Are weapons sent to the front likely to be returned illegally to Western Europe?

A hundred days of fighting in Ukraine and hundreds of thousands of weapons. How long before they fall into the wrong hands? “At some point, the war will end.”warned on 28 May Catherine de Paul, Director of Europol, European Criminal Police Agency. “We want to avoid experiencing the same situation as it was 30 years ago, during the Balkan war.” In the aftermath of the wars of independence in the former Yugoslavia, arms smuggling has fueled criminal networks in the West.

In order not to stutter this date, Europol wants to install “International working group for the development of strategies” The official said in the German daily newspaper that the possible smuggling operations die felt. Interpol shares these concerns. According to its managing director, Jürgen Stock, the European Union is “A potential destination for these weapons, as prices on the black market are significantly higher in Europe, especially in Scandinavia”.

“The widespread availability of weapons during the current conflict will lead to the proliferation of illicit weapons in the post-conflict phase. Criminals are already focused on this.”

Jürgen Stock, Director General of Interpol

In Lyon, June 1

The question is even more sensitive with the increase in Western arms shipments to help Ukraine against Vladimir Putin’s forces. Sweden has supplied AT4 anti-tank missile launchers several times, Belgium has shipped 5,000 FNC rifles, and Portugal has shipped G3 automatic rifles. In mid-May, the United States also sent 5,500 anti-tank missiles, 1,400 Stinger anti-aircraft systems, and 7,000 light weapons.

However, it is impossible to evaluate all the sizes involved, as some countries keep the details of deliveries confidential. “The French parliament should have information on the amount of materials and the timing of delivery. But it was completely evacuated.”regrets Rep. Sebastian Nadout (formerly LREM), whose April written question to the armies remained a dead letter.

“This lack of transparency makes us prisoners of the misuse of these weapons in the future.”

Sebastien Nadout, MP (formerly LREM)

in franceinfo

However, EU countries are signatories to the UN Arms Trade Treaty and have adopted a common position to set standards for monitoring and tracking. “For several years Germany has added a clause in its export licenses, for example, in order to be able to carry out inventory checks on site, at the recipient”Maria Camilo, researcher with the Research and Information Group on Peace and Security (Grip) explains. But “It is not certain that this clause exists in the case of Ukraine.”, as you say. Furthermore it “too early” to carry out inspections.

In theory, there is also technical tracking. “Laser optical engraving, deep pressure that changes the crystal structure of the metal … In recent years, technical efforts have been made to improve weapon marking”Explains Stefan Udran, a consultant specializing in the arms trade. In the Ukrainian context, it still causes some hiccups, including the incomplete Swedish certificate of AT4 transfer. The document was not included “All serial numbers. These errors were quickly corrected at a later time.”

Enough precautions? “Tracing is important to try to limit the circulation of arms, but it works especially when you are not in a conflict situation”, Nuance Nils Duquet, Director of the Flemish Institute of Peace. during the war, “Weapons are moved here or there, others are lost on the battlefield.”

There are currently few traces of embezzlement in Ukraine. In mid-May, there were reports of a civilian car explosion (in Russian) On the outskirts of Moscow, on board are two Swedish anti-tank missiles. The Russian TASS news agency reported that the owner of the car was arrested pending investigation (in Russian)The 52-year-old was returning from a humanitarian mission in the Donbass. This isolated loop already indicates irregular flows.

however Russians “They managed to get their hands on Western equipment,” Stefan Audrand engages. Supposedly: They will turn it against their opponents and will intermittently feed Russian criminal networks. The expert is also looking into the possibility of finding some of these weapons seized by the Russians “In terrorist and jihadist networks to accuse the West afterwards of feeding criminal networks.”

According to him, the supplying countries asked Ukraine to estimate stocks and material losses in the fighting. A delicate mission in a very intense conflict. Neither customs nor the French foreign ministries and armed forces have identified the possible traceability guarantees that Paris has demanded. The US administration was going to organize a meeting with independent experts, he writes Washington Post (in English)To provide these guarantees, without disclosing further details.

