Awash with arms and facing a breakdown in law and order, war-torn eastern Ukraine has all the elements required to become a major illicit international weapons market.
Long a nexus in the global arms trade, Ukraine is already witnessing a boom in black-market sales of arms seeping out of the conflict zone, fueling what authorities say is a wave of violent crime in the country.
"Everyone knows about the weapons market in eastern Ukraine, it's no secret," Myroslav Hay, a former Ukrainian volunteer who fought in the east. Speaking to RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service recently, he described an enormous illegal-arms trade, with weapons and ammunition changing hands in some cases for merely a few bottles of alcohol.
For now, most of the illicit weapons trade appears to be isolated inside Ukraine, but there are worrying signs that could soon change.
Fears that at least some of those arms could end up in Western Europe, already on edge since attacks by Islamist extremists in 2015 in Belgium and France, were heightened after the Ukrainian Security Service announced earlier this month that it had nabbed a suspected French extremist with a cache of weapons who was allegedly bent on unleashing mayhem back home.
The man, identified as 25-year-old Gregoire Moutaux, was stopped on the Polish-Ukrainian border on May 21 with 125 kilograms of explosives, five AK-series assault rifles, two antitank grenade launchers, some 5,000 rounds of ammunition, and 100 detonators. Ukrainian officials claimed he was a hard-core nationalist who had planned more than a dozen attacks.
According to French media reports on June 6, Moutaux has no previous criminal record and had entered Ukraine as a "volunteer," using this guise to make contact with military units in eastern Ukraine.
Experts are concerned that the market for illicit arms in Europe could be flooded with weapons from Ukraine, much like 6 million guns from the Balkan wars of the 1990s that are still believed to be circulating in Europe. They see a major difference in the number and firepower of weapons, however.
Weapons confiscated from the detained French citizen
"There is a threat of more substantial weapons coming out of Ukraine," explains Nic R. Jenzen-Jones, a weapons expert and director of Armament Research Services (ARES), a technical intelligence consultancy.
"What's perhaps different in this situation is the large number of light weapons, the large number of antitank weapons, and heavy antipersonnel weapons, that are outside of state control and remain outside of state control in Ukraine," he said. "And that poses, I think, a different caliber of threat to the EU."
Jenzen-Jones says most of the weapons ARES has catalogued being used in the fighting in eastern Ukraine between government forces and Russia-backed separatists were already on the territory and were either seized in raids on government arsenals or taken in battle.
Kyiv claims that Moscow, which the West and Kyiv have accused of supplying fighters and weapons to the separatists, is adding to the stockpile of weapons.
Cheap Guns, Costly Effect
According to Ukrainian media reports and government estimates, some 500,000 firearms (including assault rifles, machine guns, and pistols) have been smuggled into the Donbas since fighting erupted in eastern Ukraine in April 2014 in a conflict that has claimed more than 9,300 lives and displaced tens of thousands more.
Many of those weapons eventually end up on the black market, authorities say. And with weapons plentiful and cheap, violent crime is on the rise in Ukraine.
A report from July 2015 showed that the number of gun crimes in Ukraine had increased dramatically since the conflict erupted in the east.
Beset by a culture of corruption and struggling to end the conflict in the east, Kyiv is ill-equipped to handle the problem, argues Mark Galeotti, a professor of global affairs at New York University. "The depressing truth is that although the Ukrainian government has begun enacting new laws to address corruption and smuggling, at present the country's ports, airports, and borders are under-controlled," he says. "The country has been a smuggling hub for illicit commodities of all kinds -- from drugs and guns to people and counterfeit -- too long for this easily to be addressed."
Global Smuggling Hub
Ukraine has been a key link in the global arms trade for some time. In September 2013, the Washington-based Center for Advanced Defense Studies released a report detailing a network of individuals and companies it said were responsible for shipping weapons to global conflict zones from the Ukrainian Black Sea port of Odesa, which it dubbed the "Odesa Network."
Reports suggest mounting attempts to smuggle arms out of eastern Ukraine, in particular to neighboring Poland and Belarus.
Polish border guards said in January 2016 they had seized 53 weapons from smugglers over the 18 months after fighting broke out in eastern Ukraine in early 2014. That compares to only three seized smuggled arms for 2013, according to the border guards.
A Polish border-guards spokeswoman told IBTimes UK in January that border security was to be bolstered, including the building of 11 observation towers along the border.
In Belarus, arms-smuggling attempts from Ukraine are up as well. In December 2015, Leanid Maltsau, the chairman of the State Border Committee, said border guards had seized 53 weapons, as well as 500 rounds of ammunition in 2015.
The trend seems to have worsened in 2016.
On April 5, Belarusian Interior Minister Ihar Shunevich, announced that Belarusian police were to carry out a "special operation" aimed at curbing the growing flow of weapons from neighboring Ukraine.
Shunevich said Belarusian police had confiscated some 20 small arms from Ukraine since the beginning of 2016. He said more weapons from Ukraine were reaching Belarus. "Unfortunately, the trend is positive. We are registering numerous facts of arms contraband from Ukraine through various channels," he said.
Reverse Weapons Flow
Ironically, Russia, accused of providing arms and fighters to separatists in eastern Ukraine, is dealing with an influx of arms as well from the separatist-controlled areas.
In May 2015, the Federal Security Service (FSB), which oversees border security, said it had dug 100 kilometers of ditches and put up 40 kilometers of fences in the Rostov region, which borders territory held by Russia-backed separatists in Ukraine's Luhansk and Donetsk regions.
The measures have been implemented "to ensure the stability of [the Rostov region] as well as to stop illegal weapons trafficking," the border service said in a statement published by Rossiiskaya Gazeta, the government's official newspaper.
About 60 attempts at incoming arms smuggling have been foiled this year, resulting in the detention of more than 130 people and the confiscation of about 30 land mines, 40 firearms, 100 artillery shells, and 200 grenades, according to the daily.
And with Russia continuing to fuel the conflict in eastern Ukraine, arms smuggling will continue to pose a threat, argues John Herbst of the Washington-based Atlantic Council. He says the Donbas could become more of a risk than Transdniester, a breakaway region in Moldova that is backed by Moscow, and has become a hub for illicit trade of all types, including weapons.
"The situation in Transdniester at the present time is better than the situation in eastern Ukraine, in the Donbas, because in Transdniester it is a frozen conflict, but in the east [of Ukraine] Russia is still conducting a low-intensity war against Ukraine."