The question of whether Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma authorized the sale of sophisticated antiaircraft radar to Iraq in July 2000 has hung darkly over the embattled president for months. At stake are the lives of U.S. and British pilots who will be tasked to fly sorties over Baghdad. Also whether Ukraine can be trusted to resist state sponsors of terrorism, let alone be welcomed into the ranks of NATO and the European Union.
"On my word of honor, I did no such thing," Kuchma repeatedly has told reporters and lawmakers since the allegations surfaced in March. He has invited forensic experts to visit any part of the country to test his claim. But incriminating secret recordings of Kuchma's inner-office conversations, allegedly taped by a former bodyguard, were declared Sept. 24 by the U.S. State Department to be authentic. Foggy Bottom since has suspended $54 million of government-to-government aid to Ukraine, the second-largest nation among the former republics of the Soviet Union and the fourth-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid. In late October, NATO withdrew its invitation for Kuchma to attend the planned NATO Prague Summit on Nov. 21, announcing that the NATO-Ukraine dialogue would be held only at the level of the foreign ministry.
At issue is whether the Iraqis have received the Kolchuga radar system, which does not emit a radar signal and therefore cannot be detected by incoming aircraft. It is designed to detect and triangulate the radio signals of aircraft and ground vehicles more than 600 miles away and is considered one of the three most sophisticated weapons systems produced by Ukraine's legendary armaments industry. Sale of the Kolchuga to Baghdad is regarded as very serious indeed.
A team of 13 U.S. and British experts dispatched to Ukraine to look for evidence of illegal arms transfers--official or otherwise--has reported inconclusively to Kiev, Washington and London. "The report states that the cooperation and transparency provided to the U.S.-U.K. experts team was mixed," State Department spokesman Mark Toner tells INSIGHT. "There was good cooperation on certain issues but not others, such as the events surrounding President Kuchma's authorization of the Kolchuga," he says, adding: "The team concluded that the government of Ukraine's export-control process does not have sufficient safeguards to prevent senior officials from misusing state organs or bypassing export controls."
Kuchma's top aide, Victor Medvedchuk, refuted the report, saying the U.S.-U.K. team was given "unprecedented access," according to the Ukrainian News Agency.
Even without an official announcement of the findings, the drumbeat in Washington demanding Kuchma's head had been gathering a crowd. In an open letter, Rep. Bob Schaffer (R-Colo.) called on President George W. Bush to avoid Kuchma at the NATO summit in Prague, declaring: "President Kuchma's consent to the sale of the Kolchuga system to Iraq is the epitome of reckless behavior."
Leader of the U.S.-Ukrainian caucus in Congress, Schaffer went on to say: "Kuchma's approval of the Kolchuga sale, and the subsequent denials by him and his administration despite irrefutable evidence to the contrary, indicate he has no serious intention of rectifying the crisis he has created." Schaffer urged "isolation of the president [Kuchma] and his associates, while improving relations with other officials."
The secretly made audio tapes, reportedly containing more than 300 hours of conversations spanning a two-year period, were provided to U.S. authorities by Maj. Mykola Melnychenko, a former Kuchma bodyguard who since has been granted asylum in the United States. The taped conversations, which also appear to link Kuchma to the murder of Ukrainian Internet journalist George Gongadze in September 2000, have dogged Kuchma for two years. The tape carried a voice that sounds like Kuchma's directing aides to "silence" Gongadze. …