Ill-Secured Soviet Arms Depots Tempting Rebels and Terrorists

By C. J. CHIVERS

New York Times

July 16, 2005

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 have ruptured, exposing high-explosive rockets and mortar fins.

This is the overstuffed ammunition depot behind the security fences at Military Unit A1479, a small base in the Ukrainian forest under military guard. 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 and providing a reservoir of lethal materials for terrorists and armed groups.

[Though recent history has shown how fluid and dangerous the arms can be, there has been no indication or allegation that munitions from Ukraine were used in the bombings last week in London.] Huge depots of conventional weapons and ammunition remain in much of the former Soviet borderlands, 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.

Nowhere are these problems known to be more pronounced than in Ukraine. NATO and the Ukrainian military estimate that the Soviet military left 2.5 million tons of conventional munitions here as it withdrew soldiers and arms from Europe, as well as more than 7 million rifles, pistols, mortars and machine guns. The imbalance is deeply disproportionate; the Ukrainian military now numbers roughly 300,000.

The surplus weapons and ammunition, some dating to World War I and stored in at least 184 military posts around the country, is packed in bunkers, locked in salt mines and sitting in the open air.

Shipments of the more modern matériel have left Ukraine in suspicious arms deals and reappeared in conflicts in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Western governments worry that some stocks, including explosives and portable antiaircraft missiles that can down civilian aircraft, may end up with terrorist groups.

In one deal alone, extensively documented by the United Nations and human rights organizations, the Ukrainian state arms export agency transferred 68 tons of munitions in 1999 to Burkina Faso, in West Africa. From there, they were shipped to Liberia, ending up in the hands of the Revolutionary United Front, which sacked Sierra Leone.

The delivery included 3,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles, 50 machine guns, 25 rocket-propelled grenade launchers, 5 antiaircraft missiles, 5 guided antitank missiles and ammunition.

[Ukraine has not been alone in such circuitous deals. Amnesty International released a report on July 5 that 400 tons of surplus ammunition was shipped from Albania and Serbia to Rwanda in 2002 and 2003, and then channeled to armed groups in Congo.]

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

Belarus, Georgia and the Central Asian states were similarly left with unwanted depots, although their stocks are believed to be much smaller than Ukraine's because they did not become depositories for munitions being withdrawn from Eastern Europe.

Russia, where depot explosions are reported each year, is thought to have the largest stockpiles of all, but it has been less forthcoming about them than Ukraine. One concentration is in the small Russian enclave in Kaliningrad, between Poland and Lithuania, said Aaron Karp, a consultant at the Small Arms Survey, a private research organization in Geneva. "The usual assumption is that Kaliningrad is explosive," he said.

Such stockpiles endanger global security not only because they may arm rebel groups, but also because military munitions can readily be disassembled and their explosives used to make powerful bombs. This risk is among the prospective worries in 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 working on demilitarization and military conversion that has studied the Ukrainian stockpiles. "Sectors of the Ukrainian military have cooperated with whoever offered them money, and there have been no moral considerations."

The dangers are not limited to the munitions' travels and use. Ukrainian officials and military analysts have warned that as Soviet-era munitions have aged, environmental and safety risks have mounted. This was made clear last year when a depot exploded near Melitopol, in the south, scattering tons of ammunition in the surrounding countryside. The blasts killed five people and forced the evacuation of at least 5,000 more.

The concerns over accidental explosions were evident here in Ichnya, where firefighting equipment was 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-size stacks of ammunition, the military has erected 80-feet-high lightning rods to divert lightning from ammunition stores. At least two of the rods have been struck, said the depot commander, Col. Oleksandr Bogdan.

Amid the mounting safety and security concerns, Western sponsors are trying to accelerate the disposal of Ukraine's arms burden. The efforts include a $30 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 worldwide. The program will last 12 years.

It will be the largest effort in the world to destroy surplus 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, but at the current pace the disposal will last another 50 years or more. "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 in the new government of President Viktor A. Yushchenko.

Before joining the government, Mr. Polyakov was director of military programs at the Oleksandr Razumkov Center in Kiev, a nonprofit organization that studies politics, economics and security. While there, he wrote a report for the Bonn center that recommended collective international action to reduce Ukraine's burden.

Ukraine's munitions centers are filled beyond capacity, he wrote, leaving at least 60 percent of the ammunition exposed to the elements. Most of the ammunition has exceeded its shelf life. At least 15 percent is also unstable enough that it risks exploding from handling, electricity, heat or chemical reaction.

Moreover, Soviet soldiers packed much of it with inadequate spacing between stacks, which has made it more difficult and dangerous to fight or contain fires.

Volodymyr Tereschenko, a deputy minister of defense charged with munitions disposal, also said Ukraine's budget constraints had prevented the installation of better security features, including adequate lighting, fencing and walls, electronic sensors, video surveillance and water reservoirs around important caches.

Ukrainian officials suspect the existing security has been thwarted, as recently as last winter, when two manpads are thought to have been stolen from a depot in the Crimea. The losses were not the first. "We have had several cases when manpads disappeared," Mr. Polyakov said.

He added that these missiles, because of the dangers they pose, were guarded more closely than most other munitions. He also noted that the government did not disclose which depots had stockpiles, or how many missiles Ukraine possessed in all, other than to say there are at least 10,000. "We want not to provoke too much interest," he said.

But Mr. Polyakov also noted that in Ukraine, a nation sullied by its reputation for public corruption, security was only as good as the integrity of those watching over the far-flung depots. "We cannot exclude that there were corrupt schemes between criminal businesses and officials in the previous government," he said.

Details of a few schemes have surfaced in the past, most notably the transfer of Ukrainian arms in 1999 through Burkina Faso to Liberia to the Revolutionary United Front. When the United Nations investigated, Ukraine claimed that it had properly issued the certificates intended to ensure the arms had a legal destination. But the deal was suspicious on its face.

The military in Burkina Faso principally uses NATO-standard arms, and would not be expected to buy large quantities of post-Soviet equipment. The weapons were promptly shuttled to Liberia on a plane owned by a well-known international crime figure, Leonid Minin, the United Nations found.

One of Mr. Minin's partners was also involved in 2000 in the transfer of 103 tons of Ukrainian munitions to the Ivory Coast where, the United Nations later reported, the ammunition was split between the Ivory Coast and Liberia, which was under an international arms embargo.

These deals, made through false declarations and obscure companies and involving linked networks of criminals, governments and insurgents, showed how mobile post-Soviet arms stockpiles could be, and how Ukraine, unwittingly or no, helped arm rebel bands for war.

Even disposing of old munitions poses severe technical challenges. One example, Mr. Polyakov and Mr. Tereschenko said, involves stocks of PFM land mines, small antipersonnel devices that the Soviet Union deployed extensively in Afghanistan by simply scattering them on the ground. The mines, which contain a liquid explosive, are now too unstable to handle, raising a baffling question: how do you dispose of munitions you cannot touch? Ukraine has about six million such mines.

There are other logistical and safety issues as well. The few facilities in Ukraine now capable of disposing of munitions are far from most depots, meaning that unless special arrangements were made, ammunition would have to be moved through Ukraine on public roads and rail lines.

"There is a whole complex of problems, many of which cause a great threat and danger," Mr. Tereschenko said. "The tragedy of Ukraine is not our own only. This is a tragedy for Europe."