On September 17, 2022, a worrying claim circulated on social media: FIM-92 Stinger man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS) were reportedly available for sale online in Germany.
According to the post, which was picked up by prominent figures in Russia, authorities were alerted by a student in Bremen and “local journalists” found that the systems originated in Ukraine and were “meant for the Kharkov counteroffensive”.
A short video was posted alongside the tweet, showing what appears to be a partially disassembled Stinger system with its Identification friend or foe (IFF) antenna missing. The feet of several people in paramilitary clothes can be seen in the footage, and a German voice can be heard in the background.
A student in Bremen, Germany, found an online store selling Stingers and alerted the police. Journalists from Hamburg and other cities have already discovered that the weapons were meant for the Kharkov counteroffensive, yet they ended up on the European black market. pic.twitter.com/TmNmdKTFsJ
— Ignorance, the root and stem of all evil (@ivan_8848) September 17, 2022
A worrying trend?
The posts received thousands of likes and shares, including from the Deputy Representative of Russia to the United Nations Dmitry Polyanskiy, who suggested that delivering weapons to Ukraine was backfiring.
English language coverage has not been widespread, but Russian media published numerous articles with differing variations of the claim. Some add that this is not the first time that Stingers have appeared on the European black market.
However, many others state that weapons provided to Ukraine by NATO countries have been discovered on black markets across the world. All the articles claim that the case resulted in “a scandal” in Germany, attracting the interest of authorities, the media, and spurring discontent among its citizens.
If true, the appearance of anti-aircraft weapons on the black market sets a dangerous precedent. Capable of shooting down aircraft at distances of up to 5 kilometers (3 miles), Stinger MANPADS pose significant danger to civil aviation.
Due to their potential for misuse, MANPADS are some of the most regulated weapons in the world. Instances of them reaching the black market are relatively rare, but several terrorist attacks with MANPADS have been documented.
So, does the claim about Stingers flooding European black market hold water?
The articles and social media posts refer to German authorities having supposedly intercepted a deal and apprehending the culprits. However, no statement about such an operation has been posted by any of Germany’s law enforcement agencies.
The posts also mention that local German journalists investigated and determined that the weapons were meant for the Ukrainian offensive. However, there is no proof that this took place, and the story was not covered by any prominent German media outlet.
Responding to a Twitter post sharing the video, Lars Winkelsdorf, one of the leading German arms trafficking experts, dismissed the claim.
“At the moment, nothing like that has been found by the authorities, nor have I found anything like this through my own research,” Winkelsdorf said.
The original source of the report seems to be the Journalisten friekorps Telegram channel, which is billed as a “channel for honest journalism”.
“Our task is to help the German state and the German people. The people must be united, Germany must be free,” the channel’s description reads.
One of the Telegram posts state that the channel is created by the team behind Socialharmony.de, an initiative which lists discontinuing arms shipments to Ukraine and stopping support to Ukrainian refugees among its main goals.
The video of the Stinger, which was posted alongside the tweet of September 17, was posted by Journalisten friekorps Telegram channel on September 7.
“This is a video of an eyewitness who saw the arrest in the port of Bremen on July 20, when customs had to order “special officers” after finding some “tubular devices” on board the ship “Floriana”. The ship sailed to Turkey under the Ukrainian flag. The author of the video says those arrested are said to be (possibly former) Ukrainian military personnel. How they came to Bremen, what the goal of their trip to Turkey was and where the pipes found come from should be made clear during the investigation,” the description reads.
However, there are several inconsistencies in the post. Bulk carrier Floriana indeed departed the port of Bremen on July 20 and approached Turkish shores in early August. However, it sails under the Maltese rather than the Ukrainian flag. There are also no reports about arrests aboard the ship or at the port in late July.
While the video, attached to the post by Journalisten friekorps, cannot be verified, it contains a soundbite from what sounds like a police officer off-camera urging somebody to stop filming. The soundbite is taken from a video uploaded to YouTube in January 2022, as noted by Twitter user MCantow. The same user pointed out that the weather in the video does not match that reported on July 20. The day was sunny and cloudless, a claim which can be confirmed by data from multiple weather services.
— MCantow (@MCantow) September 18, 2022
Bremen police responded to one of the reposts of the video on September 18, 2022.
“We have already commented on this. This is a false report. The Bremen police have nothing to do with this video and have not arrested any Ukrainians who dealt in weapons,” the police tweeted.
Dazu haben wir uns bereits geäußert. Es handelt sich hierbei um eine Falschmeldung. Die Polizei Bremen hat mit diesem Video nichts zu tun und hat auch keine Ukrainer festgenommen, die mit Waffen handelten. *js
— Polizei Bremen (@BremenPolizei) September 18, 2022
Down the rabbit hole
Journalisten freikorps followed up with a post on September 8 claiming that its investigation had attracted attention from Radio Ukraine, providing a link to a short news story, written in Ukrainian, which cites the Bremen video and an internal investigation conducted by the Ukrainian military. While the link to the Ukrainian article is no longer active, a copy has been saved by Internet archive Wayback Machine.
According to the story, Ukrainian news website NBN obtained a letter from the Minister of Defense, Oleksii Reznikov, in which he notified the Minister of Foreign Affair, Dmytro Kuleba, that the Stingers, found aboard the Floriana, belonged to the 92nd Mechanized Brigade of Ukrainian Ground Forces, as well as another letter, addressed to the Major General Oleg Gulyak, which urged the brigade to review its weapon stocks.
Both documents were widely shared on Russian media, alongside articles about the original video by Journalisten friekorps, as proof that the Stingers indeed originated from Ukraine.
While there is no way to authenticate the documents, the alleged Reznikov letter contains a standard Ukrainian Ministry of Defense template with a barcode and a QR code on the bottom. The QR code contains a timestamp showing that the document is created on April 29, 2022. Therefore, the letter is likely a forgery created by modifying an existing older document. In fact, the same QR code – and, likely, the same template – has been used by Russian hacktivists to create fake documents before.
It can be stated, with a high degree of certainty, that the claim regarding FIM-92 Stinger MANPADS being shipped to Ukraine and found on the German black market, is false.
The claim states that the weapon dealers were apprehended by German authorities, yet the German police denies being involved.
The video, provided as evidence, contains a sound recording that was filmed in January 2022. The letters from Ukrainian authorities, provided as a confirmation of connection with Ukraine, also appear to be counterfeit.
Finally, claims that the case was highly prominent and even resulted in a scandal in Germany, do not appear to hold water. This was only covered by social media channels of dubious origin and several sensationalist websites.