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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Soviet-Era Depots Tempting Terrorists

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.

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 former 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 materiel 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 anti-aircraft 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, five anti-aircraft missiles, five guided anti-tank missiles and ammunition.

Allegations of illegal arms dealing have also surrounded Transdnestr, 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 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 exclave of 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."

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 Yushchenko.