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Historical Analysis

December 8, 2014

Ukraine's Lords of War

The devastating legacy of Soviet arms in Ukraine and around the world

Of all the weapons in the vast soviet arsenal, nothing was more profitable than Avtomat Kalashnikova model of 1947. More commonly known as the AK-47, or Kalashnikov. It's the world's most popular assault rifle. A weapon all fighters love. An elegantly simple 9 pound amalgamation of forged steel and plywood. It doesn't break, jam, or overheat. It'll shoot whether it's covered in mud or filled with sand. It's so easy, even a child can use it; and they do. The Soviets put the gun on a coin. Mozambique put it on their flag. Since the end of the Cold War, the Kalashnikov has become the Russian people's greatest export. After that comes vodka, caviar, and suicidal novelists. One thing is for sure, no one was lining up to buy their cars.

Why is it that in virtually every image of war from around the world in the last 20 years, the soldiers, fighters or rebels are armed with AK-47s? The above passage provided a pretty good answer to that question, and it came from a surprising place. Those words were spoken by Dimitri Orlov, an arms dealer played by Nicholas Cage in the movie Lord of War. Though there never was a Dimitri Orlov there might as well have been.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 it opened the floodgates for a torrent of guns, tanks, APCs, attack helicopters and munitions into the world’s conflict zones, fuelling an eruption of small and not-so-small wars. Men like Dimitri Orlov built criminal empires secreting these weapons from Red Army storehouses and across international borders. But these arms weren't simply exports of Russia. Arguably playing an even more prominent role in this black market trade was Ukraine, the country where the man who spoke the lines above acquired all of his AK-47s.

In this article we will examine the role Ukraine played in this dark trade. We will start at the factories and the warehouses in Ukraine and look at the conditions that allowed the wholesale theft of military hardware. Next we'll move to the warzones of Africa, and meet the individuals who moved the weapons in between. Finally we will see that collusion with the arms traders went to the highest levels of Ukrainian politics and has contributed to the widespread corruption and cynicism that hobbles Ukraine to this day.

Shedding light on this murky and opaque business goes a long way to explaining the unrest and war that rocked Ukraine in 2014.

A Windfall Inheritance

Misspent Youth

Operation Barbarossa in 1941. Soviet armies lined up against the border were rapidly cut to pieces by fast-moving German panzer spearheads.

When an independent Ukraine was born in August 1991 it inherited one of the largest and best equipped militaries in the world equipped with virtually inexhaustible stockpiles of tanks, helicopters, artillery pieces, assault rifles, land mines and ammunition.

There were several reasons for this windfall inheritance. The first was that because of the sheer size of the Soviet military behind the Iron Curtain, Ukraine along with all the other republics were bound to be left with huge military stockpiles. Through the latter decades of the Cold War the Soviets had maintained conventional armed forces intended to be at parity with the combined armies of the NATO alliance. Keeping this absurdly high level of military preparedness cost somewhere between 17 and 19 per cent of the Union’s GDP. That investment translated into armed forces of four million men, 40,000 tanks and guns and 10,000 combat aircraft.

Of these forces, a disproportionately high number were stationed in the Ukraine. Soviet strategists were determined to avoid a rerun of the catastrophe of the summer of 1941 where the bulk of the Red Army’s best divisions, lined up at the shared border with the Third Reich, were encircled and annihilated in the first weeks of the war. To be able to react to a NATO attack and launch counter-offensives most Soviet troops were stationed in front of the Russian heartland but still well back of the front line with NATO in East Germany and Czechoslovakia: meaning the Ukraine and Belarus.

