Credit: Medill National Security Reporting Project

PAVLOGRAD, Ukraine — Ten years ago, an ambitious new US senator traveled to this bleak outpost of the former Soviet Union to call for the urgent elimination of the stockpiles of Cold War-era landmines and other munitions that were made and stored here.

“Vast stocks of conventional munitions and military supplies have accumulated in Ukraine,’’ then-Sen. Barack Obama said at a nearby factory in Donetsk. “We need to eliminate these stockpiles for the safety of the Ukrainian people and people around the world, by keeping them out of conflicts around the world.” 

Obama’s warning seems eerily prophetic, now that this same region has become nearly overrun by Russia-backed separatists, and Ukraine has allegedly used some of the most dangerous of these munitions — cluster bombs — to protect itself. Ten years after now-President Obama’s call for action, no one can say for sure whether the stockpiles that remain here are being used by either side in the ongoing conflict.

But every day, the Pavlograd Chemical Plant in this industrial city steadily chips away at them, using a giant silver explosive waste incinerator to break down anti-personnel landmines and other munitions to dust.

The money to pay for this and related efforts began with an unusual agreement between Ukraine, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the United States.

How that arrangement came to be, and Obama’s role in it, is one of the lesser known — and more successful — chapters in the story of how the US, a leader in manufacturing and using landmines and other munitions, is now spending billions to rid the world of them.

Stockpile reduction is one of three major elements of that US campaign, along with clearance, and victim assistance and rehabilitation. Over the past 20 years, Washington has spent more than $2.3 billion on them.

The effort to eliminate these caches of aging munitions is of key strategic interest to the US and its allies because stockpiles — especially of anti-personnel landmines — are often dangerously unstable, and far outnumber those actually laid in the ground, according to the United Nations’ Mine Action Service.

During the Cold War, Ukraine was the major center for arms production and strategic reserves of conventional munitions for the entire Soviet Union.

The number of accidents at ammunition and weapons depots has risen dramatically over the past 35 years, and is likely to get much worse as the weapons degrade even further, according to the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey.

The research firm said such accidents were “quite common,” and often resulted in dozens of casualties and millions of dollars in damages to nearby buildings, infrastructure and homes. During the 1980s, the Survey recorded an average of 4.3 events per year. That doubled to 11.3 during the 1990s and then more than doubled again to 23.9 from 2000 onwards, according to the Small Arms Survey. Since 2010, the Survey has recorded an average of 26.8 events per year.

Between 2003 and 2011, there were 10 unplanned explosions at munition sites just in Ukraine, and many dozens more in other countries that keep similar stockpiles of former military materiel. 

One series of explosions in Sofia, Bulgaria, in 2008 registered a 3.2 magnitude shock on seismographs. An explosion that year in Albania killed 26 people and created a similarly powerful shock wave, which damaged the country’s main international airport.

And in Ukraine, a massive 2004 blast at a depot near Melitopol in the Zaporizhzhya region killed five people, injured many dozens of others and forced the evacuation of 7,000 residents. It was so powerful that it inflicted as much as $1 billion (Euro) in damages to 1,500 buildings within a three kilometer radius, NATO said in 2011.

“The numerous and poorly stored munitions are also a temptation for illegal arms traders, who can spread the danger much further,” NATO warned at the time.

Obama made similar warnings during his visit to Donetsk. But that has made the current effort all the more politically delicate for Obama now that he’s president.

The reason: Like his predecessors in the White House, Obama has refused to destroy or even reduce US stockpiles of the same kinds of landmines and cluster munitions. And he won’t sign two separate international treaties that would require the US to do so.

Many US allies have signed the treaties, and are pressing Washington to join. While the Obama administration recently announced steps to bring it more in line with the principles of the treaties, it has never released the findings of a key task force Obama created when taking office to look into the feasibility of signing them, and destroying US stockpiles.

At the same time, however, the State Department is playing a lead role globally in trying to get other countries to give up their own stockpiles of conventional munitions, including Cyprus, Estonia and Moldova.

In all, more than 48 million stockpiled antipersonnel mines have been destroyed since 1999 and just six of the parties to the treaty have yet to complete destruction of their stockpiles. Three of these countries failed to complete the destruction of their stockpiles within four years of joining the treaty and therefore remained in violation of that treaty provision: Belarus and Greece since 2008, and Ukraine since 2010.

The program hasn’t been without controversy.

In 2008 the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute reported that between 2004 and 2007, Ukraine sent nearly 722,000 small arms and light weapons to 27 different countries, including the UK and Libya — and the United States. US Embassy officials in Kyiv complained that other weapons from the stockpile were being sold instead of destroyed.

