Opioid Smuggling In The Black Sea – Analysis



In January 2021, authorities in Ukraine intercepted 1.1 tons of heroin, valued at $81 million, that had entered the country through the Black Sea port of Odessa. Non-state actors move opioids across the Black Sea by exploiting high levels of traffic on maritime transit routes and unstable conditions in frozen conflicts and breakaway territories. A deeper understanding of the modus operandi and maritime routes used by opioid smugglers can assist authorities in identifying areas to prioritize for law enforcement operations. Without an adequate response, the presence of these well-used maritime smuggling routes will continue to support criminal activities, strain government resources, and facilitate corruption around the Black Sea region.

Regional Context 

Frozen conflict and breakaway territories in the Black Sea region, namely Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Crimea, Donbas, and Nagorno-Karabakh, create ideal operating environments for smugglers. As Lada Rosclycky points out, the fluidity and complexity of political power structures in frozen conflicts and breakaway territories creates opportunities for transnational criminal organizations to gain a foothold. Drug smuggling operations facilitated by these non-state actors can, in turn, further undermine rule of law by providing an additional source of illicit income. Studies on seven major insurgency and terrorist financial networks have shown violent non-state actors seem to obtain nearly a quarter of their funds through involvement in drug trafficking. In the Black Sea Region, Chechen and al Qaeda terrorists located in the vicinity of Pankisi Gorge in northeast Georgia have used drug trafficking proceeds to finance their operations. As drug smuggling in the Black Sea becomes more prevalent, its destabilizing effect will be amplified. 

Maritime Drug Smuggling

The majority of illicit drugs transiting the Black Sea region are opioids and to a lesser extent acetic anhydride, a precursor for production of heroin. Based on the number of drug seizures in transit countries, an analysis of opioid production levels, and intelligence reports on smuggling activities, the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction predicted an increase in opioid availability in the EU moving forward. Trends in drug production in Afghanistan, which provides roughly 81 percent of the annual global opium supply, have proven particularly telling. Production levels in Afghanistan have steadily increased since 2011 in correlation with the steady withdrawal of western International Security and Assistance Forces (ISAF) from the country. The shift in production levels has led to more numerous seizures of drug shipments destined for the EU, where estimations on the number of opioid users already hover around 1.3 million. While smugglers have traditionally favored the more southerly route into the EU through the Mediterranean Sea, increased law enforcement activity in response to the migration crisis have convinced smugglers to risk harsher crossing conditions in the Black Sea. Similarly, deployment of forces in response to conflict in Syria has created impediments to movement that encourage drug smugglers to move operations northward.  

The transit of acetic anhydride through the Black Sea has also increased. In 2017, authorities seized over 81,000 litres of acetic anhydride within the EU. The increase likely results from attempts to meet rising demands from heroin producers in the Middle East, as acetic anhydride acquired from Europe is significantly cheaper. Smugglers tend to move these acetic anhydride shipments via the maritime domain since cargo exports leaving EU ports receive fewer security checks compared to imports. Growing evidence of heroin production laboratories emerging in Georgia combined with the existence of laboratories in Turkey could likewise form an impetus for increased acetic anhydride smuggling. Drug smugglers rely on well-established maritime commerce routes to transport illicit drugs across the Black Sea undetected. 

Modus Operandi 

Smugglers have used commercial trade to conceal the transit of drugs in the Black Sea throughout the region’s history. In Soviet times, non-state actors used commercial shipping routes to smuggle firearms, cigarettes, gasoline, and other illicit products across the Black Sea. The increase in commercial traffic in the following decades has only made detection of illicit goods more difficult. In 2016, the black sea’s 43 ports were responsible for 2,460,028 Twenty Foot Equivalent Units (TEU) of maritime shipments, not including transshippments. The complex network of maritime commercial routes and trading ports create opportunities for non-state actors to move illicit goods undetected past over-stretched custom authorities and coast guards. On average ports inspect only 2 percent of TEU’s for illicit goods. COVID-19 restrictions on air and land traffic may also have encouraged smugglers to increasingly rely on maritime routes to continue their operations. 

Drug smugglers exploit existing maritime trade routes through several methods. Methods that typically require port corruption to successfully execute include rip-on/rip; where drugs are delivered without the container’s legal owner being aware of the continents, switch; where drugs are retrieved before inspections occur and transfer them to a container that will not be checked, and within legitimate goods; where drugs are hidden within a legal cargo. Other methods used by smugglers include concealing drugs within container structures, such as around insulations, flooring, and cooling compartments. A variety of vessels are used by smugglers to transit drugs through the maritime domain, including inflatable boats, speed boats, pleasure vessels, fishing vessels, ferries, tankers, and semi-submersibles.