The troops in the Ukraine were some of the best equipped: the 1st Guards Army, 13th Army, 38th Army, 6th Guards Tank Army, 8th Tank Army and the 32nd Army Corps. They could muster 6,052 tanks, 3,602 artillery pieces, 1,650 combat aircraft, 75 attack helicopters and a large (to put it mildly) supply of small arms. For our story, it only became important that the troops were stationed in the Ukraine in 1991. It was then that the debate ignited over what to do with the massive combined military might of the Soviet Union’s suddenly sovereign states. While Russia and the Central Asian republics wanted to keep the military united under the overall control of the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States), “Ukraine placed itself at the forefront of efforts to divide the military assets of the former Union.”

The Ukrainians wanted all the military assets on her new national territory to revert to the just created Ukrainian armed forces. Russia was in no position to challenge this demand, and the Ukrainian demands were quickly echoed by most of the other republics. In 1992 the Russian government caved and, when it was finally set down in a treaty, it was determined Ukraine would inherit all the above listed equipment valued at $89 billion, as well as 780,000 men and women under arms. At the same time the 2,500 nuclear weapons on Ukrainian soil were to be repatriated back to Russia as Ukraine wanted nothing to do with nuclear weaponry after the Chernobyl disaster. The Ukrainian government felt safe doing this after Russia and the West guaranteed Ukrainian sovereignty with the signing of the Budapest Memorandum. Unfortunately for Ukraine the Budapest Memorandum didn’t stop Putin from invading and annexing the Crimea and fomenting civil war in Ukraine’s east in 2014.

Misspent Youth

Red Army soldiers in Red Square in the 1980s. There were four million others like them when the Soviet Union collapsed.

Chaos and Collapse

In Lord of War, the Ukrainian—former Soviet—General Dmitri Orlov sells a seemingly endless stream of military equipment to the freewheeling arms dealer played by Nicholas Cage. At one point General Orlov even offers the arms dealer a bargain: for every ten T-72’s he buys from his military stores, he’ll throw in an eleventh free. Instances like this, where men entrusted with hugely expensive and powerful equipment blatantly abused their authority, appear to have been commonplace.

How was the theft of billions of dollars of Ukrainian state property possible? There were three factors that created the conditions where tanks, guns and helicopters could be quietly shipped out of the country. The first was the administrative chaos that followed the creation of the Ukrainian armed forces. This breakdown in military discipline and central authority was mirrored in most of the post-Soviet republics, but it was particularly acute in Ukraine. It began when the Verkhovna Rada’s (parliament) legislated a Ukrainian Armed Forces Command into existence in 1992 and placed under its “full jurisdiction... all former Soviet military formations and units in the republic.”

Misspent Youth

A map showing the prevalence of Russian speakers in Ukraine.

No such command structure had ever existed before: the units now under Ukrainian command had been under the direct control of Stavka in Moscow. As a result, commanders were left in the dark about who exactly they now answered to and whether they would even have jobs in the months ahead. To further complicate matters the language of the Soviet military had been Russian, but the new Ukrainian Armed Forces was to work in Ukrainian—even though many of the army’s officers could not even speak it. Indeed, many people who suddenly found themselves Ukrainian citizens couldn't even speak it: Ukrainian was more widely spoken in the west of the country while Russian in the east and Crimea. The languages are roughly as mutually intelligible as Spanish and Italian. This linguistic split has continued to fester for the last 25 years and is a major contributing factor to the unrest in Ukraine today. Given these factors, it is hardly surprising the chain of command broke down almost immediately, oversight and accountability were impossible to enforce.

Secondly, widespread disillusionment with the system, both old and new, crippled the fledgling government’s attempts to assert control. When the Soviet system collapsed there were not many who mourned its passing, least of all in the Ukraine; polls taken at the time showed 90% of Ukrainians wanted independence from the USSR. Another measure, membership in the Communist Party of the Ukraine (CPU), is indicative of widespread dissatisfaction with the Soviet system and the bankruptcy of the communist ideology. Before it was banned in August 1991, the CPU could boast four million members. When it was re-legalized just two years later only 150,000 rejoined –5 per cent.

