Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Unworthy Ally

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, August 15, 2017 --  

Ukraine's corrupt management of a dangerous arms industry makes it undeserving of an American alliance.

When Ukraine began fighting an onslaught of Russian-backed troops in the eastern part of the country in 2014, Western democracies rightfully had its back. Overwhelming evidence of Moscow's orchestration of the conflict went far beyond its overt annexation of the Crimean peninsula to its regular armed forces troops being captured in the Donetsk region along with Russian military hardware. Given that Russian actions were punishment for a January 2014 pro-European revolution in Kiev ousted a Russian puppet government in favor of a pro-European Union regime, Western support was all the more justified.

Three years later, that support is looking less deserved by the day. The Ukrainian government has utterly failed to institute anti-corruption reforms that would turn the post-Soviet kleptocracy into a normal state. In November of last year, the governor of Odessa province, Mikheil Saakashvili, resigned in protest over the central government's blocking his anti-corruption efforts, and announced plans to form an opposition political party. Saakashvili is the reformist former president of the nearby country of Georgia, which also fought a border war with Russia that backed local separatists. Last month, Ukraine stripped the citizenship of Saakashvili while he was visiting the United States, threatening to extradite him to his native Georgia to face charges by his political opponents should he dare return to Ukraine to challenge the ruling party.

Such bad behavior might earn little more than a scowl and finger wagging from the American ambassador. But yesterday, things got much worse. A UK-based defense analyst charged that North Korea's recent advances in ICBM development were made possible only by the export of Ukrainian missile technology. The analysis by Michal Elleman at the International Institute of Strategic Studies, a British think tank, compares photographs from recent North Korean missile tests and concludes that the main booster is based on the Ukrainian RD-250 engine once manufactured by state-owned rocket company KB Yuzhnoye.1 He believes the North Korean boosters may be surplus units smuggled out of the former Soviet Union, although he acknowledges the possibility that they are copies made inside North Korea.

KB Yuzhnoye chief Alexander Degtyarev denied charges that its employees had assisted North Korea2, but acknowledged that it may have acquired its designs some other way. And in fairness to Ukraine, such rocket engines are likely stored across Russia as the Ukrainian company was once part of a larger Soviet-era military industrial complex that was distributed much more widely than Ukraine. It's entirely possible that Russian enterprises, not Ukrainian ones are responsible for the technology transfers.

That said, there's plenty of reason to doubt the denials coming out of Ukraine. The country has been caught before selling missile technology to China, Iraq and Iran3, making it highly suspect for collusion with North Korea.

Nobody is alleging that Ukraine has colluded with North Korea for strategic or ideological reasons. Ukraine's current government has nothing to gain by North Korea developing a missile using Ukrainian technology. The real problem is not ideology but corruption. The unreformed Ukrainian state, where oligarchs and kleptocrats operate with impunity from the elected government, is particularly dangerous because of a remaining military industrial complex that once produced nuclear tipped ICBMs.

While Ukraine may have a thin veneer of democracy, its corruption combined with its arms industry makes it more of a threat to America than nearby dictatorships. Compare Ukraine to neighboring Belarus, with its strongman pro-Russian dictator. President Alexander Lukashenko has ruled for over Belarus for 20 years and regularly manipulates elections and represses the opposition to stay in power. But unlike Ukraine, Belarus has not been accused of repeatedly sending missile technology to America's enemies.

America's treatment of these two countries is also quite different. Belarus is under constant threat of American economic sanctions4, whereas the Pentagon has recommended supplying Ukraine with lethal arms.5

This is crazy. The United States is considering arming Ukraine and thereby agitating its nuclear-armed adversary while Ukraine is suspected of exporting missile technology to help North Korea nuke Washington D.C. With such a great friend in democratic Ukraine, the nearby dictatorship of Belarus is looking better and better every day.

Related Web Columns:

Under Control, April 8, 2014

An Amicable Divorce, February 25, 2014

Democracy's Key Lesson, December 17, 2013

The Rise of the Rusted Curtain, February 9, 2010

Abandoning Friends, September 22, 2009

Revolution for a Slow Decline, November 23, 2004


1. IISS, The Secret to North Korea’s ICBM Success, August 14, 2017

2. Washington Post, Ukraine Rocket Maker Denies Leaking Know-How to North Korea, August 15, 2017

3. Ibid.

4. Reuters, Belarus Crackdown Throws U.S. Sanctions Relief in Doubt, April 10, 2017

5. Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, U.S. Media: Pentagon Recommends Sending Military Aid To Ukraine, August 5, 2017