Market conditions for arms trafficking in Eastern Europe.

In February 2023, a joint operation led by Romanian and Bulgarian law enforcement saw 22 firearms traffickers arrested across Europe and the seizure of 129 firearms and almost 1 500 unconverted and converted alarm and signal weapons.1

The operation shone a spotlight on the countries bordering Ukraine that risk seeing an increase of arms trafficked from the conflict in the future. Overland arms trafficking from Ukraine to Europe will most likely involve the countries on Ukraine’s western borders – namely Moldova, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia and Poland – although some weapons from the conflict may enter Europe via Russia or Belarus.

These countries may either serve as transit routes for arms trafficking or as domestic markets in their own right. Regarding the latter, it appears that for the most part, demand for military equipment, including high-end assault rifles and handguns, is currently low and prices are high. In 2023, the GI-TOC conducted exploratory fieldwork for the Monitoring Project in Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Moldova and Romania to assess the current market conditions. In all countries, sources reported that organized crime prefers to do business quietly, with as little lethal force as possible – a stance that is reflected by the relatively low levels of gun crime and gun ownership in those countries.2

Arms trafficking also carries heavy sentences in Romania and Poland, which sources said was a deterrent.3 As one source in Romania said, ‘arms are so sensitive [an area], organized crime will avoid it’.4 Sources in Hungary reported that organized crime (which has decreased since its 1990s heyday) also prefers to maintain a low profile, and stressed that no large-scale trafficking of weapons would be possible without the prior approval of members of law enforcement.5

This reluctance to utilize heavy firepower also speaks to the relative stability of the criminal underworld in Romania. Even the reported arrival of Polish criminals into Romania did not catalyze a gang war, but the contrary: according to a journalist, Polish criminals attempted to resolve problems between the local bosses, speaking to an underworld where the priority appears to be keeping everyone in line.6 That said, since approximately 2021, the increased presence of Western Balkan organized crime groups in the country, and their interest in the cocaine trade, may disrupt the balance in the near future.7

It is a similar story in Poland, where shootings have decreased since the first decade of the 2000s. More effective law enforcement has broken up many of the organized crime groups that were dominant in the 1990s, including the two most notorious: the Pruszków and Wołomin mafias. Now organized crime groups conduct operations differently and avoid using guns for fear of raising attention, although the possibility of drug-trafficking fascist groups (who often use football hooligans as foot soldiers), becoming involved in arms trafficking was mentioned to the GI-TOC.8

Homicides committed using a firearm in Poland, 2002­–2021.

Figure 2 Homicides committed using a firearm in Poland, 2002­–2021.

The declining role played by guns in Poland is evidenced by the steep drop in homicides committed with firearms over the last two decades (Figure 2). But as firearms have declined in popularity, pneumatic guns appear to have become more popular. According to official police statistics, in 2002, firearms were involved in 3.5 times the number of offences compared to gas guns; by 2021, this ratio had dropped to 1.5, indicating that gas guns were more than twice as prevalent in criminal offences compared to two decades before (Figure 3).9 This highlights that gas and pneumatic guns may possess advantages over traditional firearms, such as ease of acquisition and conversion into firearms, and less legal risk (gas guns that have been converted into lethal guns can also be converted back to non-lethal guns). For criminals seeking a show of force rather than lethal violence, gas and pneumatic guns may serve as well as real guns, and are often very similar in look. Robberies in Poland, for example, very often involve the use of gas and pneumatic guns.

Ratio of firearms to gas guns used in criminal offences in Poland, 2002–2021.

Figure 3 Ratio of firearms to gas guns used in criminal offences in Poland, 2002–2021.

GI-TOC analysis of police statistics; Statystyka Policja, Przestępstwa przy użyciu broni,,Przestepstwa-przy-uzyciu-broni.html

As such, there seems little in the way of a large-scale market for weapons in Poland, given the general disinclination to use traditional weapons before 2022, the significant risks involved in trafficking and acquiring such weapons and the relative stability of the underworlds in Romania and Poland. Violent competition between gangs could serve as a catalyst in this regard, however, making it essential to monitor these dynamics; rising prices of real guns in such countries might not only signify rising demand for weapons, but also that the underworld is experiencing greater tension and internal competition.

Indeed, the early warning signs may already be there. The slight uptick in homicides using firearms since 2019 was notable, although the absolute number of homicides remained low. More troubling was an April 2023 report by the Polish police that they had seized 571 firearms in three separate operations over the previous two years, including 328 long weapons, 232 handguns, 11 machine guns, two grenades and more than 8 800 rounds of ammunition.10

There may be another area of increasing domestic demand for firearms in Poland, and that is among civilians. Poland has a low level of gun ownership – 2.5 civilian firearms per 100 000 of the population – but demand for permits has increased since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, perhaps due to fears that Russia would also threaten Poland.11 There was an 85% increase in new gun permits issued in 2022 – with 37 000 issued compared to almost 20 000 in 2021.12 Although an individual can have several permits for different weapons, the rise is still pronounced. While this rise in permits speaks to those going through legal channels, there may be others who, perhaps influenced by widespread lack of trust in the government,13 resort to the black market to avoid formal registration.

Slovakia offered an interesting outlier to the general trend in Eastern Europe. The border between Slovakia and Ukraine has long been porous (smugglers once even operated a tunnel underneath it, equipped with a small train, mainly used to smuggle cigarettes).14 Security has tightened in recent years but some of the border terrain is mountainous, making surveillance and interdiction challenging, and human and cigarette smuggling is still taking place. After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the black market price of an AK-47 reportedly increased by a third, but more research is required to determine the factors underpinning this rise.

Transit corridors?

