Following concerns in Congress and accusations by Russia about weapons smuggling, the Biden administration released its blueprint on Thursday for ensuring that the $17 billion in arms it has so far sent to Ukraine were making it to the battlefield — and not the black market.
Officials said many aspects of the plans, which were put in place over the summer, were classified and could not be publicly revealed without risking the steps necessary to track weapons that the West has delivered to Ukraine since Russia invaded in February.
A five-page document broadly outlining the program described providing additional support to Ukraine’s efforts to account for the weapons, as Kyiv has pledged to do, including training for border guards and stricter monitoring of arms and ammunition.
However, the document said, “we recognize that the chaotic nature of combat can make this difficult.”
The worry about weapons trafficking — whether to extremist groups, adversarial governments or Russia’s army — arose almost as soon as the United States and its European allies began to flood military support into Ukraine to repel Moscow’s invasion. Experts say it is nearly impossible to track all light weapons, including the portable shoulder-fired missiles known as Javelins.
American officials said they were confident that high-tech missiles and launchers and other arms donated to Ukraine had reached the front lines, where commanders are using them as fast as they can be supplied. They also noted recent arrests of Russians and others who were caught trying to smuggle out assault rifles, ammunition and other weapons.
Yet lawmakers in Congress have demanded stricter oversight. “American taxpayers deserve to know that their money is helping Ukraine beat back Russia effectively,” Senator John Kennedy, Republican of Louisiana, said in May.
In July, the European police agency known as Europol said that the deluge of arms being sent to Ukraine “could lead to an increase in firearms and munitions trafficked into the E.U. via established smuggling routes or online platforms.”
“This threat might even be higher once the conflict has ended,” the agency warned.
That month, Ukraine’s defense minister, Oleksii Reznikov, told the BBC that growing fears about weapons trafficking were largely the result of a Russian disinformation campaign and that Ukraine had instituted several tracking efforts.
But he conceded that it was possible that weapons could be smuggled out of Ukraine and into the rest of Europe and confirmed that some had been captured by Russians.
A senior Biden administration official this week said the United States was aware of only one verifiable example of a weapons system being smuggled out of Ukraine since the start of the war: a Swedish-made anti-tank grenade launcher that blew up in the trunk of a car about 10 miles outside of Moscow.
Oct. 27, 2022, 1:23 p.m. ET
Injured in the May blast was a retired Russian military officer who had just returned from eastern Ukraine, according to news media reports of the incident that were confirmed by the senior administration official.
The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the Biden administration’s counter-smuggling plan before it was publicly released on Thursday.
The plan looks beyond the immediate battlefield demands to what officials expect will emerge over the next year and into 2024. It also proposes additional staffing and other resources for the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv in coming years to help with oversight.
It largely focuses on portable, lethal and high-technology munitions, the senior official said. Among them, he said, are the more than 1,400 Stinger air-defense missiles and the 8,500 Javelin anti-tank guided missiles that the Biden administration has provided.
Nikolai Sokov, an expert at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non‑Proliferation and a former Russian diplomat, said that Ukraine’s forces or other officials were unlikely to traffic weapons that are desperately needed on the battlefield. But he called it “impossible to track” small or light arms, including shoulder-fired missiles, during wartime chaos.
He said he knew of no cases in which larger weapons, like howitzers or multiple rocket launchers, were being smuggled off the battlefield by Ukrainians and onto the black market.
“But when conditions are not about national survival, we might see the revival of some shady kinds of schemes,” Mr. Sokov said. “So after the active war fighting ends, a tracking system, a monitoring system will be even more necessary than in this moment.”
The senior Biden administration official said the counter-smuggling plan was an accelerated version of oversight that has continued since Russia seized the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and fueled a separatist insurgency in the Donbas region.
Last week, Russia claimed that as much as $1 billion worth of Western weapons to Ukraine were being trafficked each month. On Wednesday, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia told officials from former Soviet states that “serious challenges are posed by the black market for weapons operating in Ukraine, and cross-border criminal groups are actively involved in their smuggling to other regions.”
But the senior Biden administration official said photos on social media of American-provided weapons that were purported to be for sale were another product of Russian disinformation. Mr. Sokov also said it was not surprising that Moscow “would be very interested in stirring some concerns in the West.”
“Congress, depending on the election next month, might really get concerned, see it as a reason to slow down or cut the delivery of arms,” Mr. Sokov said.