Ukrainian officials have acknowledged that a total of 12 Kh-55 medium-range, air-launched cruise missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads were transferred from Ukraine to Iran and China in the last five years. U.S. officials expressed particular concern about the technical information the countries could likely gain as a result of the transaction.
Although the Soviet Union deployed the approximately 3,000-kilometer-range missiles with nuclear warheads, Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Dmitry Svistkov told reporters March 30 that the missiles in question were not exported with such warheads.
Ukraine inherited a substantial nuclear arsenal after the breakup of the Soviet Union but later joined the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear-weapon state. Kiev completed the return of the Soviet-era nuclear weapons in 1996 and has destroyed all of its bombers capable of delivering the Kh-55.
Yuri Boychenko, an aide to Ukraine’s prosecutor-general, Svyatoslav Piskun, told The Los Angeles Times March 18 that the transaction was “a totally illegal deal carried out by an international criminal group.”
The government is currently pursuing a criminal case against a Ukrainian national. Citizens from Russia and Australia were also involved, according to Svistkov.
The group transferred six of the missiles to China in early 2000 and the other six to Iran in May-June 2001, Svistkov said. Oleksandr Turchynov, head of Ukraine’s Security Service, stated March 31 that his organization prevented the export of an additional eight missiles, the UNIAN News Agency reported.
The Security Service in 2004 discovered the responsible arms dealers, Svistkov added.
Boychenko insisted that the previous Ukrainian government of President Leonid Kuchma “had nothing to do with” the deal. Current Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko took power in January.
But Ukrainian legislator Hryhoriy Omelchenko told the Times that there are documents showing that Kuchma “sanctioned the deals.” Omelchenko brought the issue to public attention several months ago after reportedly disclosing a letter he had submitted both to Yuschenko and Piskun detailing an ongoing investigation into the matter.
The exports are apparently contrary to Ukraine’s commitments under the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). Since 1998, Ukraine has been a member of the 34-member MTCR, an informal export control arrangement designed to stem the spread of ballistic and cruise missiles capable of delivering a 500-kilogram payload to a range of 300 kilometers or more.
According to Svistkov, the smugglers forged documents naming Russia as the missiles’ destination. This is potentially significant because Ukraine agreed in 1999 to send a portion of its Kh-55 missiles to Russia, eventually transferring 582. (See ACT, June 2001.) Ukraine destroyed an additional 483 missiles—apparently the balance—as of May 2001, the U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) reported.
The United States began supervising the destruction of Ukrainian nuclear weapons and related delivery systems in the early 1990s. DTRA began assisting Ukraine with destroying the Kh-55 missiles after Kiev requested such assistance in 1997. It is unclear if the missiles transferred to China and Iran were previously counted as part of the total that had been transferred.
U.S. officials publicly downplayed the transaction. White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan stated April 14 that Washington “appreciate[s] the action that they [the Ukrainians] are taking to look into that matter” but did not elaborate. Department of State spokesperson Adam Ereli told reporters March 18 that Washington will “work with” Kiev on “measures and joint actions we can take to prevent this kind of proliferation in the future.”
Two State Department officials told Arms Control Today in April that the risk that Iran or China would actually use the missiles is less worrisome than the technical information the recipients could obtain. The first official added that China stands more to gain from the transaction than does Iran because the former is further along in its cruise missile development.
Department of Defense intelligence reports indicate that China is developing a long-range land-attack cruise missile (LACM) for possible delivery of nuclear weapons. China does not yet have such a weapon, although it does have shorter-range anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs), which could potentially deliver nuclear weapons. A 2001 Defense Department report stated that China’s “development of LACMs is being aided by an aggressive acquisition of foreign technology and subsystems, particularly from Russia.”
According to the Pentagon report, Iran has purchased several types of short-range cruise missiles from China. The Congressional Research Service reported in 2004 that Iran “produces some” ASCMs, which “might be used to develop” a LACM.
Unlike China, Iran is not believed to possess nuclear weapons, although U.S. officials have repeatedly accused Tehran of pursuing a covert nuclear weapons program. (See ACT, April 2005.)
Washington has long expressed concerns about Iran’s ballistic missile programs, arguing that Iran may use them to deliver nuclear warheads. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hamidreza Asefi told reporters April 10 that he believed the missile transfer reports to be incorrect.