Find Gun Policy Facts

Armed violence prevention, gun control laws and the small arms trade:

Guns in Ukraine

Ukraine is home to an estimated eleven million state- and civilian-owned firearms,1 2 3 yet lacks cohesive gun laws.4 5 The nation inherited vast quantities of Soviet-era small arms and ammunition.6 A country identified as a source of weaponry to unstable regions in the past,7 much of the firearm trafficking involving Ukraine currently takes place within its borders.8 In a ‘Transparency Barometer’ of the world’s 50 largest arms-dealing nations Ukraine ranks 44th.9

Civilian Possession

Estimates of the number of guns in private hands - including 2 million registered and an estimated 3-5 million unregistered firearms – suggest that in Ukraine there are between 9.9 and 15.8 firearms per 100 people.10 3 5 Based on data from the study which calculated the lowest estimates in this range, Ukraine ranked 14th in the world for the number of civilian firearms in its national stockpile, and 49th in the world for the number of civilian firearms per head of population.3

Government Guns

In a 2018 study, the armed forces of Ukraine were estimated to have 6,600,000 small arms, the world’s fourth largest inventory of military firearms.1 11 Although this suggests a ratio of 17.8 guns for each current member of personnel,12 a 2006 estimate put the ratio much lower, at 5.9 firearms per person.13 According to another comparison, Ukraine had 31 per cent more military small arms than the United States, and 11 times more military small arms per head of population (1 gun to 6.7 people in Ukraine, and 1 to 72 in the United States).

Inherited as an ‘unsought burden’ by a former Soviet state with no immediate need for it,14 this vast Cold War arsenal offered a tempting source of hard currency to those who held the keys, with no shortage of customers in regions of conflict.15 As a result, Ukraine has been a prime target of international diplomacy to destroy surplus military small arms (see Production and Trade, Stockpile Surplus and Destruction).

The 2014 conflict irreversibly ruptured the arms trade between Ukraine and Russia. This became a serious problem for the former mother country, still dependent on factories in Ukraine for key components for several important weapons.16

Police in Ukraine are estimated to have 289,000 small arms at their disposal.2

Gun Death, Injury and Crime

In Ukraine, homicide by any method ranged from a high of 4,896 in 1996 (a homicide rate of 9.58 per 100,000),17 down to 2,751 (6.18 per 100,000) in 2017.18 In 2022, these seemed to be the most recently published figures.

The number of homicides committed with a firearm decreased from an annual average of 253 homicides in 1995-1997 to 73 in 2008 (0.49 to 0.21 firearm homicides per 100,000 population.17 19 Estimates of the use of firearms in violent deaths in 2018 suggest a count of 576 gun deaths, for a rate of 1.3 per 100,000.20

By world standards, the rate of firearm homicide in Ukraine is in the low range and below average compared to other countries in its region.21

In 2014, the eruption of separatist violence in the East of the country resulted in 4,441 conflict-related deaths; by 2020, the total of documented conflict-related deaths exceeded 7,000.22 In February 2022, the Russia invasion of Ukraine marked an escalation of armed conflict in the country.23

The frequency of gun suicide, unintentional shootings, non-fatal firearm-related injury and gun crime in Ukraine is not known to have been internationally reported. Examples of trans-border firearm crime have been described in local news media. (see Smuggling and Trafficking).

Gun Control Law

Regulation of private firearms in Ukraine is categorised as permissive.24 Rifles and shotguns are allowed for hunting, target shooting, collection, protection of person or property and private security.25 26 Although Ukraine reported to the United Nations that civilian possession, import and export of handguns is prohibited for any use,26 ‘revolvers and pistols’ — and in one example, ‘sporting revolvers and pistols’ — are subject to regulation, but apparently not banned in Ukrainian firearm legislation.27 In December 2001, in response to a spate of attacks on reporters, the Interior Ministry allowed some investigative journalists to carry handguns that fire rubber bullets.28

According to a report presented by its government to the UN in 2003,29 'Ukraine has enacted adequate legislation and has put in place appropriate structures and procedures to exercise effective control over the small arms and light weapons.’ Since 1996, a series of presidential edicts and decrees have regulated licensing bodies, controlled goods, inter-agency processes and enforcement.30 31

Ukraine inherited the Soviet civilian gun control system, which provides for restrictive gun owner licensing and the registration of all firearms. Yet as of March 2022, Ukraine has still not adopted specialised legislation to control or permit civilian gun ownership, instead relying on Ministerial and Presidential Regulations and Decrees to fill this role.32

