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Arming Ukraine is one thing – but we need to think about where the weapons will end up

The UK is considering supplying more military equipment to Ukraine. This time it is armoured vehicles, as the war moves towards what foreign secretary Liz Truss has said is a “new and different” phase. And she may be right. But a word of caution here. History tells us many things and one of them is this: weapons aren’t static. They move, they vanish, and they reappear – often in the hands of people that shouldn’t have them.

Sierra Leone

In 1999, following an intervention in Sierra Leone, eight soldiers from the Royal Irish Regiment were captured by a violent militia named the West Side Boys. They were eventually rescued by troops from The Parachute Regiment and the SAS – one of the latter was killed in the raid.

And what did they find in the militia’s ruined camp? A British Self Loading Rifle (SLR), once standard issue to the UK military, which had been used in the Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry in 1972. Declared destroyed many years before, the rifle had somehow found its way into the hands of an obscure West African insurgent group. By what route, nobody seems to know. But it shows us how arms are much harder to keep track of then we might think. It was reportedly identified by its serial number.

As one of the officers in charge of the rescue operation said in his subsequent memoir:

It was used on Bloody Sunday in Londonderry in 1972 when 13 protestors had been shot — and it had been declared destroyed when the Saville Inquiry into the shootings had asked for it.

This was a single weapon. But there are many examples of complete arsenals going missing – and turning up where they shouldn’t.

Gaddafi’s armouries

Let’s take a look at the effects of NATO’s 2011 war in Libya. As early as 2013, experts and NGOs were reporting that military weapons from Gaddafi’s armouries were making their way across the Sahel. For example, arms were transported all the way to Mali, where an insurgency still rages fuelled by Libyan military hardware.

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A UN panel warned that the “proliferation of weapons from Libya continues at an alarming rate”:

Cases, both proven and under investigation, of illicit transfers from Libya in violation of the embargo cover more than 12 countries and include heavy and light weapons, including man-portable air defense systems, small arms and related ammunition and explosives and mines.

But the US also has a habit of losing substantial amounts of arms. In fact, it lost billions of dollars worth just last year.

The Taliban

The West finally pulled out of Afghanistan in 2021. Or, more accurately, they cut and run, leaving the country they had occupied for 20 years to the Taliban. But they didn’t take everything with them.

The figures are hard to pin down but the implications are clear. As The BBC reported in August 2021:

Between 2003 and 2016, the US unloaded a huge amount of military hardware on the Afghan forces it fought alongside: 358,530 rifles of different makes, more than 64,000 machine guns, 25,327 grenade launchers and 22,174 Humvees (all-terrain vehicles), according to the US Government Accountability Report.

This is before we count transport aircraft, attack helicopters, and fixed-wing aircraft. Some estimates of the value of the equipment now in the hands of the Taliban run into billions of dollars.

Daesh in Iraq

The spectacular advance of Daesh (ISIS/Isil) in Iraq and Syria in 2014 captured the world’s attention. Parts of the Iraqi army simply collapsed. It left behind US-supplied military equipment which the insurgent group then commandeered. By 2015, reports were suggesting that Daesh had even acquired US tanks and armoured personnel carriers, as well as Humvees and artillery pieces.

In 2017, Newsweek reported that large parts of the ISIS arsenal had been been taken from US shipments to other rebel groups In Syria.

Newsweek cited a report from the NGO Conflict Armament Research:

The United States and Saudi Arabia supplied most of this materiel without authorization, apparently to Syrian opposition forces. This diverted materiel, recovered from IS forces, comprises exclusively Warsaw Pact–caliber weapons and ammunition, purchased by the United States and Saudi Arabia from European Union (EU) member states in Eastern Europe.

Ukraine

On 28 March, Liz Truss told the Commons that the UK was

doubling our support with a further 6,000 missiles, including next-generation light anti-tank weapons, and Javelin anti-tank weapons.

