• 2002-11-07
The first rule of diplomacy is to think long and hard before you speak. Inevitably, given all the activity between nation-states, from time to time the rule is forgotten or disregarded. Apparently it slipped Valdas Adamkus' mind last week when, during the visit by Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma, he volunteered to support Ukraine in its drive to become a member of the European Union and NATO.

As far as diplomatic mistakes go, this one is quite venial, and will probably be overlooked by most analysts and pundits. But still it strikes a discordant nerve in East European politics and, at worst, demonstrates the shortcomings of the Lithuanian president's memory.

Leaving the EU part of the debate for another time, Ukraine is not a candidate for NATO membership. Nor should it be anytime in the foreseeable future for one simple reason: its military is a disaster and a threat to innocent lives.

We need only remember the passenger jet that was shot down over the Black Sea by Ukraine's anti-aircraft forces a year ago, and then the parade of shameful denial and lies on the part of the country's brass that followed.

It was only after Russian officials shoved their Ukrainian colleagues' noses in the detritus of the airplane, peppered with holes from shrapnel for the missile's warhead, that Ukraine's generals admitted they had accidentally shot down a civilian aircraft during military exercises.

To this day the Ukrainian government has not paid compensation to the victims' families.

Then earlier this year, not far from Lvov, the same derelict military put on an air show right on top of hundreds of mingling spectators. The subsequent catastrophe was shown worldwide, and confirmed the nightmare of what may happen when high-tech weaponry falls into the hands of irresponsible officers.

As these two tragedies show, Ukraine's armed forces are a mess. Suffice it to say that, for a country of 52 million, they are extraordinarily under-financed. Ukraine spends only $11 per capita annually on its military budget (as opposed to $1,300 in the U.S.), and the result is a decrepit army.

Perhaps worse, Ukraine is being accused of selling sophisticated radar equipment to Iraq. Speaking last week in Lithuania, Kuchma adamantly denied that any such sale took place. And although he may be speaking the truth, the Anglo-American jury out on the question has yet to reach a verdict. In the meantime, Ukraine has been excluded from participation in the upcoming Prague summit.

Finally, Kuchma himself is a liability. There are strikingly convincing allegations being leveled against him that he ordered the death of a Ukrainian reporter. His grasp on power is frightening, and the more he bullies demonstrators, the further his democratic credentials sink.

Granted, it is important the West - of which the Baltic nations are an inseparable part - does not abandon the Ukrainian people, regardless of the country's intransigent leadership. But Baltic leaders like Adamkus would do better to remind Ukraine of the thousand things it must do before joining western alliances rather than making empty promises which they cannot, nor should not, fulfill.