Ukraine also reported to the UN that since independence all the nation's laws and procedures for small arms control have been reviewed, and that a new import/export law was enacted in 200329 (see Trade Control). In 2006, a joint NGO report to the UN small arms Programme of Action (UNPoA)33 acknowledged Ukraine’s progress in adopting some international norms and policies to regulate firearms.34 But in the same year, a UN Human Rights Council report on small arms noted that of 38 nations surveyed, only Ukraine left unanswered each question regarding civilian firearm regulation and law.35

Gun Owner Licensing

Firearm licences are available in Ukraine for hunting, target shooting, collection, protection of person or property and private security.36 A 1997-99 UN survey reported 640,615 licensed gun owners, with 7.6 per cent of households holding at least one firearm.37 By 2018 the total number of legally (and illegally) privately owned firearms was estimated at just under 4.4 million.3 The minimum age to obtain a gun licence is 21, and non-citizens, applicants with a criminal record or a history of domestic violence or mental illness can be denied possession of a firearm.38 39 Ukraine's licensing requirements, include the need for identification, training certification, fees, background checks, a genuine reason for obtaining a licence, permits to purchase, a photograph, and planned storage.36 40 38 39

Separate hunting law in Ukraine suggests a minimum age for firearm possession of 18, though this could refer to hunting under the supervision of an older, licensed gun owner.41 Although no law requires proof of gun safety or proficiency training, Cabinet Decree № 576 and Ministry of Internal Affairs order № 622 do require practical training, followed by an exam before issuing a permit to hunt with a firearm.38

A special permit is also required to carry a gun in a public place, with restrictions varying on the class and type of firearm.26 In February, 2022 the Ukrainian parliament passed an emergency law allowing Ukrainian citizens to carry arms in public in response to increased military tensions in the region.42 The number of civilians licensed to carry a concealed handgun is not known.

Weapon Storage and Transport

Civilian firearms must be stored unloaded and dismantled 'in a hard metal or wooden safe with a solid lock.' 43 If there are more than three firearms, the corresponding room or safe must be equipped with an alarm. In some cases trigger locks are required.44 Used and lost ammunition must be reported in writing to police.45

A permit must be obtained before guns are transported in any way. All firearms must be unloaded, dismantled, and trigger-locked in transit.46 Firearms used in competition must be audited and recorded on a daily basis by the responsible official.47

Record Keeping

Although Ukraine claims a centralised national firearm registry,20 48 49 this does not follow the international law enforcement norm, which is to keep updated records of guns from first import or sale, through subsequent transfers of ownership (see Marking and Tracing).

Marking and Tracing

Instead of a centralised register of firearms, Interior Ministry criminologists at the Centre for Criminal Research maintain a library of cartridge cases provided by gun owners. This could allow limited forensic matching and tracing of spent ammunition found at a crime scene. Information about the ammunition register is not known to have been published, and Ukraine gave no response to a UN survey question asking if it is computerised.26

To date, it is unclear if Ukraine employs firearm and ammunition tracing technology.26 In the absence of a confirmed computerised register linking each firearm to its current civilian owner, law enforcement officers in Ukraine could be restricted in their ability to trace crime guns.

Penalties

Firearm-related sanctions in the penal code of Ukraine include prison terms of two to seven years. The civil code and Customs code also provide for fines, confiscation of property and seizure of goods and documents. Ukrainian officials regard these penalties as adequate, and call them a strong deterrent to abuse. Some argue that the few arrests and prosecutions recorded in Ukraine indicate low levels of illegal activity, rather than a lack of enforcement.50

Production and Trade

Ukraine is considered a ‘small’ producer of small arms and ammunition,51 with 20 state-controlled design bureaux and factories in 2001.52 53 In a 2006 UN survey, Ukraine did not respond to questions on small arms production.54 In a 1999 UN survey, the Ministry of Internal Affairs reported that Ukraine does not manufacture firearms, components or ammunition for foreign civilian markets, and produces ammunition only for its own domestic civilian market.26

In 2021, Ukraine's military spending reached an all-time high of US$5.9 billion, rising to 16th place in the global ranking, up from 41st place in 2014.55

Trade Control

The Ministry of Economy’s State Export Control Service is the hub of arms transfer control in Ukraine, responsible for tracking all imports, exports and in-country movements.30 56

In February 2003, the Law of Ukraine on State Control of International Transfers of Goods Designated for Military Purposes and Dual-Use Goods entered into force. This aimed to ‘govern activities related to state control over international transfers of goods designated for Military Purposes, including small arms and light weapons as well as their parts, materials and equipment specially designed for development and production of [small arms].’ If enforced, the law would improve state transparency, comply with international obligations, and limit illicit arms transfers from Ukraine to terrorist groups or for other illegal purposes.57

