By Alexandra Tsarvulanova, Alessandro Macculi, and Arslan Sheikh - Human Security Team


The ongoing conflict in Ukraine has had a significant impact on the distribution and possession of weapons among civilians. The population now possesses a significantly higher number of firearms, according to data from the Small Arms Survey. Much of this growth can be attributed to the conflict, which has made self-defence tactics necessary and increased societal militarisation. A thorough examination of the historical background as well as the present data is necessary to determine the scope and consequences of this trend. 

Historical Context

According to estimates, Ukraine is considered to be home to a total of 4 to 5 million firearms, of which 2 to 3 million belong to the illicit sphere. The Maidan Square uprising and the subsequent outbreak of civil war in Donbass in 2014 dramatically exacerbated the spread of small arms and light weapons.

Among the sources of weapons of the first armed factions formed in the aftermath of the uprisings, the most relevant ones stem from the storage of weapons traditionally kept in households and military stocks of obsolete weapons. This phenomenon has much to do with the armed conflicts that plagued present-day Ukraine in the last century, as well as the Ukrainian SSR's function as a Soviet military stockpile. Moreover, vast arsenals were secured in the country following the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Eastern Europe after the disbanding of the Warsaw Pact. This resulted in a disproportionate surplus following the downsizing of the Ukrainian Army.

Thus, the most crucial dynamic of arms proliferation after 2014 seems to be the leakage of weapons from state and civilian stockpiles.

Institutional and Legal Framework

It is necessary to note that Ukraine's legal framework for civilian firearm possession is notably underdeveloped and fragmented. Despite a substantial number of firearms in civilian hands, comprehensive national legislation regulating these arms is absent. Instead, firearm ownership is primarily governed by bylaws, specifically Order No. 622 of the Ministry of Internal Affairs from 1998, which outlines conditions for the acquisition, storage, and use of firearms. The Constitution of Ukraine requires that ownership regimes be subject to parliamentary legislation, which this regulatory gap contravenes. 

Efforts to formalise firearm regulations have seen multiple drafts submitted to the Ukrainian Parliament over the years; the way to consensus has been long. Notably, Draft Law No. 5708, proposed in June 2021, aimed to establish a legal framework for civilian firearm ownership, including the creation of a Unified State Register of Civilian Firearms. This draft law sought to address issues such as the classification of firearms, the rights and responsibilities of firearm owners, and statutory limitations on certain types of weapons.  

The Ministry of Internal Affairs plays a pivotal role in firearm regulation and, amid the ongoing conflict, has adapted procedures to facilitate the issuance of arms to civilians participating in defence efforts. This adaptation underscores the urgent need for a comprehensive and updated legal framework to manage the proliferation and use of firearms among civilians effectively. On March 9, 2022, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky signed a law providing for a wartime exemption for civilians to confront occupiers, allowing the use of several types of firearms for self-defence and for the protection of their property.  

 Picture 2. Potential Future Flow of Weapons 
(Source: Global Initiative,

Impact of the War on the Spread of Weapons Among Civilians

The ongoing conflict in Ukraine has significantly impacted the spread of weapons among civilians, exacerbating an already complex issue. Prior to the war, Ukraine had a notable number of both legal and illegal firearms in civilian hands. Even before the outbreak of the war, Ukraine was at the top of the list of European countries with the highest number of non-registered firearms in civilian use. The war has intensified this situation, as the government has taken steps to arm civilians to bolster defence efforts against Russian aggression. 

One immediate consequence has been the increased availability of firearms to the general population. With the invasion in 2022, the Ukrainian government began distributing weapons to civilians willing to join the defence efforts, leading to a surge in armed civilians. This was a necessary measure to ensure national defence, but it also raised concerns about long-term implications for public safety and order. The distribution of weapons has also resulted in a rise in the black market for arms. The urgency and scale of arming civilians have made it difficult to maintain strict and official control over weapon distribution, leading to leaks into illicit channels. This proliferation poses risks not only for immediate security but also for future crime rates and internal stability. Moreover, the increased weaponisation of the civilian population has heightened the potential for human rights abuses. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has highlighted the risks associated with increased civilian access to firearms, including heightened violence and insecurity. These issues underscore the need for robust mechanisms to monitor and regulate civilian-held arms to prevent misuse and ensure they do not contribute to further instability. 

To sum up, while the arming of civilians has been a critical component of Ukraine's defence strategy, it presents significant challenges that need to be addressed through comprehensive legal frameworks and effective control measures to mitigate long-term risks.

Possible Impacts on Crime Rates

Illegal firearms are increasingly involved in crime in both Ukraine and nearby Russian regions. According to the Ukrainian General Prosecutor’s Office, firearm-related offences in Ukraine surged from 720 in 2021 to 7,003 in 2022. In Russia, violent crimes involving firearms rose by 30% in the first ten months of 2022, with the Kursk and Belgorod regions, bordering Ukraine, seeing increases of 675% and 213%, respectively. Moscow saw a 203% rise in the same period.

Most illegal weapon flows in Ukraine are within the country, although some are exported through Odesa. Eastern Ukraine sees weapons diverted from military arsenals or brought back by soldiers. Larger deals involve crates of AK-74s, while smaller, opportunistic smuggling occurs via the personal belongings of injured soldiers.

Future illicit weapons transfers will likely follow established smuggling routes used for other contraband. The demobilisation of forces will create new routes, especially involving mercenaries and volunteers from the Western Balkans. These fighters may return with their weapons and establish transnational trafficking networks. An EU security official noted discussions among Ukrainian fighters about potential post-war illicit business ventures, indicating a complex and expansive future for illegal weapons flows from Ukraine.

Proliferation of Self-Defense Groups

A key feature of the conflict in Ukraine is the proliferation of territorial self-defence groups following the progressive deterioration of the Ukrainian security apparatus. As early as December 2013, Self Defence Forces (SDF) began to form in the context of the Maidan Square protests, supported by political movements opposed to former President Yanukovich. The SDF soon acted as a link between far-right groups and the protesters, contributing to the escalation by distributing weapons among civilians. Meanwhile, a parallel proliferation of self-defence groups took place in Donbass. Indeed, the intertwining of extreme right-wing and self-defence groups that emerged from Euromaidan triggered the creation of territorial defence forces in Donetsk and Luhansk in order to counter the perceived nationalist threat. 

Although the territorial self-defence groups were soon integrated into an institutional framework through the creation of state-sponsored territorial defence battalions and their incorporation into state forces, these groups retained considerable autonomy in the following years. Initially formed in a context of deep political crisis and coexisting with state security apparatuses, the battalions thus managed to gradually establish a monopoly on the use of force over territories.

The legitimisation of self-defence groups relies on their ability to step in where state security forces have faltered. As these groups gained influence and autonomy, they filled the void left by the breakdown of the state security apparatus. This process often involves seizing state arms stockpiles, which leads to the proliferation of weapons among civilians and group members. Therefore, there is a clear link between territorial control and the consolidation of authority, as well as between the latter and the ability to acquire arms.


In conclusion, the need for self-defence and societal militarisation have significantly increased civilian weapon possession during the conflict in Ukraine. This surge, alongside weak legal frameworks and the proliferation of self-defence groups, poses long-term risks for public safety, crime rates, and internal stability. Comprehensive regulation and effective control measures are urgently needed to mitigate these challenges.