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Shoot thy neighbor. Firearms smuggled from war in Ukraine trigger wave of gun violence in Russia

While thousands of firearms Russian troops lost or had stolen from them in the war zones of the North Caucasus are yet to be found, a new flow of weapons is already pouring into Russia from Ukraine. According to the General Prosecutor's Office, the number of crimes involving firearms and ammunition in Russia has increased by 32% since April 2022, and this figure may be understated. Most of the weapons were found in the Kursk and Belgorod regions along the Ukrainian border and in Moscow. Among the leaders in arms theft are the elite units of the Defense Ministry, Pskov paratroopers, GRU special forces, and MIA troops.

  • “Tossed a grenade into an acquaintance's front yard”

  • A farewell to arms

  • “Cosmonauts”, rapists, and alleged traitors

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“Tossed a grenade into an acquaintance's front yard”

Russia is brimming with unregistered weapons. Judging by the news, everyone and their mother is stumbling upon misplaced handguns, automatic rifles, and grenades. Thus, on March 20, a nurse in the town of Kimry near Tver found a few grenades in the apartment she was letting after the tenant moved out. The police also seized handguns, cartridges, and TNT blocks. On March 3, a bag with RGD-5 and F-1 anti-personnel grenades was found in a bag at a bus stop in Novokuznetsk. And on March 15, traffic police inspectors for Odintsovsky District of Moscow Region detained Akrom Chorshanbiyev, a resident of Altai Territory, upon finding two Kalashnikov rifles and ammunition were in the trunk of his car. The detainee said he had fought in Ukraine as a member of the Wagner PMC and was on leave.

For more and more Russians, shooting assault rifles in the air is an idea of drunken fun. Thus, on March 16 a drunk resident of Goluboe village near Moscow went out into the street and opened fire in the air. The police found a Kalashnikov assault rifle and over 240 cartridges in his possession. On March 9, two drunken mobilized men were shooting an assault rifle on the streets of Dalnegorsk, Primorsky Territory. When questioned by the police, they said they wanted to frighten the locals. Late in February, Reutov police detained a local who was shooting an assault rifle to celebrate his wedding. Earlier that month, four Moscow students were detained for shooting rifles into the air.

Playing around with hand grenades is also gaining popularity. On January 14, mobilized sergeant Dmitry L. threw a grenade in the street in the village of Tonenkoye near Belgorod as a joke. However, he failed to take into account the nearby ammunition warehouse, and the shells detonated, killing three of the sergeant's fellow soldiers and wounding 18 more. He also ended up burning down the village club and school. And on December 25, an explosion shook the Lyudmila cafe in Voronezh. As the investigators found out, the perpetrators were Sergeant Artem Shapovalov and Private Ivan Kireevsky of Military Unit 29760, who’d arrived from the occupied part of the Kharkiv Region. Preliminary findings suggest that Shapovalov and Kireevsky, who’d been drinking heavily, took the pin out of the grenade but failed to put it back in. So they threw the grenade into a garbage can. The resulting explosion injured a passerby and damaged the cafe building.

Nevertheless, far from all incidents with firearms in Russia result from carelessness or stupidity. Thus, on March 6, Domodedovo police detained a 38-year-old local armed with an F-1 grenade. According to the police, he was going to blow up the local military registration and enlistment office. As it turned out, the detainee was mobilized last October and underwent training near Kursk but escaped from the military unit.

Domestic conflicts account for the majority of incidents involving the use of combat weapons. The other day, a resident of Severny, a community near Belgorod, was sentenced to five years in prison for last year’s offense. He got drunk and decided to have it out with a friend who owed him money. The debtor was not at home, so the defendant threw the grenade over the high fence into the yard, where the debtor's wife was at the time (she was not hurt). In December 2022, Vladimir Yakimov, a “volunteer” who’d returned from Ukraine, shot his wife Victoria, suspecting her of treason. As journalists found out, military doctors had diagnosed Yakimov with inflammation of the paranasal sinuses and had sent him home for treatment. According to regional media, Yakimov killed his wife with a standard-issue handgun.

Such incidents are the consequence of the huge influx of military weapons into Russia since it began the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The widespread uncontrolled proliferation of firearms will have the most tragic ramifications. Of this, we can be certain, having witnessed several such waves in the past.

