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Ukraine: Impoverished Military Suffers Through One Disaster After Another

One year ago today, Ukrainian air defense forces conducting missile firing exercises in Crimea destroyed a civilian Russian airliner traveling from Israel. Ukrainian officials initially denied involvement. Even after admitting responsibility, however, the government still has not paid compensation to relatives of the victims. RFE/RL examines the tragedy and other fatal errors by the Ukrainian military and inquires about their causes.

Kyiv, 4 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Last year on this day, a Sibir Airlines Tu-154 passenger jet with 78 people aboard was traveling from Tel Aviv to Siberia.

A smaller Armenian airliner was flying over the Black Sea at the same time. Its pilot said he suddenly saw the Russian plane explode and plunge into the sea. Rescue boats and helicopters sped to the area, but there were no survivors.

Ukrainian air defense forces had been carrying out missile exercises from the Opuc Cape base in Crimea at the time the Russian plane went down, but immediately claimed the maneuvers were not linked to the disaster.

American spy satellite images, however, showed the plume of a missile heading toward the Russian plane. With that and other evidence mounting, the government finally admitted responsibility, 10 days after the tragedy.

Most of the passengers were Jewish immigrants to Israel returning to Russia to visit relatives. Despite the admission of guilt by Ukraine, relatives of the victims still have not received compensation.

The head of the Ukrainian commission charged with investigating the accident, Oleksandr Chaly, finally said yesterday (3 October) that Ukraine will pay compensation. He also clearly stated that Ukraine was responsible: "The Ukrainian commission with responsibility for determining the cause of this accident has concluded that the air catastrophe occurred because of the tragic and fatal convergence of circumstances which resulted in the accidental destruction of the TU-154 plane by a Ukrainian missile, which was fired during the course of military exercises."

He said Ukraine will discuss the schemes for compensation at separate meetings with Israeli and Russian representatives: "The next consultations between Israel and Ukraine will take place on 20 October, and during those Ukraine will be ready to propose concrete sums in compensation and will be ready to propose a concrete juridical mechanism to enable the compensation to take place."

Chaly would not discuss the amounts being offered but said relatives of Russian and Israeli citizens will receive the same sums. He said those who accept the payment will have to give up compensation claims being pursued in court. He hopes provisions will be made in next year's budget and that the money will be paid out in 2003: "We are hastening the compensation process, and in connection with the Ukrainian budget for 2003, we do not only want to announce specific amounts of compensation but also to have the legally sanctioned means of paying them."

He also said the Defense Ministry cannot contradict decisions taken by his commission. "The Ministry of Defense is not beyond the Ukrainian legal system and has not been given the right, by some special government decision, to make any declarations in this matter."

The destruction of the Russian airliner is only one in a series of disasters suffered by the Ukrainian military in recent years.

In July, a Ukrainian Air Force Su-27 fighter jet crashed into a crowd at an air show in the western city of Lviv. Eighty-five people were killed and almost 250 injured. An investigation is continuing. The inquiry is focusing on human error as the likely cause.

The missile exercises that downed the Russian passenger jet were the first held since a previous accident 18 months earlier when another Ukrainian missile went off course and hit an apartment block near Kyiv, killing three.

Ukrainian military analyst Serhey Zhurets heads the Kyiv-based Center for Defense Analysis, Conversion, and Weapons. He says the disasters are symptomatic of the condition of Ukraine's impoverished armed forces: "The budget for next year in absolute terms seems larger but, because of the introduction of certain technological systems, it will in reality be half the size of this year's [budget]."

He said the military budget for 2003 will be $400 million and that this is simply not enough money for the Ukrainian armed forces to train properly. Zhurets said pilots cannot spend more than a few hours in flight training because of a lack of fuel and that those operating missile systems get few practical opportunities to learn how the systems work: "The [military] budget for this year was regarded as a 'budget of stagnation,' that is, that there was only enough money to maintain the military in its barracks, to pay them, and to feed them. That's all. In these conditions, it is impossible to provide for better training. The critical state of the armed forces will not change."

During Independence Day celebrations in August, Defense Minister Volodymyr Shkydchenko asked the Ukrainian people's pardon for the errors of the military. He said Ukraine's armed forces will do their utmost to reform in accordance with international standards in an attempt to regain the confidence of the people.