Ukraine’s illicit arms market has boomed since Russia’s initial invasion in 2014, underpinned by a surplus of unsecured weapons and limited controls over their use.
This uncomfortable reality for the United States and its allies comes amid urgent calls from President Volodymyr Zelensky to provide the artillery needed to counter Russian forces in the east and south of the country. The Ukrainian leader’s pleas are credited with uniting House lawmakers behind the latest funding request in a bipartisan vote of 368 to 57 on Tuesday. But the unprecedented influx of weapons has raised fears that some equipment could fall into the hands of Western adversaries or reappear in distant conflicts – for decades to come.
“It’s just impossible to know not only where they all go and who uses them, but also how they are used,” said Rachel Stohl, arms control expert and vice president of the Stimson Center.
A State Department spokesperson said the United States had conducted a thorough vetting of the Ukrainian units it provides while forcing kyiv to sign agreements that “do not allow the retransfer of equipment to third parties without the prior authorization of the U.S. government”.
But the means to enforce those contracts are relatively weak — and made even weaker by Washington’s mixed history of compliance as recently as last month.
On the battlefield with Russia, Afghanistan’s loss is Ukraine’s gain
In mid-April, the United States deepened its involvement in the Ukrainian conflict by announcing that it would transfer a fleet of Mi-17 helicopters to Ukraine that it had originally purchased from Russia a decade ago. of years. The initial sale of the plane required the United States to sign a contract promising not to transfer the helicopters to a third country “without the approval of the Russian Federation”, according to a copy of the certificate published on the website of the Russian Federal Service on Military-Technical Cooperation.
Russia denounced the transfer, saying it “seriously violates the foundations of international law”.
Arms experts say Russia’s brutal aggression in Ukraine amply justifies US support, but violation of arms contracts undermines the foundation of counterproliferation efforts.
“Breakdown of these end-use agreements is a serious threat to the underlying, but weak, ability of countries to control how weapons are used,” said Jeff Abramson, a conventional arms transfer expert at the Arms Control Association.
A Pentagon spokesman dismissed the criticism, calling the Russian accusations a distraction and the transfer “authorized by U.S. law and consistent with our national security priorities.”
“Russia’s claims are a disingenuous attempt to distract from Russia’s unprovoked invasion and history of aggressive actions against Ukraine since 2014,” Marine Corps Lt. Col. Anton T. Semelroth.
The task of ensuring that US weapons are used for their intended purpose – a joint responsibility of the Departments of State and Defense – is made all the more difficult by the sheer volume of weapons flowing into Ukraine.
Emergency spending bill pending Senate approval will cement Ukraine’s status as the world’s top recipient of US security aid, receiving more in 2022 than the US does have ever supplied to Afghanistan, Iraq or Israel in a single year.
The Pentagon will buy Ukrainian laser-guided rockets and surveillance drones
It will be added to the stockpiles of weapons that the United States has already committed to Ukraine, including 1,400 Stinger anti-aircraft systems, 5,500 anti-tank missiles, 700 Switchblade drones, 90 Howitzer long-range artillery systems, 7,000 small arms , 50,000,000 rounds and many other mines. , explosives and laser-guided rocket systems.
Shoulder-fired Stinger missiles capable of shooting down commercial airliners are just one of the weapons systems experts fearful of falling into the possession of terrorist groups seeking to carry out mass casualty events. .
The Biden administration’s funding request includes $8.7 billion to replenish US arms stockpiles 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 worth of arms and military equipment since hostilities began.
“The assistance exceeds the peak year of U.S. 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 United States had a major presence in the country which at least created the possibility of knowing where the weapons were going. By comparison, the US government is flying blind in terms of monitoring weapons supplied to civilian militias and the military in Ukraine.
Ukraine’s history as an arms trafficking hub dates back to the fall of the Soviet Union, when the Soviet military left behind large quantities of small arms and light weapons in Ukraine without adequate record keeping and inventory control. According to the Small Arms Survey, a Geneva-based research organization, some of the Ukrainian army’s 7.1 million small arms in stock in 1992 “were diverted to conflict zones”, highlighting “the risk of escape to the local black market”.
The problem worsened after Russia’s 2014 invasion, which saw fighters loot weapons and ammunition storage facilities of Ukraine’s security service, interior and defense ministries. “Irregular combatants on both sides have gradually had access to a wide range of military-grade equipment, including the full range of small arms and light weapons,” according to a Small Arms Survey report in 2017. “Officials have estimated that at least 300,000 small arms and light weapons were looted or lost between 2013 and 2015,” providing a boon to the country’s black market run by mafia-like groups in the Donbass region and other networks criminals.
The US government is well aware of the country’s weapons proliferation challenges, although it has been vague in describing the precautions it takes.
Weeks after Russia’s last invasion of Ukraine on February 24, a group of interagency Biden administration officials 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 about vetting Ukrainian security forces and handling unauthorized transfer reports — but few details about how vetting or monitoring is taking place.
“It doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence,” Stohl said.
Other weapons experts feel the same in the dark.
“It is unclear what risk mitigation or monitoring measures the United States and other countries have taken, or what guarantees they have obtained, to ensure the protection of civilians through these very large transfers,” said Annie Shiel, Senior Advisor at the Center for Civilians. in conflict.
Some of the recommended measures include creating a special investigator as the US government did in Afghanistan, ensuring that any arms transfer contains robust tracking procedures, adding human rights obligations ‘man in the terms of sale and the inclusion of details of which units may be authorized to receive such transfers. (In 2018, Congress barred the Ukrainian Azov Battalion, a far-right nationalist group associated with neo-Nazism, from receiving US weapons.)
Watchdog groups are also concerned about the proliferation of weapons from Moscow, amid reports that it has enlisted mercenaries from Libya, Syria and Chechnya, as well as the Wagner Group, a Russian contractor.
At a televised meeting of the Russian Security Council in March, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said 16,000 volunteers in the Middle East were ready to fight alongside Russian-backed forces in eastern Ukraine.
In response, Russian President Vladimir Putin offered his approval saying, “We have to give them what they want and help them get to the conflict zone.”
At the same meeting, Shoigu offered to hand over captured US Javelin and Stinger missiles to pro-Russian separatists in the Donbass region. “Please do it,” Putin told Shoigu.
Bringing foreign fighters into a conflict runs the risk of arms returning to their country of origin when fighting in Ukraine ends. However, there are conflicting reports about the presence of foreign fighters there, and it is unclear how many actually made it to Ukraine.
The lack of information prompted calls for responses from the administration and for the attention of Congress.
“Some of the weapons supplied to the conflict in Ukraine will likely be found years or even decades later,” Abramson said. “Congressional leaders should ask these questions, in classified briefings if necessary, and the public should be better informed.”