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Where did Ukrainian military potential go? Arms trafficking is the answer

The recent annexation of the Crimean Peninsula by Russia demonstrated the incapacity of Ukrainian army to confront the aggression of a “brotherly state” and to defend its own borders. The restrained reaction of Ukrainian military in protection of its bases and weapons can be explained by many factors, such as: the asymmetry of power between the rivals; the unwillingness to turn Crimea into a new Abkhazia and South Ossetia; or even to start the new world war, in case the US and the UK would actually decide to comply with their duties according to Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances of 1994. But one more reason of this failure I would like to address now is the fact that Ukrainian army and military potential have been experiencing constant destruction since country’s independence.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine inherited a significant part of the “Cold War products”  represented in large military forces, particularly 30% of the Soviet military-industrial complex including 1,810 enterprises with 2.7 million people working there.  In 1990, the country was responsible for approximately 7 million small arms and larger weapons systems, which was one of the biggest stockpile in the world (UNODC, 2010). Ukraine also had approximately 1200 nuclear warheads, which was the third largest nuclear arsenal in the world at that point. Though, they were to be dismantled according to Budapest Memorandum.

During 23 years of independence, Ukrainian military strength steeply evaporated. To illustrate, in 1991 Ukraine had 9293 tanks, inherited from the SU, then in 2009 the number fell to 4063 tanks, and then by 2013 it shortened almost by half to 2311 tanks (UCEPS). So, where did our tanks go?

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Abandoned tank graveyard near Kharkiv


Most of the arms and ammunition can function for a long time, even after the official expiration date. Since Ukraine did not participate in any military conflicts at that time, the country did not need them and was not able to support their maintenance. Thus, a few business-oriented citizens who had the access to all these stockpiles of unnecessary arms decided to make some money and save the country from trouble of finding out what to do with them. Of course, it happened in a semi-legal way. The 1990s in Ukraine was a chaotic period when all these stockpiles of weapons were hardly controlled by the law enforcement institutions. Hence, a lot of them were seized by several entrepreneurial persons. Leonid Minin and Dmitri Streshinsky are two of such people. To illustrate, in 1999, Minin trafficked 68 tons of small arms to Liberia, which was under embargo at that time through Burkina Faso. He is also responsible for shipping 113 tons of small arms to sub-Saharan Africa, including 10,000 AK-47 assault rifles. Streshinsky, on the other hand, sold approximately 30,000 AK-47s to Croatia in 1992, which was also under the embargo at that time (UNODC, 2010). And these are only few known cases.

Thus, some of these arms were trafficked to the conflict regions, where there was a demand for them and they would not lose their value. Particularly, there is evidence that weapons of Ukrainian origin were trafficked to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan and Equatorial Guinea. Another receiving country was Chad where Ukraine was the most prominent source of arms in the period from 2004 to 2008. Afterwards, these weapons went to Darfur. Finally, not only African countries got the share of Ukrainian weapons, but Yugoslavian war was also supplied with the help of former Soviet ally  (UNODC, 2010).

In 2005, it was discovered that Ukraine trafficked the X-55 cruise missiles to China and Iran in 2001. Luckily, they were sold without the nuclear warheads which were a part of the original design. There were also accusations of Ukrainian government about the distribution of weapons to Iraq in 2001, in particular high-tech major conventional weapons like radar systems, land-land rockets, and rocket control systems, which was prohibited by the UN Declaration. The Iranian case became a part of the Cassette Scandal in Ukraine in 2002 due to the leak of audio records which proved that President Kuchma gave orders about particular weapons being delivered to Iraq.

One more loud case happened in 2008, when the ship that trafficked the arms was hijacked by the pirates. The MV Faina was a cargo ship under a Belizean flag but owned by Ukrainian firm situated in Panama. The vessel got attacked by Somali pirates in September, 2008, and the crew was held hostage for more than a year.  As most of the crew were Ukrainians, the Government had to pay a ransom of US$3.2 million in February 2009. The cargo included small arms, grenade launchers,  and 33 tanks worth about US$33 million. Allegedly, their destination point was Kenya. However, later it was discovered that they were actually supposed to reach South Sudan. Two European transportation companies which participated in the transfer admitted this fact. Amnesty International identified that similar tanks and small arms were used by Liberation Army in South Sudan.

As a result, in the time of need, Ukraine faced the problem of lacking ammunition. The corrupt system that fueled the conflicts on other continents weakened the country and led to the loss of its territory. Thus, all affected countries became the victims of traffickers who filled their pockets. It is not that it would be better if Ukraine could be an equal rival to Russia and could fight it. But, maybe hypothetically, if Ukraine still had the strong well equipped army as well as nuclear weapons, Russia would have thought twice before invading its independent neighbor.

  • Alex

    If Ukraine has been cooperating with NATO and EU for the past decade, how come they haven’t indicated that there was a huge problem in Ukraine’s armed forces? Especially NATO, you’d think they’d care about that!

    • Viktoriia Zalozna

      I completely agree with you that the issue of arms trafficking does not get enough attention from all concerned parties. Though, Ukraine is not a member of NATO and EU and it doesn’t ship the weapons to their territory. So, they are not involved in the problem directly.

  • henry

    as if they ever cared about Ukraine. the west was enjoying the neoliberal euphoria for the last twenty five years, played with international institutions and was quite happy to keep making profits with Russia. and now they don’t understand what might have gone wrong

    • Viktoriia Zalozna

      If Ukrainian citizens (like those mentioned in the article) and officials who were also involved did not care about the well-being of own country, why would anyone else care. I think that Ukraine should try to deal with own problems by itself. But the Western states, particularly the EU, do not need the war right on their border or Russia being their next door neighbor. Neoliberalism needs markets and stability to prosper, not the fear of invasion. So, they have a reason to be concerned about Russian aggression, though they don’t know how to act, as Putin seems unpredictable right now. I suppose neoliberalism did not predict that Russia might use force and try to become Empire, in the sense of 16th-18th centuries empires