Users of Telegram channels and social network denizens have long been sounding off alarms that the so-called Darknet, that had for quite a while been known for its role in illegal substance trafficking and in peddling unlawfully obtained information, has recently started to sell weapons supplied as an aid to Ukraine by the West (ranging from NLAWs – next generation light anti-tank weapons – to Stinger air defence systems). To top it all off, Darknet is now a place where Ukrainians themselves have become a traded commodity.
If the screenshots allegedly taken from the pages of the Darknet are any indication, one can now buy or "rent" a Ukrainian child or teenager for sex. "Renting" a 15-year-old Ukrainian girl for two weeks will cost a willing customer $2,900, whereas a month of use would set him back $5,800.
Granted, human trafficking on the Darknet is far from being anything new. Basically, it is but another way of committing a heinous crime. But this does raise the question of how and why these "goods" find their way on to the "black market". Being uprooted from their familiar environments and lacking any guaranteed sources of sustenance, refugees are thus forced to supplement their livelihood by selling either themselves or their children.
European countries, who initially acted pretentiously and even hysterically in offering their hospitality to the "unfortunate" Ukrainians during the first months of the Russo-Ukrainian war, are currently busy curtailing their assistance programmes that used to include free public transit fare, placing refugees with families in exchange for government subsidies, etc. Getting a job in a European country without knowing its language is next to impossible now especially considering that their own nationals are finding it difficult to land a well-paid job – they had barely managed to recover from the COVID-crisis when the Ukrainian disaster struck. On top of that, they now have to get ready for the upcoming school year and the heating season in the face of soaring energy costs …
Covid-19 vaccine appeared in Darknet almost earlier than in hospitals.
And yet, it must be noted that people willingly selling themselves or their services on the black market is, in a way, just a part of the overall problem. What is much worse is that the current crisis has galvanised criminal rings that are "professionally" involved in recruiting people into prostitution. They cheat distraught refugees by promising them work and shelter and then take away their documents, intimidate them to never let them out of their grasp.
Over the last 30 years, Ukrainian girls, including underage minors, have turned into Europe's popular "human commodity". This state of things was aptly illustrated by the 2006 film La Sconosciuta (The Unknown Woman), starring Michele Placido, a popular Italian actor, as the movie's antagonist, and Russian film and stage star Ksenia Rappoport playing a Ukrainian prostitute. The film ended up collecting many awards and nominations while the Europeans learned a lot of new things about Ukrainian women.
frame from the film La Sconosciuta (The Unknown Woman) (2006).
After February 24, 2022, Europe was hit by a great number of Ukrainian refugees, including a lot of children, teenagers, and pretty young women, presenting a lucrative opportunity to the "slave trade" professionals. The question is whether European authorities, who face plenty of other problems, are going to do anything about this.
While human trafficking is both immoral and ethically unacceptable, weapons trafficking poses a real threat to security, both external and internal. This is a threat not only to the security of Ukraine per se, whose military and civilian personnel have been routinely trading (both on the Darknet and the old-fashioned way, in person) in weapons supplied there by the West. This represents a major threat to the security of Ukraine's immediate neighbours and to more distant countries where, say, stolen and resold Stingers can get to through proxy traders and resellers. Such uncontrolled flow of lethal weapons is potentially fraught with horrendous consequences.
Arming Ukraine, a recent CBS News documentary about the West's military aid to Ukraine, features a comment from a retired US Marine colonel and a special ops commander Andy Milburn who expressed doubts that the Stingers and other West-supplied weapons actually get to their destinations. He estimates that only 30 to 40 per cent of the weapons delivered by the West end up in the hands of the Ukrainian military. In a separate interview with CNN, Milburn indicated that "the logistics of transferring US weapons to the front line are absolutely unreliable".
However, Arming Ukraine was soon removed from the CBS website following protests by Ukraine's authorities, who claimed that weapons "supplies are organised in the most straightforward and transparent way". Despite these claims, Ukraine's President Zelensky himself displayed a lack of confidence in the successful transfer of weapons from the West to Ukraine and in the fact that they do end up in the hands of Ukraine's Armed Forces personnel by indicating that had Ukrainians been stealing on a smaller scale their armed forces would have been more combat-ready.
