In mid-September in one of the restaurants of Odessa occurred an exchange of fire. Two gunmen injured each other with live ammunition. Bullets also hit the windows of a nearby house. By a happy coincidence of circumstances, none of house inhabitants was injured. According to the police, the gunmen belong to one of the organized criminal groups of the region. There is nothing strange in that the representatives of the criminal underworld in Ukraine use firearms in public places. The incident described is just one more case in police statistics due to the high prevalence of illicit weapons in the country.
Ukraine is “armed to the teeth”
Nowadays it is impossible to determine exactly how many illegal “barrels” are among the population. According to Small Arms Survey organization, which traces the spread of illegal firearms in the world, in 2019 there were between 2.2 and 6.3 million unregistered weapons in Ukraine. The increased level of crimes with illegal weapons attracted the attention of journalist and analysts. The New York Times noted that the ordinary citizens and criminals in Ukraine keep at home not only “barrels”, but also hand grenades, which are “very popular”. According to Dr. Andreas Heinemann-Grüder, associate professor of Bonn International Center for Conversion, Ukraine is in line with the Western Balkans with regard to the level of illegal arms trade. The German expert noted that the spread of weapons from the Ukrainian black market poses a problem not only for the country, but for the whole Europe.
“Power grows out of the barrel of a gun”
According to analysts, before the start of ATO/JFO the level of proliferation of illegal “barrels” in Ukraine was not so critical. The decision of Acting President of Ukraine Alexander Turchynov to provide weapons to everyone wishing to fight in Donbas in April 2014 boosted the number of illegal “barrels”. The former head of state noted that he personally opened armories and handed out guns when commanders of military units refused to do so. According to Turchynov, “anyone who said that he was ready to defend the country received weapons and went to the East”. Having a criminal record even for serious crimes among volunteers was not a reason for decline. According to various estimates, the number of such volunteers can reach three thousand people. There were no verification activities or any other checks, so “barrels” often fell into the hands of criminals. From December 2014 to June 2015 members of the armed volunteer formation Tornado led by multiple offender Ruslan Onishenko committed a number of serious and particularly serious crimes against the civilian population, including illegal arrests, torture, beating, murder, robbery and sexual assaults. In early April 2017 the trial came to an end in Kyiv. Eight ATO/JFO heroes were sentenced up to 11 years ‘imprisonment.
After demobilization the weapon was taken home
The Security Service of Ukraine stated that the peak illicit trafficking of rifles, pistols and grenades occurred in 2014 – the beginning of 2015. The uncontrolled arming of volunteers on Turchynov’s order practically destroyed the state mechanism for weapons registry and gave impetus to its active illegal spread. The hasty decision of the authorities to start the ATO/JFO did not allow to introduce the filtration measures for volunteers and military personnel entering and leaving the operation area. Under these circumstances, after the rotation many combatants simply took personal weapons with them. Despite police efforts to take away the illegal “barrels” from a population, the vast majority of armament inevitably reached the black market. Years after the conflict began in the south-east of Ukraine, the price of assault rifles, pistols and grenades inside the country decreased by two to three times. Prior to the operation in Donbas, the Kalashnikov rifle could be purchased for $3,000. After 2014 the price has fallen to $1,000. Inside the ATO/JFO zone the cost of automatic weapon was about $100.
The growing statistics
The flow of illegal “barrels” from the conflict zone has raised a wave of crime which stayed for next several years. According to the National Police, in 2016 there were 6,000 crimes related to the illicit trade in pistols, assault rifles and explosives, and in 2017 – almost 8,000 cases. According to the Prosecutor General’s Office of Ukraine, 6,204 cases of illegal use, storage or sale of weapons were registered in 2019. In addition to organized crime, the “shadow arsenal” poses an increased risk due to terrorist threat. In the context of Ukraine, it is not about planned attacks of extremist groups, it is a question of the activity of fanatics or mentally ill persons. In July, in the city of Lutsk Maxim Krivosh took passengers of a bus hostage. The criminal made absurd demands on President Zelensky, which have been met and the captured citizens released. Despite the absence of victims and the generally proper outcome, the arsenal of the “Lutsk terrorist” discovered after the arrest was an additional reason for concern of Ukrainians. Krivosh carried an assault rifle, pistol and hand grenade.
There is no simple solution
The National Police and the Security Service of Ukraine do their best to take away the illegal “barrels” from a population, but knowing the scale of the problem officials will need more than a dozen years to solve it. But today, shooting on the Ukrainian streets or mentally ill terrorists attacks sound like an echo of hasty decisions from 2014.