‘Drowning Russians in Drugs.’ How Ukraine Unleashed a Hybrid War

‘Drowning Russians in Drugs.’ How Ukraine Unleashed a Hybrid War

‘Drowning Russians in Drugs.’ How Ukraine Unleashed a Hybrid War

Eight years ago, in the wake of the Maidan uprisings, Ukraine flooded Russia with bath salts and speed. Synthetic drugs became just as popular as heroine in the 1990s. The KhimProm, a group mostly formed by Ukrainian nationals, has been sending up to 500 kg of synthetic drugs to the Russian regions just in a week. This is how Ukraine started a war to destroy Russia from the inside. The sources of this operation can be traced back to the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU).

‘Drowning Russians in drugs.’ How Ukraine unleashed a hybrid war

Eight years ago, in the wake of the Maidan uprisings, Ukraine flooded Russia with bath salts and speed. Synthetic drugs became just as popular as heroine in the 1990s. The KhimProm, a group mostly formed by Ukrainian nationals, has been sending up to 500 kg of synthetic drugs to the Russian regions just in a week. This is how Ukraine started a war to destroy Russia from the inside. The sources of this operation can be traced back to the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU).

The supply volumes would have sufficed for an entire city to die from drug overdose. In 2017, Russian law enforcement agencies and security services eliminated the KhimProm.

This was a major drug cartel specialised in synthetics with an annual turnover of 2 billion roubles. Underground production facilities of this kind operate their extended logistics networks across Russia to this day, often staffed with Ukrainians. We talked to Russian law enforcement agencies and convicted drug dealers serving prison terms in various Russian cities to understand why it was Ukraine that has been serving as a talent pool for this sector, becoming the main supplier of synthetic drugs to Russia, and what do the Ukrainian special services have to do with this. Read this article to find out.

Hybrid war

– What do you know about mephedrone and alpha-PVP?

– Nothing, apart from the fact that they are dangerous drugs.

– In that case, we’ll start at the beginning…

This is how Alexander, who works for a Russian law enforcement agency where he specialises in fighting drug trafficking in Russia, started our conversation. Sitting in front of me in a Moscow cafe was a well-built middle-aged man with a thoughtful face and a kind smile. If you stumble on him in the street, in a shop or during a metro commute, you will never think that this modest and straightforward man is an officer who had served in conflict zones and has been fighting international drug trafficking for the past 15 years.

For the past eight years, Alexander and his colleagues have been part of a new undeclared hybrid war in which the enemy has weaponised narcotic drugs.

– Even before that, drug trafficking was one of the most challenging crimes in terms of detection and prosecution. We were able to catch just 5 to 10 percent of the total number of drug dealers. When the hostilities started in Donbass, this share fell to just 1 or 2 percent for the Russian law enforcement agencies, Alexander said.

– Why was that?

– There was more crime. Starting 2014, an inflow of synthetic drugs started from Ukraine – mephedrone and alpha-PVP, the so-called bath salts, accompanied by an influx of Ukrainians who were ready to make and sell these drugs in Russia.

– What have your Ukraine colleagues said?

– The Ukrainian law enforcement agencies severed almost all contacts with us. I believe that they were well aware of this effort to flood Russia with drugs. In fact, this was a kind of a hybrid war that was declared against us, and it has been going on for eight years now.


According to the Interior Ministry’s Centre for Information and Analysis, some 7,200 Ukrainian nationals were detained between 2014 and 2021 on charges of committing drug-related crimes in Russia.

Artyom, a Donetsk native, was among them. Just as law enforcement officer Alexander, he knows what this war is about from personal experience. Artyom is 35, but looks much older. This is probably because of the traumatic experience no one in their right mind would like to go through. Artyom is now serving a sentence in the Ninth Penal Colony near Orenburg, where during his spare time he can marvel at the peaceful sky and the hawks hovering over the Orenburg steppe, but back in 2014, with the Ukrainian army approaching Donetsk, all he saw were explosions and death. When he could no longer stay on the sidelines, he volunteered for the people’s militia.

After several years of service, Artyom resigned and tried to live a life of a civilian. This is when his life made a sharp turn that would eventually lead him to the Ninth Penal Colony near Orenburg.

– I was sitting in my courtyard when I received a message on my VKontakte account. A stranger offered me a job of a delivery man in Russia and promised a good salary of 40,000 roubles. That kind of money would be enough for two months, or at least 45 days, and I could provide for my family. I agreed, and the person behind this correspondence instructed me to travel to Lugansk, Artyom said.

He said that there was a brief job interview in Lugansk, after which he was sent to Russia. Only there did he learn that he would be delivering drugs. Quite predictably, he was arrested, put on trial and sent to the Orenburg steppe.

Other Ukrainians convicted on drug-related charges echoed Artyom’s story about how drug droppers are recruited. In most case, the pattern remained the same: people found job ads in buses, shops, train stations or online, promising work in Russia. The offer consisted of working in a delivery service and the promised salary was quite high, by Ukrainian standards. The person then contacted the employer by telephone or online, and was invited to a café for a job interview.