Even after the war, which complicates the census, the concern also stems from the historical context of Ukraine. With the fall of the Soviet Union, this country inherited 30% of the Soviet military-industrial complex. “Then he had a large stockpile and was at the crossroads of the post-Soviet world, towards the Black Sea and the Caucasus”to the point of becoming “Arms Smuggling Center”, Stephan Audran explains,

Between 1992 and 1996, $32 billion in weapons disappeared from military stocks, according to a study by the Institute for Strategic Research at the Military School (ERSM). In 2010, the country still had 6.2 million small arms and light weapons, most of which were held illegally. Or the third largest stockpile in the world after China and Russia.

Employees check Kalashnikovs before they are destroyed on January 16, 2007 at the Kamianets-Podilskyi base (Ukraine).  (Sergei Sobinsky/AFP)

“By getting closer to the countries of the West, the Ukrainian governments have nevertheless made efforts to control this passage”Stefan Audran continues. This is dynamic “Hard because of corruption”, It was stopped by the Donbass crisis in 2014 that caused “Confusion between soldiers and civilians and the rearming of civilians in a conflict zone.”. In eastern Ukraine, weapons stocks are being looted. From 2013 to 2015, the authorities recorded the disappearance of 300,000 small and light plots of land. “The areas controlled by the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (…) concentrate the majority of traffic”, write draw.

Among the essentials are Tokarev pistols, AK-47 rifles and Dragunov. Matt Schroeder, researcher with the Small Arms Survey, confirms on Twitter (in English) that “The Ukrainian government has cracked down on these diversions, and has invested in the search and destruction of smuggled weapons.”. Within four years, 1,600 small arms, 1.5 million rounds of ammunition and 900 rocket launchers were seized.

and tomorrow, repeatedly ? “At this point, the front line absorbs all the ammunition and weapons.”Stephen Audran. In the absence of accurate data, it still “It is very difficult to comment on the future of arms circulating in the region.”adds to franceinfo Edouard Jolly, researcher in armed conflict theory at Irsem. “What we know from the former Yugoslavia is that when an armed conflict ends, the risk of dispersal of arms stocks is very high.”

“In the first years after the war, for the most part, people do not sell these weaponsNiels Duquet agrees. We expect to see the same in Ukraine. At first the population will fear the return of the Russians so as not to sell their weapons. If there is smuggling, at first, it will rather be within the country.” After a few years, such weapons could land in Western Europe.

“Five years ago, we were already writing that a big problem was about to emerge. Today, there are more guns and even less control. Hence more opportunities for criminal networks.”

Nils Duquet, Director of the Flemish Institute of Peace

in franceinfo

Ending hostilities thereafter will require increased monitoring with “All existing controls, legal and political”, identifies Edouard Jolly. It is a delicate task, because many Ukrainian civilians are now armed – President Volodymyr Zelensky has also signed several decrees authorizing purchase and sale by private individuals. In the context of severe insecurity, the conflict reinforced the will of a part of the population to own weapons, as evidenced by several consultations.

Civilians take part in a basic weapons training on February 20, 2022 in Kyiv, Ukraine.  (Genia Savelov/AFP)

Niels Duque does not believe in any weapons return programs in the coming years. At a minimum, it is best to organize registration campaigns with a solid legal framework. “The main goal in Ukraine is to gain better control over weapons, even if it means legalizing their possession for self-defense purposes.”

Although most of the equipment used in Ukraine dates back to the post-Soviet era, Niels Duquet does not exclude that the recently delivered Western weapons are back in the wrong hands. Even before the start of the war, the “Weapons and Explosives” unit of Europol had already established contacts with the Kyiv security forces. However, the service must “Quickly strengthen this cooperation, because the problem with Ukraine’s weapons will be at least as important as the former Yugoslavia.”

Leave a Comment