Not Utopia

Burned Out Building in Urman Near the 99th Arsenal (photo: Komsomolskaya pravda / Timur Sharipkulov)

Yes, it’s definitely not utopia.

Sometimes it seems Anatoliy Serdyukov resides in a special dystopia reserved for reformers.  In an interview at the very end of last year, Serdyukov said as much.  He admitted his reform of the military isn’t solving every problem.

Addressing munitions dismantlement on December 31, the Defense Minister said:

“The problem is very serious.  For long years, munitions were stockpiled to excess, calculated for a multimillion-man army.  Besides, in the last twenty years, virtually no attention was given to combat training and firings, but the norms of munitions stockpiling remained as before.  As a result, so much ended up in excess that we have work for several years.  To dismantle them by industrial methods is quite complex – there aren’t enough enterprises.  Besides, this is very expensive and not safer than destruction.”

“Therefore, we’re now preparing special teams, certifying equipment, and selecting officers.  They mainly need to be combat engineers.  We’re picking ranges.  We’ve figured where, in what volume, and what we need to blow up, and worked out safe techniques.  We need at a minimum two, maybe three years of such work.  Yes, this will create some temporary discomfort and difficulties.  But it’s impossible to not do this.  If the entire arsenal at Ulyanovsk had blown up, the trouble would have been much more serious.”

Well, he’s right.  It’s a huge problem that has to be resolved. 

There was lots of good (albeit repetitive) news reporting on the two arsenal explosions, and the news analyses and op-eds had a lot of common themes we’ll summarize below.  Many of the same points were made at the time of the 31st Arsenal disaster in 2009.  The major shared ideas are:

  • Russia’s munitions depot problem is enormous, and massive resources are required to resolve it.  The current effort is very belated, and probably grossly underfinanced.  And now the dismantlement and destruction of excess ammunition is being rushed with tragic consequences.
  • Conscripts and crude methods are being employed in place of professional military specialists, civilian experts, and modern equipment.  There’s a willingness to ignore basic safety regulations since draftees are still considered expendable.
  • Military district commanders were not appropriately prepared to supervise storage depots and the dangerous work of eliminating explosives when they took control of them from the Defense Ministry’s Main Missile-Artillery Directorate (GRAU). 
  • The three criticisms above all add to blaming Serdyukov’s reforms for the exploding arsenals.  Critics say he’s rushed the process, forced now sorely-needed ordnance officers out of the army, and taken the situation out of the GRAU’s experienced hands.

Now, to be fair, some of the conditions listed above existed before Serdyukov arrived, and some he created or exacerbated.  And arsenals exploded before.  But these disasters seem to occur more frequently now.

A few other points made by commentators:

  • Trying to destroy munitions on the cheap is leading to even greater losses for the state when it has to compensate injured civilians.
  • Other countries have eliminated huge munitions stockpiles safely, but Russia seems to have a peculiar national tradition of technological carelessness that keeps it from doing the same.
  • The Kremlin and the Defense Ministry won’t find the guilty in these explosions, but some officers and, possibly, officials, will be appointed to fill the role.

Moreover, the MChS says wildfires already cover an area three times larger than this time last year.  Another terrible fire season might threaten many military facilities, including arsenals.

To sum this all up, it’s worth reprinting how Vladislav Shurygin was recapped on these pages 18 months ago:

“He cites the catastrophic state of Russia’s overflowing arsenals and munitions depots.  This summer Serdyukov transferred responsibility for them from the GRAU to the MDs and fleets who aren’t technically prepared to manage them.  Shurygin notes it was GRAU personnel who were punished for the November blasts at the Navy’s arsenal in Ulyanovsk.  Convenient people are punished rather than those who are truly guilty, according to him.”

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