A Tale of Two Lot Numbers: The Illicit Proliferation of Hand Grenades in Ukraine

By: Matt Schroeder

Ukraine has a grenade problem. In recent years, thousands of the inexpensive, easy-to-use weapons have found their way into the hands of criminals and other unauthorized end-users throughout the country. The wayward grenades are part of a broader problem of illicit proliferation of small arms, light weapons, and their ammunition that has plagued Ukraine since Russian-backed separatists launched their uprising in 2014.

This blog post tells the story of the illicit proliferation of hand grenades in Ukraine by tracking the spread of a very specific sub-group these items, namely RGD-5 grenades from two production lots: 25–75 and 27–75. These are among the most frequently-encountered lot numbers[1], and incidents of their diversion span the entire timeline of the conflict. As such, cases involving their proliferation are useful for illustrating how quickly and widely grenades and other illicit light weapons have spread, and the danger that these items pose in the wrong hands.

Seized RGD-5 grenades from lots 27–75 and 25–75, 2016. Source: National Police of Ukraine

As revealed by their markings, the grenades were manufactured in 1975 at a factory located about 90 kilometres outside of Moscow. Munitions produced in Russian factories were widely distributed to other Soviet republics, including the Ukraine Soviet Socialist Republic. During the Cold War, Ukrainian depots served as a strategic reserve for repelling a potential NATO ground invasion, and consequently, Ukraine’s weapons stockpiles were many times larger than the national inventories of countries with comparably-sized armed forces (Karp, 2010, p. 211). When the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, the threat of armed conflict with the West disappeared but the massive stockpiles of Soviet munitions remained. These weapons, which included RGD-5 hand grenades, collected dust in storage facilities until 2014, when they were captured by Russian-backed separatists and distributed to soldiers and pro-government volunteers deployed to reclaim the territory seized by separatists.

The grenades proliferated widely and rapidly. In October 2014, authorities seized an RGD-5 grenade from lot 27–75 near the western city of Lutsk — 1,000 kilometres from the conflict zone in the east (JFO area)[2]. The 21-year-old from whom the grenade was seized told authorities that he obtained it in the JFO area. Since then, the Survey has identified cases of seized grenades from lots 25–75 or 27–75 in the eastern oblasts of Dnipropetrovsk, Donetsk, Kharkiv, Luhansk, and Zaporizhzhia; the southern oblasts of Kherson and Mykolaiv; and the western oblast of Zakarpattia.

Map of Ukraine

While tracing the sources of diverted grenades requires access to inventory records and other documentation that is not publicly available, existing evidence indicates that most of the illicit grenades under review were trafficked from the JFO area. In December 2015, authorities manning a checkpoint in Donetsk found five grenades in a Volkswagen van driven by a ‘volunteer’ as he was leaving the JFO area. Three of the grenades were from lot 27–75. Two months later, authorities found another batch of grenades while searching a bus at a JFO checkpoint in the Dnipropetrovsk oblast. The batch consisted of 11 grenades, seven of which were also from lot 27–75. In at least seven of the other cases identified by the Survey, grenades from lots 25–75 or 27–75 were either seized in or trafficked from the JFO area.

RGD-5 grenade seized by police in the western Oblast of zakarpattia, 2018. Source: National Police of Ukraine

The recipients of the diverted grenades are diverse. Since 2014, grenades from lots 25–75 and 27–75 have been seized from arms traffickers, drug dealers, members of a pro-Russian separatist group, and other criminals. In 2017, Ukrainian police officers arrested a 28-year-old man in response to a domestic violence call by his ex-wife. The officers seized four grenades from the man, one of which was from lot 27–75. His ex-wife told police that the man had brandished the grenades and threatened to use them against her new partner.

In other cases, there is no evidence that the end-user was engaged in criminal activity or was inclined to use violence. Some of the grenades were smuggled out of the JFO area by veterans, who kept them as souvenirs of their military service. Other grenades were found in abandoned arms caches, taxi cabs and other random locations. Yet, even when the end-user has no ill-intent, illicit grenades still pose a threat to them and their families, as evidenced by the numerous reports of deaths and injuries caused by accidental explosions of grenades stored in apartments and houses.

RGD-5 grenade found in the trunk of a private taxi in Donetsk, 2017. Source: National Police of Ukraine

Also notable is the relatively small size of the seizures. Of the 28 cases involving RGD-5 grenades from lots 25–75 or 27–75 identified by the Survey, most resulted in the seizure of 12 or fewer weapons or munitions, and only one led to the recovery of more than 50[3]. That’s not to say that all stockpiles of illicit light weapons in Ukraine are small; authorities have seized several caches that contained hundreds of munitions. But, as illustrated by these cases, many of the thousands of illicit light weapons in Ukraine are scattered across the country in small caches that are difficult to detect, resource-intensive to recover, and potentially deadly. Locating and removing them will be a challenge for Ukrainian authorities for many years to come.

Matt Schroeder is a senior researcher at the Small Arms Survey where he studies the arms trade, arms export controls, and the illicit proliferation of small arms and light weapons. Olena Shumska assisted with research, data collection, and translation of source documents.

The research behind this blog post and the database on arms seizures in Ukraine are made possible by the German Federal Foreign Office.

[1] Small Arms Survey tracks the proliferation of grenades and other illicit weapons in Ukraine by collecting and analyzing summaries of arms seizures published by the National Police of Ukraine, the Security Service of Ukraine and other government agencies. The Survey has developed — and is currently populating — a visual database for housing, retrieving and analyzing the data and imagery from these summaries. Unless otherwise noted, the database is the source of the data and case summaries included in this post.

[2] The Joint Forces Operation (JFO) area is the geographical area affected by conflict in eastern Ukraine.

[3] These figures do not include individual rounds of small small-calibre ammunition.

Blog posts are intended as a way for various Small Arms Survey collaborators and researchers to discuss issues of small arms and armed violence, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Small Arms Survey, nor those of the Government of Germany.

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