Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 210

Contrary to expectations, President Leonid Kuchma has appointed a military serviceman, rather than a civilian, as Ukraine’s new defense minister. On November 12, he issued a decree appointing First Deputy Defense Minister General Volodymyr Shkidchenko, 53, to this position. Shkidchenko had served as acting head of the ministry since October 24, when General Oleksandr Kuzmuk was fired for the October 4 crash of the Russian airliner, hit by a stray Ukrainian S-200 rocket (see the Monitor, October 12, 26).

Initially, Kuchma seemed apparently inclined to appoint a civilian, in line with the democratic tradition of nearby European states. His statements about the need to boost civil control over the army, which followed the October 4 tragedy, were interpreted as his intention to do so. But he eventually changed his mind. Ukraine “will certainly have a civilian defense minister one day,” Kuchma said on November 7, “[but] it’s not yet time.”

The crash of the Russian plane was a sad reminder that it is indeed high time for reforming Ukraine’s cash-strapped and oversized army. It would have been easier for a civilian, unbound by military interests, to clean the Aegean stables of Kyiv’s Defense Ministry. The appointment of Shkidchenko and the long hesitation preceding it showed that Kuchma understands the need of this, but he is not ready for such a radical step at the moment. He is probably too cautious a man, too aware of the inherent risks, to entrust the most powerful and one of the richest ministries to a civilian politician less than five months before parliamentary elections. In a country notorious for corruption and a weak political culture, the resources of the defense structure might well be abused in the interests of the election campaign. Suspicions of this are not likely to fall on the apolitical Shkidchenko.

He is a soldier to the marrow of his being. His father, a Soviet general, was killed in the Afghanistan war in the 1980s. He himself has spent over thirty years in the army, climbing the career ladder from an artillery platoon commander to the commander of Southern Operational Command to chief of General Staff in 1998. His significant advantage over his predecessor Kuzmuk is his impressive military education. Kuzmuk was trained at a tank academy. Shkidchenko is a graduate of the prestigious Moscow Physical-Technical Institute, an artillery command school in Odessa, another prestigious military school in Moscow–Frunze Academy–and, finally, the USSR General Staff Academy. He also speaks English, which is a rare quality among the post-Soviet top brass.

The news of Shkidchenko’s appointment was well received in the Cabinet of Ministers and parliament. They clearly do not expect Shkidchenko, a novice in political matters, to be a headache for them in the ongoing complicated state 2002 budget debate–unlike Kuzmuk, who has been rather aggressively pushing for higher military spending. Premier Anatoly Kinakh, having always pushed for a military replacement to Kuzmuk, should also be satisfied. In parliament, both the former chairman of the defense committee, Communist deputy Heorhy Kryuchkov, and the committee’s current head, Borys Andresyuk of the United Social Democratic Party, praised Shkidchenko’s professionalism and promised their support.

Shkidchenko’s appointment is not the only change in the Defense Ministry. Also on November 12, Kuchma replaced Borys Olekseyenko with Mykola Lytvyn in the position of Border Troops Commander. Colonel-General Lytvyn, 40, is the brother of the presidential administration chief of staff, Volodymyr Lytvyn. On November 13, Kuchma signed the resignation letter of Air Defense Commander Volodymyr Tkachov, who submitted it after the October 4 airliner crash (Ukrainska Pravda, October 24, November 12; Unian, November 7; Segodnya, November 13).