Could war in Ukraine affect organized crime in the Western Balkans?

Organized crime is not foremost in our minds as we watch with horror the devastation in Ukraine. But all wars have spillover effects and long-term consequences, as witnessed in Yugoslavia in the 1990s. The war in Ukraine might expand the opportunity space for organized crime in the Western Balkans, including as a result of arms trafficking, money laundering, sanctions busting, the movement of fighters or a possible shift in trafficking routes.

Ukrainian refugees cross into Poland, March 2022.

Ukrainian refugees cross into Poland, March 2022.

Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

One of the most astounding responses of the West to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has been its economic restrictions, including sanctions and travel bans. One of the few remaining routes for Russians to travel is via Belgrade. No doubt their money may also move into or through the region. Indeed, in recent years, several thousand foreigners have taken advantage of so-called ‘golden’ passport schemes in some European countries, including in south-eastern Europe.1 And some Western Balkan countries, like Montenegro and North Macedonia, continue to offer ‘citizenship for investment’ schemes.2 In a recent case, Montenegro granted asylum to a Russian tycoon wanted for murder.3

While not among the biggest investors in the Western Balkans, in the past Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs have parked their wealth in Serbia, for example, or along the Montenegrin coast. The Adriatic coast is a playground for the ultra-wealthy; one of Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich’s superyachts recently docked at a marina in Montenegro.4

Wealthy Russians on the move could seek investment opportunities in the region and might well draw on the connections of well-established criminal groups with contacts in political and business circles. There is a danger that Russian money could be laundered into real estate, tourism, gambling and other sectors vulnerable to IFFs, impacting local economies and politics.

Russia is facing almost unprecedented sanctions, and if the conflict continues, further penalties may be imposed. Some countries of the Western Balkans have not joined the ban on Russian flights, so airports such as Belgrade’s (and via Istanbul to all capitals in the region) have become key hubs for Russian travellers. It is possible that Russian assets, which are frozen in many countries, could find a safe haven in countries of the Western Balkans where Russians already feel comfortable doing business. The Western Balkans could also be a conduit for the trafficking of luxury goods, alcohol and cigarettes. But the region is not contiguous to either Ukraine or Russia and the amount of sanctions busting will probably be limited – but worth keeping an eye on.

A frightening sign of the times is that a black market could develop for medications that are designed to reduce the impact of nuclear radiation: at the moment, there are almost no potassium iodide pills available in pharmacies in North Macedonia.5 As in other parts of Europe, there are also concerns about shortages of certain commodities and rising prices; two of the most obvious in the Western Balkans thus far are gasoline and sunflower oil.6 Scarcity markets could create incentives for smuggling.

Shifts in trafficking routes

As Turkey clamped down on smuggling (particularly of migrants) after 2015, it is thought that some trafficking routes for drugs shifted towards maritime routes across the Black Sea or even into the Adriatic.7 The former trend is confirmed by notable seizures of 400 kilograms of heroin from Iran in the port of Varna, Bulgaria, and 1 400 kilograms in Constanta, Romania, by authorities in February and May 2021, respectively.8 These ports may become more attractive to illicit flows if trafficking is disrupted in Odessa and other Black Sea ports because of the war in Ukraine. An increase in trafficking through a maritime Balkan route can also be noted by major seizures in the north-eastern Adriatic ports of Koper, Slovenia (where more than one tonne of heroin was seized between 2019 and 2021); Ploce, Croatia; and Trieste, Italy, in recent years.9 This shift in heroin trafficking comes at a time when there is increased evidence of cocaine trafficking into Adriatic ports. The Danube river could also become a conduit for smuggling.

A massive amount of weaponry is pouring into Ukraine, including from the Western Balkans. There are indications that automatic rifles and mortars made in Serbia are being used on the battlefield.10 According to a source familiar with the criminal milieu in Bosnia and Herzegovina, prices of firearms on that country’s black market have risen by more than 100 per cent since late February – a trend that is also apparently evident in some countries of western Europe. It is possible that the war has created an increase in demand, not least from those heading to the region as volunteer fighters. There is a danger that some of the weapons flooding into Ukraine will trickle back into the Western Balkans, either to be used by criminal groups or paramilitaries, or sold on the black market.

Young men from south-eastern Europe have gone to fight in Ukraine – on both sides – since the outbreak of the crisis in 2014,11 although it is illegal to do so in most countries of the region. It is anticipated that the numbers will grow if the war drags on, not least since Ukraine has created a so-called ‘foreign legion’.12 As in other situations, such as fighters going from Europe to Syria or Iraq, many will not return home.

