Increased supply of weapons to Ukraine since invasion adds to pre-existing stockpiles.

In July 2023, law enforcement raided the yard of a resident in Sumy Oblast, where a rickety-looking structure had caught their attention. Removing the tarpaulin, they discovered a Russian T-80 tank, a ‘trophy’ weapon from the front line that had lain hidden for almost a year.1

Since the Second World War at least, there has been a tradition of Ukrainians hiding guns, either to use against future aggressors, or in some instances, to sell on the black market. Indeed, the practice has given rise to an idiom: ‘in Ukraine, we water our flowers with oil’ (in other words, to stop the guns buried underground from rusting).

The war will have afforded many such opportunities to those looking to hide weapons smaller than a tank. Some of these may be active military personnel, with the International Legion a perceived vulnerability. In August 2022, the Kyiv Independent revealed that Piotr Kapuscinski, a Polish commander in the International Legion, was under investigation by the Ukrainian security services (SBU) after allegations of arms theft.2 According to the Kyiv Independent, Kapuscinski was a former Polish gangster who had been imprisoned in Poland on numerous criminal charges. He had also been charged in Ukraine with robbery and illegal arms possession, but these charges were suspended when he joined the International Legion.

There is also the issue of demobilized soldiers or soldiers on leave coming back home with weapons. According to one activist, ‘volunteers don’t come back empty handed’.3 In December 2022, an anti-tank round from the Mykolaiv region that had been transported to Odesa in the boot of a car by a volunteer exploded in Odesa, injuring several police officers. The volunteer claimed that the round and other ammunition he had brought were ‘souvenirs’.4 This phenomenon has even reached Western Europe: in July 2023, two British people were arrested in France attempting to transport a pair of decommissioned rocket launchers they had been given while on a humanitarian mission in Ukraine.5 Some soldiers, for example snipers, also buy their own preferred weapons, often relying on donations or crowdfunding. This means that some soldiers have two sets of weapons, those officially issued and those bought for themselves. After demobilization, these soldiers will return the issued weapons and keep their own set – a phenomenon seen since hostilities began in 2014.

Ukrainian law enforcement reveal a Russian T-80 tank that had been concealed in a yard, July 2023.

Ukrainian law enforcement reveal a Russian T-80 tank that had been concealed in a yard, July 2023.

A vast pre-existing stockpile and fertile trafficking market

This influx will only add to Ukraine’s already vast number of registered and unregistered weapons. In June 2023, Ihor Klymenko, the Ukrainian Minister of Internal Affairs, estimated that there were 1.2 million registered weapons in the country, but that there would be up to 3 million unregistered weapons after the war.6 Such estimates may indeed be on the low side, given that Small Arms Survey estimated that there were almost 3.6 million unregistered weapons in 2017 – and it is unlikely that the war will have led to a decrease in this figure.7

In part, these high numbers are the result of the ease and low cost of acquiring weapons in Ukraine. Ukraine has no formal law on gun ownership (only an order by the Ministry of Internal Affairs to restrict licensing that leaves considerable leeway in practice), although a new unified gun registry, launched in June 2023, will putatively bring more order to this situation.8 Still, it is possible to walk into a gun store in many places across the country and buy a ‘sports weapon’ – which in reality can include guns that are fully automatic. Prices on the black market are low too, compared to neighbouring countries. In Kyiv, an AKSU with two magazines and 60 cartridges sells for UAH56 800 (US$1 550), a CZ 75 for US$1 500 and an F1 grenade sells for US$30; while in Odesa, a Glock 17 sells for US$1 000.9

Before the war, it was possible to obtain most types of gun by legal means, with the exception of high-end pistols, which are more difficult to source (only law enforcement is legally able to buy them) and more desirable in the black market, being easier to conceal. One loophole in the acquisition of pistols is through ‘award weapons’ – guns (often pistols) presented by the state to officials – since 1991, some 50 000 weapons have been awarded to officials through this channel.10 Although officials are in theory limited to owning only one ‘award’ weapon, in practice some have up to 20 each, and some of the weapons even include submachine guns.11

There was an important development in the monitoring of weapons in Ukraine at the end of August 2023, when four employees were killed after an explosive device detonated at the State Scientific and Research Expert Forensic Center of the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Kyiv.12 The centre was responsible for, among other things, ballistic research of firearms, ammunition and gunshot marks (including weapons involved in serious crimes), and the study of weapons of war (explosives, grenade launchers, artillery and missiles).13 According to the head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the explosion started a fire at the centre. According to our sources, data on awarded weapons and some Western-made weapons that have entered Ukraine was also stored at the facility and that data may have been lost in the subsequent fire.

Given that the overwhelming majority of Ukraine’s data on firearms was held at the facility (with only some data held at the regional level), this represents a significant blow to efforts to track and monitor the ownership and use of guns in Ukraine.

Steep barriers to outflows – for now

This large stockpile, ready availability and low price made Ukraine an attractive source for arms traffickers before the war. According to the GI-TOC’s 2021 Organized Crime Index, arms trafficking was judged as the country’s most pervasive criminal market before the February 2022 Russian invasion. Given this vulnerability, many raised the alarm in the early days of the conflict over the risk of weapons trafficking.

At the time of writing (September 2023), however, GI‑TOC fieldwork found no evidence of any successful large-scale arms trafficking out of the country. Although the full-scale Russian invasion has increased the stocks of weapons in the country, including many weapons that would ordinarily be attractive to traffickers for the Western EU markets, it has also created several barriers to large-scale trafficking.

