Ukraine has been embarrassed by U.S. charges that Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma approved the sale of a sophisticated radar system to Iraq. A senior Ukrainian official has told RFE/RL that Kuchma did, indeed, approve the sale but that Ukraine did not go ahead with it. RFE/RL spoke on the issue today with the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Carlos Pascual.
Kyiv, 27 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma has strenuously denied accusations by the United States that he approved, in July 2000, the sale to Iraq of a sophisticated aircraft-detection system called Kolchuha.
Washington this week temporarily suspended $54 million in aid to Ukraine as it investigates the issue further.
The Kolchuha system detects aircraft and passes their position to antiaircraft bases without sending out signals itself. U.S. and British warplanes operating over the no-fly zones in Iraq have been able to destroy conventional radar systems by homing in on the signals they emanate. The United States is concerned that if Iraq has the Kolchuha system, U.S. and British aircraft will become vulnerable.
The U.S. charges are based on a secret recording made by a former Ukrainian presidential bodyguard who was last year granted political asylum in the United States. The recording is said to document a conversation between Kuchma and Valeriy Malev, then the director of Ukraine's arms export agency, Ukrspetsexport. Malev reportedly tells Kuchma that Iraq, through a Jordanian intermediary, wants to buy four Kolchuha stations for $100 million.
On the recording, Malev 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 reportedly heard saying, "Just watch that the Jordanian keeps his mouth shut," and "OK, go ahead."
There are signs that Ukraine may be edging toward admitting that the Kuchma recording is authentic but vigorously denying that any sale actually took place.
A senior official in the Ukrainian government, speaking on condition of anonymity, told RFE/RL this week that the recording is, indeed, genuine, but insisted Ukraine did not sell the system. Instead, he alleged that Russia, which also manufactures a version of the system, intervened and handled the sale itself.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Anatoliy Zlenko said during a visit to the Dominican Republic on 25 September that the tape could have been made during one of the president's discussions, but that it is "impossible to sell arms in this manner."
Kuchma yesterday told British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon, who was on a visit to the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, that he will provide all the necessary information to international bodies to prove the charges are false.
U.S. Ambassador to Kyiv Carlos Pascual said yesterday that Washington is convinced the recording is authentic. But he said it does not prove that Ukraine actually sold the detection system to Iraq. "We have not confirmed that the Kolchuha system has been transferred to Iraq. We have some information that concerns us, and we continue to investigate that," Pascual said.
The ambassador said the decision to suspend the financial aid to Ukraine was taken because the recording shows Kuchma's willingness to sell the Kolchuha system to Iraq. "Let me also clarify that the policy review that's being undertaken is based on the confirmation of the recording, not on the basis of the suspicion of a transfer. If there had been a transfer, that would automatically trigger sanctions in American law, and it would be a violation of UN sanctions. We are not at that point," Pascual said.
The U.S. State Department earlier this week said it has "indications" the Kolchuha system is already in place in Iraq. Pascual refused to elaborate. "I think it's important to clarify this issue is not so much an issue against Ukraine. It's a concern about the proliferation of sophisticated military technology to Iraq. And it is absolutely crucial that there be a clear investigation of any allegation of arms transfers to Iraq because they can present a threat to the international community and, very specifically, this kind of technology would present a threat to American and British pilots," Pascual said.
The Kolchuha system was developed in 1985 during the Soviet era and went into service the following year. It was manufactured jointly in Ukraine and Russia. Russia took most of the stocks when Ukraine declared independence in 1991. Ukraine says it has only manufactured four since then, although it says its modifications make it superior to the old version.
U.S. Ambassador Pascual said the possibility that Russia was involved in the sale will be investigated. "Obviously, we will investigate allegations regardless of what country might be involved," Pascual said.
He said the United States welcomes Ukraine's willingness to cooperate with any investigation into the alleged sale. He said the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry has volunteered to provide a list of all Ukrainian citizens who have been in Iraq during the period relevant to the Kolchuha issue. Ukraine has said it will cooperate in investigations with the United States, the United Nations, NATO, and the European Union.
But Pascual said Ukraine must be honest in its cooperation and suggested that it will not be easy to arrive at the truth. "This issue, appropriately, has received a great deal of attention, but that also creates an environment where individuals could perhaps even have manipulated or destroyed information. So one has to take things like that into consideration -- of how to develop an investigation team that can work together and reach some sort of an understanding," Pascual said.
The U.S. charges come as Kuchma is under increasing pressure from the domestic opposition. Large demonstrations have taken place in the country, with protesters demanding Kuchma's resignation because of corruption, fraud, antidemocratic practices, and his alleged involvement in the murder of an opposition journalist.
Pascual said the latest charges will undoubtedly be used by both antiKuchma groups and by those who would accuse the United States of interfering in Ukraine's internal affairs, but added: "The United States does not support any political faction or group in Ukraine. This information that we have provided is in no way linked to Ukraine's domestic situation and, as we've always said, the question of Ukraine's leaders is a question for the Ukrainian people to decide. It's not a question for foreign bodies, whatever that body might be, to decide."
The ambassador said the timing of the U.S. sanctions actually makes it more difficult for him, as a diplomat, to carry out Washington's wishes to assemble as much support as possible for the U.S. stance against Iraq. "The timing is very unfortunate for two reasons. The first is that the principal foreign-policy objective in the United States at the moment is to build an international consensus on Iraq. And frankly, as important as Ukraine is, the question of these recordings is of secondary importance and is actually diverting attention from the principal goal. The second point is obvious. This is a complicated time in Ukraine's internal politics, and it's clear that this information is going to be used by all sides of the political spectrum," Pascual said.
He reiterated the U.S. State Department's declaration earlier this week that despite the current episode, Washington is still determined to help Ukraine build a stable democracy, carry out market reforms, and promote business development. He said the United States has only temporarily suspended the $54 million in aid and that other financial grants are proceeding as normal. "In the meantime, we continue our programs to support local and regional government, land titling, continue activities with media and nongovernmental organizations, nonproliferation programs, antidrug-trafficking programs, even our military-to-military cooperation," Pascual said.
The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said today it is considering forming a commission that would bring together experts from Ukraine, Russia, the United States, and the UN. Foreign Minister Zlenko also said Ukraine welcomes an investigation by either the UN or U.S. experts, or both, and encourages UN arms inspectors to look for the system inside Iraq.