But the flow of weapons and fighters between the Western Balkans and Ukraine could increase the risk of (particularly right-wing) violent extremism, homicides and paramilitary violence. The latter threat is particularly worrisome in relation to the destabilizing impact of armed groups in regions where ethnic tensions can be quickly stoked. The Night Wolves motorcycle club, for example, has branches in Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro. There have been reports in the past of Russian-trained mercenaries in Serbia and the Republic of Srpska with links to organized crime.13 The flow of weapons and fighters back and forth from the war zone in Ukraine could swell the ranks of criminal and paramilitary groups in the Western Balkans, strengthen their arsenals and increase radicalization.

The high number of people – particularly women and children – fleeing Ukraine could increase vulnerability to human trafficking. The longer the crisis goes on and the more desperate people become, the greater the danger that some could be vulnerable to becoming victims of sexual exploitation, including in the Western Balkans – for example in big cities, resorts on the Adriatic coast or online. Indeed, Europol has issued an early warning notification highlighting how women, children and vulnerable persons are potential victims of criminal networks engaging in trafficking in human beings.14 They have warned that unaccompanied minors are most at risk for sexual and labour exploitation, as well as forced criminality and begging, or other criminal activities.

The war in Ukraine has created the biggest upheaval in European security since the end of the Cold War and the most profound shake-up of the world order since 1945. Criminals are always first movers in times of change and conflict. The war will no doubt affect geopolitics in the Western Balkans and possibly even national politics and inter-ethnic relations. It could also revive discussions about the EU accession process, particularly given Ukraine’s application for EU membership.15

But it will probably also have an impact on criminal markets and IFFs, and it has triggered the departure of young men to Europe’s new battlefield. This is something national law enforcement agencies as well as regional organizations and all stakeholders with an interest in stability in the Western Balkans should anticipate and watch closely, not least when these fighters and their weapons return home. For its part, the GI-TOC will continue monitoring the impact of the war on criminal markets.


  1. Clara Hernanz Lizarraga, Russia’s war puts Europe’s ‘golden passports’ under microscope, Bloomberg, 15 March 2022,

  2. Samir Kajosevic, Montenegro extends ‘golden passport’ program despite EU criticism, BalkanInsight, 31 December 2021, 

  3. Montenegro grants asylum to tycoon wanted in Russia for murder, The Moscow Times, 23 October 2021,

  4. Abramovich’s superyacht cruises in to Montenegro marina, France24, 12 March 2022,

  5. Срѓан Стојанчов, За пандемијата се бараше тоалетна, за нуклеарната закана јод, Радио Слободна Европа, 3 March 2022,за-пандемијата-се-бараше-тоалетна-за-нуклеарната-закана-јод-/31734027.html

  6. N1, Zašto je poskupilo domaće suncokretovo ulje – 4,85 KM po litru?, 15 March 2022,

  7. Ben Crabtree, Black Sea: A rising tide of illicit business?, GI-TOC, 1 April 2020, 

  8. Bulgarian prosecutors say heroin found in cargo from Iran, ABC News, 16 February 2021,; ‘Historical seizure’ of heroin at Romanian Black Sea port, AP News, 20 May 2021,

  9. I. Hina, Slovenska policija u Kopru otkrila 730 kilograma iranskog heroina, T Portal, 13 November 2019,; R K, V Luki Koper zasegli več kot 200 kilogramov heroina; Siol, 16 June 2021,; Maxi sequestro di eroina al porto, i cani fiutano un carico da 50 chili, Trieste Prima, 20 July 2018,; Hina, Croatian police seize 220 kg of heroin and 62 kg of cocaine in the port of Ploce, N1, 11 January 2022, 

  10. Aleksandar Radić, Oružje iz ex YU na ukrajinskom ratištu, Balkanska bezbednosna mreža, 15 March 2022,; Vuk Cvijić, Srpske mine na ukrajinskom frontu, NIN, 31 March 2022,; Battle of Kyiv. Moshchun. Hostomel, Direction Ukrainian military TV, 13 March 2022,

  11. Mila Đurđević, Dobrovoljci iz Srbije u Ukrajini: Politička i vojna smetnja, Radio Slobodna Evropa, 24 February 2022,

  12. Rusko ministarstvo: ‘U Ukrajini je 200 hrvatskih plaćenika‘. Tvrde da ih je organizirao Hrvat koji je šest godina ratovao u pukovniji Azov, Slobodna Dalmacija, 3 March 2022,

  13. Julian Borger, Russian-trained mercenaries back Bosnia’s Serb separatists, The Guardian, 12 January 2018,

  14. European Migrant Smuggling Centre, War in Ukraine – refugees arriving to the EU from Ukraine at risk of exploitation as part of THB, Europol, March 2022,–_refugees_arriving_to_the_EU_from_Ukraine_at_risk_of_exploitation_as_part_of_THB.pdf

  15. Erwan Fouéré, Can the war in Ukraine revive the EU’s enlargement agenda for the Western Balkans?, CEPS Policy Insights, No 2022-11, 24 March 2022,