Located between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea and bordered by Russia to its north and Iran and Turkey to its south lies a region known as the Transcaucasus. Years of conflict in its three countries -- Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia -- have left behind a deadly legacy of landmines, unexploded munitions, and excess and deteriorating stockpiles of small arms and light weapons that threaten the peace and security of the region.
Over the last 18 years, the Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement (PM/WRA) in the Department of State’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs has provided over $60 million to support conventional weapons destruction projects in the Transcaucasus region. Earlier this summer, a team of PM/WRA experts traveled to Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia to take stock of our progress to date and the challenges ahead for U.S.-funded humanitarian demining and weapons destruction projects in the Transcaucasus. The team conducted field visits to assess current PM/WRA conventional weapons destruction projects and participated in meetings with U.S. embassies, national Mine Action Centers, implementing partners, and host nation government officials.
In Armenia and Azerbaijan, landmines and unexploded munitions remain a dangerous legacy of the 1988-1994 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between the two countries. During this conflict, both countries’ armed forces, as well as former Soviet Union armed forces, placed anti-personnel and anti-vehicle landmines along their borders to prevent incursions from enemy soldiers and vehicles. Today, even as violence flared along the Line of Contact last month, these remnants of war continue to threaten the lives of hundreds of thousands of area residents, particularly those who rely on the land for their livelihoods. Known for its fertile soil, the Nagorno-Karabakh region is rife with uncultivated plots of land rendered unsafe by conflict seeded only with landmines and unexploded munitions, in desperate need of clearance. As in many other post-conflict countries, clearing unexploded ordnance is an essential first step to reconstruction and recovery.
In addition to these threats, Azerbaijan faces additional challenges from stockpiles of excess, obsolete, and deteriorating small arms and light weapons and munitions left over from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, as well as Soviet-era training bases and ammunition storage facilities. As munitions stockpiles age, they become volatile and prone to exploding, potentially destroying entire communities. Such an incident occurred in 1991 in the Saloglu municipality when a military ammunition depot exploded, killing 75 people and scattering hazardous munitions, including white phosphorous bombs, up to ten kilometers away.
Next door in Georgia, communities still face daily dangers from unexploded ordnance left behind after the 1990 to 1992 Georgian-Ossetian war, the country’s more recent 2008 conflict with Russia, and Soviet-era landmines and explosives surrounding former Soviet military bases. Today, this ordnance threatens the lives and livelihoods of those in nearby villages. For example, the explosion of an ammunition depot in the town of Skra in 2008 scattered thousands of munitions throughout the surrounding area, littering the land with explosive hazards. Despite the cessation of active hostilities in Georgia, landmine and unexploded ordnance contamination continues to hinder economic development, agricultural activities, and the safe passage of civilians through contaminated land.
The United States is committed to fostering peace and security in the Transcaucasus region, and supports a number of humanitarian demining, munitions clearance, and weapons and munition stockpile reduction projects in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. In fiscal year 2013, PM/WRA provided over $2.5 million to conventional weapons destruction projects throughout the Transcaucasus. These projects remove landmines and unexploded ordnance from much-needed agricultural land, make roads safe for travel, and prevent excess, deteriorating, and obsolete weapons and ammunition stockpiles from exploding or falling into the wrong hands.
In Armenia, PM/WRA supports the HALO Trust (HALO) and the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action (FSD) to remove landmines and ERW and enhance the humanitarian demining capacity of Armenia’s national mine action authority, the Armenian Centre for Humanitarian Demining and Expertise. With U.S. funding, HALO is conducting clearance operations and is training Peace Keeping Engineering Brigades in landmine clearance outside of the Nagorno-Karabakh region in the towns of Srashen, Kollukishlak, and Nerqin Hand. FSD is further enhancing Armenia’s demining capabilities by partnering with the Armenian Centre for Humanitarian Demining and Expertise to develop national demining standards and improve Armenia’s ability to analyze demining data. Together, we are making the land safe for agricultural development and transportation while helping Armenia to build its own national demining capabilities that will outlast U.S. support.
In Azerbaijan, PM/WRA works with the NATO Support Agency in support of the Azerbaijan National Agency for Mine Action to clear landmines and unexploded ordnance from Jeyranchel, an area along the Georgia border that was once a Soviet Army weapons testing and training range. When completed, local authorities plan to reopen the land to dairy farming.
In Georgia, PM/WRA supports HALO and the NATO Support Agency in their efforts to reduce stockpiles of outdated small arms and conduct clearance of landmines and unexploded ordnance. HALO is currently working in the occupied region of Abkhazia to clear unexploded and abandoned ordnance and also destroy armaments turned in to the Abkhazia Mine Action Office. ERW clearance in the Abkhazia region is of growing importance as more and more people begin to travel through this area. NSPA is also clearing unexploded ordnance in Skra, the site of the 2008 depot explosion.
With U.S. support, organizations such as the HALO Trust, FSD, and NSPA are working to increase peace and stability in the Transcaucasus region by destroying dangerous remnants of war, increasing land available for agricultural and industrial development, and reducing the number of conventional arms and ammunition that otherwise could be at risk of fueling conflicts. Since 1993, the United States has contributed more than $2.3 billion to more than 90 countries around the world to reduce the harmful worldwide effects of at-risk, illicitly proliferated, and indiscriminately used conventional weapons of war. For more information on U.S. humanitarian demining and Conventional Weapons Destruction programs, check out the latest edition of our annual report, To Walk the Earth in Safety.
About the Author: Chris Murguia is a Resource Management Fellow serving in the Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs (PM/WRA). Follow @StateDeptPM on Twitter.