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Weapons traffic in Russia's caucasus.

On 29 March 2010, Moscow was rocked by two explosions in the city's metro which left 40 dead and reawakened fears that Russia's North Caucasus region was a major security threat. A turbulent community which produced terrorists such as Shamil Basayev, who was killed in 2006, now presented a new face as a symbol of Islamic radicalism. While by no means a recent arrival, Doku Umarov quickly emerged as a hero for Jihadists throughout the world when he claimed credit for the attacks. Umarov, once a construction engineer, joined Chechen separatists when the USSR collapsed. In 1997, he became the head of the Chechen Security Council and was credited with defeating Russian forces in Grozny. In 2007, Umarov declared himself the emir of the Caucasus Emirate. Two years later the announced the revival of Riyadus-Salikhin, a suicide formation once led by Shamil Basayev. (1) The morning after the Moscow subway incidents, Moscow police discovered and detached an improvised bomb which was on the underside of a police minivan parked near the Savelovskaya subway station. (2) In the days following the Moscow incidents, additional attacks took place in the North Caucasus region itself.

By itself, the renewed violence of the spring of 2010 would have been a disturbing indication of an instability that threatened the Russian state. However, as a result of the increasing infatuation with radical Islamic by the leaders such as Akhmad Maskhadov and Shamil Basayev, it is important to see this conflict as an extension of a global struggle by Islamic fundamentalists against secular society. (3)

Even more troubling is the fact that this violence took place as Russia was preparing to lift the restrictions imposed on Chechnya at the start of the second Chechen war in 1999. This restrictive security regime, referred to as "KTO", was declared in the autumn of 1999 when power was in the hands of separatists led by Aslan Maskhadov. As they continued with plans for easing the security regime, authorities pointed out that crime in Chechnya had been cut in half during this decade and that relaxation was recognition of the demonstrated political loyalty of local leaders. The fact that Russian officials fulfilled promises to reduce the security regime as the number of casualties among Russian security forces had increased is a tribute to the terrorists' inability to further drive a wedge between Russian Federation officials and local Chechen authorities who had counted on this measure of accommodation as a reward for their loyalty. (4) Russia's willingness to lift restrictions even after the Moscow attacks represented a set-back for the terrorists.

There is a thriving illicit trade in small arms and light weapons which is a by-product of major world conflicts and as such is an important international concern. The flow of arms to regions of conflict has increased as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the abandonment of Soviet arms depots throughout Eastern Europe.

Few areas have been more affected by this phenomenon than the North Caucasus region of southern Russia. Local law enforcement officials have noted the steady flow of terrorists and other criminals using this region as a route toward the West. Much of this criminal traffic originates in Somalia and Afghanistan--usually in the form of drugs--but later merges with Chechen sources which have ready access to weapons. This flood of weapons helps fuel violence both in Eastern Europe and in the West. With the Soviet withdrawal from Eastern Europe in the late 1980s, these regions, which were once the repository of major Soviet weapons dumps, there is a renewed market for the high quality weapons of the Soviet and now Russian military units. In the former USSR, there are still sites such as the Colbasna Army Depot in Moldova that provide the equipment needed for the violence clashes in the post-Communist states and elsewhere. Weapons from this region can be traced not only into Western Europe, but also into the Middle East, and even Colombia. (5)

Officials recognize the growing threat posed by illegal weapons traffic in the North Caucasus. On the occasion of Russia's "Day of the Security Forces" in 2009, the head of the Russian Federal Security Service of the Stavropol Region, Lieutenant-General Yevgeny Nazarov, cited extremism and terrorism as being a "major direction" of the FSB's work in the region. Nazarov noted that the Stavropol FSB was consistently facing illegal weapons traffic associated with religious extremists. (6)

Weapons Trade in the Caucasus

After September 11, 2001 it became more difficult to express precisely what is meant by the term "weapon". That event forced a reexamination of the traditional definition of weapons and, with it, a new concept of what constitutes a weapon. Illegal commerce in weapons, by whatever definition, is widespread throughout Eastern Europe and the former USSR. The conventional illegal arms trade in the Caucasus is one of the most significant in the post-Communist world. The airports of the Caucasus are also among the most vulnerable in the world and may, at some future date, constitute an equally threatening factor in this new environment.

