With omnipresent video, foreign arms in Ukraine stand out

One of the advantages of quality video cameras in phones becoming accessible to the masses around the world is that it is now easier than ever to track arms flows in conflicts. While we have seen this method used to spot weapons in the recent/ongoing wars in Libya and Syria, the Ukraine conflict has provided a particularly exceptional chance to test it by differentiating locally available weapons from Russian Federation weapons suspected to be entering the stockpiles of Russian-speaking separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Nic R. Jenzen-Jones, the director of ARES [Armament Research Services], was able to positively identify 20 weapons systems in Ukraine that had never previously been exported from their country of origin. Nineteen of those came from Russia, and one was from Poland. He calls these “flag items” because they can be clearly tied to outside nations.

From Russia, ARES identified exotic killing tools like the VSS suppressed marksman rifle, heavy armor like the T-72B3 main battle tank, and newer thermobaric rocket launchers like the MRO-A that have not been seen outside the Federation’s borders.

The lone Polish flag item was the PPZR Grom man-portable air defense missile system, which ARES spotted in a YouTube video released by the Ukrainian military. The missile was manufactured in 2007, according to markings painted on its exterior.

But the report also draws conclusions that counter the widely accepted narrative that the insurgents depend on Russian matériel.

By analyzing photographs of captured ordnance, ARES also determined that existing stockpiles of weapons were the single biggest source of military goods used by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Securing loose arms

Besides regular domestic gun control and gun safety, there’s also been a growing concern since the fallout from arming the Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s as to what happens to those weapons (and bigger, military-grade hardware) once they go overseas into war zones. So how to solve that? Lots of solutions are being floated, and The Economist has an extended rundown on them:

Technological tweaks may be able to make possible weapons that stop working after a certain period of time, or can only be used by specific people or in particular places. Proponents of such technologies believe they have the potential to succeed where political and legislative attempts at arms control have failed…

I suspect — and this is sort of alluded to in the article linked above — that the major flaw in these concepts is that the secondary market, particularly in developing nations, doesn’t acquire the weapons until maybe 15 years after they were sold to the primary buyers.

I’m not an expert by any means, but just from reading news descriptions of the equipment seen in various ongoing conflicts, I think they end up having a use lifespan of 20-30 years (depending on the type of weapons). So most of the technologies being developed now could probably be hacked or eliminated in refurbishment by the time the secondary market was using them.

It would be like selling safes with fifteen-years-behind-state-of-the-art security to third world banks and then being surprised that ten years after they were first cracked in the first world, people were able to crack them all over the third world and make off with lots of money.

I guess then the question becomes whether this high-tech approach is better than doing nothing. Letting top of the line U.S. weapons systems and light arms fall into the wrong hands is something to be avoided, but this may not actually be solvable. And other, older weapons that can’t be traced (or even new issues of old models by less scrupulous manufacturers in some countries) are likely to be fueling wars for many years still to come. The people selling the tech are pitching this as a panacea that will succeed where legal measures have failed. I don’t buy that.