Publication: Russia and Eurasia Review Volume: 2 Issue: 15

By Oleg Varfolomeyev

Kyiv has used the war in Iraq to mend relations with the United States, which seemed to be irreversibly spoilt last year when Washington accused President Leonid Kuchma of having authorized a sale of radar sets–to Iraq. A contingent of Ukrainian troops joined the U.S.-led coalition, and Washington has apparently forgiven Kyiv.

In September 2002, Washington accused Kyiv of having sold Kolchuga radar systems to Iraq, thereby violating the UN sanctions. This was the nadir in U.S.-Ukrainian relations, which had been heading steadily downward in response to the murder of journalist Georgy Gongadze, election rigging, and the intimidation of political opponents. Evidence for these misdeeds, considered trustworthy in Washington, was contained in the secret recordings smuggled out of Ukraine by Kuchma’s former bodyguard, Mykola Melnychenko. Exasperation with a lack of progress in economic reform was also mounting, with Washington punishing Kyiv in January 2002 for its failure to curb CD piracy.

But the Kolchuga allegations were the most serious blow to Kyiv, coming just when the United States was gearing up for war against Saddam. Ukraine argued that it did not sell the radar sets to Iraq, but the United States regarded the authorization of the Kolchuga sales personally by Kuchma as a proven fact, irrespective of whether the radar had actually been delivered to Iraq. The United States announced that it was reviewing its Ukrainian policy and cut aid to Kyiv.

Speaking at his year-ending press conference on December 25, Kuchma called the deterioration in Ukrainian-U.S. relations “the gravest development.” He pledged that improving relations with the United States would be one of the main tasks for his second presidential term (which runs out in November of 2004). Crossing the world’s only superpower could cost Kuchma dearly. Kyiv ceased to be one of the world’s major recipients of U.S. government aid, and the falling out with Washington could also affect Ukraine’s WTO accession talks, as well as its relations with the IMF. With regard to domestic politics, Kuchma did not forget the U.S. support for his presidential bid in 1999, and he feared that Washington would back his opponent, reformist leader Viktor Yushchenko, in 2004. Any spurning by the United States of Ukraine would inevitably open the door to increased Russian influence.

When the war in Iraq started, and understanding Washington’s sensitivity on the matter of international support, Kyiv saw a window of opportunity. Kuchma sent a 532-strong chemical and bacteriological unit to Kuwait, officially for defensive purposes. This was a controversial step, given that in early March more than 80 percent of Ukrainians were against the use of force in Iraq and only 10 per cent believed the war was justified even if Baghdad had weapons of mass destruction, according to the Kyiv-based Democratic Initiatives foundation. Moreover, 57 percent of Ukrainians regarded President George W. Bush as a threat to peace and only 38 percent thought the same of Saddam, according to a March poll by the Razumkov think tank.

Nor was it easy for Kuchma to push the move through parliament. An eleventh-hour decision by a portion of Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine bloc to support Kuchma on sending the troops proved decisive in a vote that took place on March 20. Counterbalancing this unpopular move, parliament on the same day passed a statement condemning “the U.S. and UK aggression against Iraq.”

Kuchma’s motivation was obvious–to improve relations with the United States at all costs. “We are opposed to war,” he said, addressing the nation following the vote in parliament. But, “We remain faithful to our strategic partnership, primarily with the U.S. We are members of the anti-terrorist coalition.” At the same time, he added “our unit will not take part in hostilities.” Foreign Minister Anatoly Zlenko was less coy. “I hope the international community will continue to interpret this decision correctly, which may… create favorable conditions for our country’s further Euro-Atlantic integration,” he said on March 21.

The Ukraina Moloda opposition newspaper neatly summed up in its April 2 issue the controversy surrounding the move: “Kyiv wanted to appear deeply reverential in front of Washington by joining the coalition and at the same time to satisfy its fellow countrymen… It wanted the U.S. to think we support them while Ukrainians to be convinced that we only went to the desert for humanitarian purposes.”

The Kyiv establishment was embarrassed when U.S. President George W. Bush, speaking on March 25, mentioned Ukraine as being one of the forty-eight nations supporting the United States over Iraq. The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry immediately denied Ukraine was part of the coalition. In response, the U.S. embassy in Kyiv revealed that, on the eve of Bush’s speech, it had received the approval of the Kuchma administration for Bush to mention Ukraine in this context.

Despite all the doubts and embarrassment, the dispatch of the specialist battalion to Kuwait was a turning point in Ukrainian-U.S. relations. Washington signaled its decision to shelve the Kolchuga issue, at least for the time being. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Steven Pifer, dispatched to Kyiv in May, said the radar issue was not even mentioned during his three days in Ukraine. Instead, Washington hinted that Ukrainian companies might participate in post-war reconstruction in Iraq. Ukraine’s Security Council Secretary Yevhen Marchuk returned from Washington in early May in high spirits, saying that he understood from his meetings with Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice that “we can now make a very serious step.” This marked a sharp turn around from the situation in November of 2002, when the seats were rearranged at the NATO summit in Prague to prevent Kuchma from sitting close to Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. (The delegate list was switched from English to French, to separate “Ukraine” from the UK and USA.)

“As for the question of the Kolchugas, we have recognized that it is highly unlikely that Ukraine and the U.S. will find mutual understanding here,” Ambassador Pascual said in an interview with Holos Ukrainy on April 23. “For this reason, it is better to draw constructive lessons from this situation and apply them in practice.” NATO Secretary General George Robertson was more outspoken at Ukraine-NATO consultations held in Washington in early May. “The worst problem in our relations is behind us,” he said, when asked if the Kolchuga problem has been removed from the Ukraine-NATO agenda, the Zerkalo Nedeli newspaper reported.

Encouraged by this reaction, Ukraine decided to take part in the U.S.-controlled stabilization force in Iraq. Washington has reportedly agreed to pay for the deployment of the Ukrainian troops. On June 5, Ukraine’s parliament approved sending up to 1,800 troops to serve in Iraq under the united allied command. Three opposition factions–the Socialists, the Communists and Yulia Tymoshenko’s Bloc–voted against the move, arguing that participation in the occupation of Iraq would violate international and Ukrainian laws.

Tymoshenko’s party issued a statement saying the decision to send troops to Iraq was dictated by Kuchma’s desire to be forgiven by the United States “for the grave crimes committed against democracy, human rights, and the international community.” Even if this is just rhetoric from a radical opponent of Kuchma, one can legitimately wonder whether much has changed in Ukraine since a year ago, when Washington demonstrated nothing but contempt for Kuchma.

Has the Ukrainian ruling elite become less corrupt? Have the authorities relaxed their control over the media? Has Ukraine become a more predictable international player? The answer to all these questions is no.

It is the United States, and not Ukraine, that has changed. Feeling betrayed by France, Germany, and Turkey over the war in Iraq, and misunderstood as well by Russia and China, the Bush administration is apparently eager to demonstratively reward even the most unscrupulous among its allies. Kuchma looks set to exploit this mood in Washington.

Oleg Varfolomeyev is a freelance journalist based in Kyiv.