There is one basic fact about weapons traffic in this region: the Caucasus has always been armed. This was true even during Soviet times when a totalitarian government conducted constant surveillance. It has always had a populace that was to some degree armed. The Caucasus and weapons traffic are concerns which have always been linked. In Soviet times and, in fact, until the fall of the Soviet Union, the center of the USSR's illegal arms trade was the Caucasus. The weapons available then were less sophisticated than those found in the region today. In this earlier period, weapons that were sold in places such as the bazaar in Nazrani were older, many of which had been used during the Russian Civil War. The Mauser pistol enjoyed the greatest popularity, but there were few modern weapons such as automatics of the post-World War Two era. It was not until the post-Soviet era that such advanced weapons began to appear on the illegal arms market.

Weapon Merchants

As one would expect, almost all of the weapons in the North Caucasus are of Soviet or Russian origin. There are very few foreign weapons in the Caucasus. Russian authorities involved in the anti-terrorism campaign in the region often claim that foreign weapons or devices are being used. One of the most frequent illustrations of this assertion has come from Russian generals who display walkie-talkies made by "Kenwood". The presence of such instruments, they claim, proves that foreign weapons have been introduced thus elevating the crisis to what they describe as "international terrorism". Such Western items are sold routinely in stores in Moscow because there are practically no walkie-talkies of Russian origin. Thus, their presence does not contradict the fact that weapons are mainly of Soviet or Russian origin.

The dominate role of Russian weapons in this trade has been a consistent factor because the main source for weapons in the Caucasus has been either the Soviet or the Russian army. It is also important that arms are passed from one person to another. This is how the arms trade in the North Caucasus began. These arrangements and these organizations have been essential for introducing weapons into the region's conflicts. The Chechen Republic has frequently been a major source for weapons for the region. In 1991, when federal authorities left Chechnya they abandoned a large arsenal of weapons. There were many troops in Chechnya and the arsenals were extensive, containing everything from automatic weapons to nuclear warheads. Nuclear weapons were removed from Chechnya as well as from Nalchik and no such weapons remain in the Caucasus. The weapons that remained, including the training L-33 airplanes in Chechnya, became the property of local authorities who could use them for security purposes or as products to sell in weapons markets. The practice of leaving such weapons behind was a result of (1) agreements between central and local officials with the collapse of the USSR and (2) a practical response to the fact that the Soviet Union's huge military had such an abundance of supplies that it could not afford to move them all.

Origins of Armaments

In the post-Soviet era, a great demand for weapons emerged. As conflicts erupted in Southern Ossetia, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Ingushetia, arms flooded into the Caucasus. Such trade was increasingly viewed as a matter of routine for the Caucasus. Nevertheless, the late Dzhokhar Dudayev, when he was President of the Chechen Republic, did not ship weapons into Abkhazia or other regional conflicts. All of the weapons used in such clashes were purchased in local arms markets for cash and transported by small AN-2 airplanes to Abkhazia or other combat zones. Weapons were purchased at Russian military bases in Russia proper or in Abkhazia and then transported into the conflict zone. As a result of this traffic, Abkhazia was the base for approximately 100 armored vehicles, about 200 artillery units, an entire squadron of L-39 military aircraft, numerous military boats, and a wide assortment of small arms by 2002, years before the eruption of full-scale violence in 2008. While the conflict in Abkhazia began in 1991 with little more than hunting rifles, the level of military technology steadily became more complex and deadly while the level and breadth of violence increased.

Arms entered Southern Ossetia in the same way. Ossetian servicemen in the Russian army were one of the main sources of weapons--the Ossetians constituted a large percentage of the generals and colonels who were serving in the army and they transferred weapons from their sectors into Southern Ossetia. Moreover, the weapons purchased in Chechnya were bought on Russian bases. While many of these were governmentally authorized sales, just as many were a result of corruption.

