Iain Overton provides a word of caution as the world exports tonnes of arms to the frontline of Putin’s war

On 24 February 2001, the MV Anastasia was intercepted in Las Palmas in the Canary Islands. It was reported that Spanish officials found 636 tons of assault rifles, ammunition and other weapons in the dark hold. The ship was duly impounded, at least until the Angolan Government confirmed it was, indeed, their shipment, and the vessel was allowed to continue its journey. In 2001, Angola was in the middle of a civil war that was to claim more than 500,000 civilian lives.

In 2007, four days before Christmas, the MC Beluga Endurance, a ship flying the flag of Antigua and Barbuda, reported to be carrying 10,000 AKM assault rifles, as well as 42 T-72 tanks, landed near the beaches of Kenya’s Mombasa. The load was allegedly headed for South Sudan. A year before, hundreds had been killed in the South Sudanese town of Malakal in heavy fighting between northern forces and their former southern rebel enemies.

Then, on 6 March 2010, the BBC Romania was reported to have made its way to the mountain-rimmed port of Matadi in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). It was carrying 10,000 Kalashnikov rifles. A few months later, mass rapes were reported in the country’s North Kivu province. The UN envoy blamed both the rebels and the DRC army.

So far, so bad. Three ships scattered over time and destination, reportedly legally delivering guns to countries ravaged by violence – but there was one thing that they had in common.

They had all begun their journeys in Ukraine.

Traces of these journeys are not easy to find. The organ­isation that charts small-arms transfers – NISAT – shows virtually no records that these shipments ever left Ukraine. It was only through extensive data searches and cross-referencing that these shipments could be traced by Byline Times.

But this trend is not new. The murkiness of exports from Ukraine has long been a source of concern to governments and arms trade observers alike.

Thus, as weapons are sent in huge quantities to Ukraine, and as countries break their own rules on not supplying active wars with weapons, more insight is sorely needed.


The Post-Soviet Scramble

Between 2006 and 2011, there were some $117 million worth of registered firearm exports from Ukraine, and this may be a fraction of arms that have really left the ports of the Black Sea.

Certainly, Ukraine has played a major role in the proliferation of small arms around the world. With the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, Soviet military units left the lands they had occupied and headed home. As they headed for Moscow, countless guns were left unsecured and ripe for the picking. As much as 2.5 million tons of ammunition and as many as 7 million small arms and light weapons were left behind in at least 184 depots. In Odessa, a city of a million people, some 1,500 standard freight cars of ammunition were abandoned.

In sum, about 100 firearms were left for each Ukrainian soldier. And so this newly liberated country began to offload its assets. Over the next six years, there was a reported $11 million in sales of small arms from Ukraine – most likely a fraction of the real amount shipped out. In addition, when Ukraine gained its independence, its arms industry had to rethink who to supply next.

Ukraine once accounted for about 30% of the weapons production of the Soviet Union, and there were some 750 defence industry enterprises with a staff of 1.5 million to feed.  The country therefore turned to arms exports, often illicitly.

Six kilometres south of the provincial city of Nikolaev, set between stony fallow fields and the thick, slow-flowing spread of the Southern Bug, is the little-known port of Oktyabrsk. It lies fenced behind dense lines of barbed wire. A man-made forest further blocks the view of onlookers. But, as you get closer, you catch glimpses of armoured bunkers and glaring guards perched on watchtowers and beyond. From the right location, you can even make out the outline of heavy loading cranes and thick earthen berms built to absorb the shock of an explosion.

The aforementioned three shipments of small arms that left Ukraine all began their journeys in Oktyabrsk, a Russian-run port in the heart of a country now considered to be an enemy.

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And it was not just those three. This port has reportedly been the point of origin for repeated weapons shipments to over a dozen coun­tries, many with a reputation for brutal repression: Sudan and Myanmar, Venezuela and the DRC, Iran and Angola.

In early November 2013, the Greek coastguard intercepted a Sierra Leone-flagged cargo ship called the Nour-M near the Imia islets of the cobalt-blue waters of the eastern Aegean. Allegedly, there were 20,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles on board, along with 32 million rounds of ammunition. The ship had left Ukraine a few days before.

