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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Contraband Weapons: Russia's Growth Trade

The two old military transports, tails trimmed in Russian white, blue and red, dropped from the eastern sky and touched down at an airfield south of Berlin. Mission accomplished.

Work crews unloaded seven tons of cargo from the Antonov 12 turboprops, transferring the heavy crates to a truck that rumbled off toward the autobahn. It barely got past the airport gate.

Acting on a tip, German police chased it down and inspected the load. Inside they found 9,810 Russian-made military pistols, bound for a Hamburg company. The fraudulently documented cargo was confiscated as contraband. A Russian colonel was arrested.

For some, the incident in January came as no surprise. "We know that when they arrive in Moscow, German businessmen are being handed price lists for black-market weapons," said a German police investigator. "There are fantastic numbers available.

The "Antonov Express" was just one overnight delivery in a new growth business.In this era of small wars waged with small arms, Russia has become a wholesaler of choice for the world's weapons traffickers. Even the Mafia's purchasing agents are traveling to Moscow for arms deals, Italian police say.

The trade ranges from the baldly illicit to the murky and quasi-licit, from cottage industry to high finance, from the Russian city of Tula, where arms plant workers were found moonlighting as gunsmiths for criminals, to the English Channel, where British maritime authorities in January detained a freighter whose cargo of "agricultural equipment" turned out to be Russian tanks and artillery headed south to Angola.

By its nature, the clandestine trade remains largely hidden. Only occasional freeze frames of incidents -- like the truckload in Germany -- give outsiders a window on what is going on. But the evidence is enough to lead a U.S. Army War College analyst, Stephen Blank, to conclude in a recent report that it now seems the Russian government "cannot fully control the flow of arms abroad."

President Boris Yeltsin is blunter, complaining publicly that defense officials have stolen entire ammunition depots and sold them off.

The problem is double-barreled: A hungry Russian military is competing for overseas sales with a starving Russian defense industry.

Soviet-U.S. agreements that reduced armed forces in Europe left Russia's army with the world's greatest surplus of war-making hardware -- 10,000 unneeded tanks and countless assault rifles and other small arms.

The Defense Ministry is trying to sell off equipment. And reports flood in from Eastern Europe of Russian soldiers, from privates to unit commanders, selling a rifle here, a truckload of ammunition there, to help finance their own reentry into civilian life. Kalashnikov assault rifles, $200-plus items, are reported going for $40 on the black market.

Simultaneously, the 5,000 enterprises of the Russian military-industrial complex, the world's biggest producer of conventional weapons, have slid into crisis.

The Cold War's end, shrunken defense budgets and U.N. embargoes eliminated some of these factories' best foreign arms customers. Official exports, from MiG warplanes to Makarov pistols, have crashed from $20 billion a year in the 1980s to $4 billion or less. In arms-making cities, thousands are losing their jobs or working short hours.

Even when overseas customers are found, Moscow's licensing system, supposed to screen out unsavory buyers, can compound manufacturers' troubles by taking up to a year to approve exports.

"It's bureaucracy to the sixth degree," said Mikhail Maley, a Yeltsin adviser on the defense industry.

Experts say enterprising Russians can circumvent the red tape. Some set themselves up as "Western" dealers.

When customs agents in Finland and Estonia intercepted shipments of 40,000 military pistols, they learned that the guns were being sent from Russia to a dummy corporation in Britain established by Russia-based entrepreneurs. The ultimate destination was unknown.

"Russian weapons are spreading out throughout the world. It's difficult to follow all the routes," said Alexander Trifonov, deputy chief of Russian customs' anti-contraband division.

For some, the most direct route to Russian arms is a frontal attack. Military prosecutors report more than 200 thefts or raids on Russian military storehouses in the past two years. The armories are vulnerable -- overfilled because of weapon withdrawals from Eastern Europe, underprotected because draft-dodging has thinned the army's ranks.

"We're forced to put officers on guard duty at such places," said Colonel Alexander Seryk, the army's deputy chief investigator.

Many of the weapons end up in the hands of fighters in Georgia, Azerbaijan and other war zones on the fringes of the ex-Soviet Union, where the borders are almost wide open.

"The smaller roads, the 'green roads' are used very actively for movement of commodities, including guns," said Alexei Begtimirov, Russian Customs' anti-contraband chief. "Random checks show us this is going on.

And what about the biggest European war, in the former Yugoslavia? Are black-market Russian arms, as rumored, breaching the UN arms embargo?

"We don't exclude the possibility," said Trifonov, the customs deputy. "We're investigating."