Soon after the collapse of the USSR, a vibrant arms trade appeared in the Gall region of Georgia where many entrepreneurs became wealthy selling weapons to Abkhazians. The same individuals sold weapons in Southern Ossetia as well as throughout the North Caucasus. A large portion of the weapons that arrived in Karachayev-Circassia were new, still packed in boxes from the factories, and came in large numbers directly out of the base supply centers.

Russian authorities frequently cite the place of Georgia in weapons traffic in the North Caucasus. They speak of an important connection between drug traffic and the illegal weapons traffic, suggesting that Georgia is a staging post on the path of drugs from Afghanistan. According to Russia's Viktor Ivanov, Director of the Federal Service for Drug Control, opium addiction in the North Caucasus rose by a factor of nearly eight in 2009. The money generated by the heroin trade is used to purchase automatic weapons and ammunition from Georgia. (7)

The full and cumulative impact of the arms trade in Abkhazia and South Ossetia was dramatically illustrated during the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008 when local militia forces in both regions played a major role in combat operations. Having benefitted from years of receipt of modern but illegal arms, these irregular forces supplemented Russia's forces with guerrilla operations against the seriously outnumbered Georgians and introduced an element of terror against populations in disputed communities in the conflict zone.

Russian officials note that corruption, drug addiction, extremism and terrorism--including the associated influence of Wahhabism in the region fuel the illegal weapons traffic in the North Caucasus. Especially significant for weapons throughout the region is corruption in Russian military circles. This arms buildup could never have taken place had not senior Russian military officials realized that there was considerable profit to be made from the sale of weapons to combatants everywhere, including those places in which Russian soldiers were the targets. With the disintegration of the Soviet military, senior officers who found themselves without adequate salaries were tempted to trade in the one commodity of which Russia had an abundance: world class military weapons.

As the 2008 war and clashes in places such as Chechnya and Kabardino-Balkaria demonstrated, illegal weapons were in demand and would appear immediately in the event of an armed conflict. There was never a long-term shortage of weapons. The Transcaucasian region played a large role in providing the North Caucasas with weapons. The deputy commander of the Transcaucasian region early in this decade was General Sufyan Depayev. Depayev is a Balkar and had many connections in the illegal weapons market which provided arms to both sides in any conflict. He provided them to both the Armenians and the Azerbaijanis, as he had to the Georgians and Abkhazians. After his retirement from the army, Depayev became the chairman of the commission for the rehabilitation of the Balkar people.

Depayev's influence over the region's weapons traffic became apparent in the early post-Soviet conflict in Georgia. In 1992, a group of fifty unidentified men seized 600 cases of ammunition from a Russian Army depot in Tbilisi. An operation of such dimensions could not have been carried out without significant official protection and support. While criminal charges were never made, it was apparent that officials saw Depayev as the principal suspect in this incident.

At the beginning of the Chechen conflict secessionist forces led by Dzhokhar Dudayev sold a large amount of weapons on the illegal market. Their sales were so extravagant that they created a significant shortage in Chechnya which caused officials to begin stockpiling weapons of all types. The first anti-tank equipment came from the Baltic region but Chechen authorities soon found a new source for an even greater variety of weapons. They simply bought them from the opposing side and at an exceptionally low price. Moreover, the Chechens used this situation to develop an effective theme for psychological operations. In 1995, while buying arms from the Russians, they filmed the entire transaction and circulated it on Russian television. While there had long been rumors that Russian generals were selling weapons to their enemies, few people had actually believed this. The film constituted an important and devastating piece of evidence that this unpopular military campaign was being undermined by Russia's own military establishment.

The Russian security forces have routinely announced campaigns to confiscate weapons in the Caucasus and have generally declared the campaigns to be a great success. However, the region's numerous arms bazaars are evidence that the claims of success lack validity. For example, in the city of Nalchik a sniper rifle called a "Tiger" can be purchased for $60, a miniscule price by international standards. Another well-known weapon, the SVD sniper rifle, is also available to most buyers for a modest price. By 2001, for as little as the modest sum of $50 one could get a permit to keep arms in the Russian Federation. This has been a source for the export of weapons to the Caucasus. Many Caucasians are now, in one way or another, trying to buy weapons that are sold in hunting stores. These are hunting rifles that can be modified into military weapons. They simply received new technical identities. One of the examples of this is the "Tiger", a hunting carbine also known as the "Seyga" which can be converted into a modernized Kalashnikov. It has a component that can be ground down, making the hunting rifle fire just like a regular Kalashnikov. There are many different special services that can make this adjustment and numerous people who are licensed to carry such arms.

