Is Ukraine Selling Arms Under Moscow’s Directive?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 66

A Ukrainian ship en route to Egypt was stopped and searched in Istanbul in June. Turkish officials found that the ship contained numerous items not listed on its manifest, including such sophisticated weapons as a radio-controlled missile and launcher (Associated Press, June 4). This disclosure has raised fears that these weapons were heading to terrorist cells and might have been intended to attack NATO when it met in Istanbul at the end of June.

This is not the first time Ukraine’s clandestine arms sales have damaged its reputation. One of the major causes of Kyiv’s deteriorating relationships with the West was Ukraine’s sale of Kolchuga anti-air missiles to Iraq in 2002. In a climate flush with reports of political assassinations against journalists like Heorhiy Gongadze, rampant corruption, or worse, these sales only added to the unsavory air around the Kuchma regime.

Subsequent reports have surfaced that hundreds of Ukrainian surface-to-air missiles have disappeared without a trace (Rossiiskaya gazeta, June 23) They likely were part of the huge stockpile of Soviet weapons still in Ukraine, and corrupt arms exporters having links to both Kyiv and Moscow could easily ship them to various hot spots without official supervision. In fact, the shipments more often are dispatched with official connivance and corruption.

Ukraine’s arms sales to Serbia, Croatia, and Macedonia during the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s exemplify the pattern (Rossiiskaya gazeta, June 23). It is entirely possible that these weapons were sent where Moscow wants them, because the links between the two defense industries are very strong and Moscow often uses Ukraine as a middleman when it does not want to be linked to a weapons deal.

Kyiv can try to hide behind claims that such stories result from competing industries jealous of Ukraine’s status in the global arms business (Era, June 8). However, the lack of controls upon the Ukrainian arms industry will certainly further obstruct Kyiv’s ties to the West and damage Western confidence in any Ukrainian government’s bona fides.

Moreover, such “gray market” deals also facilitate the continuing integration of the Ukrainian and Russian defense and technological sectors and the erosion of Ukraine’s sovereignty. Kuchma continues to emphasize that Ukraine’s future lies in science-intensive industries, including both military and space, and above all within the Single Economic Space, which is a priority of Russian policy (UT1, July 23).

Thus it would hardly surprise any analyst to find that many of these episodes of weapons transfers and proliferation to disreputable sources and regimes bear both Russian and Ukrainian fingerprints. However, as long as these shady deals continue, it will be difficult for Western regimes to overcome whatever scruples they may have about Ukraine and shake hands with the same people who are exporting threats abroad.

Undoubtedly the absence of effective controls over these weapons, combined with Russian pressure, overt and convert, adds considerably to the difficulties Ukraine now encounters with the West and make Kyiv more vulnerable to Russian pressures.

Talk of Ukraine leaving the GUUAM association and of reorienting its policies toward Moscow (RFE/RL Newsline, July 29 and 30) would only reinforce the propensity for using these weapons for purposes that ultimately only benefit criminals, whether they are atop the state or in cahoots with it. But Ukraine, as a sovereign state, will gain nothing but trouble in return for these sales.