Last month’s explosion of a military ammunition warehouse in the central Ukrainian town of Kalynivka is the fourth such incident since the start of the war in Ukraine’s east in 2014. Despite confident statements from Ukrainian officials that each was a case of sabotage, investigations are proceeding extremely slowly and victims are still awaiting compensation.
Hromadske breaks down the four cases and looks at where the investigations stand.
Svatove, Luhansk region, October 2015
The first fire at munitions warehouse occurred in Svatove, not far from the occupied Luhansk region. From the beginning, separatist-organized sabotage was the main explanation. Just three hours after the explosions, Heorhiy Tuka — then head of the military-civilian administration of the government-controlled Luhansk region — said that two artillery shots were fired from a signal rocket. One was subsequently extinguished, but the other caused the fire.
The Ministry of Defense later confirmed this version, stating that “the enemy’s objective was destabilization in the region.” The Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) began investigating the explosion as a terrorist attack causing death.
Photo credit: UNIAN
However, a year after the explosion, only one Ukrainian officer was found guilty. Major Oleksandr Litvinenko, head of the the storage department of the Sector A munitions warehouse, which was located in a local factory. He made a plea deal with the investigation and was found guilty under section two, article 403 of the Ukrainian criminal code: failure to comply with orders during a state of emergency.
According to documents from the criminal case, Litvinenko was allegedly unable to provide adequate safety measures at the warehouse in Svatove and also failed to carry out a verbal order from command to eliminate safety violations detected during inspection.
“As a result of the non-enforcement of [this] order on the territory of the field ammunition warehouse site in the city of Svatove, it became possible for wooden boxes of ammunition to burn and for the flames to spread further to other rocket-artillery weapons...this caused further detonation[s] over the course of the fire, led to the breakdown of measures to ensure the constant combat readiness of the Sector A military units, and undermined the authority of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. That is, it had grave consequences,” reads the sentence.
Litvinenko was not blamed for the human or material losses. Instead, the court considers undermining of the authority of the Ukrainian Armed Forces to be one of the grave consequences.
Having been found guilty, Oleksandr Litvinenko was sentenced to seven months and twenty-two days of detention in a disciplinary battalion. However, he spent half of this time in pre-trial detention and was actually released after the sentence was pronounced.
Oleksandr Litvinenko Photo credit: Nataliya Epifanovych
Furthermore, according to Ukrainian Defense Minister Stepan Poltorak, after the warehouse explosion in Svatove, the deputy chief of the general staff was dismissed and six generals and 46 officers were accused of negligence.
As a result of the Svatove explosion, 49-year-old local resident Liudmila Solchinska and three servicemen were killed. The military estimates damages in excess of $5 million and the destruction of 3,500 tons of ammunition and 48 units of military equipment and heavy weapons. The total loss of civilian property has yet to be calculated in full.
In the first few days after the fire, local authorities claimed that 354 private and 16 multi-story residential buildings suffered roof damage; that the explosions had knocked out close to a thousand windows; and that three kindergartens, four schools, a regional boarding school, and a number of commercial and administrative buildings were damaged.
Photo credit: UNIAN
According to lawyer Yuliya Naumenko, only communal buildings and high-rises were repaired using funds from state and local budgets. Naumenko represents the families of deceased Liudmila Solchinska and several residents of Svatove whose buildings were destroyed during the explosions. Together, they tried to have Major Litvinenko’s sentence revised.
“None of my defendants are recognized as victims in the case — there are no victims at all,” says the outraged lawyer.
Photo credit: UNIAN
Naumenko also counts among her clients victims involved in other criminal proceedings opened against the state in connection with the fire in Svatove. For almost two years the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) has been investigating them under on terrorism and neglect of military service charges. Information on the suspects in the case cannot be found in published court rulings. However, the investigation found a variety of evidence of servicemen stealing ammunition and machinery parts for scrap metal.
“As long as there are no suspects, it is absolutely unclear who will seek compensation from us for ruined property and destroyed lives,” says Naumenko.
Balakliya, Karkhiv region, March 2017
The March 2017 explosion in Balakliya was also characterized as sabotage from the very beginning. According to Ukraine’s Chief Military Prosecutor Anatoliy Matios, the night before the explosions, the buzz of an unknown aircraft (possibly unmanned) was heard above the military unit. In the SBU’s opinion, previous incidents suggest that this was a terrorist attack: in the fall of 2014, unknown individuals detonated three grenades near the arsenal.