Every military officer understands how weapons are transferred from one unit to another in accordance with legal procedures. In the Caucasus, this is more often accomplished informally through a "black" or sometimes "gray" market. There is even a legal market through which illegal items pass. A few years ago there was a major scandal as hundreds of armored vehicles from Russia ended up in a Moscow arms bazaar. The vehicles were purchased by Armenians preparing for future combat against Azerbaijan.

Conventional Weapons

As previously noted, very few foreign weapons can be found in the Caucasus and the ones that might be found there are likely to be little more than museum exhibits. In Abkhazia, numerous Romanian-made Kalashnikovs are distributed through weapons bazaars. While this weapon is cheap, it is not in high demand because it compares so poorly with newer assault weapons. Most buyers quickly dispose of the Romanian Kalashnikovs. Not surprisingly, weapons also come from Central Asia. In the early part of this decade, the governments of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan were actively involved in the arms trade and equipment left behind by Soviet forces in those countries can be purchased throughout the Caucasus. Such purchases are made not only by local people but, more importantly, by individuals from the Middle East and other turbulent regions.

Weapons from Ukraine and, of course, Russia are regularly offered in arms bazaars. In the case of Russia, such trades have become more formal. Russia began commercial sales, with an end-user certificate and a check of where they were going. Yet, those formal restrictions have little impact and the weapons are just as available on the black market as on the commercial market. In fact, it seems as if an arms dealership now operates on almost every corner.

Not only are the arms bazaars ubiquitous, there has been a qualitative change in the nature of the market. Buyers are more discriminating and can now demand the latest weapons. For example, the Nikonov AN-94 "Abakan" assault rifle, which was introduced in 1994, was being used by Chechen forces before Russian soldiers had access to this possible replacement for the Kalashnikov AK-74 series. This case demonstrates how quickly the latest weapons can go from production straight to the Caucasus black markets.

Police accounts about what is being found in raids throughout the North Caucasus are clear indications of the consistent abundance and sophistication of armaments in even the smallest of settlements. In April, 2010, police in Dagestan unearthed a weapons cache that included conventional weapons as well as the materials needed for improvisation. During a special operation in Khasavyurt, officers unearthed parts for creation of radio controlled devices and the components needed for gas and air weapons that would be suitable for combat operations. The raid also yielded four RPG-26 disposable anti-tank weapons, nine rounds for an RPG-7, which is an anti-tank grenade launcher, eleven AK-47s, 22 grenades, five kilograms of TNT, 16 electric detonators, and ten VOG-25 40mm fragmentation grenades. There were over 5,000 rounds of ammunition for various calibers of weapons, radio communications devices, and fifteen silencers for small arms. In addition to counterfeit currencies and military manuals for operations in mountainous terrain, there was a generous assortment of radical Islamic recruiting material. (8)

The Khasavyurt operation was not unique in terms of the quantity or diversity of the materials seized by authorities. The previous fall, police in Ingushetia discovered two weapons caches by the railroad tracks near Karabulak. The smaller of the two contained one improvised explosive device, a timing mechanism, a mobile telephone, one RPG with projectiles and a grenade launcher

complete with grenades. The second cache contained one improvised bomb, an RPG-7 and projectiles, one PG-18 grenade launcher, one Kalashnikov assault rifle plus ammunition, 25 projectiles for a VOG-25 grenade launcher, ball bearings and other items used in making shrapnel, and, finally, an assortment of small military items. (9)

There is also speculation about the criminal access to weapons of mass destruction. As people in military circles discuss the question of terrorists acquiring nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons, there is a general agreement on two points. First, those operating within or from this region do not have access to the sophisticated WMD. However, second, there is a realization that such weapons are not as far out of reach as in the past. In fact, those deadly instruments may fall into criminal and terrorist hands within the near future.

