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)

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