I would like to highlight a truly excellent report that came out this month on shipborne Russian international arms transfers. The Odessa Network details the network of Ukraine-based companies that are responsible for transporting the bulk of Russian and Ukrainian weapons deliveries to foreign clients. These are not companies are working on behave of rogue individuals, but rather have contracts with each country’s official arms exporting agency. The report details 40+ shipments over the last decades to countries such as Venezuela, Sudan, Vietnam, Angola, Syria, China and several others. There is a particularly enlightening case study that makes an effort to document recent shipments to Syria by ships connected to participants in the network. The authors argue that their approach can be used for detecting future arms shipments to countries such as Syria, where the exporting states are looking to avoid public exposure.
The study finds that the bulk of the shipments originate in the Ukrainian port of Oktyabrsk, located near Mykolaiv. This port was the main starting point for Soviet arms exports and appears to have continued its role in the post-Soviet period. The authors trace the connections between key companies, mostly based in Odessa, that are involved in arms shipments and Russian and Ukrainian government officials. They also trace links between these companies and EU shipping companies that provide specialized services for transporting cargoes that are outside the capabilities of the Ukrainian companies. Financial services and money laundering operations for the network appear to be run by Latvian banks.
As the authors themselves note, such a report cannot provide a complete picture, as some cargoes are shipped by air while neighboring countries (especially in the FSU) receive their arms by truck or rail, rather than ship. Nevertheless, the report introduces a wealth of detail on the process through which the bulk of Russian arms are shipped to customers around the world.
The one area where I think the report could be stronger is in the political conclusions it draws. One of the main questions I had from the start was “why Ukraine?” or “why not Russia?” In other words, why does the Russian government choose to depend on Ukrainian channels for shipping such sensitive cargo. The report points to the advantageous location of Oktyabrsk vis-a-vis St. Petersburg and Kaliningrad, but this does not explain why Russian Black Sea ports, such as Novorossiisk, are not used for such shipments. Similarly, even if Oktyabrsk needed to be the port of origin, why depend on a network of firms based in Odessa, rather than on a homegrown Russian network? A network based in Russia could still ship from Oktyabrsk, after all. Finally, given the tight government control over such sensitive cargo as arms shipments, it seems odd that the relatively conflictual relations between Russia and Ukraine during the Yushchenko presidency did not lead to any disruptions of the network. I realize that answers to these questions would be more speculative than data-driven, but they would be highly interesting for Russia-watchers interested in regional political relationships and their implications.