Post-Soviet Danger: Vulnerable Munitions Depots

ICHNYA, Ukraine -- The ammunition is stacked in mounds in a clearing, exposed to rain and sun. The crates that hold it are rotting. After more than a decade in the elements, many of them have ruptured and come undone, exposing high-explosive rockets and mortar fins.

A Ukrainian munitions depot being inspected

This is the overstuffed ammunition depot behind the security fences at Military Unit A1479 in the Ukrainian forest. At least 5,700 tons of ammunition, grenades and explosive powder have come to rest here, according to an unclassified NATO inventory. Almost all of it is unwanted. Much of it has expired, and some is considered too unreliable or too unsafe to use.

The scenes at Unit A1479 provide a glimpse of a dangerous legacy of the militarized Soviet state, one that has emerged as a risk to post-Soviet states and to nations far away, endangering local environments and communities, as well as providing a reservoir of lethal materials for terrorists and armed groups.

Recent history has shown how fluid and dangerous the arms can be.

Huge depots of conventional weapons and ammunition remain in much of the former Soviet borderland, many of them vulnerable to the elements, inadequately secured or watched over by security agencies with histories of corruption and suspicious arms sales. Largely unaddressed while Western nations and post-Soviet states have worked to secure and dispose of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, the conventional stockpiles pose problems as yet unsolved.

NATO and the Ukrainian military estimate that Soviet soldiers left 2.5 million tons of conventional munitions in Ukraine as they withdrew from Europe, as well as more than 7 million rifles, pistols, mortars and machine guns.

The surplus weapons and ammunition, some dating to World War I and stored in military posts around the country, are packed in bunkers, locked in salt mines and sitting in open air.

Shipments of the more modern munitions and equipment have departed Ukraine in suspicious arms deals and reappeared in conflicts in Africa and the Middle East. Western governments worry that some of the stocks, including explosives and portable antiaircraft missiles that can down civilian aircraft, might find homes with terrorist groups.

In one deal alone, extensively documented by the United Nations and human rights organizations, 68 tons of munitions were transferred in 1999 from Ukraine to Burkina Faso to Liberia, ending up in the hands of the Revolutionary United Front, which sacked Sierra Leone. 25

Ukraine has not been alone in such circuitous deals. In a report released July 5, Amnesty International claimed that 400 tons of surplus ammunition were shipped from Albania and Serbia to Rwanda in 2002 and 2003, and then channeled to armed groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Allegations of illegal arms dealing have also adhered to Trans-Dniester, the breakaway region of Moldova, which, according to estimates provided by Russia to the Organization for the Security and Cooperation in Europe, has 42,000 small arms and 20,000 tons of munitions, including aircraft bombs, rockets and 39,000 land mines.

Russia is thought to have the largest stockpiles, but has been less forthcoming about them than Ukraine.

Such stockpiles endanger global security not only because they arm rebel groups, but also because military munitions can readily be disassembled and their explosives used to manufacture powerful makeshift bombs. This risk is among the worries with regard to Ukraine.

"Based on the record of the Ukrainian military over the last several years, in diverse settings, there is a certain probability that it might sell explosives to terrorists," said Andreas Heinemann-Gruder, a senior researcher at the Bonn International Center for Conversion, a private organization in Germany working on demilitarization and defense conversion that has studied the Ukrainian stockpiles. "Sectors of the Ukrainian military have cooperated with whomever offered them money, and there have been no moral considerations."

The concerns over accidental explosion were evident in Ichnya, where firefighting equipment is neatly arranged near the gate and laborers hacked at saplings and thigh-high grass, removing material that might kindle flame or block the passage of the depot's armored fire trucks.

Throughout the depot, which consists of 47 warehouses and 47 house-sized stacks of ammunition, the military has erected lightning rods 80 feet high to divert lightning from ammunition stores. At least two of the rods have been struck, said the depot commander, Colonel Oleksandr Bogdan.

Amid the mounting safety and security concerns, Western sponsors are trying to accelerate the disposal of the Ukraine's arms burden. The efforts include a $29.8 million, or 24.7 million, NATO program expected to start this fall that plans to destroy 133,000 tons of munitions, 1.5 million guns and 1,000 portable antiaircraft missiles, known as MANPADS, which could be used to disrupt air traffic world-wide. It will be the largest effort in the world to destroy surplus small arms and munitions, according to Michel Duray, a NATO spokesman in Ukraine. The United States is a principal sponsor, donating more than $1.6 million for the first phase.

Donors and Ukrainian military officials caution that it is only a start. Ukraine has been trying to destroy its surplus inventory since 1993. At the current pace the disposal will last another 50 to 100 years. "We will have to spend some decades to reach a level of moderate safety," said Leonid Polyakov, Ukraine's first deputy minister of defense, who assumed his post this year.

Source: International Herald Tribune