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додано: 10-09-2002
Jane's Intelligence Agency: Kuchma's Latest Catastrophe

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AUGUST 23, 2002

Kuchma's Latest Catastrophe The deaths of 85 people, including 27 children, and 162 wounded at the world's worst air show disaster at Sknyliv airbase near Lviv on 27 July, was a disaster waiting to happen. JID's regional correspondent investigates the political implications of the latest incident.

Based on Ukraine's past record, there should be little confidence in the ability of the authorities to launch a competent investigation. This is certainly a view shared by many Ukrainians. In a domestic opinion poll conducted immediately after the latest tragedy by the Ukrainian Centre for Economic and Political Studies, 56.1% of respondents did not believe that punishment would be imposed on those found guilty, while 52.8% blamed President Leonid Kuchma, the local authorities or the Defence Ministry for the accident.

Keen to be seen doing something, Kuchma duly arrived at the scene on the same day and promptly sacked the Commander of the Air Force, Volodymyr Tkachov. He also launched an investigative commission led by secretary of the National Security and Defence Council Yevhen Marchuk.

Four senior Ukrainian Air Force officials, including the Commander-in-Chief of the Ukrainian Air Force Viktor Strelnikov, 14th Air corps Commander Serhiy Onishchenko, his deputy, A.Tretyakov and the assistant director for air shows Yuri Yatsiuk, were detained on 28 July pending a criminal investigation. They face up to 15 years in prison.

The commission also blamed pilot deviation from the flight path, as well as a lack of safety precautions. In a move calculated to help assuage public anger, each of the 236 people wounded, or the families of those killed, are to receive US$1,000 in compensation. Weaponry is no longer to be shown off during official holidays and all military flights, except duty aircraft are suspended.

Who is really to blame?

However, according to well-informed observers, the causes of the air show disaster should be laid at the doorstep not of the military but of the executive. Ukraine's armed forces have been denied adequate funding since the USSR collapsed in 1991. Former defence minister, Oleksandr Kuzmuk, blamed the lack of "civil responsibility and under-financing" of the armed forces for this and other tragedies.

The Air Force has not purchased a single spare part from Russia for its Su-27 aircraft. The Su-27 that crashed at the air show had been in service for 15 years and many of its parts had long exceeded their service life. Long idle periods cause condensation to corrode the plane's units. Air pilots are also not given sufficient air flight training due to shortage of funds and fuel. Will incidents similar to the air show tragedy happen again? Ukrainian government instructions made only a week prior to the Lviv air show disaster gave permission for border guards to shoot down hijacked aircraft after warning shots have been fired at them. These measures are meant to combat terrorism and to guard Ukraine's state and maritime borders.

However, international civil aviation law forbids the shooting down of aircraft with passengers, even if they have been seized by terrorists. Ukraine is a member of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and may need reminding that it is obliged to abide by its rules. Could this prove to be yet another disaster waiting to happen?

Ukraine's record on three earlier incidents hardly inspires confidence. The authorities' immediate reaction was to launch an attempted cover up and to deny any responsibility.

In April 2000 in the town of Brovary, near Kiev, the military authorities stated that: "All missiles launched during the exercise hit the set tasks at the training ground". They only admitted to firing a missile into an apartment building after evidence was shown to them of missile parts. The initial blame for the explosion was assigned to "terrorism". On that occasion, no military official was sacked and no investigation was ordered by Kuchma, despite the civilian loss of life.

Next, a Ukrainian missile shot down an Tu-154 civilian airliner on 4 October 2001. The aircraft was en route from Tel Aviv to Novosibirsk. This incident resulted in the loss of 78 lives (66 passengers, mainly Israelis, and 12 crew members). Kuchma tried to persuade the minister of defence not to resign from his position and on that occasion the Air Force commander was not sacked.

However, the Ukrainian parliament demanded that Minister of Defence Kuzmuk resign and take responsibility for the accident. Kuchma refused to accept the resignation. After much pressure, Kuzmuk was forced to resign but he quickly returned to the limelight after he was elected to parliament on the pro-Kuchma 'For a United Ukraine' election ticket in March.

The current Defence Minister Volodymyr Shkidchenko also offered his resignation after the Sknyliv air show tragedy but, as with Kuzmuk, Kuchma has refused to accept it. Kuzmuk weighed in to back the president's decision not to accept his successor's resignation.

Another big mistake

Predictably, Kuchma sought to play down the shooting down of the civilian airliner by observing that "bigger mistakes have been made". At first, the Ukrainian authorities attempted yet another cover up, claiming that they had not even been undertaking anti-aircraft tests. They were also quick to deny that their missiles possessed the necessary range, since the aircraft was hit 250 kms out at sea. These missiles had allegedly no warheads (which contradicted information that the exercise used live rounds) and were equipped with selfdestruction systems that went into action if the missiles diverted from the target.

Despite the Ukrainian government's denials, it was quickly confirmed by a US satellite that the Israeli airliner had been shot down by a Ukrainian S-200 antiaircraft missile which was capable of hitting targets at a distance of 250 km and at an altitude of up to 300 metres. The missile hit the airliner within three minutes of being fired, releasing 10,000 steel contact elements that acted as shrapnel.

On 4 July 2002 an Israeli El Al 757, flying from Israel to Moscow and a Russian Tu-154, flying from Odessa to Yekaterinburg, both witnessed a missile climb and explode over the Ukrainian city of Dnipropetrovsk. A Russian Il-86 aircraft flying from Moscow to Istanbul also reported seeing a "glow". This incident occurred three days before Ukrainian Air Defence Troops Day and could have been part of preparations for celebrations on that holiday.

As on previous occasions, Kuchma and the military authorities strenuously denied that the object had been a Ukrainian missile. As usual, Kuzmuk attempted to shift the blame on to a Russian missile fired from the Astrakhan training ground, fireworks, a meteorite or - even more bizarrely - "a fragment of space garbage orbiting the earth". Prime Minister Anatoliy Kinakh claimed it was caused by "natural phenomenon or bad information".

Despite strenuous Ukrainian denials, Israeli Transport Minister Ephraim Sneh backed up his pilot's version because he was a "combat veteran of the Israeli Air Force". On past form, the Israeli version of events is far more likely to be closer to the truth than that provided by the Ukrainian authorities.

The only reason Kuchma has been unable to launch a cover up of the air show disaster, unlike the three earlier incidents, is because this event took place in public.

After this series of assorted disasters, a Kiev think-tank has concluded that the "credibility and competence" of the Ukrainian ministry of defence needs to be questioned because it "continues to be mired in a Soviet-era mentality". Ukraine's military still requires major reform before the country can even consider joining NATO.

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