People simply did not believe in the Soviet system anymore. Ukrainians had many grievances with the Soviet government, chief among them the mistreatment of Ukrainian troops in the armed forces. Red Army conscripts had never been treated well and Ukrainians suffered disproportionately compared to their Russian counterparts. Many Ukrainian units were put at the forefront of fighting in the Afghan War, or quelling hot spots of rebellion across the Warsaw Pact nations. Gorbachev's Perestroika reforms that legalized a free press backfired when the army's brutal hazing practices for new conscripts, Dedovshchina, were brought to light. Dedovshschina included humiliating duties and details, physical abuse, torture and even murder. The practice was endemic throughout the armed forces and many Ukrainians recoiled at the thought of giving up their sons to such a brutal disciplinary regime. The practice continues in the Russian Armed Forces to this day.

The other burning issue driving Ukrainians away from communism was the government’s handling of Chernobyl. The Soviet authorities had tried to cover up history’s worst nuclear disaster, which had occurred on Ukrainian soil, and most Ukrainians only found out about it when Geiger counters started going off in Sweden and the Swedes traced the isotopes back to Chernobyl. Dozens of Ukrainian firefighters received lethal doses of radiation fighting blazes at the plant, tens of thousands were forced to permanently evacuate their homes and hundreds of thousands were exposed to varying levels of radiation. Ukraine will be dealing with the fallout from Chernobyl for millennia to come. One historian wrote, “While an independent post-Soviet Ukraine may be years off, the old regime collapsed, practically and metaphorically, at 1:23 A.M., April 26, 1986, the moment of the nuclear accident at Chernobyl.”


As if this all wasn't enough, there was a third factor, the most important: Ukraine’s complete economic collapse.

Highly integrated within the Soviet economy as a whole, the split with the other republics came as an economic shock so huge it is almost unparalleled in modern history. Hyperinflation and unemployment soared. Many opportunistic government managers sold-off the state’s assets (since the state owned virtually everything) en masse, making private fortunes as the economy crumbled around them. One economist contrasted this ruthless, plutocratic form of privatization with Western equivalents and coined the term “grabization”. The defense industry was hit particularly hard since it employed over a third of the population. Over the next decade the economy contracted by a shocking 60 percent. These numbers can be deceptive however as estimates of the size of the informal sector or black market in this period, which is beyond government regulation and taxation, range as high as two thirds of the total GDP. The fact that such a huge portion of the economy went underground, and the lines between legal and illegal business practices became so blurred undoubtedly made stealing military equipment easier.

In a country that experienced negative growth for nine years following independence, the idea of a national consciousness has struggled to gain traction. A recent study (2009) even shows Ukrainians beginning to have nostalgia for the hated communist past: “59% of Ukrainian citizens,” it reads, “feel their country’s interests would be best served if the government ‘sought confederation with Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus and other former Soviet Republics.’ If Ukrainians were at all nationalistic, the polls would certainly show a different result.” This certainly helps explain the pro-Russian sympathies felt by many in the country’s east and in Crimea. The result of the economic collapse, writes Ukrainian scholar Taras Kuzio, was a decade of disillusionment with the new as well as the old. “The 1990s were characterized in Ukraine, Russia and the post-Soviet region as one of cynicism, ruthlessness, callousness, and disrespect for human life.”

Misspent Youth

Some very young boys have been sent into the coal mines to make ends meet. Today Ukraine's per capita GDP is about 105th in the world.

Economic depression meant the country had absolutely no way to pay the salaries of the three quarters of a million men and women under arms, let alone clothe, feed and house them. Initially the government intended to maintain armed forces about 450,000 strong and began demobilizing the remaining 300,000, but it was almost immediately apparent that even shrunken force was a preposterously large standing army given the state of the country’s finances. A painful and chaotic downsizing was inevitable. The mass demobilizations created more unemployment and gave those who remained in the military a fatalistic view of their own futures. Desperate to find any way to make money before receiving their pink slips, soldiers predictably began to sell their weapons, oftentimes their only assets. Today the Ukrainian military conforms more closely to budgetary realities, it is only 159,000 strong.