And some critics say the stockpiles shouldn’t have been destroyed at all because they are crucial for Ukraine’s efforts to keep a standing army battle ready. Without them, they say, the Kyiv government has been less successful in contesting the incursions by Russia-backed forces in the eastern parts of Ukraine.

Former Sen. Richard Lugar, Obama’s co-author on legislation funding the program, denies that. In an interview, Lugar said the weapons were mostly old and unstable, and that Ukraine has newer, more sophisticated and powerful ones.

The world's biggest weapons stockpile

During the Cold War, Ukraine was the major center for arms production and strategic reserves of conventional munitions for the entire Soviet Union. As Soviet forces left Eastern Europe in the early 1990s, they abandoned even more caches of munitions in Ukraine.

The new government in Kyiv was now in charge of more than 80 highly volatile depots that held 7 million small arms and light weapons, and as much as 2 million tons of conventional munitions, even though NATO warned that they were designed to hold far less than that. Worse, many of the explosives were kept in shacks outdoors, or left completely unguarded.

Ukraine in February 1999 signed the Mine Ban Treaty, which includes a promise to eliminate its munitions stockpiles. Two years later, Kyiv asked NATO for help, which turned to its biggest benefactor, the United States, to help create what the alliance described as the largest-ever demilitarization project for conventional weapons.

“When we developed the project proposal, the US said ‘yes, we want to take this on,’ but they also passed the hat around for funding from contributing nations,” said Bob Reddington, Senior Logistics Officer for NATO’s Support Agency (NSPA) in Luxembourg.

While that effort was underway, Obama was becoming interested in the global threat posed by nuclear weapons.

Despite being sworn in less than a year earlier, the Illinois Democrat was already a member of the prestigious Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and eager to get a few foreign trips under his belt.

He asked Lugar, the committee’s influential and longtime Republican chairman from neighboring Indiana, if he could tag along on his next trip to Russia.

Lugar had been making annual trips to Russia — and Ukraine and other former Soviet bloc countries — for more than a decade. He mostly went, he says, to oversee his highly successful Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program, which had persuaded those countries to give up their nuclear weapons.  In Ukraine’s case, it was more than 1,200 nuclear-tipped missiles.

By the summer of 2005, Lugar and Obama had begun thinking of using the Nunn-Lugar model to create a program to destroy something else — the massive stockpiles of conventional weapons. That included MANPADS, or shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, which Al Qaeda was trying to obtain at the time. 

During their August trip to several countries, Obama and Lugar hiked through nuclear weapons storage sites, picked through piles of mortar rounds and landmines, toured missile elimination facilities and examined laboratories containing deadly pathogens, Lugar later said in a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations. They were even detained for three hours in the visitors lounge at a remote Russian airfield.

During their stop in Ukraine, the two were shocked by what they saw during an unexpected detour, Lugar recalls. Their hosts had taken them to a remote forest, where they walked among huge piles of munitions that had been abandoned as far back as World War I.

“It’s very vivid in my mind,” Lugar says. “There was just a lot of stuff that was stacked, and I’m sure that people in Ukraine were showing us this as an illustration of the larger problem.”

This photo from Jan. 25, 2007 shows (from left to right) US Sen. Tom Harkin, D-IA, then-Sen. Barack Obama, D-IL, Sen. Richard Lugar, R-IN, and Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-ND, holding a press conference on energy in Washington.

Lugar and his young protégé also were given an eye-opening tour of one of the biggest official government munitions depots, the Donetsk State Chemical Production Plant, in the eastern sector of Ukraine. 

Standing amid the stockpiles, they called for the immediate destruction of 15,000 tons of ammunition, 400,000 small arms and light weapons, and 1,000 MANPADS.

“We are encouraging the US and Ukraine to work together and to obtain more funds,” Lugar said. “We came here to see the problem and the solution with our own eyes.”

Obama noted that while some of the Donetsk depot’s stockpile dated from World War I and II, most of it was more recent, from the Cold War buildup “and the stocks left behind by Soviet withdrawals from East Germany, the Czech Republic, Hungry and Poland.”

The US had already contributed $2.1 million to the NATO-led project, with nine other countries kicking in $1.2 million more. But they wanted Congress to contribute a lot more, as NATO had been requesting.

Firing up the explosives incinerator

A year later, President George W. Bush signed into law the proposal authored by Obama and Lugar after Congress passed it. The law called on the US to seek out — and eliminate — surplus and unguarded stocks of conventional armaments globally. It also ordered the State Department to create a special office that could better plan, coordinate and implement such a strategy, and that it be given a budget “commensurate with the risk posed by these weapons.”

NATO’s Partnership For Peace Trust Fund munitions reduction program, as it was known, launched in 2006 and was operated by NATO’s Support Agency, or NSPA, which coordinates weapons destruction programs among the 28 NATO nations.

