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Washington Post
July 27, 2003
U.S. Shifts Stance on Ukrainian
Iraq Deployment Earns Gratitude for Once-Scorned Leader
By Susan B. Glasser
Washington Post Foreign Service

KIEV, Ukraine -- Just last year, the United States was denouncing Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma for allegedly authorizing the $100 million sale of a sophisticated radar system to Saddam Hussein. Kuchma, revealed discussing the sale on secret tapes authenticated by the FBI, was considered such a political liability that when he showed up for a NATO summit in Prague last fall, his hosts changed his seat at a dinner table rather than let him sit next to President Bush.

That was before the war in Iraq. Today, Kuchma is a valued new recruit in the U.S.-led occupation there, preparing to send a force of as many as 1,800 Ukrainian soldiers -- at mostly American expense -- to serve south of Baghdad. The illegal arms sale charges have been shelved, inconclusively, and U.S. Ambassador Carlos Pascual now talks publicly of a policy of new "possibilities" with the country.

To some political analysts and opposition politicians here, the turnabout in Kuchma's fortunes with the United States is a striking study in American realpolitik. The United States has sidelined its concerns about Ukraine's faltering democracy, flailing economy and corruption-ridden leadership, they say, in order to sign up another country for the Iraq coalition.

In opting to join, Kuchma has also secured benefits for himself at home, where the energetic but sharply divided democratic opposition had hoped to use his international isolation against him.

"The Americans thought they hooked Kuchma, but it's the other way around," said Volodymyr Polokhalo, a political commentator whose forthcoming book includes a chapter titled "How Kuchma Used the West." "When the Bush administration closes its eyes, it understands that Kuchma is capitalizing on that, and because of the new geopolitical context, the eyes have been closed."

Kuchma, said a top Western diplomat here, "wants to have some form of international credibility. . . . If the self-interests of one individual can bring a country's national interests in line with the U.S., that's certainly better than the opposite." Despite the public appearance of U.S. support, the diplomat added, the United States has continued to tell Kuchma privately that "cooperation on Iraq is not a panacea for everything in the relationship."

In recent months, the Bush administration has been eagerly seeking allies for the Iraq war, which remains unpopular in many countries. In "Old Europe" states such as France and Germany, U.S. entreaties for troops for Iraq have fallen flat. But "New Europe" countries such as Poland, Hungary and the Baltic states quickly offered support.

Ukraine has long been a cipher on the map of post-Communist Europe. Many experts refer to it as a strategic "gray zone" of about 50 million people, veering between the spheres of Russia to its east and an expanding NATO to its west. Kuchma, fighting to hold onto power amid corruption charges and allegations that he played a role in the murder of an opposition journalist, has declared Ukraine on a course of "Euro-Atlantic integration," but has often wavered in his pursuit of that course.

His latest tack westward was displayed earlier this month on a rain-soaked field about 50 miles south of Kiev, where scrawny young Ukrainian soldiers lay in the mud to practice shooting targets with their Kalashnikov rifles. After a few weeks of special training and with the promise of an enormous pay raise, they will ship out to join the American occupation of Iraq by early August.

The volunteers wear brand-new desert camouflage helmets and groan under the unaccustomed weight of body armor they have on to prepare for the hazards of southern Iraq. But they have none of the high-tech weaponry of the U.S. Marines they will replace in Wasit province. Their equipment is Soviet vintage, and most speak of their mission as a chance to earn money ($500 to $1,200 a month, instead of average salaries of less than $100 at home) and to learn new "professional skills."

They spent 10 hours in a classroom learning about Iraqi and Muslim customs, and seem to fear the heat of the Iraqi desert as much as snipers' bullets. "Harsh weather conditions will be the worst," said Igor Netchuk, a 36-year-old senior sergeant with a gold front tooth. If they have a sense of the delicate politics behind their deployment, they don't mention it.

The soldiers call themselves peacekeepers, and their leaders bristle at the idea that they are joining an occupation force in a country where a guerrilla war is being fought and Hussein loyalists are unlikely to make a distinction between Ukrainian troops and Americans. "Better to call it a stabilization force, not an occupation force," said Col. Gen. Petro Shuliak, commander of the Ukrainian army's land forces.

The Ukrainians will serve under Polish command, part of an international brigade that will include Bulgarians, Romanians, Hungarians, Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians, as well as Nicaraguans, Mongolians and Filipinos. The United States will pay about three-quarters of the estimated $13 million cost for the Ukrainian contingent, the largest one reporting to the Poles.