Cynicism and economic desperation go a long way to explaining the attitude of General Orlov in Lord of War, along with the actions of the hundreds of army officers, soldiers, politicians, border officials, and port authorities who must necessarily have been complicit in the theft of military equipment in order for it to occur on such a gigantic scale. More than anything else, the primary enabling factor for the Ukraine's illegal arms trade was economic collapse.

The Buyers

Mozambique Flag

The flag of Mozambique. It has an AK-47 on it.

We’ve laid out the equipment available to spur on an illegal arms trade, and the conditions that allowed that trade to flourish. Now we will take a brief look at the next piece of the puzzle: the buyers. It was disturbingly fortuitous that the collapse of the Cold War system that left huge stockpiles of armaments available for sale at bargain basement prices also helped spark a surge in regional and civil wars throughout the Third World.

As the New York Times’ East African bureau chief wrote, “The Cold War’s end bred state collapse and chaos. Where meddling great powers once found dominoes that needed to be kept from falling, they suddenly saw no national interest at all.”

Throughout the Cold War the USSR and USA had been propping up wobbly authoritarian regimes around the world with money and military aid; dominoes to be kept standing. When the Soviet Union disintegrated their share of the aid suddenly halted. Lacking an ideological nemesis, the United States also scaled back their commitments enormously. The corresponding weakening of centralized power in Third World states made the 1990s a time of intense civil strife where long simmering ethnic and religious conflicts boiled over. Many of these conflicts persist to this day.

It is well documented that since 1991 Ukrainian arms have turned up in the hands of rebel groups, international terrorists, tin-pot dictators and everywhere in-between. Taras Kuzio asserts it is public knowledge that “Ukrainian arms were exported to Iraq, Iran, and South Yemen. In Latin America Ukrainian arms ended up in Peru. In Asia, they were exported to Sri Lanka, Burma (despite an international embargo in place), China and Pakistan. In the latter case, some weapons could have been sent to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.”

But nowhere did the flood gates open harder and faster, and cause more horror and misery, than in Africa. From 1990 to the very recent past, Africa burned. The catalogue of wars, civil wars, genocides, rebellions and violent coups is shocking. Rather than listing them, their extent is better illustrated by the map below.

Oftentimes there was not even a clear motivation for warfare. As the NYT reporter explains:

What we are seeing is the decline of the classic African liberation movement and the proliferation of something else --something wilder, messier, more violent, and harder to wrap our heads around. If you'd like to call this war, fine. But what is spreading across Africa like a viral pandemic is actually just opportunistic, heavily armed banditry. My job as the New York Times' East Africa bureau chief is to cover news and feature stories in 12 countries. But most of my time is spent immersed in these un-wars. I've witnessed up close --often way too close --how combat has morphed from soldier vs. soldier (now a rarity in Africa) to soldier vs. civilian. Most of today's African fighters are not rebels with a cause; they're predators.

African Conflict in the 1990s

The map was made with information from the CIA World Factbook.

These ‘predators,’ exemplified by the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda and the armies of Liberia’s President Charles Taylor, were easily able to prolong their reigns of terror thanks to access to cheap Eastern Bloc weaponry that, more often than not, originated from the Ukraine. These weapons, more than anything the AK-47 assault rifle, gave these men—and frequently children—many times more destructive power than had previously been possible. The majority of the almost four million thought to have died in the Second Congo War from 1998 to 2004 are thought to have met their demise at the end of a bullet. The weapons are so common that the price has plummeted: One commentator noted that in the Kenyan town of Kolowa, an AK-47 could be bought for fifteen cows in 1986. By 2005 it had dropped to four.

