On January 11-12, the U.S. State Department added an unnecessary complication to Ukrainian President-elect Viktor Yushchenko’s internal political challenges. Questioning Ukraine’s political decision to withdraw its 1,600 troops from Iraq, the Department’s deputy spokesman Adam Ereli in Washington and U.S. Ambassador John Herbst in Kyiv urged reconsideration, and shifted the political onus of changing that decision to Yushchenko.
According to Ereli, while “valuing the contribution and recognizing the sacrifice” of Ukrainian troops in Iraq, the United States considers that the Verkhovna Rada’s vote to recall the troops, and outgoing president Leonid Kuchma’s and Defense Ministry’s decisions on troop withdrawal, are not official or final steps. Decisions of this type “should be up to the new president and government,” and the United States “hopes that any changes related to the Ukrainian troops will be well considered and made in close consultation with coalition forces.” In a similar vein, Herbst indicated, “Such an important decision should not be taken by an interim government, and Washington is going to talk this issue over with the new government” (Interfax, Ukrainian Television Channel One, AFP, January 11, 12).
These statements appeared to overlook the fact that those troop-withdrawal decisions reflect a general political consensus in Ukraine — as seen also in the Verkhovna Rada’s votes on the issue — and that ending the unpopular operation in Iraq was among Yushchenko’s presidential campaign pledges. Washington’s statements also appeared ill-timed, coinciding with the January 12 return for burial of eight bodies of Ukrainian soldiers killed in Iraq.
The Rada had passed already in December a non-binding resolution asking the president to bring the Ukrainian troops home from Iraq. Accordingly, Kuchma announced that the withdrawal would be completed by December 2005. However, Kyiv shortened that schedule in response to the loss of eight Ukrainian soldiers killed and six wounded by a bomb explosion in Al-Suwayrah on January 9 (the blast also caused Kazakh casualties, see EDM January 13). The loss raised to 17 the Ukrainian combat death toll in Iraq.
On January 11, the Rada passed a resolution requesting Kuchma (in his final days in office, pending Yushchenko’s inauguration) to order the Defense Ministry to present a plan for bringing all the troops home without delay. On January 12, Defense Minister Oleksandr Kuzmuk, returning from Iraq, announced that he has submitted the necessary documents on the complete withdrawal of the Ukrainian contingent by June 30. The details, including redeployment of Ukrainian soldiers in Iraq pending their repatriation, are to be coordinated with coalition forces. The withdrawal might begin as early as April with the battalion now stationed in Al-Suwayrah, which is slated to be replaced by a newly trained Iraqi national guard battalion. The remaining Ukrainian units are to return home during the ensuing two months.
While in Iraq, Kuzmuk discussed this issue with U.S. and Polish commanders and Iraqi government officials. The Ukrainian contingent serves with the Polish-led multinational division in south-central Iraq. Poland has announced the intention to withdraw its own troops in the course of 2005, beginning as early as February (following the January 30 elections in Iraq), thus one step ahead of the Ukrainian withdrawal.
The defeated presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych, Communist Party leader Petro Symonenko, and other opponents of Yushchenko’s bloc, have responded to Washington’s statements by challenging Yushchenko to live up his campaign pledge to recall the troops from Iraq, and warning against U.S.-imposed delays.
The incoming president and government’s political standing would suffer if they are seen as reversing their campaign pledge and bucking a public opinion consensus on this issue. Their opponents would leap at the opportunity to depict Yushchenko and Our Ukraine as representing U.S. rather than Ukrainian interests; and some fence-sitting groups would be swayed the wrong way, even as Our Ukraine faces difficult coalition-building efforts in parliament and in public opinion at large.
Ukraine was among the first countries to deploy troops in support of the United States in Iraq in August 2003. The 1,600-strong Ukrainian contingent, centered on a mechanized brigade, is the third-strongest among troop-contributing states (after Britain and Poland). Ukraine’s political will and its performance compares favorably with that of certain NATO member countries that refused to participate, and other NATO countries that withdrew their troops before Ukraine announced its intention to do so.
The Verkhovna Rada’s and Kuchma’s decisions on troop withdrawal have helped lift that burden from Yushchenko’s and the new government’s shoulders, thus removing a potentially contentious issue from the U.S.-Ukraine relationship. There is no convincing reason for reinserting that issue into the agenda. Moreover, a perception that Ukraine is being pressured to continue an unpopular military effort would negatively affect the U.S. image and undermine Ukrainian public support for integration with NATO, the strategic priority of a democratically governed Ukraine.
(Interfax, UNIAN, January 11, 12, 13).