A farewell to arms

According to the Interior Ministry's operational database entitled “Lost Weapons”, federal troops lost 9,606 pieces of firearms and ammunition during combat operations in Chechnya, Ingushetia, Dagestan, and Georgia. The heaviest losses occurred during the battle of Grozny in 1995: the troops misplaced 1,728 Kalashnikov automatic rifles of various modifications, handguns, grenade launchers, and sniper rifles.

The 166th Separate Motorized Brigade, where the infamous “DPR” leader Igor Girkin (Strelkov) served under an enlistment contract from 1994 to 1995, holds the record for the number of lost arms and ammunition. During the fighting for Grozny, Shali, and Shatoi, the brigade irretrievably lost 204 pieces of arms and ammunition: 13 rocket launchers, 29 Makarov pistols, 74 Kalashnikov rifles, 19 F-1 grenades, 23 RGD grenades, five SP-18 machine guns, ten PK machine guns, 25 under-barrel grenade launchers, two NSVT heavy machine guns, and four RPG-7N and RPG-7V grenade launchers. Most of the firearms and grenades were seized by the Chechen militia from the surrendered fighters of the brigade; others were lost in combat or stolen from gun racks.

Igor Girkin (left)
Igor Girkin (left)

The brigade fighters were called “rabid” for massacring civilians. “They blockaded the village and raided the houses. They were mostly after food and booze. They also grabbed gold, rugs, chickens, and cattle. They stopped and searched drivers at checkpoints. Watching videos from today’s Ukraine, I can see nothing has changed,” a former member of the brigade who chose to remain anonymous told The Insider.

He also said there had been hardly any accounting of weapons in the brigade and that many servicemen had taken “souvenirs” home. Thus, on June 20, 1996, the police detained Valery Mordvinov, a contract serviceman from Military Unit 22033, at Kurskaya metro station in Moscow and found two RGD-5 grenades on him. Sergei Volkov, who was wounded in Grozny, underwent treatment at the Burdenko Military Hospital by day and left his ward at night to commit robberies. The soldier used an F-1 grenade and a bayonet knife to intimidate his victims.

“Souvenirs” from the front surfaced in the most unexpected places. For example, in September 2001, the officer on duty at Zyablikovo Police Department received a report of an explosion in an apartment at 4 Musy Dzhalilya Street, Building 2. The operatives arrived at the scene and found the bodies of Viktor Yastrebtsov and his son Sergei. In the hall, they found Yastrebtsov's wife, who had shrapnel wounds to both legs, and her concussed granddaughter Julia, a fourth-grader. Having questioned the relatives, the police learned that the men had been drinking alcohol and had started a fight. Yastrebtsov Sr. took out an RGD-5 grenade and tossed it to the floor. According to the survivor, her father-in-law got the grenade from a friend who had been an officer in the “rabid brigade”.

The “rabid brigade” in Chechnya
The “rabid brigade” in Chechnya

Besides, some of the former brigade members are now fighting in Ukraine. One of them, Alexei Khmelev, signed a contract with Military Unit 45377 and was deployed to the “LPR”. On October 6, 2022, his relatives received his death notice. According to posts on social networks, five more fellow fighters were killed alongside Khmelev.

The 428th Motorized Regiment, which fought in Chechnya and lost half of its personnel, ranks second by the number of lost weapons. During combat missions, its officers and soldiers misplaced, among other things, 117 Kalashnikov automatic rifles and 11 under-barrel grenade launchers. The 76th Guards Airborne Assault Division from Pskov, which lost 88 AKS-74 assault rifles, 17 Kalashnikov machine guns, and 27 under-barrel grenade launchers in combat, is the second runner-up. When Russia attacked Ukraine, Pskov paratroopers were supposed to enter Kyiv but suffered heavy losses and took cover in the now infamous Bucha. The fourth unit by the number of lost weapons is MU 23562, which lost 54 Kalashnikov rifles, machine guns, and grenade launchers during the storming of Grozny. It is followed by Military Unit 29483, which was relocated to Chechnya from Vladikavkaz. Its troops misplaced seventy-four pieces in combat. However, this military unit has a much longer history of losing weapons: from 1988 to 1993, 806 firearms and grenades disappeared from its warehouse. One-half of the stolen weapons surfaced in the arsenals of Armenian and Georgian organized crime groups and gangsters from the Moscow district of Solntsevo and the town of Dolgoprudny near Moscow.