Regardless of the politics, the Ukrainian army would hardly seem to be an ideal partner for the Americans in Iraq. Unlike Poland and the Baltic states, which have spent billions of dollars modernizing their militaries since the collapse of Communism, Ukraine has perhaps the most troubled armed forces in Europe, according to military experts.

Left with a behemoth Soviet-era million-man army in 1991, Ukraine still has an estimated 310,000 men in uniform but little money to maintain them. Kuchma fired the defense minister last month, citing the slow pace of downsizing, but the new "civilian" minister he tapped for the post was a longtime officer in the Soviet KGB and few observers here expect military reform to move more quickly.

Most agree that radical downsizing is an immediate necessity for a force of poorly paid conscripts plagued by insufficient fuel, inadequate food and housing, and outdated equipment.

According to Vadim Grechaninov, a former Ukrainian general, army aviation units had 543 helicopters in 2000 but only 35 of them ever took off. Eighty percent of vehicles in the land forces lacked batteries. Nearly every ship in the navy needed significant repairs. "Whole branches of the service may cease to be combat-ready soon," he concluded.

International peacekeeping missions in such places as Kosovo and Bosnia have provided rare opportunities to make money for the modernization of the Ukrainian military, generating $100 million in payments and enabling some 20,000 personnel over the last decade to get training unavailable at home, better equipment and exposure to modern NATO tactics.

"It's more professional, a higher level of training," said Master Sgt. Vitaly Khlivitsky, a veteran of a Lebanese peacekeeping force who is now headed to Iraq. "There's a difference from the regular Ukraine army. Here we are 100 percent equipped, 100 percent staffed."

As recently as last fall, a deployment to Iraq would have been politically unthinkable.

At the time, the U.S. and British governments were pursuing allegations that Kuchma had approved the secret sale of the Kolchuga radar system in July 2000 to Hussein. That charge came from secretly recorded tapes made by a former bodyguard of Kuchma and turned over to the Americans.

In September -- as tens of thousands of demonstrators were taking to the streets in Kiev demanding Kuchma's ouster, the largest opposition protests in years -- FBI tests came back authenticating the portion of the tapes dealing with the Kolchuga, according to the Western diplomat. The United States and Britain demanded a full accounting from Kuchma and suggested his efforts to seek NATO membership were in jeopardy unless he opened the books to their investigation.

In the fall, a U.S.-British investigating team that came to Ukraine went home, saying publicly it had not received the answers it sought. In November, when Kuchma showed up at the NATO summit, the Czech hosts switched to French spellings of country names in order to avoid placing Ukraine's leader next to the president of the United States at a dinner with an alphabetized seating chart.

But with much of Europe balking at the prospective war in Iraq, Ukraine had something to offer the United States: public support. By early February, American officials had approached Ukraine, asking Kuchma to send a battalion of 500 specialists in combating chemical and biological weapons to Kuwait, and he agreed.

In March, under criticism for the modest size of the international coalition assembled to back the war, Bush aides put together an official list of coalition members. According to the Western official, they decided to include Ukraine in a presidential speech as a member and gave Kuchma's advisers a half-hour to decide whether the country was in.

The answer was yes, according to the Western diplomat -- although that was later disputed by some top Ukrainian officials -- and Bush duly hailed Ukraine on March 26 as part of his "coalition of the willing."

Questions about the Kolchuga air defense system were by then being politely played down by the once-critical Americans. They now say, as the diplomat put it, that there are "no direct indications that the transfer did take place," but that "a number of open questions" remain.

In May, the United States approached Ukraine again, asking Kuchma to contribute troops to the Polish-led occupation force and again he agreed. Members of the opposition were divided on the issue. Some backed sending troops because they did not want to break with the Americans; others voted against it because of the political benefits to Kuchma. But all of them were united in condemning Kuchma's new policy as sheer opportunism.

"The State Department must be closing its eyes to enjoy the support of such an odious figure as our president," said Oleksandr Moroz, leader of the socialists in the Ukraine parliament.

Viktor Yushchenko, the leading reform politician and possible successor to Kuchma next year, supported the move, but not happily. "My political partners said Ukraine must demonstrate it can participate in the resolution of the Iraq conflict, but let's not forget this will be used by Kuchma in his interests and it will be a way of beautifying his political image in the West," he said.

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