Ukraine’s Defense Ministry issued a statement on Nov. 20 refuting information in Kuwaiti media that terrorists from the Islamic State had acquired weapons from Ukraine.
“Ukraine has not manufactured or carried out purchases of the FN-6 anti-aircraft missile systems mentioned in the statement, and also has not provided the transport for their shipment,” a statement on the ministry’s website said.
The statement came in response to a report published by the Kuwait News Agency on Nov. 19 which cited the Kuwaiti Interior Ministry as saying a Lebanese member of ISIS had claimed to have secured weapons from Ukraine before sending them to Syria via Turkey.
The ringleader of the group suspected of aiding ISIS was identified in the report as Osama Khayat, and the Kuwaiti Interior Ministry said he had admitted to making arms deals in Ukraine before shipping the weapons to Syria via Turkey.
The report did not specify where exactly in Ukraine Khayat is said to have purchased weapons – either government-controlled territory or the occupied territories of the east, where international groups have long warned of the potential for illicit arms smuggling.
But Khayat reportedly told Kuwaiti authorities he had purchased the weapons through a company registered in Ukraine and owned by a Syrian citizen by the name of Abdulkarim Muhammad. According to the Justice Ministry’s database of business registered in Ukraine, however, no such individual is listed as operating in Ukraine.
Ukraine’s Defense Ministry categorically denied that such a deal could have been made in the country, saying the “FN-6 is not located in and has never been located in the arsenal of the armed forces of Ukraine.”
Matt Schroeder, an expert on small arms at the Small Arms Survey, an international organization that researches small arms proliferation and violence, said the anti-aircraft system at the center of the scandal was generally only used in countries like Syria, Iraq and possibly Libya.
“I have seen plenty of images of Ukrainian separatists with MANPADS (Man-Portable Air Defense Systems), but they are of Soviet/Russian design,” Schroeder told the Kyiv Post, referring to similar anti-aircraft missile systems.
He suggested that someone may have simply confused FN-6 systems with MANPADS, adding that “it is not difficult to smuggle MANPADS; most are less than 6 feet long and weigh under 50 pounds. They easily fit in nearly any vehicle, including in the back seat of a car, let alone an ISO container.”
N.R. Jenzen-Jones, the director of Armament Research Services, a specialist technical intelligence consultancy, agreed that it would be “highly unlikely” for FN-6 systems to be available in Ukraine. He suggested that someone may have simply confused that specific model with a different system.
“Eastern Ukraine is sufficiently supplied with Russian and Soviet-made systems, so it would be quite unusual to find this specific Chinese MANPADS in illicit circulation there” he said. During his time researching the weapons used in eastern Ukraine, Jenzen-Jones said he was aware of various MANPADS having come from Russia, Ukraine and Poland.
“In the rest of Ukraine … there are still MANPADS in service with the military and the national guard, and there is a limited possibility that some of those could now be in illicit circulation” he said.
Oddly, representatives of the self-proclaimed territories in Ukraine’s east seemed confused about what sort of weapons they had at their disposal.
Eduard Basurin, the deputy defense minister of separatist forces in Donetsk, told the Kyiv Post on Nov. 20 that he didn’t know whether Russian-backed separatist forces have Chinese-made FN6 portable air defense systems in their arsenal.
“I haven’t actually held that specific modification in my hands,” Basurin said.
A representative for the State Security Ministry of the occupied territories was less responsive to the Kyiv Post’s question, calling it “unethical” and saying such information about weapons is a “military secret.”
Andriy Lysenko, a Ukrainian military spokesperson, said there would be “nothing surprising” about such Chinese-made systems winding up in the occupied territory of Donetsk, noting that separatists could easily transport weapons across the uncontrolled border with Russia.
But it would be “practically impossible” to move such weapons across territories under control of the government, he said.
Apart from the war-torn east, however, the city of Odesa also has a reputation for a smuggling hub.
Nikolai Holmov, a writer and consultant based in Odesa, said corruption could have made it possible to have weapons smuggled out of the ports in Odesa, “but that does not mean it’s necessarily probable.”
“There has not been a problem obtaining arms for any of the parties in Syria for the past four years, so the question to be asked is why now is there a need to smuggle weapons from Ukraine – if the claim is true?”
Jenzen-Jones agreed that ISIS would be unlikely to turn to Ukraine for anti-aircraft systems.
The claims in Kuwaiti media should “definitely be taken with a grain of salt,” he said, noting that “there are significant numbers of MANPADS in Syria and Iraq.”
Volodymyr Fesenko of the Penta political research center warned that the news about the weapons sold to ISIS could play into Russia’s hands.
“The likelihood that this news is nothing more than another Russian information attack on Ukraine is rather high. They already did this several times in 2002-2003, when the news that Ukraine sold ‘Kolchuga’ radar systems to Iraq appeared in the media. That was when (Leonid) Kuchma decided he needed closer ties with NATO,” Fesenko said.
There is a chance that someone in Ukraine could have sold weapons to ISIS, he said, but Russia will exaggerate the news.
“Russia is fighting against terrorism together with the West. And now it can show the West, “Look at this little nasty Ukraine! You protect them, and you confront us because of them! And they sell weapons to ISIS!” said Fesenko.
Requests for comment sent to the Security Service of Ukraine and the Foreign Intelligence Service of Ukraine were not immediately answered.