Today’s anniversary of the Orange Revolution is being marked in Ukraine as Freedom Day. One year on, the West continues to wish that Ukraine’s new sense of liberty will be exported to other former Soviet Republics, but is the region any safer now? To ask this seems frivolous, judging by the number of peace prizes recently awarded to President Viktor Yushchenko. Assessments of Yushchenko’s presidency instead focus on domestic issues such as reprivatization, for, the assumption goes, the international picture is rosy.
But this is no trick question. Yushchenko has not tackled one of Ukraine’s most frightening problems: its nonchalant tendency to lose missiles – some of them nuclear-capable – that threaten world security.
In March, Ukraine admitted that twelve Kh-55 cruise missiles were sold illegally to Iran in 2001, with six more sold to China. Fake export certificates provided to Ukrspetsexport, the state arms exporter, claimed the weapons were being sold to Russia. However Ukraine’s nonproliferation agreements prohibit it from transferring these long-range nuclear-capable missiles.
Although no warheads were exported, the transfer is highly disturbing – in addition to being launched, missiles can be taken apart, copied and mass-produced. Reverse-engineering the Kh-55s will dramatically improve Iran and China’s missile programs, further destabilizing the Middle East and the East China Sea. Indeed the exiled National Council of Resistance of Iran claims that Iran has already used two missiles for copying.
Yushchenko is not to blame for the sales – in fact, details of the clandestine deal could only have emerged under his presidency. The previous regime specialized in covering up such shenanigans. But the prosecutor’s probe is skin deep, with no details on who did what. Without a comprehensive and open investigation, there is no guarantee that illicit weapons transfers will not occur during Yushchenko’s administration as well.
This is a definite risk, given the involvement of high ranking officials in the deal. Aspects of the initial inquiry by Ukraine’s security service, the SBU, became public in February. Those incriminated included the then-director of Ukrspetsexport and even a former member of the SBU. But this is scarcely shocking, for many officials at Ukrspetsexport are members of the SBU, which is also the agency consulted in contentious export license applications. This is more than a conflict of interest; it is an invitation to under-the-table arms trade.
Public outrage at such abuse elected Yushchenko. But allegations of corruption persisted, compelling him to dismiss the entire cabinet in September. The sacked head and deputy head of the State Customs Service repeatedly accused each other of fraud. Meanwhile, the SBU reportedly started a criminal investigation into officials at Customs, which responded by saying it would sue the former SBU chief. In short, rival officials have been too busy pointing their fingers at each other to do their job of scrutinizing documents, inspecting shipments, and securing military facilities.
The urgent need to boost the security of Ukraine’s weapons was reiterated in February with the theft of two Strela-3M surface-to-air missiles, weapons favored by terrorists. The Ukrainian missiles were fortunately recovered in August, but there is little assurance that the rest of these weapons are secure. The navy’s commander in chief has admitted that he may be unable to locate all the shoulder-launched weapons transferred from Russia.
It is hard to decide which is worse – losing missiles with the active connivance of officials, or losing missiles because the authorities were unaware they even existed. Last year a former defense minister admitted that several hundred SA-2 missiles were unaccounted for, while the Kh-55 cruise missiles were believed to have all been destroyed by 2001 under the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.
Ukraine has made great strides since the Soviet Union’s collapse, but dangerous legacies remain. Massive reform of top-heavy institutions, which have changed little since 1991, is needed to prevent and deter covert arms deals. The recent infighting within the State Customs Service indicates that July’s dismissal of all 50 regional chiefs was more dramatic than effective.
Ukraine must also account for all its advanced weapons, ensuring that none are prone to theft. On this, last week’s endorsement of a draft agreement with NATO to destroy man-portable missiles is encouraging.
Finally, Ukraine must conduct effective investigations into known cases of arms trafficking – still an illusory goal following last week’s court reinstatement of Ukraine’s listless prosecutor-general, whom Yushchenko had earlier sacked. But if Ukraine’s desire to join NATO is serious, it must show it can control military exports.
President Yushchenko deserves his recognition for presiding over last year’s peaceful Orange Revolution, but his mission is far from finished. His statesmanlike response to September’s political infighting indicates his commitment to economic progress, constitutional change, and national harmony. But international security depends on his willingness to defeat the arms smugglers. If he does not, there may be few Freedom Days left to celebrate.
Nealadri Pal is a research associate at the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control.