Photo credit: EPA/PAVLO PAKHOMENKO
The military prosecutor’s office and the SBU were ready to investigate the incident and the possibility of official negligence and hostile sabotage. However, both investigations were combined into one criminal proceeding. The court registry reveals few things about the investigation. At the beginning of the summer, investigators were given access to secret documents, and consequently there was a lack of procedural action in the case. Hromadske appealed to the SBU and the military prosecutor’s office for comments on the course of the investigation.
Defense Minister Stepan Poltorak says that disciplinary measures were taken against 80 people as a result of their work in Balakliya.
Photo credit: EPA/ANDREW KRAVCHENKO
The explosion killed two civilians and injured several others. Judging by the documents available in the court register, relatives of one of the victims demanded a separate investigation. But in May, the police closed the separate murder proceeding based on the fact that the case was being investigated by the SBU.
In total, 345 homes were damaged by the explosion in Balakliya. As of September, 10 million hryvnia (nearly $375,000) from the state budget were allocated to purchase housing. Twenty-five apartments and two private homes were handed over to the victims. The Kharkhiv regional administration promised to provide new housing to all victims before October 1.
The emergency situation created by the explosion has also led to several other cases that are not directly related to the causes of the tragedy. In June, the Balakliya district court sought the administrative liability of an officer who was allegedly working while intoxicated in the aftermath of the explosion.
In April, on the outskirts of Balakliya’s neighbouring village of Yakovenkovo, a 36-year-old resident found an engine from a 3M9 “Cube” rocket and tried to disassemble it at home. The engine caught fire, resulting in the death of the man’s four-year-old son. In August, the court sentenced him to five years in prison with two years of probation.
Novoyanysol, Donetsk region, September 2017
A week after the third munitions explosions, near the city of Mariupol, little was known about the investigation. Law enforcement was inclined to believe the fire was caused by local farmers burning dry grass in adjacent fields.
“I understand that farmers were preparing a field for plowing and burnt everything that was left. On September 22, there was a strong wind and the flames were carried to the warehouse’s territory,” said Ukrainian Armed Forces spokesperson Serhiy Furdyk in a commentary to Ukrainian media outlet TSN.
Photo credit: UNIAN
Preliminary evidence of the fire and munitions explosion was qualified as “intentional destruction or damage to property” under article 194 of the Ukrainian Criminal Code. The police and the military prosecutor’s office are jointly conducting the investigation.
Compared to the other incidents, the losses in Novoyanosol are negligible. There were no injuries and only 14 private residences were damaged. Most of the residents didn’t leave the village during the explosions.
So far, it remains unknown if compensation will be paid for the damages.
Kalynivka, Vinnytsia region, September 2017
After the explosions started at a munitions warehouse near town of Kalynivka, a total of 30 thousand people were evacuated from the town and adjacent settlements. According to the local authorities, two people were wounded, but no one was killed.
Photo credit: EPA-EFE/SERGEY DOLZHENKO
The authorities are still calculating the military and the civilian population’s material losses. As the explosions began, the authorities shut down transport near the warehouses, so both Ukrainian Railways (Ukrzaliznytsia) and the Ukrainian State Air Traffic Service Enterprise (UkSATSE) suffered losses. Railway workers were forced to change the routes of 47 trains, allowing them to bypass the dangerous territory.
According to Ukraine’s Chief Military Prosecutor, Anatoly Matios, the investigators are considering four versions of the incident.
Photo credit: EPA-EFE/SERGEY DOLZHENKO
“The first version: a person penetrated the territory of the military unit and planted an explosive device. The second version: an explosive device was mounted in the ammunition that came into the military unit for storage. The third is a criminal offense committed by workers who were installing surveillance cameras on the territory of the unit. And the fourth, a criminal offense committed though violations of the rules for the storage and maintenance of ammunition,” Matios said.
He also noted that in the Kalynivka warehouse fire safety rules were violated — in particular, the alarm system did not work.
/Written by Ihor Burdyha
/Translated and adapted by Eilish Hart