Avoiding tragedy: NATO and Ukraine destroy aging weapons and ammunition

  • 07 Oct. 2011 -
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  • Last updated: 25 Oct. 2011 14:13

In Ukraine, huge surplus stocks of small arms and light weapons (SALW) and tonnes of aging ammunition could threaten the public’s safety should they fall into the wrong hands or accidentally explode. But with NATO’s help, Ukraine is destroying its excess stocks, having embarked on the world’s largest demilitarisation project through international assistance. A ceremony at NATO Headquarters marked the launch of the project’s second phase on 21 September 2011.

A dangerous legacy

On gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine inherited a number of depots loaded with ammunition and weapons no longer needed to defend the country. Without proper maintenance and storage, the munitions’ components deteriorate and become highly unstable.

Since October 2003, ten unplanned explosions at munition sites were reported in the country. In 2003, a spark from welding work near a depot in Artemivsk, Donetsk region, set off an explosion that caused some eight million euros worth of damage.

The following year, explosions at a depot near Melitopol, Zaporizhzhya region, killed five people and injured many more. Fifteen-hundred buildings were damaged within a three kilometre radius and nearly 7000 people in the area were evacuated. Estimates of the damage caused range from half to one billion euros.

Such explosions could wreak havoc beyond Ukraine’s border and devastate the surrounding environment. The numerous and poorly stored munitions are also a temptation for illegal arms traders, who can spread the danger much further.

Cooperation vital

After Ukraine’s request for assistance nearly ten years ago, the Alliance launched the largest NATO Trust Fund project to date. “Ukraine highly appreciates NATO assistance in solving this problem,” said Dr Victor Korendovych, Deputy Head of Ukraine’s Mission to NATO, at the Phase II signing ceremony. He added that the project helps Ukrainians “recognise the value of cooperation with NATO.”

Since 2006, the Alliance has helped the country destroy 1000 Man-portable Air Defence Systems (MANPADS), 15 000 tonnes of conventional ammunition (including small arms ammunition, artillery shells, cluster munitions and mortar rounds) and 400 000 small arms and light weapons (SALW).

Steve Costner, Deputy Director of the US State Department’s Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement, said the issue is well known at the highest levels of US Government. In 2005, then Senator Barack Obama visited Ukraine’s stockpiles and watched the destruction process at work.

“The hopes [for the arms destruction programmes] are that we can start using our resources to dismantle these arms and create a more peaceful and safe future for the people of Ukraine and for people all around the world,” Senator Obama was quoted as saying in the Chicago Tribune.

Strengthening demilitarising capacity

At an estimated cost of 25 million euros, the project’s second phase aims to destroy 366 000 SALW, 76 000 tonnes of conventional ammunition and 3 million PfM-1 (anti-infantry high-explosive) antipersonnel mines. In addition, some 80 Ukrainians will be employed in the coming years.

The destruction of the munitions follows an industrial process that recycles as much material as possible to offset the cost of the process, explained Dr Frederic Peugeot, NATO Trust Fund Project Manager at the NATO Maintenance and Supply Agency (NAMSA), the Trust Fund’s implementing agent. The project has so far recycled 7500 tonnes of iron, copper, brass, aluminium, explosives and gun propellant from ammunition and 400 tonnes of iron from SALW.

NATO has also helped Ukraine increase its capacity to continue demilitarising by supporting the establishment of a facility in Western Ukraine for SALW destruction and the provision of an explosive waste incinerator in Donetsk.

Building on Trust Fund success

With the United States as the lead nation, 18 countries plus the European Union contributed to the project’s first phase. So far the United States and Turkey have contributed to Phase II. The entire project aims to destroy 133 000 tonnes of ammunition and 1.5 million SALW in 4 phases.

Participating NATO countries fund a large part of the demilitarisation costs. Ukraine covers the balance of these costs through its national budget and provides in-kind contributions such as security at demilitarisation sites, manpower for inspection, medical support and office facilities.

NATO Trust Funds allow countries to pool their resources in support of demilitarisation and defence reform projects in partner countries. This is the second NATO Trust Fund project in Ukraine. The first one, completed in May 2003, destroyed more than 400 000 anti-personnel landmines banned by the Ottawa Convention on landmines.