Slovyansk has become the pivot of the Ukrainian crisis, occupying the front pages of international newspapers and the headlines of the news channels all over the world. Only a few of us had heard its name before, and probably nobody would have bet a cent on its role in the eastern separatist movement, looking more to towns like Donetsk and Lughansk. Good to know, the biggest weapons stockpile of all Eastern Europe is hidden in the city’s underground.
- Tuesday, 29 April 2014
With little more than one hundred thousand inhabitants, the city is a resort best known for its medicinal salt lakes and an ancient fortress. But it is definitely not the most important town in eastern Ukraine, especially when compared to the bigger, richer and more industrialized cities (and regions) of Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk and Donetsk, where pro-Russian protesters have occupied government buildings already a couple of weeks ago. Laying halfway on the main road between Donetsk and Kharkiv, Slovyansk is an anonymous and sleepy build up area like many other in the east, but today it represents the bridgehead of the separatist forces in the Russian-speaking provinces. Some dozen of gunmen in balaclavas armed with automatic rifles seized the city police station and the town hall, rising the Russian flag on top the public buildings. Then a self-appointed “people’s” mayor popped, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, and the Slovyansk city council – with masked gunmen guarding the entrance and sandbagged sniper nests on the roof – become the headquarter of the eastern Ukraine separatist insurgency.
One million rifles. Or maybe three.
After a second stage of anti-terrorist operation was slowly carried on in east, clashes between the “self-defense forces” and the Alfa special corps from Kyiv caused at least 5 victims among the pro-Russians. But operations were also carried in a locality close to Slovjansk, the even smaller and more anonymous Artemovsk, where the Ukrainian news agency Interfax reported that unknown persons have opened fire in the town. But Artemovsk is not that unknown to people interested in weapons, just like members of insurgent armies and separatists. Some 1,5 million guns, rifles and light weapons – ageing from the WWI to the more up-to-date AKMs – and 33,000 tons of ammunition are said to be buried 150 meters below the ground. The Soviets constructed what could be referred as the largest arms stockpile in Ukraine and, possibly, in all Eastern Europe, in sections of the still-functioning subterranean Volodarsky salt mine. At the peak of its operations, it contained some 3 million guns, from WWI vintage up to new production AKMs, all burried up to 150m below ground.
The most dangerous place in Ukraine
"If such a large amount of weapons fell into hands of separatists, it would be a catastrophe," said to the Guardian Alexei Melnik, a defence analyst at the Razumkov centre in Kiev. Melnik said he visited the depot in 2002 and could see it held about 3.5m firearms. According to some sources reported by the Guadian some trucks were seen driving into and out the facility, but the self-appointed Mayor of Slovyansk said no weapons had been removed from the site in the past days. The separatists who control the entire area are guarding the facility’s entrance.They say they fear that weapons buried under their feet could go to arm the national guard and could be used against them in the anti-terrorist operation announced by the acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov.
The Ukrainian Interior ministry recently referred at Slavyansk as the "most dangerous place in Ukraine". There are other places now in eastern Ukraine where armed men in balaclavas have occupied local administration buildings, proclaimed the independence of a newly formed “respublika”, and called for a Crimean-style referendum. But neither Donetsk nor Lughansk can compare the level of militarization seen in the streets of Slovyansk. The violence peak reached in the clashes between the security forces and the paramilitary separatists is something we have not seen yet in Ukraine, not even in Crimea. And the reason is probably linked to the importance of Artemovsk hidden arsenal.