In his speech Monday night, President Bush laid out the threat posed by the Iraqi regime should it be able to "buy, produce or steal" the ingredients for a nuclear weapon. But while the idea that any nation would willingly aid the murderous intentions of Saddam Hussein has long seem far-fetched, the possibility hit close to home in recent days.
Just a week before the speech, the Bush administration confirmed that Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma had approved the sale of an antiaircraft radar system to Iraq. President Kuchma's decision, in clear violation of United Nations sanctions, may be the first sign of complications with loose technology in the states of the former Soviet Union.
Deadly Know-How for Iraq
Although Ukraine destroyed its last nuclear missile silo last year, the country is still an institutional repository of deadly know-how. It had also, up until last week, been considered a irreproachable friend of the U.S. But the revelation creates doubts which could fundamentally alter the U.S.'s relationship with Ukraine, and particularly with its president. Although Mr. Kuchma has denied any involvement in a sale and offered a joint investigation, the FBI has authenticated a tape of the Ukrainian president and his arms-export chief hatching the scheme.
Far from being any old technology, the radar system in question could make a significant difference for Iraq. If the U.S. goes to war, Mr. Kuchma will have tried to provide deadly technology that could cost the lives of American pilots. Whatever the next steps taken against Iraq, Ukraine's president cannot escape without paying a heavy price. If the U.S. succeeds in installing a rigorous U.N. inspections regime, an example must be made of Mr. Kuchma to ensure international compliance with anti-Iraq sanctions.
President's Bush's anger over the plot by a country that was once the third biggest recipient of U.S. foreign aid is said to be palpable. U.S. officials suggest Mr. Bush is especially livid that Mr. Kuchma plotted the sale to Iraq just before a summit in 2000 with President Clinton, where the U.S.-Ukraine "strategic partnership" was celebrated. U.S. officials responsible for Ukraine policy are also indicating they believe Ukraine's "Kolchuha" early-warning radar system has been deployed in Iraq, suggesting there is some intelligence data to reach such a conclusion.
The new Iraq revelations come in the wake of incriminating details contained in hundreds of additional hours of clandestinely taped conversations of Mr. Kuchma's meetings recorded and smuggled out of the country by his former bodyguard who lives in exile in the U.S. These depict a crude and venal leader at the center of corrupt and criminal behavior. Several of the conversations have been authenticated by the Virginia-based voice analysis firm Bek Tech, headed by a former FBI operative.
The behavior appears to fit a pattern. Mr. Kuchma's Ukraine has emerged as a leading supply source for illicit traffic in global arms. In defiance of a U.N. embargo, arms and ammunition of Ukrainian origin have been seized in the weapons caches of Unita guerrillas in Angola. Widespread allegations suggest Ukrainian weapons breached a mid-1990s arms embargo in the former Yugoslavia and helped equip Afghanistan's Taliban. In 1997, Nigerian authorities alleged that Ukraine was involved in the sale of three aircraft fighters to rebels from Sierra Leone.
For years, Ukrainian officials strenuously denied that the illegal arms trade was officially sanctioned. But the authenticated Kuchma tape suggests that while Ukraine is not a rogue state, it has a rogue president. Apart from the Iraq conversation, there is a tape of a meeting between Mr. Kuchma and Oleksander Zhukov, a reputed underworld figure with ties to Leonid Minin, a suspected international arms dealer.
Mr. Kuchma's credibility with the U.S. has been pulverized in recent months. In the summer of 2001, the Ukrainian president apparently lied to National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice in asserting that Ukraine supported a "political solution" to the ethnic conflict in Macedonia. All the while -- with his approval -- Ukraine persisted in shipping weapons to the Macedonian government.
In response to U.S. pressure, Ukraine's legislature will launch an investigation into the Iraq sale. But the legislature has refused to investigate an array of alleged crimes involving the president, including the unsolved murder in 2000 of opposition journalist Gyorgi Gongadze.
With the next presidential election coming in two years, the best hope for Ukraine -- and for the U.S. -- is in pressuring Mr. Kuchma to step aside quietly in favor of early elections. Demonstrations, which began last month and drew nearly 100,000 protestors nationwide, are scheduled to start up again later this month.
For Ukraine's president to exit the scene, protests against him must widen -- 71% of Ukrainians tell pollsters he should go. The reformist former prime minister, Viktor Yushchenko, must try to woo Mr. Kuchma's wavering supporters, among them oligarchs and regional leaders, to support a transition. Diplomatic isolation of Mr. Kuchma by the U.S. and Europe must be airtight and confined to the president and his corrupt cronies, not the entire Ukrainian government or nation. Finally, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who stands by Mr. Kuchma, must be convinced that Russian interests would be better served by a reformist-led coalition government including significant representation from Ukraine's pro-Russian eastern regions.
The current U.S. review of its Ukraine policy must include initiatives that help encourage these trends while ensuring that change is constitutional and peaceful.
For months, Ukraine's rumor mills have been working overtime with hints that a deal to pave the way for a post-Kuchma Ukraine is in the works. One possible compromise would be to give Mr. Kuchma blanket amnesty for past transgressions. Even Yuliya Tymoshenko, a former economic magnate and deputy prime minister who is Mr. Kuchma's most bitter enemy, supports such a deal. As she told me several months ago, "If one criminal can sleep easily so that the rest of the country can sleep well, then so be it."
Russia's Cynical Embrace
If Mr. Kuchma resigns, Ukraine's Iraq-gate will have borne positive fruit. If he does not, the U.S. will confront two problems: Ukraine's president will demonstrate to other leaders that you can conspire with Iraq and get away with it. And Mr. Kuchma's inevitable isolation will drive Ukraine, a strategically important country of 50 million that sits on NATO's eastern frontier, into Russia's cynical embrace.
Both outcomes would cause headaches for Europe and the U.S. But the worst would be if Ukraine's movement toward Europe, democracy and the rule of law is hijacked by Mr. Kuchma's insistence on remaining in office.
Mr. Karatnycky is president of Freedom House and co-editor of "Nations in Transit" (Transaction Books, 2002).