Following Shamil Basayev's raids on Budenovsk and Pervomaiskoye, there was no longer any doubt that innovative terrorist tactics were going to be utilized throughout the region and would shape the pattern of post-Soviet political violence. Basayev's seizure of a hospital and his holding of innocent people as hostage was a demonstration of the same ruthlessness demonstrated against the United States on September 11th. Both actions fell outside the normal range of legitimate military operations. Moreover, targeting a hospital was a reminder that there are numerous vulnerabilities which could be exploited by terrorist forces. For example, security specialists in the North Caucasus now speculate that one the most important facilities that needs to be protected against possible terrorist actions is the dam outside the city of Krasnodar. That dam, like most of the airports in southern Russia, enjoys only very limited protection by security forces. A devastating assault on the dam could well result in the total destruction of Krasnodar.

The 1999 explosions in Moscow and Volgodonsk were dramatic illustrations of the employment of weapons other than assault rifles or pistols. The 2002 seizure of a Moscow theater and the 2004 attack on the school in Beslan showed that the targets of political violence were as likely to be children as security forces. The subway attacks in March, 2010 demonstrated that something as mundane as unchecked baggage on the bus services provided an avenue for terrorists traveling into Moscow. With the limited exception of Russian demolition experts, Russia's security services did not believe that such devastating actions could be accomplished under the eyes of the nation's police. In each case the explosive was associated with TNT. Yet, by creating false invoices and identifying their cargo as sugar, terrorists were able to move their vehicles into place without arousing the suspicion of the security officials responsible for providing protection against such acts. The numerous citizens who witnessed the movements of these trucks had no idea that they were looking at instruments of death and destruction just as other passengers on the Moscow-bound buses in 2010 could not have imagined the cargo being transported by young women who did not look dangerous.

Improvised Weapons

As noted above, the concept of what constitutes a weapon has changed. While everyone recognizes the deadly significance of "abandoned" Soviet armaments, cars and trucks can also serve the same destructive purpose. Car and truck bombs have become commonplace instruments for the delivery of deadly cargoes. A recent incident in Dagestan illustrated the consequences of a marriage of an automobile with improvised explosive devices (IED).

IED's quickly developed a reputation for lethality during the war in Iraq. Russian experiences have been similar as police have learned that a homemade bomb can be just as deadly as one made in a factory. Even a failed attack can have devastating consequences as police at a base in Makhachkala, Dagestan learned in January, 2010. As a a young man dressed in black pulled his car up to the police base during the morning shift change, he found his way forward blocked by a metal drop bar barricade and his way back blocked by a police car. At that time, the driver detonated his car bomb, a device cobbled together from 50-70 kilograms of TNT, bolts, shredded armature wire, and ball bearings. This foiled attempt to enter a police base still took the lives of six policemen and serious injured nineteen police and civilian bystanders. The explosion left a crater a meter deep and two meters wide. (10)

Equally significant is the fact that the various components of explosives can be purchased on the black market. Even the substances required for creation of weapons of mass destruction can be purchased throughout the territory of the former USSR. As a result, some of the most terrifying instruments of destruction are not among stores of conventional arms.

In 2009, would-be terrorists in Kabardino-Balkaria utilized ammonium nitrate and aluminum powder to make an improvised explosive device (IED). Their plot was foiled when police and FSB officers working in a forest in the Baksansky District found two bombs which had been made with six kilograms of this explosive mix. The bombs, which were disabled by specialists, had been constructed in a terrorist base large enough to house as many as nine people. (11)

Another important aspect of the improvisation of weapons in the North Caucasus has been the tactic of utilizing false alarms to study the reactions of local police forces while wasting their time and encouraging citizens to ignore warnings of likely dangers. In 2009, citizens of Nazran were subjected to this tactic when authorities discovered what looked like a bomb in one of the city's main shopping districts. After the complex was evacuated, police learned that the device was actually no more than a five liter canister filled with dirt and decorated with a detonating wire to give it a menacing appearance. (12)

