Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma apparently sees an opportunity in the conflict in Iraq to repair relations with Western countries, particularly the U.S., and to bolster his country's tattered image. Ukraine is sending a military unit trained to counter chemical and biological attacks to the Persian Gulf, and yesterday Kyiv announced an offer to treat victims of the conflict in Ukraine -- coalition troops, as well as Iraqis.
Kyiv, 26 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Ukraine has begun dispatching to Kuwait the first of 530 men and their equipment from a specialized battalion trained to counter the effects of nuclear, biological, and chemical attacks.
The first of 80 planeloads of servicemen from Ukraine's 19th Radiation, Chemical, and Biological Protection Battalion departed yesterday from the western Ukrainian city of Lviv. The deployment will take up to three weeks.
The battalion will not take part in the U.S.-led coalition's war against Iraq but will be based in Kuwait, at U.S. request, to help the civilian population in case of an Iraqi chemical or biological attack.
Yesterday, Yurko Pavlenko -- a member of the Ukrainian parliament and leader of the Youth Party, part of the largest democratic parliamentary faction, Our Ukraine -- unveiled an initiative to offer the services of Ukrainian hospitals and sanatoriums to anyone injured in the conflict.
Pavlenko said Kuchma "enthusiastically" supports the plan. He said Ukraine is in contact with the United Nations and nongovernmental aid agencies, as well as the Iraqi, U.S. and British embassies, to discuss the plan. "Today, we have received support for the initiative from the president of Ukraine. We have received support from the head of the Our Ukraine bloc, Viktor Yushchenko. We have already received a response from the Iraqi ambassador and will hear his views shortly on this matter, and the same applies to the embassies of the U.S.A. and Britain," Pavlenko said.
Pavlenko said that although Ukraine expects most of the beneficiaries to be Iraqi civilians, he hopes coalition forces will also send soldiers to Ukraine for treatment or recuperation. "We are convinced that we can, and that it is necessary, to help and to treat not only civilians from Iraq, particularly women and children, but also soldiers from the coalition," he said.
Kuchma has largely been ostracized by Western countries following allegations of his involvement in corruption, election fraud, the murder of an opposition journalist, and the sale of a sophisticated air-defense system to Iraq.
Some Ukrainian political commentators believe Kuchma's decision to send the battalion is linked to his desire to repair relations with the West, particularly the U.S., Ukraine's most important international backer.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, Patricia Guy, said the move is welcomed by the U.S. "We're very pleased. We think it's a positive development in relations between Ukraine and the United States, and we believe the unit will play an important humanitarian role in the region, and also that its mere presence in the region could perhaps deter possible chemical attacks because people will know this unit -- along with other units from other countries -- are in the area to minimize the effects of any such attack," Guy said.
Kuchma's decision to send the specialist battalion to Kuwait is unpopular with many Ukrainians. Polls show the overwhelming majority of the population disapproves of the war. Kuchma's critics say the battalion directly aids coalition forces. But Pavlenko said Kuchma believes the scheme will gain Ukraine prestige abroad.
"The Ukrainian president listened to us carefully and agreed with most of the points that we made, and he supports the fundamental idea of improving Ukraine's international image. But he also voiced his view that it was necessary to help those suffering from the conflict because ordinary people are not to blame for the war. The war is bad -- Ukraine has made its view on this clear -- and we must help these people," Pavlenko said.
Pavlenko said that up to 100,000 people could be accommodated in Ukraine if international aid agencies help with additional resources. He said the country has a large number of facilities for medical treatment and recuperation in Crimea and in Ukraine's Carpathian region. He says coalition countries will evacuate badly wounded soldiers to their own facilities but hopes that some allied soldiers might be sent to Ukraine for recuperation.
"We understand that those countries taking part in the conflict have their own facilities nearby for the heavily wounded, but for those people who are lightly injured or who are in shock and require rehabilitation, Ukraine could be the best place for them. And the distance involved is not too far," Pavlenko said.
Guy, the U.S. Embassy spokeswoman in Kyiv, reacted positively to the initiative. "Well, if Ukraine is willing to make additional contributions -- in addition to the biochemical decontamination battalion -- we are ready to listen to them. And if Ukraine feels they can make further contributions to prevent loss of life in the war, we are willing to discuss that with them," Guy said.
A spokesman for the Iraqi Embassy in Kyiv said his ambassador is interested in the proposition and plans to meet today with Pavlenko. Pavlenko intends to travel next week to Kuwait to discuss practical aspects of the scheme with government authorities and international aid agencies.