In most cases, the potential recruit faced two square-shouldered men who promised good pay for performing some kind of work in Russia. They offered the person money for covering travel expenses and renting a place to live, and always gave him a smartphone with СоvегМе, an encrypted messaging app, installed on it with the contact details of the curators. The recruits then travelled to Moscow without suspecting anything was wrong. This is where all the calamities started.

Once in the Russian capital, the droppers were asked to submit a selfie with the Kievsky Train Station in the background, open a bank account to get a bank card and travel to a designated city, where they were supposed to rent an apartment and wait for further instructions. What were these instructions? To find a stash of drugs, divide them into single doses and stash them for retail distribution. This is when it dawned on the recruited Ukrainians that they were about to start their ‘military’ service in drug trafficking in the rank of droppers. 

Hot on the trail of the SBU

In addition to their recruitment plans, the drug dealers from Ukraine that we interviewed have something else in common. When you start asking them about who offered them the job, what documents they showed and who supervised them once they arrived in Russia, the convicts begin to get nervous and stop talking, but after a short pause, they reveal that they were drawn into the illegal business by agents of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU). Artyom from Donetsk says the recruiter showed him an SBU ID at an interview in Lugansk, and said he was looking for drug couriers to operate in Russia. Artyom gave no details that would help identify that SBU agent. This is understandable. He has a family waiting for him in Ukraine, and he fears for their lives.

But Andrey, a recently released convict, talks a little more freely about his contacts with Ukrainian special services, only asking not to give his last name. It is really difficult to imagine by looking at him that he could do anything illegal. Andrey is a little over 40; born and raised in Ukraine, he later moved to Russia, like many, and started a family and a business – in general, was a typical middle-class Russian, until he got into financial problems in 2014.

– All that time, I kept in touch with people from Ukraine, including one person – I will tell you about him a little. Vladimir Storchak was Lieutenant Colonel of the SBU back then. In 2014, I travelled to Ukraine, and we met. At his place, I met Dmitry, whom I had not known before. He introduced himself to me as an active intelligence agent, and then offered me work in transportation services in Russia, Andrey recalls.

It didn’t take him long to find out what kind of transportation services he was hired for. Andrey was to carry synthetic drugs, from 5 to 200 kilogrammes, from one city to another and make stashes. However, Andrey’s career as a drug courier ended abruptly and predictably. He got caught in Kurgan in 2015 during one of his journeys, and spent the next seven years in a high-security prison. He got out on parole about eight months ago. He returned to his family, found a high-paying job and for the most part avoids thinking about his past life.

When asked why he did not refuse to participate in the illegal activity, Andrey quotes, almost verbatim, the words of his supervisor, Dmitry from the SBU:

 – Don’t forget that your parents live in Ukraine. You will be doing this from now on, and you will always keep in mind that they are here, and you are there. And their lives will depend on how well you do what you’re told.

– Naturally, I didn’t like that conversation at all. But given what I was told, I really had no options left, Andrey recalls.

Other Ukrainians we spoke to also recall that, if they tried to get out of the drug business, their supervisors either reminded them they would have to return their travel allowances or directly threatened them, for example, by sending the person a photo of the house where his family lived. 

Death labs

The SBU curators not only set up channels for sending droppers to Russia but also the manufacturing of drugs.

– The KhimProm drug ring, which operated in 14 regions of Russia [it was busted in 2017; 47 of the 67 detainees were the citizens of Ukraine – Ed.] and manufactured between 150 and 500 kilogrammes of substances a week. Over the past few years, the Federal Security Service and the Interior Ministry of Russia have clamped down on over 500 labs. You can imagine the amount of drugs they produced and how many people they poisoned, said Alexander, a Russian security services officer.

The drug laboratories, which were set up with Ukrainian support, usually produced two relatively new kinds of synthetic drugs: mephedrone, also known as 4-methylmethcathinone; slang names include meph and bath salts) and alpha-PVP (one of its street names is speedway).

– The influence of these euphoretics on the human body, especially the tender organism of teenagers, has not been thoroughly studied as yet. But it has been established that the long-term effects of the use of these drugs include serious and even pathological changes in mental health, Alexander noted.

The Interior Ministry’s Centre for Information and Analysis has reported an annual increase in the trafficking of synthetic drugs in our country, from 5 percent of the market in 2014 to 60 percent in 2021.

Security services officers told RIA Novosti that Ukrainians set up laboratories in border regions to smuggle drugs into Russia or organise their manufacturing and sale in Russia. In 2019, 62 kg of drugs, including 7 kg synthetic drugs, were confiscated in the Belgorod Region. The figure increased nearly nine-fold, to 534 kg, in 2020, out of which more than a half (343 kg) were synthetic drugs. The figure doubled in 2021, when security services confiscated 1,066 kg, and the share of synthetic drugs rose to more than 75 percent, or 867 kg. Alexander explained that a laboratory operating at full capacity can produce up to 30 kg of drugs a day, or 300,000 doses, and this with minimal spending on rent, equipment and chemical agents.

