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One year of Ukraine invasion: Why the conflict zone is a fertile ground for drug use, trafficking

A report says Ukraine's ability to produce synthetic drugs could grow as war prolongs

soledar-ukraine-ap Ukrainian soldiers on their positions in the frontline near Soledar, Donetsk region, Ukraine | AP

On February 25, 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin, in his televised address calling on the Ukrainian army to overthrow the leadership in Kyiv, said: "It seems like it will be easier for us to agree with you than this gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis." He was referring to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. 

Putin's statement hinted at the hidden role of narcotics, hitherto known only to military, intelligence, and select political leaders. 

Drug addiction in conflict zones is not a new phenomenon. Conflict zones act as a "magnet" for manufacturing synthetic drugs, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said in its annual report, and that the number of dismantled Amphetamine laboratories in Ukraine rose from 17 in 2019 to 79 in 2020, the highest number of seized laboratories reported in any country in 2020. Ukraine's capacity to produce synthetic drugs could grow as the war continues, it added.

Russian specialists found Opioid drugs and Ephedrine substances T-Fedrine, and Triphedrine, Methadone, Codepsine, and Codeterp at positions abandoned by Ukrainian military personnel, the chief of the Russian Army’s Radiation, Chemical and Biological Protection Force, Lieutenant-General Igor Kirillov disclosed.

In Nazi Germany during World War II, medical officers administered Pervitin (an amphetamine derivative), the earliest version of Blue Meth, to Wehrmacht soldiers to reduce psycho-emotional strain. The United States used the same drug during the Korean and Vietnam wars. These drugs cause addiction, excessive aggressiveness, and marked tendencies to perpetrate brutality mindlessly.  

The Donetsk People Republic (DPR) troops have reportedly discovered drug laboratories where "combat" drugs for Ukrainian nationalists have been developed. Consumption of such drugs imparts "chemical courage" to behave recklessly, actions often bordering on stupidity.

The residents of Kharkiv testify that they have witnessed fighters of the nationalist battalions in the city behave 'inappropriately' and 'have wild eyes.' The 'combat drug' particularly Captagon, which contains Amphetamine, was regularly used by the Daesh terrorists (Islamic State terrorists). The Daesh fighters consumed these drugs to inculcate feelings of bravado and ruthless aggressiveness, apart from giving unbelievable energy.

The use of narcotics and synthetic drugs by militaries across the world is not a new phenomenon. The famous Opium Wars that pulverized China is a standing testimony of the power of narcotics, especially during battles. However, it was the Vietnam War which came to be known as the first "Pharmacological War," because the level of consumption of psychoactive substances by military personnel was unprecedented in American history. The British philosopher Nick Land aptly described the Vietnam War as "a decisive point of intersection between pharmacology and the technology of violence."

American military personnel were regularly supplied with "pep pills" especially to those leaving on long-range reconnaissance missions and ambushes. The standard army instruction (20 milligrams of Dextroamphetamine for 48 hours of combat readiness) was rarely followed; doses of Amphetamine were issued freely. 

In 1971, a report by the House Select Committee on Crime revealed that from 1966 to 1969, the armed forces had used 225 million tablets of stimulants, mostly Dexedrine (Dextroamphetamine), an Amphetamine derivative that is nearly twice as strong as the Benzedrine used in the Second World War. 

The annual consumption of Dexedrine per person was 21.1 pills in the navy, 17.5 in the air force, and 13.8 in the army. These drugs impart amazing endurance capacity, stamina, and capacity to remain awake for prolonged periods. These drugs enhance every tiny sound and sight, thereby giving the user a feeling of invincibility. 

American soldiers in units infiltrating Laos for a four-day mission used to receive a medical kit that contained 12 tablets of Darvon (a mild painkiller), 24 tablets of Codeine (an Opioid Analgesic), and six pills of Dexedrine. Before leaving for a long and demanding expedition, members of special units were also administered steroid injections.

Prolonged military operations are classified into two categories, namely, continuous and sustained operations. Continuous operations last over 24 hours and are divided into shifts. Sustained operations are characterized by continuous performance until the mission is accomplished. Both types of operations result in fatigue, however, a sustained operation can result in a great amount of sleep loss and affect the soldier's circadian rhythm, thus impairing judgment and operational capabilities. Most military operations extend from hours to days; therefore, the state of consciousness of soldiers is a critical factor in the performance of sustained operations. 24x7 operations are routine in combat and may last for hours, days, and even weeks without cessation. 

For these reasons, soldiers need to stay awake continuously for many days, while maintaining high levels of alertness at all times. The conflict between operational demands and human sleep deprivation is best observed among pilots. Although an aircraft can mechanically function effectively throughout long hours, pilots cannot. This "human-machine conflict" represents a major issue in military operations. Pilots falling asleep during operational flights resulting in catastrophic accidents are not unknown.