An even more common aspect of the false alarm as a psychological tactic is the placing of a telephone call to the police warning that a bomb has been set in some public place. In March 2010, authorities in Moscow and St. Petersburg reported that they had been receiving hundreds of calls each day with false warnings about hidden bombs. In one incident, over 3,000 people were evacuated from a large supermarket after a caller said it had been mined. While many calls represent a serious effort to distract police, others, such as an incident in which an inebriated female construction worker called police to report a bomb on the grounds of Kaluga's oil refinery, (13) are easily characterized as little more than malicious pranks. This tactic has been designated as "telephone terrorism" and is severely punished by authorities. The penalty for "telephone terrorism" can be a fine of 200,000 rubles, 18 months of community service work, or a prison term of as much as three years. (14)

A perplexing feature of the placement of packages disguised to look like bombs or the utilization of a telephone call to induce police reactions or simply panic among the public is that neither tactic involves employment of what would normally be characterized as weapons. Police can focus efforts on inhibiting illegal weapons traffic but there is little that can be done to suppress these disruptive and dangerous activities.

Financing of Purchases

Neither Chechnya nor Russia can provide the funds necessary for maintaining a thriving weapons traffic to support illegal groups activities. The Chechens or Russian entrepreneurs may engage in sales but much less often in purchases. The weapons and weapons components are purchased with dollars. With increasing frequency counterfeit dollars are used for purchases. Before 2003, Iraq was a frequent source of such counterfeit currencies. Other Middle East states still participate in the traffic in high quality counterfeit dollars. The majority of the weapons the Chechens have gotten from Russians were purchased with counterfeit dollars.

Fueled with dollars, both legitimate and counterfeit, the weapon trade is flourishing in the Caucasus. During the early conflicts in Chechnya, there was actually a time, as noted above, when there was a shortage of weapons. The shortfall ended as the Chechens found an unending and automatic supply. From that point on, the Chechens were able to export weapons throughout southern Russia.

These developments took place within the framework of national sovereignty. Sovereignty had a political meaning, but also stimulated other activities. One of the tendencies of sovereignty in the former Soviet republics is that they, becoming independent states, decided to develop their own arms production facilities. This policy was most pronounced in the Caucasus. In Abkhazia, for example officials tried to establish a factory for the production of certain types of weapons. They made superior grenades. The same thing was tried in Armenia and Chechnya where manufacturers produced a pistol called the "Porsyus". These pistols, however, were of rather low quality and they were rarely used. In the Caucasus they are now collected as curiosities but rarely used in combat.

Georgians were more successful than their Armenian and Chechen neighbors. A large factory was opened in Georgia to produce a wide variety of weapons and ammunition. During the Abkhazian conflict of the early 1990s, this business, especially the ammunition production facilities, flourished. Georgian weapons were widely used during those early Abkhazian and Ossetian conflicts.

Feasibility of Instituting Controls

Russia is no stranger to efforts at what westerners regard as gun control. The first piece of legislation of this type was signed by Peter the Great in February, 1700. Until 1917, governors, mayors and local police chiefs could grant citizens a license to own a firearm. In Soviet times, of course, controls were much more rigid, especially with regard to rifles. In the post-Soviet period, authorities estimate that 10% of all weapons are in some manner illegal and decry inadequacies in the post-Soviet arms control system. (15) While there is legislation intended to prevent such abuses, enforcement is hampered by official corruption.

The Caucasus is unique in geographical terms and there are only four possible routes through this region. There are only three major routes since one is divided into two parts. These are the Derbentskaya railroad, the military Sukhumskaya road, and the military Georgian road. There is in a small section of this road going into Transcaucasia. More effective controls could be instituted by simply blocking these three routes. While there are police posts on each passageway, there are no roadblocks at any point. Weapons traffic is effectively unchecked.

The most dangerous area for terrorist activity has been the Mineralnaya Voda region. This is the regional center of a large territory in which we can include Kabardino-Balkariya, Karachayevo-Circassia, even Northern Ossetia and the Stavropol krai. The Minvod region is a major transportation junction which includes the largest airport and the largest train station. Early in this decade, a majority of the Caucasus terrorist acts took place in this area. Anything that could be attacked was subjected to fierce assaults. Terrorists seized buses, helicopters, and airplanes. It is here that Basayev captured an airplane and flew to Turkey before the eruption of the Chechen conflict. During the violent 1993 confrontation between Boris Yeltsin and the leadership of the Russian Duma, Basayev was operating in this region. He bought grenades and other weapons and traveled to Moscow to defend Yeltsin against the leadership of the Russian Duma.

