Why Do Ukraine’s Ammunition Depots Keep Blowing Up?

On the evening of September 26, massive explosions shook the Kalynivka raion, a small region 200km south-west of Kiev. The explosion originated at the 48th Arsenal (military unit A1119), an ammunition depot located between the towns of Kalynivka, Pavlivka, Salnyk and Dorozhne. The 680 hectares site stored, according to Ukrainian outlet depot.ua, 138,000 tons of ammunition. The UNIAN Information agency wrote that 200,000 tons of “shells, mines and rockets” were stored at the depot, while 32,000 tons were destroyed in the fire and subsequent explosions. The Defense minister claimed only 83,000 tons of ammo were stored in Kalynivka. About 30,000 people had to be evacuated, and two were injured. 2,000 homes were also damaged, though only 12 were destroyed. Considering how close the storage site was to several cities (with houses located less than a kilometre away from the depot), the consequences of the explosions have, overall, been mild.

As for the explanation of the incident, three main theories are currently being discussed: negligence, sabotage and cover-up.

Ukraine’s Military Prosecutor claimed negligence to be the most likely explanation, while Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman declared the explosion was “no accident” and the General Procuror said “sabotage” was the main version currently being investigated. Outside of official channels, claims that the fire may have been started to hide the theft of ammunition has also been spreading, with pictures of empty storage areas after the explosions presented as possible indications of a theft (empty storage areas can however be seen on satellite photos dating from 2012 and 2014.)

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Kalynivka ammunition storage site and cities surrounding it // Google Earth Pro

The chronology of incidents in Ukraine’s ammunition depots can potentially support both the “negligence” and the “sabotage” thesis. On the one hand, since 2003, Ukraine saw at least ten events of fires at ammunition storage sites, including three near or at the Novobohdanovka storage site in 2004, 2005 and 2006. This points out to a pattern of negligence caused by corruption, the sheer amount of ammunition inherited from the Soviet Union and the low priority of taking care of ammo storage sites, with thousands of tons of ammunition notoriously left in the open without any adequate safety measures.

On the other hand, no incident of this kind had been recorded between 2008 and 2014. In these years, Ukraine started working with NATO as well as the European Union to destroy the country’s “excess stocks” of “aging ammunitions.” A NATO assistance programme launched in 2011 planned to destroy 76 000 tonnes of conventional ammunition and 3 million PfM-1 (anti-infantry high-explosive) antipersonnel mines. The OSCE also played a role, with a $20 million project launched in 2009 and aimed at eliminating “mélange”, a dangerous rocket fuel component found in short- and medium-range missiles. By 2012, 9,000 tons of rocket fuel had been disposed of (generally by transferring it to Russia), including from the Kalynivka storage site.

The risks posed by the country’s ammo stockpile was therefore understood and –at least partially– taken care of thanks to international cooperation. That incidents started again, and in rapid succession, amid the conflict against Russia-backed separatists in the Donbass region indicates that the war might have played a role in the latest fires and explosions. This could mean outright sabotage, but could also be the consequence of a renewed activity by the Ukrainian military that put its logistical units under increased strain.

In both the explosions of the Svatove storage site (which killed 5 people in 2015) and of the Balakli arsenal (which killed 2 people and destroyed 70% of the 150,000 tons of ammunitions stored there) in March 2017, sabotage was initially presented as the likeliest explanation by the authorities: according to the SBU, the destruction of the Balakli arsenal was caused by a Russian-made ZMG-1 thermite grenade dropped from a drone. In the case of the Svatove incident however, a court verdict did not say the explosion was caused by an act of sabotage, but blamed a Ukrainian officer for failing to comply with fire safety regulation. Wooden boxes of ammunition caught fire (how exactly isn’t mentionned in the court verdict) before spreading to rockets. The official investigation of Balakli arsenal incident isn’t yet finished.

It should be noted that nearly all of the recorded incidents at ammo storage sites since 2003 happened in the eastern and southern parts of the country, despite most of the country’s military bases and arsenals being located in the central or western part of the country. The September 26th incident is therefore an outlier.

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Location of various incidents at ammunition storage sites in Ukraine since 2003. In blue are indicated incidents that happened before 2014, in red after // Google Maps

All three theories (negligence, sabotage, and cover-up) are, as of October 2017, plausible.

All three, however, highlight the lack of safety measures that still surrounds Ukraine’s vast ammunition depots, three years after the beginning of a prolonged conflict with Russia. As one of the country’s biggest ammunition depot following the destruction of the Balakliia storage site in March 2017, Kalynivka depot should have been adequately protected. Indeed, according to Ukrainian website Zn.ua, four inspections of the storage site were conducted between April and June 2017 by commissions of the presidential administration as well as the Minister of Defense, which likely made the authorities aware (if they did not already know) of the lack of protection surrounding this storage site.

Ukrainian and foreign media later reported that the Kalynivka ammunition storage site was guarded by about 17 people over the age of 50; that fire alarms were not working; that at least five kilometres of the perimeter was not fenced; that the observation tower was in such a poor state that it was closed; and that most of the ammunition was stored on open ground, not only making it easier to steal or to destroy, but also more prompt to degradation. Attorney General Yuriy Lutsenko summed up the issue on October 3rd, saying the storage site was “virtually defenceless.”

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Ichnyansky arsenal // Google Earth Pro

The situation likely isn’t limited to the Kalynivka storage site, as the protection of ammunition depots was not very high on the political agenda – at least until now. In March, Ukrainian military spokesman Vladislav Seleznev did say the military would spend UAH92 million (USD3,4 million) on the protection of ammo depots in 2017, compare to a UAH56 million (USD2,1 million) budget the previous year. How this additional budget is used remain unclear.

The protection of ammunition storage sites remains tightly linked to anticorruption efforts, whether because embezzlement of state fund leads to smaller amounts of money being available to adequately protect the sites, or because corrupted members of the military fuel the theft and smuggling of weapons and ammunitions stored on these sites.

This issue will nevertheless probably remain an acute one in the short and medium term. On October 11th, Ukrainian website Censor reported that drones had been seen flying over the Ichnyansky arsenal, the third biggest in the country, two days in a row. The Ukrainian military is now planning to set up detection systems in all the country’s arsenals in order to deter UAVs.

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