The money for these weapons comes from the rich natural resources of the African continent. The most notorious and well documented instance of African resources for Ukrainian guns was in Sierra Leone’s trade in so-called ‘blood diamonds’. Though Angola’s UNITA rebel group was defeated and forced into the bush in the country’s interior, they could still pay for planeloads of small arms and attack helicopters because the narrow strip of jungle they occupied contained a huge diamond mine.

Though many African countries were subjected to UN-backed arms embargoes, great powers rarely invested in enforcing them. The many parties in Africa clamoring for guns could rely on shadowy middlemen—the arms dealers—to skirt any restrictions and meet their demands. It is to examining the methods of these arms dealers that we now turn.

Miners toil away, searching for diamonds in Sierra Leone.

Miners toil away, searching for diamonds in Sierra Leone.

The Middlemen

Details about Ukraine’s illegal arms trade, beyond what’s been described, are sketchy. There is no doubt that Ukraine held thousands of tons in military stockpiles, and many of those weapons have wound up in African conflict zones. How they got there and who was responsible are much more difficult questions to answer.

Profiling the lives of two suspected arms traffickers can help shed some light on the inner workings of this illegal trade. Nicholas Cage’s character Dimitri Orlov is intended to be a composite of these two colourful and villainous men.

Miners toil away, searching for diamonds in Sierra Leone.

Leonid Minin.

Leonid Minin was born in the Ukrainian port of Odessa in the 1970s. Working as a transporter of oil and timber in a number of countries across Latin America, Africa, and Europe, he was subjected to fraud and money laundering investigations during the early 1990s. As his import/export ventures around the world multiplied, so too did the white collar criminal investigations. Suddenly in 1999 Minin’s name shot to the surface of an investigation into arms smuggling when an Antonov-124 (formerly of the Soviet air force) transported 68 tons of small arms from Kiev to Liberia, via Burkina Faso (an event actually portrayed in Lord of War). The plane had been chartered by Minin.

French intelligence service were looking to find out how Charles Taylor’s rebel group in Liberia, which was supported by the Cote d’Ivoire, was getting its hands on arms despite a UN arms embargo. When a second shipment of 113 tons arrived in the Cote d’Ivoire’s capital Abidjan months later, taking the final leg of the trip on Minin’s personal jet, the Italian police had the pretext they needed to swoop in on the paunchy Ukrainian. They arrested him in a posh Milanese hotel with four prostitutes, 20 grams of cocaine, half a million dollars’ worth of ‘blood diamonds’ and tens of thousands of dollars in Mauritanian, American and European currency. At the time of his arrest he had seven known aliases and five passports.

Among the findings in the hotel room was a sheaf of documents detailing Minin’s business dealings, exposing for the first time the shady business of post-Soviet arms dealing to the Western press. The documents showed Minin had just visited Ivorian dictator Robert Guei and promised him shipment of 10,500 Ukrainian AK-47s, 30 grenade launchers, sniper rifles, night vision equipment and five million bullets. They were to be transported by Moscow-based air cargo firm, Aviatrend, an outfit run by former Soviet test pilot and friend of Minin’s Valery Cherny.

The Ukrainian government actually defended Minin, decrying the arrest and arguing that the end-user certificates for Minin’s weapons specified Burkina Faso—a country not under any arms sanctions—as the deadly cargo’s destination. End user certificates, documents certifying the buyer of military equipment, were, and still are, one of the primary tools used by police authorities to enforce arms embargoes. Luckily for arms dealers corrupt governments (Djibouti, Eritrea, Peru and Burkina Faso are popular choices) could sell falsified end-user certificates for as little as $50,000.

Once the weapons arrive in that country (in this case, Burkina Faso) they can be easily forwarded to embargoed nations. Despite the Ukrainian government’s protests, suggesting a high level of collusion, Minin was sentenced to two years in prison in 2002. Though his arrest was well publicized, I could not find any information regarding his imprisonment and presumably he was released in 2004.


An Antonov AN-12, one of the kinds of planes that made up Bout's international air fleet.

