President Vladimir Putin is facing a new kind of blowback from the war in Ukraine: weapons and intruders flowing out of the conflict zone and into Russia.
Accused by the U.S. and its allies of backing the rebels with arms and men, Russia is now digging ditches to halt munitions and smugglers moving east across its western frontier. Russia has so far dug about 100 kilometers (60 miles) of trenches 4 meters wide and 2 meters deep in the Rostov region, which borders both of Ukraine’s self-declared republics, Donetsk and Luhansk, the Border Guards Service said.
“It was done to create obstacles against intruders and the illicit entry of arms,” Andrei Timofeev, a spokesman for the service, said by phone from Rostov on Tuesday.
About 60 attempts at incoming arms smuggling have been foiled this year, resulting in the detention of more than 130 people and the confiscation of about 30 landmines, 40 firearms, 100 artillery shells and 200 grenades, according to the government’s official newspaper, Rossiyskaya Gazeta.
The weapons may end up in the hands of terrorists and criminal groups, particularly in the mainly Muslim region of the North Caucasus, where federal troops have been battling extremists for two decades, according to Anton Lavrov, an independent military analyst.
“The separatist regions of Ukraine have become a territory of uncontrolled weapons circulation and arms always flow into the black market in a period of de-escalation,” Lavrov said by phone from Torzhok in central Russia.
Ukraine has been battling pro-Russian separatists in its easternmost regions since Putin annexed the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea last March, provoking the biggest confrontation between Russia and the U.S. and Europe since the Cold War. Both sides have repeatedly accused the other of violating a cease-fire agreement since it was signed in February.
More than 6,100 people have died in the fighting, according to the United Nations, and Russia says it has received almost 1 million refugees.
Ukraine and its western allies, including the U.S and the European Union, accuse Russia of supplying cash, personnel and weapons to the separatists. While Russia denies the allegations, it says many of the fighters are “volunteers” on vacation from the military.
Most of the smugglers detained entering from Ukraine are seeking to sell their weapons to Russians keen to buy so-called war trophies, Timofeev of the border guards said.
“Since the beginning of time, there are those who have fought in war and those who have tried to make money from war,” Timofeev said.
One Russian militant in Donetsk who would only give his first name, Konstantin, 20, said a black marketeer who claimed to have clients in Russia offered to pay $500 per assault rifle from the conflict zone. He refused to sell on moral grounds.
“I doubt they’ll use these Kalashnikovs to build churches in Russia,” Konstantin said by phone.