Prospect That Yanukovych May Reappoint Kuzmuk, ‘A Pure Soviet Cog,’ As Defense Minister Prompts Concern

KIEV, Ukraine -- Kuchma-era general with a reputation for doing what he is told has high chances to return to the old job for the third time under President Yanukovych.

Oleksandr Kuzmuk

Oleksandr Kuzmuk was defense minister when the army mistakenly launched a missile into a block of flats outside Kyiv in 2000. He was also at the helm of the Defense Ministry when the military accidentally shot down an airliner with 78 people on board over the Black Sea in 2001.

Now, Kuzmuk – defense minister from 1996-2001 and again from 2004-2005 – is reportedly a favorite for a third tour of duty, if Victor Yanukovych wins the Feb. 7 presidential runoff.

Kuzmuk has supporters who say he played a huge role in building the country’s armed forces from the remnants left over from the Soviet Union. But he also has critics who think he is an example of the kind of throwback apparatchik appointments that Yanukovych would most likely make as president.

The level of Kuzmuk’s responsibility for the military disasters in 2000 and 2001 has never been established, but some characterize him as a “yes” man at the beckon of politicians indifferent to Ukraine’s crumbling and sometimes dangerous military.

“He’s a pure Soviet cog,” political analyst Vadym Karasiov said. “Kuchma didn’t want anyone with ideas or a vision. His job was to implement others’ ideas, and that’s what Kuzmuk did.”

Karasiov said Yanukovych will give Kuzmuk his job back for the same reason. “They [Yanukovych’s team] want someone they can trust. He’s a loyal team member with the right background. Most importantly, he’ll do what he’s told,” Karasiov said.

Yanukovych confidant Sergey Lyovochkin declined to confirm or deny Kuzmuk’s candidacy for defense minister. Regarding Kuzmuk’s checkered record as defense minister, Levochkin said: “It’s not a good idea to hang a label on people. Kuzmuk did a lot of things for the Ukrainian military, including pushing through reforms and stepping up international cooperation.”

Mikhail Samus, deputy director of the Center for Research, Army Conversion and Development, said not much has changed in Ukraine’s military since the disasters of 2000 and 2001. “The Ukrainian army is still just a piece of the former Red Army that continues to fall apart by inertia,” Samus said.

Kuzmuk, who resigned as defense minister following the Black Sea tragedy, came back to the job at ex-President Leonid Kuchma’s request on the eve of the fraud-filled 2004 election campaign that sparked off Ukraine’s Orange Revolution.

Most analysts saw the move as an attempt by Kuchma to guarantee military support for the transfer of power to Yanukovych, Kuchma’s chosen successor.

During Yushchenko’s presidency, Kuzmuk was among those who voiced opposition to the Tymoshenko government’s plans to dismantle army conscription – first from the political sidelines, then as lawmaker in Yanukovych’s Regions faction.

Samus said Kuzmuk does not oppose a professional Ukrainian army in theory.

General Nikolay Petruk, former commander of Ukraine’s Ground Forces and Tymoshenko’s likely choice for defense minister, said he doesn’t blame Kuzmuk personally for the military disasters that took place under his watch. But he thinks the two-time defense minister should call it quits. “If I were him I would hang it up after two times in the job,” Petruk said.

Unlike Yanukovych, and for that matter Tymoshenko, Petruk said he is a supporter of Ukraine joining NATO, although he believes that the political window of opportunity has passed. “I am for joining NATO as well as the European Union. I am for Ukraine solving problems collectively. When I was in Iraq, it was the Americans who showed me what support was,” Petruk said.

Ukraine still has options short of NATO. It can join the EU’s fledgling Common Security and Defense Policy, which Tymoshenko has advocated, or cast its lot with an alternative European security bloc touted by the Kremlin.

“If Ukraine joins the Europeans, it would get a great chance to show itself,” Samus said, including the promotion of Ukraine’s transport aircraft and experience for its troops in joint training and operations. Yanukovych’s team has spoken in favor of Moscow’s proposal, which Samus calls vague and contradictory.

“The Russians know that it’s not a workable plan, but they just want to gain time, throw a wrench in European plans,” Samus said. “The military is perhaps one of the few sectors where Ukraine can offer Europe something, without asking for a handout. We have troops for overseas operations and badly needed affordable transport planes.”

Source: Kyiv Post