Soviet legacy on weapons black market: domestic still popular
According to official data, there are over 2 million unregistered firearms in Russia. This amount grows by 10% annually. Some experts believe that this statistics is underrated and provide another figure: 10 million firearms. This being said, illegal weapons made in Russia keep leading positions on the world black market.
According to various sources, in the 2000s, "shadow" export of weapons amounted to 5–15% of the total Russian export and totaled 380 million USD. The reasons behind this phenomenon can be found in the recent past.
"The collapse of the Soviet Union was one of the main factors that contributed to the creation of the current illegal arms traffic system," – Jean-Charles Antoine, a police officer and Doctor of Political Sciences, says.
The expert explains that in a few weeks after the fall of the "Iron Curtain", Soviet generals, officers, sergeants and privates stationed in former USSR republics, in Poland, Bulgaria, etc., suddenly found themselves in "fraternal" states without livelihoods – Soviet administration, which used to pay their wages, existed no more. At the same time, local military warehouses still remained under their control. And in order to survive, the military had to make a choice and start selling out uniforms, boots, and – weapons.
"For thirty years, Bulgarian, Czechoslovakian, Polish and Romanian secret services exported huge amounts of firearms and ammunition worldwide, assisting rebels waging national liberation wars," – Antoine notes.
Bulgaria is an interesting example. In 1989–1990, more than 5.2 thousand private security companies have been founded here during a three-month period only. Of course, they got supplies from former Soviet armories.
Ongoing changes in international legislation also prompted former Soviet officers to sell out Soviet weaponry. When some East-European states decided to join NATO, they had to meet military standards of this organization. For example, since the 1970s, NATO states use standard 5.56 mm rounds – to reduce excessive power of 7.62 bullets and lighten the ammunition load. Therefore, the whole assortment of firearms based on Mikhail Kalashnikov’s engineering solutions became obsolete. By the way, many domestic experts consider this, as well as some other current international treaties, purposive actions by Western competitors to oust Russian weaponry producers from the world market.
Another important phase in the development of new illegal weapon traffic channels, involving armaments remaining from the Soviet era, relates to recent political changes in the Western Europe, including elimination of national borders and establishment of the 26-member Schengen Zone in 1993.
Military conflicts on the Balkans became the third phase of this process. The Bosnian war of 1992–1995, unrest in Albania in 1997, and Kosovo war in 1998–1999 resulted in a drastic growth of local black market. Some 630 thousand firearms joined the illegal turnover – in direct proximity to the Schengen Zone. Corruption and links between Balkan organized crime and national expat communities in Western Europe promoted infiltration and circulation of illegal weapons there.
Jean-Charles Antoine believes that the main driving force behind this process was actively-developing drug trafficking in the late 1990s: many newly-emerging illegal economic micro-zones required firearms for protection purposes.
From there Soviet weapons continued further migration, going as far as Africa. Lack of border control in Africa allowed weapons to reach conflict zones. Transport convoys delivered firearms and ammunitions almost without hindrance. Due to its huge popularity in Liberia, Rwanda, Somalia, and some other countries, the Kalashnikov gun was nicknamed "African credit card". Fighters in Ivory Coast, Mali, and Chad use counterfeit weapons made in China as well.
"Due to recent geopolitical changes in the region – Arab Spring, Tuareg uprising in Mali in 2012–2013, merging of organized crime and terrorism in the Sub-Sahara Region of Africa – demand of numerous rebel groups for firearms increased," – Antoine says.
Due to lack of stability in the region, rebels in various African countries got access to stashes of Soviet and Russian weapons that had been supplied legally to then-friendly countries. For example, after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi regime in Libya in 2011, warehouses storing hundreds of Soviet anti-aircraft missile systems were raided. From there, the air defense missile systems spread to black markets of neighboring countries. Today, the cost of an anti-aircraft system in this region may reach as much as 150 thousand USD.
Simultaneously with the collapse of the USSR, another – more straightforward – trade channel for Soviet arms has emerged. In addition to "forgotten" officers stationed in ex-Socialist European countries, many military men in former USSR republics duly appreciated the profitability of this business in the situation of deep political and economic crisis. For instance, some 260 thousand light arms have been left in South-Caucasian republics after the withdrawal of Russian forces in the 1990s.
"But Ukraine succeeded in this business most of all. For the last 25 years, Kiev gains dozens million dollars annually from illegal sales of Soviet military reserves – light arms, artillery, tanks," – Igor Korotchenko, Director of the Center for Analysis of World Arms Trade, told the CrimeRussia.
The expert noted that three most important military districts of the USSR were located in Ukraine in preparation for potential war with NATO: Kievsky, Odessky, and Prikarpatsky. After the collapse of the USSR, Ukraine became the owner of all armament kept on local warehouses and began selling it out almost immediately. According to some assessments, Ukraine sold up to 500 airplanes and helicopters, up to 1 thousand tanks, and up to 1 thousand military vehicles. More than once, military equipment from Ukrainian stashes caused scandals in Africa, Asia, and Middle East. For example, in the early 2000s, Kiev sold six X-55 cruise missiles to China and six to Iran, thus, violating international missile control treaties.
"Recent news: Ukraine sold to ISIS terrorists (organization banned in Russia) steel for suicide bombers’ vehicles," – Korotchenko says.
Finally, illegal weapons are supplied to the world black market directly from Russia. From one side, when Dudaev seized the power in Chechnya in the 1990s, the Russian leaders left local military warehouses to separatists. Heavy arms, like tanks and armored vehicles, were later destroyed, but light arms, ammunition and explosives could not be retrieved in full. Thousands of firearms are still in the hands or local bandits or hidden in caches. Korotchenko believes that these reserves would be enough for the next 10–15 years.
From the other side, the modern Russian black market may offer more advanced weapons then remnants of the Soviet era. According to the Ministry of Interior Affairs (MIA), in 2014 the total capacity of the weapons black market in Russia was 1.5–14 million units. This includes weapons smuggled from conflict zones, stolen from military and low enforcement services, unearthed by ‘black diggers’. Most of illegal weapons – over 50% – are stolen from military factories and state armories. Some sources say that the most popular domestic product on the black market is the TT handgun – although organized crime generally prefers imported brands. The cost of weapons is some 100–900 USD. For instance, a Kalashnikov gun can be purchased for 150 USD, while Makarov handgun would cost 100-300 USD. At the same time, MIA reports that 70% of solved crimes with firearms were committed by their official owners, whose number currently exceeds 5 million people.
Overall, according to various assessments, there are some 600 million of military and non-military firearms in the world. Only 40% of this amount belong to military forces and law enforcement services. The total annual illegal weapons trade is estimated at 500–600 million USD. Some 500 thousand people are killed every year with firearms – in military conflicts, crimes, and suicides.