Squeezing the sponge: post-conflict Ukraine poses a great risk of firearms trafficking.

As noted in a GI-TOC report, ‘since February 2022, weapons have been arriving in Ukraine at an extraordinary rate’. The report observes that ‘given Ukraine’s history of arms trafficking … the risk of weapons trafficking was flagged in the early days of the war by Europol’.1

Several GI-TOC sources indicate that small arms are moving within Ukraine – including into the illicit market – but there has been little evidence of weapons flowing out of the country. GI-TOC field research in several European countries has discovered that prices for guns on the black market are high because of demand from the war in Ukraine, as well as among drug traffickers from the Nordic countries to the Black Sea and concerned citizens in Ukraine’s neighbours who are arming themselves out of fear of a potential spillover of the conflict.

In March 2022, Europol reported that currently the Western Balkans – not Ukraine – is the main point of entry for firearms smuggled into the EU.2 That said, the history of past conflicts points to a high risk of arms trafficking from Ukraine in the post-conflict phase. Recent examples set a precedent, including Afghanistan and Libya, while the post-war period in the Western Balkans also provides a stark warning. In the 1990s, after the wars that marked the break-up of Yugoslavia, weapons flooded the region and found their way into the hands of terrorists and criminal groups in Europe, and insurgents in far-flung parts of the world. Even today, in countries such as Sweden, guns and grenades from the former Yugoslavia are used by criminal groups.

Already there are symptoms of the abundance of weapons in Ukraine. Records from the country’s prosecutor general on offences committed with firearms and ammunition show that crimes committed with firearms rose tenfold in 2022, from 720 in 2021 to 7 003 in 2022.3

Conditions are in place

When the sponge is squeezed and weapons start flowing out of the war zone, there is a real risk that some of those firearms could move along the existing Balkan route. Black Sea ports such as Varna (Bulgaria) and Constanta (Romania) would be obvious exit points, as well as Poland, Slovakia, Moldova, Hungary, and Adriatic ports in Croatia and Slovenia. The Western Balkans could also be an attractive route for weapons heading south and west.

The Balkan route and organized criminal groups from South Eastern Europe are known for polycriminal activities, such as the smuggling of people, drugs and firearms, not least into the EU.4 The necessary infrastructure and networks for a surge in firearms trafficking, once the peace comes, are already in place.

Furthermore, corruption, well-organized criminal networks (including some with links to criminal groups in Ukraine) and availability of firearms make South Eastern Europe a high-risk region for smuggling weapons from Ukraine. For example, in an April 2023 operation coordinated by Europol and led by Bulgaria and Romania, police across the region arrested 22 firearms traffickers, including several from South Eastern Europe. They seized 1 621 weapons and 24 735 rounds of ammunition, as well as 276 kilograms of dynamite, 299 detonators and over 21 kilograms of gunpowder.5

It is worth noting that many of the weapons seized in this operation were converted alarm and signal weapons. This is a growing problem attributed to changes in technology, legal loopholes and the cost of procuring regular firearms on the black market. The challenge in dealing with convertible weapons is also manifesting itself in other parts of Europe.6 However, there will be no shortage of weapons on the black market once the war in Ukraine is over.

A key lubricant for arms trafficking is corruption, particularly among state actors (such as those involved in procurement or issuing export licences) and weapons manufacturers. In some Western Balkan countries, export licences have become a commodity in their own right, allowing consortia to export to conflict zones, circumventing international legal barriers and avoiding political scrutiny of any kind.7

For instance, in 2010 around 30 000 Bulgarian self-loading assault rifles were reported to have made their way to Libyan, Yemeni and Sudanese armed forces, aided by foreign investors.8 Reports suggest that this phenomenon continues.9 In 2013, The New York Times ran a story on how a large purchase of infantry weapons from Croatia was funnelled to anti-government fighters in Syria.10 In addition, weapons from Serbia have allegedly turned up in Yemen.11 Several UN investigative reports have revealed how small arms and light weapons were sent to Syria from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Montenegro and Serbia, among other countries.12

It is hard to speculate as to where the weapons smuggled through the Balkan route could go, but history and experience suggest four possible paths. First, small but potent quantities of weapons could be retained by criminal groups in the region that collect weapons for their own use or as status symbols. High-end criminals tend to covet the most modern weapons rather than just Kalashnikovs. What is troubling in the current context is the number of state-of-the-art weapons from NATO countries flowing into Ukraine, which could fuel an arms race among criminal groups if these weapons leak out of the region and into the black market.

GI-TOC research is already picking up some evidence of this trend in the context of its research on arms trafficking from Ukraine to central Europe, for example. This is something to watch, as drug trafficking and weapons trafficking are closely linked. Criminal groups from the Western Balkans with long tentacles around the world could exchange drugs for guns or use weapons to maintain or gain control over lucrative drug markets. This could lead to an increase in violence in regions where criminal groups from the Balkans are active, including the EU.

Secondly, weapons and ammunition could transit the region heading for war zones in other parts of the world. As noted, several countries in the Balkans have a track record in making such deals. Black Sea and Adriatic ports are potential trafficking hubs; the Danube could also be a channel. In addition to assault rifles and handguns, it will be important to guard against the export of shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles, anti-tank guided missiles and drones. There will also be a high number of experienced drone pilots in the region whose skills could be attractive to criminal groups.