Ukraine’s 2003 arms trade law requires an exporter to first verify with the importer, then to declare to authorities both the real end user and the destination of the weapons. Both parties must certify that the goods will not be used for another purpose, or re-exported without prior consent from Ukraine.58 59

Arms Exports

According to Ukraine’s state exporting agency, in the early 2000s the volume of small arms and light weapons trade accounted for less than three per cent – or US$10-15 million – of its US$500 million total arms exports.60

A decade later, Ukrainian military arms exports were estimated to be worth US$1-1.2 billion and directed to Russia, India, China, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, France and Algeria.61

Reports to the UN Register on Conventional Arms record governmental transfers of small arms, including the number of revolvers and pistols, rifles and carbines, sub-machine guns, assault rifles, and light machine guns exported in a calendar year as declared by either trading partner. Between 2006 and 2012, Ukraine is known to have exported at least 140,000 firearms per year, 90% of which were rifles, carbines and sub-machine guns. In the following years 2013-2020, small arms exports dropped to 12,000 items per year. Main importers of Ukrainian small arms include the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, Georgia, and the Czech Republic. Other documented importers include – in descending order - Uganda, Canada, Azerbaijan, Sudan, Armenia, Chad, Austria, Pakistan and Kenya.62

Georgia and the Czech Republic are the largest recipient of assault rifles from Ukraine, importing 41,000 in 2006-2007 and 27,000 in 2012-2014.62 Armenia and Uganda documented the largest proportion of imports of light machine guns (30%) and sub-machine guns (19%). In both cases this involved single transactions in 2010.62

The 2014 crisis in Ukraine affected arms trade relations, particularly with Russia, which was still highly reliant on producers in Ukraine.16 In reaction to the armed conflict in the eastern part of Ukraine, in February 2014 the members of the European Union agreed on an arms embargo and suspended licences for export to Ukraine.63 The embargo was lifted on 16 July 2014.64

Ukraine has a history of arms exports to areas of conflict, embargoed states and regimes known to commit human rights abuses.65 66 67 68 69 70

Small arms often leak into grey markets or black markets as they move towards their next owner.71 An infamous example of this was a 1999 shipment to Burkina Faso of 3,000 AK-47 assault rifles, 50 machine guns, 25 grenade launchers, anti-aircraft missiles, anti-tank missiles and associated ammunition. The weapons were then transferred to the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebel group in Sierra Leone. In the absence of special dispensation for the original transfer, both Ukraine and Burkina Faso were in breach of the ECOWAS moratorium on small arms purchases in West Africa.72

On 25 September 2008, Somali pirates hijacked and held for five months a Ukrainian ship, the MV Faina, which was carrying 33 T-72 tanks, artillery, light weapons and ammunition from Ukraine to Kenya. While the Kenyan government maintained that the cargo was for its military forces, it is believed that the arms shipment was arranged on behalf of the government of South Sudan.73 74

Ukraine is also known as a major importer of small arms and light weapons.75

In 2022, conflict with Russia saw rapid acceleration of arms imports to Ukraine,76 with several European states announcing large deliveries of military equipment.77 Within the first month of fighting, the United States pledged an $800 million arms assistance package which included 100 grenade launchers, 5,000 rifles, 1,000 pistols, 400 machine guns, 400 shotguns, and over 20 million rounds of small arms ammunition. Previously announced US assistance to Ukraine promised an additional 40 million rounds of small arms ammunition.78

Arms Brokering

Arms brokering is defined in national legislation as any action by a business or person in Ukraine to assist an international transfer of goods designated for a military purpose, including financing, transporting or expediting shipments, irrespective of the origin of the goods, or the territory on which any such activity is conducted.79 80

Ukrainian law also provides for the licensing of brokers and individual deals, including extra-territorial controls. It requires that national agents are licensed to operate from abroad, even if the weapons they broker are transferred without crossing national territory. Brokers are also obliged to refrain from brokering activities if there is a ‘risk that the transferred weapons will be used for purposes, or by end-users, different from those stated in the contract.’ 59 34 81 80 82

Officially, only the state-owned agency Ukrspetseksport is authorised to arrange arms sales to foreign clients. Despite this, independent reports suggest that a number of brokers with high-level connections still deal in Ukrainian small arms, both within the country and abroad.83

Smuggling and Trafficking

In a 1999 survey, Ukraine told the United Nations that the quantity of small arms and ammunition illicitly manufactured within its borders, smuggled in or out, or found to have been illegally imported in the past, all amounted to ‘none.’ 26

