U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld visited Ukraine in mid August to discuss Ukraine’s military contingent in Iraq. Since August 2003, Ukraine has had 1,576 troops in Iraq deployed 130 km south of Baghdad in the Polish-run sector. An additional 146 troops are to be rotated in during September and October (Interfax-Ukraine, August 2). Altogether, Ukraine has the fourth largest deployment in Iraq and the largest military force from a non-NATO country. Ukraine has lost eight soldiers, including four who died during non-combat accidents and one suicide.
Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma’s decided to send Ukrainian troops to Iraq in spring 2003. He needed to repair his personal reputation after Washington had accused Kuchma of bypassing UN sanctions and authorizing the sale of Kolchuga radars to Iraq in July 2000. Kuchma and his allies also hoped the Iraq deployment would encourage Washington to turn a blind eye to any irregularities in the 2004 Ukrainian presidential elections.
During the election campaign the three opposition candidates (Viktor Yushchenko, Oleksandr Moroz, and Petro Symonenko) have all voiced their support for withdrawing Ukrainian troops from Iraq. Channel Five television quoted Yushchenko as saying that the presence of Ukrainian troops in Iraq was an “indulgence to the United States for tolerating anti-democratic actions in Ukraine itself.” He went on, “We do not want the renewal of democracy in Iraq at the cost of stifling democracy in Ukraine.” Touring the Crimea, Yushchenko promised that if he were elected, he would gradually withdraw Ukrainian forces, now that the Iraqi government can “take care of its own security” (Channel Five TV, August 10).
Kyiv is rife with speculation that a secret deal was struck during Rumsfeld’s visit. The Kyiv Weekly, a newspaper formerly owned by Defense Minister Yevhen Marchuk’s son but recently purchased by the Industrial Union of the Donbas, reported that a quid pro quo had, in fact, been agreed between Rumsfeld and Kuchma. Under the alleged deal, what “Ukraine provides to the U.S. in Iraq is the main guarantee that Washington does not subject Kyiv to being ostracized in the event of dubious results in the Ukrainian presidential election” (Kyiv Weekly, August 20). Thus official threats to withdraw Ukrainian troops made before Rumsfeld’s visit to Ukraine were simply a bargaining ploy.
Nevertheless, the Kyiv Weekly warned that two factors could upset this pact. First, Bush could loose the U.S. presidential election and void the deal. The Democratic Party has threatened to withhold visas to Ukrainian officials and to investigate their offshore bank accounts (New York Times, March 17). Second, Western Europe and the EU were not party to the agreement and could still criticize election fraud.
Whatever Kuchma and Rumsfeld discussed, the pro-presidential media still are anti-American. The pro-presidential centrists are the only political forces in the Ukrainian parliament who are continuing to support the presence of Ukrainian troops in Iraq. State television is broadcasting warnings by pro-presidential candidates, on both the extreme left and the extreme right, to vote against Yushchenko because he is a “nationalist” and has an American wife. Many of the stations airing these warnings are controlled by Viktor Medvedchuk, head of the Presidential Administration.
Prior to Rumsfeld’s visit, the Ukrainian authorities had begun leaking stories and making off-hand comments that they were considering withdrawing Ukrainian troops from Iraq. This exercise was part of an ongoing operation aimed at extracting advantages for Kuchma and his chosen successor, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych. The Ukrainian authorities understand that after Spain withdrew its troops earlier this year, withdrawing Ukrainian troops prior to the U.S. elections would harm President Bush’s ratings.
Yanukovych has been lukewarm in his support for Ukraine’s troops in Iraq. He knows that three-quarters of Ukrainians want them back home and this policy could affect his election chances. On a campaign tour of Donetsk just prior to Rumsfeld’s visit, Yanukovych warned that Ukraine would be reducing its military contingent in Iraq. With these remarks he sought to distance his candidacy from the highly unpopular issue of Ukrainian troops in Iraq.
Defense Minister Marchuk had already raised this theme through diplomatic channels with Poland and the United States (Era Television Channel, July 29). But after meeting Rumsfeld in the Crimea, Marchuk refuted rumors that Ukraine was considering pulling out its troops, warning, “No one can give you a deadline [for withdrawal] yet” (AP, August 13). Their withdrawal will depend, Marchuk explained, on how quickly Iraq establishes its own security forces.
While the rumors of a secret deal between Rumsfeld and Kuchma are probably false, Washington continues to send mixed signals to Kyiv. The U.S. Congress and State Department have joined with the EU and Council of Europe to send strong signals about the need to hold free and fair elections. A U.S. delegation, led by Senator John McCain (R-AZ), visited Kyiv last week and reiterated these concerns, which is, of course, what the opposition want to hear. At the same time, the Ukrainian opposition believes the U.S. National Security Council and Department of Defense are more interested in Iraq than democratization.