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Ukraine tensions may deescalate, but country remains awash in weapons

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By Rachel Stohl, Shannon Dick, and Devon Blount: 

Amidst the drama of the Ukraine crisis, the issue of poorly regulated weapons caches there deserves more attention. As the country experiences internal tensions and uncertainty about Russia’s intentions, its poorly controlled arms caches can exacerbate prospects for violence. Ukraine’s long history of poor export controls and a vibrant black market for arms could also contribute to an environment of chaos that could place arms in the hands of unintended recipients. This problem should be addressed, even before the overall crisis is resolved.

Concerns about Ukraine’s aresenals were heightened when pro-Russian forces took control of a large number of weapons following skirmishes in the Donetsk and Slavyansk regions. Reports note that the irregular forces are estimated to have seized more than 700 weapons after taking over government buildings in eastern Ukraine. Lacking proper oversight, these and other weapons in the country could flow to unscrupulous arms dealers seeking profits from the illicit arms trade – valued at no less than $1 billion annually from small arms and light weapons (SALW) alone – as well as other unintended recipients with relative ease. Overall, these weapons pose an increasing risk not only to the future stability of Ukraine, but to the surrounding region as well.

Ukraine is a major player in the legal global conventional arms trade, with arms of all kinds at its fingertips. As the world’s 8th largest arms exporter, the country sold $1.44 billion worth of weapons in 2012. Although often a legitimate arms provider, Ukraine also has a long history of involvement in illicit weapons proliferation and is a known source of weapons to conflict areas around the world. In 1992, the Ukrainian military stockpile was estimated to be worth $89 billion. By 1998, over $32 billion was stolen or exported abroad.

Ukraine also has a history of questionable judgment with regard to providing weapons to conflict zones. Since 2005, Ukraine has been the principle supplier of SALW to South Sudan, and the illicit Odessa Network has trafficked SALWs out of Ukraine to various conflict zones including Syria, Iran, Uganda, and Cambodia.

Ukraine also exported anti-aircraft weapons, AK-47s and hundreds of rounds of ammunition to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in 2010 as part of an estimated $80 million deal. Although the Ukrainian government reportedly notified the UN Sanctions Committee of the transfer – as required by UN Security Council Resolution 1493 that placed an embargo on weapons and military assistance to armed groups in the DRC – the transfer highlight’s Ukraine’s lack of concern for adding to weapons circulating in conflict zones, particularly when there is a high risk of diversion and the likelihood that the weapons will fuel continued violence and human rights abuses.

Political transitions and threats of conflict often make arms transfers risky in the best of circumstances. In Libya, the fall of Gadhafi led to arms flowing across the African continent, including to West Africa and the unstable Levant. Shortly before Gadhafi’s ousting weapons caches were relocated to poorly managed and relatively unprotected storage sites. Following Gadhafi’s demise, these weapons were accessible to civilians, looters, rebel fighters and many others who wanted to protect themselves, use the weapons to further the fight, or sell them on the black market. The damaging legacy of Libya’s missing weapons continues today, as stolen weapons have appeared across Africa and fallen into the hands of armed non-state actors such as Boko Haram – the Nigerian-based terrorist organization that recently took more than 200 school girls captive – and al-Qaeda affiliated groups.

While the outcome of Ukraine’s conflict is uncertain, steps must be taken now to ensure that large stores of weapons do not fall into the wrong hands. Libya’s instability led to poor oversight and insufficient stockpile management, and the current crisis in Ukraine is cultivating a similar environment. The United States and its international partners must work with the Ukrainian government and Russia now to address these future challenges and help prevent uncontrolled flows of weapons out of Ukraine.

President Obama has recognized the threat of conventional weapons in Ukraine before. In 2005, as a Senator, he and then-Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN) visited Donetsk and saw first-hand the ease in which unsecured stockpiles of conventional weapons in Ukraine could easily spread into the hands of militants and terrorists. Their visit led them to spearhead an effort to commit US financial assistance to partner countries as part of a broader program – modeled after the Nunn-Lugar program to combat the spread of weapons of mass destruction – to reduce the threat of vulnerable conventional arms stockpiles around the world. The Obama administration can now build upon that platform with willing interlocutors to ensure that these stockpiles do not continue to threaten Ukraine and its neighbors.

Collaboration can take the form of helping fund efforts to enhance the security of Ukraine’s weapons stockpiles and sharing expertise on best practices for storing and managing stockpiled weapons systems. International partners could assist with moving stores of weapons to safe storage areas, help Ukraine establish up-to-date weapons inventories, and improve security along the contested borders. Such steps would allow Ukraine to better assess its current stockpile and would provide for concerted action to mitigate potential diversion of its weapons.

International partners can also work with civil society organizations and local communities to request individuals turn in the military weapons acquired during the unrest and implement amnesty programs that will alleviate any fears of potential prosecution. These efforts can also help incentivize participation in buy-back programs for people to exchange their weapons for other goods and services – both of which are better alternatives to cash incentives that fuel corruption and create a secondary market for illicit arms sales.

Addressing unregulated stocks of weapons in Ukraine is not a short-term investment, but rather part of a larger strategy to provide a foundation for sustainable efforts in maintaining the security of Ukraine over the long term.

Photo credit: Mstyslav Chernov via Wikimedia Commons

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