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Ukraine: Parliament Debates Sending Antichemical-Warfare Team To Gulf

  • Askold Krushelnycky

Despite public opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma has offered to send a battalion of troops expert at countering the effects of nuclear, biological and chemical attacks to the region. Parliament is expected to vote on the request today.

Prague, 20 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Protesters gathered outside Ukraine's parliament today to protest the U.S.-led attack on Iraq and urged deputies to vote against sending an antichemical-weapons force to Kuwait.

The Ukrainian parliament is due to vote today on a request by President Leonid Kuchma to send a 530-man Ukrainian antichemical unit to Kuwait to help in the event of a chemical or biological attack by Iraq. Kuchma's offer has drawn praise from the U.S., despite sour relations between Washington and Kyiv in recent months.

While Kuchma expressed his concern over the failure of diplomatic initiatives at the UN to prevent a war with Iraq, he nevertheless has criticized Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein for not cooperating fully with UN weapons inspectors.

The Ukrainian government has also promised not to revoke air-transit permission for U.S. military aircraft crossing its airspace on the way to the Middle East.

Leonid Polyakov is an expert on military matters at the Rozumkov Center, an independent Ukrainian think tank. Polyakov said polls show most Ukrainians are against a war with Iraq. "As to the attitude of the general population, you can say that two-thirds or three-quarters -- much more than half the population -- are against this course of action," Polyakov said.

He said most Ukrainians are more concerned with the miserable economic circumstances in their country than with events in Iraq, which is why Ukraine and its capital, Kyiv, have not seen the sort of huge antiwar demonstrations that have taken place elsewhere in Europe.

Those who do oppose the war are not only traditionally anti-American communists. They also include people who admire America and her role in the past century in fighting for freedom in Europe and standing up to the Soviet Union's tyranny.

Ivan Dzyuba is one of Ukraine's best-known former Soviet-era dissidents, an author and a figure still prominent in Ukraine's intellectual life. He said he has been taken aback by the actions of the U.S., a country that he says is a symbol of liberty. He said he would join any antiwar demonstrations. "The womb of democracy is transforming itself into an international criminal before our very eyes. What's happening is impossible to understand," Dzyuba said.

An unscientific poll conducted by RFE/RL Kyiv bureau reporter Pavlo Volvac showed that out of 10 people questioned randomly on the street, only one supports war against Iraq. Others, like Timosei, a student, are skeptical about the reasons for war. "This is a war about oil, not about democracy and freedom. If it was about democracy, then well.... But if the U.S. was acting democratically, it wouldn't behave this way. A war for oil is a war for money and not for freedom. [Justifying the war by saying it is a fight against] terrorism is just a cover," Timosei said.

Pensioner Bohdana, who lived through World War II, said: "There should be no war because this will turn into yet another world war and entire peoples will die, not just in Iraq, because the war will spread to other continents. That's why I'm against this war. They [world leaders] should use their heads and think about what they're doing."

She agreed that the danger of terrorism must be tackled, but not by a war that could cost the lives of innocents. "Let them capture the terrorists and put them on trial for what they do. But let the other people live in peace. Let the Iraqis bring up their children and let them take joy in this life, which is only given once," Bohdana said.

Businessman Ihor, one of the minority who supports the war, explained why: "It is not worth waiting until this modern Hitler [Saddam Hussein] is in a position to blackmail the whole world. If there had been strong leaders in 1933 [when Hitler took power], Europe would not have had to endure the horror of World War II and would not have had to pay such a terrible price in lives."

Kuchma's relations with the U.S. and other Western countries have deteriorated sharply over the past year amid allegations that he is involved in corruption, the murder of an opposition journalist and that he authorized the illegal sale of a sophisticated air-defense radar called Kolchuha to the Iraqis.

Kuchma denies the sale of Kolchuha to Iraq. But the U.S. and Britain, whose combat aircraft are at increased risk if the system is in place in Iraq, believe he did authorize the sale. An investigation conducted last fall to determine whether the Kolchuha system is in Iraq proved inconclusive.

There has been speculation that Kuchma's offer to send the specialist battalion to the Persian Gulf is an attempt to rebuild friendly relations with America.

Rozumkov think-tank member Polyakov agreed that could be one of Kuchma's motives, but says there may be other reasons for the offer. He said the offer was also supported by Ukraine's National Security Council and that Ukraine's Defense Ministry and many high-ranking officers have developed close relationships with their U.S. counterparts. "Why did it [the offer to send troops] happen? I think that the problem concerning Kolchuha did influence the decision, but to say Kolchuha was the only reason would be wrong because Ukraine has had long relations with the United States, especially in the military sphere. I would say that the best relations [between the two countries] are between their defense ministries and in the area of defense generally," Polyakov said.

Kuchma, addressing students at a Ukrainian university last weekend, said the battalion would not take part in any military action in Iraq. He said: "If [chemical] weapons, which are being talked about, are really used, then the Ukrainian battalion will provide protection to the regional states alongside similar battalions, which Germany, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and other countries are sending to the Persian Gulf region."

Polyakov said Ukraine's 19th Separate Radiation, Chemical, and Biological Defense Battalion was assembled last October. About 25 percent of its members have experience tackling the effects of the 1986 nuclear disaster at the Chornobyl power station in Ukraine, and 16 percent saw combat in Afghanistan. The unit is only equipped with small arms for its own defense.

Polyakov said the battalion held maneuvers for foreign military attaches, including officials from the U.S., last December and that everyone had been impressed by the demonstration. "Those serving in the battalion have practical experience. None of them are conscripts. They are all professionals -- officers and soldiers -- and they all volunteered to operate in the Persian Gulf," he said.

The battalion's members have already received inoculations necessary for service in the Middle East and are ready to fly out as soon as parliamentary approval is given.

Some members of parliament object to the battalion's deployment, saying Ukraine is abandoning its neutral position in favor of the U.S. Polyakov believes any vote on deployment will be close but that the president's view will prevail. "The initiative to send out the battalion came from the president, and parliament has a so-called presidential majority. We all know that when the government and president really want to get a measure passed, then a lot of resources are thrown into the effort," he said.

The president's office said on 18 March that U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told Kuchma by telephone that he appreciated Ukraine's readiness to deploy the battalion. He said the move would deepen cooperation and put relations on a new level.