Prague, 29 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Ukrainian Defense Minister Yevhen Marchuk says hundreds of missiles from the country's arsenal are currently unaccounted for, once again raising the issue of the security of former Soviet arsenals.
In an interview published last week in the "Den" newspaper, Marchuk said: "We are looking for several hundred missiles. They have already been decommissioned, but we cannot find them."
"If you lost something in your own flat, it does not mean that you will not successfully find it. You look one day, the second day, the third day, and very often you find [what you are looking for]."
In an interview with RFE/RL, Defense Ministry spokesman Kostyantyn Khivrenko said it is wrong to say the missiles are missing. "They are not missing," he said. "We are only looking for them.”
"If you lost something in your own flat, it does not mean that you will not successfully find it. You look one day, the second day, the third day, and very often you find [what you are looking for]. Yes or no?" Khivrenko said.
Khivrenko declined to comment on the types of missiles that are unaccounted for, only saying that they had already been decommissioned. He suggested the missiles had been deactivated without proper accounting.
Ukrainian prosecutors, meanwhile, have launched an investigation into the affair.
Valentin Badrak heads the Center for Research on the Army, Conversion, and Disarmament, a think tank in Kyiv. He says Marchuk's comments raise more questions than they answer.
Badrak says it is difficult to say what class of missiles Marchuk is referring to. He says they could be "any kind of missile Ukraine inherited from the Soviet Union when the country was left with huge stockpiles of weaponry." He also says the size of the former Soviet stockpile also is not known because Ukraine has no financial resources to make an accurate inventory.
"When Ukraine inherited this [weaponry], it turned out to be difficult to make an inventory. On the one hand, it happened because of the massive Soviet military legacy. On the other hand, Ukraine's military budget was shrinking from year to year, and it became impossible to do that because the budget allowed only to feed the army," Badrak said.
Ukraine sought to destroy unnecessary weapons but many such efforts faltered or failed due to lack of money.
Badrak says there is cause for concern because Ukrainian weaponry has been sold abroad in the past under questionable circumstances in the early 1990s.
"Some time ago, Ukraine had sold to one state -- to Yemen, if I am not mistaken -- four SU-17 [fighter planes]. The price of a plane was the same as of a Mercedes-Benz [car]," Badrak said.
Badrak says an investigation into the matter was dropped and never reopened.
"Something similar could happen with missiles or missile weaponry. It could have happened that something was sold very cheaply or the missiles were utilized and precious [components] were sold without any control," Badrak said.
In 2002, the United States alleged that Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma had sanctioned the sale of sophisticated military radar to Iraq. Kuchma denied the charge, but it badly strained relations with Washington.
While the missing missiles were decommissioned, analysts note they could nevertheless be valuable for the gold, silver, or platinum they may contain.
Leonid Polyakov, a military analyst at Kyiv's Razumkov Center for Economic and Political Studies, says it is difficult to judge the amount of precious metals in the missing weaponry.
"Specialists say, if the rockets we are speaking about are big antiaircraft missiles -- if we are speaking about them -- [they will have more precious metals inside] because the rockets are very different. Big rockets may have a kilogram or a kilo and a half of silver, from which [electric] contacts are made. There can be gold inside or not. The same can be said about platinum," Polyakov said.
Meanwhile, Defense Minister Marchuk said inventories have revealed some $190 billion in missing military equipment. A Ukrainian military analyst quoted by the Associated Press says the figure is referring to the valuable by-products from dismantled weapons rather than weapons themselves.
Marchuk, who was named to the job last June, blames his predecessors for not observing proper accounting standards while dealing with missiles and other weapons.
Analysts can only guess why Marchuk decided to make his disclosures now. Bodrah says the easiest explanation is that he wanted to attract the attention of parliamentarians before planned discussions of military reform in early April.