National Security

Published — April 15, 2002 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

Special Report: Kuchma approved sale of weapons system to Iraq


Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma personally authorized the clandestine sale of $100-million worth of high-technology anti-aircraft radar systems to Iraq on July 10, 2000, in violation of United Nations sanctions.

The Center for Public Integrity has obtained audio tape of a conversation between Kuchma and Valeri Malev, then-director of the state-owned arms exporting company, Ukrspetseksport. In the conversation Kuchma approved the export of the radar system, known as Kolchuga, and the manner of its shipment: by hiding it in crates used to export Ukrainian trucks. Kuchma also agreed to send experts to Iraq with forged passports to deploy the system. The operation was to be conducted by Leonid Vasilievich Derkach, then chief of the Ukrainian security service, the SBU. The Kolchuga, named after the ancient Russian warrior body armor, is manufactured by the Ukrainian company Topaz. The system can identify, detect and lock anti-aircraft missiles on aerial targets at a range of close to 500 miles, and is able to override “stealth” technology. It is capable of detecting ground targets at 370 miles.

“We are quite familiar with that,” Jim Brooks, a spokesman for the Defense Intelligence Agency, said when asked if Iraq had deployed long-range passive radar systems. “Iraq has them.” One European intelligence expert said that if Iraq had obtained the stations, it would be “frightening.” The sale is a clear violation of U.N. sanctions imposed on Iraq. U.N. Security Council Resolution 661 makes any sale or supply of “weapons or any other military equipment” to Iraq illegal. Ewen Buchanan, spokesman for the U.N. Monitoring and Verification Commission on Iraq (UNMOVIC), said that “no information has come our way regarding sale of radars by Ukraine to Iraq.”

In the conversation, Malev revealed that Iraq approached Ukraine through an unnamed Jordanian intermediary to buy the early warning and targeting system that consists of four stations and is “passive” because it is difficult for the pilot to realize he has been picked up on radar. Conventional radar sends out a high-frequency signal that pilots can detect and hence alert them if they are being tracked. “Just watch that the Jordanian keeps his mouth shut,” said Kuchma, giving the go-ahead for the plan.

Oleksandr Zhyr, a Ukrainian lawmaker, said he believed that Kuchma had benefited financially from the sale. “It is very unlikely that the $100 million could have gone to the state budget as it was the proceeds of an illegal arms deal.” Major Mykola Melnychenko, a former senior security officer for Kuchma, recorded the conversation between the president and Malev on July 10, 2000. Melnychenko, who has received political asylum in the United States, recorded more than 1,000 hours of conversations in Kuchma’s office, and gave testimony on April 11 before a grand jury weighing money-laundering charges against former Ukrainian Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko.

Tapes are “continuous and unaltered”

Audiotape expert Bruce Koenig of Virginia-based BEK TEK authenticated the tape and found that the recording was unedited. “Based on the flow of speech in the designated portion, no phraseology or sentence structure was pieced together by using individual phonemes, words or short phrases,” Koenig said in his report. “It is the opinion of BEK TEK…that the specimen is continuous and unaltered.” Koenig, who examined and analyzed video and audio recordings as a Federal Bureau of Investigation special agent for 21 years before founding BEK TEK, lists the U.S. Congress, the Department of Defense, the FBI, the Office of the Independent Counsel, the Department of Justice, and the United Nations among his clients. He also has provided expert testimony in court cases.

Earlier this year, Koenig authenticated the Melnychenko recording in which Kuchma allegedly discussed ways to get rid of Ukrainska Pravda journalist Georgy Gongadze. Gongadze disappeared on Sept. 16, 2000. His headless corpse was found two months later in a Kiev suburb. A Ukrainian official denied there had been any arms sales from Ukraine to Iraq. “We never violated any sanctions and we are a reliable partner of the international community,” he said. He said accusations about illegal sales had been investigated in Ukraine and they had found that the charges were groundless.

The Ukrainian prosecutor-general Mykhaylo Potebenko told Ukrainian television on March 7 that his office is not planning to question Melnychenko and that he would not trust the authentication tests done by “unknown” BEK TEK. Potebenko also said that the findings of a U.S. probe could not be accepted as evidence in the Gongadze case. The unsolved Gongadze murder is still of grave concern to U.S. authorities. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice told a panel of Ukrainian journalists on March 4 that a team of investigators from the FBI would leave for Ukraine in April to assist authorities in the investigation.

In March 2001, a political party linked to Kuchma, Trudova Ukraina (Working Ukraine) hired New York-headquartered Kroll Associates, a private investigation company, to examine the Gongadze murder. Viktor Pinchuk, Kuchma’s son-in-law, is one of the leaders of Trudova Ukraina. Kroll, which allegedly was paid $250,000 to conduct the investigation, questioned the authenticity of the tapes and found no evidence directly linking Kuchma to the murder of Gongadze. “There is no conclusive evidence to show that President Kuchma ordered or was otherwise involved in the murder,” Kroll said in its conclusion.

The lead investigators on the six-month investigation were Michael Cherkassy, the president and CEO of Kroll, and Robert Viteretti, Kroll’s New York office chief. International monitoring groups and the political opposition criticized Kroll for focusing on clearing Kuchma’s name and reputation instead of investigating the murder of Gongadze. Viteretti said they had been hindered by the fact that Melnychenko had refused to meet with them or cooperate in any way. “Melnychenko would not make the original tapes available,” he said. “So our analysis was based on second or third generation recordings.” Kroll has not revealed which audio experts it had used to check the tapes.

