Ukraine’s smugglers, the real-life Lords of War

Nicolas Cage in Lord of War
Trust me, I’m an arms dealer… Nicolas Cage in Lord of War

Anyone who’s seen the arms-trafficking film Lord of War will remember Yuriy Orlov, the Ukrainian-American arms dealer played by Nicolas Cage. He’s loosely-based on Viktor Bout, the world’s most notorious gunrunner, who used a team of jobless ex-Soviet pilots to smuggle weapons to half the wars in Africa in the 1990s. In the film, Cage also conveniently has an uncle in the Ukrainian army, who flogs him a vast arsenal of surplus hardware at a knockdown price.

As ever, Hollywood took slight liberties with the facts. Bout, who’s now serving 25 years in a US jail, was actually Russian, not Ukrainian. His connections to Ukraine were limited to a two-year stint in an infantry unit there.

But it’s fair to say that since the collapse of communism, Ukraine has indeed produced no shortage of smugglers par excellence. As the home of the Soviet Union’s two main southern ports – Odessa and Sevastopol (in what is now Russian Crimea) – it has long had a huge workforce of merchant seamen. And just like Bout’s pilots, many found themselves out of work when the Soviet era ended.

Scan the records of big-time drug seizures in the following decades, and it’s not hard to see what they did next. Between 1999 and 2004 alone, Ukrainian crews were arrested in six of the world’s biggest cocaine busts at sea, sometimes carrying up to 13 tonnes at a time. And for every shipment caught, far more probably got through. So if you’ve snorted a line of Colombia’s finest in the last 20 years, there’s a fair chance a Ukrainian mariner helped get it to you.

But the Viktor Bouts of the cocaine world do not just thrive on their seafaring prowess. They also benefit from Odessa and Sevastopol being thriving organised crime centres in their own right. Historically, the two ports are also homes to numerous retired members of the Ukrainian and Russian security services. Not all are there just for the balmy Black Sea climate. According to an ex-Customs official I know who used to work that patch, many have connections to the Russian Mafia. So when suspect shipments come and go through the Black Sea, there is no shortage of high-level cover.

“Although it’s a Ukrainian port, Odessa has long been plugged into Russian organised crime,” observes Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian security affairs. “Most of the shipments don’t get busted because they are politically connected, and historically, the Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol has always been exempt from Ukrainian and Russian customs checks.”

The Odessa File: customs officers say the port is a conduit for cocaine (picture courtesy iof Soca/PA Wire)

The question, though, is what will happen to these smuggling havens in the aftermath of all the upheavals in Ukraine. According to my customs source, it isn’t just the Mafia that is involved here. A cut of the smuggling cash has always gone to Ukraine’s political rulers too, be they pro-Western Orange Revolutionaries who ruled after 2004, or the pro-Russian Yanukovych camp. New power struggles at the political level, therefore, may well mean new power struggles in the underworld. Given the amount of money at stake, it could all get very nasty.

Wander around Odessa, and one gets a clue as to where that money goes. A port that is otherwise somewhat shabby has a conspicuous number of smart cars outside the more expensive hotels. Upmarket prostitutes are much in evidence. So too, are “businessmen” from around the world with entourages of bodyguards. As my Customs friend points out, neither Russians or Europeans require a visa to visit Ukraine, so it’s “a great meeting point for shady deals”.

He also notes that at the airport, there is still a large number of ex-Soviet aircraft. While the passenger jets are gradually rusting away, the Antonov cargo planes of the sort so loved by Mr Bout are still well-looked after. Hmm.

Another useful asset is Odessa’s proximity to Transdniester, the tiny pro-Russian enclave of neighbouring Moldova. As nobody in the world recognises its self-declared borders, it has long been another legal “black hole” for contraband from nearby Odessa.

True, with Ukraine now keener than ever to forge links with the EU, it will be under growing pressure to clamp down on smuggling in Odessa. An EU customs monitoring mission, which has so far had little success in cleaning Odessa up, may now have rather more leverage in making the Ukrainians dance to their tune.

They will, though, have to tread carefully. Already, Nato is worried that Transdniester could be the next candidate for a Crimean-style landgrab, with Moscow sending in troops to “protect” the Russian minority there. An EU-backed crackdown on smuggling in Odessa, which would seriously upset Transdniester’s economy, could give Moscow just the excuse it needs.

Any port in a storm… smugglers may end up concentrated in Sevastopol

But if the EU does succeed in cleaning up Odessa, much of the dodgier business may simply transfer itself to the Crimean port of Sevastopol. Which, given that its new status as part of Russia is disputed by much of the rest of the world,  is unlikely to be a very reliable partner in the global fight against drug and weapons trafficking.

If you don’t believe me, talk to any Customs officer. They’ll tell you that the fight against trafficking is all about inter-agency and cross-border cooperation. All of which relies on a high degree of trust. And all of which is rather vulnerable to diplomatic fall outs. As Mr Galeotti points out, law enforcement co-operation between Britain and Russia “all but dried up” after the poisoning in London of Alexander Litvinenko. And that was a minor tiff compared to the row over Crimea.

So in the current climate, I can’t see Ukrainian or EU customs teams picking up the phone to their Russian colleagues very often. In other words, the Viktor Bouts of Sevastopol may well be charging their vodka glasses and raising a toast to a few golden years.

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