When terrorist attacks in the Caucasus became a major public concern, there was speculation about how to close the avenues of illegal weapons traffic. A first option proposed by authorities was to cut off access to this region. Blockades were set up throughout the Caucasus at 50 kilometer intervals. These were not temporary police traffic posts but rather permanent concrete structures. At every post travelers were stopped and vehicles were searched. Such installations were placed in every region where there were conflicts and even in some areas where there was nothing more than an official fear about the potential for conflict.

However, the demand for weapons is intense, the ingenuity of both providers and consumers is boundless and national borders are porous. Consequently, checkpoints and roadblocks did not prevent the distribution of arms. The Army, from which the weapons were purchased, transported armaments through the blockades. Terrorist or criminal groups did not drive to a large place such as Krasnodar to purchase weapons because the Russian Army enjoyed effective control over all transit routes. Arms, however, could be moved throughout the region because the Russian military facilitates that process during the course of routine operations. By exploiting human weakness and the demands of a difficult economic environment, groups could establish relationships with military personnel in order to purchase weapons.

When an election campaign began in Karachevo-Circassia there was an increase in the level of violence as Wahhabi groups set out to exploit the occasion. This meant there was also an increased demand for weapons. The closest region from which weapons could be readily obtained was just across the border in Abkhazia. The Karachayev-Circassia border with Abkhazia, like so many in the region, is essentially porous. Abkhazia's mountains and passes are effectively open to arms traffickers. Thus, weapons flowed into Karachayev-Circassia from Abkhazia. The arms dealers involved in this particular trade had no ethnic or political agenda but were motivated by the desire for profit.

International Traffic

While the past two decades have witnessed an explosion of movements to secure freedom for individuals, this same era has been characterized by a significant weakening of the state as an institution. The dismemberment of the Soviet Union and of Yugoslavia, the political and military instability of the newly formed states in Europe, and the recent and continuous conflicts in Eastern Europe contributed to the proliferation of the arms traffic. This trade is based largely on conventional Russian weapons designed to be part of the equipment of the Russian Army or, in the past, the Soviet Army. Yet there are international dimensions to this traffic that can touch nations beyond the territory of Russia or the former USSR.

As the nation state loses its ability to contain domestic problems, it is not surprising that a trade that is concentrated in Russia's Caucasus region can reach well beyond Russian frontiers. Even though it does not border Russia, Romania, for example, well before it enjoyed the embrace of NATO membership, often felt the presence of arm dealers on its territory, albeit in small numbers.

In response to this phenomenon, Romania organized its "Military Unit (MU) 0962" to be responsible for monitoring and containing illegal activities by groups which were an extension of Russian trafficking networks. MU 0962 identified over 150 organized crime groups in Romania, many of which were of Russian parentage. Most of these groups have constantly fought each other in an effort to establish dominance in a particular trade. The most troubling sector has been the growing commerce in components, products and substances used in the manufacturing of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. (16)

In 2003, officials of MU 0962 arrested five individuals who attempted to sell a kilogram of enriched uranium 238 for two million dollars. Dason Liubov and Anatolie Cojocaru brought the uranium into Romania through Moldova but the uranium had been stolen from Russian nuclear silos that were being dismantled. Three Romanian citizens were members of the Romanian end of an international traffic chain originating in Russia. The uranium had been carefully packed in a metal container covered in rubber. As part of this complicated process, conventional Russian weapons--12.7 mm machine-guns, 7.62 mm AKM automated handguns, and hundreds of magazines--were being exchanged for currency to support the trade in weapons of mass destruction.

A Final Observation

While there is an understandable tendency to view weapons traffic in the Caucasus as a Russian problem, it is increasingly apparent that this is an international problem. The transnational mob networks involved in smuggling alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, and diamonds and also trafficking in people, arms and nuclear substances are led by KGB networks whose foreign residents have been reactivated and retrained. Moreover, the trade in alcohol or drugs can easily merge into traffic in conventional weapons or even weapons of mass destruction. Funds from one commodity become the funding source for another commodity.

