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Ukraine: Depot Blast Latest In Series of Tragic Blunders By Army

An accidental fire at a huge ammunition dump in Ukraine earlier this month triggered explosions which killed five people and wounded more than 20. The accident was the latest in a series of tragic blunders by the Ukrainian Army, which have killed more than 150 of civilians in recent years. RFE/RL talks to an expert on the Ukrainian military about the parlous state of Europe's largest armed forces.

Prague, 20 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Ukraine has tried to use its army to promote the country in a positive light.

It has sent peacekeeping missions to the former Yugoslavia and Africa. It also maintains one of the largest coalition contingents in Iraq, with 1,600 troops.

But despite such efforts, its record has been blighted again and again by horrific accidents with tragic consequences.

Earlier this month, on 6 May, a fire began at a military depot in Melitopol, a city in the southern Ukrainian region of Zaporizhya. The fire touched off eight days of explosions which brought death and havoc to an area covering 400 square kilometers.
"If you consider NATO criteria for joining -- like high combat readiness, high salaries, and good social guarantees [housing, etc.] for servicemen, and effective, competent civil democratic control -- then you find that almost everyone is in favor of NATO membership"

The initial fire sparked explosions that ripped through 900 of the 4,800 railroad wagons that are stored at the base and which contain Soviet-era artillery shells awaiting decommissioning.

Hundreds of the shells were launched in every direction, killing five people, wounding some 20 others, and forcing the evacuation of 30,000 people from surrounding villages. An estimated $450 million in damage was done by the time the explosions died down.

An investigation has been launched. It is expected to conclude, like other investigations in recent years, that the tragedy was a result of human error.

Three soldiers at the base have already been arrested and charged with smoking while handling live ammunition.

The list of Ukraine's military catastrophes includes the explosion of another ammunition dump last October, in a blast that killed a teenage girl and destroyed much of the base where the ammunition was stored.

It also includes the accidental strike on a Kyiv apartment block with a Scud missile. And a Ukrainian missile that inadvertently shot down a Russian civilian airliner, killing all 78 people aboard. And the crash of a fighter plane performing stunts at an air show, which killed 76 spectators.

The bad news continued in March, when Ukrainian Defense Minister Yevhen Marchuk announced several hundred missiles were unaccounted for.

Observers say lack of funds are to blame for the dangerously neglected state of the Ukrainian armed forces.

Ukraine's military, with 355,000 men and women, is Europe's largest army and the world's 13th biggest. But it ranks 126th in the world in terms of funding per capita.

It's a situation that has led to shabby standards and corruption.

Leonid Polyakov is a military expert at the Rozumkov Center, an independent think tank in Kyiv. He says no army is hazard-free and that soldiers die in accidents in armies around the world.

But he concedes that Ukraine has particular problems -- among them, a large portion of the former Soviet Union's huge, and rapidly decaying, military arsenal. "When Ukraine became independent, it acquired a very large, negative, legacy. It is easier to recognize, after 13 years of independence, that this legacy acquired by Ukraine -- and which she previously was even proud of, the large quantity of military equipment, ammunition, weapons -- has caused more problems than benefits," Polyakov said.

Polyakov says Ukraine can decommission about 23,000 tons of ammunition each year but needs to double or triple that capacity --something that Ukraine's feeble economy does not allow.

But he said the lack of funding for the military is not the biggest problem. Rather, he says, it is a lack of clarity among Ukraine's leaders about the country's future, and the role of the military in that future. "Why is Ukraine helpless? We have our own specific reasons: simply that the national elite, which could be of benefit now, was destroyed during Soviet times. The post-Soviet expert elite proved itself, on the whole, unable to jettison its customary corruption, links to the criminal world and its totalitarian attitudes. The new elite has not yet come to the fore and has not begun combat with the old Soviet legacy and Ukraine's new criminal legacy," Polyakov said.

Polyakov said that corruption pervades the military and that high-ranking officers are rarely appointed on merit. That, he says, leads to a deterioration in the quality of leadership, which in turn has a corrosive effect on the entire military structure.

"We see that top positions are given to people in the military and other security structures not because of their professionalism or patriotism, but often because of their personal loyalty," Polyakov said.

Defense Minister Marchuk has also suggested that corruption is at work in military.

He cited warehouses where much of the stores, such as sophisticated missiles, include components made out of silver, gold, and platinum which provide tempting prizes for illicit scrap dealers.

He has also complained that the military has not been able to shed its Soviet-era attitudes and mode of operating.

Marchuk has promised reforms aimed at eventually turning Ukraine's huge conscript army into a compact, professional force. Such reforms are essential if Ukraine is to stand a chance of joining NATO, an ambition declared by Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma two years ago.

Last week, Kuchma outlined a plan to pare the military down from its present size of 355,000 men and women to 285,000 by the end of 2005, and to 200,000 by end of 2006.

Polyakov is skeptical that the timetable can be achieved:

"To be honest I'm concerned whether it's going to be possible to keep to this plan effectively. If you remember, the military leadership last year wanted the reduction to 200,000 to be achieved by 2005. So now the time has been extended by a year to 2006 but I think it's realistic to talk about such a reduction only by 2008," Polyakov said.

He says the biggest problem is that there has been an inability to restructure the army, which has remained shackled by the doctrines and failings of the old Soviet Army that preceded it.

"It was only around 2000 that current concepts about the need to concentrate on rapid reaction forces rather than large armies came to the fore," Polyakov said.

But Polyakov believes the majority of senior military officers and politicians favor their country joining NATO -- something that could give reforms a boost:

"If you consider NATO criteria for joining -- like high combat readiness, high salaries, and good social guarantees [housing, etc.] for servicemen, and effective, competent civil democratic control -- then you find that almost everyone is in favor of NATO membership," Polyakov said.

However, he says, the problem is that few people believe the country's leadership is ready to take the necessary steps to fulfill the criteria to join NATO.