Frontline World

Sierra Leone - Gunrunners


Synopsis of "Gunrunners"

Web-exclusive report on key players in the small arms trade

Source of Black Market Weapons

U.N. Investigator

State Department Analyst

Gunrunning, Cold War Stockpiles, and Conflict Diamonds



During 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.

The 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 military installations.

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, and violence.

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.