Arms shipments to Ukraine raise fears of arms smuggling
Ukraine’s illegal arms market has exploded since Russia’s first invasion in 2014, bolstered by a surplus of loose arms and limited controls over their use.
This uncomfortable reality for the United States and its allies comes amid urgent requests from President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to provide the artillery needed to counter Russian forces in the east and south of the country. The Ukraine leader’s appeals are credited with uniting House lawmakers behind the latest funding proposal in a bipartisan vote Tuesday, 368-57. But the unprecedented influx of weapons has raised fears that some pieces of equipment could fall into the hands of Western adversaries or reappear in distant conflicts – for decades to come.
“It’s just impossible to track not just where they’re all going and who’s using them, but also how they’re being used,” said Rachel Stohl, arms control expert and vice president at the Stimson Center.
A State Department spokesman said the United States conducted a thorough review of the Ukrainian units it was supplying and forced Kyiv to sign agreements that “do not allow the transfer of equipment to third parties without prior US government approval.”
But the means of enforcing such treaties are relatively weak – and weakened further by Washington’s own mixed history of compliance, just last month.
On the battlefield with Russia, Afghanistan’s loss is Ukraine’s gain
In mid-April, the United States increased its involvement in the Ukraine conflict by announcing that it would transfer to Ukraine a fleet of Mi-17 helicopters it originally bought from Russia about a decade ago. The initial sale of the aircraft required the United States to sign a contract in which they promised not to take the helicopters to a third country “without the consent of the Russian Federation,” according to a copy of the certificate posted on the Russian Federation’s website Federal service was published military-technical cooperation.
Russia has denounced the transfer, saying it “grossly violates the fundamentals of international law”.
Defense experts say Russia’s brutal aggression in Ukraine more than justifies US support, but violations of arms treaties are destroying the foundations of counter-proliferation efforts.
“Breaking these end-use agreements is a serious threat to countries’ underlying but fragile ability to control arms use,” said Jeff Abramson, conventional arms transfers expert at the Arms Control Association.
A Pentagon spokesman dismissed the criticism, calling the Russian allegations a diversion and the transfer “permissible under US law and consistent with our national security priorities.”
“Russia’s claims are a disingenuous attempt to divert attention from Russia’s unprovoked invasion and history of aggressive actions against Ukraine since 2014,” said Marine Corps Lt. Col. Anton T. Semelroth.
The task of ensuring that US weapons are used for their intended purpose – a shared responsibility of the State and Defense Departments – is made all the more difficult by the sheer volume of weapons entering Ukraine.
The Senate-approved emergency spending bill will solidify Ukraine’s status as the world’s largest single recipient of U.S. security assistance, receiving more in 2022 than the United States has ever given to Afghanistan, Iraq or Israel in a single year.
The Pentagon will buy laser-guided missiles and surveillance drones from Ukraine
It will expand the weapons stocks that the US has already pledged to Ukraine, including 1,400 Stinger anti-aircraft systems, 5,500 anti-tank missiles, 700 switchblade drones, 90 long-range howitzer artillery systems, 7,000 small arms, 50,000,000 rounds of ammunition and numerous other mines, explosives and laser-guided missile systems.
Shoulder-launched Stinger missiles, capable of shooting down airliners, are just one of the weapons systems experts fear could be obtained by terrorist groups intent on staging mass gatherings with fatalities.
The Biden administration’s funding request includes $8.7 billion to replenish U.S. stockpiles of weapons being shipped to Ukraine, $6 billion to train and equip Ukrainian forces, and $3.9 billion for US forces deployed across Europe in response to the security crisis triggered by the war.
Other NATO countries have transferred billions of dollars in arms and military equipment since hostilities began.
“The aid surpasses the peak year of US military assistance to Afghan security forces during this 20-year war,” said William Hartung, arms control expert at the Quincy Institute think tank. “In this case, the US had a strong presence in the country that at least created the ability to track where guns landed. By comparison, the US government is flying blind in monitoring arms shipments to civilian militias and the military in Ukraine.”
Ukraine’s history as a hub for the arms trade dates back to the collapse of the Soviet Union, when the Soviet military left large quantities of small arms and light weapons in Ukraine without proper records and inventory control. According to Small Arms Survey, a Geneva-based research organization, some of the 7.1 million small arms stockpiled by the Ukrainian military in 1992 were “diverted to conflict zones,” underscoring “the risk of runoff to the local black market.”
The problem worsened after the 2014 Russian invasion, during which combatants looted weapons and ammunition caches belonging to Ukraine’s Security Service, Interior and Defense Ministries. “Irregular combatants on both sides gradually gained access to a wide range of military equipment, including the full spectrum of small arms and light weapons,” according to a 2017 Small Arms Survey report. “Officials estimated that at least 300,000 small arms and light weapons were looted or lost between 2013 and 2015,” giving a boon to the country’s black market, run by mafia-like groups in the Donbass region and other criminal networks.
The US government is aware of the country’s arms proliferation challenges, though it is vague about the precautions it is taking.
Weeks after Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, a group of interagency officials from the Biden administration met with outside arms control experts to discuss the risk of small arms proliferation in the conflict. According to Stohl, who attended one of the meetings, US officials offered assurances that they would screen Ukrainian security forces and handle reports of unauthorized transfers — but little detail on how the screening or surveillance works.
“That doesn’t inspire much confidence,” said Stohl.
Other armament experts are similarly deluded in the dark.
“It is unclear what mitigation or surveillance measures the US and other countries have taken, or what guarantees they have received to ensure the protection of civilians through these very large transfers,” said Annie Shiel, a senior adviser at the Center for Civilians in the United States contradiction.
Some of the recommended steps include establishing a special counsel, as the US government did in Afghanistan, ensuring all arms transfers include strict prosecution procedures, including human rights obligations in the terms of sale, and including details about which entities may be eligible to receive such transfers. (In 2018, Congress banned Ukraine’s Azov Battalion, a far-right nationalist group linked to neo-Nazism, from receiving U.S. weapons.)
There are additional concerns among watchdog groups about Moscow’s arms proliferation after reports that it has recruited mercenaries from Libya, Syria and Chechnya, as well as the Wagner Group, a Russian contractor.
During a televised meeting of Russia’s Security Council in March, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said 16,000 Middle East volunteers were ready to fight alongside Russian-backed forces in eastern Ukraine.
In response, Russian President Vladimir Putin offered his approval, saying, “We must give them what they want and help them get into the conflict zone.”
At the same meeting, Shoigu suggested handing over captured US Javelin and Stinger missiles to pro-Russian separatists in the Donbass region. “Please do that,” Putin told Shoigu.
The use of foreign fighters in a conflict carries the risk that arms will return to their countries of origin once fighting in Ukraine has ended. However, there are conflicting reports of the presence of foreign fighters there and it is unclear how many actually traveled to Ukraine.
The lack of information has led to demands for answers from the administration and attention from Congress.
“Some of the weapons that will be provided in the conflict in Ukraine will likely be found years and possibly decades later,” Abramson said. “Convention leaders should ask these questions, in secret briefings if necessary, and the public should be better informed.”