Far more infamous is Viktor Bout, dubbed the ‘merchant of death’ by the human rights groups, government officials and journalists who have been tracking him over the past 15 years. His origins are murky: he may have been born in Turkmenistan or Ukraine. He steps onto the pages of history when he began serving in a military air transport regiment in the 1980s. Speaking six languages and standing out for his brilliance, he was moved to the KGB and appointed acted as an advisor to Soviet client governments in Africa, spending two years in Mozambique. Some commentators believe that Bout was in Angola when the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991. Seizing his opportunity, he bought three huge Antonov cargo planes sitting idle on Eastern European airfields for a measly $120,000 and immediately began moving arms.

Bout’s previous experience made him well placed to profit heavily from the rapidly developing illegal arms business. As a remarkable New York Times profile on the man written in 2003 explained:

Arms traffickers inherited not only the Soviet Union's cold-war weapons supply but also its fully operational systems of clandestine transport, replete with money channels, people who understood how to use them and, most important, established shipping pipelines—what Robert Gelbard, assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement under President Clinton, calls "the tubing." "The tubing can carry different kinds of things," he told me, "drugs, humans, money—or weapons."

Victor Bout was master of the tubing. Making money hand over fist, Bout’s cargo fleet rapidly expanded to 60 planes (larger than many of the world’s flag carriers). Based in the free trade zone at Sharjah in the UAE, the lax import/export regulations allowed him to operate under a veil of secrecy. As the 1990s wore on it became clear to Western intelligence agencies that Bout was a very big deal in the smuggling business. “Though Bout denies his involvement in arms trafficking, he has been persistently and publicly linked to weapons shipments, charges supported by paper and money trails, confessions, eyewitness accounts and multiple intelligence reports.”


Viktor Bout at his court appearance in Thailand. Bout was sure he was going to get off, but the United States made strenuous efforts to ensure he was extradited to the America to stand trial, over Russia's vigorous protests.

Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s Bout was likely to have been the largest and most successful arms dealer in the world. Unlike Minin, Bout procured arms from virtually every country once in the Warsaw Pact. Arms he transported are suspected to have wound up in the majority of the conflict-ridden states depicted in the map above as well as everywhere else. Oftentimes his planes carried other goods—flowers, frozen chicken, mining equipment, even UN peacekeepers—but that was simply a matter of keeping his planes from ever flying without a profit-making cargo. These legitimate flights were often useful as a cover for his illicit activities. When Bout sat for his New York Times interview in Moscow in 2003, he was the second most wanted man in the world, after Osama bin Laden, yet he was free in Russia. In the interview he made numerous veiled and not-so-veiled references to the support his trans-national criminal network received from Vladimir Putin’s government. As one author noted, “His access to former Soviet arsenals, aircraft, and crews would not have been possible without state protection.”

It was only in 2008 that Bout was arrested by Thai authorities while attempting to orchestrate a sale of sophisticated anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons to Colombia’s FARC rebels. Russia reacted angrily to all American attempts to extradite him to the U.S. for trial as an assault upon their own sovereignty. Nevertheless the extradition succeeded and when he stood trial in the United States in 2012 Bout was sentenced to 25 years in prison. He’s currently serving his time at the federal penitentiary in Marion, Illinois.

Skeletons in the Closet

Profiles of these two arms dealers paint pictures of complicated international criminal networks that blur the lines between legal and illegal, state and non-state actors. The difficult question for Ukraine is the extent of government involvement in these deals. It is easy to understand why the Ukrainian authorities could get involved: Warsaw Pact countries left with huge military industrial complexes found weapons were their only real source of hard currency. If the buyers were under international arms embargoes so much the better: they could be charged higher prices.


Ukrainian manufactured AK-47s seized during a customs inspection.

