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After the revolution: Kiev’s future role in the Eurasian heroin trade

By Calum Murray:


‘Injecting Heroine’
(photo by Juan Manuel Garcia, ‘a hundred visions and revisions’)

Whilst it would be a fool’s errand to forecast success in the face of grave uncertainty, it seems at last that the Ukrainian opposition is making headway. Quite how a ‘victory’ could manifest itself, however, remains unclear. As Russia’s influence remains polarised between East and West Ukraine, it even remains possible that the country could fragment after the early election is contested.

Add to this the financial incentives and political posturing from both Moscow and Brussels and it becomes clear that this is about far more than just national self-determination. Moscow in particular has made its position clear, conducting military drills near the Ukrainian border and placing fighter squadrons on combat alert.  As we all no doubt realise, the result of this revolution will ultimately set the frontiers of the European Union with Vladimir Putin’s proposed Eurasian Union.

However, in the scramble to analyse the political and strategic consequences and significance of what Hillary Clinton suggested will be ‘the new USSR’, academics and commentators alike have been slow to acknowledge the hidden danger that lies between these two supranational unions. After the revolution, Kiev could well find itself on the front line of Europe’s defence against a new wave of heroin trafficking.

Europe’s biggest source of heroin is Afghanistan, in part because it holds a 65% share in global opium cultivation, but also because its rivals in Burma (Myanmar), Laos and Mexico are too small to supply significantly beyond their own regional markets. However, routes from Afghanistan to the EU are both diverse and flexible. With three major arteries running south through Africa (the ‘Southern Route’), west through Turkey and the Balkans (the ‘Balkan Route’) and north through the Commonwealth of Independent States (the ‘Northern Route’), heroin can easily find its way to the European market.

Having been the primary route for decades, the Balkan route has been increasingly choked through counter-narcotics operations in Turkey and Iran, which has led to a substantial proliferation of heroin smuggling along the Southern route via Africa. The Northern route, by contrast, has remained relatively stable, supplying a regional Russian market.

However, the Northern Route may be set to be flooded. The reason is simple: economic unions facilitate trade of all kinds. The Schengen Agreement itself facilitates drug trafficking through Europe by removing border controls, and this is likely to proliferate on a massive scale. The proposed Eurasian Economic Area would build upon the existing Customs Union between Belarus, Russia and Kazakhstan to include Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan; thereby providing just two border controls between Afghanistan and the EU. Billed for 2016, this arrangement could dramatically increase opiate flows through Central Asia and Russia to Europe in just two years’ time.

Reports from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) have demonstrated yearly that drug interceptions amongst the Central Asian Republics are systematically compromised by state corruption and geographical constraints, particularly in Tajikistan. Coupled with the prevalence of Russian organised crime in existing heroin trafficking and the level of Russian state corruption, it would seem naïve to trust an infant Eurasian Union to be able to adequately control heroin flows through the region.

As such, the Northern Route may well emerge as a viable alternative to the long and costly Southern Route, whose recent rise has attracted the attention and reaction of the international community. Just as the squeeze on the Balkan Route fed the Southern Route, international efforts to seize drug shipments from West Africa and the Maghreb could see more Afghan heroin leave through the northern border with Tajikistan with greater frequency.

Such a situation would undoubtedly place Ukraine, or perhaps a new West Ukraine, on the front line of European counter-narcotics. With over 1,150km of borders with EU member states, Ukraine provides an excellent entry point to the European market, especially through its ability to link up with existing heroin trafficking routes through Romania and the Balkans. Additionally, its sheer size and relatively porous borders with Russia have already led to it being described somewhat hyperbolically as ‘the centre of the East-West drug trade’, whilst its comparative proximity to Central Europe would give it the edge against an EU-bound trade via Belarus.

But could Kiev control such a flow? It’s not possible to say with precision, but the outlook seems bleak. Not only are drug traffickers endlessly creative in methods to circumvent law enforcement, but Ukraine is structurally and situationally limited. Even before the revolution, the US Overseas Security Advisory Council noted that ‘limited budget [sic] resources hamper Ukraine’s ability to effectively counter this threat’ and that ‘coordination between law enforcement agencies responsible for counter-narcotics continues to be stilted due to regulatory and jurisdictional constraints’. After the revolution, either Ukraine’s new parliament or the remnants of Yanukovych’s administration will almost certainly be preoccupied with entrenching their respective regimes, putting state restructuring ahead of counter-narcotics.

Europe’s best hope, therefore, remains to support Ukraine’s pro-European movement in a bid to increase European involvement in Ukrainian policing. Europol established intelligence sharing with Ukrainian authorities in 2009, but drawing Ukraine into the EU sphere of influence would enable greater direct technical, financial and operational support from EU partners. What is certain is that drug security across Europe depends greatly on how quickly the EU can respond to this impending threat and establish effective counter-narcotics partners on its eastern frontiers.

Calum Murray is an MA student in the War Studies Department and is currently collecting open-source intelligence on drug trafficking in the EU.


[1] Ukraine Crime and Safety Report, OSAC, 21st January 2012.

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