It seems that fears about Moldova being drawn into illegal arms trafficking amidst the conflict in Ukraine are coming true. European officials are beginning to sound the alarm, while our authorities have censored discussion of this issue
At the end of 2022, the EU refused to admit the problem of Ukrainian arms transhipment to the community’s countries of. Reports by the Brussels bureaucracy, including those on the implementation of commitments under the United Nations on measures against the illicit production and turnover of firearms, noted that there were no facts of illegal deliveries from Ukraine. Although back in the spring Europol in confidential reports indicated the smuggling of “significant quantities of arms and ammunition” into the European Union precisely from the Ukrainian direction. At that time, taking into account the risks of “Yugoslav scenario” repetition, measures were taken to strengthen border controls. Moldova was also affected by this strengthening. Officials in Brussels, justifying the adoption of these measures, prudently stated that the revised legislation “should reduce the risk of circumventing the embargo in the case of firearms exports and will strengthen control over the import of civilian firearms from non-EU countries (including post-conflict countries), which will need to be properly monitored”.
Why did they pay such attention to us? It’s simple: even before the conflict in Ukraine, Brussels recorded facts of weapons’ resale supplied to Moldova from the EU. And these were relatively recent deliveries, for example, shipments sent to Chisinau in 2020. Experts of the non-governmental organisation Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime has also noted that even before the Russian invasion in 2022, Moldova was one of the main routes for illegal trafficking of weapons from Ukraine to Europe. According to the organisation, which interviewed border officials from the countries of the region, it remained so with the adjustment of the traffic route to the north of the country, bypassing the closed Transnistrian segment.
Words are empty, if the Moldovan officials, who perceived the growing figures of detected smuggling an opportunity for self-promotion, in autumn 2022 reported a sixfold increase in the traffic of weapons and ammunition, as well as a fivefold increase in narcotic drugs compared to 2021.
This spring, anxiety in Brussels began to grow due to reports that weapons supplied directly or with the 3.1 billion euros (at the time) allocated to Ukraine began to appear around the world, including in the Middle East, Africa and even Mexico. Some European parliamentarians began to demand full details about the situation with the arms transhipment and the measures taken by European structures to counter it, because “the excess of international military aid to Ukraine has become a time bomb. This, combined with a complete lack of control on the part of Western and Ukrainian authorities, has ensured an inexhaustible supply of modern arms to black markets all over the world”.
However, formally, European officials refused to acknowledge the failures in their security policy. On 11 May, during a visit to Kyiv, European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson said that the EU “has not found any facts of firearms’ industrial smuggling from Ukraine”.
By the end of the summer, amidst the failure of the Ukrainian counter-offensive and the realisation of the long-term nature of the conflict on the eastern border, the emphasis in the documents of the European institutions began to change. However, the taboo on publicising specific facts of such criminal schemes still remained. For instance, a September report by the border agency Frontex admitted that in Ukraine “a large number of weapons are uncontrolled, which, along with the increasing traffic of these goods, will have long-term consequences and may completely change the structure of illegal firearms flows in Europe”. Moreover, the fears of the EU border police are related both to the strengthening of criminal groups and threats of large-scale weapons’ smuggling. It is interesting that the report only included cropped data for 2022.
In October, the European Parliament, in a draft legislative resolution on measures for the import, export and transit of firearms, their main components and ammunition, stated bluntly: “It is well known and documented that some of the weapons supplied to Ukraine to counter Russian aggression are sold on the European black market”. Moreover, this amendment was introduced by the MEPs, outraged by the complete disregard for the issue on the part of the European Commission.
Statistics on illegal arms trafficking in Ukraine itself are expectedly absent. But in order to understand the scale of potential abuses, we can consider at least the latest figures from that country’s Chamber of Accounts that 7.4 billion hryvnias worth of embezzlement on foodstuffs only was discovered in the Ministry of Defence during the Oleksii Reznikov era.
What is remarkable about Moldova’s role in all these processes? The answer is quite simple. Our country has long been among the top states with traditionally high levels of smuggling. And despite the launch of different projects, missions and even a “security hub” with the EU participation, designed to ensure Moldova’s resistance to cross-border crime, we still face manifestations of large-scale smuggling, for example, of tobacco products. At the same time, we are not talking about the detention of small batches of cigarettes directly during checks at checkpoints, but about batches worth millions of euros, which are regularly detected already in the EU countries. It goes without saying that the trafficking of such volumes is impossible without the involvement of customs and border guards.
All this, as before in the EU, is taking place amidst the absence in statements by responsible officials and politicians of even factual recognition that there are problems. Moreover, this year the authorities have actually imposed a total ban on this topic in the public space, given the negative consequences for individual PAS representatives last year. Thus, even from the now temporarily suspended border police head, Rosian Vasiloi, our mass media could not get a clear answer to the question whether the detected arms trafficking indicators had increased compared to previous years or not, although recently the official was much more chatty.
The “sterility” of the country’s media space in 2023 was only occasionally spoiled by law enforcement agencies’ reports on the detention of participants in organised illegal arms trafficking schemes, as well as foreign media publications. Among the latter we can mention investigations by the Turkish “DikGazete”, in which our country appears as a route for smuggling from Ukraine the components of the Bayraktar TB2 attack drones and other high-tech weapons. According to the Turkish media, one of them is the route “Ukraine-Moldova-Romania-Georgia-Turkey-Iraq”. It is noteworthy that Turkey itself appears in the reports of European institutions as one of the countries used for illegal arms trafficking, including to the EU, which, however, does not prevent the Turkish media from investigating the channels of illegal arms deliveries, taking into account the national security interests of their country.
We should note that the potential abuse of arms trafficking in Moldova is not related only to its transit role in deliveries from Ukraine towards the European Union. Over the past two years, Western partners have been actively sending us various weapons. Since autumn 2022, the volume of military deliveries to Moldova and the border regions of Romania has increased significantly, including from Poland, which has begun to irritate even Kyiv. In June, Polish Interior Minister Mariusz Kaminski personally reported on the dispatch of six cargo planes with weapons and ammunition for Moldovan military.
The issue of arms deliveries from Romania via the eastern route is also a murky mystery. It is only known that the Romanian companies Romtehnica and Romarm were among the leaders in exports to Ukraine in the first five months of 2023. Romtehnica also shipped goods in the interests of the Moldovan Ministry of Defence, but only medical supplies were publicised.
If we remember that the EU has already accused the incumbent authorities of illegally reselling supplied weapons, then all current military imports can be categorised as risk.
There are a number of other implicit indicators that suggest that our country is becoming one of the main channels for illegal arms trafficking. Based on 2022 results, the already mentioned EU border police agency Frontex has noted a decrease in the number of reported cases of weapons trafficking and illegal migration at border crossing points with the Western Balkan countries, which have traditionally been the leaders in these indexes. At the same time, an increase in illegal migration occurred at all sections of the land borders with Moldova and Ukraine. It also mentions the increasing risks of human trafficking, in particular children.
Thus, in the near future our country faces the prospect of becoming a transhipment base, if not a hub, for the illegal trafficking of arms and ammunition. Outbreaks of armed confrontation in the region, including the massacre in the Gaza Strip that began last month, will only fuel demand for weapons, including precision ones tested during hostilities in Ukraine. There can be no doubt that in our country there will be both those willing to personally participate in meeting this demand and those ready to improve their position by covering up such abuses.