Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma wants to settle a score with Washington. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Moscow report he is livid over American and British investigations into the allegations that he approved the sale of four Kochuga radar systems to Iraq.
He is also fuming over his personal humiliation by American leaders who had him declared persona non grata at the last NATO summit in Prague.
The Americans are furious with Kuchma. The Kochuga radar system he sold the Iraqis present one of the toughest problems facing US warplanes in Iraqi skies. Because it is “passive”, it can spot American planes without warning their pilots they have been “lit up”.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources, some of the Ukrainian leader’s closest advisers tried to talk him out of making the sale to Saddam Hussein, but Kuchma was determined to press ahead. He now denies personal involvement in the deal.
But, above all, he wants to punish the Americans for blackballing him. So early this week, he instructed Ukraine’s prosecution service to seek the assistance of the Russian government in lifting from the Black Sea bed the Air Sibir Tupolev-154 that crashed in September 2001. Everyone aboard – 78 passengers, most of them Israelis of Russian origin, and crew – died in the disaster. A Russian investigation found the plane had been shot down by a stray Ukrainian missile in the course of a military exercise. Five Ukrainian generals, including a former chief of staff, were fired and court-martialed for the mishap.
Some sources in Kiev claim that Kuchma wants the plane salvaged to provide grounds for the generals to file an appeal against their conviction.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources claim there is more to it.
The convicted men claim they were forced to admit to shooting the missile that downed the airliner and let themselves be framed under political pressure. But a proper inspection of the plane’s fragments, they are sure, will prove that it was not brought down by a missile but by terrorists or hijackers aboard. This claim is supported by the fact that Ukraine’s air defense units are not equipped with long-range missiles capable of reaching aircraft over the Black Sea.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources, the Air Sibir plane took off from Tel Aviv with many empty seats. Departing from its flight plan, apparently on orders from the airline’s Russian offices, the aircraft made an unscheduled landing at a small airport in Bulgaria to take on additional passengers. They turned out to be an al Qaeda-Chechen terrorist team. Over the Black Sea, the terrorists sprayed the cabin with automatic weapons fire, causing the plane to plunge into its deepest part.
Russian rescue boats found no survivors and only a scattering of floating aircraft parts — including a cockpit door pocked with bullet holes. CNN was the first to show footage of the perforated door, but suddenly stopped broadcasting the images several hours later.
In the meantime, Washington stepped into the picture with an unexplained announcement that it had satellite images clearly showing the plane had been downed by a surface-to-air missile. The United States promised the crash investigators access to this footage. This willingness to hand over secret satellite photos to Moscow and Kiev caused a sensation in the intelligence community. The resolution of spy satellite photography is normally a carefully guarded secret, especially for the American government.
Not surprisingly, those images were never handed over.
The timing of the disaster explains the next chapter of this episode.
The Air Sibir plane was hijacked six weeks after the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington and less than three weeks after the US went to war against the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan. The Bush administration feared that word of another al Qaeda success in hijacking an airliner would give Osama bin Laden a sense of victory, just as the war against him was getting off the ground. The fact that Chechen insurgents shared that victory was judged by Washington as a maneuver designed to embarrass Russian president Vladimir Putin for striking an anti-terror military pact with George Bush, which placed Russian and Uzbek special troops at the disposal of US forces fighting in Afghanistan.
It therefore suited the Bush administration to keep the terrorists’ success over the Black Sea under tight wraps. Putin, Kuchma and the Israeli prime minister at the time, Ehud Barak, were discreetly asked to keep the story quiet and play along with the stray missile account.
All three consented. The Ukrainian president used it pragmatically to purge the Ukrainian military of his opponents and shore up his authority.
Since then, Kuchma has found it politic to restore those officers’ “lost honor” by clearing them of guilt. He can do this by demonstrating that the Air Sibir plane was not destroyed by a missile.
But, most of all, the Ukrainian president wants to break the real story open in order to get back at
the Americans by exposing them as lying to cover up a terrorist attack on the international airways.