No cases of arms trafficking from Ukraine to the West, arms watcher says

The war between Russia and Ukraine has led to a proliferation of illegal weapons in Ukraine. However, the nature of this proliferation deviates significantly from conventional assumptions about arms trafficking, according to a new report.

Rather than being an organized criminal enterprise, the movement and sale of illicit weapons in Ukraine occurs largely organically and opportunistically, driven by individual actors.

The report from the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC), an NGO specializing in expert analysis and research on organized crime markets, networks and responses, reveals that despite a significant increase of the number of Russian “trophy” weapons in Ukraine, whose value is between $1 million and $5 million according to official estimates, there is currently no evidence of a flow of illicit weapons from Ukraine to the 'Europe.

Above all, the illegal weapons circulating are the vast majority of Soviet/Russian-made weapons captured as “trophy” weapons on the battlefield or seized from abandoned ammunition dumps.

There is no evidence to suggest large-scale diversion of Western-supplied weapons to Ukraine into illicit channels.

Isolated incidents, such as that in June 2022, involving a criminal gang fraudulently obtaining a grenade launcher and a machine gun, appear to be exceptions rather than the norm. Additionally, some Western media reports, such as the CBS documentary “Arming Ukraine,” appear to be largely exaggerated and based on unreliable Russian sources, as previous Euromaidan Press analysis demonstrated.

One of the main factors limiting more systematic arms trafficking in Ukraine is the relatively low prices of weapons on the black market, especially in areas close to the front lines. With prices as low as $500 to $700 per gun when sold in packs of 10 or more, the profit incentives pale in comparison to other illicit businesses like drug trafficking. The high risks involved, with Ukraine considering the loss of weapons as a priority crime, further discourage the organization of large-scale trade.

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Instead, the report's findings suggest that the trade is driven by a wide range of opportunistic actors, including civilians, soldiers diverting weapons, gunsmiths and even priests. These players acquire small caches containing between 1 and 10 weapons and sell them locally for a few thousand dollars, or keep them for protection. The sheer volume of abandoned weapons and munitions on active battlefields provides a vast reserve to fuel this organic proliferation.

The very active nature of the ongoing war itself acts as a “sponge” which absorbs the flow of weapons as soon as they arrive in the country.

The Ukrainian authorities' priority on arms control also serves to prevent systematic arms trafficking operations from taking root. Measures such as strict monitoring of supplied weapons, mandatory registration of trophy weapons and monitoring of all lost or stolen weapons demonstrate Ukraine's commitment to arms control despite difficult circumstances.

However, this situation is not without risks. Although systematic transnational trafficking currently appears to be limited, the immense number of weapons circulating illegally in Ukraine fuels growing insecurity.

Of particular concern, the study said, is the prospect of traumatized former soldiers returning home with illegally acquired weapons, which could reduce inhibitions against deadly violence in civil society. Over time, there is also a risk that current diffuse flows will coalesce into more organized trafficking operations if facilitators emerge to coordinate larger volume movements. Port cities like Odessa have historically been hubs for arms trafficking to overseas conflict zones when left unimpeded.

However, according to the report, the scale of potential trafficking will depend heavily on the trajectory of the war and future military and political developments in Ukraine.

In essence, Ukraine has so far managed to prevent the emergence of a coherent arms trafficking business amid the fog of war.

The Arms Monitor has not yet detected any confirmed cases of arms trafficking from Ukraine to Western Europe.

However, the abundance of weapons in circulation and the dynamic situation on the front line generate persistent dangers. Maintaining the current emphasis on robust weapons surveillance and control systems, disarmament initiatives, including buy-back programs, and resilience to the encroachment of organized crime will be crucial to mitigate potential risks of proliferation of weapons, both inside Ukraine and outside.

Illegal weapons in Western Europe: dominant supply comes from the Balkans

In countries such as France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Sweden, there is a significant demand for illegal weapons from organized crime groups involved in drug trafficking and other violent criminal activities. This demand has kept prices high – for example, an AK-47 can sell for between €2,000 and €3,000 in France and Belgium. However, the arms supply to these markets still comes mainly from traditional sources such as the Western Balkans region, and not from Ukraine.

Map by GI-TOC.

There are some anecdotal reports of a shift in supply chains from the Balkans to countries like Romania, Bulgaria, etc. But the Balkans remain the dominant source. So far, weapons smuggled from the front lines in Ukraine do not yet appear to have significantly penetrated these major Western European criminal markets.

Weapons from the Western Balkans are cheaper than those from Ukraine, and long-established Balkan networks have been supplying Western European criminals for decades.

However, if there is a pause or resolution in Russia's war against Ukraine, a massive oversupply of weapons will likely be ready to flow west, the study concludes.

On the English-speaking dark web, most ads offering Ukrainian weapons for sale were considered likely scams by researchers. No significant flow of Ukrainian weapons to Western countries via the dark web has been detected.

There is, however, limited and geographically restricted retail trading of converted/reactivated firearms on Russian-language dark web forums. According to the study, this arms trade on the Russian dark web appears to be localized and so far does not supply weapons abroad on a significant scale.

In the future, the Arms Monitor aims to expand its coverage area to better understand potential arms trafficking flows from the war zone. This includes monitoring major land transit routes through countries like Poland and Hungary for any signs of smuggling. The Observatory also plans to study the ripple effects that will ripple eastward into Russia itself, the Caucasus region and Central Asia, where early indicators, such as rising gun violence in Russian regions bordering occupied Ukraine, suggest that illicit weapons are already spreading.

In 2023, the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC) established an arms monitoring body to investigate whether Western-supplied weapons were being trafficked out of Ukraine. This monitor used data from underground sources, law enforcement, dark web market investigations, and official reports on weapons seizures, among other sources.

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