The military aid provided to Ukraine by Western nations signals the desire to back a fellow democracy whilst concurrently avoiding a catastrophic escalation with a nuclear armed Russia. Whilst this support is certainly having a direct impact on the conflict, the long-term implications of releasing vast amounts of weapons into an unstable region are less certain. This may be a problem, at least if previous attempts to support nations and armed groups in this manner is any indication.
Many of the weapon systems provided to Ukraine are both effective and highly portable, and neither side in the conflict is likely able to maintain control over all of them, no matter the direction the struggle takes. There are several distinct groups within the conflict that have the capability to disperse weapons beyond Ukraine’s borders, either through arrangements with existing partners or for profit. Finally, the global disorder stemming from the Ukraine conflict could open up a range of new markets for arms. Considering the numerous adverse factors at play, weapons flowing into the Ukraine conflict have the potential to level up the arms black market both regionally and globally for years to come, raising the potential threat posed by a range of rebel groups and terrorist organisations.
The provision of weapons is a tried and tested means of supporting a friendly nation against an adversary, and the Ukraine conflict is certainly not the first example of this approach. Donor nations do not always demonstrate effective foresight in dispensing their support, however, and nor can recipients always be relied upon to use gifted weapons appropriately.
The assistance provided by the United States to back Islamist insurgents in the Soviet Afghan war was certainly vital in bringing the conflict to a more expedient close, with the provision of man portable Stinger Missiles providing rebel groups with a means of challenging soviet air dominance. Of course, later these same missiles would go on to represent a source of extreme anxiety, and based on the threat to both military and civil aviation, would result in the United states going to great lengths to retrieve as many as possible. Even more contemporary cautionary tales are apparent in US military aid provided to Iraq and Afghanistan, which respectively went on to provide ISIS and the Taliban with sophisticated modern armouries. In many cases, the end user of military aid provided to an ally may ultimately threaten the interests of the donor. Naturally, the more capable the weapons in question, the more cause for concern.
In the context of the Ukraine conflict, no weapon is building a brand quite like the Javelin. A capable and easily portable anti-armour weapon, the Javelin can provide dismounted infantrymen with an answer to armoured vehicles. Javelin has also shown its usefulness in other contexts, being used to crack open structures and destroy VBIED’s. The Javelin is now building on this well-earned reputation to become a potent symbol in the context of the current conflict, with a significant number currently deployed on the Ukrainian side. Noted for their ease of use and portability, they can be operated by almost anyone, and as such their use need not be limited to trained professionals. Along with a range of other small arms, the Javelin provides even minimally trained combatants with the capability to hinder the Russian war machine. It is of course, only one of the many weapon systems flowing into Ukraine, though it’s effectiveness in the course of the conflict has made it the focus of media attention.
Loss of control
It is difficult to predict how the Ukraine conflict might evolve. It is however possible to identify several groups that are potential vectors for arms trafficking either during the conflict, or depending on results, in its aftermath.
Firstly, Russian servicemen have a long history of selling arms on what might be called a subsistence level– this is worrying, given the recent upgrade of equipment the Russian land forces have gone through, with the conflict representing an opportunity for newer iterations of military equipment to join the cold war stock that is still cycling between global conflict zones. Any captured equipment does not even have the modest benefit of Russia’s clearly inadequate inventory management system and could likewise be easily trafficked.
In addition to the Russian side, the potential for a Ukrainian domestic black market needs to be considered. Prior to the conflict, the Ukrainian establishment was notable for corruption and ties to organised crime. Criminal organisations tend to be quite durable, even in times of conflict, and could provide a potential route out of the conflict zone for many capable weapon systems. Depending how the conflict evolves, surplus weapons could be dispersed via existing criminal networks for profit, or in order to secure other forms of support as the conflict develops.
The presence of a number of outside interests further compounds the likelihood of a black market forming. The presence of Chechen forces on both sides of the conflict is perhaps a particular source of concern. This could translate to not only a direct route of transmission back to the Caucasus and Central Asia, but to a range of international Islamist terrorist groups. There is then the presence of the extreme right nationalists — though relatively small in number, groups like the Azov Battalion are well connected, having international membership and partnerships with other extreme nationalist groups around the globe. The presence of foreign fighters in the conflict in general also bears monitoring — there is a risk that individuals may return to their nations of origin with not only new skills and connections, but with interesting souvenirs.
Neither of the state parties involved directly in the Ukraine conflict are going to be capable of entirely stemming the flow of weapons and equipment outward, if indeed this is a priority at all. As the conflict evolves, further fragmentation within the respective sides could exacerbate the risk of weapons making their way into other conflicts. In this regard, there are likely to be no shortage of buyers.
The economic and political implications of the Ukraine crisis are not yet confirmed; the general prognosis for world order is not good, however. Not only has this conflict represented a wake-up call for state militaries, but it has also potentially fired the starting gun for a range of long simmering conflicts.
Firstly, maintaining a heavy NATO presence in Europe will constrain many Western militaries, meaning that meeting other commitments may become difficult. Should it become necessary to reduce their presence in other areas of the world, longstanding tensions may boil over into violence. Strategic rivals and rising powers may additionally take advantage of the situation, increasing the number of potential flashpoints. The Ukraine conflict is additionally complicating the global economic picture. The general uncertainty, sanctions and interruptions to production are likely to cause insecurity in terms of necessities as well as drive inequality around the world. As a result, potential end users for Ukraine military aid are growing in number.
The arms market is not all about wealth, and as the conflict grinds on, decision makers may seek to leverage any surplus in materiel to fulfil other strategic aims. A few judiciously fenced Javelin Missiles could empower some of Russia’s other enemies, drawing attention away from their operations in Ukraine. The most obvious secondary markets in this regard are places like Chechnya and Kazakhstan, though there is also the possibility that markets for military aid could emerge wherever there is a Russian footprint: Central Asia, the Balkans and Middle East are all options. This would of course complicate the relationship between Ukraine and its Western supporters.
Under ideal circumstances, donor nations would be able to retrieve their weapons and equipment and attend to its disposal in accordance with their own national interests. This would require Ukraine to win, be able to demobilise, and still have a positive relationship with its supporters. Most of these factors fall beyond the direct control of donor nations, and accordingly it is important to consider other potential outcomes and their potential implications.
Firstly, given the recent mass dissemination of military aid, Western nations need to plan to confront their own highly capable weapon systems on the battlefield. Some weapons may even make an appearance in the hands of terrorist and insurgent groups, with this potentially creating domestic security issues. The capability of platforms like Javelin is certainly a cause for concern, with the American provenance of the weapon having further implications. Javelin missiles have already become a symbol of both Ukrainian resistance, and perhaps, Western support. Symbols can of course be co-opted as easily as the weapons themselves, often leading to interesting results.
Mitigating these risks should represent a priority. Donor nations should therefore seek to maintain a positive relationship with the recipient, so far as is possible, and consider any means of constraining the use of their weapons outside of their intended purpose. Considering potential vectors out of the intended conflict zone is additionally important. Most importantly, it is vital to carefully consider the provision of compact, portable, and easy to use systems like Stinger or Javelin. Whilst these are ideal in terms of immediate battlefield results, these same features render them a threat long after any conflict concludes.
Ultimately, it is possible to suggest that the longer-term implications of providing military aid are often a secondary consideration, with this certainly true of the situation unfolding in Ukraine. It is also important to factor in the consequences of not providing military aid under such circumstances, which are likely to be just as profound. As technology advances, and powerful weapon systems become more accessible, the need to proactively address the potential outcomes of military aid is going to be an increasingly important consideration. This may require a more disciplined, longer-term approach to military aid.