Ukraine's troops play key role in peacekeeping operations

by Roman Woronowycz
Kyiv Press Bureau

KYIV - On December 20-21 two flights left Kyiv headed for Freetown, Sierra Leone, each carrying 30 members of Ukraine's Armed Forces, eight technical support personnel and tons of equipment.

While the world prepared to celebrate Christmas and the New Year, these young soldiers, members of the Fourth Repair Battalion, were preparing to do their part in bringing peace to another war-torn foreign country. Their mission: to train government officers and soldiers of strife-torn Sierra Leone, which recently has been racked by violence of armed rebels and their diamond-hungry warlords, and assist in general peacekeeping operations while rebuilding the country's infrastructure as part of United Nations peacekeeping operations.

By the New Year, while their families and friends rested and recovered from holiday celebrations, the Ukrainian soldiers had cleared several acres of tropical terrain outside the capital city and turned the area into a base camp for the 528 members of their peacekeeping contingent - a place they will call home for at least the next year. They will live in U.N.-provided, state-of-the-art, air conditioned tents, but that is about the only amenity they will have in this remote, backward country.

Once the Sierra Leone force is in place, Ukraine will have committed 800 soldiers to that country, including a maintenance battalion and a helicopter detachment, along with 220 armored troop carriers and 220 light and heavy trucks. In addition to repair and reconstruction work, the Ukrainian contingent will be responsible for dispensing medical and humanitarian aid, for escorting government and U.N. convoys, and for general patrols. The troops and equipment, commanded by Col. Serhii Serdiuk, will be part of the larger U.N. force, which consists of peacekeepers from Great Britain, Bangladesh, the United States and Russia.

Since 1992 Ukraine has increasingly taken part in United Nations peacekeeping efforts to the extent that today it can claim that it ranks first among all European countries in the number of its soldiers who wear the light blue beret of the U.N. forces.

Approximately some 12,000 Ukrainian soldiers have served in U.N. peacekeeping contingents since the first troops took part in operations in Bosnia beginning in July 1992. The 1,500 Ukrainian troops currently wearing U.N. blue are among 38,000 soldiers from the international community who today are part of U.N. peacekeeping operations in 15 hotspots around the world.

In addition to the 528 peacekeepers newly arrived in Sierra Leone, there are 337 Ukrainian troops in Kosovo and 650 in Lebanon. Another 28 Ukrainians participate in the U.N. observer forces in countries where armed conflict recently ceased, such as Georgia, Croatia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan and the Transdniester region of Moldova.

Ukraine's role within U.N. peacekeeping structures has increased most substantially since its election to the international organizations Security Council as a temporary, two-year member at the beginning of the year. Six months prior to the beginning of the Sierra Leone operation, Ukraine became involved in the Middle East, when it volunteered its largest U.N. detachment ever - a 650-person engineering battalion - to go to Lebanon as part of a U.N. peacekeeping operation in the southern part of the country, from which Israeli troops withdrew on May 26.

The Ukrainian engineering battalion, the only one of its kind in Lebanon, moved in at the request of the United Nations to neutralize mine fields in a 30-kilometer safety zone that the Israelis had established during their 22 years occupying the southern half of the country. Since its arrival on July 23 the specialized Ukrainian battalion has deactivated more than 1,000 mines, working at 55 positions throughout the country in a U.N. zone manned by Polish, Swedish and Fijian troops. Before their arrival, only 56 mines had been removed in the 22 years of the United Nations presence in the area.

Ukraine's role in Lebanon is to prepare the identified areas for the other peacekeeping troops. After clearing them of anti-personnel mines, artillery shells, mortar and various other explosive devices, Ukrainian troops will build checkpoints, bases and storage facilities for the U.N. contingent. According to Lt. Col. Kostiantyn Khivrenko, a press spokesman for Ukraine's Ministry of Defense, the United Nations asked Ukraine to take on this particular responsibility because it has the expertise and the technology, which includes 100 pieces of assorted minesweepers, cranes, bulldozers and trucks.

The Ukrainian mine experts go about the tedious and nerve-wracking task of sweeping for explosive devices in perimeters enclosed with barbed wire and watched by guards located in towers. There are so many explosive devices hidden in Lebanon that it could take up to 40 years to clear the country of them, explained Lt. Col. Khivrenko.

