Wired Weapons: Online Arms Trafficking in Russia and Ukraine
By: Eric Woods
‘It’s not a piece of lumber, it’s not painted, it’s not restored, it’s not airsoft — it’s the natural product.’
‘Can I get it in St. Petersburg?’
So went one exchange over a rocket-propelled grenade system on a popular Russian language Dark Web forum. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Russian language forums cater not only to buyers and sellers in Russia, but to those in Russian-speaking areas of Ukraine as well. Interactions such as these help paint a more complex picture of online weapons dealing in the former Soviet Union. The rocket-propelled grenade for sale in Ukraine would not be transported to cities on the Russian side of the border. Nevertheless, despite geographic and political barriers between the two countries, the Dark Web infrastructure and techniques used to trade in arms have a significant level of overlap.
Eye-catching sales, such as those of rocket-propelled grenades, are quite uncommon compared to the number of converted handguns and other small arms that populate these forums. Sellers are primarily organized by region, often highlighting where in Russia or Ukraine the sellers are located. In rare cases, the most serious sellers will try to differentiate their goods from scams by including videos of themselves showing off the weapons to potential sellers and insisting on only certain methods of communication. But the success of these methods is only known to the sellers themselves.
The importance of indicating geographic location in making a sale can partially be explained by the methods used in handing over weapons to sellers. Online weapons traffickers in Russia and Ukraine use one of two methods of ensuring anonymity between the seller and the customer. The first, закладки (zakladki: caching/bookmarking), is a system of dead drops so popular with the region’s online drug dealers that Telegram channels exist for sharing закладки techniques. Sellers on weapons markets likewise may request in their forum posts to transfer weapons this way. Using закладки, a buyer pays for an item via cash at a different location, or via cryptocurrency. In return, the buyer receives a GPS coordinate of where to find the item at a later date. This is a result of the perception that the postal service in many parts of Russia and Ukraine is inefficient and filled with corruption.
The second method is the tried-and-true means of mailing a weapon or its components to a customer via private couriers. Freely available court documents show the закладки system is very popular with online drug dealers, but the phrase does not appear in court documents on the Russian side of the border. On the Ukrainian side, court documents are more difficult to obtain. However, press releases from Ukraine’s security service the Sluzhba Bezpeky Ukrayiny (SBU), frequently mention postal services being used during Internet-based arms trafficking cases. This was the case in March 2018, when the SBU broke up what was described as an ‘extensive’ arms trafficking network sourcing weapons from the conflict zone in eastern Ukraine to criminal networks throughout the country.
But the dark web is ultimately a small market. Speaking in a Moscow cafe, a programmer who had done work for Russian dark web vendors explained that some smaller dark web markets ‘simply don’t want any guns there [sic]’. Selling weapons is perceived as attracting unwanted attention from Russia’s security service — the Federal’naya sluzhba bezopasnosti (FSB) — without any significant financial reward to offset the risk. Dark web vendors who spoke with independent Russian outlet Medusa estimated that weapons make up approximately 5% of sales on the Russian language dark web, with 90% of sales being drug related.
A Rand study found that most of the weapons being sold on the dark web are of US origin. This pattern is obviously different for Russian-language forums in Russia and Ukraine. The majority of weapons for sale in Russia are either of former Warsaw Pact design, or are converted traumatic pistols. Like in many other parts of Europe, converted firearms are popular amongst criminals because of loopholes surrounding the sale of traumatic and alarm guns. Private haggling between sellers on forums makes it almost impossible to generalize on prices for weapons sold on Russian-language markets in Russia and Ukraine.
Weapons deals made over the dark web, however, make up only a tiny portion of weapons being traded online. Most of the weapons being traded online are occurring on the open Internet. This trade takes place on both sides of the border, but is especially prominent in Ukraine, where auction houses dedicated to military history likewise serve as vendors for private firearms sales. Historical memorabilia and antique shotguns are sold by private individuals alongside military rifles fit with silencers and thermal scopes. It falls primarily on users to provide accurate information about their weapon permits.
The use of nominally legitimate platforms to mask the illegal trafficking of firearms has been documented in Ukraine. In October 2017, the SBU caught a Kyiv man who was selling weapons and ammunition sourced from the Donbass and elsewhere, in their words, ‘under the guise of an online store for military accessories’.
Court cases freely available from Russia give us key insights into how these systems are abused. The use of the Internet in facilitating illegal weapons goes beyond the sale of fully assembled rifles. The access to technical information, spare parts, and like-minded individuals opens up opportunities for illegal manufacture and refurbishment. In June 2011, a regional Russian court sentenced M.Y. Sepaku to time in a penal colony for the illegal manufacturing of ammunition and attempting to restore a sub-machine gun. Sepaku only began restoration of the sub-machine gun with the aid of a father and son duo met via an online forum.
A related phenomena can be seen in the uniquely post-Soviet example of World War II era weapons. World War II era weapons remain popular among elements of the criminal underworld in the former Soviet Union, and repairs of historical weapons can prove lucrative. With the right materials and knowledge, these antiques can be given a second life on the black market. In October 2012, a man was arrested and sentenced to three years confinement after excavating weapons from World War II battlefields and repairing them using parts ordered over the Internet.
As in the West, the role played by the Internet in facilitating illicit arms trafficking in the former Soviet Union is much more complicated than is currently understood. Fears of weapons proliferation via the dark web, while important, miss the role played by the wider Internet in facilitating connections between would-be sellers and customers in different regions. It also misses the role that online communities can play in enabling the social connections necessary for refurbishment of older firearms. As the Internet increasingly becomes part of 21st century life, the role that it plays in the facilitation of illicit trade will only grow.
Eric Woods is a researcher focusing on the nexus between the internet and arms trafficking