But if local demand for weapons from Ukraine is not high at present, Romania, Slovakia, Hungary and Poland may still act as transit routes.15 Before the Russian invasion, weapons were recorded entering Romania from Bulgaria and Western Europe, although weapons smuggled from Ukraine were apparently rare.16 The Flemish Peace Institute, which maintains an arms seizure register, said it had ‘not found an actual case of firearms being smuggled from Ukraine, where an active war [was] in progress, in the period 2010–2016’.17

It was a similar story with arms flows involving Poland, which saw weapons pass from west to east. In April 2022, Europol broke a Polish arms trafficking ring, in which a Polish family based in the Netherlands would acquire weapons from across Europe, and send them deactivated to family members in Poland, who would then reactivate them in illegal workshops and sell them in Poland.18 Another Polish trafficking network, broken up in 2021, smuggled revolvers, pistols, automatic rifles and hand machine guns from Slovakia to Poland, Russia and Ukraine.19

But although cases of weapons smuggled from Ukraine may be scarce, it is worth remembering that the enabling infrastructure is present. Weapons use the same routes as other illicit commodities, and in this regard Romania in particular offers well-established options, being part of the Eastern European border route for smuggling migrants, drugs and other commodities. The Black Sea port of Constanța has also long been a hub for smuggling, especially of drugs.20 The series of upgrades to the area intended to improve connectivity with Ukraine (by road, rail or barge on the Danube)21 could in the future be exploited by smugglers, including those of weapons.

Moldova has also historically been an arms hub.22 Increased international attention since the start of Russia’s invasion will make weapons trafficking through the country more problematic than in the past, but still possible. Moldova has become a hotspot of US efforts to prevent trafficking and tackle corruption, to the extent that one source interviewed by the GI-TOC described it as ‘the new star on the American flag’.23 INTERPOL also ran an initiative between October 2022 and July 2023, funded by the German foreign ministry, aimed at combatting firearms trafficking, among other priorities.24 Only a few months after the invasion, the EU launched a hub in Moldova to support cooperation on internal security and border management, including addressing the trafficking of firearms.25

One exception to this may be the self-declared republic of Transnistria, a pro-Russian pseudo-state. Yet even in this case the ambit for arms trafficking will likely be restricted to Transnistria’s large stockpiles of Russian Army weapons (mainly held in the Kolbasna depot), and not those currently being used on the battlefields of eastern Ukraine. Since the beginning of the war, Ukraine has maintained a heavy military presence along the border with Transnistria out of concern that it could be used as a staging post for a Russian incursion into western Ukraine. This tight security means that cross-border arms trafficking from Ukraine will be very difficult. Smuggling weapons already in Transnistria will also be challenging, given the heightened attention on arms trafficking in Moldova.


  1. Europol, 22 firearms traffickers arrested across Europe, 3 April 2023,

  2. Interviews with law enforcement, underworld figures, journalists, civil society figures in Romania, April 2022–August 2023. 

  3. Interview with sports shooters and gun shop owners in Romania, July 2023; interview with police source, Poland, June 2023. 

  4. Interview with an activist, Bucharest, July 2023. 

  5. Interview with journalists, Budapest, August 2023. 

  6. Interview with a journalist, Romania, summer 2023. 

  7. Ibid; Ruggero Scaturro and Walter Kemp, Portholes: Exploring the maritime Balkans routes, GI-TOC, July 2022, pp 44–45,

  8. Interview with journalists and law enforcement, Poland, June 2023; Brian Whelan, Poland’s football fascists want to fight you in the forest, Vice, 15 June 2012,

  9. GI-TOC analysis of Polish police statistics; see Statystyka Policja, Przestępstwa przy użyciu broni,,Przestepstwa-przy-uzyciu-broni.html

  10. Centralne Biuro Śledcze Policji, CBŚP przejęło 134 jednostki broni, 3 April 2023,,CBSP-przejelo-134-jednostki-broni.html?search=

  11. Bartosz Sieniawski, Gun interest in Poland increases amid Ukraine war, Euractiv, 10 October 2022,; Ed Wight, Preparing for Putin: Thousands of Polish men and women are taking up arms over fears of Russian attack, Daily Mail, 12 March 2023,

  12. Statystyka Policja, Broń – Pozwolenia,,Bron-pozwolenia.html

  13. Notes from Poland, Poland records second lowest trust in government in OECD, 16 July 2021,

  14. Interview with former customs officer based in the region, and underworld sources; Slovaks find railway smuggling tunnel to Ukraine, Reuters, 19 July 2012,

  15. See GI-TOC, Global Organized Crime Index: Romania,; GI-TOC, Global Organized Crime Index: Poland,

  16. GI-TOC, Global Organized Crime Index: Romania,

  17. Roxana Albisteanu, Alexandru Dena and Matthew Lewis, Romania: firearms and security at the EU eastern border, Flemish Peace Institute, p 354,

  18. Europol, Gun smugglers behind mail order service arrested in Poland and the Netherlands, 6 May 2022,

  19. Europol, 12 detained in Poland in gun smuggling crackdown, 17 June 2021,

  20. In May 2021, for example, €45 million-worth of heroin was seized at the port. Europol, €45 million-worth of heroin concealed in marble shipment seized in Romania, 27 May 2021,€45-million-worth-of-heroin-concealed-in-marble-shipment-seized-in-romania

  21. Reuters, Romania upgrades Black Sea port infrastructure to bring in more Ukrainian grain, 8 September 2023,

  22. See, for instance, Europol, Numerous weapons confiscated during the EU-coordinated Joint Operation ‘ORION’, 17 July 2019,

  23. Interview with underworld contact, July 2023. 

  24. See INTERPOL, Operational Assistance in Moldova Initiative,

  25. European Commission, Informal Home Affairs Council: EU launches the Support Hub for Internal Security and Border Management in Moldova, 11 July 2022,