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Ukraine: Joint Military Force Includes Georgia And Azerbaijan

Ukraine has announced plans for the formation of a tripartite joint military battalion with Georgia and Azerbaijan. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky reports this is in step with Ukraine's policy to expand military ties with many countries.

Prague, 24 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- A low-key announcement this week about a joint military unit comprised of Ukrainians, Georgians, and Azerbaijanis is the most recent example of how Ukraine is cautiously expanding its military ties with other countries.

Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksandr Kuzmuk said Tuesday (March 21) that Ukraine, Georgia and Azerbaijan have completed plans for the formation of a joint military unit. He made the announcement during a visit to Poland, where he met with Polish defense officials to agree on the details of a new bilateral Ukrainian-Polish contingent to bolster the international peacekeeping force in Kosovo.

A ministry spokesman, Ihor Halavinsky, said that plans for the tripartite battalion had been drafted by officers from the three nations, and that the new force will be trained at Ukraine's ground-forces institute in Odessa:

"Ukraine plans to contribute one company, that is to say between 110 and 120 men."

Halavinsky also said that Ukraine, while refraining from joining military blocs, had forged links with armies from 40 other countries:

"Ukraine has adopted a multi-vectored policy of cooperation. Moreover, Ukraine does not belong to any groupings like NATO, it's a non-bloc country. Ukraine is developing military relations with other countries on the basis of bilateral or trilateral relations."

Halavinsky said no date has been set yet for the official formation of the unit and that all of its tasks had not yet been defined. But he said it was probable that one of its key responsibilities will be security for a proposed new oil pipeline from Azerbaijan to Georgia.

Ukraine is keen to reduce its dependence on Russian oil, and is looking into the possibility of gaining access to Azerbaijani oil from the Caspian Sea. One proposal involves transporting the oil in tankers from Georgia to Ukraine, and from there onward to the West by pipeline.

Ukraine first proposed the idea of a joint force in 1998 at a meeting of an informal economic association composed of Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and Moldova, which is known as GUUAM. Last spring Georgian, Azerbaijani, and Ukrainian military officers met to discuss the proposal in the Georgian capital Tbilisi.

All the GUUAM countries are seeking alternatives to the CIS economic grouping, which they feel is dominated by Russia.

An RFE/RL correspondent in Azerbaijan says the chief military task of the tripartite battalion will be to guard the future pipeline against terrorist attacks. But he says it is also important politically, signaling to Russia that Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Georgia are going their own separate way.

Another planned regional military operation was outlined this week (March 23) to RFE/RL by a spokesman for the Georgian Ministry of Defense. He said that Ukraine and Azerbaijan were now ready to contribute to a peacekeeping force under UN auspices in Georgia's breakaway Abkhazia region.

Russian peacekeepers have been in Abkhazia since 1994 after a bitter conflict between Georgian troops and Abkhaz separatists. The Georgian government has accused Russia of siding with the separatists. Last week, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze again discussed the possibility of Ukrainian peacekeepers in Abkhazia with Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma.

Ukraine has participated in peacekeeping missions since 1992, when it sent its first peacekeepers to Bosnia as part of the UN effort there. Ukrainian contingents have also served in Croatia and Kosovo. All these missions have enabled Ukraine to increase its military ties with Western countries as well.

Working through the NATO's Partnership for Peace program, Ukraine also has the most extensive ties with the alliance of any former Soviet republic. Earlier this month, NATO Secretary-General George Robertson presided over a meeting of the 19 NATO ambassadors in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv. He called the gathering "historic."