A subsequent, contrasting report recalls a Ukrainian parliamentary commission finding that in the years 1992-96, military stocks worth US$32 billion went missing and were sold abroad (see Diversion of State Stocks).84

National stockpiles remain a source for illicit flows. Since 2014, armed conflict in Eastern Ukraine weakened state control over national stockpiles that were raided to support armed groups and feed the black market.85 86 By 2015, at least 300,000 small arms and light weapons had been looted or lost, fueling illicit proliferation in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions and in Crimea particularly.87 Only a modest quantity of weapons was recovered,88 while seizures of ammunition and explosives increased substantially.89 In April 2014, authorities seized 1 million rounds of small-calibre ammunition in Kiev.90

A history of armed conflict in the region, including the post-Yugoslav wars and two conflicts in Chechnya, created arms trafficking routes across the Ukrainian and Moldavian borders, the Trans-Dniester region and through the city of Odessa.91 92 In the Ukrainian Black Sea ports of Illichevsk and Odessa, arms dealers are reported to have forged Moldovan export documents for weapons sourced from Trans-Dniester, where illicit arms sales are said to have become ‘the mainstay of the economy.’ 93 94 Since the resurgence of conflict in Ukraine the government, along with US and Western officials report that Russia supplied large numbers of weapons to rebel forces in eastern Ukraine, including tanks, armoured vehicles and heavy artillery.95

Small arms to be found on the illicit market in Ukraine include semi-automatic pistols, hunting and military-pattern rifles, assault rifles and sniper rifles.96

Studies conducted between armed conflicts in 2014 and 2022 concluded that, despite the large quantities of illicit weapons and ammunition circulating in Ukraine, evidence of illicit flows to neighbouring countries and to Europe is limited.97 98

Stockpile Surplus and Destruction

In 2004, 1.5 million tonnes of Ukraine’s 2.5 million tonnes of explosives and ammunition were officially categorized as surplus for disposal. Some had been kept since the First and Second World Wars, and 60 per cent of the stockpile was exposed in open-air, unstable conditions. The Ministry of Defence estimated that only three per cent of 184 state storage facilities were equipped with technical protection to prevent diversion.99 100

In 2006, Ukraine began a surplus weapon destruction project labelled ‘the largest single demilitarization effort in the world.’ Supported by NATO Partnership Trust Funds, the first phase of the project was completed in early 2012 with the destruction of 15 tons of ammunition, 400,000 small arms and light weapons and 1000 man-portable air defence systems (MANPADS).101 Led by the United States, the second phase of the project destroyed 130,100 out of the 366,000 small arms and light weapons earmarked for disposal.102 103

This follows the reported destruction of 700,000 military firearms in the 1990s.104

According to commentators, Ukraine has the capacity to destroy 20-25,000 tonnes of ammunition and tens of thousands of small arms per year. At that rate, destroying the current surplus could take half a century. To complete the task within a decade, at least 150,000 tonnes of surplus arms and ammunition would have to be destroyed each year.105

Diversion of State Stocks

Ukraine’s huge, often unguarded weapon armouries and ammunition magazines have been easy targets for theft. In 1992, Ukraine’s military stocks were valued at US$89 billion. By 1998, arms worth US$32 billion (by another estimate, US$57 billion) had been stolen, mainly to be sold abroad.84 106 107

Between 1992 and 2002, the period in which Ukrainian officials were implicated in arms transfers to West Africa, no inventory was taken of small arms.107

By 2007, the arms stockpile inherited by Ukraine from the Soviet Union in the early nineties without adequate state control measures had shrunk from 7.1 to 6.2 million small arms and light weapons.108 Ministry of Defence officials maintained that this reduction of some 900,000 small arms was due to commercial sale and destruction.109

International Agreements

As a Soviet Socialist Republic, Ukraine was a member of the United Nations from 1945, then became an independent UN member state in 1991. A signatory to the UN small arms Programme of Action (UNPoA)33 in 2001, Ukraine presented national reports to this process in 2003, 2004, 2005, and every second year between 2008 and 2020.29 110 111 112 113 114 115 116 117 A participating state in the Wassenaar Arrangement,118 Ukraine also acceded to the UN Firearms Protocol in 2013119 and has signed, but not ratified, the Arms Trade Treaty.120 121

Ukraine has joined bilateral and multilateral transnational crime control arrangements with Poland, Russia, Georgia, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Moldova, the United States and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). These include measures to curb arms trafficking and smuggling.122

International Assistance

Ukraine has received international assistance for disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) from NATO, Canada, Germany, Norway, Slovakia, Sweden Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States.123 124 125

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Country Comparisons, Charts and Tables:

Ukraine — Gun Facts, Figures and the Law

 

Short References

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