Throughout the full-fledged Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Ukrainian military, also known as the ZSU, has adapted to the various challenges against a highly formidable foe. Not just using Western weapons to stave off the most significant war of conquest since WWII, Kyiv has invested in a growing defense industry.
Surprisingly, Ukraine has been using weapons off the black market from countries that are either allied or sympathetic to Russia. Utilizing the black-market global arms trade or repurposing captured international weapons from use, Kyiv has taken the fight back to the Kremlin—using a taste of their own medicine.
Weapons Originating from Iran
Iranian arsenals, such as the 120mm M-48 HE mortar shell, the 122mm OF-462 artillery shell, and the 125mm OF-19 tank shell, have all ended up in the possession of the ZSU. Throughout the ongoing war, the open source intelligence (OSINT) channel, Ukraine Weapons Tracker, displayed a photograph from the 24th Mechanized Brigade of possessing the 120mm M-48, which is Iranian in origin.
It is unclear where or how the weapons ended up in the possession of the ZSU. The US Navy has frequently seized Iranian “humanitarian” cargo ships bound for Yemen that ultimately had weapons on board for their Houthi proxies. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has used black-market weapons export to various proxies that answer to the IRGC.
On numerous occasions, Israel has also seized Iranian-made weapons bound for paramilitary organizations such as Hezbollah, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Though not shipping weapons directly to balance the thin line of Russian forces potentially giving weapons to Iranian militias in Syria, the Israeli Ambassador to Germany, Ron Prosor, stated Tel Aviv is helping Kyiv behind the scenes. A potential third-party transfer of Iranian confiscated weapons between the Israeli Mossad and Ukrainian HUR could have occurred.
Weapons Originating from North Korea
During the ongoing summer Ukraine counteroffensive, the ZSU reportedly used 122mm R-122 grad missiles originating from North Korea. Also known as the Soviet-era BM-21 Grad multiple rocket launcher, the 57th Brigade uses the system against entrenching Russian positions outside Bakhmut.
North Korea has been firmly on Russia’s side, recognizing the illegal annexations throughout Ukraine’s occupied regions. The DPRK has also covertly sent artillery shells initially to the Wagner Group but now to the Russian military.
The Kremlin has become more open about its military cooperation with North Korea as sanctions and attrition take their toll on the Russian Armed Forces. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu recently visited Pyongyang to entice more military support from the Kim regime, including the Vladivostok conference.
Weapons Originating from Serbia
Alongside Iran and North Korea, Serbian artillery is also being used by the Ukrainian army. The Serbian-made 120mm M62P10 mortar bomb and 122mm HE-FRAG Grad 200 Missile are visually and psychically confirmed to have been used in the war thus far.
In early March of this year, it was reported that Serbian weapons, such as the grad and mortars, have been used by the ZSU. US intelligence from the Pentagon leaks would confirm the usage of Serbian-made armaments by the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
Despite denying Belgrade had directly armed Kyiv, Aleksandar Vucic, the Serbian President, hinted that he was not opposed to third-party intermediaries selling Serbian weapons instead. The West has continuously attempted to entice Vucic to bring Serbia into the EU’s fold, even if it means appeasing Belgrade in their ongoing disputes with Pristina over Kosovo.
Serbia has toted a fine line in the ongoing war in Ukraine as a good chunk of the Serbian population is pro-Russian. At the same time, Vucic looks to gain more international support by quietly helping Kyiv. Belgrade has attempted to crack down on Russian recruitment efforts against radicalized Serbian males, with Vucic openly stating he would arrest any foreign Serbian fighters. Third-party weapons transfers to Ukraine could be his way of fighting against Moscow’s influence in the Balkans.
The Need for Unorthodox Weaponry
Third-party weaponry is vital in the war, which has become the most extensive artillery duel since the Iran-Iraq War. Kyiv and Moscow have yet to be able to enact air superiority, and due to the lagging production of the West, which can outproduce Russia but lags due to bureaucracy, Ukraine needs unorthodox methods of resupply.
The United States has already tapped into its dormant stocks related to Israel to supply 155mm shells to Ukraine, and third-party weapon transfer can supplement the time needed to grow production. Interdiction of Iranian and North Korean weapons is vital as both nations have developed their underground defense industry under international sanctions, meaning many black-market weapons can be sent to the ZSU.
In Europe’s most prominent war since WWII, black market weapons originating from third parties become more valuable by the day. Facing a military that was considered to be the second best on Earth, Ukraine and its partners have used unorthodox methods to even the playing field against a formidable foe.