During the Cold War, optimists concluded that the collapse of the Communist Party states would lead to the introduction of free, prosperous, or democratic states. Even before the disintegration of the USSR, Soviet specialists realized that Gorbachev's reforms were all too often simply creating opportunities for the criminal underworld.

Stavropol Krai is one of the most prosperous areas of Russia's Caucasus region. It is home to Pyatigorsk State University, one of Russia's most prominent educational institutions. Yet, even in that relatively benign environment, university students will recount wandering into what looked like a neighborhood bar only to realize that it was the preserve of a criminal gang. The criminal networks extend throughout the region and into neighboring states where they become part of the local criminal world.

Without a doubt, weapons traffic in Russia's Caucasus region fuels the political violence that has been a feature of much of the post-communist era. It has tested the limits of the new institutions and stimulated a popular nostalgia for the predictability of the days of Leonid Brezhnev or even Joseph Stalin. But, more importantly, it has developed a global reach that has an impact on political stability and security all the way from Eastern Europe to the Middle East.

Zaur Borov studied at the Military School "Marshall Eremenko" in Vladikavkaz, North Osetia, Russia and graduated from the Law Department of the State University of Abkhazia. He earned a Masters Degree in Conflictology at the School of Public Administration in Rostov/Don. He is a veteran of the fighting in Abkhazia and served for two years as the chairman of the Association of Abkhazia Volunteers. Mr. Borov lives in Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkharia.

Stephen R. Bowers is a Professor of Government at Liberty University and is the Director of the Center for Security and Science. Dr. Bowers is the author of Ethnic Politics in Eastern Europe, a monograph published by the Research Institute for the Study of Conflict and Terrorism in London as well as numerous papers dealing with Eastern Europe and the former USSR. In preparing this paper, he consulted with military and police officials in Eastern Europe.

Kyle M. O'Neill is a Russian language specialist who spent the 2008-2009 academic year at Pyatigorsk State University in Pyatigorsk, Russia. During this time he traveled extensively in the Caucasus region as well as elsewhere in the Russian Federation. Mr. O'Neill is a senior at Liberty University in the Helms School of Government.

Stephen R. Bowers *

Liberty University, Lynchburg, Virginia

Zaur Borov

Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkharia

Kyle M. O'Neill

Liberty University, Lynchburg, Virginia

* Address for correspondence:

(1) "Doku K. Umarov",, 25 April 2010

(2), 30 March 2010

(3) Jeffrey M. Bale, Senior Research Associate, "The Chechen Resistance and Radiological Terrorism", Monterey Institute of International Studies, James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, April 2004

(4) "Chechnya without KTO", RIA Novosti, 16 April 2010

(5) Interview conducted by Stephen Bowers with Moldovan Minister of Interior Victor Catan, Chisinau, Moldova, 8 October 1999.

(6) Yevgeny Nazarov "There Is No Simple Time", Stavropol Pravda, 19 December 2009

(7) "A plan to Combat Terrorism and Extremism in the North Caucasus for 2010-2014", Stravropol Pravda, 27 February 2010

(8) Abdurahman Magomedov, "KTO Regime in Khasavyurt: All began with what?", Dagestan Pravda, 13 April 2010

(9) IA Regnum, 15 October, 2009 (Translation provided by, 16 October 2009)

(10) www.RIA Novosti, 6 January 2010. (Translation provided by, 6 January 2010)

(11) www.RIA Novosti, 25 October 2009. (Translation provided by, 25 Oct 2009)

(12) www.ITAR-TASS, 24 Oct 2009 (Translation provided by, 24 October 2009)

(13) IA Regnum, 4 April 2010

(14), 1 April 2010

(15) Alex Lazarev, "Guns: License to Security" Stavropol Pravda, 5 February 2009

(16) Interviews with officials in the Ministry of Interior, Bucharest, 2003 and 2004
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Author:Bowers, Stephen R.; Borov, Zaur; O'Neill, Kyle M.
Publication:The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies
Geographic Code:4EXRU
Date:Jun 22, 2010
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