The United States announced on 24 September it is withholding millions of dollars in grant aid to Ukraine because it suspects Ukraine of selling Iraq an air defense system that could provide America's Middle Eastern enemy with a powerful tool to combat any attack.
Kyiv, 26 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. government on 24 September said it has concluded that Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma violated United Nations sanctions two years ago when he approved the sale of a Kolchuha radar warning system to Iraq.
The U.S. now says it will temporarily withhold $54 million in aid to Ukraine until a more detailed assessment is completed.
The allegations surfaced earlier this year and were the result of secret recordings made in July 2000 of Kuchma's conversations by one of his bodyguards, Mykola Melnychenko.
The Ukrainian foreign minister, Anatoliy Zlenko, yesterday denied the U.S. allegations and says Ukraine has not violated the UN weapons embargo against Iraq.
Kuchma has repeatedly denied all allegations connected to the Melnychenko tapes.
But Patricia Guy, the press attache at the U.S. embassy in Kyiv, says extensive examination of the recordings has convinced the American government that they are authentic: "What is new is that we've recently concluded an analysis of a July 2000 recording that was provided by former Ukrainian presidential bodyguard Mykola Melnychenko. And on one of the tapes Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma is heard approving the clandestine sale of Kolchuha early warning systems to Iraq, and we believe this recording is authentic."
Guy says the U.S. is withholding some of the money that it gives annually to Ukraine under the Freedom Support Act, which is meant to help solidify democracy in countries: "The recording's authentication has led us to re-examine our policy toward Ukraine, and in particular toward President Kuchma. As a result we've initiated a temporary pause in new obligations of Freedom Support Act assistance that goes to the central government of Ukraine while we carry out this review."
Guy says that the temporary halt will not affect the bulk of U.S. support to Ukraine which goes to nongovernmental organizations, local authorities, and private business. She also says military cooperation between the two countries will continue.
Guys says the timing of the U.S. announcement was not intended to make Kuchma's position more difficult at a time when he is coming under fierce attack from Ukraine's political opposition. Anti-Kuchma demonstrations have been held in the Ukrainian capital for the past week, with protesters calling for the president's ouster.
The Kolchuha system was put into operation in 1986 and is, according to RFE/RL sources, produced jointly with Russia. It works by detecting aircraft without emitting any signals of its own, and passing on instructions to missile bases that destroy the incoming planes. It is theoretically immune to being targeted by enemy planes which use signals emanating from air defense radar systems to pinpoint them and destroy them.
With the U.S. seemingly on the brink of war with Iraq, the Kolchuha system could make American and British planes vulnerable to attack by Iraqi missiles.
Guy says the U.S. does not intend to distance itself from Ukraine and is still eager to help Ukraine bring about reforms: "We remain committed, now more than ever, to help Ukraine undertake needed political and economic reforms and draw closer to the rest of Europe. And our ongoing policy review reflects our serious concern that illicit transfers to Iraq were approved by President Kuchma, as well as our determination to discourage further transfers by Ukraine or by any other country that violates UN sanctions on Iraq."
Yuriy Serheyev, state secretary of the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry, told a press conference that Ukraine had not sold the early warning system to Iraq and that UN and other bodies investigating the claim said UN sanctions had not been violated.
He cast doubt on the authenticity of the Melnychenko recordings, which in addition to the allegations regarding Iraq purport to connect Kuchma to a string of corrupt business deals and the murder of a popular opposition journalist. Serheyev says the U.S. had not asked for Ukrainian cooperation in investigating whether the recordings by the former bodyguard were genuine.
He suggests that the tapes could include mention of an Iraqi request to buy the system, as it was not unusual for Ukrainian diplomats returning from abroad to discuss their visits with Kuchma.
The recording is said to document a conversation between Kuchma and Valery Malev, then the director of Ukraine's arms export agency, Ukrspetsexport. Malev allegedly tells the president that a Jordanian intermediary said Iraq wanted to buy four Kolchuha stations for $100 million.
On the recording Malev reportedly suggests that the system be packed in the crates of another Ukrainian company, Kraz, and that Ukrainians with forged passports be sent to Iraq to oversee its installation. Kuchma is allegedly heard saying: "Just watch that the Jordanian keeps his mouth shut" and: "OK. Go ahead."
Asked today whether he believed the timing of the American announcement was designed to influence the current political situation in Ukraine or aid the anti-Kuchma opposition, Serheyev had this to say:
"We would not like to think that it is linked to the present domestic political situation. What we are really worried about in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs are the outright errors made in the accusations. We are especially worried by this because it is serious -- it not only reflects badly on our image, but these accusations of impropriety cast a shadow on the long-standing relations between two serious partners."
"We are anxious about these developments because it gives a basis for all those who would like to besmirch Ukraine as a part of what is called the 'axis of evil' and who would describe Ukraine as a state supporting terrorists."
When asked who has the motive to discredit Ukraine in such a way, Serheyev replied: "You have to figure that out for yourselves." In the past, Ukrainian officials have hinted that former bodyguard Melnychenko was working -- possibly unwittingly -- for the benefit of Russia.