Lack of sleep, in combination with physical activity, invariably causes fatigue. This, in turn, leads to exhaustion. Fatigue is of two types physical and mental. The former results from excessive physical exertion and results in temporary loss of muscle power, whereas the latter occurs during states of continuous mental stress with no rest periods. Physical fatigue can be acute and chronic according to the duration of symptoms. Acute fatigue is a result of temporary sleep loss, which occurs in prolonged military operations, whereas chronic fatigue results from medical disorders that do not allow the person to sleep the required amount, much needed to restore energy. Acute fatigue can cause an upheaval in the body's biological rhythm. 

Circadian rhythm is defined as the human biological clock and is determined by different factors such as food, drink, social activities, and, most importantly, the balance between sleep and consciousness. The circadian rhythm regulates body temperature, hormone levels, heart rate, cognitive performance, and other vital functions. Chronic loss of sleep may impair the proper functioning of such body mechanisms. But, the administration of psychostimulants, especially Amphetamines, and even Caffeine and Nicotine release excitatory neurotransmitters such as Dopamine and Norepinephrine from storage vesicles in the central nervous system or peripheral nervous system, to induce alertness and wakefulness.

The potential of psychostimulants to reduce fatigue was first discovered and introduced for military consumption during World War II. German scientists used concentration camp inmates to test the "wonder drug" to ascertain whether it could enhance the performance of German troops. The success of the tests cleared the path for unleashing drug-administered troops, exhibiting exceptional abilities. Soon, the administration of Psychostimulants became a common practice among German, Japanese, and English troops.

drug use Representation.

In conflict after conflict, Amphetamines has kept military aviators fierce-eyed and alert, from the Battle of Britain to night strikes over Afghanistan. Referred to as "go pills", these Amphetamine-laden drugs, simplify the complexity of operations involved in flight cockpits, which range from an assortment of routine tasks and quick decision-making, while simultaneously controlling an intricate machine bristling with lethal weaponry. Add missions stretching thousands of miles, the overwhelming stress of combat and enemy fire, and the resultant fatigue can be draining. By contrast, civil pilots are expressly banned from using anything stronger than Caffeine to stay awake. Aviation regulations specify checking for the presence of Amphetamines in the blood, during both routine pilot drug tests and forensic examinations after fatal accidents.

The American Civil War is the first war that documented drug addiction. Morphine was the drug of this war. Soldiers were made to drink opium daily as a preventative for dysentery. Soldiers left the war addicted to Morphine and continued to use it at home, as it became a necessity. An estimated 400,000 soldiers returned home addicted to morphine. For this reason, morphine addiction came to be known as "Soldier’s Disease." The British army created a drug known as "Forced March," a combination of cocaine and a cola nut extract. Soldiers used the drug as wartime aid. The Germans also made cocaine chewing gum that helped the pilots of one-man U-boats stay awake and alert. However, many of these men suffered breakdowns from using the drug, for long periods, and being in a small enclosed space alone for extended periods.

Historians estimate that the German military consumed roughly 200 million Methamphetamine pills during WW II. They also manufactured chocolates that contained 13 mg of the drug, far more than the regular 3mg pills. 

Ukraine is at a strategic crossroads between Southwest Asia (the primary heroin-producing region) and markets in Western Europe. Ukraine has transparent borders with its neighbouring states of Russia, Moldova, and Belarus. 

Of the 1,500 roads connecting Ukraine with its contiguous states in the north, east, and southwest, only 98 have Customs facilities (State Customs Service of Ukraine). Smugglers can travel virtually unfettered into and out of Ukraine. United Nations Office of Drugs and Crimes (UNODC) Report of April 2022 reveals that Ukraine has one of the highest prevalence in the world of people who inject drugs and were living with HIV in 2018-20. The size of the adult population injecting drugs, mostly opioids, was estimated at 350,000 people or 1.7 per cent of the adult population.

An estimated 22.6 per cent of the people who injected drugs were living with HIV and more than half (55 per cent) were living with Hepatitis C. In 2015, Ukraine accounted for the 5th largest and in 2019 for the 4th largest heroin seizures in Europe after Turkey, Belgium and the Netherlands and ahead of France and Germany. Overall, the proportion of Ukrainian Heroin seizures in European seizures rose, from, on average 0.5 per cent over the period 2001-2010 to 1.5 per cent over the period 2011- 2020. 

The largest individual Heroin seizures reported so far in Ukraine took place in western Ukraine in the city of Lviv (1,035 kg in January 2021) – the Heroin was destined for the European Union market. Moreover, some significant seizures were also reported close to the Black Sea and close to the Republic of Moldova in 2021. Heroin transiting Ukraine is often smuggled from Afghanistan through the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Caucasus countries, notably Azerbaijan and Georgia, and then via the Black Sea. Ukraine is a transit country for Afghan heroin reaching Europe, but only as a “spin-off” of the more important Balkan route. There was a significant increase in the number of reported clandestine laboratories between 2019 and 2020, rising from 17 dismantled laboratories in 2019 to 79 in 2020. The rise in the number of dismantled laboratories in Ukraine was mainly linked to the number of dismantled Amphetamine laboratories rising from 5 in 2019 to 67 in 2020. The latter number was in fact the highest number of amphetamine laboratories reported dismantled worldwide in 2020 in any country.