Increased security throughout Ukraine, in the shape of checkpoints and stops, has made moving weapons more problematic, although given the isolated cases of weapons trafficking within Ukraine reported in 2022 and 2023, not impossible.14 (In Odesa in September 2023, for instance, a man was searched and found to have grenades, mines and TNT in his car.)15 The naval blockade of the port of Odesa has also deprived arms traffickers of their main conduit for selling arms at scale; without containers, it is difficult to move a sizeable quantity of guns. There is also a heavy military presence on the border with Transnistria due to fears of Russian incursions and a substantial presence elsewhere along Ukraine’s other borders. It is notable that flows of other smuggled goods in trucks through Romania and Moldova have been increasing in 2023, which may indicate a potential future path of travel, although as discussed below, local traffickers in several bordering countries appear to have few incentives at present to get involved.16 The relative ease of detecting guns (as opposed to, say, cocaine or illicit tobacco) travelling by such routes – and the high risk of heavy punishment – may also deter would-be traffickers. These barriers, combined with the relatively low profit margin on small batches of weapons, led one underworld source in Odesa to assess that, ‘the fear of [another] invasion is greater than money … and the logistics of getting it over the border aren’t worth it … the price is too low’.17

Military vigilance over weapons is also generally high, with close monitoring and frequent seizures. According to one Ukrainian monitor of weapons transfers to Ukraine, soldiers have died attempting to reclaim weapons that have been left behind on the battlefield to prevent them from being stolen or lost.18 Other efforts have focused on tightening the administrative framework surrounding civilian gun ownership. According to a police source in Odesa, the rules on legal weapons had changed after the invasion – such weapons now had to be registered every four weeks instead of every three months as before, a situation that had led many people to return their guns.19 (That said, the launch of the Unified Register in June 2023 streamlined the process of obtaining a gun permit, which could now be acquired without leaving the house – a situation that could enable a greater uptake of legal weapons among the population, which could in turn present opportunities for illegal sales of guns that have been falsely declared lost or stolen.)20

One important caveat to this is weapons flows into and through Russia from ‘trophy’ weapons captured or collected from the battlefield. This may be one of the factors behind the 30% rise in gun crime witnessed in Russia through 2022, with particular spikes in the Russian districts neighbouring the occupied areas of Ukraine – Kursk, for instance, saw an increase of 675% and Belgorod 213.3%.21 The dynamics of this market are distinct from those in non-occupied Ukraine, although it is worth reflecting that these weapons too may also ultimately end up in Europe overland via Belarus or in cargo ships from Russia. A Western European law enforcement source also mentioned in mid-2023 that some weapons had been detected passing from occupied Luhansk to Russia, then to Georgia and Turkey.22 Given that weapons from Turkey are known to reach Europe, this route via Russia could in time form a ‘back channel’ for weapons from the conflict to reach the EU.

As such, the ambit for large-scale arms trafficking for Ukraine is limited at present – but all the preconditions for its resurgence are there.


  1. На Сумщині чоловік понад рік зберігав у себе на подвір’ї трофейний російський танк, We Ukraine, 30 July 2023,

  2. Anna Myroniuk and Alexander Khrebet, Investigation: International Legion soldiers allege light weapons mis- appropriation, abuse by commanders, Kyiv Independent, 30 November 2022,

  3. Interview with an activist, Odesa, May 2023. 

  4. Elena Rudenko, Стало известно о состоянии пострадавших от взрыва в Одессе, MYC news, 4 December 2022,

  5. Peter Allen, ‘Anything to declare?’ British couple arrested trying to smuggle Ukraine war rocket launchers into UK, Evening Standard, 20 July 2023,

  6. Oleg Chernysh, Ігор Клименко: ‘Я надіюсь, війна завершиться достатньо скоро, цього року’, BBC News, 2 June 2023,

  7. See Small Arms Survey, Civilian Firearms Holdings, 2017,

  8. Mark Galeotti and Anna Arutunyan, Peace and proliferation: The Russo-Ukrainian war and the illegal arms trade, GI-TOC, March 2023, p 6,; Iryna Balachuk, Unified Register of Weapons comes into operation in Ukraine, Ukrainian Pravda, 23 June 2023,

  9. Interview with sources in law enforcement, Kyiv, September 2023. 

  10. Mark Galeotti and Anna Arutunyan, Peace and proliferation: The Russo-Ukrainian war and the illegal arms trade, GI-TOC, March 2023, p 6,

  11. Interviews with Ukrainian crime journalists, Kyiv, 2023. 

  12. Natalia Balyukh, ДБР розслідує вибух в експертно-криміналістичному центрі МВС під Києвом, Suspilne, 21 August 2023,

  13. Державний Науково-Дослідний Експертно-Криміналістичний Центр Мвс України, Дослідження, ослідження,

  14. See, for example, The SBU detained an arms dealer and discovered a stash of weapons in Zaporizhzhia, Odessa Journal, 30 July 2022,; Поліція Київщини показала відео затримання підпільного торговця зброєю з Переяслава, Pereiaslav City, 28 October 2022, 

  15. Olga Shukova, В Одесі затримали чоловіка, який зберігав в авто вибухонебезпечні предмети, Suspilne, 14 September 2023,

  16. See GI-TOC, Port in a storm: Organized crime dynamics in Odesa in 2022, August 2023,

  17. Ibid. 

  18. Lara Jakes, Ukrainian soldiers risk their lives to keep weapons from the black market, The New York Times, 12 May 2023,

  19. Written interview with police source, Odesa, May 2023. 

  20. Iryna Balachuk, Unified register of weapons comes into operation in Ukraine, Ukrainian Pravda, 23 June 2023,

  21. Mark Galeotti, Crime of troubles: The Russian underworld since the Ukraine invasion, GI-TOC, forthcoming. 

  22. Interview with Western European law enforcement, May 2023.