Top commanders under fire after ammo depot disasters
The government announced on Sept. 28 that evacuees could return to their homes in and around Kalynivka, the Vinnytsya Oblast town where an ammunition depot suffered a catastrophic fire and explosions on Sept. 26–27.
Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman wrote on Facebook that army sappers had cleared the area of unexploded ordnance thrown from the depot by the force of the blasts, and that travel restrictions in the area were being lifted.
But as the smoke cleared after this, the third such incident in Ukraine in the last six months, questions have started to be asked about the competence of the Ukrainian army — from the ordinary soldiers guarding such bases, right up to the generals at the top of the chain of command.
Lawmaker Ivan Vynnyk, the head of the parliament committee on security and defense, said on Sept. 28 that the disaster at Kalynivka had destroyed $800 million worth of ammunition. The day before, in a television interview, Vynnyk called on Chief of the General Staff Viktor Muzhenko and his immediate subordinates to be held to account for the disasters.
“I think the committee will draw a more strategic conclusion concerning the failures of the General Staff for tolerating such losses of property and munitions, which undermine Ukraine’s combat readiness, and for not taking the necessary steps — for the fourth time since the beginning of the war,” Vynnyk said.
Later, Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council Oleksandr Turchynov also said that top-ranking commanders, including those of the General Staff, would have to take responsibility for the latest disaster.
“We have demonstrated that we are unable to protect our strategic arsenals,” Turchynov said on Sept. 28. “So the question of the effectiveness of our county’s defenses is raised. And unless those at the top who fail to fulfil their duties are held responsible, we will constantly be counting our losses.”
The disaster began before 10 p.m. on Sept. 26, when massive explosions started to rip through the ammunition depot just south of the town of Kalynivka, 238 kilometers southwest of Kyiv. Huge fireballs rushed into the air, and ignited Grad rockets spiraled crazily through the night sky.
As explosions rocked the base, the authorities in Kalynivka, a city of 14,000 people, immediately started to evacuate people from a 10-kilometer danger zone around it. In all, more than 30,000 people in the surrounding area were bused to a hospital and high schools in the regional capital of Vinnytsya.
Authorities also imposed a 50-kilometer air exclusion zone above the stricken depot and blocked the main roadways around Kalynivka. As many as 47 trains in the area were also diverted, leading to delays of from five to eight hours, and electricity and gas supplies to villages surrounding the depot were cut.
Two people had been injured and hospitalized as of noon on Sept. 28 due to the blasts.
Rumors of war
As dawn broke on Sept. 27, large explosions were still ripping periodically through the wooded area of the ammunition depot. Before long, Ukraine’s SBU security service announced it was categorizing the incident as an act of terrorism.
The Prosecutor General’s Office later opened a criminal case on sab- otage, and said that investigation was following four basic lines of inquiry, without providing any detailed information.
An act of sabotage by Russia was predictably the most popular theory among social media users, as well as among top-ranking politicians.
“It’s an arsenal, I believe it was not destroyed by accident,” Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman said during a cabinet meeting on Sept. 27. “We’ve been under attack by the enemy, the armed forces of the Russian Federation and the militants. I believe they would do anything to weaken us.”
Some officials even claimed the security services had expected an act of sabotage.
Serhiy Misiura, the spokesman at the Chief Logistic Support Department of Ukraine’s Armed Forces, claimed on Facebook that the SBU had been conducting raids in Vinnytsia Oblast in search of enemy saboteurs since Sept. 25, under the guise of carrying out drills in the region.
Most of the saboteurs had been captured, the military official said, but some had evaded capture and had managed to carry out their mission in Kalynivka.
“The guards reported a noise in the sky, then shells located in the open started exploding,” Misiura wrote. “It’s confirmed — there was a drone, and there was a terror attack.”
However, Ukraine’s chief military prosecutor, Anatoliy Matios, said during a press briefing in Odesa on Sept. 28 that the investigation had found no signs of any drone activity at the scene, and no enemy saboteurs had been captured.
With no evidence to back any of the claims of sabotage, the possibility that the blasts were caused by an accident seems equally likely.
According to Ukrainian Defense Minister Stepan Poltorak, the Kalynivka arsenal contained some 83,000 tonnes of military stocks, of which 63,000 tonnes was assembled ammunition, while the rest consisted of explosives, ammunition parts, and scrap metal. Much of the ammunition was stored in the open, with no protection from the elements.
As at the Balakliya depot, which was similarly hit by a fire and then massive explosions of ammunition in late March, ammunition at the Kalynivka depot in some cases appears to have been stored in large stacks of wooden crates in the open.
There are other signs that negligence, rather than sabotage, might be to blame for the disaster.
On April 26, Kalynivka district court convicted the then depot commander, Igor Malezhyk, of negligence in the acquisition of fire safety equipment. The trial papers say that in late February 2016 the commander paid budget funds worth Hr 188,740 ($7,127) for fire-fighting equipment, but confirmation of the delivery of the equipment to the depot was never confirmed.
In a plea bargain deal, the officer was sentenced to a cut of two years from his service record and a 10 percent reduction in his monthly salary, instead of two years of imprisonment.
In fact, funding for fire safety at the Kalynivka depot has grown since the start of Russia’s war on Ukraine.
According to figures provided by Presidential Adviser Yuriy Biryukov, in 2014, the state budget allocated Hr 562,000 ($21,000) to the unit, while in 2017 the amount of funds increased by Hr 6.4 million ($242,000), and another Hr 19.1 million ($721,000) was allocated in the wake of the catastrophic fire and explosions at the Balakliya ammunition depot in Kharkiv Oblast in March.
In total, Ukraine’s ammunition depots received Hr 300 million ($11.3 million) in 2017, although the army had requested Hr 5 billion ($189 million) for technical and security improvements at its ammunition depots, in particular for deploying anti-drone equipment.
A car passes while munitions explode at a military depot on Sept. 27 near Kalynivka in Vinnytsya Oblast. (AFP)