In 1994 it was an open secret that Ukraine’s Cold-War warehouses were being emptied for private profit and the Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada ordered a commission to conduct inventory of all the young state’s military equipment. The first inventory taken in 1992 valued the military’s assets were at $89 billion. The second inventory took four years, and it was not for lack of effort. The commission’s head Lieutenant-General Oleksandr Ihnatenko complained bitterly of being blocked by opaque, self-serving bureaucracy and denied access to military installations. When they finally finished their inventory they concluded $32 billion worth of military equipment had been stolen.

When you consider that in 2001 Ukraine’s total military budget was $550 million and her GDP was $38 billion, this was not an insignificant sum. Officially, the government of President Leonid Kuchma declined to comment. Tellingly, Ihnatenko was demoted and “threatened with court martial for divulging ‘military secrets.’”

Horrified by the theft of national resources and shocked at being spurned by the government, he leaked a 27-page summary of the commission’s voluminous findings to the press. When the story ran in one Kiev daily newsletter the journalist responsible was attacked by an unidentified gunman outside his home who demanded that he “stay out of politics.” When the journalist refused, the attacker shot him in the leg. As for the report it was swept under the rug and despite my best efforts I have been unable to find it or the summary that was published in the Kiev newsletter.

“Individuals who know too much have been routinely disposed of,” Kuzio laments. “The head of the state Ukrainian arms export agency Valeriy Malyev died in one of many suspicious car accidents as an arms transfer scandal unfolded.”


The 95% completed Soviet aircraft carrier Varyag reverted to Ukrainian control. It was sold to China in 1998 for a paltry $20 million to become a floating casino, the biggest piece of equipment the Ukrainians sold off. The Chinese changed their minds about the casino and now this ship is the PRC's first operational aircraft carrier.

Incontrovertible proof this corruption goes all the way to the pinnacle of Ukrainian politics was revealed during the release of the so-called “Kuchmagate” tapes. Recorded by a disgruntled presidential bodyguard in 1998, the tapes recorded President Leonid Kuchma discussing the sale of four advanced radar systems to Saddam Hussein in contravention of an arms embargo. When an aide mentioned that Georgy Gongadze, editor of Ukrainska Pravda, had been asking too many pointed questions on the matter Kuchma ominously said “he has gone too far already," and ordered his aide to “take care of him.” Gongadze’s headless corpse was found outside Kiev several weeks later.

The political fallout from the tapes helped derail Kuchma’s government and contributed to the Orange Revolution in 2004 that catapulted reformer Viktor Yushchenko to power. Sadly for Ukrainians, Yushchenko’s rule did not lead to the fresh start many had hoped for. He dissolved his cabinet, many of them holdovers from the Kuchma-era, because of accusations of corruption and illegally dissolved parliament twice. His approval rating stood at 10 per cent when he lost reelection last year to Viktor Yanukovych, widely seen as Kuchma’s protégé and a strong backer of the oligarchs invested in shady business dealings. To date no further inquiry has been held into illegal arms smuggling or political murders, and not a single conviction on charges of arms trafficking has been brought in the Ukraine in the past 20 years.

As Kuzio says, “No country can move on if it fails to deal with the skeletons in its closet, especially when a country’s weapons have brought untold misery on the peoples of Western Africa.” In Ukraine’s current political climate it is questionable whether any meaningful action on arms smuggling will take place in the foreseeable future.

While many newspapers, government agencies, and NGOs have described pieces of the puzzle, rarely do they effectively assemble the pieces into a coherent whole (the exception, surprisingly, is the Hollywood blockbuster Lord of War).

But the story is not one that should have come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Ukraine in the 1990s.

