For Sale On-Line: Ukrainian Tanks, Surplus Weapons

MOSCOW, Russia -- An Internet auction of military hardware will test Ukraine's new openness, experts say, as the former Soviet republic prepares to sell off enough equipment to outfit an army of three million soldiers.

Ukraine's Defence Ministry plans to launch a website next week, where prospective buyers can browse through hundreds of military products, from tanks and armoured personnel carriers to more prosaic items such as trucks, tents, tarpaulins, medical equipment and field kitchens.

Ukrainian T-84 Tank

"Any weapons could be for sale without any restrictions," said Andrei Sparuk, an aide to deputy defence minister Vyacheslav Kredisov.

Mr. Sparuk also said the on-line sales will help Ukraine establish what has been missing for years in its large military industry: openness and accountability.

"We want to use Internet to reach transparency of the deals," he said.

Ukraine was notorious for violating arms-control agreements under the regime of former president Leonid Kuchma. The disintegration of the Soviet Union left the young country with one of the largest armies in Europe, the world's third-largest nuclear arsenal and many conventional-weapons factories that manufactured battle tanks, combat vehicles, attack helicopters, warships and missiles.

Although Ukraine signed on to the Wassenaar Arrangement, which controls the export of conventional weapons, many sales were kept quiet. Only recently did Ukrainian prosecutors acknowledge that 12 cruise missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads were sold to Iran and China over the past five years.

"Public oversight of this sensitive sphere is actually absent," said Leonid Poliakov, then-director of military programs for the Ukrainian Centre for Economic and Political Studies, in a 2003 study. "In such a situation one cannot rule out violations and abuses involving grave consequences for the country."

Critics such as Mr. Poliakov have found themselves working for the new government, after Ukraine's so-called Orange Revolution brought President Viktor Yushchenko to office last winter. Mr. Poliakov now serves as first deputy defence minister.

Next week's massive garage sale of military equipment will serve as a major test of whether Ukraine has actually changed, analysts say.

Oleksandr Sushko, director of the Centre for Peace, Conversion and Foreign Policy, a think-tank in Kiev, said he believes that using the Internet is a positive step.

"It's a very progressive approach," Mr. Sushko said. "Arms export used to be the most secret industry in Ukraine. The military thoroughly concealed all the statistics. This Internet project would make arms sale more transparent and consequently would allow [officials] to control it and to fight corruption. The risk of arms getting into the wrong hands will be reduced."

But the new website is only expected to list the items for sale, and their starting bid prices, while the auction process happens off-line. The information really needed for accountability is details about the buyers, said Wade Boese, research director for the Arms Control Association in Washington.

"This looks like a halfway measure, because we won't necessarily know who's behind the deals," Mr. Boese said.

Under the Wassenaar Arrangement, participants such as Ukraine are required to report their arms exports to non-Wassenaar countries. Participants also agree to restrict their exports to "states of concern" and to avoid "destabilizing" deliveries.

United Nations arms embargoes also outlaw arms shipments to some countries.

Whether or not Ukraine follows those rules under its new leadership will be telling, Mr. Boese said. "This will be a good measure of whether Ukraine has left its past behind."

Source: Globe and Mail