U.S. Says Ukrainian President Approved Arms Sale to Iraq

October 2002

By Wade Boese

The United States has concluded that Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma authorized an illegal arms sale to Iraq two years ago, the State Department announced September 24. In response, Washington is putting a hold on a portion of its aid to Ukraine and is reviewing U.S. policy toward the country.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters that the U.S. action stems from a recent determination that tapes recorded secretly by a former Kuchma bodyguard are authentic. On the tapes, Kuchma approves selling Kolchuga early-warning systems to Iraq, which was and is still banned by an August 1990 UN arms embargo from importing weapons and military equipment.

A passive system designed to pick up electronic signals sent out by potential targets, the Kolchuga system can reportedly detect aircraft, possibly including stealth fighters and bombers if they are transmitting signals, at reported distances of 600-800 kilometers. Boucher said it is unclear whether any Kolchuga systems were actually shipped to Iraq, but he stated, “There are some indications which suggest it may be there.”

Although the United States is concerned about whether the system is in Iraq, the focus at this time is on Kuchma approving the sale. “We have the smoking gun,” commented a State Department official in an interview September 27.

Allegations about Kuchma’s role in illegal arms sales to Iraq were first broached publicly less than a year ago by opposition Ukrainian lawmakers, and the former bodyguard, who now lives in the United States, testified in early April on the issue before a U.S. court. Both Iraq and Ukraine have repeatedly denied that the deal occurred although Ukrainian officials concede Kuchma might have approved it.

The U.S. aid suspension, according to Boucher, “doesn’t affect the bulk of our assistance to Ukraine” but applies only to funding going directly to the central government under the U.S. Freedom Support Act—a figure that totaled approximately $54 million over the past 12 months. U.S. assistance to Ukraine’s private sector, local and regional governments, nonproliferation projects, and military will not be halted.

The other State Department official emphasized that the suspension is only a “pause,” which could last a “matter of days or weeks” or much longer depending on the results of the review. It is uncertain when the review will be completed.

Claiming the United States lacked “any worthwhile evidence,” the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs denied any delivery of arms to Iraq and labeled the aid suspension in a September 25 statement as “symbolic, yet totally negative.” The statement, however, ended on a conciliatory note, expressing Ukraine’s willingness to cooperate in proving that it had done nothing wrong.

The United States is sending Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs A. Elizabeth Jones to Ukraine October 1-2 to discuss the issue.