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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The CIS Arms Market

When Oleg Petrov, a 46-year-old Cossack "volunteer", let off a round of machinegun fire aimed at a wooded ridge hiding Georgian troops, he expected return fire of a similar kind. Instead, a computer-targeted shell fired from a T-72 tank wrenched his right arm off.


Petrov, who was fighting in the Caucasian war between separatist Abkhazians and their Georgian overlords, is not only a statistic of yet another Soviet war but also evidence of the growing brutality of these conflicts, and of the range and power of weapons which the former republics and regions of the U. S. S. R. are deploying against one another. From Moldova to the Caucasus to Central Asia, the brutality of ethnic combat has been aided by a steady stream of increasingly powerful arms.


As well as fueling bloodthirsty conflicts, the CIS's new arms bazaar has fed a growing criminal market and has helped to undermine weak republican governments. Many, if not all, of these disputes would take place even without an arms market; but growth in the weapon supply has led to the enlargement of conflicts. Like the American Indians whose tribal wars became genocidal with the arrival of the rifle, the republic's conflicts have turned the periphery of the Kremlin's former empire into modern-day killing fields.


When Georgia's civil war began two years ago, the arms used by the warring factions were automatic weapons, wooden clubs and a biplane armed with Molotov cocktails thrown haphazardly from the pilot's window.


It was difficult to take the nascent armies seriously. After three months, they had matured to a handful of field howitzers and one T-52 tank.


Today, as the region of Abkhazia's self-proclaimed defense force fights for independence against Georgia for its tiny strip of land along the Black Sea coast, their respective armies wage war with the best that money can buy. The means of assault are not bayonets or handguns, but major artillery pieces, which lob shells deep into each other's territory, compounding the growing refugee problem as well as multiplying the damage.


In Moldova, armed separatists from Transdniestr, a slither of land no wider than 20 kilometers, bolster their self-proclaimed states with artillery pieces and armored personnel carriers. Although a peacekeeping force in the region has kept the warring factions apart, Transdniestr's paramilitary enjoy access to both light and heavy weaponry.


Likewise in Nagorno-Karabakh, where the rusting shells of T-52s and T-72s litter the roads in and out of the beautiful but deadly mountain region, what began as a conflict between village inhabitants has sucked crippling quantities of manpower and money from the governments of both Azerbaijan and Armenia.


When the Soviet Union collapsed, almost all weaponry in the country was held by the Soviet Army and the KGB. Buying arms privately was unheard of. The two exceptions to this were the light weapons belonging to criminal gangs (the so-called Mafias) and the Interior Ministry's weapons, including armored personnel carriers.


The growth in availability of arms is partly a natural outcome of the collapse of communism. Weapons, like all other commodities, have joined a wildly unrestricted market. Exchanges throughout Russia and the other republics have added submarines, tanks and fighters to the list of marketable goods.


However, diky kapitalizm - wild capitalism - means there is little of the careful scrutiny of potential buyers that there is the West. The result is that almost anything can be bought for a price, including the radioactive components for nuclear weapons, as Russian and German police have recently detailed.


Where there is a market, there will be a seller.


For domestic conflicts, the secondhand weapons trade has proved the most profitable route to quick supply. The remarkable diversity of weapons at an arms sale in Kharkov, which featured the entire range of Soviet tanks, diesel submarines and Sukhoi and MiG fighters - enough to equip a respectable third world army - was rumored to have come from surplus military stock in Belarus (with the exception, of course, of the submarines). When it came to weaponry, it seems, the Soviets behaved like jackdaws; they never liked to throw anything away.


When you can't buy a computer-aided T-72 tank, a 30-year-old T-52 is just as good, as Tajikistan's governmental forces have proved by using them to shell refugee camps along the Afghan border. Thanks to indiscriminate violence in the tiny Central Asian republic (still a relatively unsophisticated war by the standards of some in the former Soviet Union) Tajikistan has perhaps the greatest refugee problem of any country of comparable size in the world, with the exception of Bosnia.


Such countries have fallen victim, not only to instability, but to the arms industry and military stockpile system the empire left behind.


Russia and Ukraine could try tightening controls on indigenous arms merchants, although it would make little difference. First, the arms stockpiles will take years to whittle down, and second, government control on weapons firms is likely to be patchy at best.


In lieu of a political maturing of the republics (Russia included), the obvious outcome is the destabilization of greater and greater tracts of land, a growing refugee problem and the expectation that more of the republics will succumb to post-imperial chaos. Until the leakage of weaponry from the army and KGB halts, and an arms-purchasing agreement is established between the republics, the empire's wars are likely to become more, not less, bloody.


Robert Seely reports from Kiev for The Times of London and The Moscow Times.