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No evidence that Ukrainian guns are flooding Europe, says report

No evidence that Ukrainian guns are flooding Europe, says report

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There is very little evidence that Western weapons being shipped to Ukraine are ending up on the black market, according to a think tank report published on Tuesday.

That undermines the narrative being pushed by Russia. Last October, a Russian diplomat told the U.N. Security Council that one-fifth of Western weapons sent to Ukraine were ending up on the black market for resale to terrorists and rebel groups.

While wars always heighten the risk of arms diversion, Ukraine’s government has put in place such strict control mechanisms that gun-running is extremely limited. It’s mostly confined to a trickle of Soviet-era rifles, according to the Swiss-based Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC).

“We did not find any evidence of Western weapons making it to Western Europe and very limited evidence of any kind of transactions with Western weapons in Ukraine,” said Daniel Brombacher, director of the GI-TOC’s Europe Observatory. “The guns that have been delivered by the West are in good hands.”

The analysis is based on dark web monitoring and interviews with EU law enforcement and underworld contacts, focusing on illicit markets in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Sweden and compiling a pricing index for assault rifles, grenades and other small arms.

The report undermines speculation that NATO material is arming European gangsters.

Spain’s Guardia Civil claimed in May that a group of hashish smugglers had fired on police with U.S. and European-made rifles, with previous raids turning up NATO-standard ammunition. News outlet El Español alleged Latin American drug cartels were sending representatives to Kyiv to make bulk purchases. 

But GI-TOC found no corroborating evidence for these types of claims, many of which have been debunked.

In one such case, a Finnish organized crime chief told media in October 2022 that gangs had been smuggling Western weapons intended for Ukraine into Finland, Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands. That assertion was refuted by a police official.

A subsequent GI-TOC investigation found that three Finnish crime figures had indeed traveled to Eastern Europe in mid-2022 “with the intention of bringing back weapons, but failed to do so, as they lacked the necessary organizational skills or access to financing,” Brombacher told POLITICO.

Keeping guns safe

According to the new report, the Ukrainian government has been remarkably effective at preventing illegal diversion by military personnel, with only 250 cases in 2022, and 191 in 2021 — a negligible amount for a country receiving billions in Western military aid.

Kyiv has launched a unified gun registry and enforced mandatory registration of so-called “trophy weapons” — those awarded to veterans or captured in combat. It has also expanded monitoring of all lost and stolen arms in Ukraine, which have grown from some 400,000 before Russia’s full-scale invasion to nearly 600,000 today. In comparison, the EU has around 630,000 such missing weapons.

“Soldiers we spoke to emphasized the severity with which loss of weapons was treated, to the point where it would be impossible to demobilize without your weapon,” said the report, citing one trooper as saying: “If you don’t give it back, you don’t get through, you don’t get a signature on the bypass sheet, and you’re stuck … it’s a criminal offense if you don’t find your [Kalashnikov automatic rifle].”

A small number of trophy weapons have appeared on the black market, mostly old Soviet stock sold by demobilized veterans. Some guns have been shifted across porous borders with Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and Romania. But the high risk and low profits make it an informal activity unrelated to traditional organized crime, according to Brombacher.

In Ukraine, arms smuggling carries a prison sentence of up to seven years. As well, a Kalashnikov retails for €1,000 in Ukraine, compared to just €400 in Serbia and Albania, which still host abundant criminal stockpiles.

As for Western armaments, those are a logistical headache for dealers.

“You can get all the ammunition you need very cheaply for Soviet-style and Russian-style weapons, but it’s very hard to get the special ammunition for Western weapons,” said Brombacher. 

Additional reporting by Veronika Melkozerova in Kyiv.

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