One of such “chemists,” as illicit drug producers are called, was Alexander from the Kirovograd Region. Several years ago, he set up an illegal drug laboratory in the Moscow Region, and now he is waiting for a verdict in the Vodnik detention ward in Moscow. He cannot be described as a casualty because he had been tried for illicit drug production in Ukraine earlier. He is not very forthcoming when asked who offered him to return to business and to earn a nice roll of money in Russia. He said that he remembered very little, that the man’s name was Roman, and that he was a graduate of the SBU National Academy.

Like the other Ukrainians, Alexander was invited for an interview before his dispatch to Russia, but a meeting with his curators in a cafe was not enough because he was offered a far from ordinary role in this hybrid war. The would-be “chemist” was sent to a hostel in central Kiev for a lie detector test. Alexander said he saw several dozen people waiting for departure to Russia at that impromptu recruitment centre.

– I took a lie detector test. They asked if I planned to steal their money or use drugs, if I had any connections at security services, and if I wanted to make a career in this business, Alexander said.

In Russia, he quickly bought everything necessary to set up a lab and received manufacturing instructions from his curator via a messenger.

– We produced up to 5 kg a day. The retail price was some 2,000 roubles per gramme, which is 2 million roubles per kilogramme. In other words, we earned 10 million roubles a day. The returns were unbelievable because chemical agents are extremely cheap. And we got paid peanuts, Alexander recalled.

The “product” was stashed in forests, from where a wholesale courier moved it to another hiding place on instructions from the curator. Only after that were drugs distributed among “retailers,” who divided their lots into small doses and placed them in dead drops around the city. Under that scheme, producers and couriers never met, but those couriers who did especially well could be promoted to jobs at the lab. “You could move up a career ladder, so to say,” grinned Alexander.

– How are drug shops organised on Darknet? They have owners, curators, droppers and producers. In principle, all of them get paid very little; the bulk of the money is sent to someone higher up, Alexander explained.

Curators gave special attention to the clandestine security of their subordinates. Money for the production of drugs was sent to QIWI and Bitcoin wallets or bank cards of shills. If questioned by the police, each drug dealer had an explanation why he or she came to Russia or a bundle of money to “settle” the problem unofficially. 

Weaponising drugs

Where did the proceeds from drug trafficking go? Certainly not to ordinary Ukrainians who came to Russia, following orders from their curators. They acted as hired hands, making between 20,000 and 40,000 roubles per month in 2015, by selling from one to 10 kilogrammes of drugs, i.e. from 10,000 to 100,000 single-use doses, every month with the price tag ranging from 1,300 to 2,000 roubles per gramme. The super profits went to the Ukrainian ‘generals’ who de facto owned the online storefronts, and their patrons from the Ukrainian Security Service. They received this money through the same QIWI and Bitcoin wallets, just like the droppers.

– They relied on Ukraine’s banking system for cashing in on the proceeds from drug trafficking. In this system, PrivatBank played the lead role. The Ukrainian Security Service turned a blind eye to the recruitment of drug dealers in Kiev, or even did it themselves. In return, it received part of the revenue and used it to provide funding to radical right structures like the Right Sector (banned in Russia) and Azov, a RIA Novosti source in the law enforcement community said.

However, the curators had more on their agenda than just earning super profits. During our conversations with the droppers, they openly recognised that their goal was to ensure that young people in Russia ‘splutter in drugs.’ While some may argue that the Ukrainian secret services have nothing to do with the booming use of synthetic drugs in Russia, any correlation is coincidental and more akin to conspiracy theories, the world knowns cases when governments flooded other countries with drugs as part of their political agenda. For example, China faced the Opium Wars in the 19th century. The aim of the conflict was not to conquer new territories, but to control markets and overcome trade imbalances. Britain wanted to sell its goods in China, but the Qing dynasty sought to shield the Empire from foreign influences. It is then that it dawned on the British government that the best option would be to supply opium from India to China to generate bigger financial flows for its colony, while also forcing the Chinese rulers to be more cooperative.

Opium was smuggled into China for several decades, and in 1839 the Emperor closed the country’s market to all traders and smugglers from Great Britain and India. This led to an armed conflict between China and Britain, in which the Qing dynasty was defeated. Under the peace treaty, China had to pay a hefty contribution to the British Crown, cede the Hong Kong Island and open Chinese ports to British trade. At the same time, the Empire faced riots and degradation, while its population was dying out. Time will show whether Russia can win the drug war unleashed against us.

Buying, storing, producing, transporting, and promoting narcotic drugs is a criminal offence. Involvement in the trafficking of narcotics, psychotropic agents or similar substances is punishable by up to life imprisonment. The protagonists of this feature story have already been punished and repent their deeds. If you have information about any crimes described in this article, contact the police. It may be that your phone call will prevent a crime.


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