In Kosovo, where Kyiv first contributed troops in September 1999, several months after NATO's bombing of rump Yugoslavia ceased, the Ukrainian contingent includes both a helicopter squad and a detachment assigned to the recently mobilized Ukrainian-Polish Division that includes 260 Ukrainian troops.

The helicopter squad utilizes four MI-8 helicopter gunships to carry out its multi-faceted primary mission of equipment and supply transport, VIP escort, evacuation of wounded and general patrol. It is assigned to the town of Uroshevats, near a U.S. military base.

The Polish-Ukrainian force, which was several years in the making before receiving the U.N. peacekeeping assignment, is responsible for general patrolling, convoy escort, civilian escort, and tunnel and bridge defense. It is located near the towns of Brezovica and Kacanik in southern Kosovo.

The Kosovo operation is considerably more costly for Ukraine than the other peacekeeping efforts inasmuch as it is a NATO-organized initiative. Whereas the U.N. offers countries that participate in its operations liberal compensation for manpower and equipment, under NATO command no economic benefits are offered. Quite conversely, countries taking part in NATO operations pay for their own supplies, such as food and fuel consumption.

For cash-poor Ukraine, however, staying in Kosovo remains a priority in order to maintain contact and cooperation with NATO military structures and as a concrete expression of its desire and ability to take part in joint international efforts. Or as Lt. Col. Khivrenko put it, the compensation is in the "prestige, the image and the experience" the country and its armed forces receive.

Ukraine at one point had considered reducing its role in the effort and had decided to remove its helicopter squad. But then NATO offered to subsidize the costs inasmuch as the technology is unique to Kosovo and the pilots have the experience that another national contingent would have to develop.

One cost-savings measure that Kyiv did implement was to have its soldiers stay for a one-year tour, whereas their Polish brethren are rotated out after six months and other members of the international force, such as the Canadians or the Germans, leave after merely four months.

In general, participation in U.N. peacekeeping operation is a moneymaking venture for both the countries that participate and the soldiers that are sent.

The United Nations provides all the supplies needed for each peacekeeping force, everything from uniforms, helmets and ammunition to food, shelter, spare parts and gasoline. In addition, every country receives $990 in hard cash monthly for each soldier taking part in the peacekeeping operation.

While Ukrainian officers receive from $800 to $900 from this amount, the typical soldier makes about $500. The balance stays in Kyiv's coffers. But that is only the tip of the iceberg, because the United Nations also pays compensation for use of technology. In sum, Ukraine has received some $80 million from the United Nations for its eight years of involvement in peacekeeping operations.

In addition to their U.N. salary, the officers and soldiers continue to receive their regular pay, which is sent directly to their families. For those troops stationed in tropical climates, another 10 percent is added to their U.N. salary, while those working in the high-risk mine removal operations in Lebanon receive an additional 20 percent.

Besides the financial advantage, there is the practical benefit of the work. Again, because Ukraine has such limited budgetary resources, its troops do not have the full capability of live-fire training at home. Neither do they receive the amount of time they should get in tracked vehicles or in the air because of gas shortages and financial limitations. With the United Nations they are able to do both.

"It has given Ukraine the ability to raise the expertise level of the veterans and to give its new recruits basic experience," Lt. Col. Khivrenko explained. As an example, he said that a helicopter squad gets what would be a month of training in Ukraine in two to three days in Kosovo.

By remaining close to the situation in these troubled countries, Ukraine also gives itself a decided advantage, or at least it hopes so, to become part of the rebuilding efforts that eventually occur and to receive the profits that go along with it. For example, Kyiv has made it widely known that it believes that when NATO begins awarding contracts for the reconstruction of the infrastructure in Kosovo that Ukrainian companies should be considered for some of the tenders.

Finally, along with Ukraine's utilitarian and economic reasons for volunteering so many of its boys for duty in dangerous parts of the world, there is the political and the high-minded purpose. To achieve influence in the international community and to put itself squarely within that group of countries advocating peaceful resolution of conflict, Ukraine - which has lost 19 of its service personnel and seen more than 50 injured in eight years of international peacekeeping operations - must show that it is willing to make the difficult commitment and is ready to put young Ukrainian men and women in the line of fire to maintain the peace.

"If there was no battalion in Lebanon, what right would Ukraine have to try to influence what is going on there?" asked Lt. Col. Khivrenko.

Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, January 7, 2001, No. 1, Vol. LXIX

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