Ukraine was turned into a vast military storehouse by Warsaw Pact defensive doctrine, and when she became independent she retained all of the equipment and soldiers on her soil, armed forces out of all proportion to her ability to maintain it. The result was predictably chaotic. Cynicism, economic collapse and a plutocratic conversion to capitalism all contributed to widespread disrespect for government property. When the rest of the world was clamoring for weapons to settle long simmering conflicts, especially in Africa, Ukraine was more than happy to oblige. What she needed, though, were men willing to secrete these weapons out of the post-Soviet bloc. That is where the gunrunners, men like Leonid Minin and Viktor Bout, came in. They were able to capitalize on the chaos in the Ukraine as well as the leftover Soviet “tubing” to send ship and plane-loads of arms wherever they were wanted. Revelations like ‘Kuchmagate’ and the Ihnatenko Inquiry show high levels of government collusion in these matters and make it obvious why there was no concerted government effort to stop it. Though the flow seems to be slowing today, the damage has been done and of the estimated 550 million small arms in circulation today, the Ukraine bears responsibility for more than its fair share.


Some of the tanks that weren't pilfered. A depot filled with abandoned T-64s in central Kiev.



Allison, Roy. Military Forces in the Soviet Successor States: analysis of the military policies, force dispositions and evolving threat perceptions of the former Soviet states. London, U.K.: Brassey's for International Institute for Strategic Studies, 1993.

Farah, Douglas & Stephen Braun. Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes and the Man Who Makes War Possible. Hoboken, NJ.: John Wiley & Sons Inc., 2007.

Fesiak, Andrew K. Nationalism and the Ukrainian Military. Ottawa, ON.: Carleton University Press, 1998.

Feskov, Vladimir. The Soviet Army in the Period of the Cold War. Tomsk: Tomsk University Press, 2004.

Glantz, David M. Military Strategy of the Soviet Union: A History. London, U.K.: Cassel Military History, 1992.

International Institute for Strategic Studies. The Military Balance 1993-1994. London: Brassey’s for the IISS, 1993.

Remnick, David. Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire. New York: Random House Publishing, 1994.

Online News Articles and Special Reports

Gilson, Dave. “Ukraine: Cashing in on Illegal Arms.” PBS: Frontline/World. May 2002: Accessed Nov. 8, 2010, https://www.pbs.org/frontlineworld/stories/sierraleone/context.html.

Kuzio, Tara. “Ukrainian Officials, Illicit Arms Sales and International Responsibility,” (Paper presented at Harriman Institute of Columbia University, New York, 18‐19 April 2008.) Accessed online on Oct. 28, 2010. https://www.taraskuzio.net/conferences2_files/UkraineArmsAfrica.pdf

Landesman, Peter. “Profile of Viktor Bout from the New York Times Magazine.” New York Times Online Archive. Aug. 17, 2003. Accessed Nov. 4, 2010. https://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/06/world/europe/06iht-06bout.10775886.html.

Marples, David. “Ukraine’s Kuchma-gate.” Stasiuk Program for the Study of Contemporary Ukraine, Dec. 6, 2000. Accessed November 9, 2010, https://www.ualberta.ca/CIUS/stasiuk/st-articles/an-kuchmagate.htm

Ministry of Defence and the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Ministry of Defence White Book 2009. Kiev: Ministry of Defence, 2010, accessed Nov. 2, 2010, https://www.mil.gov.ua/files/white_book/Book_WP_2009_eng.pdf.

Sokov, Nikolai.“Russian and Ukrainian officials deny new allegations that nuclear warheads were lost in the 1990s,” WMD Insights, May 2006. Accessed Nov. 3, 2010, https://www.wmdinsights.com/I5/R4_RussiaandUkranian.htm.

Traynor, Ian, “The International Dealers in Death.” The Guardian Online. July 9, 2001. Accessed Nov. 4, 2010, https://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2001/jul/09/armstrade.iantraynor.

Reference Sites

“Ukraine Defense Industry.” Global Security Organization. Accessed Nov. 10, 2010. https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/ukraine/industry.htm.

“Background” (For all 54 countries in Africa), CIA World Factbook. Accessed Nov. 3, 2010. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/region/region_afr.html.


Niccol, Andrew. Lord of War. DVD. Directed by Andrew Niccol. Los Angeles, CA.: Lions Gate Films, 2005.

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