“Non-stop criminal activity”

Melnychenko said he waited until after the Ukrainian parliamentary elections on March 31 to release the explosive new tape because he did not want to be perceived as “politically motivated.” “What I recorded in the office of the President of Ukraine in most cases has nothing to do with the politics,” Melnychenko said. “I recorded what I believe is the evidence of almost non-stop criminal activity of the president and his men.”

Zhyr, the Ukrainian lawmaker, said that Kuchma was told on March 3, 2002 that a parliamentary commission had evidence that the president had violated the international arms embargo against Iraq. Three days later, Valeri Malev was killed when his car allegedly veered into oncoming traffic and collided with a truck. Malev had been in charge of Ukrspetseksport since 1998. He served as the Ukrainian minister of machine building and the military-industrial complex from 1995 to 1997 and later became a presidential adviser. Zhyr told the Center that Malev’s death was premeditated. “The car trip was not planned by Malev,” said Zhyr. “He suddenly received an instruction to travel somewhere where he was accidentally killed. This should be investigated in the context of the illegal arms sales to Iraq… Kuchma and his men are scared of the investigations and therefore they are removing all the key witnesses,” said Zhyr.

Zhyr said he had had several working meetings with the U.S. Justice Department and that he wanted U.S. law enforcement agencies to play an important role in investigating the alleged corruption of the Kuchma presidency. “The Ukrainian law enforcement agencies are unable to conduct an effective investigation in any case where top government officials are involved,” he said. He added that so far only about 10 percent of the tapes recorded by Melnychenko had been reviewed, and added that Kuchma was personally involved in arms sales to two other rogue states. The New York Times reported from Kiev on April 9th that six Ukrainians who “threatened the established power structure” had died and two had been injured in automobile accidents since December 1997.

“Serious concern”

U.S.-Ukraine relations have been on a roller coaster since Ukraine gained independence in August 1991. Ukraine removed plutonium-rich nuclear power rods and freely dismantled its nuclear arsenals, and has been one of the largest recipients of U.S. aid of the post-Communist countries. Ukraine is also a close ally of Russia whose support has been essential to the U.S.-led war on terrorism. However, the United States has expressed concern about alleged corruption, government pressure on the media and election procedures among other issues.

After the terrorist attacks against the United States in September 2001, Ukraine shared intelligence and opened its airspace for U.S. military cargo flights. In addition, airfields and railroads were made available to the U.S. for supplying troops and delivering humanitarian aid in Afghanistan. A U.S. State Department official said that, if the sale of arms and military equipment to Iraq were proven, the United States would consider sanctions against violating countries. The official, who said she was not in a position to confirm the sale, added that the State Department viewed any report of weapon sales to Iraq with “serious concern.” Jim Brooks, the Defense Intelligence Agency spokesman, downplayed the importance of the Kolchuga. He said the Iraqis’ training was “not at that level where they can handle a coordinated attack. The other thing that system doesn’t tell you is what’s coming at you. You could technically overwhelm their system by firing Tomahawk cruise missiles. And then follow up with manned aircraft, which is what happened during the Gulf War. We also saw that in Kosovo.”

Scott Ritter, former United Nations chief weapons inspector and now critic of the U.S. administration’s Iraq policy, said he was not surprised that Iraq had rebuilt its air defense systems. U.N. sources said they were aware of the alleged reports about Ukraine violating U.N. sanctions but that no concrete evidence had been introduced in the Iraqi sanctions committee. Sources said the issue was “very sensitive” because of the close relationship between Ukraine and Russia, which is a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, the forum that would eventually have to make a political decision on sanctions busting. The Center’s findings are part of a larger investigation into the commerce of war by its International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, to be published later this year.


The following is the transcript of a conversation between Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma and Valeri Malev, then chief of Ukrspetsexport, a Ukrainian state-run arms exporting company. Major Melnichenko, Kuchma’s bodyguard, secretly recorded the conversation on July 10, 2000, in the office of the President of Ukraine. The transcript has been edited for clarity.

Malev: We were approached by Iraq through our Jordanian intermediary. They want to buy four Kolchuga stations and offer 100 million dollars up front.

Kuchma: What is Kolchuga?

Malev: Kolchuga is a passive radar station manufactured by Topaz. Each system consists of four pieces.

Kuchma: Can you sell it without the Jordanian?

Malev: Well, Leonid Danilovich, I suggest Leonid Vasilievich (then chief of SBU, the Ukrainian security service – editor) looks at the export structure to Iraq. Our KrAZ company ships its products in crates. We can use the crates marked by KrAZ. In other words, Kolchuga should be shipped to Iraq in KrAZ crates. Then we will send people with forged passports that will install the system.

Kuchma: Just watch that the Jordanian keeps his mouth shutit will have to be checked that they don’t detect it.

Malev: Who is going to detect it? We don’t sell much to them. I mean to Jordan.

Kuchma: Okay. Go ahead.

Malev: Thank you.

Note: The Center’s Founder and Executive Director, Charles Lewis, worked as a consultant for Kroll Associates for 10 months prior to starting the Center for Public Integrity in October 1989.

Phillip van Niekerk is a member of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, a project of the Center for Public Integrity. Knut Royce contributed to this report.

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