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U.S.: Relations With Ukraine Further Strained By Reported New Iraqi Arms Sales

  • Jeffrey Donovan

U.S. relations with Ukraine, which took a hit last fall when Washington accused Kyiv of selling arms to Iraq, may have taken another blow with fresh allegations of more military sales to Baghdad.

Washington, 13 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- "The Times" of London quotes a senior U.S. official in Washington as saying that Ukraine has sold a pontoon bridge to Iraq and that Kyiv's arms transfers to Baghdad are a "continuing problem."

At the State Department on 10 January, spokesman Richard Boucher told a briefing that he could not confirm the new allegations but said Washington will be looking into them. "Transfers of military equipment to Iraq are violations of UN sanctions. We look into these. We have very strong nonproliferation partnerships with a number of governments, including ones in Europe and Eurasia. In the case of Ukraine, we've been working on that kind of arrangement, and we do have an obligation to look into these matters, these reports, and check up on them," Boucher said.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Anatoliy Zlenko responded on 10 January that Kyiv has, in fact, exported pontoon bridges, but never to Iraq. "If there are any pontoon bridges in Iraq, our government doesn't have any responsibility for it because Ukraine never sold such bridges directly to Iraq," Zlenko said.

But the allegations come at a delicate time for U.S.-Ukrainian relations, which have suffered since the U.S. alleged in September that it had proof that Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma had authorized the sale of a sophisticated Kolchuha aircraft-detection system to Iraq in violation of United Nations sanctions.

That incident surfaced as the U.S. was seeking United Nations support to disarm Iraq of its suspected weapons of mass destruction. It prompted the U.S. to freeze aid to Ukraine and launch a broad policy review toward Kyiv. Boucher said the policy review is still ongoing. But a U.S. official told RFE/RL that the State Department may comment on it in coming weeks.

Such comment is unlikely to be positive. Carlos Pascual, the U.S. ambassador to Kyiv, told a policy forum in Washington last week that the Kolchuha affair is just one of several incidents over the last two years to negatively affect American-Ukrainian relations. "I would characterize the relationship between the United States and Ukraine as perhaps the most difficult it's been since [Ukrainian] independence. Trust has been eroded. There have been missed opportunities, and in some cases there are radically conflicting perspectives on the relationship," he said

While Pascal said the Kolchuha affair was the single most damaging incident to relations, he said things began to deteriorate in late 2000 when audiotapes recorded by a former Kuchma bodyguard appeared to implicate the president in the murder of opposition journalist Heorhiy Gongadze.

Relations have further eroded, Pascual said, as Ukraine has cracked down on the media, mishandled the accidental shooting down of a Russian airliner last year and sold arms to Macedonia during peace talks and shortly after Kuchma had promised that Kyiv would not do so. "President Kuchma assured [White House national security adviser] Condoleezza Rice, [NATO Secretary-General Lord] George Robertson, [and European Union foreign-policy chief] Javier Solana that Ukraine would not transfer heavy arms to Macedonia during a period of time when there were negotiations on a peace settlement. And within one month of that time, there were transfers of heavy arms to Macedonia, which was a tremendous breach of trust."

But if there is distrust in the U.S. of Ukraine, Pascual said American criticism has made people in Ukraine question Washington's motives. He said many Ukrainians believe the U.S. is seeking to undermine Kuchma and replace him with someone from the opposition, such as former Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko. "That is wrong. The United States is not trying to influence or seek to effect a change in Ukrainian politics. What our goal and our hope is to promote a free and fair and open electoral process that allows the Ukrainian people to decide who they want as their leadership. But making those decisions about leadership is not in our hands."

Pascual, speaking at the private Center for Strategic and International Studies, said America sees Ukraine as having the potential to join NATO and the European Union one day. But for now, he said its leadership has eroded trust in the relationship and that the U.S. has concluded that Ukraine is not a reliable partner.

According to James Sherr of the United Kingdom Defense Academy, U.S. policy contrasts with that of the European Union, which sees its ultimate border as not including Ukraine. Sherr, speaking at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, said the EU policy has forced Kyiv to rethink its drive to join the West and has pushed it back toward Russia.

For that reason, Sherr said, the U.S. and other NATO countries have done well not to cut off military cooperation with Ukraine. He said many reforms have been made in Ukraine's military through its cooperation with NATO, and it would have been pointless to stop all that, despite fallout from the Kolchuha affair.

Nicholas Burns, the U.S. ambassador to NATO, said in Washington last week that the arms sales to Iraq have, in fact, dealt a blow to NATO's ties with Kyiv. But he said in a speech at Johns Hopkins University that things could still improve: "We couldn't see elevating to a new status, a new level, NATO-Ukraine relations at a time when Ukraine was being irresponsible in its arms-exports policy toward the no. 1 troublemaker in the Middle East. But we still do hope that over the course of the short and medium term, we can work with Ukraine, to try to bring it into the equation of this pattern of relationships with NATO that will keep Europe stable."

Ambassador Pascual listed four areas in which Washington and Kyiv can work to rebuild trust and relations.

First, he said that if, in the end, there is no way to reach a common understanding over the Kolchuha affair, then at least the two countries could channel their energies into helping Ukraine reform its export controls.

Second, he said the U.S. needs to broadly engage with the Ukrainian government, including closer cooperation with ministers and stepped up relations between the U.S. Congress and the Ukrainian parliament.

Third, Washington must help Ukrainian civil society, and Ukrainian authorities must recognize and encourage the role of a democratic opposition and independent media, and interfere with neither.

Finally, Pascual said military cooperation should continue, and he urged Kyiv, which has said it wants to join NATO, to carry out the action plan it approved at NATO's November summit in Prague. He said the U.S. has an obligation to help Ukraine join Western institutions, such as NATO, the World Trade Organization, and the EU.