How Ukrainian arms-dealing connects to Syria’s bloody civil war

Tim Fernholz reports: All the ingredients are there for a proper arms deal: A former government official with connections to the military-industrial complex. A stockpile of Soviet arms in Ukraine. Soldiers in Syria with a yen for ammo and cash to burn. The biggest problem? Getting the arms from eastern Europe to the battleground without alerting international authorities or tipping off your enemies.

The story isn’t about Russia or the United States. It’s about Russia and the United States.

This week, the Wall Street Journal shone a light (paywall) on one American’s thwarted effort to run guns into Syria for the anti-regime Free Syrian Army. Last fall, analysts at the Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS) in Washington assembled public data to identify a network of businesses (pdf) in Ukraine and Russia at the heart of Russia’s efforts to arm the Syrian regime. The two stories have a lot in common, with a key difference being that Russia’s government is a lot more invested in arming its side of the conflict.

While weapons of all kinds have cropped up throughout the Syrian conflict, from the chemical weapons that made president Bashar Al-Assad an international pariah to homemade rockets, the rebels have two main problems: Getting enough rifles and ammunition to give them a basic infantry force, and—the bigger problem—countering the regime’s vast military advantage, especially as it has aircraft and the rebels don’t.

Many weapons in the conflict hail from the former eastern bloc, according to surveys of small arms in Syria (pdf) that are admittedly unscientific. There’s a reason for this: The Soviet Union cranked up a massive arms machine, and when it collapsed, the combination of chaos, weapons stockpiles and criminal entrepreneurship gave men like Viktor Bout and Leonard Minin careers as arms dealers. [Continue reading…]

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