The current war in Ukraine is the largest war in Europe since World War II. The United States and many European countries have pledged support for Ukraine, with most of this support coming in the form of weapons and humanitarian aid. The war poses existential threats not only to Ukraine but also to European and global security. In addition to ending the war, a second immediate challenge facing the international community is the monitoring of the weapons and weapon systems given to Ukraine. The current movement of weapons creates one of the largest stockpiles in Europe, having the potential to have far-reaching and largely unintended consequences once the war comes to an end.
It is no secret that legally traded weapons often wind up in the world’s most conflict-ridden areas. For example, the weapons Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates legally purchase from France and the United States find their way to Yemen. Similarly, the weapons the United States gave as part of its military aid to Pakistan can now be found in the hands of the Taliban in Afghanistan. It is too early to know what might happen to the weapons that Western and other countries are sending to Ukraine, but the international community has the opportunity to learn from past mistakes as well as the responsibility to ensure that these weapons are properly secured or returned to their home countries once the war ends.
The Russian aggression has led to worldwide support for Ukraine. According to a Politico report that focuses on weapons transfers to Ukraine, 250 countries have promised aid, with much of this aid coming in the form of military support. According to this report and the Forum of the Arms Trade, 31 countries, including the United States, United Kingdom, Poland, Greece and Finland, have already sent munitions and arms to Ukraine. These contributions included anti-tank and anti-aircraft launchers and munitions, as well as small arms and their munitions. These same sources report that, as of the end of March, the United States alone has contributed more than 1,400 Stinger anti-aircraft missile systems, 4,600 Javelin anti-tank missiles, five Mi-17 helicopters, three patrol boats, four counter-artillery and counter-drone tracking radars, 2,000 light anti-armor weapons, 300 grenade launchers and ammunition, 600 shotguns and 600 machine guns, 5,000 rifles, 1,000 pistols, 25,000 sets of body armor and helmets, nearly 40 million rounds of small arms ammunition and more than 1 million grenades mortar and artillery rounds, 70 Humvees and other vehicles, 6,000 AT-4 anti-armor systems and 100 Switchblade drones. This is just one nation out of 31 reporting their small arms and light weapons transfers to Ukraine. More is on the way from the United States and other countries.
There are many conflict zones around the world where one or more than one of the parties to the conflict will pay good money for anti-tank and anti-aircraft weaponry. Many groups battling militaries are primarily overpowered by the superior military strength brought on by tanks, armored vehicles, and helicopters. With some of the weapons from Ukraine, those force multipliers are suddenly taken off the board. In the hands of irregular forces who are skilled in ambush tactics, many of these weapons pose a real danger to a large group of countries and their militaries. The international community must open its eyes to the increasing risks for weapons trafficking through Ukraine.
The United Nations, the United States, and the European states should continue to focus on immediately ending the war in Ukraine before many more people lose their lives. And yet, they must also seriously consider the problems the ongoing movement of weapons to Ukraine will likely lead to in the future. Ukraine has opened its borders to foreign volunteer fighters. CNN reports that more than 20,000 volunteer fighters have already crossed the border, with many of them receiving rudimentary two-week basic training before they are given weapons to fight the Russian forces. It is not clear what the vetting process has been to accept these incoming volunteer fighters. Similarly, Russia has reached out to foreign forces. The likelihood of Ukraine recovering all the weapons back from these foreign fighters plus whatever they capture from the Russian forces is considerably low. It is also unclear what might happen if foreign forces recruited by Russia or even its regular forces get a hold of even some of these weapons. It is imperative that the international community dedicate resources to track the movement of weapons so that these weapons do not end up being used to start or prolong other conflicts around the world.
One option would be for the United Nations to set up an investigatory body to catalog weapons transferred and armament captured in hopes of preventing any potential illegal trading of weapons. In addition, the United Nations could proactively help Ukraine focus on the prevention of weapons trafficking by requesting identification information for the volunteer foreign fighters.
Public opinion strongly supports the military aid that the United States and other countries are giving to Ukraine. Western leaders have found providing military aid to Ukraine and imposing sanctions on Russian leaders and oligarchs more prudent than getting directly involved in the war. Whereas weapons transfer to Ukraine seems like a safer choice at this time, the international community must open its eyes to the increasing risks for weapons trafficking to other conflict regions through Ukraine that may prove to be consequential for regional and global security in the long term.
Marcus Engstran is a Political Science and Criminology and Criminal Justice student at Hamline University. Binnur Ozkececi-Taner is a professor of Political Science in Hamline University’s College of Liberal Arts. She teaches courses on international and regional security, world politics, and the politics of the Middle East.
*The views expressed here are the authors’ personal views, and do not necessarily represent the position or policy of Hamline University.