Not since the last world war have so many weapons been sent from the United States to battlefields in Europe, a fact that has enabled Ukraine to resist and even embarrass a formidable Russian adversary. But the influx of guns into a country with a long-term corruption problem has also raised concerns — good faith and bad — that the fog of war could provide cover for a booming trade in illicit arms.
The Kremlin, predictably, is stoking fear that the guns used against its invading force could end being sold to the highest bidder and ultimately end up in the hands of criminals or extremists.
“A considerable part of these weapons have already entered, or will soon enter, the black market,” Maria Zakharova, a spokesperson for Russia’s foreign ministry, told reporters this month.
Pro-Russian media has aired similar claims of a mass diversion of arms meant for the frontline, some citing a retracted CBS report that included a source claiming only 30% of weapons sent to Ukraine made it to the battlefield; one conspiracy-inclined website, purportedly citing anonymous Ukrainians, claimed the “the weapons are stolen” to such a degree that Ukraine, as of August, had already “lost the war” because of the black market diversion.
It takes an almost incomprehensible lack of shame for Russian propagandists to complain about arms in an active conflict zone — of the Kremlin’s own creation — possibly ending up somewhere else. The invading power has itself sent a staggering number of weapons to Ukraine, delivering them for years to local proxies in the Donbas and more recently to conscripts who have promptly abandoned them, armored personnel carriers, howitzers, rocket launchers and all, as Russia’s sure-thing victory has begun to look a lot more like a quagmire.
The good news is that, according to authorities and arms control experts who spoke to Insider, fears that advanced Western arms to Ukraine would fuel the illicit arms trade have not been borne out, with weapons intended for the military in fact being used to push back Russian forces.
“There’s been a lot of disinformation,” Elias Yousif, a research analyst at the Stimson Center, a Washington-based think tank focused on international security issues, said in an interview. In July, Yousif co-wrote an article urging US and Ukrainian authorities to develop a plan for stockpiling weapons at the end of the conflict. As of now, he said, “I don’t think we’ve actually seen any real diversion, particularly outside the country.”
The biggest factor is that Ukraine is locked in an existential battle that has united a sometimes fractured country. Many of the combat arms meant for the frontlines are quite identifiable, and diverting them would be an act of treason for a Ukrainian.
“So long as there remains the intense, frontline demand for small arms,” Yousif noted, “I think it’s going to be a pretty strong draw for those weapons to remain on the battlefield.” That said, “I would hope that there is some planning for the day after.”
Even a tiny fraction of the weapons provided to Ukraine — a country with a decades-long problem of corruption — making it to the black market could be potentially devastating.
‘A lot of concern’
Small arms — rifles and pistols — are one thing. But Ukraine has also been provided more advanced weapons systems that donors have been loath to give to others before.
Washington, for instance, has provided the country’s armed forces more than 1,400 shoulder-fired Stinger anti-aircraft systems, or MANPADS, which are capable of taking down a commercial airliner. The fear that the weapon could end up in the hands of extremists led the CIA to intervene in Syria to prevent rebels fighting the Assad regime from ever getting them. The Biden administration has also delivered more than 10,000 grenade launchers and small arms to Ukraine, along with more than 60,000 rounds of ammunition.
Similarly, the UK has sent more than 5,000 point-and-shoot NLAW anti-tank missiles to Ukraine, weapons that can readily target and destroy most moving vehicles. Ukraine has also received a huge stash of weapons, often of Russian import, from neighbors like Poland.
The fact that such arms are being provided to Ukraine, and on such a scale, indicates that Washington and its allies are less concerned about arming a military with a central command than a decentralized network of rebels. For one, those allies are capable of deploying a limited number of personnel in Ukraine to monitor their donations; the Defense Department, in June, said it was considering sending teams to conduct such “end-use monitoring” (the Pentagon did not respond to a request for comment on the status of such a deployment).
On Thursday, the US State Department announced a plan to assist Ukraine and some of its neighbors in accounting for imported weapons, especially MANPADS and anti-tank missiles, and to help them detect any illicit trafficking.
Ukraine has also created a commission to monitor the influx of arms and reassure allies that they are indeed being used on the battlefield. Some weapons are also affixed with GPS trackers, the country’s defense minister told the BBC.
That’s not to say there aren’t any concerns. After the former Yugoslavia broke apart and descended into war, it too became flush with guns — despite a Western arms embargo — that later spread across Europe. In 2015, a study by the Flemish Peace Institute, a research group that tracks the flow of weapons in Europe, found that the majority of guns on the black market came from the Balkans.
Nils Duquet, director of the institute, told Insider there is “a lot of concern” that Ukraine, “post-conflict,” could likewise fuel the illicit arms trade. However, “At the moment,” he said, “there is no evidence of increased arms trafficking from Ukraine to other countries.”
European authorities say the same thing.
Katarzyna Volkmann, a spokesperson for Frontex, the European border control agency, told Insider it has detected an uptick in firearms crossing between nations. But she said it was “not clear whether those detections were due [to] increased smuggling activities or enhanced border checks.”
For the duration of the war, Volkmann added, it could be expected that most “weapons in Ukraine will stay in the country.” But “a ceasefire or an end to armed conflict could lead to an increase in arms smuggling out of the country.”
Yuliya Matsyk, a spokesperson for the European Commission, likewise told Insider that,”To date, there is no information indicating that large-scale firearms trafficking out of Ukraine is ongoing.” But Europe and its law enforcement agencies are on a heightened state of alert.
“Although Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine cannot be simply compared to former Yugoslavia,” Matsyk said, “experience from previous military conflicts such as in the Western Balkans shows that when a high volume of small arms and light weapons is available in one region, it could likely lead in the mid- and long-term to trafficking of these weapons to other regions, specifically after the conflict ceases or its scale becomes limited.” Indeed, “This could become a destabilizing factor, in particular for nearby regions and also a significant threat to the EU and Ukraine because organized crime groups and terrorists could have access to these trafficked weapons.”
In July, to combat this threat, the European Union announced it was creating a new “hub” in Moldova to combat gun trafficking, with security experts from the bloc coming to Chișinău to assist local law enforcement. Moldova is not a member of the EU but the country, which borders Ukraine, is seen as ground zero for the fight against illicit arms dealers.
At the time, EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson said there were “some indications” that such trafficking was already taking place.
Indeed, it has — just on a minuscule scale. In September, the Moldovan Ministry of Internal Affairs announced the creation of a new unit dedicated to combating illicit arms trafficking. In an accompanying press release, the ministry said there had been an uptick in the trade over the previous six months, with police confiscating 12 times as many weapons compared to the same period in 2021.
The total number of guns captured points to an uptick in trafficking, not a flood: in all, 24 weapons were seized after Russia invaded Ukraine, Moldovan authorities said, compared to just two in the same period a year before.
While most talk of trafficking has focused on arms provided to Ukraine — Russia, understandably, would like to center this aspect of the conflict — it is not the only party to the war.
“There is nearly no transparency in Western media about how Russia’s infusion of weapons into the country is being accounted for,” Jeff Abramson, a senior fellow at the Arms Control Association in Washington, told Insider. “At this point, however, it does not appear that there is evidence of massive leakages of weapons out from the Ukraine conflict, nor of a black market.”
When the war ends, that could well change. So far, though, only one side is taking visible steps to address it.