A third possibility is that weapons from Ukraine could fall into the hands of terrorists or paramilitaries; in this case, the Balkans could be both a region of transit and destination.

Finally, there is the potential for weapons to be stockpiled in Ukraine or its neighbouring countries for future use.

After the war in Yugoslavia, there was a delay before weapons from the region began appearing in war zones around the world. This time, the availability of the internet and social media could shorten the time lag; this increases the urgency to prepare now.

Several initiatives have been taken in the past to increase control over small arms and light weapons in the Balkans. These need to be scaled up to guard against a potential spillover of arms trafficking out of Ukraine after the war.

For example, steps should be taken to enhance border and port security, perhaps with support from EU countries from Frontex and using the European Multidisciplinary Platform Against Criminal Threats. After all, EU states have a self-interest to ensure they are not flooded by weapons from Ukraine’s battlefields.

Greater attention should also be given to tackling corruption, not least by state-embedded actors. Furthermore, law enforcement should be enhanced in countries in Ukraine’s vicinity to reduce the risk of weapons trafficking, and to investigate, disrupt and prosecute illicit arms dealers. Romania, which has a long border with Ukraine and Black Sea and Danube ports, deserves particular attention and support so that it does not become the hole in the net.

All of this activity should be intelligence-led. For its part, the GI-TOC is monitoring gun prices on the black market to identify pricing trends in Ukraine and potential markets.

There is no need to invent new formats to facilitate coordination – the region has a plethora of them, including the Western Balkans SALW Control Roadmap, the South Eastern and Eastern Europe Clearinghouse for the Control of SALW, the Southeast European Law Enforcement Centre, the OSCE and the Regional Cooperation Council. Civil society organizations should be given greater access to these bodies to share information.

However, urgently needed is political leadership with strong law enforcement engagement, to prioritize the containment of weapons in and around Ukraine and to anticipate, prevent and control what could – based on previous experience – be a large and destabilizing outflow of weapons from Ukraine once the fighting stops. The time to prepare is now.


  1. New front lines: Organized criminal economies in Ukraine in 2022, GI-TOC, February 2023, https://globalinitiative.net/wp-content/uploads/2023/02/New-frontlines-organized-criminal-economies-in-Ukraine-in-2022-GI-TOC-February-2023.pdf

  2. Frontex: Western Balkans main point of entry for arms smuggled into EU, EURACTIV, 1 March 2022, https://www.euractiv.com/section/politics/short_news/frontex-western-balkans-main-point-of-entry-for-arms-smuggled-into-eu/

  3. New front lines: Organized criminal economies in Ukraine in 2022, GI-TOC, February 2023, https://globalinitiative.net/analysis/organized-criminal-economies-ukraine-2022/

  4. Europol, Drugs and firearms traffickers targeted along the Balkan route, 4 November 2022, https://www.europol.europa.eu/media-press/newsroom/news/382-arrests-during-joint-actions-against-traffickers-using-balkan-route

  5. Europol, 22 firearms traffickers arrested across Europe, 3 April 2023, https://www.europol.europa.eu/media-press/newsroom/news/22-firearms-traffickers-arrested-across-europe

  6. In the UK: Paul Jacques, Illegal conversion of blank-firing pistols into lethal guns a ‘growing concern’, says GMP, Police Professional, 2 December 2021, https://www.policeprofessional.com/news/illegal-conversion-of-blank-firing-pistols-into-lethal-guns-a-growing-concern-says-gmp/

  7. UAE/KSA Opportunism, captive states & the arms trade in South-Eastern Europe, Tactics Institute for Security and Counter Terrorism, 19 June 2020, https://tacticsinstitute.com/reports/tactics-publishes-major-report-on-arms-trade/

  8. N R Jenzen-Jones, Bulgarian AR-M9 & AR-M9F rifles supplied by UAE to allied forces, The Hoplite, 31 January 2016, http://armamentresearch.com/bulgarian-ar-m9-ar-m9f-rifles-supplied-by-uae-to-allied-forces

  9. Mariya Petkova, War gains: Bulgarian arms add fuel to Middle East conflicts, BalkanInsight, 21 December 2015, https://balkaninsight.com/2015/12/21/war-gains-bulgarian-arms-add-fuel-to-middle-east-conflicts-12-16-2015/

  10. C J Chivers and Eric Schmitt, Saudis step up help for rebels in Syria with Croatian arms, The New York Times, 25 February 2013, https://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/26/world/middleeast/in-shift-saudis-are-said-to-arm-rebels-in-syria.html?smid=pl-share&_r=0

  11. Dilyana Gaytandzhieva, Leaked arms dealers’ passports reveal who supplies terrorists in Yemen: Serbia files (Part 3), Arms Watch, 15 September 2019, http://armswatch.com/leaked-arms-dealers-passports-reveal-who-supplies-terrorists-in-yemen-serbia-files-part-3/

  12. Ivan Angelovski, Miranda Patrucic and Lawrence Marzouk, Revealed: the £1bn of weapons flowing from Europe to Middle East, The Guardian, 27 July 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jul/27/weapons-flowing-eastern-europe-middle-east-revealed-arms-trade-syria?fbclid=IwAR2MvtkxmqXedbsES6gCPHJzb95XRLAuDVyFoG11TPlsYthhEbgXERnQOO0