Given its size — NATO called it the biggest demilitarization program in the world — the project was broken down into four phases, each covering three years. Its ultimate goal: destroying a total of 1.5 million small arms and light weapons, 133,000 tons of conventional ammunition, 1,000 MANPAD missiles — and a whopping 3 million anti-personnel landmines.

Phase One had the support of 17 NATO and partner nations, including the European Union and in-kind contributions from Ukraine, including security, inspectors and office facilities. It was completed in 2011 with over 398,000 weapons destroyed.

Phase Two was launched in May 2012, and covers another 400,000 weapons as well as 3 million landmines. The mines were not part of the original agreement but, according to State Department officials, the Ukrainians asked for them to be included because they had missed a June 2010 deadline for destroying mines as required under their treaty obligations.

In a recent interview at the embassy in Kyiv, US Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt praised the program.

“Our partnership with Ukraine on issues of nonproliferation and disarmament is one that’s as long as our bilateral relationship,” Pyatt said.

Top Ukrainian officials have praised the partnership, too.

“Ukraine highly appreciates NATO assistance in solving this problem,” said Victor Korendovych, deputy head of Ukraine’s Mission to NATO, at the Phase Two signing ceremony.

Since the start, the US has been the clear leader in the program, according to US and NATO figures and interviews.

At least 20 countries had pitched in by February 2014 — including Ukraine itself — and the partnership has destroyed 100 MANPADS, 28,000 tons of conventional ammunition, more than 500,000 small arms and light weapons and 330,000 antipersonnel landmines, according to NATO and State Department figures.

But of the $22.9 million in donor contributions, the US has contributed $17.2 million of it.

“It is a very robust and ambitious project,” described Reddington. “But in order to do that there have to be contributions from other nations.”

Bob Reddington from Medill Washington on Vimeo.

Vasil Lytvncyk, the Ukraine-based NSPA Project Supervisor, agrees, saying the project is at a critical phase and needs more help.

With US support, the Pavlograd Chemical Plant — the main site for landmine destruction — now has a second industrial incinerator, he said.

But Phases Three and Four call for the destruction of a total of 133,000 tons of convention ammunition, 1.5 million small arms and light weapons, as well as support for Ukraine in destroying the 3 million antipersonnel landmines. NATO is negotiating with some European countries to contribute more money, especially to pay for the ambitious mine destruction program, Lytvncyk says.

“There are more here in Ukraine to be destroyed,” he says. “And Ukraine has capability, industrial capability, to destroy such quantity of landmines. And we, all partners of this project, we are waiting (for) this money to continue work for (the) destruction of landmines.”

Politics not as usual 

The Pavlograd Plant, a mere 72 miles from the current Crimean conflict in Donetsk, is tucked away in the industrial Dnepropetrovsk Region of Central Ukraine.

During a recent tour, directors boasted of their incinerators and other state-of-the-art equipment for the destruction and disposal of anti-personnel landmines.

Pavlograd Chemical Plant from Medill Washington on Vimeo.

But these and other Ukrainian officials warned that their robust program can’t defend the country from what Obama warned about back in 2005: the possibility of these mines and other munitions falling into the wrong hands.

Potentially, that’s a serious problem, they concede, because of the invasion of pro-Russian separatist troops from the east, and the February 2014 Ukrainian Revolution that led to the impeachment of then-President Viktor Yanukovych and the reorganization of the country’s Parliament.

Kyiv Center from Medill Washington on Vimeo.

“Obviously, the relentless campaign of aggression that Russia has been engaged in since February against this country has produced a major reassessment of strategic orientation,” explained Ambassador Pyatt. “The Ukrainian people never imagined that they had to be prepared to defend themselves from the Russian army…but now they do.”

National Security and Defense Council Information Center spokesman Col. Andriy Lysenko speaks at the Media Crisis Center about the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

The US currently faces the question of how to help Ukraine, including whether to give it weapons after spending so much to help it eliminate the stockpiles. Just this year, Obama pledged $219 million in aid to Ukraine. Kyiv is now asking for more.

In September 2014, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko asked the United States to “not let Ukraine stand alone in the face of aggression.” He requested Congress provide financial, political and “both lethal and nonlethal military assistance” to Ukrainian soldiers.

In response to Poroshenko’s plea, the US forwarded $53 million to Ukraine, but refused to supply military support.

To the everyday Ukrainian, stockpile reduction efforts are irrelevant; rather, they are concerned with the survival of their soldiers fighting in the east, as well as the realization that pro-Russian forces continue to inch closer and closer to Ukrainian cities.

“The issues are embedded in a much larger reorientation and reassessment of the strategic environment in which Ukraine and Ukrainian leaders need to make decisions,” Pyatt said.

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