Guns from President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine are crossing into Russia at a rapid rate and leading to a surge in armed crimes there, according to recent data released by the Russian Interior Ministry (MVD) (The Moscow Times, November 23). For Russia as a whole, the MVD says, the number of such crimes is up nearly 30 percent so far this year compared to the same period in 2021; for Kursk Oblast alone, which borders Ukraine, the figure is an astounding 675 percent. The spikes in other Russian regions along the Ukrainian border are also up by triple-digit percentages. This pattern leaves little doubt that the guns being used now by Russians to commit violent crimes across the country are coming in waves from the war zone in Ukraine.
As a result, the number of armed crimes committed in Russia so far this year has already more than doubled the overall total for last year (RBC, November 23). And while the overall total of such crimes is far lower than that of the United States, it is far larger than that of European countries and many times larger than is normally the case in Russia. This rise in violence is affecting not only businesses but also schoolchildren, with the term “Columbine” having entered the Russian vernacular and raising questions about whether guns could be used more frequently by opposition groups. Overall, these developments are attracting enormous attention and concern throughout the country (Kommersant; News.ru; Rtvi.com, November 23).
Almost all countries that have been engaged in wars have experienced a “bleeding back” of weapons their soldiers used to fight the enemy into their own borders. Russia is no exception. After World War I and the Russian Civil War, the Bolsheviks had to work for several years to confiscate guns from private hands. After World War II, Joseph Stalin faced an even larger problem with resistance movements in the Baltic countries, western Belarus and Ukraine, where the general populations had armed themselves with weapons left over from the larger conflict. As the Soviet Union collapsed, soldiers returning from Afghanistan often brought their weapons with them, becoming the notorious “Afgantsy” criminals of the 1990s. And during both post-Soviet Chechen wars, weapons from those conflicts spread into Russia, brought in by the Russians who fought in Chechnya as well as the Chechens themselves.
Even so, for five primary reasons, the current situation is likely to prove far more serious, something Russian analysts have suggested in the past (Snob.ru, April 22, 2015).
First and foremost, in the Ukraine conflict, Moscow is using far more draftees and volunteers with little military training and discipline who are likely to view any weapons they have as booty they can take home. Officers often fail to control these units in the field, and that lack of control directly affects what soldiers may carry away as well. Such behavior is even more likely to be the case with the criminals Moscow has been recruiting to fight its war against Ukraine. These convicts have little to lose and may be all too happy to receive weapons necessary for continuing their criminal careers (Novayagazeta.eu, August 22; Idel.Realities, October 22).
Second, because Moscow has annexed portions of Ukraine, much of the war is playing out on territories that the Russian government now officially views as part of Russia. This move is clearly intended to make the Russian forces fight harder, but it also means that there are no border checkpoints and thus far fewer possibilities to prevent soldiers returning home from taking their weapons with them. Only a percentage will do so, but it has already been enough to raise public concern about what could happen next if this trend continues to proliferate (Vesna.democrat, November 1; Semnasem.org, November 17).
Third, the Russian courts have already shown their unwillingness to punish veterans who commit violent crimes to the full extent of the law, a sharp contrast with how the Russian judicial system punishes other offenses. This means that, if returning soldiers bring guns back and then use them for criminal acts, the chances that they will be sent to prison or a work camp is far less than would otherwise be the case—something that further eliminates a potential powerful disincentive for taking guns from the front (Vertska.media, November 18).
Fourth, we have witnessed a dramatic rise in gun ownership in Russia—with some experts saying that as many as 25 million firearms could be in private hands—as well as a simultaneous rise in the propensity of Russians to use guns to commit violent crimes (Window on Eurasia, January 17, 2017). Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has further exacerbated both of these trends (RBC, March 23). Here, another critical development since the start of the war has been the fact that Western sanctions have made it more difficult for Russians to acquire guns manufactured abroad. This makes illicit supplies from Ukraine even more profitable and reduces the chances that recently increased acts against illegal domestic production will do anything to reduce the growth of that channel. Additionally, Russia’s domestic gun lobby is working overtime to reduce the possibility that Moscow will further tighten controls on guns and gun production inside Russia (Stoletie.ru, September 28, 2021; Profile.ru, December 22, 2021; June 7).
And fifth, in recent weeks, some Russians opposed to the war and Putin’s “partial mobilization” have even fired guns at draft centers, not only disrupting the recruitment process but also raising the specter that guns will be used more frequently by radicals against the Putin regime. That scenario is every government’s and every society’s nightmare, and the possibility of guns flowing into Russia from Ukraine and the impending decay in public order are certainly fresh on the minds of the Russian authorities today (Novayagazeta.eu, September 26; T.me/avtozaklive, November 9).
However, coping with this influx of weapons is only a small part of the challenge Moscow now faces in reintegrating those men returning from Ukraine back into civilian life. And this issue is certain to attract increased attention and lead ever more Russians to question what the authorities are doing to prevent the war from coming home to the population—even questioning whether the campaign in Ukraine is worth further destabilizing Russia’s domestic situation.
This article was published at The Jamestown Foundation