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Observatory of Illicit Markets and the Conflict in Ukraine


Summary highlights

  1. Monitoring illicit arms flows from the conflict in Ukraine.

    The huge influx of weapons into Ukraine since the start of the Russian invasion in February 2022 has raised fears of potential arms trafficking. As yet, there is little sign of such activity, with many reported instances either the result of Russian disinformation or a lack of verification. To bring more insight into this significant risk, which has the potential to reshape the dynamics of organized crime in Europe and possibly beyond, the GI‑TOC has established an Illicit Arms Monitor to ‘take the temperature’ of arms trafficking across Europe using price-based data and qualitative research.

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

    Guns are readily available in Ukraine, from both licit and illicit sources. The phase of conflict following the Russian invasion in February 2022 has greatly increased these stocks, but it has also brought steep barriers for would-be arms traffickers, not least heightened checks on roads and in urban areas and the relatively small profit margins in selling small quantities of guns. One exception to this appears to be flows into Russia, either of captured Ukrainian or siphoned Russian army weapons, which seem to have increased judging from the steep uptick in gun crime in neighbouring regions.

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  3. Market conditions for arms trafficking in Eastern Europe.

    Weapons illegally leaving Ukraine may pass overland through one of the Western European countries on its western border: Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Poland and Moldova. But according to GI-TOC fieldwork, there is little appetite among organized crime in most of these countries to become involved in arms trafficking, either for their own use or facilitating their onward sale. In most countries, organized crime has assumed a quieter role since the 1990s and 2000s, and use of traditional guns has fallen (although use of converted guns, such as gas guns, has greatly increased). Greater Western law enforcement attention on Moldova since the Russian invasion may also be serving as a deterrent.

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  4. Gang wars in Sweden indicate a demand driver.

    As the other stories in this Risk Bulletin highlight, there are significant barriers to trafficking weapons from the conflict in Ukraine both within Ukraine itself and through several neighbouring countries. Yet there is one part of Europe where the demand for weapons has remained strong in recent years: Sweden. Fuelled by drug revenues, internal tensions in the underworld and a ready supply of weapons, lethal violence has become a common modus operandi among organized crime groups in Sweden. Whether this demand for weapons will in future be satisfied by guns from Ukraine or from other sources is something that the GI-TOC Arms Monitoring Project will follow closely.

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About this issue

This Risk Bulletin is the first issue to be released by the Observatory of Illicit Markets and the Conflict in Ukraine. The format is intended to provide concise articles of research and analysis on evolving topics that may become the focus of more in-depth coverage in the shape of the GI-TOC’s research reports or policy briefs. Risk Bulletins may also highlight time-sensitive issues that need to be placed in the public domain to raise awareness of emerging risks.

This first issue hones in on the key findings of the Observatory’s Illicit Arms Monitor, which was set up in early 2023 to track trends in arms trafficking from the conflict in Ukraine.

Here, we explain the guiding purpose and methodology of the Monitor and spotlight market conditions in Ukraine, neighbouring countries in Eastern Europe and Sweden. Together, the stories provide a snapshot of one potential ‘supply chain’ of illegal arms – from Ukraine to bordering transit countries and into Western European end markets that are witnessing violent contests in the criminal underworld, particularly for control of lucrative illicit commodities such as drugs.