Personnel of Military Unit 23562 in Chechnya
Personnel of Military Unit 23562 in Chechnya

“Cosmonauts”, rapists, and alleged traitors

Russian special police forces (OMON) and MIA troops, which now form part of the Russian Federal Guard Service, contributed to the statistics of arms and ammunition losses. The largest batch of weapons was stolen from the Ministry of Internal Affairs' warehouses on June 22, 2004, when Chechen and Ingush militants attacked the garrison in Nazran. During the attack, 98 people were killed and 104 were injured. The attackers seized 866 small arms, rifles, assault rifles, and grenade launchers.

Among other things, they stole the physical evidence of contract murders from investigators’ safes: seven Italian Beretta submachine guns, four Czech CZ pistols, 14 sawed-off shotguns, and a Polish VIS-35 pistol issued in 1934.

Another major loss of weapons from MIA arsenals occurred on August 6, 1996, when the Chechen militia seized Grozny. After the local guards scattered, 162 Makarov pistols, 13 Kalashnikovs, nine light machine guns, 18 PP-90 submachine guns, and four KS-23M shotguns were stolen from the organized crime unit of the local police department (a total of 249 pieces disappeared from the armory).

Other MIA units that deserve a mention include the 2nd Order of Kutuzov Special Purpose Regiment. They used to provide security at public gatherings and soccer matches, but after joining the Rosgvardia, they became notorious for violent crackdowns on opposition rallies and were nicknamed “cosmonauts” because of their helmets. Since 1992, the “cosmonauts” have lost 208 firearms. Thus, clashing with them on October 31, 1992, in Nazran, Chechen separatists captured five Makarov pistols, 92 AKS-74 assault rifles, 21 Kalashnikov machine guns, 17 under-barrel grenade launchers, and four Dragunov sniper rifles without even firing a single shot. Five years later, one of the assault rifles was retrieved from a stash near the Zagorodnoye Highway in Moscow.

During the fighting in Chechnya, the regiment lost another 52 firearms and two ZU-23-2 anti-aircraft twin-barreled autocannons. A further inspection in 1998 revealed the loss of four more AK-74s from the warehouse.

The MIA criminal records of that time are replete with crimes committed by members of the 2nd Regiment. Here are just a few: On February 7, 1995, Lieutenant Igor Aleinik was detained at Komsomolskaya metro station. During the search, the police found an RGD-5 grenade, a rocket launcher, and an anti-personnel mine in his possession. On March 22, 1997, Zinaida Fyodorova, a sales assistant who worked in an outdoor market, called the police and reported that three unknown individuals broke into her tent and stole several bottles of vodka and cigarettes, threatening her with physical violence. The operatives detained three servicemen of Military Unit 3186: Savchenko, Eliseev, and Golikov. The stolen goods were seized. On January 31, 2002, traffic police inspectors in Mytishchi outside Moscow stopped a Zhiguli in which Major Yevgeny Nifontov, Captain Roman Lebedev, and Lieutenant Valery Burdeev were driving, and found an RGD-5 grenade in the trunk. On February 7, 2004, Marina P., a minor, came to the police station and said that two unknown men in military uniform had dragged her into the entryway and raped her. Based on her description, the police arrested two servicemen of the regiment, Nerovnykh and Drozdov. On May 4, 2004, teenagers Alexey K. and Pavel O. were brought in from Kuzminki-Lublino Park; they reported that an unknown man with a knife had attacked them, demanding money. The frightened teenagers gave the robber a cell phone and 50 rubles. Sergei Levchenko of Military Unit 3186 was detained at the exit of the park. On October 19, 2006, Corporal Dmitry Frolov appealed to the Organized Crime Unit, saying said that the Chief Engineer of Military 3186, Major Repin had been extorting 15,000 rubles (~$200) from him, threatening to send Frolov to Chechnya where he would find sure death. At the moment of the money transfer, Major Repin was detained at the Dzerzhinsky Military Registration and Enlistment Office.