According to the vessel’s captain, Hüseyin Yilmaz, their final destination was the Libyan port of Tripoli. He said the Nour-M’s cargo had been purchased by their Ministry of Defence, and all was above board. But Greece’s media reported differently. They said that the Syrian port of Tartus was listed as the ship’s final destination by marine traffic systems, and the captain had typed Syria into the navigation system, changing it to Libya only after his boat was challenged. If this was true, then the ship was breaking an arms embargo.

Like so much in the world of smuggling, it will be hard ever to know the truth. The Nour-M was to sink within 30 days of its seizure, battered into the depths by a storm off the port of Rhodes.

The Greek authorities have never clarified what happened to the 20,000 rifles. But if, as the authorities and media suspected, the Nour-M was indeed smuggling arms out of the Black Sea, it would have been part of a long tradition of Ukraine’s involvement in international illicit activities.


The ‘Merchants of Death’

Since the fall of communism, Ukraine has emerged as the place to go for illicit goods, singled out as the epicentre of post-Soviet arms trafficking.

In 1992, a commission concluded that the nation’s military stocks were worth $89 billion. By 1998, $32 billion of it had been stolen and resold.

As author Andrew Feinstein wrote in his book The Shadow World, “So explosive were the [commission’s] findings that the investigation was suddenly closed down, 17 volumes of its work vanished and its members were cowed into silence.”

Behind this massive theft was a new breed of men – the so-called ‘Merchants of Death’. When the Cold War thawed, arms smugglers with names like Victor Bout and Leonid Minin swooped. Huge stocks of Ukrainian weaponry were bought up and sold to groups like the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone and FARC forces in Columbia.

Men like Minin became major brokers of arms to Charles Taylor in Liberia, a country under an arms embargo. Minin sent 9 million rounds of ammunition and 13,500 AKM rifles to the capital Monrovia in two air-freight deliveries, listing them as headed for Burkino Faso.

Today, things have changed. This must be stressed.

Experts say that the age of the Merchants of Death has ended. One arms dealer told Byline Times: “I don’t know if there could be another Viktor. He rose through the ranks at an opportune time. It was a sort of serendipity – the right time, right place. Viktor was there when the governments fell – he had connections. There is no Soviet Union today with vast quantities of surplus. The situation isn’t right for that now.”

The past, though, offers up two possible paths for the future.

The first is that the port of Oktyabrsk becomes part of the Russian state – captured and held by Putin. From there, even more illicit arms might flow – into Syria, Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan. Wherever trade is to be found, oligarchs can make their fortunes.

The second is that Ukraine wins this war, but the weapons now flooding into the country – unused – might become prey for future smugglers. If the past is a model for the future, it is not inconceivable that some of the “thousand” anti-tank weapons and “over a thousand” Stinger missiles sent by the UK – according to Defence Secretary Ben Wallace – might not stay in Ukraine, long term. Quoting a US defence official, CNN says that the US and NATO allies have sent 17,000 anti-tank weapons and 2,000 Stingers.

The concern is this: while wars end, weapons have a habit of persisting. And – given Ukraine’s smuggling past – the potential that some of these weapons, given generously and with good intent, might one day make a smuggler even more generous profits and then be used with bad intent, cannot be ignored. What price will an al Qaeda operative pay for a missile? 

After all, between 2001 and 2015, the Pentagon provided more than 1.45 million firearms to various security forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, including more than 978,000 assault rifles, 266,000 pistols and almost 112,000 machine guns – losing track of 52%.

War has a habit of opening Pandora’s Box. It could be that, in years to come, a weapon system sent with the best will in the world to help Ukraine in its hour of need could – terribly – be used in an act of terror against the very countries that sent it. After all, didn’t Stingers given by the CIA to the Mujahideen in good faith in order to beat the Russians end up posting a threat to US troops?

Perhaps, at least, we need to be reassured that we have the capacity to track and potentially disable any weapon system handed over to Ukraine, if the threat of illicit smuggling is raised.

Even if you favour arming Ukraine, it’s something that we cannot simply ignore.

This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.

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