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Twelve billion bullets are produced every year – enough to kill everyone in the world twice. Every day, more than 500 people are killed, injured and forced to flee their homes because of armed conflict.
It is small wonder that just six countries: China, France, Germany, Russia, UK and USA account for 80% of the world’s weapons exports. Their entire economy, industrial production and employment opportunities depend on the arms trade.
Have you wondered why there is no perpetual and everlasting peace in the world and one or the other 200 odd countries are always facing conflict or being provoked to fight a war – from behind the scene?
This holds true for the month-long Russia- Ukraine conflict – where the countries from across the world seem to be placing their bets as to who will win the war, and at what cost – instead of making a serious attempt to stop the fighting. For a number of them, the continuation of the war is an opportunity to sell their military hardware and see how their equipment performs in actual battle conditions – without facing the risk of war…
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has spurred a wave of arms transfers to the besieged country. More than 20 other countries have promised, sent, or assisted in moving arms and equipment to Ukraine. The world’s largest arms dealer United States, alone has committed $1 billion worth of small arms, Javelin anti-tank, Stinger anti-aircraft weapons as well as other guns, and ammunition to Ukraine.
The U.S. has reportedly allowed Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia to re-export American man-portable Javelin anti-tank and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles — to Ukraine. The United States is also shipping $350 million worth of additional military equipment to help Ukraine fight off Russia’s “brutal and unprovoked assault”.
More than a dozen other NATO countries and several non-NATO European nations have started or expanded their weapons shipments to Ukraine. The EU has earmarked $503 million for air-defense systems, anti-tank weapons, ammunition, and other military equipment for Ukraine’s armed forces as well as non-lethal supplies such as fuel, protective gear, helmets, and first-aid kits.
Britain has promised to provide military support, including lethal defensive weapons. Royal Air Force C-17s made special flights to deliver a consignment of much-needed light anti-tank weapons while France may offer anti-aircraft hardware. Canada has sent a special operations unit for training and has not ruled out sending ‘defensive’ weapons.
Germany which till recently was against weapon exports to conflict zones has now committed to supply some 5,000 helmets, 1,000 anti-tank weapons and 500 Stinger-class surface-to-air missiles to help Ukraine defend itself. Belgium is providing 2,000 machine guns and 3,800 tons of fuel to the Ukrainian army.
The Czech Republic is delivering 30,000 pistols, 7,000 assault rifles, 3,000 machine guns, several dozen sniper guns and about a million cartridges.
Netherlands has dispatched sniper rifles and helmets, while 200 Stinger anti-aircraft missiles are likely to be delivered “as soon as possible”. The Dutch are also sending an anti-tank system equipped with 400 rockets capable of hitting moving targets between 300 and 600 meters away with great precision.
Third party transfer of arms and armaments to conflict-prone nations is extremely common in modern warfare. But the moot question is whether the transfer of arms alone helps the Ukrainian army withstand the numerically and effectively superior Russian Armed forces or simply causes more people to be killed on both sides while prolonging the war indefinitely. Some examples of such third-partymeddling and arms transfer include Pakistan supplying weapons made in the USA to anti-Soviet mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s or Iran supplying weapons to the Shiite militias in Iraq in their fight against U.S. troops between 2003 and 2008.
Another common practice is to allow armed militants set up sanctuaries, base camps and logistics hubs in neighboring countries.
“We will not fight a war against Russia in Ukraine,” U.S. President Joe Biden tweeted.
“I want to be clear: We will defend every inch of NATO territory with the full might of a united and galvanized NATO. But we will not fight a war against Russia in Ukraine. A direct confrontation between NATO and Russia is World War III. And something we must strive to prevent.”
What he meant to say was that there is no direct military confrontation between the United States and Russia, which is true. But at the same time, it is a fact that the United States and its European allies are in the midst of a full-blown proxy war with Russia and have flooded Ukraine with more than 17,000 anti-tank weapons and thousands of anti-aircraft missiles.
The whole point behind this proxy warfare is to keep a low profile and make Russia bleed – without a direct confrontation between the United States and Russia.
There was a time when Ukraine’s defense industry accounted for 30% of Soviet defense production and 40% of its scientific research. Most Soviet ICBMs, Russia’s only aircraft carrier and a number of Russian military ships were built in Ukraine.
According to an estimate, there are roughly 1.2 million legal and around 4 million illegal weapons, mostly fully-automatic military weapons in Ukraine.
Most of the arms and ammunition being sent to Ukraine— handheld or shoulder-fired anti-tank and antiaircraft systems are exactly the kinds of weapons needed for an insurgency in the post-conflict phase. Even if the Russian army manages to capture all of Ukraine, one of its first objectives would be to seal Ukrainian borders to prevent arms from reaching anti-Russian insurgents. This is not going to be easy as Ukraine’s border meander across the Carpathian Mountains and dense forests near Poland which are not easy to seal completely.
Clearly, the aid alone is unlikely to play a decisive role in swinging the tide in Ukraine’s favor and might compound the risk of escalation. Nevertheless, arms transfers by the United States and others now are an investment in anti-Russian resistance, even if Russia does crush Ukraine’s regular army in the coming days.
Over the past decade, Ukraine has earned the reputation of being one of the world’s most active suppliers of illicit small arms in return for hard cash. Ukrainian arms have fuelled some of the world’s bloodiest conflicts in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, or the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Ukraine, which used to be a front-line state of the Eastern Bloc, inherited a huge stockpile of arms when it broke away from the Soviet Union in 1991. After the newly independent state moved towards NATO and downsized its military, its Soviet weapons fell into disuse. Some were sold off legally, but most of it found its way into the black market.
Russian arms dealer Victor Bout, Israeli-Ukrainian businessman Vadim Rabinovich, and the former director of the Ukrainian secret service allegedly sold millions of dollars worth of weapons to the Taliban during the late 1990s.
High-level corruption in the military facilitated the flow of illegal weapons from Ukraine on the basis of forged export documents or falsified end-user certificates. Many soldiers reported to have “lost” their weapons, while some commanders were caught selling off weapons in bulk.
According to a Ukrainian parliamentary inquiry Ukraine lost $32 billion worth of military assets due to theft, discounted sales and lack of oversight. Many of these missing weapons found their way into the hands of underworld buyers around the globe.
The ease with which arms shipments moved through official channels led many observers to conclude that high-level Ukrainian officials were either involved in the deals or else facilitated the illegal trade by looking the other way. However, the Ukrainian government has shown little interest in probing organized crime and no Ukrainian officials or politicians have been tried or convicted for arms dealing.
The one and only official inquiry ended abruptly after the official heading it was court-martialed and the report vanished. The members were silenced and the journalist who leaked some of the inquiry’s findings was shot and wounded.
However, the biggest problem is how to prevent these weapons from ending up in the wrong hands. Providing essential equipment to Ukraine could help combat a Russian invasion but supplying them with portable, lethal, high-value weapons and armaments can amount to inviting trouble both at home and abroad.
This might seem to be a worst-case scenario, but there are precedents. For instance, the U.S. supplied Stinger portable surface-to-air missiles to Mujahideen fighters in Afghanistan to shoot down Soviet helicopter gunships but these turned up in the black markets of Pakistan. The CIA tried to buy them back but wasn’t entirely successful as many of these missiles had already been bought by Hezbollah.
Hence irrespective of whether Russia or Ukraine wins the war – as always, the weapons manufacturers and arms dealers will stand to gain and make a big profit.