtime Putin ally, has been accused of rampant corruption and involvement with a Russian mafia operation in Spain.

But regardless of why it happened, the decision will likely have global ramifications. Russia is a key link in the so-called "narcotic superhighway" that funnels heroin from Afghanistan to Western Europe, and a recent surge in domestic drug use has led to soaring rates of HIV infection across the country, a crisis that could eventually spill across the border to other countries in Asia and Eastern Europe.

Alexander Mikhailov, former head of the FSKN department for interagency relations, who supports the transfer of the drug service's functions to the Interior Ministry, said the move will likely cause a temporary "breakdown" in drug-fighting efforts.

Related: How Russia Became the New Global Leader in the War on Drugs


"Now there will be problems with drug dealing and use, [but] later it will get better" as the ministry settles into its expanded role, Mikhailov told VICE News.

Activists who work with drug users in Russia say it's unlikely that the FSKN's dissolution will soften the country's draconian drug policies. Opioid substitution treatments like methadone, which have been widely adopted in Western countries, have effectively been banned in Russia, and little social outreach work is done to prevent drug use.

"The only thing we can hope for is that imprisonment under narcotics laws will decrease, since the army of narco-police who feed themselves exclusively by catching ordinary, drug-dependent people has been shrunken significantly," said Anya Sarang, head of the Andrey Rylkov Foundation, the only group doing harm reduction outreach to drug users in Moscow.

'Many personnel worked honestly, but many others started to cooperate with drug structures.'

The fall of the Iron Curtain in 1991 opened Russia to the international narcotics trade, especially opiates from Afghanistan and Central Asia. The '90s also saw the rise of the Russian mafia and widespread government corruption. Drug lords were often protected by a krysha, or "roof," made up of corrupt officials within the police or security services.

The FSKN was founded by presidential decree in 2003 in response to the growing drug problem. That year, 4 million Russians — about 3 percent of the population — were using some type of drug, according to the FSKN. Thirty percent were using heroin.


"The creation of the FSKN was in response to real threats that existed in society: The growth in drug addiction, rapidly expanding drug distribution, and most of all the corruption of the police who worked on this," Mikhailov said. "Many personnel worked honestly, but many others started to cooperate with drug structures, so no success could be expected there."

The FSKN grew to include 40,000 employees, and its first director eventually clashed with the head of the FSB, the spy agency that replaced the KGB after the fall of the Soviet Union. To resolve the situation, Putin dismissed the heads of both agencies in 2008, appointing one of his oldest allies, former top FSB official Viktor Ivanov, to head the anti-drug service.

A colorless bureaucrat, Ivanov wielded significant influence over Kremlin appointments after Putin became president, and as head of the FSKN, Ivanov oversaw a more hardline approach to Russia's drug problem. In 2010, a presidential order outlined a harsher policy to tackle "tolerance" of drugs in Russia by imprisoning users and subjecting them to "social pressure."

Related: The Golden Age of Drug Trafficking: How Meth, Cocaine, and Heroin Move Around the World

"You only have to think a minute to realize that when drug officers and doctors get a strong message from state that drug use should not be tolerated, the only response to users is hatred, stigma, and discrimination," said Mikhail Golichenko, a Russian lawyer who works for the Canadian HIV-AIDS Legal Network.


Critics have said the FSKN was focusing more on low-level users than traffickers. In one particularly outrageous case, a family of bakers from the city of Voronezh were sentenced to eight years in prison for large-scale drug trafficking because they used poppy seeds to make a traditional pastry. Even as Russia's prison population has gone down, the number of prisoners convicted of drug crimes has vastly increased, and three-fourths of them have been convicted of possession or trafficking in small amounts, Sarang said.

While FSKN agents cracked down on low-level drug use, the agency's leaders were allegedly helping one of Russia's most notorious gangs smuggle cocaine and launder money. Before his death by radiation poisoning in 2006, former FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko authored a report that linked Ivanov and his right-hand man at the FSKN, Nikolai Aulov, to the powerful Tambov gang, which was allegedly involved in shipping cocaine from Colombia to Western Europe via St. Petersburg.

'When drug officers and doctors get a strong message from state that drug use should not be tolerated, the only response to users is hatred, stigma, and discrimination.'

In May 2016, a Spanish court issued a warrant for Aulov's arrest, accusing him of helping the Tambov gang infiltrate the highest levels of Russian government and business. Ivanov admitted Aulov was in contact with the gang leader but said it was only to receive "operationally useful information," denying the other accusations. He declined a request for comment from VICE News.


Putin dissolved the FSKN just days after Aulov's arrest warrant was issued. The move came as part of an overall restructuring that also moved the Interior Ministry's riot police and special forces over to a new national guard, placing them under federal rather than regional control. The federal migration service was also disbanded.

In a quickly deleted Facebook post that the FSKN later denied he had written, Ivanov apparently suggested political intrigues were to blame, arguing the "mistaken" decision to disband the FSKN was "made under pressure from people motivated by non-governmental interests."

Related: Portugal's Example: What Happened After It Decriminalized All Drugs, From Weed to Heroin

Still, the FSKN's liquidation may have been tied to questions of efficacy and cost rather than any scandals. Russian media reported on a draft decree to dissolve the FSKN last year, and with the economy in recession, the government announced it would cut its budget by 10 percent. Some reports said Russia could save 30 billion rubles (about $465 million) a year without the FSKN, which was viewed by some as redundant because the Interior Ministry also investigates drug cases.

"The pie is getting smaller," said analyst Alexei Makarkin about the FSKN's demise. "Earlier, when there was economic growth and success, it was big enough for everyone. Now it's smaller, and there's not enough for everyone, and the role of (an agency's) efficacy and responsibilities is increased, and the demands are increased."


Although 4,000 of 27,000 FSKN employees will reportedly transfer over to the Interior Ministry, opinions differ widely on how the restructuring will affect Russia's drug problem. Golichenko said the interior ministry might be less likely than the FSKN to go after low-level drug users to boost statistics and justify its existence. He also noted that the Interior Ministry has been slightly less opposed to harm reduction than the FSKN.

Other activists, like Sarang, aren't as hopeful.

"The country's drug policy isn't changing," she said, "and its repressive function will simply be transferred to the shoulders of the [Interior Ministry]."

Follow Alec Luhn on Twitter: @ASLuhn

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