The war has caused at least a temporary disruption in trafficking from Russia to Ukraine, according to a July 22nd 2022 Report by Global Initiative (GITOC). The conflict has shattered "cross-border criminal cooperation" between Russians and Ukrainians, while the war-related destruction of infrastructure and closing of roads has had a "rapid effect" on the smuggling of Afghan heroin to Europe.

The 2021 Organized Crime Index ranked Ukraine third among forty-four countries in Europe, just below Russia. It was also the second most corrupt country in Europe, according to Transparency International. Ukraine’s ports located along the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, as well as its extensive river system, and porous northern and eastern borders, make it attractive for traffickers trying to access drug markets in the EU. 

Over the years, Ukraine has emerged as an important transit destination for Heroin, seizures of which are quite substantial. Heroin enters Ukrainian territory through both the Balkan route and the Northern route, before exiting to western and central Europe, mainly via the Black Sea. However, the current war has crippled the Ukrainian economy, and Russia severely affected from sanctions, leaving ordinary people with no other option but to seek illicit means of livelihood.

Conflict and instability, anywhere, tend to boost the illicit drugs trade. In Afghanistan, Opium cultivation reached unprecedented levels during the U.S.-led war. Myanmar, began producing more and more Methamphetamine since a military coup plunged the country into chaos. Manufacturing of the Amphetamine Captagon boomed on the back of Syria’s civil war with millions of tablets regularly seized in the region.

Although Russia had drug control laws since Tsarist times, enforcement was not serious until 1924, when the communist Bolshevik government declared narcotics addiction a symptom of a decadent capitalist society and began tough measures. Russian law forbids "narco-propaganda" – the promotion or encouragement of drug use. Russian drug laws are considered draconian and the country imprisons more people per capita for drug crimes compared with the rest of Europe, according to The Moscow Times. Marijuana remains illegal for recreational and medical purposes. Russia is a zero-tolerance jurisdiction. 

Pilfered hospital supplies were the only source of drugs until the 1980s when a new pathway for heroin and hashish was opened by the Russian invasion of Afghanistan.

According to data from Russia’s Federal Statistics Service (Rosstat), over 10,000 Russians died from drug use in 2021. That’s 37 per cent more than in 2020 — and twice as many as in 2019. A report of March 1, 2022, published by Statista Research Department, reveals that about 180 thousand drug trafficking offences were registered in Russia in 2021. In 2020, a Russian dark web site called Hydra, which was the world’s largest drug marketplace was dismantled by German police.

Desomorphine, known by the street name Krokodil, is a powerful opioid derivative of codeine, manufactured in Russia. Like heroin and other Opioids, it has a sedative and analgesic effect and is highly addictive. Krokodil is also called "Russian Magic", referring to its short duration of opioid intoxication (euphoria).

The present conflict between Russia and Ukraine has created another significant problem. On November 6, 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law to mobilize citizens with criminal records of murder, robbery, drug trafficking, and other serious crimes under the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation for military service. Many hard-core drug traffickers will enter into military service, giving a veneer of legality for illegal activities.

Massive amounts of sophisticated weaponry and ammunition supplies have been flowing from the United States and Western Europe to Ukraine. Given the prevailing chaos, many organised crime networks can get easy access to a vast variety of explosives, machine guns, bombs, and missiles, which will ultimately be available to terrorist groups operating in various countries. 

The United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI), based in Torino, Italy, in its report ‘The Conflict in Ukraine and its Impact on Organized Crime and Security’ published in November 2022 states: "The conflict in Ukraine has already altered the regional security landscape and will have lasting consequences on the international order. As the situation on the ground is dynamic and constantly evolving, it is difficult to accurately assess the transformational nature of these consequences and the international community’s response. The analysis in this report suggests, however, that the conflict and Ukraine’s resultant destabilization already have several significant implications for organized crime, illicit trafficking, and security challenges in multiple ways across its borders and globally. Some changes related to the trafficking of people, arms, drugs, and illicit goods may be permanent, while others may be transitory as power dynamics and physical threats shift. This constantly changing nature, and the fact that these crimes often cross borders thousands of miles away, can make confronting these challenges particularly difficult. The situation requires continuous analysis of evolving threats and risks, training and capacity building of the region’s law enforcement, and updated public awareness campaigns.

While there is still limited data on actual cross-border trafficking, between March and June 2022, Moldova state authorities identified 43 cases of illicit arms and ammunition trafficking, with 24 weapons and 2,289 cartridges registered at the border. In July 2022 two individuals in Odesa were arrested trying to sell Kalashnikov rifles and ammunition, and when confronted by the police, they resisted and threw a grenade at them. There have also been reports of criminal groups collecting light weapons from battle sites. In March 2022, in Kharkiv, two individuals were arrested for using arms for a robbery picked up in the war zone. The Security Services of Ukraine also uncovered an attempt to illegally sell over 1,000 Ukraine-made bulletproof vests worth over $407,000.”

The developing nexus between drug trafficking and arms trafficking in the Russia-Ukraine conflict will prove to be a very serious challenge for the international community in the coming days.

(The author is the former director general of National Academy of Customs, Indirect Taxes and Narcotics.)

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