Within the Black Sea, ferries linking Georgia to Bulgaria, Romania, and Ukraine in particular have been linked to drug smuggling operations. Likewise, Turkish officials have noted a correlation in drug smuggling and the increasing popularity of roll-on roll-off ferries between Europe and Turkey, which offer effective means of transporting trailers and other wheeled cargo. Although the numerous transit and concealment methods provide non-state actors with a plethora of options, the most well-used smuggling route through the Black Sea remains the Southern Caucasus Route.

Maritime Smuggling Routes

Georgia’s Black Sea ports connect drug smuggling routes through the southern Caucasus mountains to ports along the Black Sea’s western and north-western shores. Opioids manufactured in Afghanistan reach the southern Caucasus mainly through Iran. More numerous seizures of opioids by Iranian authorities in 2018 correlated with an increase in interceptions within the Caucasus region, which increased from 0.3 tons in 2017 to 1.3 tons in 2018. Once in the Southern Caucasus, smugglers move drug shipments to Georgia’s ports along the Black Sea. Criminal networks in Georgia’s breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia form conduits for these smuggling operations. 

Drugs transited through ports like Ochmchire, Poti, and Batumi along the eastern shoreline frequently travel to Odessa, Ukraine. Extensive River routes and porous northern and eastern borders make Ukraine well suited for smuggling drugs into the EU. Simmering conflict in the Donbas region has also facilitated the emergence of transnational criminal organizations, further adding strength to smuggling networks in Ukraine. In June and July 2019, Ukrainians customs authorities at Odessa intercepted a combined 930 kilograms of heroin shipped across the Black sea and destined for markets in Western Europe and Russia. Another route moving drugs through the Southern Caucasus mountains connects Georgia to Bulgarian ports like Varna. In April 2020, authorities intercepted 40 kilograms of heroin in the Black sea port of Batumi after related operations seized 72 kilograms in Bulgaria. Likewise, In 2018, authorities in Poti intercepted a combined 14.7 tonnes of acetic anhydride that had originated in the Balkans and was destined for Afghanistan.

Criminal networks in Azerbaijan, another Black Sea state dealing with a frozen conflict in the form of Nagorno-Karabakh, frequently move opium shipments into Georgia after smuggling them through the permeable Azerbaijan-Iran border. From Iran, roughly 70 percent of opioids transit through Azerbaijan while 20 percent makes its way through Armenia before reaching Georgian ports along the Black Sea. In November 2019, custom authorities in Azerbaijan seized 930 kilograms of heroin, the largest single opium seizure ever made in the northern Black Sea Region. Smugglers planned to use ports in Georgia to move the shipment across the Black Sea into Ukraine. Because of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan screened border crossings from Iran into the disputed territories of Fizuli, Jabrayil, and Zangilan in 2020, allowing smugglers in the vicinity to operate with impunity. 

While the majority of drugs transited between Turkey and the EU cross the Mediterranean Sea further south, smugglers also make use of ports in Turkey’s Black Sea coastline. In 2018, Romanian authorities seized 5 tonnes of acetic anhydride destined for Turkey via the Black Sea. Turkish ports are also used by smugglers to transit opioids from Turkey northwards to Russia. The significant amount of traffic in the larger Russian ports like Novorossiky, including ferries, bulk goods, passengers, and trucks, helps smugglers conceal the shipments. A reverse flow of acetic anhydride shipments along the same route also exists to reach destination markets in Turkey and Afghanistan. 


Smuggling routes through the Black Sea use licit maritime transit routes to move and conceal opioid shipments through the Black Sea. Non-state actors exploit weak enforcement and underdeveloped infrastructure in frozen conflict and breakaway territories around the Black Sea Region to facilitate their operations. The symbiotic relationship between smugglers and criminal organizations, however, means curbing illicit trade can create a self-reinforcing cycle that enhances local governance in these areas. 

Addressing drug smuggling in the maritime domain can have positive socio-economic impact beyond the Black Sea region as well. Terrorism, criminal networks, corruption, and black markets in the EU all have links to the heroin trade. An adequate response from law enforcement agencies, built on a thorough understanding of the modus operandi and smuggling routes, can counteract recent increases in opioid shipment size and frequency.

*Michael van Ginkel is a senior visiting Fellow at the Institute for Foreign Affairs and Trade and an Honorary Fellow at the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Russia, East Europe, and Central Asia.

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