The Russian invasion of Ukraine has become the largest war in Europe since World War II. As the war continues, fear has spread that organized crime groups (OCGs) will exploit the conflict by trafficking weapons out of Ukraine. Violent non-state actors could then use these weapons to proliferate violent crime across the continent and abroad.
Freight and logistics companies should be aware of this exodus of weapons which will likely occur once fighting subsides. Should a company unknowingly facilitate arms trafficking, they could incur legal consequences, fines, sanctions and reputational risks, ultimately leading to possible financial loss.
To keep your supply chains robust and vigilant against crime, here’s what you should know about the ongoing war and Ukraine’s weapons black market.
What led to Ukraine’s weapons black market?
Pre-invasion, ownership of legitimate firearms in Ukraine was restricted. Handguns were allowed only in limited circumstances, and only non-automatic rifles and shotguns were permitted. The National Police of Ukraine (NPU) estimated there were 892,854 registered firearms in Ukraine as of July 31, 2018. However, the Small Arms Survey estimates that in 2017 there were 3,596,000 illegal firearms in the country.
The collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1991 explains this disparity. At the time, Ukraine inherited a vast stock of Soviet armaments with an estimated value of USD 89 billion. In 1998, a Ukrainian parliamentary commission discovered that USD 32 billion of this inherited stockpile had already gone missing or been stolen. These weapons were then sold on the black market and trafficked out of the country.
Belarus and Poland
Another significant issue prior to the invasion of Ukraine has been the refugee crisis at the border between Belarus and Poland. The results of the 2020 Belarusian election were characterized by large anti-government demonstrations and a harsh police response. President Alexander Lukashenko allegedly won a sixth term, but this result was rejected by opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. It was also roundly condemned internationally as neither free nor fair with a number of sanctions set on Belarus.
The Belarusian regime has since deliberately directed refugees to the border with Poland in an attempt to facilitate their illegal entry into the European Union in what has been described as a form of hybrid warfare. Poland has deployed 17,000 troops along the 500km border and significantly enhanced its protective measures. Part of these measures include the border with Russia’s Kaliningrad Oblast on the Baltic Sea.
This situation has worsened in 2023 with the arrival of large numbers of armed Wagner Group forces from Russia. Worse, this all follows an attempted coup by Yevgeny Prigozhin with Lukashenko claiming that he is struggling to control their desire to invade Poland. Potentially, this could mean further warfare, which will increase demand for weapons trafficking and possibly diversify the area it covers.
Events leading up to the Russian-Ukrainian war
On February 23, 2022, the day before the Russian invasion, the Ukrainian Parliament declared a state of emergency and approved legislation giving citizens the right to carry weapons outside their homes for the purpose of self-defense. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy vowed to give a weapon to any citizen who wanted one. By February 26, an estimated 25,000 automatic rifles and 10 million rounds of ammunition had been handed out to civilians.
These weapons are now outside direct state control, with some estimates suggesting one million rifles have been distributed since the invasion. The European Union (EU) and United States (USA) have since introduced complementary initiatives to monitor the flow of weapons and attempt to prevent them being smuggled out of Ukraine.
Recent attempts to stop weapons trafficking
The EU has established the Support Hub for Internal Security and Border Management in Moldova, which focuses on disrupting the supply of small arms to petty criminals and OCGs. The European focus on small arms was likely influenced by collective experience of the breakup of Yugoslavia and ensuing series of conflicts which lasted from 1991 to 2001. Weapons from these conflicts have been linked to several terror incidents including the December 2015 Paris attacks which killed and injured hundreds. In the aftermath of the attack, several M70 assault rifles were seized and found to have been manufactured in the late 1980s and stored at military depots in Slovenia, Bosnia and Macedonia.
Similarly, in 2020 the British National Crime Agency (NCA) warned of a rise in the use of automatic weapons smuggled into Britain by OCGs using the Encrochat system. These weapons included the G9A semi-automatic pistol manufactured in Slovakia and the Škorpion manufactured in Czechia. Over 200,000 Škorpion submachine guns were produced between 1963 to 1979 alone.
American efforts have focused instead on preventing sophisticated military equipment, such as Man-Portable Air Defence Systems (MANPADS) and Anti-Tank/All-Purpose Tactical Guided Missiles (ATGMs), from falling into the hands of Russian forces, Russian proxies, Russian allies, and non-state actors. This is likely to have been influenced by the USA’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021. An estimated USD $7.12 billion worth of equipment supplied to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) was left behind. This does not include US military equipment, the majority of which was deliberately damaged or destroyed.
Over 300,000 of the 427,300 weapons given to ANSF forces remained in Afghanistan at the time of the US withdrawal according to a report by the Department of Defence. There is evidence these weapons are already surfacing in other conflict zones. For example, Indian troops report seizing M4s and M16s during clashes with Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) militants in Kashmir.
However, it appears that criminal activity along the Ukraine and Russia border is mostly blocked, possibly due to direct military control from Moscow. The Ukraine and Belarus border is similarly locked down into a military zone. The 2021 GI-TOC report highlights this is not the case in all Russian held or influenced territory. Looting and general lawlessness is perpetuated by Russian soldiers, local militias, and gangsters in the DPR and LPR. The three groups are often difficult to distinguish.
This situation at the borders and proactive responses from the EU and USA and agencies such as FRONTEX – which has deployed at least 500 officers from Finland to Romania, including over 350 at EU-Ukraine borders – may explain why a surge in weapons out of Ukraine has not yet materialized. Observable efforts are being concentrated on the end of hostilities when OCGs may sell their stockpiles.
The current state of OCGs and Ukraine’s weapons
Once fighting subsides, the exodus of weapons from Ukraine may have a substantial effect on supply chain operations. Companies may experience an increased risk of violence towards their personnel. Additionally, the increase in available weapons could lead to cargo and asset losses.
To prepare for these potential risks, companies must keep up with – or better yet, stay ahead of -global news affecting supply chains. Here’s how Overhaul Intelligence helps you do just that with supply chain alerts, global reports, and more.