She continued:

We are equipping our Ukrainian friends with anti-aircraft Starstreak missiles. We are also strengthening NATO’s eastern flank, deploying troops to Bulgaria, and doubling the numbers of troops in Poland and Estonia.

Flooding Ukraine with arms and military equipment carries a certain appeal for a particular kind of politician. Governments can be seen to be doing something. Funnelling arms seems like a good option which sits below the threshold of nuclear escalation.

Post-war

But that does not mean there aren’t risks. And Ukraine is different to Iraq and Afghanistan in an important respect. In the latter countries weapons fell to people who they weren’t intended for. In Ukraine, evidence suggests we are placing weapons into the hands of units like the Azov Battalion. A unit which contains card-carrying Neo-Nazis and is integrated into the national military.

This is not an argument against a degree of  military support. I, for one, recognise the right of Ukrainians and other occupied people to resist. But the character of the Ukrainian resistance is complex and multi-faceted. When the war ends, and we all hope that will be soon, what happens to the weapons? Do they come to be a decisive factor in a post-war Ukraine?

When we decide to send additional arms to a war-zone, we need to think about repercussions. Because more often than not these decisions come back to haunt us down the line.

Featured image via Wikimedia Commons/ISAF, cropped to 770 x 403, licenced under CC BY 2.0.

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  • Show Comments
    1. There are many scheming nasty bastard goverments and leaders in this world, but Ukraine doesn’t require us to have to think to hard about giving them the means to survive annihilation and a future as a free country. Nothing is totally straight forward but this is pretty close.

      1. Ukraine was not a ‘free country’ before 24 February. It was under the thumb of US/NATO/EU/IMF military and economic hegemony. Since the US-assisted coup of 2014, Ukraine’s economy has deteriorated from that low point, making it the poorest country in Europe. The role of fascists and Nazis in Ukraine is barely reported in the corporate media but, despite it having a Jewish (but Zionist) president and far-right parties doing badly, human rights groups have long exposed the hold that violent fascist groups such as C14 have on cities. In a democracy, would there be an openly Nazi battalion in the military? Yet Ukraine’s post-coup government incorporated the Azov battalion into the National Guard.

        1. The continuing unprovoked mass-slaughter of innocent Ukrainian civilians by Russia is inexcusable. Having said that, Russian president Vladimir Putin’s apparent fear of NATO expansion, though especially the deployment of additional U.S. anti-nuclear-missile defense-system batteries, further into eastern Europe is typically perceived by the West as unmerited paranoia.

          Surely he must realize that the West, including NATO, would never initiate a nuclear-weapons exchange. But, then, how can he — or we, for that matter — know for sure, particularly with America’s military past?

          While Ronald Reagan postulated that “Of the four wars in my lifetime none came about because the U.S. was too strong,” who can know what may have historically come to fruition had the U.S. remained the sole possessor of atomic weaponry. There’s a presumptive, and perhaps even arrogant, concept of American leadership as somehow, unless directly militarily provoked, being morally/ethically above using nuclear weapons internationally. Cannot absolute power corrupt absolutely?

          After President Harry S. Truman relieved General Douglas MacArthur as commander of the forces warring with North Korea — for the latter’s remarks about using many atomic bombs to promptly end the war — Americans’ approval-rating of the president dropped to 23 percent. It was still a record-breaking low, even lower than the worst approval-rating points of the presidencies of Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson.

          Had it not been for the formidable international pressure on Truman (and perhaps his personal morality) to relieve MacArthur as commander, could/would Truman eventually have succumbed to domestic political pressure to allow MacArthur’s command to continue?

    2. Eastern Europe has a problem with racists, fascists and Nazis. That includes Poland and Ukraine. Stephan Bandera, a collaborator with German SS forces is currently honoured in W Ukraine. But he is not the only neo-Nazi there. A few years ago we had a terrorist bombing and murder by a Ukrainian fascist in this country. Arming, and training, these fascists is going to cause blow-back here in Britain and the rest of W Europe.

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