Ukraine's Salt Mine Arsenal
Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy has made it known that any Ukrainian who wants to fight for their country will be provided a rifle and ammo. This is great to hear from a rights standpoint, but where are all those guns coming from? Sure, there have been verbal commitments from other countries and companies to provide these items, but Ukrainians had an ample amount of arms to be dispersed right away. So, where did they come from?
At the end of an unassuming road outside of the eastern Ukrainian town of Artemivsk (or Bakhmut) is the village of Paraskoviyevka. There, you’ll find a salt mine originally established in 1869.
What was originally manmade caverns, the result of more than a century and a half of mining were turned into the ultimate weapons storage location beginning in the 1950s by the Soviet Union.
Located 150 meters below the surface and accessible by a singular elevator, the caverns, which stretch horizontally for an untold number of kilometers, were chosen not only because of their secluded and secure location but because of
the environment below ground was well suited to long-term arms storage. The temperature and humidity are low, and it remains relatively stable.
Mining still took place further beneath the arsenal, which was sealed off with heavy doors and airlocks and guarded around the clock. The more salt that was removed, the more room there would be for weapons storage.
The kinds of small arms contained here are far-reaching, dating as far back as World War I. There are also World War II weapons from the Red Army, guns captured from German forces, and arms from the United States under the Lend-Lease Agreement. Of course, there was also a large supply of AK-pattern rifles of various different models amassed from the 1950s through to the 1990s.
In 2014, a man interviewed by The Guardian said he worked on weapon maintenance at the facility during the 1990s. The weapons included sabers from World War I and even horse-drawn machine guns known as taczanka.
If they are even remotely similar to the contents unearthed in 2016 in a Russian warehouse, then the possibilities are almost endless, including MG34s, MG42s, Tokarev pistols, Nagant revolvers, and, of course, plenty of AK-variants.
The caretakers of this underground arsenal utilized every possible inch of space, carefully separating arms by era and type, packing them into crates, and then stacking them strategically like Tetris pieces up to 10 meters high in many places. The exact number of arms stored within is unknown, but it was thought to be as many as 3 million at its peak.
Alexei Melnik, a defense analyst at the Razumkov Center in Kyiv visited the cache in 2002 and estimated that it held about 3.5 million firearms at that time.
After the Soviet Union dissolved and soldiers began leaving their posts and returning home, Ukraine found itself being inundated with even more small arms and ammunition as cities throughout the country became convenient locations to ditch surplus equipment.
At one point shortly after the collapse, thousands of rail cars were left stalled on the tracks, full of ammunition, completely unattended. Near Odessa, there were 1,500 railcars; another 1,000 near Slavuta, and 330 more near Chudniv.
The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense tried to inventory their newfound surplus but was quickly overwhelmed. They claimed to have somewhere between 2.44 million and 3 million tons of ammunition and around 7 million small arms stored not just in the mines (which undoubtedly held much of it), but in approximately 220 depots throughout the country.
Unguarded arms and ammo tend to walk, and the situation was no different in Ukraine. We’ll never know exactly how much disappeared from the country, but there are a couple of cases that provide numbers upon which we can extrapolate.
In March 1999, a shipment from Ukraine to Liberia by way of Burkina Faso in Africa contained 68 tons of freight, consisting of 3,000 AKM rifles, 1 million rounds of ammo for the rifles, 25 RPGs, and 80 antiaircraft and antitank missiles.
The second shipment in July 2000 left Ukraine bound for Liberia, too, this time by way of the Ivory Coast. It contained 10,5000 AK-pattern rifles, 120 sniper rifles, and 8 million rounds of ammo.
And still, even with these leaks of tens of thousands of small arms and millions of rounds of ammunition, there are still millions of arms and tens of millions of rounds of ammo secreted away in Ukraine, much of it still in the old salt mine.
"If anyone got in there they could arm everyone in Ukraine. There are rifles, machine guns, heavy weapons, and millions and millions of rounds of ammunition."
When conflict broke out in Ukraine in 2014, one of the guards at the salt mine arsenal told a SkyNews reporter, “If anyone got in there they could arm everyone in Ukraine. There are rifles, machine guns, heavy weapons, and millions and millions of rounds of ammunition.”
With conflict renewed in the country by Russia’s invasion in February 2022, many soldiers are seen today carrying AK variants - any number of which could have come from somewhere within the labyrinth of tunnels within the salt mine stockpile of Paraskoviyevka.
My personal favorite account comes from Yuriy Korchemniy, a Ukrainian historian who has never fired a firearm in his life. He has now picked up an AK-pattern rifle for the first time ever to defend his country. “They gave out the rifles, loaded them for us, and here we are,” said the 35-year-old historian.
We will never know how many arms exactly were once held or are currently held in the salt mine arsenal, but one thing is certain: those guns have been arming Ukrainians and others the world over for decades, and there’s no end in sight.
Even if every single rifle given out to fighters in 2022 grows legs and walks away after the fighting ends - like so many did both during and after the Cold War - I think it’s safe to say that there will still be plenty left should the need arise in the future.
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