Armed assistance to Ukraine. Photo: www.poslovni.hr
The Pentagon, however, does not seem to be perturbed by the theft of its weapons: it was announced on August 8 that yet another shipment was heading to Ukraine, including HIMARS multiple rocket launch system, 75,000 rounds of 155-mm artillery ammunition, 1,000 Javelin anti-tank missile system, and hundreds of AT4 anti-armour gun systems. It is not clear how many of these will actually end up reaching the front line, as it has been made all too clear to the journalists who are eager to get to the bottom of the matter that they should refrain from digging too deep.
So, what is Darknet?
So, who is involved in the illegal internet trafficking of Ukraine's teenagers in the West and in reselling the West's weapons? A few words explaining the Darknet would be in order for those who have not had the pleasure of venturing into this dangerous cesspool.
One can access this network via Tor, a special piece of software used for enabling anonymous routing and communication. Internet providers are unable to track such connections because the data packets that get transmitted via Tor are usually encrypted by means of non-standard encryption protocols. When an attempt to access the Darknet is made, the computer routes a request to open the website through three Tor servers (computers belonging to individual users). The software picks a random route (a bridge relay) that hides the user's IP address. To "cover its tracks", Tor will then go on establishing new connections every several minutes. Darknet uses domains that cannot be reached via a standard network by using standard web browsing software, thereby turning this mishmash of restricted access websites and databases into a virtual "information haven" for illegal content and its users.
How the Darknet works.
When all is said and done, Darknet is fundamentally a typical albeit virtual black market where they trade in everything that is off limits in the real world. There's no censorship there, and it is out of reach for the rule of law. And, of course, no one will be using a bank card to pay for underage prostitutes or stolen weapons on Darknet, opting for cryptocurrencies instead.
And this is where we come to the most striking and most unlawful aspects of the Darknet. It is impossible to trade on the Darknet without an intermediary. This means that in addition to the two potential criminals, the seller and the buyer of, say, weapons or "human goods", there has to be a third one, the go-between, or the transaction's guarantor. Having found what he needed at an acceptable price on the Darknet's trading platform, the buyer will have to transfer cryptocurrency-denominated funds to the guarantor, who will, in turn, contact the seller to get the information about the goods' whereabouts. Stinger missiles are usually hidden somewhere well within the so-called exclusion areas, and the buyer gets the goods' coordinates and pictures, whereas people (including children) are usually held in criminal hangouts, backrooms of brothels, or basements.
If the deal goes through and the buyer lodges no complaints, the guarantor transfers the payment to the seller while keeping his "commission" (the marketplace on the Darknet will also get its share). The Darknet also offers moderation and conflict resolution services: after all, the saying "there is no honour among thieves" is as relevant today as it has ever been with criminal sellers not at all averse to swindling criminal buyers.
American man-portable anti-tank missile system Javelin is available on the Ukrainian Darknet Marketplace THIEF since May 2022.
Some of the known cases involving resale Ukrainian weapons seem macabre and comical. In early July, Russian law enforcement made an arrest of Russian lifestyle blogger Sofochka Rrr (her real name is Sofia Vezentseva) and her mother for brokering a deal to resell weapons stolen by the Ukrainians. A third accomplice, Sofochka's boyfriend, remains at large. The blogger was known to post her racy and even risqué photos where she is posing half-naked for the enjoyment of her followers. What a confusing blend of genres!
The moguls of the Darknet do realise that such intermediaries do nothing but hurt their lucrative business. As a result, Darknet tries to keep up with the times, constantly improving the platform's mechanics in a bid to get rid of individual go-betweens and replace them with an automatic trading system where the platform itself will serve as the guarantor. However, considering the very delicate nature of trading in "human commodities", it appears unavoidable that third parties will continue to be involved in the slave trade. Brothel "madams", professional pimps, lifestyle bloggers, and thugs who provide protection for brothels and street prostitutes are likely to continue being involved in all this going forward.
Main photo: Depositphotos.