Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 197

Ukraine has at last officially admitted having accidentally shot down the Tu-154 Russian airliner over the Black Sea on October 4. The crash killed all seventy-eight Israelis and Russians on board. On October 24, President Leonid Kuchma finally accepted Defense Minister Oleksandr Kuzmuk’s resignation. Next on the agenda is a new man at that post.

Ukraine had initially denied responsibility for the crash, despite the evidence to the contrary, all of which came to light within a week of the incident. On October 11, Russian Security Council Secretary Vladimir Rushailo announced that the airliner had been downed by a missile, not a terrorist bomb, as many had suggested. On October 12, his Ukrainian counterpart, Yevhen Marchuk, commenting on preliminary results of a joint Russian-Ukrainian-Israeli investigation, admitted that the jet had indeed been hit by a Ukrainian S-200 missile launched from Crimea during an exercise (see the Monitor, October 12). On October 13, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksandr Kuzmuk and Air Defense Commander Volodymyr Tkachov apologized to the relatives of the crash victims. Tkachov was dismissed the same day.

On October 19, Kuzmuk officially admitted responsibility for the crash and submitted his resignation for a second time. (Reports on the first time he did so are unclear, whether it was in the first several days after the crash, or closer to Marchuk’s October 12 statement.) But Kuchma stalled, reluctant to dismiss one of his most loyal ministers, apparently waiting for a signal from Moscow. This came on October 22, when Rushailo for the first time officially admitted that the missile that hit the hapless airliner was indeed the Crimean-launched Ukrainian S-200. Kuchma discussed the crash with Russian President Vladimir Putin by telephone the same day. The following day, October 23, the privately owned Ukrainian STB television station quoted unnamed sources as saying that Kuchma would address the nation later that day on the air crash and the fate of Kuzmuk.

Kuchma continued to hesitate, however, and did not appear on television until October 24. For the first time since the crash, he apologized to the families of the victims. He also announced a ban on all missile launches in Ukraine until a safety check on the missiles and launch procedures has been conducted.

It is safe to say that the October 4 training launch of the S-200 was, almost without question, Ukraine’s last for this Soviet-designed missile. Not because of possible faults in its design, but instead because exercises with rockets of this type, which are capable of reaching high-altitude targets flying 300 kilometers away, are apparently inherently unsafe in Ukraine, a densely populated country with a relatively small territory, situated at an international airline crossroads. Kuchma also set up a special commission to review the Ukrainian military exercise regulations to step up safety requirements.

In his televised address, Kuchma announced that he had accepted Kuzmuk’s resignation. He then appointed Colonel-General Volodymyr Shkidchenko, 53, the chief of General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, to serve as acting defense minister. Despite the time Kuchma has had since the crash to think about a replacement, he is apparently still making up his mind on who would be best as a permanent minister. In speaking to the nation, Kuchma vowed to step up civilian control over the army. He therefore may be considering a civilian, in line with the European democratic tradition.

Two names seem to be at the top of the list as possible candidates: Borys Andresyuk and Volodymyr Horbulin. Andresyuk, a career state bureaucrat and current chairman of the Verkhovna Rada (parliament) committee for defense, has never concealed his aspiration to become defense minister. But he belongs to a key “oligarchic” party–the United Social Democratic Party of Viktor Medvedchuk and Hryhory Surkis. Kuchma is likely to avoid the political implications of such a decision five months before the scheduled parliamentary elections. He is more likely to appoint Horbulin, a politically more neutral figure. Kuchma has known Horbulin since the 1970s, when both worked at the missile manufacturer Yuzhmash in Dnipropetrovsk. Horbulin served as secretary of the Security and Defense Council in 1994-1999. His current position of chairman of the state commission for issues of the military-industrial complex may be too low-key for his expertise.

Other possible candidates include Marchuk, Anatoly Dovhopoly (the Horbulin commission’s deputy chairman) and Valery Shmarov (who Kuchma appointed to serve as defense minister in 1994, but who was lost in under-the-carpet fights to the top and replaced by Kuzmuk in 1996 (Zerkalo Nedeli, October 13; STB TV, October 13, 22, 24; 1+1 TV, October 19; AFP, October 22; UT-1, October 24).