The first reaction to last week’s crash of the Russian Tu-154 into the Black Sea was that it was a terrorist attack. The jet, flying from Tel Aviv to Novosibirsk on October 4, killed all seventy-eight on board, most of whom were Israelis. Subsequent facts, however, have shown that the crash was an accident. The jet was hit by a Ukrainian S-200 missile fired during training exercises in the Crimea, some 300 kilometers (190 miles) from where the Tu-154 went down. The missile in question was Soviet, designed to shoot down heavy bombers at high altitudes.
This was the second serious blunder of the Ukrainian air defenses in less than two years. In April 2000, a training surface-to-surface rocket hit an apartment building near Kyiv. The military attempted to cover up that incident; it was the police who revealed the truth of the matter. Several high-ranking officers were punished. Defense Minister General Oleksandr Kuzmuk, however, managed to retain his post. The lesson apparently went unlearned.
The U.S. media, quoting an unnamed source in the Pentagon who referred to data received from a U.S. satellite, were the first to report that the Russian plane had been downed by a Ukrainian missile. But Ukrainian Air Defense Chief Volodymyr Tkachov immediately and vehemently denied those reports as “ungrounded.” The Defense Ministry’s press service said that the missiles had a range of only 10 kilometers, and therefore could not possibly hit a plane flying 300 kilometers away. The Ukrainian navy said that the shooting exercise in Crimea began only after the plane crashed. Moscow, unwilling to spoil relations with Kyiv, initially rejected the missile version. Russian President Vladimir Putin went so far as to say publicly that Russia had no reason to mistrust the Ukrainian military.
But the facts were already known. The missile was launched from Cape Opuk in the Crimea at 13:41 Moscow time, then deviated from its path, hitting the airliner at 13:45. The radar signal of the intended target was weaker that that of the jet, which caused the missile to change direction. Technical specifications reveal that such a missile needs exactly 4 minutes to reach a target at that distance. The debris found in the sea was punctured by shrapnel, which is used in rockets of the S-200 type and which explodes near the target, rather than hitting it directly. Furthermore, a pilot of an Armenian plane reported seeing two explosions at the Russian jet, which is consistent with the way S-200 operates.
Despite all this evidence, Ukraine’s military continued to reject it. Kuzmuk said on October 5 that the missiles were indeed fired by the Ukrainian air defense, but that the flight paths were not toward the crash site, and that all the rockets hit the targets. On October 8, Tkachov gathered journalists and diplomats to tell them that of the twenty-three missiles fired, twenty-one hit their targets and two self-detonated in midair. Addressing the Ukrainian parliament on October 9, Kuzmuk again ruled out that the Russian jet had been hit by the Ukrainian missile, though on that occasion did admit that the S-200 had indeed been launched in the jet’s direction.
Former rocket specialist Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, unlike Kuzmuk, has not denied that the missile was capable of downing the jet. But he tried to play down the accident’s significance. On October 10, he said that “errors happen,” and not only in Ukraine, going on to describe Kuzmuk as “a man of very high morals.” On October 11, Kuchma revealed that Kuzmuk had submitted his resignation immediately after the accident. Kuchma had refused to accept it. “I do not throw out such people without any good reason,” the president said. At the same time, he added that if the Russian commission confirmed the fault of the Ukrainian air defenses, someone would have to “take responsibility.”
Russia is apparently determined to make Ukraine admit its own guilt. In a television interview on October 6, Russian Defense Minister Igor Ivanov said that Putin was not satisfied with the information Kyiv had passed to Moscow. In response, Kuzmuk dispatched a group of Ukrainian experts to Russia to join the Russian-Israeli commission investigating the crash. On October 10, Putin aide Yevgeny Shaposhnikov was the first Russian official to say that the jet had indeed been shot down by the Ukrainian missile. Yesterday, October 11, Russian Security Council Secretary Vladimir Rushailo officially announced that the commission had determined that the airliner had been hit “from outside,” thus by a missile, rather than from a terrorist bomb within the plane. Moscow, however, again abstained from directly blaming Kyiv. The effort paid off. Today, Yevhen Marchuk, secretary of the Ukrainian Security and Defense Council, after meeting with Rushailo, has admitted that the Ukrainian S-200 missile did indeed hit the Russian jet by mistake.
Dismissing Kuzmuk, Ukraine’s longest-serving power minister, would be an admission of his guilt. It would be difficult for Kuchma, but it may be necessary.
First, Kyiv sooner or later will have to replace a military figure with a civilian in the post of defense minister if it wants to adhere to Western democratic standards. Second, parliament would only applaud Kuzmuk’s dismissal, given his harsh criticism of its plans to cut the defense budget. Commenting on the air crash, First Deputy Speaker Viktor Medvedchuk suggested on October 11 that “high-ranking men in uniform” should “submit [their] resignation[s] in line with the officer’s honor code.” Third, Kuzmuk complicated matters by trying to conceal the blunder. This in and of itself could result, along with spoiled relations with Russia and a tarnished international image of Ukraine’s military, in international proceedings against Ukraine. It could also spoil Kyiv’s hopes in the international markets of air transportation and missile technology (New Channel TV, October 4, 10-11; CNN, October 4; Interfax, October 5; Itar-Tass, October 8; Unian, October 5, 9; NTV, October 6; STB TV, October 11; see the Monitor, May 8, 2000).
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