the past decade, Ukraine has gained a reputation as one of the
world's most active suppliers of illegal small arms. It is one
of several Eastern European countries that has turned to arms
dealing as a source of much-needed hard currency. Between 1997
and 2000, the Ukrainian arms industry grew tenfold and exported
$1.5 billion worth of weapons. While Ukraine's legal arms industry
has boomed, the international small arms black market may have proved
far more lucrative. Ukrainian arms have been linked to some
of the world's bloodiest conflicts and most notorious governments,
including the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein, and, until recently,
the Taliban in Afghanistan.
arrest of suspected arms smuggler Leonid Minin,
who is currently awaiting trial in Italy, has shed some light
on the workings of the Ukrainian arms trade. But his case is
just one piece of a puzzle involving illicit weapons, high-level
corruption and organized crime centered in Ukraine.
Ukraine does not manufacture small arms, but it inherited huge
stockpiles after it broke away from the crumbling Soviet Union
in 1991. The Red Army stationed nearly one million troops in
Ukraine while it was a front-line member of the Eastern Bloc.
As the newly independent state moved toward a partnership with
NATO and downsized its military, its Soviet weapons fell into
disuse. Some were sold off legally, but many slipped through
the cracks and into the black market. Poorly paid soldiers "lost"
their weapons, and some commanders were caught selling off entire
A Ukrainian parliamentary inquiry concluded that between 1992
and 1998, Ukraine lost $32 billion in military assets, in part
through theft, discount arms sales and lack of oversight. (In
comparison, Ukraine's spending on legal arms for defense in
1999 is estimated to have been $500 million.) Many of the missing
weapons found their way into the hands of willing buyers in
hot spots around the globe, from Sierra Leone to Croatia. And
as these arms proliferated, so did evidence of international
criminal networks that sold arms from Ukraine in flagrant violation
of international sanctions and embargoes.
Theft and corruption in the military facilitated the flow of
illegal weapons from Ukraine. It was also facilitated by forged
or falsified end-user certificates, the export documents that
are supposed to record the final recipient of an arms shipment.
The ease with which arms shipments moved through official channels
has led many observers to conclude that prominent Ukrainian
officials were involved in the deals. In a 1999 report on Eastern
European arms dealing, Human Rights Watch concluded that export-control
authorities in the region were accepting arms brokers' documentation
without question, either through "complicity or incompetence."
Other observers say responsibility goes straight to the top
of the Ukrainian government. Writing in The Christian Science
Monitor, Ukrainian political scientist Taras Kuzio said,
"High-level Ukrainian officials, if not directly dealing arms,
are reportedly either smoothing the path for sales or at least
looking the other way."
Such allegations remain unproved, and no Ukrainian officials
or politicians have been brought to trial in connection with
arms dealing. However, the current political climate in Ukraine
lends plausibility to the suspicion of official involvement
and also explains why it has been so hard to verify. Ukraine
is known for a high level of official corruption, as exemplified
by the case of former Prime Minister Pavel Lazarenko, who reportedly
skimmed as much as $700 million from government energy contracts
during his political career. (In 1999, Lazarenko fled to the
United States, where he was arrested and will be tried on fraud
and money laundering charges later this year.)
The Ukrainian government has shown little interest in looking
into corruption, organized crime, or arms dealing. Ukrainian
politicians and journalists who have pursued the matter have
found it difficult and potentially dangerous. There has been
only one official inquiry into arms dealing, and it ended abruptly
when the defense official heading it was court-martialed. The
panel's findings vanished and its members remained silent. A
journalist who leaked some of the inquiry's findings was shot
and wounded in an attack case that is still unsolved. Journalists
who question the government routinely face censorship, harassment,
Leonid Kuchma, Ukraine's president since 1994, has been dogged
by accusations of corruption and silencing his opponents. In
November 2000, one of his former bodyguards released secret
recordings that appeared to connect the president with the disappearance
and beheading of an independent journalist looking into Kuchma's
ties to the Lazarenko case. The tapes also reportedly depict
Kuchma meeting with Oleksandr Zhukov, a Ukrainian underworld
figure with ties to suspected arms dealer Leonid Minin. This
March, the head of a parliamentary commission looking into the
so-called "Kuchmagate" scandal claimed that the tapes revealed
the president discussing a $100 million missile deal with Iraq,
in violation of a U.N. embargo. The head of Ukraine's arms export
agency, who was said to be on the tape with Kuchma, died in
a mysterious car crash earlier this year. Kuchma and his allies
claim the tapes are fake.
For their part, Ukrainian government officials vigorously deny
any suggestion of high-level involvement in illegal arms dealing.
As revelations of arms shipments to Sierra Leone and elsewhere
have emerged, they have stressed that Ukraine is doing all it
can to follow international agreements and prevent illicit arms
sales. A common response, repeated recently by President Kuchma
regarding Iraq arms allegations, is that other nations are trying
to ruin Ukraine's reputation as a dealer of legitimate arms.
International pressure has led to some reforms in Ukraine's
arms export sector. During the past few years, the government
has put in place more stringent weapons inventory and export
controls. A 1998 American study found the new system to be closely
in line with Western standards. Some Ukrainian officials say
it is unlikely that arms are still falling into the hands of
smugglers or gangsters. "Ukraine's current export control system
makes illegal arms transfers from or via Ukraine practically
impossible," said Olga Ostroverkhova, first secretary of the
Ukrainian Embassy in Washington, D.C. Cases like those of Minin
and other Ukrainians arrested abroad, she said, are exceptions
and do not indicate any larger arms dealing problem.
Critics say Ukraine has yet to prove its commitment to ending
illegal arms dealing and changing the political culture that
makes it possible. Recently, there have been accusations that
Russian arms dealer Victor Bout, Israeli-Ukrainian businessman
Vadim Rabinovich, and the former director of the Ukrainian secret
service sold millions of dollars worth of weapons to the Taliban
during the late 1990s. Such stories are potentially embarrassing
for the Kuchma government, which is seeking stronger political
and military ties with the West and has offered support for
the U.S. war on terrorism.
Ukrainian defense officials now claim that as much as 50 percent
of the army's current arsenal needs to be upgraded or disposed
of. What happens to these stockpiles of second-hand arms will
provide some evidence of Ukraine's connection to the illegal
weapons trade. If they do not slip into the illegal weapons
underground, they may still be sold legally, though at far less
profit. Wherever they end up, the question facing Ukraine, its
foreign supporters, and the international organizations that
monitor the arms trade is of no small significance: Will Ukraine
continue to receive the international support it craves without
cleaning up its reputation?
Dave Gilson is a journalist based in Berkeley, California.
Links relevant to this article:
Ukraine: Look Into Arms Exports
The U.S. is already watching Ukraine for signs of reform. But the Ukrainian government must do more to clean up its arms exports industry, writes Taras Kuzio in The Christian Science Monitor.
Ukraine Gunning for Arms Sales Not So Picky About Customers, Though
Ukraine is also notorious for its booming legal arms industry. This Deutsche Presse-Agentur article, reprinted by the Arms Trade Newswire, details recent weapons sales around the world.
Arming Rogue States
Ukrainian officials claim ignorance of arms smuggling. A once-secret document acquired by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's "Crime, Corruption and Terrorism Watch" shows that official knowledge of arms dealing goes back a decade.