The 81st Operational Regiment of Internal Troops of the Ministry of Internal Affairs ranks next by the loss of weapons. In 1992-1994, servicemen of the regiment fought in the Ossetian-Ingush conflict and the two Chechen wars. During the fighting in Chechnya, they misplaced 28 assault rifles. Furthermore, according to the MIA database, Sergeant Aleksandr Gladkikh and Private Vladimir Pinaev allegedly went AWOL with two AK-74s on March 19, 1996, in the Chechen town of Urus-Martan.

However, the story of their disappearance still raises many questions. A month after their parents received the last letters from their sons, operatives came to search them. They said that both servicemen were on the federal wanted list and offered to tell them where they were hiding. The worried parents immediately went looking for them in Chechnya.

Weapons and ammunition stolen in war zones and from warehouses ended up scattered all over Russia

The regiment commanders told the parents that their fugitive sons had betrayed their homeland and there was no point in talking about them. On their quest, the parents examined the bodies of hundreds of soldiers in refrigerated trains, met with field commanders, questioned prisoners, and were once nearly shot by OMON troops at a checkpoint in Starye Atagi. Only three months later, the sergeant’s and the private's bodies were accidentally discovered 500 meters away from the regiment's quarters. They had no weapons on them. They appeared to have been shot in the dark by their own sentries, after which the corpses were thrown into the pit. However, the regiment’s commander, who had until recently called the two victims cowards and traitors, immediately changed his tune, saying that Gladkikh and Pinaev had taken an uneven fight with the insurgents and died as heroes. He even provided witnesses. By an army order, both were awarded the Order of Courage posthumously. The school where Pinaev studied even installed a commemorative plaque. But even after the funeral, district police officers came to their relatives asking about the missing automatic rifles.

 The commemorative plaque installed at the school where Pinaev studied
The commemorative plaque installed at the school where Pinaev studied

Military Unit 3219 lost ten automatic rifles and two grenade launchers, while MU 3703 lost another six. Military Unit 3692 lost a Makarov pistol, two AK-74 assault rifles, and two large-caliber machine guns. In addition, Andrei Voronkov, the deputy chief of staff of MU 3692, forgot his Makarov in a private cab, and it was gone for good.

The statistics of arms losses would be incomplete without the 2,325 pieces stolen from military arsenals during peacetime. A federal investigation is ongoing on the theft of 205 pistols and assault rifles, taken from the warehouse at Military Unit 83589 (Kaliningrad Region), 110 pieces from MU 13008 (Leningrad Region), 88 pieces from MU 51866 (a Russian military base in Armenia) and 29 from MU 11411 (also Kaliningrad region). Fifty-seven automatic rifles disappeared from MU 7474 (Kazan), 29 disappeared in MU 11341 (Mogilev), 37 were stolen from a police warehouse in Ingushetia, 46 were lifted from MU 2386 (Mardakan), 72 - from MU 40491 (Krymsk), 366 automatic rifles from MU 56178 (Estonia), and so on and so forth.

Forty-two Makarov pistols and three Stechkin pistols were lost by the Federal Security Service (FSB) in the Tyumen, Pskov, Omsk, Tula, Ryazan, Sverdlovsk, Penza, Nizhny Novgorod, Volgograd and Rostov regions, the Krasnodar and Primorye territories, and Tatarstan.

About one-quarter of the information in the Lost Weapons database is classified. For example, 117 RPG-26 Aglen shoulder-fired grenade launchers were reported stolen on September 24, 1995. However, the military depot from which the grenade launchers disappeared is not specified, and the case summary states only: “The data was provided by the command of the MIA Internal Troops grouping in the Chechen Republic.”

Meanwhile, weapons and ammunition stolen in war zones and from depots ended up scattered all over the country. For example, from 1995 to 2015, before the statistics were classified, 512 grenades exploded in and around Moscow alone, killing 86 people, contract killers used grenade launchers on 84 occasions, 196 anti-personnel mines were used for criminal purposes, and 465 Kalashnikov assault rifles and pistols with silencers were abandoned at crime scenes. And that's not counting the tons of weapons found in gangster hideouts or illegally smuggled by servicemen returning from missions. Moreover, a significant share of these firearms is not listed in MIA missing weapons databases.

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